Ponce, Mary Helen 1938–
Ponce, Mary Helen 1938–
PERSONAL: Born January 24, 1938, in Pacoima, CA; daughter of Tranquilino and Vincenta (Solis) Ponce; divorced; children: Joseph, Ana, Mark, Ralph. Ethnicity: "Latina." Education: California State University, Northridge, B.A., 1978, M.A., 1980; University of California, Los Angeles, M.A., 1984; University of New Mexico, Ph.D., 1995.
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Chicano Studies Program, University of California, Santa Barbara, CA 93106.
CAREER: White Memorial Medical Center Cancer Clinic, Los Angeles, CA, community liaison; University of California, Los Angeles, instructor, 1982–87, adjunct professor of Chicano studies, 1987–88; University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, adjunct member of women's studies faculty, 1988–92; University of California, Santa Barbara, adjunct member of Chicano studies faculty, 1992–. California State University, Northridge, associate professor. Member of Comisión Femenil San Fernando Valley.
MEMBER: National Writers Union, MAPA (San Fernando Valley), California State University, Northridge Alumni Association.
AWARDS, HONORS: Award from U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture.
Taking Control (young adult), Arte Público Press (Houston, TX), 1987.
The Wedding (novel), Arte Público Press (Houston, TX), 1989.
Hoyt Street: An Autobiography, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1993.
Work represented in anthologies. Contributor of short stories and essays to literary journals.
SIDELIGHTS: Mary Helen Ponce grew up in the San Fernando Valley of California in a community of mostly Mexican immigrants in the 1940s. In her writing, she celebrates the Hispanic culture of her childhood. Ponce, the youngest of five daughters and three brothers, cites her sisters as her main role models in life. Her sisters taught her many skills and encouraged her to succeed; one of them opened her eyes to literature by subscribing to the Book-of-the-Month Club. Ponce herself prefers to read literature in translation by writers from other countries.
Ponce married and divorced soon after she graduated from high school. She later remarried and stayed home to take care of her four children until the youngest one began attending kindergarten, at which time she began her college education, with a focus on anthropology. Ponce believes that she would have become a writer no matter where she grew up, but that her sheltered ethnic heritage has provided her with a wealth of material to record and explore. She is especially interested in issues of biculturalism, bilingualism, and acculturation, as well as women's experiences in the era she has chosen to record. An active proponent of the value of church, family, and school, she celebrates these three aspects of life in her writing about Mexican-American culture.
As the mother of four children, Ponce worked hard to balance parenting, home life, and reading time with her schooling and writing time. She has presented her work at many campuses, including El Colégio de México in Mexico City. A turning point in her professional career occurred in 1981 when she was invited to read her work at the Mexican-American National Women's Association meeting in Washington, DC. This meeting, and the recognition she received there, allowed her to realize that she was indeed "a writer." In 1990 she was one of four writers invited to present their work at the New Mexico Women's History Conference. In addition to presenting at academic conferences and in academic journals, Ponce also takes her work to the community, publishing in local papers such as La Opinion, the largest Spanish-language newspaper in Southern California.
Ponce's early work was largely autobiographical and written in the first person. Later, she wrote narratives, often with titles that began "Recuerdo" ("Memory," or "I remember") that were communal history; that is, they reflected the experiences of many Mexican women. As Angelina F. Veyna wrote in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, "Ponce explains that she writes from memory and that her narratives are chiefly the result of her elaborating on situations or people with whom she has come in contact and mentally 'archived.' Much of her writing, she explains, tends to reflect her appreciation for people who are direct and honest."
In her novel, The Wedding, Ponce explores the rite of passage (marriage) of a young, Mexican-American, working-class woman, Blanca, who is preparing for her wedding. Set in the San Fernando Valley in the 1940s, the book depicts Blanca's thoughts, hopes, and dreams as she prepares for this climactic event in her life, as well as all the interpersonal and family dynamics among the characters; Blanca, her friend, her godmother, and her boyfriend, as well as the rival groups to which some of the characters belong. The book ends inconclusively, with uncertainty about whether the marriage will survive, and what will become of Blanca in the future. When the book was originally published, some chapters were cut, and other parts of the book were altered. Ponce hopes eventually to publish an uncut, original version of the book.
