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

September 17, 1995|JEFF KASS | 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.

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