Performance and conference honor Viramontes

The legacy of Professor Helena María Viramontes, novelist and foundational voice in Chicana feminism, will be honored in “Lest Silence Be Destructive,” a two-day celebration of Chicana feminism and Viramonte’s creative work and influence Oct. 20-21. Scholars, former students, and Viramontes herself will present and give readings Oct. 21 in the A.D. White House starting at 9:30 a.m.

“Helena María Viramontes has mentored dozens and dozens of writers and scholars who are now in universities all over the country. Her writing has been foundational to the emergence of Chicana feminism, which comes into its own in the mid 1980s,” said Mary Pat Brady, professor of literatures in English and director of the American Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S). “To honor Helena is to honor this influential movement. In some ways this conference is recognition of Cornell’s commitment to transformative scholarship and transformative creative opportunities.”

Viramontes’ 1985 collection “The Moth and Other Stories” is sometimes taught in medical and nursing courses for its empathy, Brady said. Her first novel, “Under the Feet of Jesus,” centers on Latino migrant workers working in the California grape fields, and “Their Dogs Came With Them,” is widely studied. 

The many voices in “Their Dogs Came with Them,” which is set in 1960s East L.A., inspired playwright Virginia Grise to create first a play and then a musical album based on the book, in collaboration with Viramontes and Martha Gonzalez, a scholar, activist and Grammy-winning songwriter.

The first public performance of that album, “Riding the Currents of the Wilding Wind,” will open “Lest Silence Be Destructive,” on Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m. in Risley Hall Theatre. (It will premiere at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco in April.)

“Helena is such a vivid writer. I feel like she’s painting pictures,” said Grise. “The thing that draws me in most are the characters.”

On the second day of the conference, “The Impact and Legacy of Helena María Viramontes” will be discussed by John Alba Cutler, University of California, Berkeley; Dean Franco, Wake Forest University; and Rosaura Sanchez, University of California, San Diego, in a panel moderated by Deb Vargas, Yale University.

Writer and activist Cherríe Moraga, another founding figure in Chicana feminism, will give a tribute to Viramontes. Three creative readings will then be offered: by Viramonte’s former students Manuel Muñoz, M.F.A ’98 and Jennine Capó Crucet ’03 and by Viramontes herself. A Q&A with Paula Moya, Ph.D. ’98, Stanford University, will follow the readings.

On Oct. 4, Muńoz won a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for “depicting with empathy and nuance the Mexican American communities of California’s Central Valley.” For his reading, Muñoz said he might include the opening story of his first book, “Zigzagger,” an early draft of which Viramontes critiqued in 1996.

“She had her typically tough criticisms to make of the story, but at the end of it, she said, ‘Manuel, I want you to put this away, be patient with it. I want you to know what you have, because this is the kind of story that could wind up in anthologies.’ Helena has always been a supportive mentor but it was the first time she was pushing me to think ahead 10 or 12 years and don’t be in a rush. It was an empowering feeling, so I took my time. Two or three years after that conversation, that story, ‘Zigzagger,’ landed in a journal.”

The conference will conclude Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. with a staged reading of excerpts of “Their Dogs Came with Them,” adapted for the stage by Grise. Performers include Moraga; Karen Jaime, associate professor of performing and media arts (A&S); and Muñoz.

Sharing the stage with Viramontes is an incredible feeling, said Muñoz.

“Entering a room, you sense the reverence people have for her,” he said. “Since her first book came out in 1985, all those readers and all of those conversations and all of those dialogues have been so important to so many people. It’s palpable."

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