Helena María Viramontes’s collection of feminist short stories, The Moths and Other Stories
(1985), feature Mexican American women from diverse backgrounds and generations, who all face similar struggles. Receiving a positive reception upon publication, the collection is now a significant text in the “Chicana” feminist movement. Viramontes is a writer and English professor. Best known for strong female characters and young protagonists, her stories are informed by her experience growing up in Los Angeles. Her accomplishments include winning the 1996 John Dos Passos Prize.
There are eight stories in this short story collection. Each story centers on different characters. The protagonists focus on discovering their personal identities and how they fit into the collective Mexican American experience. Some stories are set in the past, while others take place in contemporary America. Each challenges gender constructs and the ways in which traditional Chicano culture oppresses women.
In the first story, “The Moths,” a woman remembers the relationship she had with her grandmother when she was a young girl. She remembers feeling like the odd one out in the family because she wasn’t as pretty or as talented as her sisters, but her grandmother always looked out for her. When her grandmother develops cancer, she is the only granddaughter who cares for her. As the grandmother’s health deteriorates, the girl becomes self-sufficient and as strong as any of her sisters.
“The Growing” concerns teenage protagonist Naomi. The moment she enters puberty, her father treats her differently. She can’t leave the house without an escort, and she is not allowed to have male friends. Her American peers don’t understand her culture because they have more freedom, and she struggles to find friends. Naomi must find a way to balance her family’s expectations with American social norms.
“Birthday” is about an unmarried woman who faces a moral dilemma. When she discovers that she is pregnant, her boyfriend dumps her. She doesn’t have money and she isn’t ready for motherhood. After she has an abortion, she immediately regrets her decision, suffering an identity crisis. As a Catholic, she feels that she has committed a terrible sin, and she feels disconnected from God. Moving forward, she realizes that it is up to her to shape her own identity.
“The Broken Web” centers on repression and forgotten memories. A young woman knows that she can’t move on with her life until she heals from past trauma, but the memories are too painful to face. This pain symbolizes the power that the masculine has over the feminine. She finally accepts that her mother killed her father; the murder symbolizes females overcoming abusive men in a patriarchal society. As in “The Growing,” the protagonist must face gender expectations and challenge them.
“The Cariboo Café” focuses on the immigrant experience. The story explores what happens when women lose control of their children during border crossings. Illegal migrants hide out in a local café, the Cariboo because the owner pretends to be on their side. However, he rats out the immigrants to the authorities. He hates his life because he lost his own wife and son after their border crossing. He wants other families to experience the same pain. The female characters in this story feel powerless against him, just as they feel powerless against the US border control.
“The Long Reconciliation” is another story concerning abortion and female body autonomy. The story takes place in pre-revolutionary Mexico. A woman knows she cannot support a baby; if she doesn’t abort the baby, it will have a miserable life of hunger, strife, and uncertainty. Abortion, she believes, is her only choice, even if she wants a child. She is on her own while her husband fights, and she fears that she will never be safe again.
“Snapshots” follows Olga, a postmenopausal woman. Her ex-husband never encouraged her to work; she has only ever lived as a housewife. Now that her children are grown, and she lives alone, she feels worthless and lacking. She thinks she has wasted her life, her youth, and her opportunities. Reflecting on the past, she wonders what she could have done differently.
The final story, “Neighbours,” concerns another older protagonist. The woman, a seventy-three-year-old with a degenerative motor disease, watches her neighborhood deteriorate. She comments on unemployment, a lost generation of men and women, and the negative side of capitalism. She despairs for the children growing up now because they live without hope for the future.
Many characters in these stories remain nameless because Viramontes wants them to symbolize the collective immigrant experience. These characters could be any contemporary immigrant because there are so many stories out there waiting to be told. What unites the stories in the collection is the search for a future, a legacy, and hope.