Award-winning author of Under the Feet of Jesus, Helena María Viramontes offers a profoundly gritty portrait of everyday life in L.A. in this lyrically muscular, artfully crafted novel.
In the barrio of East Los Angeles, a group of unbreakable young women struggle to find their way through the turbulent urban landscape of the 1960s. Androgynous Turtle is a homeless gang member. Ana devotes herself to a mentally ill brother. Ermila is a teenager poised between childhood and political consciousness. And Tranquilina, the daughter of missionaries, finds hope in faith. In prose that is potent and street tough, Viramontes has choreographed a tragic dance of death and rebirth. Julia Alvarez has called Viramontes "one of the important multicultural voices of American literature." Their Dogs Came with Them further proves the depth and talent of this essential author.
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About the Author
Helena María Viramontes is the acclaimed author of The Moths and Other Stories and Under the Feet of Jesus; and the coeditor of two collections: Chicana (W)Rites: On Word and Film and Chicana Creativity and Criticism. She is the recipient of the 2006 Luis Leal Award and the John Dos Passos Award for Literature, and her short stories and essays have been widely anthologized and adopted for classroom use and university study. Viramontes lives in Ithaca, New York, where she is a professor in the Department of English at Cornell University.
Read an Excerpt
The Zumaya child had walked to Chavela's house barefooted, and the soles of her feet were blackened from the soot of the new pavement. She swung her tar feet under the vinyl chair as she stacked large, empty Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes the old woman had saved for her into a pyramid on the kitchen table. Throughout the house, scraps of paper, Scotch-taped reminders, littered the walls. Cardboard boxes sat nestled like hungry mouths of birds wide open for wrapped tumblers, cutlery, souvenir ashtrays. Bulk-filled pillowcases leaned against the coffee table, tagged by the old woman with words so scratchy they could have been written by the same needle used to pin the notes to the pillowcases: cobijas, one note said; Cosa del baño, said another. No good dreses. Josie's tipewriter. Fotos. The child swung her feet as she stacked sixteen then eight then four then two then one hollow matchbox until the shadows lengthened in the kitchen. Before the lightbulb had to be switched on, before the old woman Chavela ordered, Go home now, listen to me, it's getting late.
Chavela continued packing tin cans from the pantry into a box on a chair opposite the child. The old woman was toothpick-splintery like her writing. Her hands trembled from the onset of Parkinson's. Rhubarbs faded from the print of her housedress. She padded across the kitchen wearing neatly folded-down cotton socks and a pair of terry-cloth slippers. She barely whooshed the air whenever she passed the child.
Are you deaf? It's getting late. Chavela's croaky words floated from a distant place to the child's ears like yanked strands of seaweed beached on the shore. The child held a matchbox in midair and looked at the greenish flame flicker under the iron comal and waited for the old woman to say something else. The chair was hard, lumpy and stuck to the child's thighs. Chavela shook out a cigarette from a cellophane package, propped it between her stitched crunch of lips, grabbed a matchbox and shook it, rattled another, then another in search of matchsticks until she had scattered the pyramid about the table.
Chavela waxed the shiny temples of her forehead with her tobacco-tarnished hand. The child could see the milky film of her eyes scanning around the kitchen in search of matchsticks and finally the old woman said, It's not right, I'm telling you. Chavela raised the flame on the stove and hunched over the spurting fire under the comal. The heat splashed on her face and then she lowered the gas, inhaled and coughed and returned her gold bunched package to the pocket of her rhubarb dress.
The child had dreamt of lizards, and it was because of the dream that she had listened to the smaller Gamboa boy, who had caught a tiny lizard from a mound of bulldozed earth. The earthmovers, Grandmother Zumaya had called them; the bulldozers had started from very far away and slowly arrived on First Street, their muzzles like sharpened metal teeth making way for the freeway. The Gamboa boy had hidden behind her grandfather's toolshed, and psssted at the child to join him. His face tar-smudged, he held it and at first the lizard clawed the thin air. In his other hand, the Gamboa boy held a pair of rusty scissors. He reassured her that the tail would grow back. It's not right, she knew, even if they witnessed a miracle. The lizard turned to stone, stiff and silent. They both waited. He made her touch it and then he made her touch the rings of wrinkled skin. The cold sensation never left her fingers, his clamp around her wrist as he pulled her behind the toolshed never left her, his dirty rough clasp where the lizard's head poked in and out never left her. That feeling -- it's not right -- never left her.
