La Chicana Verdadera: Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs on Helena María Viramontes

May 30, 2013

    HELENA MARÍA VIRAMONTES is the author of The Moths and Other Stories (Arte Público Press, 1985), followed by two novels, Under the Feet of Jesus (Dutton, 1995), and Their Dogs Came With Them (Atria Books, 2008). Her fiction is rooted in an East Los Angeles childhood during the volatile 1960s and 1970s, which imbued her with a deep desire to give voice to Chicanas and Mexican women whose lives are too often marginalized or — worse yet — altogether ignored.

    Despite receiving critical acclaim, including comparisons to John Steinbeck and Upton Sinclair, there has never been a single scholarly volume dedicated to Viramontes’s stories and novels. Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs has changed that with the recent publication of Rebozos de Palabras: An Helena Maria Viramontes Critical Reader (University of Arizona Press).

    Gutiérrez y Muhs, an associate professor at Seattle University in modern languages and women’s studies, is also a poet who was deeply affected early in her academic career by Viramontes’s fiction. Rebozos de Palabras collects some of the best critical essays on and interviews with Viramontes and offers a much-needed guide to the work of one of our most significant contemporary writers. This is an important book, one that doubtless will be relied upon for years by new generations of Viramontes readers and scholars.


    DANIEL OLIVAS: Can you remember when you first read Viramontes’s fiction? How would you describe that experience? 

    GABRIELLA GUTIÉRREZ Y MUHS: I first read her short story “The Moths” when I taught a literature class to women from the Central Coast in California, and I also taught writing workshops for cannery workers at the time, with my comadre Shirley Flores-Muñoz. I worked at Cabrillo College while getting my PhD at Stanford. “The Moths” was anthologized in Infinite Divisions: An Anthology of Chicana Literature, and I was mesmerized by the ability Viramontes had to construct Chicana characters. Then later, I realized that Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, my thesis advisor, actually knew Helena María and treasured her writing. In fact, Yvonne wrote the foreword for The Moths and Other Stories

    One of the aspects of Helena María’s writing that makes it unique is that she selects stories that others have overlooked; she writes the characters that others do not see as important and presents us their lives. The protagonist of “The Moths” is a girl with big hands who does not really fit in her Chicano family, but her grandmother validates her existence — a woman whom she holds in the highest esteem — and truly helps out during the last days of her life. So, the caregiver that we don’t pay attention to is what Viramontes puts in front of us, and she lets us know that this is where we should look, to someone worthy of our praise, that knowing how to help someone die is much more important than attending church on Sunday — which is a decision that at one point in the story the young protagonist makes. 

    DO: When did you first meet Viramontes? Do you remember what you said? What she said?

    GGM: I met her when I invited her to come read at Stanford, when I was Chicana Fellow in 1997, for the "Emerging Subjectivities in Chicana Literature" series that I created and implemented. She gave a fantastic reading of her first novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, that had come out in 1995, and gave my class and me several interviews. She is generous of spirit and sincere.

    In one of the interviews, which appears in my book Communal Feminisms: Chicanas, Chilenas, and Cultural Exile, she talked about her short story “The Cariboo Café.” She couldn’t help herself, and when talking about the fierce mother, the suffering mother, the Central American mother, her empathy was such that she suffered and wailed for the pain of others, and so we paused the recording at one point. Helena María embodies the true meaning of “Chicana/o,” calling attention to what matters — to the invisibilized, to the social underdogs — and claiming their humanity with her literary voices.

    DO: Before Rebozos de Palabras was published, I discovered that several graduate students cited and quoted my 2007 La Bloga interview with Viramontes regarding her novel, Their Dogs Came with Them. But, as you note, while there’s been scholarly books dedicated to Sandra Cisneros, Rebozos de Palabras is the first book dedicated to examining Helena’s fiction. Why do you think it’s taken so long?

    GGM: Because in the mainstream US literary canon there is still only room for one of each. One Latina, one African American, one Native woman, one Asian American, and maybe one Chicana …

    DO: The book is divided into three thematic sections and concludes with two interviews. Once you decided to do Rebozos de Palabras, how did you map it out? Did you discuss its structure and concept with colleagues or editors? 

    GGM: Absolutely. I also discussed it with Helena María in 2009 when she came to read at Seattle University, during the time I held the chair for Wismer Professor for Gender and Diversity. In fact, it was she who cherished the interview with José Antonio Rodríguez, and this is why I selected it, instead of several others that we could have included. Unfortunately, due to space, there were other incredible interviews that were not included by Silvia Pellarolo and Deborah Moore. I also received recommendations from some of the senior scholars included in this volume, and talked to various people at Mujeres Activas en Letras y Cambio Social, the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies, the Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association, and the Modern Language Association about the project, including leaving “call for papers” fliers everywhere.

    DO: You included pieces from scholars at various stages of their careers. Why did you do that? 

    GGM: Yes, this was the problematic part; the book, in fact, was reviewed several more times as a result of this mix. I think that we have brilliant young minds out there that are often not included, or don’t make it early on into the field of literary criticism because they are weeded out since they do not have a PhD. I firmly believe that this is a catch-22, like being able to borrow money from the bank when you have no money. You are obviously going to the bank to borrow money because you need it and plan to pay it back, but yet you are not allowed to do it, unless you can prove that you have collateral. Both of the young scholars I included have collateral. I have spent a lot of my time as a professor mentoring students so that the process of going into the academy will not be as traumatic to them, and so that they know exactly what to expect, and how to conduct themselves in the academy when they get there. Both of the people I included here have excellent skills, and their work stands on its own.

