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.
Manuel Muñoz: I’m so glad to speak to you this morning. Our topic is going to be a very special one because I don’t think we’ve ever really talked about it. You’re from East LA, and I’m from California’s Central Valley, but we have a connection to la pisca and to the world of farmwork.
Helena María Viramontes: Thinking about this as a preamble to our conversation about the influence of labor and farmwork on our writing, I thought about how generations of my family have worked in the fields—it’s just something that you did. Even with us coming from East LA, we still had to do the summers picking near Fresno. You were able to at least make a little money, even though the labor itself was always exploitative and unfair. We basically got pennies for backbreaking work.
At one point, California was this grand, American dream where everybody went because of the working opportunities in the farm businesses: you had the Chinese coming over the border from Mexico (because of the Exclusion Act); the Punjabi Sikhs; you had the Japanese, who weren’t even allowed to own land, but tended farms. And, of course, the Mexicanos. But when I see it historically, from the turn of the century onward till now, farmwork is still very present in our communities. And still, not very much has changed. You do have the United Farm Workers (UFW) strikes, and continued years of organizing efforts, but has the actual labor itself changed? Maybe not. Perhaps the wages have gone up, some safety measures implemented, but not the labor itself. Now with climate change and the rising temperatures, working in the fields is becoming increasingly dangerous.
That’s partly why it’s always been in my imagination, because it’s generational and partly because it’s upsetting to think of exploitation. I think about these things then include them in my novel. For example, my parents met in Buttonwillow picking cotton. My mother used to shell walnuts. She and her sisters would spend hours, shelling walnuts, to the point where their hands would be dyed brown. My mother couldn’t wash it off and when she had to go to school, she was embarrassed and kept her hands in her pockets. These are experiences that I honor in the writing. Maybe I’ve never shelled walnuts, but I could see her shelling them, and she hated it. She hated it. But what choice did one have? What about you, Manuel?
MM: As you said earlier, part of my experience is personal. I worked in the fields, starting in about second grade, up until about sixth or seventh grade, which surprises some people. I remember one comment that someone made: “What about child labor laws?” I said, “What about them?” That was the era we were in—even with conditions improving because of UFW and more attention being paid to what workers were actually going through. We were still on a farmer-to-worker basis. If they saw kids out in the fields, they just turned a blind eye. It was one more hand in the field. That was the experience of so many of the people that I grew up with in the late 70s, early 80s. In California, by that point, many of us were no longer migrants, moving from place to place, as my family used to do in Tejas, where they had a home near Corpus Christi and Mathis. Back then, they would go all the way up into the panhandle to pick sugar beets, looking for work wherever they could, and taking whoever in the family they could for three weeks. By the time the work hit my generation, we were in one town, in California. I have cousins who still work in the pisca, but the technology has changed so much. They work in storage and distribution, preparing all of the produce for shipment worldwide.
What’s interesting to me sometimes, when I think about how people perceive the work of the field, is that they don’t even recognize what abundance really means. I still have very, very vivid memories of when the peach crop was being taken in—they take only the perfect peaches for sale. If it has one little blemish, or it’s a little mushy, lo que sea, they try to sell it on the road stands, but it’s not going to last very long. I remember the fruit that didn’t get packed, sold, shipped—they would just leave it out on the dirt field to rot. All you would have left were the stones, and that became a certain kind of weird gravel. There’s this sticky, sweet, kind of rotted scent that I associate with July. Those kinds of sensory details—well I don’t have to tell you, I’m talking to the master novelist—they get us going in terms of memory, and what that means for the world of hard labor and hard work.
HMV: That sensory memory is so important because you embody the senses, and with that embodiment, then, whatever reader is out there reading our work goes into this experience of being and therefore into this experience of knowing. We provide readers the opportunity to enter our minds, to enter our words, and to experience those embodiments. And I think that’s very important to your work. Certainly, it is with mine.
I spend time creating embodiment, the scratching and itching and feel of skin, so that the reader can understand that we are people—that we love, that we caress, that we strive, that we desire, and that we mourn, too. That we experience the loneliness and isolation of the migrancy itself, and how sad life can be with the separations of families. The reality is, as part of the migratory corridor, you don’t spend a lot of time making friends. So then the family becomes very insular. And when you have other opportunities, you don’t know how to establish relationships.