The old woman had taped scribbled instructions all over the walls of the house. Leve massage for Josie. Basura on Wetsday. J work # AN 54389. I need to remember, Chavela had told the child when the child pointed a matchbox at the torn pieces of papers clinging on the walls. Water flours. Pepto Bismo. Chek gas off. It's important to remember my name, my address, where I put my cigarillo down Call Josie. Chavela Luz Ybarra de Cortez. SS#010-56-8336. 4356 East 1st or how the earthquake cracked mi tierra firme, mi país, now as far away as my youth, a big boom-crack. The dogs and gente went crazy from having the earth pulled out right from under them. Cal Mr...Lencho's tio sobre apartment. Shut off luz. The earthquake's rubble of wood and clay and water yielded only what was missing; shoes without shoelaces, flowered curtains without windows, a baby rattle without seeds in its hollow belly, an arm without a body; and how the white smell of burnt flesh choked. J work # AN 54389. Smoke outside. That's why I began to smoke cigarettes, to hide the white smell even over here in El Norte, even after seventy-seven years, so don't complain about my cigarillos.
But Chavela forgot to smoke her cigarettes outside and the tobacco made the child's nose itch. She smoked in front of the kitchen sink where the linoleum floor was scuffed with so many years of standing to scrub metal pots or pour a glass of tap water. The old woman inhaled quietly, and stared out the window at the lawn of her small yard to see the lemon tree that yielded lemons every other year, to memorize the potted ferns hanging from the shanty arbor built by a married man she had once loved. As she exhaled, the cigarette smoke resembled coiled earthworms without the earth, and she studied the shrubs of bursting red hibiscus bushes that bloomed lush and rich as only ancient deep-rooted hibiscus shrubs can do. Chavela squinted to keep the fumes away from her eyes and then rested the cigarette on the cigarette-burnt windowsill where she had rested hundreds of cigarettes or saved little discoveries such as safety pins or loose Blue Chip Stamps or buttons. The old woman returned to her task at hand and placed another cardboard box next to the child. Chavela's shaky fingernails ticked against the cardboard lid like the rooster clock on the wall.
I'm trying to tell you how it feels to have no solid tierra under you. Listen to me! Where could you run? The sound of walls cracking, the ceiling pushed up into a mushroom cloud. Do you need Dräno to clean out those ears of yours?
But the child heard it, a long rip of paper.
It just wasn't right. Nothing was left, I tell you. Nada. I cried for so long that if my grief had been a volcano, it would have torn the earth in two.
The child gazed at her, imagining an egg cracking into two jagged halves.
My tears could wash away mounds of clay, a flood as dark as blindness pouring from my eyes.
The child imagined a river of molasses.
And under all the rubble, under all that swallowed earth, the ruins of the pyramid waited.
The child knew the end of the story and continued stacking the matchboxes. Pay attention, Chavela demanded. Because displacement will always come down to two things: earthquakes or earthmovers. The child stared at Chavela's cigarette smoke coiling as thick and visible as the black fumes of the bulldozer exhaust hovering over the new pavement of First Street.
Now go home! the old woman said abruptly, packing a set of newspaper-wrapped plates in the box. At least you have one.
Saturday morning barely stretched against the skies. The dull gray doused the glow of the yellow porch light. The child lay buried under a heavy fleece blanket imprinted with a lion roaring. Someone had given the orange blanket to Grandmother years before the child came to live with them, and though she tried to be a good girl humming under the weight of the animal heat, the rigidity and the goodness became impossible. She poked her head out, saw morning light, relieved.
She yawned almost as earnest as the lion, and then swallowed a few times to clear the ocean waves in her head. Her hearing sometimes reached and sometimes connected or sometimes didn't connect to the waves of sea. Fever-sweaty, she wrestled one leg then the other from beneath the tight hot compress of the blanket until she was free to jump on the lion's incisors. The springs of the mattress squeaked and the headboard bounced and the pillows spilled to the floor and then Grandfather's thundering threat, Renata will get you! followed from the next room and she froze.
For weeks he had engaged the child's attention with the story of Renata Valenzuela, a local schoolgirl who had vanished, abducted one afternoon. Grandfather once pointed to a derelict house claiming it belonged to Renata's parents to show the child what could happen if she was bad. The neglected grass burnt to coarse pricks under the carnage of dead leaves heaped everywhere. The windows were draped in straggly black curtains. Tongues of paint curled from the rotted wooden door and whispered to the child of horrific grief.
