April 11, 2007

Helena Viramontes, far from home, re-creates 1960s Latino culture in Los Angeles in 'Their Dogs Came With Them'

From the first page of Helena María Viramontes' new novel, "Their Dogs Came With Them," the reader is bombarded with a kaleidoscope of sensory images that create a world like a tile mosaic, one small, vibrant piece at a time.

"I want to pull people into the environment," says Viramontes, a professor in Cornell's Creative Writing Program. "I want them to forget they are reading a book and to be in this place with these people."

Viramontes grew up in 1960s and '70s East Los Angeles. One of nine children of a construction worker and a Chicana housewife in a community that protested against the unequal conditions in East Los Angeles high schools, she was immersed in a culture of civil unrest and became involved in issues ranging from farm workers' rights and feminism to the Vietnam War.

While working her way through an undergraduate English degree at Immaculate Heart College, she started writing poetry and fiction and began gaining recognition for her short stories. In 1981 Viramontes entered the M.F.A. creative writing program at the University of California-Irvine and began publishing in such anthologies as "Cuentos: Stories by Latinas" and "Women of Her World."

Like John Steinbeck or Flannery O'Connor, Viramontes writes stories that are specific to the culture in which she grew up. From her work as a founding member of the Southern California Latino Writers and Filmmakers to her collaborations with feminist scholar Maria Herrera Sobek, Viramontes is a woman who interacts intensely (and prolifically) with the world around her.

"One of the things I try to teach my students is that they have to be engaged with their environment, otherwise their world has no meaning, and what else is there? To be engaged in your environment not only makes you the type of person you are, but it constantly challenges you in a way that teaches you how to be a bigger person -- or teaches you how small you can be," she says.

Leaving Los Angeles for Ithaca was a tricky transition. "When I first arrived here at Cornell, [the novel] 'Under the Feet of Jesus,' which deals with migrant farm workers, had just come out," Viramontes remembers. "People kept asking me how could I write about California, and Los Angeles in particular, if I was in Ithaca? I had lived in California all my life and had never thought about that when I accepted this job. Would it affect my writing?"

She found the answer: "I came to realize that my interests lie in excavating the geography of my childhood, and by and large, it no longer exists. What does exist is my memory, which is in itself fiction. In fact, the distance pushes me to write as if I'm in exile. It's given me an opportunity to look at my own personal history piecemeal."