Chávez, Denise: 1948—
Denise Chávez: 1948—: Writer
Inspired by the distinctive culture of the southwestern Borderlands where she was born, writer Denise Elia Chávez has gained critical recognition for her drama and fiction that explores themes of Chicano identity. Chávez writes about waitresses and handymen, hospital workers and bag ladies, and the complex social ties that both constrain and sustain them. As she explained in a Los Angeles Times article, "I know where my heart is and where my strength comes from: the landscape, the mountains, friendship, my cultura."
Cultural and Literary Roots
Chávez's southwestern roots run deep. She still lives in the house on La Colonia Street in Las Cruces, New Mexico, once owned by her grandmother, where she was born on August 15, 1948. Her family placed great emphasis on education. Chávez's mother, a school-teacher, spoke flawless Spanish and English and insisted on the same for her children. From an early age, Chávez loved to read and write. She began keeping a diary, and also absorbed the stories she heard from extended family members during summer visits in west Texas. "The untold stories were always the ones that, as kids, we found the most interesting," she commented in a Los Angeles Times piece. "Like the one about why one of my uncles had only half an ear. The story was that he'd been in a terrible accident, but we knew there was more to it." Her love of books was also a family affair. "My grandmother loved to read," Chávez continued. "She found a joy in the language. These were people who had a love of literature and language."
After her parents divorced when she was ten, Chávez lived with her grandmother, mother, sister, and half-sister—an environment that Chávez credits for the strong female influences in her writing. Much as she loved hearing and telling stories, though, the young Chávez did not plan to become a writer. As a teenager she worked in a local hospital and aspired to be an actress. She attended Madonna High School, an all-girls Catholic school where, she told Boston Globe writer Alisa Valdes, "we learned we could do anything we wanted to, and were never told we couldn't succeed." There Chávez nurtured her budding interest in theater by performing in drama productions. She attended New Mexico State University, where she majored in drama and wrote her first play, The Wait, which won the New Mexico State University Best Play award. She went on to write several one-act plays in the 1970s and 1980s, and earned an M.F.A. in drama from Trinity University. In 1982 she earned an M.A. from the University of New Mexico. Many of Chávez's plays have been produced in New Mexico; Plaza, one of her best-known dramas, has been produced at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and at Joseph Papp's Festival Latino de Nueva York. Her one-woman show, Women in the State of Grace, in which Chávez herself has appeared, has been produced nationally since 1993.
At a Glance . . .
Born August 15, 1948, in Las Cruces, NM; daughter of Ernesto E. (an attorney) and Delfina (a teacher; maiden name, Rede) Chávez; married Daniel Zolinsky. Education: NM State Univ., B.A., 1971; Trinity Univ., M.F.A., 1974; Univ. of NM, M.A., 1982.Religion: Roman Catholic. Politics: Democrat.
Career: Northern NM Community Coll., Espanola, faculty member, 1975-80; playwright, 1977–; artist in the schools, NM Arts Division, 1977-83; Univ. of Houston, visiting scholar, 1988, faculty member, 1988-91; NM State Univ., faculty member, 1996–. American School of Paris, instructor, 1975-77; NM State Univ., visiting professor, 1992-93, 1995-96; Border Book Festival, artistic director, 1994–; Radium Springs Center for Women (medium security prison), teacher; one woman show Women in the State of Grace; writer-in-residence: La Compania de Teatro, Theatre-in-the-Red; artist-in-residence: Arts with Elders Program; Community Action Agency, co-director, senior citizen workshop in creative writing & puppetry 1986-89.
Memberships: Natl Institute of Chicana Writers, founding mem.; PEN USA; PEN USA West; Author's Guild; Western Writers of America; Women Writing in the West; Santa Fe Writers Cooperative.
Awards: Best Play Award, NM State Univ., 1970; citizen advocacy awd, Dona Ana County Human Services Constorium, 1981; grants: NM Arts Divison, 1979-80,1981, 1988, NEA, 1981, 1982, Rockefeller Foundation, 1984, University of Houston, 1989; creative writing fellowship, Univ. of NM, 1982; Puerto del Sol Fiction awd, 1986; creative artist fellowship, Cultural Arts Council of Houston, 1990; Favorite Teacher Awd, Univ. of Houston, 1991; Premio Aztlan Awd, American Book Awd, 1995; Mesilla Valley Writer of the Year Awd, 1995; NM Governor's Awd in literature, 1995; Luminaria Awd, NM Community Foundation, 1996.