Ponce's unpublished writings include Blanca's Wedding, a play based on the novel. She also wrote Mujeres solas ("Women Alone"), a collection of narratives about three generations of women, told from a ten-year-old's point of view. She believes that older women should be respected and admired as survivors, but that they are often not recognized in their communities, and the collection is intended to give them this recognition.
Ponce's future plans include writing about women workers in the garment industry, as well as a biography of Fabiola Cabeza de Vaca, a New Mexican author who was the subject of Ponce's doctoral disserations. She also is writing a historical novel based on the lives of pioneering New Mexican and Spanish women. This focus on women, and the consideration of events and feelings common to all women, whether Mexican, Anglo, or members of some other group, is typical on Ponce. Veyna wrote of her, "Though she does not presently consider herself a feminist writer, she continues to address the historical and personal experiences of Chicana and Latina women, and she anticipates exploring a feminist perspective in future works."
Recently Ponce told CA: "My primary motivation for writing is to reach out to others, to bring alive the past and the struggles of Mexican and Mexican-American antecedents. I write because I love words. Words can change the world. Words comfort, heal, and like footnotes, explain and elucidate. Often they hurt.
"History and anthropology influence my work, along with people whose contributions are rarely (if ever) recognized, for example the Spanish and Mexican pioneering women of the perilous overland expedition to Alta California. Some were in advanced pregnancy; two died on the journey. I am disturbed by the lack of biography of Latino/as who have contributed to the history and literature of the American Southwest. Many writers prefer fiction over biography, which requires research and documentation.
"I write in my head. I keep no writing schedule and write at all times, depending on priorities. By the time I start a work, I know its ending. I am basically lazy and would rather read than write. Unlike writers who never read when writing, I cannot be without books and tend to read from three to five books at a time.
"My inspiration in general is the omission and/or discrepancies in the media, books, and movies of the positive aspects of Mexican-American culture, history, and society—and the dearth of historical literature of past generations. The 1930s were turbulent times for many minorities. Racism was rampant. Many Mexican-Americans suffered from tuberculosis (the 'immigrant disease'), were confined in sanatoriums, and were used as guinea pigs in experiments. In Texas, trade unions tried to unionize Mexican pecan workers, and in New Mexico efforts to unionize miners were rife with hostilities.
"For five years I contributed op-ed articles to the Los Angeles Times. I became more political. I picked up an audience and liked writing for a newspaper. However, this took me away from longer works. The surge in Southern California trade unions is due to an influx of Central Americans and Latino immigrant workers. I attended conferences on immigration rights, garment and service workers, to learn of issues. I became more aware of how poverty, racism, and under-employment affect people. I also published numerous works in Germany and Mexico, and recently in Spanish Catalonia, France, and Romania. Many is-sues such as poverty and lack of medical care are universal; those most affected are often women and children. I would like to reach a global audience.
"'We need more love stories,' a student once told me. In my ongoing historical novel, love—romantic and familial—impacts the expedition group, often in humorous ways. Rather than write of dysfunctional families, I chose to write of a loving family that, throughout the journey, is sustained by bonds of mutual love and respect."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale (Detroit, MI) 1993.
Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 122: Chicano Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.
Ponce, Mary Helen, Hoyt Street: An Autobiography, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1993.
Hispanic, July, 1995, Beverly Sanchez, review of Hoyt Street, p. 82.
Melus, spring, 1998, Ellen McCracken, "Subculture, Parody, and the Carnivalesque: A Bakhtinian Reading of Mary Helen Ponce's 'The Wedding,'" p. 117.
Nation, June 7, 1993, Ray Gonzalez, review of Hoyt Street, pp. 772-774.
Publishers Weekly, April 3, 1995, review of Hoyt Street, p. 58.
School Library Journal, December, 1992, Tomelene Slade, review of Taking Control, p. 36.