Forever Faithful : Helena Viramontes Teaches at an Ivy League School--But Her Heart Remains Here With Migrant Workers Seen But Seldom Heard

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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 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. Her recent novel about migrant farm workers, "Under the Feet of Jesus" (Dutton, 1995), has gone into a second printing. Viramontes, in short, is considered one of the country's premier Latina writers.

Before moving to New York last year, Viramontes lived for 12 years in Irvine, which 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. "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.

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

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."

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

Those first books included a sister's Bible and the family's World Book Encyclopedia, in which she read "a lot of little tidbits--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. "It's incredibly, incredibly hard work," Viramontes says. "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.

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

After earning a degree in English from Immaculate Heart College in Hollywood in 1974, she went 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 changed to the fine arts program at UC Irvine in 1979. Again, she 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 she read 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.

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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."

Viramontes recalls taking Francisco to the 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 immigrants, 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 book, "Under the Feet of Jesus," is named for the makeshift religious altar where migrant farm workers keep their documents. Even before it was published, says Pete Wetherbee, chair of Cornell's English department, 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 Wetherbee, "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, "and who are now being demonized as people who are ruining our economy."

In class, Viramontes asks students to think about people of other races and genders and to identify stereotypes. "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 such 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 was graduated.

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

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