    I think our young minds need our respectful support precisely because they can and not because they can’t. Given that we have scholars of the stature of Barbara Brinson Curiel, Mary Pat Brady, and Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, a timely foreword by Sonia Saldívar-Hull, and magnificent pieces from mid-career people like the prolific Juanita Heredia, Margarita T. Barceló, R. Joyce Z. L. Garay, and Juan D. Mah y Busch, I felt we could also welcome the work of Raelene Wyse and Aldo Ulisses Reséndiz Ramírez in order to motivate other young minds to think of themselves as critics as well. I did this in the spirit of communal feminisms, which is the type of Chicana feminism I ascribe to, rooted in convivencia [coexistence], the sharing with and celebration of one another across the board, regardless of age, like in our bailes where kids, grown-ups, and grandparents dance together with one another without excluding anyone. And so, Rebozos de Palabras was an intergenerational project from its conception. I knew this could be controversial in the academy, but being a Chicana itself is still controversial to some, so bring it on!

    DO: How did you solicit the pieces that ended up in the book? Was that a difficult process?

    GGM: There was a call for papers that went out several times, I also announced it at several conferences, and that is how some of the pieces came to me. I also attempted to have people I knew recruit for me, and that also worked. In the case of Garay, I simply heard her present at a Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association conference and was very impressed with her work. I also obviously contacted people who had worked on Viramontes and asked them respectfully to submit papers, as with Brady and Yarbro-Bejarano. Helena María asked me to consider a couple of pieces. I ended up pulling two of my own chapters, one with another student, Summer Staples, that I placed in the latest issue of the journal Camino Real, in order to include other scholars’ pieces, and placed my own work abroad and in other journals because of the size limits for our manuscript. 

    DO: Did you find yourself disagreeing with any of the conclusions made by the scholars whose articles were included in the book? If so, did you discuss those disagreements or did you simply leave them to their opinions? 

    GGM: Because of the wide breath of topics covered in the book which analyze Helena María’s writings as a whole or expand on an individual work of hers from a particular perspective, each authors’ conclusions were quite novel, especially because they were interdisciplinary, drawing from a number of fields, included but not limited to philosophy, women studies, queer theory, sociology, and Chicana/Latina/Latin American literature. Several of the authors also built upon an existing critical body of work on Helena María and Chicana literature, connecting the dots and tracing new lines where none had previously been attempted to be drawn and creating a framework for a critical, intersectional analysis. 

    Although I looked closely at each author’s conclusions and happened to agree with most, my primary concern was not with their conclusions per se but with the depth of their contributions and the originality of each chapter as a whole. As I state in my introduction, I feel that Chicana literature is too often analyzed in the university classroom from a unidimensional perspective, either a purely racial or gendered lens. Helena María’s work lends itself to various interpretations and merits a more sophisticated analysis, and I wanted to open that door with this collection of essays.

    DO: In editing the book, did you learn something new about Viramontes’s fiction or life? Any surprises?

    GGM: I learned so much about Helena María and the depth and width of her oeuvre and how timeless her work really is, whether we are comparing her to Flannery O’Connor, which has already been done, or Rosario Castellanos. She is one of the few writers who keeps impressing me, the more time I dedicate to her oeuvre. Her influence is interminable, in each of us. One thing that I wanted to point out in my introduction, however, which I thought would be news for some, is that Pulitzer Prize–winning author Junot Díaz and a number of other talented writers have studied under Helena María at Cornell University’s Creative Writing Program, which she directs. This seems to be a small secret in mainstream America, that some of our best, that is Helena María, Sandra Cisneros, Norma Elia Cantú, Ana Castillo, Demetria Martínez, Denise Chávez, have not ceased to influence others during the last 30 years. In other words, many other Latin@ writers have triumphed by following their example, their intrepid and pure spirits, and their tirelessness in pursuing an established name as American authors who are also Chicanas, Mexicanas, Tejanas, Latinas, fiercely and with great pride.

    DO: Has Helena read Rebozos de Palabras yet? If so, what was her response?

    GGM: I shared with her a couple of the chapters when it was still being reviewed by the press. She was humbled by the entire project and impressed with the work of several of the contributors, some of whom she knew personally and had corresponded with. Helena María truly exemplifies in her essence the inclusivity of our Chican@ movement, alive and strong, transformative and transforming, and especially now with technology becoming an electronic movimiento que crece a pasos agigantados. I wrote to her and asked her about this, in order to answer your question, she says: “My most cherished words are those by readers who are witness to their own transformation after reading a novel, short story, an essay. In Rebozos de Palabras, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs does what she always does — from the writing of her poetry, to the mothering of her children, to editing this unique volume, she reveals her passion and love. I am deeply touched and honored that scholars have transformed my word into their own. And I am deeply touched by the fact that Gabi was able to make all of this happen.”

    DO: What do you hope readers get from Rebozos de Palabras?

    GGM: I expect this will open the door for many future readers of Helena María Viramontes. As I also say in the introduction, I wrote it especially to encourage non-Latin@ professors to teach Helena María in their classes, because it would truly be a gift to them and their students to stop knowing our writers only superficially. I also hope that I can continue publishing readers on our other Latin@ authors, that this will be the first of many. My next project is called Word Images: A Norma Elia Cantú Critical Reader, and the deadline for abstracts for that book is in June; full articles are due in July. If any of your readers are interested, they may submit via e-mail to: [email protected].


    Daniel Olivas, a second generation Angeleno, is the author of six books including, most recently, the award winning novel, The Book of Want.  He is the editor of the anthology, Latinos in Lotusland, which brings together 60 years of Los Angeles fiction by Latino writers.


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