I always think back to the PUENTE summer program at UCLA where I taught creative writing in 1980. It was, I think, the first or second time the program did this: they paid stipends to farmworking teenagers, maybe 14 or 15 years old—to come and spend a summer on the UCLA campus. We taught creative writing, music, Mayan Math and the pedagogy was designed to expose them to their history and their culture. But the only way to get them to participate was, of course, to pay them, because if not, the parents would not allow them to come as their income from working in the fields was essential for family survival. At graduation, it was heartbreaking. Now remember, this was their first opportunity to do something different for the summer and they were actually able to be themselves, go to classes, go to the movies on weekends, walk together on campus, make friends. So when graduation came and they had to leave their friends, there was fainting, crying, profound grief at the prospect of splitting up. And it made me realize how the labor is one thing, but the cost to the quality of life is another thing. Their souls were so isolated, except for that very minute, that very summer. And it was enough to make them sob from separation. It was a real learning curve for me, to see the joy of these young Chicanos, and then their suffering.
Farmwork is so much more than the lack of toilets and the incredible labor and the unfair wages. It’s also so hard on the soul. Like when my mother told me about how she was embarrassed by her brown-dyed hands when she’d go to school. I think about all that as I’m writing, and I want people to know that. I also get that from your work, Manuel. Your work is so in tune with each of its characters. It’s almost like you excavate them down to the very bones of their souls. Your work is quiet, but it isn’t. It’s quiet on the on the surface, but how deep is the reservoir.
MM: Well, I’ve been taught well, I’ve been mentored well. The very first short story that I wrote outside of the workshop was called “Campo.” When I talk about it, I talk about it in terms of setting, not just with the Valley, but the specific place itself. It’s a story of two young boys, one who’s being left to care for a group of children in a labor camp. I was maybe twenty-six when I was writing that story. It’s only now that I look back and think what it was that finally allowed me to say, this is the place—in this story, in this novel—where I can depict more than just the labor. The labor is backbreaking, the labor is soul-deadening to a certain point. But at the same time, as my dad likes to say, you might be out in the fields, you might be out in la pisca, but your mind is still going. The people that you and I write about have inner lives and desires. Showing that something beyond their labor is so important to me. But again, thanks to you, and to your experience, and you knowing what my world was about—how lucky I was, to be certain that the story would be seen in its true state. I can only imagine handing that to another writer who didn’t know that world, who might have been confused by it. Our communities know exactly what these conditions are.
HMV: In many ways, writers of the white ruling class world—or the dominant cultures that are growing less dominant, don’t have to contend with explaining because it’s just assumed that everybody knows. But with us brown and working class people, we can’t assume that. I cannot assume that someone in North Dakota will understand the work of the farmworker, or understand a particular geography, or understand a particular nuance of language. All of these things you can’t just take for granted. And there are times when you say, “I’m not going to explain that—those people that I’m writing to and about will understand.” Some of the best work that we read throughout world literature is very culturally specific.
MM: The more work we do, the more work we produce, the more our stories are in conversation with writers who also look at work and labor. Again, not just describing the conditions, but also the people who do that work and the complexity of those lives. I don’t want to say, necessarily, that I have been starting to write more about it, but as I’ve gotten older—I mean, not to shock you, but I was twenty-three when I met you.
HMV: Aren’t you twenty-three now?
MM: I’m fifty-one! But having known you that long, and getting to have these conversations, which remain always for me, new and fresh, we get a chance to visit and talk about things very specifically. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten much, much better at listening to the stories around me and the stories that my parents have told me. Some of that labor is very moving to me, it’s the stuff of great fiction. You’ve met my dad before, but you know, he’s my stepfather. He’s not my biological father, but just the fact that he was willing to do that kind of difficult, difficult labor, as someone who was undocumented, in support of five children that were not his—that just tells you something about not only him, but also the conditions for many, many people who are trying to navigate desires and loves and who they’re with. Behind all of those people that we see hunched in the leaves and reaching into the branches is something beautiful.
HMV: That’s a beautiful example about your father, because when you think about it, that’s why you and I do the work that we do. It’s gratitude. It’s gratitude and acknowledgment to them: you have worked this life, you have given up this life, to take care of me. Now, let me at least try to capture what you have lost so that others know your sacrifices. For you. That was one of my main motivations in writing. I always used to think of my mother and my sisters doing so much, giving up so much for us. And I thought, “I need to tell their stories, I want to tell their stories.” Because I think there’s something beautiful and courageous in them. And so yeah, I know what you mean. Manuel, I think that’s beautiful. But what about your mom? She was in the fields too—I remember you showed me a picture of her when she was living in the store with her full gear.