At night the child refused to succumb to the long harrowing blankness and fought sleep in order to keep at bay the menacing Renata. Finally, the morning light arrived entirely, inviting. Her feet itched to walk against the cold hardwood floor and she slid off the bed and began to tiptoe to the window. She kicked aside a pillow and stubbed a toe on the doll that Mrs. M. of the Child Services gave her last Christmas. At the window, the child puttied her hot cheek against the rain-cool glass. On the other side of First Street, Chavela's blue house looked as empty as a toothless mouth.
The rows of vacant houses were missing things. Without hinged doors, the doorframes invited games. Shattered windows had been used as targets. Chavela never would have allowed her yard to weed wild, never allowed cans of trash to be scattered by the street dogs or left to the crows who pecked at coffee grinds and cucumber peelings. The earthmovers, parked next to the row of empty houses, were covered in canvas tarps and roped with tight-fisted knots to protect the meters, ignitions and knobs on the dashboards from the weekend rainstorms. Already the child viewed the two Gamboa boys sawing a butcher knife through the thickness of hemp knot.
The child wasn't allowed out of her room until her grandparents had awakened, until Renata's story disappeared temporarily, but the wait seemed as endless as the coming of morning. The honey-yellow floor was biting cold and her toes sprang up in resistance. She peeked out of her room into the long hallway. Sharp white light escaped from between the venetian blinds and then escaped from between the palm tree drapes, and the light stenciled distinct angles on the plasterboard walls. The child waited until the shadow became a chair and the wall became itself and the light became one morning slicing through the quiet dark of the house.
Her grandparents slept under thick hand-sewn quilts, the overhead fan chopping the still air. Their bedroom door was slightly opened, and the child remembered an aching floorboard that always groaned somewhere nearby. She breathed in as if she had sunk underwater, glided in and out of the shadows, around the chair, over the noisy floorboard and out of the hallway, and breathed out.
Except for a border of blue tile framing yellow windmills, the kitchen was austere and functional and smelled of bleach and bacon fat. The child reached over the counter and grabbed a single spoon and the lingering scent of honey made her hungrier. Still in her flannel nightgown, she pinched the uncomfortable elastic of her underwear, then jerked open a drawer and the spoons and forks bumped into one another. She selected a butter knife and then gingerly picked the aluminum handle of the porch door. The door hinges protested but did not prevent her from stepping out into the morning.
The clouds had shapes of squashed gum and the breeze that forced them to float above her tossed about her choppy-cut hair. She sat on the cool concrete steps of the porch, placed the butter knife beside her and scratched the bottoms of her feet. The eyelets of Grandfather's steel-tip leather boots stared at her as she slipped them on. They were clumsy, damp and sawdust-rough against her bare feet but she knew to return them to their rightful place before Grandfather awoke, his hunchback stuffed with endless scolding.
One of the Gamboa boys mouthed off to the other, and the smaller one punched and shoved the taller one. A milk truck passed and the udders of the cow looked too pink, too plastic fake, and this fakery irritated the child. The child yawned and swallowed. Then the ocean waves stopped in her head and the volume of sounds connected: the cawing ruckus the crows made while pecking the garbage, the milk truck bottles rattling, the boys' curses, the church bells clanking a summons, the dogs barking in response. She even heard the clouds that sailed across the light brush against each other like sandpaper.
The child thumped down the stairs and to the middle of the yard and then twirled a few times like a top. The flannel billowed above her knees until dizziness overwhelmed her. The shells of houses and fences and morning blurred when she came to a staggering halt. Light-headed, she wound herself up again, tripping on the laces and falling on the well-groomed lawn. Her mouth opened in laughter.
First Street seemed deserted. The cars were held back by a new traffic light at the intersection, and the child padded across the Bermuda grass. She waited for the cars to pass and then decided to clunk across the wide pavement. The loose laces of Grandfather's steel-toed boots trailed behind her.
Get outta here! yelled the lizard boy, the smaller but meaner Gamboa brother. He knelt on the canvas tarp, stopped his sawing and held the butcher knife straight up. He had worn the same T-shirt for five days.
Leave her alone, said the bald-headed Gamboa brother, the other one who was really a girl, but didn't want to be and got beaten up for it.
She's just the Zumaya kid.
She don't talk.
She better not. And then he said to the child, You better not. The lizard boy pointed the knife at his brother who was really a sister and continued:
She better not or else.
The child had heard people like Mrs. M. of the Child Services say she was deaf; but she wasn't -- was she? -- if she could hear them say she was deaf. It seemed fortuitous to the child, an option she commanded early on -- to have the ocean's sob and then to decide the noise, the external reverberation of language and landscape, until she demanded the silence again.
