THE SUNDAY PROFILE : WRITING WRONG : Helena Maria Viramontes Found Inspiration for Her Book and Her Activism While Living in Irvine

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Helena Maria Viramontes does not look like the voice of the oppressed.

Shopping at a Mexican market in Orange County, the author known for her book on migrant farm workers is fashionably, and strikingly, dressed in a black skirt and colorful shawl. But this is what you get when you cross a bookworm with a self-described Chicana activist.

Viramontes, 41, is a nationally acclaimed author who teaches at an Ivy League university but swings through Santa Ana to buy canned jalapenos and fresh tortillas. She is virtually unknown to the crowd at El Toro Market in Santa Ana but applauded at a book signing in West Los Angeles.

"I'm a bookworm who is very much concerned about this Earth and this people," Viramontes says. "I'm not a public figure. I'm not someone who enjoys the limelight. But hopefully, I can change some of the things that are unfair."

This bookworm has inched her way from the barrio of East Los Angeles to a teaching job at Cornell University. A recent novel about migrant farm workers, "Under the Feet of Jesus," has gone into a second printing. Viramontes, in short, is considered one of the country's premier Latina writers, her name mentioned alongside the likes of Isabel Allende in newspaper and magazine articles.

Before moving to New York last year, Viramontes lived for 12 years in Irvine, where she finished her recent novel. Irvine, she says, provided constant reminders of the migrant farm life she writes about: While driving her children to school every day, she would see workers toiling in the strawberry and corn fields off Culver and Irvine drives.

"The physicality of the fields was implanted in my mind," she says.

In Ithaca, N.Y., Viramontes leads the life of a charmed bourgeoisie. Sitting at her university desk, she says, she is able to "contemplate life." But her every written word, and almost every spoken word, seethes with dissent.

She thrashes Proposition 187 for being discriminatory, decries that farm workers are invisible to society, praises women who battle discrimination and poverty.

Viramontes, her family says, grew up as a quiet and dutiful girl surrounded by six siblings. She says that her Catholic upbringing instilled in her a strong sense of right and wrong. And her own experiences with discrimination fuel a determination to right through the written word the wrongs she encounters.

The result is an author who lays bare with colorful prose the lives of society's lowest caste members.

"Petra had deep coffee-colored skin and black, kinked hair that she tamed with a short braid," Viramontes writes in "Under the Feet of Jesus." "She walked to the cooking pit in flapping rubber sandals, then arched her back.

"With a stick left by the last occupants, she poked the coal and wood ash. The fragrance of toasted corn tortillas, of garlic and chili bubbling over the flames, of fried tripas spitting fat in a cast-iron skillet, rose like dust to her nose."

Of her own experience growing up in East Los Angeles, Viramontes says, "We were all in poverty in that neighborhood, so there was nothing to measure how much we lacked."

Viramontes describes herself as the girl with glasses, kinky hair, and pigeon feet--attributes that drove her to books rather than boys.

Those first books included a sister's Bible and the family's World Book encyclopedia. "A lot of little tidbits" is what she read about in the encyclopedia, "but let me tell you, I was very fascinated with the anatomy chart."

Her father, Serafin, now 80, was a day laborer on construction sites. The family spent summers picking fruit in Northern California to earn extra cash. "It's incredibly, incredibly hard work," Viramontes says of the experience. "It was only temporary for me. That was my salvation."

Viramontes' literary roots can be traced to the age of 10. Her father recalls that he and his wife took a trip to Tijuana, leaving young Helena Maria, the fourth oldest, with her three sisters and three brothers in East Los Angeles. The 10-year-old wrote everything down while the parents were gone.

"She writes what they do, what they eat, what they talk about," Serafin recalls.

Serafin says the brothers and sisters did not get into serious trouble as a result of their literary sister, but they didn't appreciate having their antics reported.

Viramontes explains her attraction to the written word by saying, "It tattooed my brain. Writing is the only way I know how to pray."

In the eighth grade, she took a job as a nurse's aide at an L.A. hospital. It became a defining experience because it reaffirmed her calling as a bookworm, she says, and she soon left the job. She went on to the private Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood, where, with the aid of a scholarship, she graduated with a degree in English in 1974.

From there, it was on to graduate school at Cal State Los Angeles, located next to one of the biggest barrios in the country. While a student in the English department, she says, she was told by a professor that she did not belong there because she was writing about Latino issues.

Viramontes moved on to the fine arts program at UC Irvine in 1979. Again, Viramontes says, she was dogged by conflicts between her writing and her identity.

"I began writing my stories there until 1981, when a professor told me not to write about Chicanos, but to write about people," Viramontes says, "He told me I was a cheap imitation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez."

