I do remember a time when there weren’t any freeways, and then I do remember the neighborhood, whole city blocks abandoned, then chewed up, our neighbors disappeared. It devastated, amputated East L.A. from the rest of the city. The bulldozers resembled the conqueror’s ships coming to colonize a second time and I felt a real desire to portray the lives of those who disappeared.
—Helena Maria Viramontes, in an interview with La Bloga, 2 April 2007
Los Angeles literature has always been place-centric. With so many disparate neighborhoods, residents tend to claim fierce ownership of their own, even sometimes more than of the city as a whole. The city provides a unique way to be connected, but singular. It’s an amalgamation of extraordinarily different ways to love the same place.
Helena Maria Viramontes loves the city, and her new novel, Their Dogs Came With Them, is a multilayered homage to the lives of “the forgotten poor ... the despised and reviled” (per Sandra Cisneros on the jacket cover) in East L.A./Boyle Heights of the 1960s. The novel weaves a fiction around this very specific neighborhood (her own hometown), and gives dramatic life to its streets and people. Capturing a complicated time in L.A history, when freeways were being built in droves and entire neighborhoods were being razed to accommodate them, Viramontes explores the communities and individuals that were left behind by the city’s progress.
Though many tales are braided together, the heart of Their Dogs follows four young women: Ermila, Tranquilina, Ana, and Turtle; orphan, charity worker, concerned older sister, and homeless gang member passing as a man. These four very different women are mostly connected by neighborhood, but their lives do have a Short Cuts-like chance to intertwine. Viramontes exhibits a good deal of respect for her characters, and frames the book as one that is less concerned with plot than character arcs. Indeed, the characters are the highlight of the book. Delicately drawn, and vividly unique, there’s the same struggle at the heart of all four stories: namely the search for identity in relationship to a community, and in isolation. Turtle perhaps most literally exemplifies this. As a gang member, she defines herself by the McBride Boys, and takes to wandering the streets alone once that community buttress disappears from her life. Each woman struggles with it: Ermila and her group of girlfriends, Ana and her brother, Tranquilina and her parents and the community their church serves and feeds.
Freeways are a structural theme for the novel, with these four characters the supports (as in the East-L.A. interchange), according to Viramontes in a La Bloga interview: “I realized that the structure of the novel began to resemble the freeway intersections ... And like the freeways upheld by pillars, I realized I had four pillars in four characters of which most other characters orbited around.” The freeways also serve as a metaphor for the women’s relationship to isolation. In the 1960s, the freeways’ arrival disconnected East L.A. from the rest of the city. This is also the decade that brought the Watts Riots, the Vietnam War, the Chicano Moratorium, when insular and segregational politics were vehemently contested by community. In addition to this backdrop, the novel further isolates its characters with a fictional Quarantine Authority: roadblocks and police officers that impose a strict curfew to keep inhabitants safe from rabies, and helicopters that shoot down anything/anyone moving around on the streets after hours. The characters are secluded by circumstance, and each of the four tries in a different way to create her own mini-community to compensate.
Throughout, Viramontes’s point of view is sympathetic to the underdog, and the title in fact alerts readers that the novel is going to be a critique of the colonialist. Taken from Miguel Leon-Portilla’s book The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico, it references the Spanish conquerors of Mexico and their dog companions. The book, by personifying the freeway and the Quarantine Authority as conquerors of the neighborhood, demonstrates the struggle to keep the “dogs at bay”—to build their own communities on their own terms despite the fear of dogs that keeps them locked in. Ermila best illustrates this: A dog (possibly imaginary) bites her as, in her mind, a punishment for breaking the rules. She struggles with her fear of it, but keeps it tucked in the back of her mind.
All of these elements could easily have added up to a bleak, post-apocalyptic morality tale. But there’s a tenderness in the telling of this story despite the Blade Runner¬¬ feel Viramontes often gives to the streets. This is perhaps owed to her use of narrative structure and language. Viramontes uses narrative time as loosely interchangable with memory. The story ambles through the past and present fluidly, with only paragraph separations marking a narrative shift. The language, though occasionally dipping into the overwrought, for the most part is quite lyrical (and echoes roots of Magical Realism that appear occasionally in mystical elements of the plot). In less capable hands, the number of stories and the non-linear way of managing them could have turned incomprehensible. But Viramontes keeps the stories clear by keeping her focus tightly on the characters. The real strength in this novel is that endowed in the characters, and the way Viramontes attempts to understand the complicated relationship of the part to the whole.