The lizard boy severed the knot, the bald-headed one pulled and finally the tarp flew up and then whipsaw-slammed, slapping the concrete. The Gamboa boy who was a real boy cursed the child, blaming the noise on her, and screamed that she better make like a tree and leave. His voice boomed and the child hoped the lizard boy had not awakened Grandfather. She pictured him shirtless, hunching over the kitchen sink to wash his face, the bony spine of his bare back full of anger like the hump of a camel full of water. The child saw it all so clearly that she put her two palms up together in prayer, pleading, Please oh please oh please don't wake Grandfather.
Unwanted, the child clunked her boots toward Chavela's house. The outside stucco swirled under the blue paint where glitter specks glistened. Once the child entered the house, sunshine flooded the empty rooms. The linoleum bubbled on the screen porch and exploded like popcorn and the child did a little hat dance to the wonderful sound because by now this was all a game to her. Every room, as hollow as it was, smelled of Chavela's burnt tobacco and the child sneezed. The cigarettes had left stains on the windowsills and the child rolled a finger in each brown notch.
She looked out at her own house and all the other houses on Grandfather's side of First Street; the houses on the saved side were bright and ornamental like the big Easter eggs on display at the Segunda store counter. Some of the houses had cluttered porches with hanging plants or yards with makeshift gardens; others had parked cars on their front lawns. Some built wrought-iron grate fences, while others had drowsy curtains swaying in wide-open windows. In a few weeks, Chavela's side of the neighborhood, the dead side of the street, would disappear forever. The earthmovers had anchored, their tarps whipping like banging sails, their bellies petroleum-readied to bite trenches wider than rivers. In a few weeks the blue house and all the other houses would vanish just like Chavela and all the other neighbors.
Ten years later the child becomes a young woman who will recognize the invading engines of the Quarantine Authority helicopters because their whir of blades above the roof of her home, their earth-rattling explosive motors, will surpass in volume the combustion of engines driving the bulldozer tractors, slowly, methodically unspooling the six freeways.
She will be a young woman peering from between the palm tree drapes of her grandparents' living room, a woman watching the QA helicopters burst out of the midnight sky to shoot dogs not chained up by curfew. Qué locura, she thinks. The world is going crazy. The chopper blades raise the roof shingles of the neighborhood houses and topple TV antennas in swirls of suction on the living side of First Street. The young woman has waist-length hair and wears a nylon underslip pasted to her sweaty back. She pushes the sun-bleached drapes apart with her uninjured hand. The other hand, swathed in gauze and dappled with antiseptic and blood, tingles from the dog bite. Above the woven arteries of freeways, a copter's searchlight sweeps over the roadblocks to catch a lone stray running out of the edge of light. The bitch zigzags across the pavement of First Street, its underbelly droopy with nursing nipples.
I gotta do something soon, the young woman thinks. The wheeling copter blades over the power lines rise in intensity, louder and closer and closer and louder, just like the unrelenting engines of bulldozers ten years earlier when the young woman was a child.
And from Chavela's kitchen window, the child saw Grandfather's avocado-green roof and her own square front door. A group of kids circled the Gamboa boys. The child propped her head on her elbow to watch a third tarp being liberated as if the broken window were the cherrywood-box television. A few of the kids, Tudi, Memo, Diko and Chula, worked at placing stones on the tarps so they wouldn't smack like tattling lips.
The child embedded a finger on the last notch of the last cigarette burn and then she remembered that Chavela had laid the cigarette down on the windowsill to lift a cardboard box to a chair. The old woman had resumed packing plates while the last cigarette burned the last brown notch on the white paint of the windowsill and when the child placed her fingers there to remember -- boxes, tin cans, scribbled notes, pyramids and cigarettes burning -- she rolled each finger back and forth.
She never confessed her disbelief in the resurrections of lizard tails or the smell of death wrapping around you as if you were a piece of meat laid on butcher paper. The smoke coiling from the resting cigarette simply disappeared into thin air like everything else.
The last night they spent together, Chavela had said, It doesn't matter a little bit if you believe me or not, as if she read the child's doubts. The old woman always looked at the space above the child's head. Because it's all here, she continued, pointing her toothpick finger to her chest. Everything.
