Authors: Helena María Viramontes
Helena MarÃa Viramontes
Stories in this collection have previously appeared in the following publications: “Growing” in
Cuentos: Stories by Latinas
; “The Moths” in
201: Homenaje a la Ciudad de Los Angeles, XhismArte Magazine
; “Birthday” in
Cenzontle: Chicano Short Stories and Poetry
; “Broken Web” in
Woman of Her Word
; The Long Reconciliation” in
; and “Snapshots” in
Recovering the past, creating the future
Arte PÃºblico Press
University of Houston
452 Cullen Performance Hall
Houston, Texas 77204-2004
Cover design by Mark PiÃ±Ã³n
Original art “La Butterfly”
by John Valadez, 1983
Library of Congress Catalog Number 84-072308
The paper used in this publication meets the requirements of the American National Standard for Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials Z39.48-1984.
Second Printing, 1988
Third Printing, 1991
Fourth Printing, 1992
Second Edition, 1995
All rights reserved.
Copyright Â© 1985 by Helena MarÃa Viramontes
Printed in the United States of America
8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â 13 12 11 10 9 8
, by Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano
To Mary Louise Labrada Viramontes
With this collection of stories, Helena MarÃa Viramontes makes an important contribution to the growing body of writing by Chicanas and Latinas in this country whose art speaks to the reality of women of color. It has been apparent for some time that Chicanas are riding a wave of creative expression that is carrying them to the forefront in the field of literary creativity in the United States. This trend has been most visible in the area of poetry, where a veritable explosion of Chicanas' creative energies has occurred. Chicanas have moved more recently into fiction, as witnessed by Lucha Corpi's prize-winning entry in the University of Texas at El Paso's short-story contest “Palabra Nueva,” the publication of Gina ValdÃ©s' novel
There Are No Madmen Here
(San Diego: Maize Press, 1981), and the stories represented in the collection
Woman of Her Word: Hispanic Women Write
(Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1983), edited by Evangelina Vigil, to mention a few achievements among many.
The current effervescence of Chicana writers is a tribute to their strength and determination to be heard, given the nature of the obstacles which lie in their path. The Chicana writers share with all women writers the problem of breaking into a male-dominated industry, but they must overcome others related to class and race as well. A long history of economic, racial and linguistic oppression has relegated the Chicana to menial jobs, systematically denied her access to literacy and robbed her of her mother tongue when she succeeds in educating herself. Even when she does learn to write, the self-hatred and sense of inferiority indoctrinated in all women by a patriarchal system of values, and exaggerated in the Chicana by her color and her class, militate against her conviction that she has something worth saying. In her open letter to third-world women writers, Gloria AnzaldÃºa suggests that their real struggle involves the search for a voice
which is uniquely theirs. The Chicana writer must draw strength from the very conditions seen as sources of inferiority by the oppressor: her sex, her race and culture, her class. The search for their authentic voice has led Chicana writers to explore the personal in relationship to a collective identity. This process is not just one of affirmation, but also one of questioning and critical examination. At the same time that the Chicana writer recognizes her collective and familial history as a source of strength, she challenges values which continue to oppress women within the Chicano family and culture.
This brings me to the importance of the stories published in this collection, stories written by a Chicana about women of all ages. Viramontes does not present idealized versions of feminists successfully battling patriarchy. Acutely aware of women's dilemmas, Viramontes creates female characters who are a contradictory blend of strengths and weaknesses, struggling against lives of unfulfilled potential and restrictions forced upon them because of their sex. These women are conscious that something is wrong with their lives, and that what is wrong is linked to the rigid gender roles imposed on them by their men and their culture, often with the aid of the Church. Most display resistance: the rebellious behavior of the adolescents in “Growing” and “The Moths,” the courageous decision to abort taken by Alice in “Birthday” and Amanda in “The Long Reconciliation,” and the perpetration of criminal violence in “The Broken Web.”
Viramontes focuses her narrative lens on the struggles of women within the Chicano family and culture, although larger social and economic conflicts often form a backdrop or frame for the main action. The relationship between Chato and Amanda in “The Long Reconciliation” is only understandable in light of the crushing poverty and exploitation of their lives in Mexico. In “The Broken Web,” TomÃ¡s transports undocumented workers into the United States to work in the fields where he himself, his wife and his three children slave under the Fresno sun during the grape harvest. “Neighbors” captures the desperation of the
, where “tough-minded boy-men” gather in groups to drink and “lose themselves in the abyss of defeat,” locked out of the dominant society by economic factors and discriminatory attitudes as effective as padlocks. Fierro is killed by the “heartaches” of losing a son to
senseless violence and forty years of memories to the freeways which obliterated his home in the
“with clawing efficiency.” In the same story, Aura unleashes a chain of events which demonstrate the reality of police harrassment in the
. The disproportionate number of patrol cars, the flashing of red lights, and the batons speak of the brutality and prejudice which permeate the characters' lives. When the police subdue a youth who tries to escape, Aura hears “the creak of their thick leather belts rubbing against their bullets.”
