American Literature Helena María Viramontes
Leigh Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0110


Helena María Viramontes was born in East Los Angeles on 26 February 1954, one of nine children. Occasionally one will read that there were eleven children, but this seems to be a mistake based on Viramontes’s comment that she comes from a family of eleven, which is six girls, three boys, a mother, and a father (“Nopalitos,” p. 33). Her family was working class, and her parents spoke Spanish at home. Viramontes received her MFA from University of California-Irvine. She calls herself a failed poet (“Nopalitos,” p. 37). The Moths and Other Stories (1985) garnered much critical interest. Under the Feet of Jesus brought more critical acclaim in 1995, and the John Dos Passos Prize in 1996. Viramontes has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and she won the Luis Leal Award in 2006. Her most recent work, Their Dogs Came with Them (2007), is less studied, but takes up the themes of urban poverty, history, and racism that her earlier work engages. Her short stories are widely anthologized in texts meant for undergraduates studying Chicano/a and Latino/a literature, women’s studies, and multicultural literature. Viramontes has been active in community projects, literary editorships, and teaching creative writing. Much of her work draws from her experiences as a child in California dealing with issues of work, racism, and language. Viramontes is a professor of English and creative writing at Cornell University. She has two children and continues to lecture around the country and organize and participate in conferences.

Primary Texts

Viramontes’s breakout collection of stories is The Moths and Other Stories (Viramontes 1995), which includes the widely anthologized “The Moths” and “The Cariboo Cafe.” The collection has been reprinted four times. Her first novel, Under the Feet of Jesus (Viramontes 1996), also was widely acclaimed and is frequently taught as part of Chicano/a literature classes and multicultural literature classes. Their Dogs Came with Them (Viramontes 2007) is her most recent novel. The University of California, Santa Barbara holds her personal papers in its Special Collections.

  • Viramontes, Helena María. The Moths and Other Stories. 2d ed. Houston, TX: Arte Público, 1995.

    The most easily accessible edition, the second edition offers an introduction by Yvonne Yarbo-Bejarano that contextualizes and interprets the stories. The eight stories in the collection are “The Moths,” “Growing,” “Birthday,” “The Broken Web,” “The Cariboo Cafe,” “The Long Reconciliation,” “Snapshots,” and “Neighbors.” First published in 1985.

  • Viramontes, Helena María. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Plume, 1996.

    This book is the most widely read and studied of Viramontes’s novels. Accessible to undergraduates and advanced high school students, but complex enough to yield productive readings at the graduate level, the novel weaves a story of Estrella and Alejo coming of age in the California vegetable fields. Dedicated to the memory of César Chávez.

  • Viramontes, Helena María. Their Dogs Came with Them. New York: Atria, 2007.

    The novel returns to the East Los Angeles barrio Viramontes dissects in The Moths and Other Stories. Viramontes claims this is actually her first novel, as she began it long before she began Under the Feet of Jesus, but it took her longer to complete and find a publisher.

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