Helena Maria Viramontes: Their Dogs Came With Them (2006)

‘L.A.’ in 2018 is a city of over 10 million people by the last estimate, and in several other ways significantly bigger than what it was during the 1970s when Viramontes was a teenager roaming through its avenues and boulevards to pick up the fulcrum on which her novel rests.

Yet a glance at L.A. then reveals a world not radically different from the one which appears to be on the brink of collapse today, particularly for urban youth in the city: the Vietnam war raged on, while at the same time the 1965 Watts Riots left the city in a state of racial insecurity and opposition to the police state; simultaneously, Black and Brown communities increasingly found heroin and other drugs infiltrating their neighborhoods, while at L.A.’s schools and California’s universities, institutional racism spawned further battle lines for the sunshine state; on the East and South sides of Los Angeles, the bitter memories of the erection of L.A.’s freeways in the early 1960s left people of color there weary of the city’ urban development; and only a few feet away, youth ‘delinquency’ and incarceration marked the outset of a prison industrial complex, which nearly fifty years later our communities are still dealing with.

These are the living nightmares of what was then still a newly modernizing world which inspired the heroine that is the amazing Viramontes. Her literary gifts unwind similarly to a nightmare, or as genuine superpowers around the mind of the reader for immersing us like veins into bodies of suffering deviating from the wake of an uprooted Los Angeles. In Their Dogs Came With Them, the micro-histories that make up the city are given life on the literary big screen, where they shine like a golden Pontiac, roaring with desire and pulling all in their midst to the edge of what might be possible with just enough forgetting. Although total forgetting is never quite possible.

In the opening chapters of the book, we meet Ermila, along with her Grandmother, the latter of whom is haunted by memories of a life in fear, anxiety, and racial hostility in L.A.:

“A bespectacled Grandmother didn’t see the child lift the box to show off her award. The sunlight scarred her vision, and Grandmother couldn’t quite discern the child holding on to Miss Eastman except for the white teeth of the teacher talking to the child as they walked the dark corridor to meet her. Grandmother had watched the escalating heat rising each and every day, the glass thermometer bursting, its red mercury spreading infectious green-tinted rage. Miss Eastman grew larger and darker, and the child swung her pink gift in the shaded hollowness of the corridor. No longer immunized, Grandmother knew it was only a matter of time before the roaming packs of Negroes would claw out of the television’s own green guts, riot-rushing to lift and overturn cars and set fire to all the neighborhood had worked for, to anything flammable on the living side of First Street. Though the teacher passed the child over to Grandmother tenderly, Miss Eastman appeared so black, she was green.”

Grandmother, who is the only caretaker in her granddaughter’s life, also speaks to the apprehension–or Americanization–of the time, which, much like today, was dominated by the mystical spell of late night news, albeit through the color or green televisions that were just making their way into so many living rooms. And while we never learn much about Grandmother’s own childhood, she’s a woman many readers will recognize right away, as are each of the novel’s figures in its surreal sequence of events.

Memory ‘lapses’ form major parts of each character’s time with us, making for a surreal timeline that moves through Their Dogs, but a few themes stand out most consistently for this reader: Viramontes’s work is deeply concerned with upbringing and the burdens placed on youth coming of age in a world that at many turns appears to be dis-invested in their humanity, and which at others appears to be teeming with life so palpable it can’t simply be passed over as anything but extraordinary. Ermila, who is probably the novel’s second most rebellious figure, carries this most naturally:

“She collected observations as one would collect ice-cream sticks: a youth riding a wobbly bike on the muddy shoulders of the street; a skinny cat roaming through the tall bird-of-paradise stalks; two comadres chatting between a fence; an old crooked bird man who fed his flock of pigeons daily. The desire to be on the other side of the fence, to run away and join them, was so strong, it startled her.”

There is also, no matter how much a reader might hope for the novel to do otherwise, a refusal to let go of the traumas which turn youth from hand-held creatures brimming with the future in their eyes into unintelligible monsters weighed down by their pasts, depending on which side we meet their glances from; a heartbreaking memory from arguably the novel’s most compelling figure, “Turtle,” demonstrates this clearly:

“Tio Angel lunged at his brother Frank, and after the bump and break of furniture, the fall and jingle of Christmas tree, the grind and gravel of glass shards, Turtle heard the screen door screech open. Turtle dug her fingertips underneath some shingles, terrified of falling, and she peered over the roof’s edge and saw how awkwardly the scuffling shadows flew into the nopales.”

Each page through the novel is filled with piercing uses of language such as this, at times nearly unbearable to digest. But just when violence threatens to steal the show, Viramontes follows with paragraphs that are simply mystical and delicious concoctions of sounds for readers to sift through, reminiscent of the late great Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude, though with a voice distinguished by the duality of a young woman both trapped and liberated by femininity and age. When Ermila and her girlfriends mightily get back at an ex of hers after their recent breakup, for example, they smuggle their teenage glee for the more adult-like professionalism over the affair, driving the sequence through with a galvanizing energy to dwell in:

“And just as they had converged, they pulled away in opposite directions slowly, sluggishly lest they call attention to themselves, not rushing to leave the scene of the crime, though it was a difficult task not to explode adrenaline all over the place. They had to silence the forcefulness of their delight, hesitating to acknowledge one another’s glances. They strolled away in separate directions, carrying the flakes of metallic paint, bluish palms, the color of yams on their hands, barely containing their collective sense of invincibility. Whatever laughter or disbelief, whatever overblown nerves Ermila had suppressed, now raised her spirit to the point that her steps felt buoyant and she felt an enormous craving for adventure.”

These are the lines which make the novel not just a reflection on childhood, but a dream through the thin space between actuality and imagination, like the gravity that separates us from the stars only physically, but not in our fantasies. And they are the micro-histories and maybe even sub-atomic histories that Viramontes unravels with such mastery for a novel so gorgeous it contains something for everyone. What is the best literature, after all, if not an expression for the whole world and all of humanity to observe together, opposite of one another, and more. In Ben, whose character haunts the novel’s trajectory more than engaging with it directly, any reader who’s ever felt a tinge of uncertainty at simply “going with the flow” will relate:

“Thank you, he said. Being late for class, Ben said he’d better get going because seats became scarce in his Intro Soc class. But the young woman shouted to his back, A gift for you, hermano. And then ran up to him, removed her beret and placed it on his head. And at that instance when he looked directly into her eyes, Ben would’ve given his life to walk upright without hobbling, to push his chest out, to brave the mental eye of the tornado and be absorbed by something larger. The woman cocked her head to read his stunned expression, and he turned to mask it. His leg plagued him like his fear. He resisted being lifted up into a gathering mass of swirling political storms. He refused to be clearly defined as Chicano, and for that, he refused to belong to a fluid movement, joining her, joining them, joining other Chicanos to become a part, to become a whole and not just stay forever in between.”

I am unmistakably shaken by Viramontes’s astounding historical prose and document, which ultimately erupts into a brilliant crescendo or joyride through Los Angeles with her characters no matter how dark the space. Even before the uncanny finale, however, each moment in the novel is a memory mixed with a wish, an ode to friends and members of her community across the ages; our people thus become one and the same; and our struggle to look beyond Los Angeles’s smog and out towards the night sky in hopes of better days, a ritual encompassing every last one of us.

Their Dogs Came With Them is an achievement for literary aficionados, artists, scholars, and witnesses of all kinds everywhere. And from this day forward, the book is not just with JIMBO TIMES, but it’s embedded into our reading’s subatomic consciousness. With each new young reader we get to meet, then, we’ll be sending this book their way. Nuestro Pueblo will know Viramontes’s name.