Helena Maria Viramontes

By Justin Luther


Helena Maria Viramontes was born in Los Angeles on February 26, 1954. She grew up in a large family with 8 siblings (3 brothers and 5 sisters) and a large number of relatives spread throughout Mexico and California.  She graduated from Garfield High School and earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Immaculate Heart College.

After she graduated, she won first place in a Chicano Literary Fiction competition at UC Irvine, where she later enrolled in a Graduate Writing program.  The main themes in her literature are that of the Chicano movement, feminism, and other social injustices.  The Chicano Movement is a movement dealing with the civil rights of Mexican Americans.  The issues involved range from farming rights to the cultural identity of the Mexican American people.

In her novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, Viramontes tells a story of a young boy is drenched in poisonous pesticide by a low flying crop duster.  While the book focuses on hardship in the Chicano community, it also acknowledges the issue of pesticide use and its harmful effects on low income communities.

The Issue

The World Health Organization estimates a staggering 3,000,000  cases of severe pesticide poisoning occur annually on a global level.  A minimum of 300 of those cases have a fatal outcome.

  • About 75% of pesticide use takes place in agriculture.
  • A large part of the agricultural work force in the U.S. is made up of Mexican American workers
  • Female workers experience nearly twice the risk as male workers

Acute Pesticide Poisoning – Poisoning due to direct exposure of pesticides, usually for a short duration of time.  The four possible routes of exposure are through the skin, inhalation, oral, or through the eyes.

Possible effects:

  • Birth Defects
  • Tumors (Both Benign and Malignant)
  • Toxicity to Fetus
  • Blood Disorders
  • Nerve Disorders
  • Endocrine Disruption

More Information at: http://pubs.cas.psu.edu/freepubs/pdfs/uo198.pdf

Acute Pesticide Poisoning Among Agricultural Workers in the United States Study:
3,271 Acute Pesticide Poisoning cases that took place between 1998 and 2005 were      examined.

  • 71% were Farm Workers
  • 12% were Processing and/or Packing Plant Workers
  • 3% were Farmers
  • 19% were Miscellaneous Agricultural Workers

More information on the study at: http://www.beyondpesticides.org/AJIM_final.pdf

Discussion Questions

Considering the author’s ethnic background, its easy to see how she could invest herself in the issue of pesticide poisoning among the Chicano people.  How much would it take for get us involved in the issue?  Why do you think we have to wait for the problem to be at our doorsteps for us to acknowledge it?

What other authors have we discussed that tackle similar issues?  What are some of the major themes that pesticide poisoning touch on?

The effects of pesticide poisoning not only hits the residents within the United States, but the low to middle income population throughout the entire world.  In South India, 50% to 75% of all deaths among women ages 10 to 19 are caused by pesticide poisoning.  If people were more aware of these statistics, do you think that there would be a stronger push to reduce the use of pesticides, or would it just become another back-burner issue?


“No sense in talking tough unless you do it.” (Under the Feet of Jesus, 45)

“Picking the food for other people to eat” – Helena Maria Viramontes

“Writers of novels need to sustain a whole world in their head.” – Helena Maria Viramontes


Migrant workers get sick from pesticide poisoning:


Helena Maria Viramontes speaks about her experience in writing Chicano based fiction:


Interesting Links

Interview with Viramontes:


Website about Pesticide:


Website about migrant workers:


Biography of Helena Maria Viramontes:



About envirolit

Professor of Environmental Literature
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