The Female Fight for Freedom

Feliciano 1

Nina Feliciano

Professor Hilda Fernandez

English 1B

20 May 2015

Word Count: 1,588

The Female Fight for Freedom

Author Helena María Viramontes is known in the literary world as a prominent advocate for,

and member of, Chicana culture. In her book The Moths and Other Stories, Viramontes conveys a

multitude of Chicana issues in a mere eight short stories, one of the most prominent being the

difficulties Chicana women face compared to men in their culture. An interview with the author from

2000 explains this important impetus in her writing: “I remember raging against the patriarchal

system, raging against the world and its injustices. I felt as if I had to write out of some type of

understanding of what was going on and what I was feeling,” (Viramontes). In the final story entitled

“Neighbors,” the author offers her intimate take on the issue by associating the unconventional

female character of Aura with certain places that designate where Chicano culture assigns Chicana

women in society. Aura is atypical in that she is a seventy-three-year-old woman who lives alone,

which is unusual in Chicano culture. Though seemingly independent, Aura is unable to break free

from her societal position under men, which is true of many Chicanas. Viramontes employs the

literary element of setting in “Neighbors” to portray the struggles of being a woman in the patriarchal

Chicano culture.

The first sentence in “Neighbors” sets the tone for Aura’s location, and state of mind. It reads,

“Aura Rodríguez always stayed within her perimeters, both personal and otherwise, and expected the

same of her neighbors,” (Viramontes 109). The character of Aura does not leave the confines of her

plot of land for the entirety of the story. Aura remaining “within her perimeters” not only refers to the

perimeter of the wrought-iron fence surrounding her property, but also conveys how trapped she feels

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in her own mind due to the patriarchy of Chicano culture (Viramontes 109). The fact that Aura never

crosses the threshold of the gate that encloses her yard also speaks to how women are not allowed to

do as they please like men are, and that she feels completely disrespected and humiliated by the naïve

teenage boys who imprison her by hanging out right outside of her house. The adolescent boys

represent Chicano men’s superiority over Chicana women. Chicanas feel imprisoned by the

frustration that arises from being part of a society that allows men to torment women with no real

repercussions. Though Aura is many years older than them, the young men do not acknowledge her

seniority because the unspoken rules of Chicano society do not require them to. Aura feels that if she

and her neighbors stay within her perimeters, she can live out the remainder of her lonely life without

being bothered by the patriarchal society that oppresses her. Aura represents the real world gender

norms that Chicanas experience on a daily basis, which have Chicanas to have a much less open mind

in terms of what their options are in life. In Viramontes’ interview, she describes breaking out of

gender norms that seclude her as a writer: “To be alone with your hurt and insecurity is not a good

thing, and yet these are companions of writers. Just when I think I’m sinking into hopelessness, I

begin to think about the stories of the mujeres out there…the brutalities that continue to exist, and

then I become inspired and I am no longer afraid of confronting and sitting with these

companions…” Through the character of Aura, Viramontes wants Chicanas to recognize their

oppression from the male-dominant society of which they belong. The author also wants Chicana

women to break free from the walls they have erected in their minds by reminding themselves that

they are not alone, just as Viramontes is not alone in her writing because of their courageous stories.

Aura is enamored with her garden that she has spent years cultivating. The setting of Aura’s

garden represents her extended comfort zone past her home, which she has slowly accumulated

during her life. Her bravery is greatly diminished following the vandalism of her beloved garden by

the neighborhood boys, which symbolizes the significant and detrimental effects that Chicano men

have on Chicanas’ lives. Viramontes writes, “She rushed over to the chayote vine and made a feeble

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attempt to replant it, but everything, her flowers, chayotes, gardenias, rose bushes, were uprooted and

cast aside,” (118). When Aura finally stands up for her self, she is quickly chastised for her actions

and put back in her place as an elderly woman with no power in her culture. Once the teenage boys

destroy her garden in retaliation for reporting them to the police, Aura is left with a sole chinaberry

tree, symbolic of one shred of dignity. Viramontes also makes sure to mention that these are plants

grown from cuttings from her mother’s garden, showing the passage of female strength through

generations. She retreats to her home and remains there for the remainder of the story, showing how

she no longer has the courage to surpass her comfort zone. In the same token that the author wants

