Tools at a building site
#57: Helena María Viramontes 2008
Revised Life, June 16, 2022
In episode #57 of Rewrite Radio, Helena María Viramontes shares her thoughts on prayer, compassion, and love to connect more deeply with others.
- Calming the Fearful Mind by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Heidi Groenboom: [00:00:05] In this episode of Rewrite Radio, Helena María Viramontes shares her thoughts on prayer, compassion, and love to form a deeper connection with others.
My name is Heidi Groenboom, and I am a Senior Student Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
Helena María Viramontes is an English professor and fiction writer, known for her novels, Under the Feet of Jesus and Their Dogs Came With Them. She is a significant figure in the early canon of Chicano literature, and a recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the John Dos Passos Award for Literature and the United States Artist Fellowship. She is also a community organizer and former coordinator of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association.
From the 2008 Festival of Faith & Writing, Helena María Viramontes.
Helena María Viramontes: I'd like to start by first reading just a small section from Under the Feet of Jesus, and it deals with migrant farmworkers. But the reason I'd like to read this passage is because it gives you a sense of what I feel about language.
And this passage is taking place when there's a family of seven migrant farmworkers to a father, and a mother, and five children. And Estrella, the protagonist, is 14 years old, and her father abandons the family, creating greater economic hardship. And so her mother eventually hooks up with a man who's 37 years older than she is. And his name is Perfecto Flores.
Now, how can you, I mean, you got to love a man by the name of Perfecto Flores, and she eventually does fall in love with him. But it gives you a sense of, you know, encapsul-ized sense of Estrella and him, okay? And language.
So what is this? When Estrella first came upon Perfecto's red tool chest like a suitcase to the door, she became very angry. So what is this about? She had opened that tool chest and all that jumbled steel inside the box, the iron bars and things with handles, the funny-shaped objects, seemed as confusing and foreign as the alphabet she could not decipher. The tool chest stood guard by the door and she slammed the lid closed on the secret. For days she was silent with rage. The mother believed her a victim of the evil eye.
Estrella hated when things were kept from her. The teachers in the schools did the same, never giving her the information she wanted. Estrella would ask over and over, So what is this, and point to the diagonal lines written in chalk on the blackboard, with a dirty fingernail. The script A's had the curlicue of a pry bar, a hammerhead split like a V. The small i’s resembled nails. So tell me. But some of the teachers were more concerned about the dirt under her fingernails. They inspected her head for lice, parting her long hair with ice cream sticks. They scrubbed her fingers with a toothbrush until they were so sore she couldn't hold a pencil properly. They said good luck to her when the pisca was over, reserving the desks in the back of the classroom for the next batch of migrant children. Estella often wondered what happened to all the things they boxed away in tool chests and kept to themselves.
She remembered how one teacher, Mrs. Horn, who had the face of a crumpled Kleenex and a nose like a hook--she did not imagine this--asked how come her mama never gave her a bath. Until then, it had never occurred to Estrella that she was dirty, that the wet towel wiped on her resistant face each morning, the vigorous brushing and tight braids her mother neatly weaved were not enough for Mrs. Horn. And for the first time, Estrella realized words could become as excruciating as rusted nails piercing the heels of her bare feet.
The curves and tails of the tools made no sense and the shapes were as foreign and meaningless to her as chalky lines on the blackboard. But Perfecto Flores was a man who came with his tool chest and stayed, a man who had no record of his own birth except for the year 1917 which appeared to him in a dream. He had history that was unspoken, memories that only surfaced in nightmares. No one remembered knowing him before his arrival, but everyone used his name to describe a job well done.
He opened up the tool chest, as if bartering for her voice, lifted a chisel and hammer, aquí, pegarle aquí, to take the hinge pins out of the hinge joints when you want to remove a door, start with the lowest hinge, tap the pin here, from the top, tap upwards. When there's too many layers of paint on the hinges, tap straight in with the screwdriver at the base, here, where the pins widen. If that doesn't work, because your manitas aren't strong yet, fasten the vise pliers, these, then twist the pliers with your hammer.
