Erased History, Forgotten Communities
by Jackie Swift
Helena María Viramontes, Professor of English at Cornell University, brings people and places erased from history to life again. For years, she has focused her lens on the Latino experience in the United States, writing award-winning fiction that draws from her own heritage as a Chicana from Los Angeles. In her latest novel-in-progress, The Cemetery Boys, she explores the experiences of three generations of East Los Angelenos mired in three different wars. During this exploration, she highlights the mix of ethnicities and marginalized communities that flourished and then faded away in the California of the early-to-mid twentieth century.
“Erasure has always been a concern for me,” she says. “I started thinking about the idea for The Cemetery Boys when my aunt gave me a box of letters that my uncle wrote to her and to his parents while he was in World War II. I thought of how Ken Burns [television documentarian] did not include a single Latino, Chicano, or Hispanic in his documentary on World War II. And there were thousands and thousands of them who served in that war. It really broke my heart.”
Piecing Together History, Expunged
From that beginning, rooted in personal family history, Viramontes has spent the past 10 years crafting an ambitious novel that requires her to follow twisting, branching threads of research through a labyrinth of forgotten history. She has read war novels; poured over a trove of historical nonfiction dealing with the experiences of minorities in California; studied the Green Book of safe stops for African Americans traveling by car through the United States in the mid-twentieth century; and examined maps of Colonial India. She has probed whatever has been necessary to lay the groundwork for the story she wants to tell.
“I do research that is very unconventional because I’m a writer,” she says. “I’m sort of an undisciplined historian. Because of that, I try to get the essence of history not the actual facts. I create my facts, you might say.”
Viramontes set the opening of her current novel in the Philippines immediately before the United States enters World War II, but the location led to many more considerations. “As I was writing about a Chicano character in the Philippines, I realized I should also write about the Filipinos who came to California,” she explains. “So I turned my gaze to the migrations that were happening in California in the 1920s and ’30s. Everyone was coming there because it was a cornucopia of possibility, and the Filipinos were part of that. But how could I write about them without writing about the Punjabi men who also came to southern California and married into Mexican-American families? They haven’t been part of any American literary narrative. And then, if I’m dealing with the Philippines, how can I not include a serious gaze at the history of the U.S. occupation, which was why Filipinos migrated to California?”
Along with her interest in the minority experience in America, one of Viramontes’ aims as a writer is to recreate forgotten communities. In her earlier novel, Their Dogs Came with Them (Atria Books, 2008), she brought to life the Mexican-American communities of mid-twentieth century Los Angeles, just as they were about to be destroyed by the freeways that cut the city into pieces. “I’m actually old enough to remember the community as it was,” she says. “In my early childhood, there weren’t any freeways through our part of Los Angeles. Then, they started going up. They eviscerated the community. And they also segregated us in a way. After the freeways, we were no longer a part of the living, breathing body of the city.”
“They eviscerated the community. And they also segregated us in a way. After the freeways, we were no longer a part of the living, breathing body of the city.”
In The Cemetery Boys, Viramontes wants to recreate a series of minority communities that abutted each other in Los Angeles. One of those was Chavez Ravine, which was part of downtown Los Angeles, consisting of three large, primarily Mexican-American communities. “It was poor, but the people owned their own homes and the community was tight, according to oral histories,” Viramontes says. “Then in 1957 it was ruled a blight on the city and scheduled to be torn down. The families got together and refused to leave their homes. Some were taken out by police; others got pennies for their houses. We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of Mexican American families.”
A few years after the families were evicted and the Chavez Ravine neighborhoods torn down, Dodger Stadium was built in its place. “Today, some of the grandchildren of those families go to that stadium to see the Dodgers play,” Viramontes says. “The irony of it! I want people to know about Chavez Ravine as it was, that flowers grew there and people lived there and children played on those streets. It’s a real challenge and also a commitment to not only recreate communities like this that have been forgotten or erased and make them real again.”
As part of Cornell’s creative writing program, Viramontes is both a practitioner and a teacher — the two roles blending into one. “Creative writing is an art form that’s in constant evolution. Nothing is sacred, but everything is revered,” she says. “In the classroom, it’s about close reading of examples we bring in that we feel passionate about and also of each other’s work.”
“Within that space,” Viramontes continues, “there are some deep and profound discussions of the self, self-examination, even to the point of revisiting traumas. I always bring myself to it. I tell the students what I’m all about, my own personal experiences. I tell them about the passion I have for this. This is my life.”