Photos L-R courtesy of Manuel Muñoz and Lindsay France/Cornell University.
Acclaimed writers MANUEL MUÑOZ and HELENA MARÍA VIRAMONTES met almost three decades ago: Muñoz was obtaining his MFA in Creative Writing from Cornell University, and Viramontes was his mentor. Many novels and story collections later, the pair are still close friends. They sat down recently to talk, for the first time, specifically about their roots in farmwork. They discussed the poor working conditions and hardships, but also the ways that farmworkers find love and joy in their families. As writers, they connected over the desire to honor the wholeness and complexity of these lives in their work.
Beyond Their Labor: Manuel Muñoz and Helena María Viramontes on Writing the Lives of Farmworkers
For you, it’s your marriage. Your husband and his six-pack and fifth-a-day habit. Him and his blank job applications sitting in a pile on the floor. Him and his teary proclamations that your lives will never get better in California. Him saying you are the only thing he has: if you leave, I’ll have nothing. Does he see that you’ve wanted this the whole time? To leave? He must. Maybe it’s you that breaks. Your willingness to take it. Your eagerness to soothe. To pick up beer cans and cigar wrappers. Certainly, it’s the illusion that breaks. That it’s perfectly reasonable to marry someone only after months of knowing them. Did you even know what marriage would be? Did you only assume it would be all pleasantries and his-and-hers bath towels? Well, those are gone now too. It’s what you used to gather what he smashed on his way out. The dinner plates. Your bike helmet left in pieces on the sidewalk. You know what was left behind because he’s the one that walked away, but you’re the one that asked for the vow to be broken.
When I can’t sleep I drive up to the ski hill and ride around with Tic in his snowcat until all the runs are groomed and my head’s raked clean, just before first light. I bring a Thermos full of hot chocolate mixed with a few shots of Rumple Minz, stale donut holes from Village Foods, and sometimes an uplifting book about how to live a better life that I always end up losing before I can give it back to my sister, Deena. Because it’s almost Christmas, the donut holes are decorated with tiny red and green sprinkles.
Whenever she spoke, my mother habitually turned down her upper lip and clenched her teeth as if to control the flow of her words—filtering them, if you will. Her teeth were white and strong; they were free of blemishes, except for the three that had been chipped in an old accident. She leaned in toward whomever she was conversing with, an apologetic smile on her face, which our neighbor’s daughter described as radiating kindness. A colleague who was once delivering an urgent message to me couldn’t help but remark that even from a distance her beauty was striking. He must not have seen her moving about with the distorted gait that caused one side of her rear to rise as the other descended. Although it had become less conspicuous with age, her limp harkened to another old story, but whenever anyone inquired about it, my mother just smiled enigmatically. Some of the questions were innocent enough, but others seemed veiled––I couldn’t fathom their subtext, nor could I recall anything from the actual events that might help me discern the questioner’s motive. All I know is that I had grown used to the way her limp caused gasps of astonishment, making mouths salivate with unspoken questions and eyes gleam with curiosity.
They say that, sometime at the end of the nineteenth century, a woman came on a wooden ship from Najd, married a wealthy man from the island, and, when she didn’t conceive, had a maqam built on the ruins of a pagan temple near the cliffs of the shore. Having had a dream where a man holding a staff spoke to her, the woman then named the maqam after the mystic Al-Khidr.