But everything was wrapped in a whirl of dust and floated up somewhere beyond the clouds and so the child continued to search, exploring the vacant house while she picked crusted snot from her nose. She raised her arms, twirled again, this time spinning gracefully. In the bathroom, she discovered the toilet seat up, the washbasin bone-dry. Crumpled balls of newspaper tumbled across the floor. She walked cautiously to the bedroom; shattered glass shards from a broken window crackled under Grandfather's boots.
The bedroom closet of the blue house was the emptiest room of all. Without the shoeboxes and impenetrable thickness of coats, dresses, hats and stacks of telephone books, the grungy carpet seemed solemn. A lone hanger swung from a hook when she opened the door. The back wall revealed a patch of brittle old wallpaper. Horses bucked the cowboys in a rodeo. Who would have thought there were cowboys in the closet?
The child touched the saffron paste of old glue behind the peeling cowboys. A pair of wooden beams held up the ceiling and the child tried to memorize them because Chavela told her it was important not to forget. Her ears remembered and she fished an ashy corner of curling wallpaper and then ripped it, cutting the horses' hooves, leaving the spurs behind, nipping the hats waved in the air by the cowboys. She crumpled the paper into a tight ball.
The shouts of the children blatted a trumpet reveille. The Zumaya child startled and ran through the vacant rooms as fast as the clunky boots would permit. Her grandfather's boots flip-flopped through the wild and muddy yard. A few crows raised their wings and fluttered aside. Not far, a timid cat backed off and sat on its tail patiently observing as the child stomped on the garbage and crossed the street. Casually, the cat returned to gorging on chicken bones.
When the child reached the living side of First Street, Grandfather held the screen door open. She could see Grandfather's nose long and straight, two perfectly round black nostrils vacuuming the air between them. The skin under his chin slung like a loose hammock. The child was out of breath, heaving deeply, and her throat felt as dry as dusty potato skins. His rough hand, as rough as the boots she was warned not to touch, had the capacity to catapult against the side of her face whenever she wasn't a good girl. His glare singed the top of her head. He held a forgotten butter knife.
The child glanced upward. Who was it that told her all she had to do was look up at the heavens to see the shapes of things missing? Was it Mrs. M. of the Child Services or any one of the three foster parents? Everything went up into thin air but didn't go away. The child swallowed and disconnection occurred. Her foot slipped limply out of one boot, then the other, and her bare feet were embarrassingly ticklish against the concrete. If it wasn't Chavela of the Ohio Blue Tip matchboxes, who was it, then?
Grandfather's hand came forth like a swift strike of a sulfur match. The child made a symbolic attempt to block his slap and the fistful of Chavela's cowboys fell. Her eyes glazed with hot welling tears. She didn't want to ask why everyone disappears because it seemed to happen all the time; what she wanted to know, what she wanted to ask, was where. Renata Valenzuela and Chavela's last cigarette and the kitchen table and the photographed faces of her mother and her father and all the other ghosts of all the other houses were wrapped in tinfoil; up in the blurry sky, bulky metal sheets of block, stone, wood, and voices floated like scattered clouds, to where, the child could only dream. Copyright © 2007 by Helena María Viramontes
What People are Saying About This
"The novel will no doubt like her other work break ground and enrich the range and vision of our American literature. I hope you, too, will feel the enthusiasm and faith in her work that I do." Julia Alvarez
"Helena María Viramontes's power is in her heartfelt observations about the forgotten poor. Not simply the poor, I mean the despised and reviled: the homeless, the immigrant, the cholas and cholos. This novel takes flight in its accurate portrayal of its characters' language and landscape. She is as compassionate as John Steinbeck, as sweeping as the unflinching camera of Sebastião Salgado." Sandra Cisneros, author of Caramelo and The House on Mango Street
"Their Dogs Came with Them is a book that is upon you before you know it and once read cannot be shaken. A bravura performance by one of our country's finest talents. Extraordinary." Junot Díaz, author of Drown
"Written with an honesty and compassion that is lacking in our time, Their Dogs Came with Them illuminates a people and place where hopes arise and are defeated, only to arise again. With elegance and poetic precision, Helena María Viramontes has captured a humanity that will not stay down, no matter what the odds. Like the characters in this novel, her prose is a warm breath of the real thing." Ernesto Quiñonez, author of Chango's Fire
"Viramontes's voice [is] at once terse, energetic and vivid." Publishers Weekly
"A vibrant portrait of a violent street culture." Booklist
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Really excellent sprung fiction in which each character's story weaves with another's--sometimes in a very faint "where's waldo" kind of way, where it becomes an enjoyable waiting game to see where the character will pop up.