Address: Home— 80 La Colonia, Las Cruces, NM 88005.
Chávez has acknowledged many influences in her work, from Anton Chekhov and Garcia Lorca to the New Mexican writer Rudolfo Anaya, who became a mentor and friend. It was Anaya who encouraged the aspiring writer to enroll in the University of New Mexico's M.F.A. program. Perhaps more important, though, was that, as Chávez explained in a Publishers Weekly interview with William Clark, Anaya's work "opened the door to the value of my own culture, language, background."
Confronted Issues of Sexuality
Her experience in theater has also strongly influenced Chávez's fiction. "I consider myself a performance writer," Chávez commented in Contemporary Authors. "My training in theater has helped me to write roles that I myself would enjoy acting." Among the notable characters she has created is Rocio Esquibel, the young woman whose coming of age is told in the seven linked stories of the collection The Last of the Menu Girls. Though her background and aspirations are modest, Rocio is no stereotypical Chicana who accepts traditional gender boundaries, but a strong woman who insists on finding her own path. Indeed, Chávez herself sees the book—and all her work—as a chronicle of how women's growing demand for independence challenges relationships between men and women.
This frank treatment of gender roles has brought Chávez critical acclaim. Her first novel, Face of an Angel, touches on such controversial subjects as incest, alcohol abuse, sexuality, religion, and macho traditions—issues that many Latino families prefer not to air in public. People might complain that "it's too sexy, it has too much genitalia," she observed of the book to Los Angeles Times writer Julio Moran. "But that in itself is a liberation for a woman to be able to speak the unspeakable. Latinas never talk about their sexuality." But, Chávez continued, "women writers want to confront the issues of sexuality in the family, especially in their complexity, as opposed to presenting an image of what the family is. That runs the gamut from abuse to personal relationships." She added, "[i]t's not airing dirty laundry. Latinos are human beings. We no longer need to create an image of what we're supposed to be to make ourselves acceptable to other people."
Face of An Angel, which won an American Book Award, tells the story of Soveida Dosamantes, a waitress in a fictional New Mexico town. As she works on a handbook for newcomers to her profession, Soveida reflects on her relations with her family, friends, ex-husbands, and lovers. Chávez, who had worked as a waitress herself for five years, drew on personal experience for the book and incorporated both Spanish and English into it to reflect the speech patterns of her native region. Creating the right kind of bilingualism in the novel was her most challenging task. She wanted the prose to move smoothly between English and Spanish without making the Spanish sections too elementary, but without having to provide English translations—a style that approximates the way people really speak in the region. The novel, hailed for its humor and earthiness, received widespread attention. World Literature Today contributor William Nericcio described it as a "literary tribute to servants" and an "antisentimental family history" that provides a powerful exploration of the bonds between generations of women. "Teeming with unforgettable characters and voices, laced with earthy humor, Face of an Angel is the story of the many faces women wear in their various lives as mothers, wives, lovers," Publishers Weekly writer William Clark observed.
No less sexy is Chávez's second novel, Loving Pedro Infante, which recounts the story of Teresina "La Tere" Avila, a teacher's aide, and her friend Irma. Both unhappily single and in their thirties, the pair develop a cultish worship of Mexican film idol Pedro Infante, who died decades earlier at age 40 in a plane crash, and who serves as the women's ideal of masculinity. Like Face of an Angel, the novel deals frankly with women's physical desires and with their frequent disappointments in love. In one passage describing a group of older women at a religious retreat, Chávez has Tere comment that "they were all losers, all of them, divorced, single or in bad marriages, with husbands who drank and knocked them around every weekend after the bars let out at two, or who had sons who rifled through their purses for drug money." Though Tere is unhappy with her married lover, who treats her carelessly, she has enough intelligence and hope to keep looking for love. "Chávez's spicy storytelling," observed Maggie Galehouse in the New York Times Book Review, "reminds us that women today, fictional and real, have other options."
