Helena María Viramontes (b. 1954)
Contributing Editor: Juan Bruce-Novoa
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The story touches on so many social issues that class discussion is almost assured. Some students, however, may express a sense of overkill: too many social and political ills too rapidly referenced to produce a profound impression. The class may also divide over the issues, some finding that they are so often covered by the media that they hardly need repetition, while others like the story because it seems like a familiar exposé on subjects they consider everyday reality.
You may find yourself in a discussion more of the headnote and its advocacy of the rights of undocumented aliens than of the story itself. I would try to focus on close textual reading to prevent the discussion from drifting away from the text and into arguments over social and political policies. Yet, some explanation of U.S. immigration policies and the political issues in Central America may be necessary (see "Historical Perspectives").
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Viramontes has published few stories and the headnote provides ample information on her themes and the personal connection with them. Historically, however, students may need more help. The Latino characters are undocumented aliens, and as such they can be detained by Immigration and Naturalization agents. After a hearing, they can be repatriated to their country of origin. However, in the recent past the process for Central Americans has more often than not tended to allow delay of their return, especially for those who claim political asylum. For Mexican aliens, the process is usually more automatic, although their return to the U.S. is also quite usual. The headnote suggests that the female refugee comes from El Salvador, which may provoke some confusion, since in the story her son is accused of collaborating with "Contras," a right wing terrorist group supported by the U.S. in the 1980s to undermine the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. This could lead to ambiguous interpretations (just who has killed the woman's son, the Nicaraguan left or the Salvadorean right?) that can be used to lend the story interesting ambiguity to undermine simplistic political positions of right and wrong.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Narrative perspective varies, moving from one character to another. While the technique may disorient some students, most will have encountered it in previous studies. It is important for them to note how Viramontes changes diction levels to achieve characterization. The use of interior monologue, especially in Section II, is noteworthy but not difficult to comprehend. The dashes of the "Rashamon" technique--the viewing of the same event from different perspectives at different times--adds to the text's fragmented feel.
Viramontes addresses a contemporary U.S. audience with topics relatively well known to most readers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Comparisons can be made with Rolando Hinojosa's selection, which also utilizes the fragmented narrative while the subtlety of Hinojosa's social commentary can be contrasted with Viramontes's blatant approach. One might also place Viramontes in the tradition of such writers as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, or Upton Sinclair, writers who did not shy away from explicit advocacy of political positions, even at the risk of melodramatic excess. While the headnote refers to García Márquez and Isabel Allende, there is little of the Latin American Magical Realism associated with those authors; the connection would be to their political positions, not to their style.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. The basic assignment here is to establish how the story is being narrated: From whose perspective is something seen? Then I ask students to characterize the different perspectives by picking specific words, turns of phrases, motifs, and so on.
2. I ask students to identify the specific Latino content of the story. Then I ask them to consider if the experiences apply to other immigrant groups, or the human condition in general.
3. This story lends itself to creative writing assignments. Have students pick a recent news event and narrate it from the objective perspective of a reporter and then from at least two others; for example, a witness of and a participant in the event.
Almost no criticism has been published on Viramontes. See the headnote for sources.