Perfecto Flores taught her the names that went with the tools: a claw hammer, he said with authority, miming its function; screwdrivers, see, holding up various heads and pointing to them; crescent wrenches, looped pliers like scissors for cutting chicken or barbed wire; old wood saw, new hacksaw, a sledgehammer, pry bar, chisel, axe, names that gave meaning to the tools. Tools to build, bury, tear down, rearrange and repair, a box of reasons his hands took pride in. She lifted the pry bar in her hand, felt the coolness of iron and power of function, weighed the significance it awarded her, and soon she came to understand how essential it was to know these things. That was when she began to read.
Last year, I had the opportunity, the wonderful opportunity, of delivering a convocation speech at Otterbein College in Westerville, Ohio because they picked Under the Feet of Jesus for their all-freshman read. And it was a wonderful experience, but it made me think about what is it that I really would like to talk to these students about. And I'd like to share my comments to them that I just delivered a few months ago.
And I was telling Linda, I've traveled throughout the nation. I've traveled throughout the world. My last stop was in Bahrain University in the Middle East because they're very interested in our work.
But I've never had the opportunity to really talk about faith. I mean, I've talked about it in ways that they are the undercurrents of my foundation and compassion and morality, and people in political circles feel very uncomfortable with those types of terms. And it's interesting because that's all I talk about. So, you know, I can actually feel breath of relief that I can share these with you and not feel as if I'm not here to, you know, say something else. Anyway that titled this Revised Life.
Two years ago, Cornell professor of modern literature and present English department chair, Molly Hite, instituted a new course, titled, Great Cornell Novels. Her idea was to teach the great novels of Cornell students, faculty, past and present. On the list were such luminaries as Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison and Nabokov.
I was secretly pleased but outwardly humbled when she also included my novel Under the Feet of Jesus. Without reservation, I accepted an invitation to speak with her students. I never arrived in these situations with preconceived notions of delivering enlightenment, especially when it comes to my own work. In fact, I carry more away with me than I may leave behind as tentative answers. Plus my initial reaction was to go into the classroom and have a conversation with the students, not to conduct a prolonged commentary on the novel. I have come to realize that quote: the longer, the spoke, the larger, the tire.
I got that. I got that from sister Helen Kelly, the president of Immaculate Heart College, in her convocation speech in 1971. And I said, “I want to steal that.” 35-40 years and I'm still saying it. I think it's so cute. And I thought, oh, we just had a riot with that one.
She was she was such a you know marvelous. You know, we always think of her as so old, and she still alive and still kicking, you know.
As I do in most presentations, I first introduce myself, giving a thumbnail history of youth, my family, followed by a description of my geo-history of the East Los Angeles community. Through my writing I have discovered that my identity as a Mexican-American woman is deeply rooted in my geographical location.
This has allowed me to stand firmly within the realm of realism, but reach far into the heavens of possibilities. I told him, I also considered myself lucky to have lived through the decades of the 60s and 70s. These years were crucial in fermenting the nation's cultural shifts by inquiry and or rebellion and forced us to reassess our own myths. The political upheaval compelled us to ask ourselves, “Who are we?”
It was impossible not to be engaged in consciousness raising as waves of organized, political movements pushed forward with urgency, speed, and commitment.
The anti-war marches has loomed large against the backdrop of community grassroots efforts. Movements like the Chicano-Chicana movements were offsprings of the Civil Rights movements. While others like the women's movements, was organized precisely because of the benign neglect of previous movements. Large or small, these activisms always involved or were initiated by many like you.
I entered Immaculate Heart College–a four-year, liberal arts college–at the age of 17 in 1971, where the nuns encountered trouble from the Archbishop for their radicalism and feminism. Many of them were asked to leave the church because of the radicalism. But they taught us some incredible things, incredible things that to this day, I still practice. And to this day, even in Los Angeles, I still, some of the nuns come and visit me. It's so neat. It’s so wonderful.
I immediately joined the United Farm Workers Support Coalition. It was a natural fit. During the summers of my youth, my father packed us all in his Ford truck, and we were driven to Easton–a city outside of Fresno where we picked grapes under a brutal sun. I knew firsthand the inhumane work, the child labor, the lack of toilets in the fields, the lack of shade and water under devastating heat. It was precisely these personal experiences that would later inform the material for Under the Feet of Jesus.
Whenever I stood in front of a Safeway Market, passing out leaflets explaining the inhumane living and working conditions to the farmworking community, or when I volunteered in a clothes or medical drive for UFW, I firmly believed I was transporting the world for people very much like my own family.