Galehouse also appreciated Chávez's loving depiction of Tere's social world. "In hyperspecific and tireless detail," she wrote, "Chávez records the food, the hang-ups, the turn-ons and worldview of a thriving border culture. When she describes … the way the women of the fan club band together when its only male member goes missing, the reader understands how tightly these families and the community are bound up together." Indeed, as Chávez noted in Contemporary Authors, "My characters are survivors, and many of them are women.… They all have something in common: they know what it is to love and to be merciful."
One of Las Girlfriends
Her literary renown has placed Chávez firmly among the ranks of such important Latina writers as Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, and Ana Castillo—a group that Cisneros has humorously dubbed "Las Girlfriends." Chávez has enjoyed the rich literary friendships she maintains with these women and with other prominent Latino writers, including her beloved mentor, Rudolfo Anaya, as well as Dagoberto Gilb, Gary Soto, Aria Castillo, Antonya Nelson, and Ben Saenz. "I used to go to the Western Writers' Conference and be the only Chicana in the room," she told Clark, "but that's changed now. Demographics are changing, we're becoming more multiethnic, multicultural, global."
Indeed, Chávez's work—which includes poetry as well as plays, essays, short stories, and novels—has found appreciative readers throughout the country. Face of an Angel was chosen as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, and her short stories, essays, and plays have been widely anthologized. "I've had Jewish people and blacks and Anglos all tell me that [my character] Mama Lupita sounds just like their grandmother," she told Valdes with pride. Going on to observe that she used to wonder who would want to read about working class Chicanos, she added "Then I realized that these are not local stories, or even Mexican stories. They're universal."
Chávez has taught writing in a variety of settings, from university creative writing programs to a senior center and a women's prison. She has also been active in community arts projects, including the long-running Border Book Festival. She lived in Santa Fe for eight years but returned to Las Cruces in 1983 when her mother died. She has lived there since then, commuting to a job as professor of theater at the University of Houston from 1988 to 1991 and traveling frequently around the country to give lectures and workshops. In Las Cruces she cares for her elderly father, who has Alzheimer's disease and lives a few doors down from the house that Chávez shares with her husband, sculptor and photographer Daniel Zolinsky. There, Chávez writes in the same room in which she was born. "My work is rooted in the Southwest, in heat and dust, and reflects a world where love is as real as the land," Chávez commented in Contemporary Authors. "In this dry and seemingly harsh and empty world there is much beauty to be found. That hope of the heart is what feeds me, my characters."
The Wait (one-act), 1970.
Elevators (one-act), 1972.
The Flying Tortilla Man (one-act), 1975.
The Mask of November (one-act), 1977.
The Adobe Rabbit (one-act), 1979.
Santa Fe Charm (one-act), 1980.
How Junior Got Throwed in the Joint (one-act), 1981.
(With Nita Luna) Hecho en Mexico (one-act; title means "Made in Mexico"), 1982.
The Green Madonna (one-act), 1982.
La morenita (one-act; title means "The Dark Virgin"), 1983.
Plaza (one-act), 1984.
Novena narrativas (one-woman show; title means "The Novena Narratives"), 1986.
The Step (one-act), 1987.
Women in the State of Grace (one-woman show), 1989.
The Last of the Menu Girls (one-act; adapted from Chávez's short story of the same title), 1990.
Editor, Life is a Two-Way Street (poetry anthology), Rosetta Press, 1980.
The Last of the Menu Girls (stories), Arte Publico, 1986.
The Woman Who Knew the Language of Animals (juvenile), Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
(Selector) Shattering the Myth: Plays by Hispanic Women, edited by Linda Feyder, Arte Publico, 1992.
Face of an Angel (novel), Farrar, Straus, 1994.
Loving Pedro Infante (novel), Farrar, Straus, 2001.
Contemporary Authors, Volume 131, Gale Group, 1990
Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Gale, Vol. 56, 1997, Vol. 81, 1999.
AZTLAN-A Journal of Chicano Studies, Spring 2001, p. 127.
Boston Globe, September 30, 1994, p. 61; November 22, 1994, p. 58.
Hispanic, April 2001, p. 88.
Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1994; April 24, 2001.
New York Times Book Review, May 13, 2001.
Publishers Weekly, August 15, 1994, p. 77.
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