Viramontes, Helena Maria 1954–

views updated

Viramontes, Helena Maria 1954–


Born February 26, 1954, in East Los Angeles, CA; daughter of a construction worker and a homemaker; children: two. Ethnicity: Hispanic. Education: Immaculate Heart College, B.A., 1975; University of California, Irvine, M.F.A.


Educator, writer. Cofounder of Southern California Latino Writers and Film Makers group; Cornell University, Ithaca, NY, instructor.


Statement magazine, first prize for fiction, California State University, for the stories "Requiem for the Poor," 1977, and "The Broken Web," 1978; first prize for fiction, Chicano Literary Contest, University of California, Irvine, for the story "Birthday," 1979; National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1989.


The Moths and Other Stories, Arte Publico Press (Houston, TX), 1985.

(Editor, with Maria Herrera-Sobek) Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Creative Frontiers in American Literature, Arte Publico Press (Houston, TX), 1988.

Paris Rats in E.L.A. (screenplay), produced by the American Film Institute, 1993.

(Editor, with Maria Herrera-Sobek) Chicana Writers: On Word and Film, Third Woman Press (Berkeley, CA), 1995.

Under the Feet of Jesus (novel), Dutton (New York, NY), 1995.

Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel, Dutton (New York, NY), 2000.

Work represented in anthologies, including Cuentos: Short Stories by Latinas, Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1983; Woman of Her World, edited by Evangelina Vigil, Arte Publico Press (Houston, TX), 1984; Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings, edited by Asuncion Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortego, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1989; and New Chicana/Chicano Writing, edited by Charles M. Tatum, University of Arizona Press (Tucson, AZ), 1992. Contributor of short stories to periodicals, including XhismeArte, Hispanic Link, America's 2001, Pearl, and Blue Mesa Review.


A short story was adapted for film.


A Chicana writer whose work addresses social issues, Helena Maria Viramontes "believes that writing can bring about social change," related Kayann Short in her interview with the author in the Bloomsbury Review. The stories in her debut collection, The Moths and Other Stories, many of which were published previously in small magazines, are set mostly in Los Angeles and present everyday incidents of oppression—economic, racial, and sexist—in the lives of ordinary, often Chicana, women of all ages. "Viramontes' relentlessly serious stories," a Kirkus Reviews critic remarked, "are really a series of poignant vignettes, slices of Latina life. Were she to lighten up a bit and sacrifice ideology for artistry, she might become [an] important new voice." Village Voice book reviewer Laurie Stone found most of the stories in The Moths and Other Stories to be "tense, direct, and powerfully imagined," but also noted that in some stories "her characters sink under rhetorical points about the condition of women."

Viramontes's novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, is narrated by a young female migrant worker, Estrella, who rebels against her rural community's racial and sexual restrictions. The book offers a Chicana perspective on corporate agricultural practices. "If [people] read the book, and if they think about the piscadores when they eat their salad, that would bring me great satisfaction as a writer," Viramontes told Short. Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor praised Under the Feet of Jesus, noting that "in Viramontes' hands the canvas … teems with color." A Kirkus Reviews contributor wrote that her novel is "a compelling debut with prose that sometimes stumbles but more often soars in describing human suffering and faith." Sonia Saldivar-Hull, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, assessed Viramontes's literary contributions: "Her groundbreaking narrative strategies, combined with her sociopolitical focus, situate her at the forefront of an emerging Chicana literary tradition that redefines Chicano literature and feminist theory."

The title of Viramontes's second novel, Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel, refers to the dogs brought to America by Spanish colonists who used them to intimidate Native Americans. This story, however, is set in the barrios of East Los Angeles during the 1960s. Those intimidated are young Latina women who are disenfranchised, hungry, homeless, and exploited. Tranquilina, the daughter of missionaries who minister to the homeless, becomes a friend to Aria. Turtle is an androgynous gang member whose brother has died in Vietnam. Ana and her younger brother were deserted by their mother, left to depend on their abusive father. Both of Ermila's parents are dead, and she has survived foster care and life with her poverty-stricken grandparents. Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez reviewed the novel in Americas, commenting that it "does not easily fit a genre. Part historical—documenting the experience of a Los Angeles demolished in the early 1960s for the expansion of the freeway system—it also has a science-fiction edge, with its depiction of stark dehumanization in the modern era. It is somewhat a detective story, for the reader must pick up the threads of each character from early childhood to present teenage or young adult years." Pop Matters contributor Kate Soto also felt that the story has a "Blade Runner feel…. In less capable hands, the number of stories and the non-linear way of managing them could have turned incomprehensible. But Viramontes keeps the stories clear by keeping her focus tightly on the characters. The real strength in this novel is that endowed in the characters, and the way Viramontes attempts to understand the complicated relationship of the part to the whole."



Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 122: Chicano Writers, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1992.

Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1993.


Americas, March-April, 2008, Elizabeth Coonrod Martinez, review of Their Dogs Came with Them: A Novel, p. 58.

Bloomsbury Review, January/February, 1996, Kayann Short, interview.

Booklist, April 15, 1995, Gilbert Taylor, review of Under the Feet of Jesus, pp. 1481-1482; April 1, 2007, Joanne Wilkinson, review of Their Dogs Came with Them, p. 29.

Kirkus Reviews, October 1, 1985, review of The Moths and Other Stories, p. 1046; February 15, 1995, review of Under the Feet of Jesus, pp. 180-181.

Library Journal, April 15, 2007, Lawrence Olszewski, review of Their Dogs Came with Them, p. 76.

Village Voice, April 15, 1986, Laurie Stone, review of The Moths and Other Stories, p. 55.


Austin Chronicle Online, (May 20, 2008), Belinda Acosta, "In Person: Helena Maria Viramontes," interview.

La Bloga, (April 2, 2007), Daniel Olivas, "Interview with Helena Maria Viramontes."

Pop Matters, (July 9, 2007), Kate Soto, review of Their Dogs Came with Them.

VG: Voices from the Gaps, (May 20, 2008), biography.