And so, my first political act at 17, was motivated by a profound sense of love. It was through this love that I began to believe that however small my actions were they represented small pins of light against the darkness of social injustice. And once that belief settled in me, I felt extremely powerful.
I was not referring to the power of inducing fear, but the power of love no longer fearing. Unafraid to love grandly, fiercely. Love inspired me to pull up my sleeves and stuff envelopes, sink triumphs, or weep frustration. Speak up however and above all, dare to admit that this heart of mine had the capacity to love infinitely, without limitation.
From the energy of these convictions, almighty hoped arrived, like the morning light, generous enough to give shape and form to everything. Hope held great power. Only, if I could imagine the power and hope. Practicing love, fearlessness and imagination proved that I could conduct myself in a way that would contribute to a collective honest good.
As I continued preaching the importance of the great boycott, I glowed with the light of youthful idealism and commitment. Interestingly enough, belief in one’s activism and actually having a transforming effect on society were two different things.
I had a naive notion that if I explained the importance of the boycott, and the impact it would have on improving farm-working life, good and decent people would respond affirmatively with, “Yes. I understand. I won't buy grapes.” But this was not the way the narrative played out. People remained good and they remained decent, but they continued buying grapes.
Our boycott continued year after year without much success until finally [unknown] Chavez decided on a new strategy, when he realized that most people were incapable of caring for the farm working community because they didn't see any direct connection with themselves.
So UFW brought to the center stage the issue of pesticides. Suddenly consumer’s health were at stake, and these two constituencies began to share a deep connection. I guess I bring that up because I think this is what writers do, especially writers like myself. We have that urgency to seek out that deeper connection with everybody so that we can see one another as human beings.
I shared this and other thoughts with Professor Hite’s students. We've all had questions and answered until I was struck silent but one by one of the student’s comments. Close to the end of the period, a student told me how refreshing it was to hear my optimism. And how original for him to see that I truly believed in the power of one more. I thanked him and asked how he felt when he believed him. He looked at me and said, quietly shamefully. “I think I feel so overwhelmed by all the things that are happening in the world that it's better not to think about these things.”
Caught off guard by this sad, almost helpless tone, I looked at the rest of the students and asked, “Do you all feel the same way?” What I'm about to describe is the truth 40+ heads looked down and sadly nodded.
I share this story with you because in the last few years, I have felt a certain sense of powerlessness over my own destiny, and that of my nation, of the earth. Newspapers boldly headline Global Gloom. My world was so fast paced, I was speeding full force, making it almost impossible to stop and think clearly. It was not that I was uncaring, but to acknowledge such enormous suffering, terrorized me to the point that I self-medicated.
A life in ether, so to speak, was what many of us thought of as living.
My sleepless nights became abundant. While, I thought about my role as a writer, and what I needed to do to get back that idealism that had become so much a part of my fiction. Without it, there was no reason for me to continue writing.
I suppose one could say I became increasingly depressed, helpless, frightened by what was going on nationally and internationally.
War is always a dehumanizing experience. As is the massive sweeps and deportation of illegal aliens. Our country and its, and its leaders have conducted themselves in a way that are arguably shameful.
Disconnection from our own humanity produces conflicts between people between cultures, between the earth, and its limited resources. These conflicts stand from the lack of mirrored recognition–that my suffering is your suffering.
Disconnections also make it easier to act inhumanely. If you believe that those you act upon violently are not human. The state of things produced in me a political paralysis, what the Cornell student described as overwhelmness.
I need it to recognize that. If I had control over anything, it was my behavior, my life, indeed. It was too overwhelming to join the marathon of activism without taking the most important first step–to begin with the self.
Rather than allow all that was wrong in human action, I began to seek to remember all that was good. This calmed me down. Calming allowed me to be in a place that Toni Morrison described as quote “in the company of your own mind,” unquote to relieve and release tension, to acknowledge firstly, that I was indeed suffering and I didn't enjoy it. And so I didn't want you to suffer either.
