Helena María Viramontes was born in East Los Angeles, California, on February 26, 1954, one of six daughters and three sons born to a construction worker and a homemaker. After graduation from Garfield High School, Viramontes earned her B.A. degree in English literature at Immaculate Heart College, also in Los Angeles, where she was one of only five Latinas in her class, graduating in 1975. She enrolled in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Irvine in 1981 but left and completed her M.F.A. requirements after the publication of her first collection of short fiction, The Moths, and Other Stories, in 1985. In 1989, she received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship which allowed her to attend a workshop given by the famed Columbian writer Gabriel García Márquez at the Sundance Institute in Utah. Viramontes has not been a prolific author, but she has published consistently over her career. In 1988, with María Herrera-Sobek, she coedited Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature (second edition, 1996), a collection of both creative work (including Viramontes’s short story “Miss Clairol”) and criticism inspired by a literary conference held at U.C. Irvine; in 1995, the two writers edited a similar collection titled Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film. In 1995, she published her short novel Under the Feet of Jesus and in 2007, a second novel Their Dogs Came with Them, about the brutality of the Spanish conquest of the Americas. By the early twenty-first century, she had been a visiting professor at a number of universities but lived in Ithaca, New York, with her husband, the well-known environmental biologist Eloy Rodriguez, and their children. She also serves on the faculty at Cornell University, where she teaches creative writing. Her stories have appeared in a number of periodicals and anthologies, and she has won numerous awards, including the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature in 1996. As her fiction grapples with contemporary social issues, Viramontes herself has gotten involved in a number of cultural and educational projects, including as literary editor of XhistmeArte in the early 1980’s; cofounder of the nonprofit group Latino Writers and Filmmakers, Inc.; and coordinator for the Latino Writers Association.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, Helena María Viramontes became one of a handful of Latina writers to voice the concerns of a growing Latino population. Her fiction deals with issues such as immigration and farm labor, but her particular focus is on the women in the Latino family and the ways in which they find their identity in spite of the oppressive institutions they inhabit. Viramontes, in short, is recognizable for the ways she merges her feminism with ethnic consciousness.
Her stories are not always easy to follow, but her language is poetic and powerful, and her message is unmistakable. In a Long Beach, California, Women Writers Conference in 1984, Viramontes read aloud the story she had just completed writing, “The Cariboo Café.” She felt foolish because she could not stop crying as she read it, she later said, but when she finished she looked up and everyone in the room was crying as well.
Helena María Viramontes was born on February 26, 1954, in East Los Angeles, California, a city that has served as the setting for most of her short fiction. One of nine children in the family, she learned the value of work from an early age. Her father was a construction worker, her mother a homemaker. The Viramontes household was often filled with friends and relatives who had crossed the Mexican border looking for work. In her fiction Viramontes draws on the memories of the stories she heard from these immigrants. As a student at Immaculate Heart College, where she was one of only five Chicanas in her class, Viramontes worked twenty hours a week while carrying a full load of classes. She received a B.A. in 1975 with a major in English literature. In 1977 her short story “Requiem for the Poor” won first prize for fiction in a contest sponsored by Statement Magazine of California State University, Los Angeles. In 1978 “The Broken Web” was the first-place winner, and in 1979 “Birthday” won first prize in the Chicano Literary Contest at the University of California at Irvine. “The Broken Web” and “Birthday” appear in her collection of short stories The Moths, and Other Stories. She received an M.F.A. in the creative writing program of the University of California at Irvine. She became an assistant professor of English at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She has served as editor of the cultural magazine Chismearte and coordinator of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association.
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...
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