The heady rush of political, cultural and social upheaval is forever linked to the 1960s and 1970s. The growing strengths of the Civil Rights movements in the United States saw hundreds of thousands of people gather together in protest against injustice and inequality. In the Californian countryside, Mexican American migrant farmworkers were making history with the formation of the first successful farmworkers union, the United Farm Workers. In LA, Latino high school students orchestrated massive walk outs in protest against education inequality based on race. Latino university student groups allied with other protest movements to create the largest protest march against the Vietnam War – the Chicano Moratorium.
I knew none of these things when I began my Masters degree in the University of Edinburgh. By the end of the degree, I wanted to know so much more. The one option module that had introduced me to Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros was not enough. I read voraciously – Cherríe Moraga, Pat Mora, Alexando Morales, and many others. The one who really caught my attention, however, was Helena María Viramontes.
A 1960s East LA Chicana teenager, Viramontes’ life is indelibly linked to the political and social stirrings of the era, something which comes across strongly in her work. By the time I began my PhD in University College Cork, Viramontes had published three works: a collection of short stories, and two novels. Her short story collection was published in 1985 to great acclaim, and has been included in almost every Chicana / Latina anthology since. Drawing on her own life, Viramontes writes about characters and places closest to her – her first novel, “Under the Feet of Jesus” (1995) explores the life of a Chicana/o family who work as migrant labourers in the fields of California. Her follow up novel, “Their Dogs Came With Them” (2007) follows the lives of various LA inhabitants during the 1960s. Both novels are at once celebrations of Chicano/a culture and critiques of prevailing social and cultural inequities faced by Chicano/a communities.
In 2009 I was fortunate enough to meet Ms Viramontes in a colloquium organised in NUI, Maynooth. It was the first Chicano/a colloquium ever hosted in Ireland, and the intimacy of the small audience combined with the enthusiastic Chicana/o scholars and artists solidified my desire to research this area. The Chicana/o scholars came from the University of California, Santa Barbara and were delighted that Irish and UK researchers were interested in Chicano/a Studies. The interview I secured with Ms Viramontes would later inform my final thesis. I did not plan on conducting any interviews, but I always keep a voice recorder on my person after that experience.
A vast amount of Chicana/o scholarship is stored in the University of Santa Barbara. The most important thing for me, was the fact that it houses the Helena María Viramontes collection. Early drafts, personal correspondence, memorabilia and unpublished works are nestled within the archives. One day, while I was scouring through the boxes, the curator mentioned that I was the first scholar to go through the entire collection. It was possibly one of the most exciting sentences I have ever heard coming from someone’s lips! I only had three months and limited photocopying permissions, but nothing stops a determined researcher. I left with a laptop full of files and a suitcase full of notes.
I write this post almost a year after graduation, and my fascination with mid twentieth century literature and politics continues, though now it has been captured by the under-representation of Latino/a activism and literature in scholarly works. Will this change? Sí, se puede!
Thanks so much to Niamh for writing this #GuestBlog for the SALSA Collective – sending it to us from the other side of the world! Latinidad living up to its truly transnational identity from NZ through LA to the UK!