Helena María Viramontes, assistant professor of English at Cornell, has received the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature for 1995. Her books include a collection of short stories, The Moths and Other Stories, and the novel Under the Feet of Jesus.
The Dos Passos prize has been granted annually since 1980 by faculty members in the Department of English, Philosophy and Modern Languages at Longwood College, a liberal arts college in Virginia, to American creative writers in the middle stages of their careers. The prize is named for the influential American author of U.S.A., a massive trilogy published in 1937 that has been called the most important social fiction in spired by the Great Depression.
Previous recipients of the Dos Passos prize, which is funded by the Longwood Foundation and includes a cash award of $1,000 and a medal, have included Graham Greene and Tom Wolfe.
Viramontes, originally from East Los Angeles, has written extensively on the ex periences of Chicano and Chicana farmworkers in this country. Her first novel, Under the Feet of Jesus (Dutton, 1995), now available in paperback, was widely hailed for its sensitive portrayal of Estrella, a Mexican-American teen-ager learning about the possibilities of love and the restrictions of life as a migrant worker. "Blends lyricism, harsh realism and a concern for social justice...stunning," wrote one re viewer in Newsweek.
According to Martha E. Cook, professor of English at Longwood College and chair of the Dos Passos prize committee, Viramontes was one of eight nominees se lected by committee members for the 1995 prize. She ultimately was chosen for the award, Cook said, for "her use of places and characters that are distinctly American, yet are not usual or stereotypical in American fiction; the amazing variety and experi mentalism of her individual works of fiction; and, above all, the stunning unity of each work, with word and idea, image, symbol and theme all woven into a seamless whole."
"Like John Dos Passos," Cook continued, "she brings a new perspective to under standing our American culture and heritage by giving a voice to those whom many readers have not heard. And, like him, she has a powerful voice that is her own."
Viramontes said she was honored to be the first Latina to receive the prize and said she considers Dos Passos a "kindred spirit."
"He believed, as I do, that fiction has a potential to change the social reality," she said.
This summer Viramontes counseled Chicano students at Cornell's Summer College.