Erased History, Forgotten Communities

Viramontes’ passion for bringing erased communities to the forefront of literature and history has materialized into several acclaimed literary works.

By Jackie Swift
FROM: research.cornell.edu

downloadHelena María Viramontes, English, 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?” Read Rest of Article Here

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