This very compassion can begin a deeper communication. Vietnamese Buddhist monk, poet, and scholar and human rights activist, Thich Nhat Hanh, writes in his book, Calming the Fearful Mind, as in response to terrorism: “If you don't have the qualities of stability, peace and freedom inside of you, then no matter what you do, you cannot help the world. It is not about doing something. It is about being something–being peace, being hope, being solid. Every action will come out of that because peace, stability, and freedom always seek a way to express themselves in action.”
To be that stability, peace and freedom, Hanh describes the exercise of mindfulness as a practice of calming ourselves down. Mindfulness is living with the awareness of what you are presently doing. If I remind myself to breathe deeply, I am being mindful of the air I inhale, the scent that it brings.
If I remind myself that I am walking, I am mindful of the muscles of my feet. The crush of fallen leaves on the moistened earth under them, the movement of a mobile body.
All that is mindful arrives with a renewed sense of awareness that inflates the larger, loving connection to animal, human, and plant life.
At once I realized that I'll belong to something bigger, something larger than myself. I become both humbled by how small I am and wondrous at how large my part is in this mysterious force of life.
As I become aware of my senses, and I began to pay attention, another dimension of reality opens a truer one, that pushes out all that is trivial and allows me to begin to understand connections purely because I have connected with myself first.
Once we are calm, once we give meaning to our life, it is, of course, much easier to give meaning to the lives of other. Calming settles into a rational state, making one caring enough to become a better listener.
In her book Writing Down the Bones, poet Natalie Goldberg writes, “Our lives are at once ordinary and mythical. We live and die age beautifully or full of wrinkles. We wake in the morning by yellow cheese and hope we have enough money to pay for it. At the same instance, we have these magnificent hearts that pump through all that sorrow and all the winters we are alive on this Earth. We are important and our lives are important–magnificent, really. And their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here. We are human beings. This is how we have lived. Let it be known the Earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise if they are not, we can drop a bomb, and it wouldn't matter.
Compassion is essential and always has been for our survival. Compassion is a quality of being sympathetic to the welfare of others, governed by our heartfelt efforts to find our deeper connections. This action alone makes us bigger and better people because we begin to care for one another enough to establish better communication.
Perhaps compassion can be thought of as giving others awareness of the fictional dimensions of their own personalities that they are not aware of.
For me, compassion is impossible without the use, the exercise, and training of a strong imagination. When I tell something to someone to a young writer, for example, when I describe something I like about what they did, surely, I am not telling them everything of what I think, but describing something positive. I am giving them access to something that they may at that moment not have seen but in the future will remember. In other words, I allow that student to imagine and push further what they can achieve. To imagine what can be. What can get better.
Compassion is the capacity to imagine otherwise, not to see things as they are necessarily are, or as they deterministically should be. How can I hate someone when I can imagine the loneliness in which they are eclipsed, or when someone is cruel wants to do violence to me.,I cannot fully be driven to hate them when I can imagine them as the son or the daughter of a mother, as a person who is injured.
Ancient Greek philosopher Philo of Alexandria wrote, “Be kind to others, for everyone is fighting a great battle.” Therefore compassion becomes merciful, a suspension of suffering because I am no longer obsessed with my own hurt, but connected to the injuries of others.
As a writer. I have discovered that reading and writing is a task of patience and of imagination. I seek the material marks of the world and attempt to transfer them into letters, histories, dialogue, communication.
I do so in my life as well. When I began to sense that the person before me is not simply who they seem to be, but infinitely something more, something beyond that we could ever know, I have begun to be compassionate. Not by confining that person or myself to a predetermined plot or narrative, but by accepting the fact that we all are rough drafts of ourselves, and we need to commit to writing a more compassionate narrative, a more fulfilling script of our lives. Knowing and not knowing what compassionate is leaves the possibilities and the potential realities for creation infinite unconstrained, untethered predetermined imperatives.
In conclusion, I'll leave you with one thought, one more challenge to your compassionate fertile minds. The war in Iraq may be thousands of miles away, but we are closely connected to it. Perhaps, you know someone. You know if some daughter, some son, who is there or has been.
Feel deeply for these men and women, lucky enough to survive the war, but who are condemned to relive in the trauma wards of their minds. Their families will need your help. Multiply that feeling a thousand-ful to hear the daily sorrowful howls of the innocent Iraq men and women and children. If you do as I asked, as I do every day as a practice, then you will have the capacity to live your life as a revision. And with that, all things are possible. Thank you.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.