MM: Yeah, in the long sleeves and bell bottom pants, because it was 1978. There are a lot of pictures like that in our greater family album. There are strange pictures, because who would have thought to bring a camera out to the field? But it was the kids, you know. My cousins were out there taking pictures and goofing around. They were still kids—the boredom when you’re out there at five in the morning until six at night. I’m glad in those instances that my cousins were able to take a couple of pictures.
When we were young, we all used to work for a family just west of town. And when they retired, and sold everything, my cousin DeeDee went to them and said, “Would you parcel out a couple acres so that my husband and I can buy it?” They bought it, they built a house there, and kept some of the grape vineyards, a few rows. They do raisins now. Like I said, everyone in my generation grew up doing this work—my cousin, her husband, everyone.
HMV: When you talk to people about your experiences working out in the fields, what’s the reaction?
MM: Most of the time, people are mystified that my labor as a child would have been important to our family’s financial situation. I think it’s really people needing to redefine what poverty actually means. Being poor meant that there was a necessity of taking every hand out there, when you’re working for pennies. I don’t want to call it a lack of understanding, but it is just so completely out of the norm for most people. And I realized that the more something feels like a mystery to other people, that’s when it becomes a source of good fiction.
HMV: I think you’re absolutely right. There are so many levels of poverty that people don’t understand. At least your dad had a car! Some would say this is comparing our poverties. You know what I mean? When my sisters and I get together, we talk about things that we remembered of those years, and things we’ve forgotten. My sister Barbara remembers when she was graduating from UC San Diego and I went to see her graduate but realized she didn’t have shoes. She remembers that I gave her my shoes, just slipped them off, like it was no big deal. She wore them to the Chicano graduation. I didn’t remember but she did because it meant the world to her. Those were the things that we did, shared, out of a profound love. And throughout those years, we always tried to eliminate the pain of poverty.
That’s another excavation for good fiction—like how does one begin to eliminate pain? Do we try, succeed, fail, try again? And of course, it always comes from the source of love. My poor younger sisters, each only had one pair of pants. On Friday, they would wash their pants and put them on the roof to dry. And if they weren’t dry by Saturday night, they would put them over the stove to wear them for the week. One time, my father was making a quesadilla, and you can imagine the flames—they couldn’t go to school for a week because they had no clothes! Didn’t have any pantalones! My mother cursed him out like you wouldn’t believe.
MM: When all of us were kids, in March and April, we’d have grown, but there was no money to buy pants until the next harvest was up. So, you know—hopefully not too many tacos, because it’s one thing if they’re short, but the waist!
Helena, I’m glad that we’re ending on joy. Because as difficult as all of those stories are, as I said before, they are the lives of real people. And people we love very much. And as we remember, yes, there’s pain and there’s suffering, but there’s mucho amor también.
HMV: Totally. Manuel, it’s such a pleasure as always to talk to you. You’re really quite an inspiration. I’ve said this before—I think you’re brilliant, I just think the world of you.
MM: Likewise, Helena. You know, as I like to say, I’m only who I am because of Helena María Viramontes, truly.
HMV: I love you, Manuel.
MM: I love you, too.
Manuel Muñoz is the author of a novel, What You See in the Dark, and the short-story collections Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue, which was shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. He has been recognized with a Whiting Writer’s Award, three O. Henry Awards, and two selections in Best American Short Stories, and was awarded the 2023 Joyce Carol Oates Prize. His most recent collection, The Consequences, was published by Graywolf Press and in the UK by The Indigo Press in October 2022. It was a finalist for the Aspen Words Literary Prize and longlisted for the Story Prize.
A native of Dinuba, California, and a first-generation college student, Manuel graduated from Harvard University and received his MFA in creative writing at Cornell University. He currently lives and works in Tucson, Arizona.
Helena María Viramontes is the author of The Moths and Other Stories and two novels, Under the Feet of Jesus and Their Dogs Came With Them. She has also co-edited two collections with Maria Herrera Sobek, Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film and Chicana Creativity and Criticism. A recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the John Dos Passos Award for Literature, and a United States Artist Fellowship, her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and her writings have been adopted for classroom use and university study. Her work is the subject of a critical reader titled Rebozos De Palabras, edited by Gabrielle Gutierrez y Muhs and published by the University of Arizona Press. A community organizer and former coordinator of the Los Angeles Latino Writers Association, she is a frequent reader and lecturer in the US and internationally. Currently she is completing a draft of her third novel, The Cemetery Boys.