Mary Helen Ponce Biography

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A prolific author of Chicano prose, Mary Helen (baptized Maria Elena) Ponce (POHN-say) was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. The youngest of ten children (seven girls and three boys), Ponce grew up in the security of her barrio(neighborhood) community, a blend of Mexicans and Mexican Americans for whom the family, the Catholic church, the school, and the little local grocery store provided stable landmarks for a world moving between languages and cultures. Writing in English and Spanish, or in English with brief shifts to Spanish, Ponce conjures the experiences of her childhood and youth in a bilingual and bicultural context, addressing the female experience in particular.

Ponce attended California State University at Northridge, earning a B.A. and an M.A. in Mexican American studies. She earned a second M.A. from the University of California at Los Angeles in history, minoring in anthropology and women’s studies. She pursued course work toward a doctorate in American studies at the University of New Mexico, combining her twin interests in history and literature, receiving her Ph.D. in 1995.

The mother of four children, Ponce delayed the start of her writing career until she was in her forties, beginning to publish short stories in Spanish in the early 1980’s. She soon wrote stories in English and translated some of her Spanish stories into English. She has published nonfiction essays on Latino topics (“Latinas and Breast Cancer,” for example) and interviews of Latino figures (“Profile of Dr. Shirlene Soto: Vice Provost, CSU Northridge”). She has also given presentations on such topics as Spanish American pioneer women in California, Chicana literature, and oral history. She has read her fiction at college campuses and conferences in the United States and El Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City and has published in the largest Spanish-language newspaper in Southern California, La Opinión.

Recuerdo: Short Stories of the Barrio gathers a number of Ponce’s earliest pieces, some of which begin with the Spanish word “Recuerdo,” which may be translated as “I recall,” “I remember,” or simply “memory,” suggesting the autobiographical element typical of Ponce’s writing. Her early narratives are first-person, allowing Ponce to describe the experiences of Mexican women with an intimate tone. Later some of Ponce’s stories would employ third-person narration.

Taking Control contains several short narratives. Though the characters of these stories are often subject to difficult circumstances, Ponce’s title reflects her decision to emphasize the positive outcomes of even the most negative circumstances. Both Recuerdo and Taking Control are firmly anchored in the Mexican American experience, particularly as lived by women.

Ponce’s novel The Wedding is set in a fictional small-town neighborhood near Los Angeles. It depicts the San Fernando Valley in the 1940’s and 1950’s while exploring women’s place in Mexican American society of the time. Blanca is planning the wedding of her dreams, although the marriage is not necessarily to the man of her dreams. She has to work Saturdays plucking turkeys in order to pay for the fancy gown she wants, despite its reduced, factory-seconds price. Her fiancé is a pachuco, or zoot-suit-wearing member of a 1950’s gang. Blanca does have her fancy wedding—but she also has a miscarriage and has to leave the party in an ambulance as two rival gangs fight in the background. Like many of Ponce’s other works, The Wedding examines the stereotypes that seem to circumscribe the lives of Mexican American women, who are subject to their husband’s whims, who endure multiple pregnancies, and who must rise to the social expectations inculcated in them by their families and the Catholic church. Nonetheless, Blanca, like other Ponce characters, is strong, tough, and essentially optimistic. A panorama of Mexican American life is presented in the book: the gangs; the...

(The entire section is 996 words.)