Chicana women to remember that they are not alone, she also realizes the weight of this issue and

that some women are unable to escape their situation. In her interview, Viramontes asserts, “I needed

to recognize that these women were very much silenced in the United States because people were not

covering this type of material.” Though this quote is referring to a different short story from Moths, it

reinforces the fact that Viramontes’ most significant topic in her writing is to break the silence of

Chicana women. Hopefully, bringing up this topic will raise awareness of Chicana issues and, in turn,

give these women more options and support to become free from harrowing situations due to their

lower status in Chicano culture.

With her one shred of dignity, Aura descends to the basement of her home out of fear and

frustration for her lack of power as a Chicana woman. The narrative voice describes her decision to

do so, stating, “She lit the candlestick and opened the cellar door because she refused to be helpless,”

(Viramontes 119). The location of Aura’s basement represents her retreating to the lowest, most

morbid depths of her soul, feeling that doing so is her only option. She finally feels as though she

must do something drastic to change her circumstances. It is not an empowering frustration, however,

as she continues to not push out of the confines of her home. In the cellar, she retrieves a gun from

one of the many boxes in the depths of the dark room. The gun is Aura’s final plea for peace in the

patriarchal Chicano society. When Aura’s fear of death reaches it’s highest point at the end of the

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story, she pulls the trigger behind a closed door, without even being able to see what is frightening

her. This placement of Aura is the ultimate feeling of Chicana women who are desperate to have even

an ounce of power in their situation and, their own minds. They are too blinded by the patriarchy of

their culture to see any other way out. This is Viramontes’ way of showing what horrible actions

Chicanas must resort to when they feel overpowered and that all of their options have run out. In

Viramontes’ interview, she says of Chicana writers, “We are knocking at the door demanding

change.” This is a very powerful statement in juxtaposition with “Neighbors” as the only other

woman character knocking on Aura’s door is what causes her to pull the trigger on her gun. When

this woman asks for change, or help, another woman is too afraid to give it to her. Viramontes wants

to break this cycle of terrified women by getting them to help each other find strength instead of

hurting each other out of fear due to their dwindling power compared to Chicano men.

The various spaces of the character Aura in “Neighbors” portray Chicana women’s struggles

in a patriarchal society. Viramontes, however, also wants to empower them with the knowledge that

they are not alone. She encountered the same feelings as a Chicana female writer, which can feel like

a very solitary venture. The author articulates, “But when it came to the point that I started sharing

my work with other people, they pointed out that this story was theirs as well… Then I realized that I

was not writing personally about myself, but I was writing about a community of people. That’s

when I decided that I had to write the best that I could because I was not writing only for myself,”

(Viramontes). If Chicana women speak up about their troubles, they can join together to represent

their entire community, who all feel similarly oppressed. This feeling of solidarity can give Chicanas

the support and drive to be stronger than they think they are capable of, because they are now are a

part of something bigger. They have a responsibility to fellow Chicana women everywhere not to

back down in order to gain freedom from their patriarchal culture. All women can relate to the

struggle of Chicanas as we live in a patriarchal culture every day. Each one of us can follow the sage

advice of Viramontes to have our voices be heard. Viramontes’ immense literary expertise and

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experience as a Chicana woman allow her to employ setting to effectively articulate Chicana issues,

which are struggles that all women face. The passion she has for change for women is clear in her

writing, and it is contagious.

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Works Cited

Heredia, Juanita and Bridget Kevane. Interview with Helena María Viramontes. Latina Self

Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers. By Juanita Heredia and Bridget

Kevane. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000. Print.

Viramontes, Helena María. “Neighbors.” The Moths and Other Stories. 2nd ed. Houston: Arte Público

Press, 1995. 109-125. Print.