Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 873
Helena María Viramontes (VEE-rah-MON-tays) made a name for herself as a fiction writer, educator, and active participant in Latino literary and artistic groups. One of the founders of Southern California Latino Writers and Filmmakers, Viramontes also lectured in New Delhi, India, and participated in a women’s writing discussion group in the People’s Republic of China. Her work was included in several major anthologies, including The Oxford Book of Women’s Writing in the United States (1995).
The major themes of Viramontes’s fiction, the oppression of women and the problems faced by working-class Chicanos, can be traced to her childhood experiences. Viramontes’s parents, Mary Louise and Serafin Viramontes, met as migrant workers and settled in East Los Angeles, where Viramontes was raised with six sisters and three brothers. In “Nopalitos,” she depicts her mother as a kind, energetic woman who often took in friends and relatives who needed a place to stay. Viramontes describes her father, a construction worker, as a man who worked hard but responded to the stresses of his job and family responsibilities with drinking and angry outbursts.
Viramontes started writing while attending Immaculate Heart College, from which she received a B.A. in English in 1975. In 1977 her story “Requiem for the Poor” received first prize in a competition sponsored by the California State University in Los Angeles’s Statement magazine; in 1978 she received the same prize for “The Broken Web.” In 1979 she entered the creative writing program at the University of California at Irvine (UCI), where her story “Birthday” won first prize for fiction in the University’s Chicano Literary Contest.
After leaving the UCI creative writing program in 1981 Viramontes continued to write and to take a leading role in local literary and artistic organizations. Two short stories, “Snapshots” and “Growing,” were published in Cuentos: Stories by Latinas (1983); in 1984 “The Broken Web” appeared in the anthology Woman of Her Word. These and other stories first published in magazines such as XhismeArte and Maize were gathered in Viramontes’s first book, The Moths, and Other Stories.
The stories in The Moths, and Other Stories focus on women, usually Latinas, struggling against traditional social and cultural roles. Oppressive fathers, misguided husbands, and priests who are blind to women’s real needs and problems contribute to the pain experienced by Viramontes’s female protagonists. However, the rebellious adolescent girls in “Growing” and “The Moths” find that their mothers collaborate in the loss of freedom and in the social limitations placed upon mujeres, or women. In “The Long Reconciliation” Amanda, a married Mexican woman, chooses to abort a child rather than allow it to starve, but the price she must pay is her husband’s rejection and abandonment. The concerns of older women are also depicted in “Snapshots” and “Neighbors.” In “The Cariboo Cafe” Viramontes extends her representation of women to include the plight of Central American mothers whose children have been “disappeared.” In addition to sharing common themes, the stories in The Moths are linked by Viramontes’s skillful handling of multiple narrators and stream of consciousness.
In 1987 Viramontes, along with María Herrera-Sobek, organized a conference at UCI on Mexican American women writers. Viramontes’s short story “Miss Clairol” was included in the conference proceedings, Chicana Creativity and Criticism , which she also coedited. Viramontes’s growing reputation was enhanced in 1989...
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