That criticism drove her out of the program, and, she says, "my stomach got sick whenever I passed the Humanities Building."

Meanwhile, Viramontes had won the national UC Irvine Chicano Literary Contest for a semi-autobiographical story on a Catholic woman's struggle over whether to have an abortion. After reading the essay at an awards ceremony, two people gave her a standing ovation. One of them was Eloy Rodriguez, a UCI professor of environmental biology. Four years later, Viramontes and Rodriguez were married.

"She was attractive and smart, and I thought to myself, 'That's a nice combination,' " Rodriguez recalls. "She was extremely shy and surrounded by her family, and it was like getting through a circle of covered wagons."

The couple have two children: Pilar, 11, and Francisco, 9.

On her return home from the hospital with Francisco in 1985, just-published bundles of her first collection of short stories, "The Moths and Other Stories," were waiting on the porch.

In 1990, Viramontes returned to UCI's fine arts program, and "Under the Feet of Jesus" was accepted as her master's thesis in 1994. This year, it was published by Dutton.

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All her life, Viramontes says, she has never been allowed to forget that her skin is brown.

When she and her family moved into an Irvine townhouse near the university, they were the only Latino residents in the area, she says. They soon began receiving letters accusing them of being filthy and accusing her of beating the children, she says.

"The letters stopped either because those people left," she says, "or because they found out we were not going to leave."

At other times, it was broader cultural affronts that sparked Viramontes' ire. Once it was a bilingual pamphlet she came across in the supermarket. The pamphlet was meant to allow English speakers to check off boxes indicating the chores they wanted Spanish-speaking maids to perform, she says, while avoiding human interaction.

Viramontes also recalls taking Francisco to a pool in Irvine and visiting with the maids baby-sitting their charges. "And for the longest time, the maids thought I was Francisco's maid," she says.

Her blood boiled when Proposition 187, barring health and other benefits to illegal aliens, was proposed and overwhelmingly approved by voters last fall.

"These women worked hard to clean, cook, iron and watch the babies," Viramontes says of the maids. "These are people who are essential to families but who are virtual slaves. Then they became scapegoats."

Viramontes was sustained by her frequent trips to Santa Ana, shopping in the markets and breathing in the Latino culture. "Santa Ana was like a second home to me," she says.

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Her recent and most well-known book, "Under the Feet of Jesus," is named for the makeshift religious altar where migrant farm workers keep their documents. Even before the book was published, the chairman of Cornell's English department says, the university sought out Viramontes as a "wise and mature" person to build the department's Latino programs. Her writing, of course, also played a role.

"She's writing about ordinary people," says Pete Wetherbee, the chair of the English department, "but she makes them more than ordinary by choosing the right details."

Her next book, to be titled "Their Dogs Came With Them," is about violence in East Los Angeles.

A Cornell graduate student who with Viramontes is organizing a conference on Latino feminism praises her for writing about subjects not normally addressed in fiction.

"She writes from the perspective of the people who pick our vegetables," says Paula Moya, 33, "and who are now being demonized as people who are ruining our economy."

Viramontes still considers herself a Californian--she says she even misses the freeways--but she is comfortable with New York too.

"I've sort of been enjoying it," she says. "It's a very nice environment to sit behind a desk and contemplate about life. Because I've been plucked out of my own environment and placed here, there's a certain newness I appreciate. Like a honeymoon."

In class, Viramontes says, she asks students to think about people of other races and genders and to identify stereotypes. "Then, say, I would ask them, 'How would you write about a black woman who works in a hospital?' "

Viramontes being Viramontes, talk soon turns to politics. In this case, it is affirmative action. She is worried that affirmative action programs are being weakened. And to make her point, she talks about her students at Cornell,

"Here I am, teaching kids from prep school, and I think, how can we [Latinos] compete with them when we're graduating from Garfield High School?" she says, referring to the tough East Los Angeles High School from which she graduated, and which was featured in the movie "Stand and Deliver."

"Holy moly," she says. "We've still got a long way to go."

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Profile:

Helena Maria Viramontes

Background: Age 41. Born and grew up in East Los Angeles. Lived in Irvine for 12 years before moving recently to Ithaca, N.Y.

Family: Married to biology professor Eloy Rodriguez, 48; two children: Pilar, 11, and Francisco, 9.

On how she hopes readers feel after reading her book on migrant farm workers: "When people sit down to eat their salads or bite into their apples, I want them to think about the piscadores [harvesters] that brought that food to their tables."

On her journey from the barrio to the Ivy League: "People ask me, 'How did you get from here to there?' And for me, it was books. . . . Now, when I write, I write as if my words are going to change other people's lives."

On turning her success as an author into a message for youth: "I tell students you can make money off writing. You don't have to kick for the Raiders."

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