But racial prejudice and the economic and social oppression of Chicanos in this country are rarely the central theme of these stories. Viramontes is concerned primarily with the social and cultural values which shape women's lives and against which they struggle with varying degrees of success. Most of the stories develop a conflict between a female character and the man who represents the maximum authority in her life, either father or husband. The fathers in “Growing” and “Moths” are oppressive figures who threaten violence and demand obedient acceptance of traditional roles. In “Growing,” Naomi is bewildered by her father's distrust of her, not fully realizing that this distrust is inherent in her culture's definition of gender:
It was ApÃ¡ who refused to trust her, and she could not understand what she had done to make him so distrustful.
TÃ ERES MUJER
, he thundered, and that was the end of any argument, any question, and the matter was closed because he said those three words as if they were a condemnation from the heavens and so she couldn't be trusted.
In many cases, Viramontes shows the collusion of the Catholic Church in the socialization of women in rigid gender roles. In “The Moths,” the father's violent opposition to his adolescent daughter's deviation from the cultural norm of femininity is closely linked to her rejection of the Church:
That was one of ApÃ¡âs biggest complaints. He would pound his hands on the table, rocking the sugar dish or spilling a cup of coffee and scream that if I didn't go to Mass every Sunday to save my goddam sinning soul, then I had no reason to go out of the house, period. Punto final. He would grab my arm and dig his nails into me to make sure I
understood the importance of catechism. Did he make himself clear?
To assume more independence and responsibility in their lives, the women in these stories must break with years of indoctrination by the Church. In “Birthday,” Alice's decision to take control of her own body and future by having an abortion is accompanied not only by guilt but by a radical redefinition of her relationship to her religion as well. After listening to Alice rationalize her position, her friend Terry responds: “Look, you'll stew and brood and feel pitiful and pray until your knees chapâbut in the end you'll decide on the abortion. So why not cut out this silliness?” At the end, Alice reveals her contradictory feelings, mixing expressions of guilt (“forgive me for I have sinned”) with rejections of God (“No! I don't love you, not you, God”) and loss of self-esteem (“not even me”). In “The Long Reconciliation,” Amanda decides to abort because she cannot bear “to watch a child slowly rot,” defying the values of her community and her husband and the dictates of the priest: “It is so hard being female, Amanda, and you must understand that that is the way it was meant to be.â¦” She reveals her disillusionment with a distant God who does not help the poor: “But, Father, wasn't He supposed to take care of us, His poor?â¦You, God, eating and drinking as you like, you, there, not feeling the sweat or the pests that feed on the skin, you sitting with a kingly lust for comfort, tell us that we will be paid later on in death.” In “The Broken Web,” Martha reveals the trauma of her father's murder to the priest through the language of a dream in which she identifies her father with a statue of Christ which shatters into little pieces. As Evangelina Vigil points out in her introduction to the collection
Woman of Her Word
, the priest “is detached from the spiritual needs of those he confesses” (p. 11). The mother in the same story expresses her guilt at killing her husband and her sense of alienation from a male, authoritarian God: “Her children in time would forgive her. But God? He would never understand. He was a man, too.”
In most cases, Viramontes' female characters pay dearly for breaking with traditional values concerning women, and the exploration of their sexuality often brings negative consequences.
In “Birthday,” Alice's fear of the abortion is only partly due to her religious upbringing; she is also frightened of having to make the decision. Characterized as a child in the story, Alice looks for direction first to her shadowy boyfriend, then to Terry. She realizes that having to make the decision alone is both burdensome and liberating. Accepting responsibility for her life matures and empowers her. When her boyfriend tells her it was her responsibility not to get pregnant, “her eyes, that had first pleaded desperately under the tree, now looked upon him as a frightened child.” The positive exploration of her sexuality, expressed in the poetic passage which opens and closes the story, is negatively tinged with guilt and the trauma of the abortion: “No sex, Alice. Punishing me. For loving? God! Fucking, Aliceâ¦God isn't pregnant, Alice.” At the end, the passage of ecstatic sublimation is invaded by guilt (“forgive me, Father, for I have sinned”), juxtaposing pleasure (“God, how I love it”), rejection of God (“No! I don't love you, not you, God”) and the “cold hands” in her experience of the abortion.