By Meaghan Menzel
On March 26, Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in English Dr. Crystal Kurzen introduced Helena Maria Viramontes to Washington College. Viramontes read at the Rose O’Neill Literary House as part of the Sophie Kerr Lecture series.
“I first encountered Helena Maria Viramontes’ collection of short stories ‘The Moths and Other Stories’ while a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin…in a course that traced the development of Chicano literature from the late 1950s through the Chicano movement of the 1960s and ‘70s and into the writing of Chicano feminists in the 1980s,” Dr. Kurzen said. Viramontes and the other writers Dr. Kurzen read for the course “work tirelessly during this time and still do to articulate the experiences of Mexican Americans and Chicanos who have been relatively absent from the landscapes of American literature,” she said.
“I come from a bookless home,” Viramontes said. “The public library was so essential to my imagination.” Whenever she read those books, she never saw herself or her family in them. “It was almost like I felt I needed to honor my family’s existence…the motivation came from the sense of love,” she said. “I wanted the world to see them… I want to wake people up to the fact that there are these communities that live, that get married, and have children.”
“The Moths” started out as Viramontes’ MFA thesis. “I was very much enamored with James Joyce’s ‘The Dubliners’ where it has this wonderful collection of the city of Dublin and all of these people are interconnected, and so that’s what I started doing,” she said. “It’s almost like these stories are the foundation of the work that I’m doing, have done, and have yet to do in regards to the narratives of the disappeared, the narratives of the marginalized, and the restatement of history into a bigger history.”
Viramontes is also the author of works such as “The Dogs Came with Them” and “Under the Feet of Jesus” and is currently working on a new novel.
“The Dogs Came with Them,” according to Viramontes, “was a novel that took me 17 years to write… It’s a cast of a number of different characters and it deals primarily with the coming of freeways in 1960-1970s.” Viramontes was born in East Los Angeles and watched over time as the community changed in the time of freeways. “It was horrible to see that we had been amputated from the rest of city. In fact that’s why I become a participant of the Latino writer’s association because we were working on establishing an anthology of Latino Los Angeles because apparently the people who were planning the bicentennial of Los Angeles actually made a map of Los Angeles and completely excluded the east side,” she said.
The current book Viramontes is working on is called “The Cemetery Boys” and is about a group of multi-generational boys during the time of World War II to the Vietnam War. “It was motivated by Ken Burns’ documentary of WWII… but it failed to mention the participation Mexican American soldiers,” Viramontes said. “I had two uncles that served, one of which came back with post traumatic stress syndrome and was also my favorite uncle. He loved to be around children… He’d have these stories he’d have to tell us, and he knew if he bought us enough ice cream or candy, we’d sit and listen to those stories.”
For this novel, Viramontes said she is not going to focus centrally on battle because she does not want to write on that topic without first-hand experience. Instead, she said, “My first section is right before Pearl Harbor. The second section is in the wake of the Iraq war, and third section is the beginning of the Vietnam War… the war industry is weaved into these stories, but I cannot make the war the center of a narrative. It’s got to be friends. I always write about friends. Friends are my family.”
“The Cemetery Boys,” like her other stories, deals more with the community and culture that American literature and history forget to include. “To write about World War II is also to write about Los Angeles in World War II and then to write about that is to write about this incredible multi-cultural history Los Angeles had,” she said.
Overall, Viramontes’ works bring to light the Mexican American culture and history that we do not always get to see. Dr. Kurzen said, “Her work strives to recreate the visceral sense of a world inhabited by many different kinds of Chicane and Chicanos and to transform readers through relentlessly compassionate storytelling.”