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Hispanic Heritage

Denise Chávez

Birth: August 15, 1948 in Las Cruces, New Mexico
Occupation: Writer

Denise Chávez is widely regarded as one of the leading Chicana playwrights and novelists of the U.S. Southwest. She has written and produced numerous one-act plays since the 1970s; however, she is best known for her fiction, including The Last of the Menu Girls, a poignant and sensitive short-story collection about an adolescent girl's passage into womanhood, and Face of an Angel, an exploration of a woman's life in a small New Mexico town. With the publication of Face of an Angel--and its selection as a Book-of-the-Month Club title in 1994--Chávez gained a national readership for her portraits of Chicanos living in the Mexican-American borderlands.

Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico, Chávez was reared in a family that particularly valued education and self-improvement. The divorce of her father, an attorney, and her mother, a teacher, when Chávez was ten was a painful experience. She spent the rest of her childhood in a household of women that included her mother, a sister, and a half-sister, and has acknowledged that the dominant influences in her life--as well as in her work--have been female. From an early age Chávez was an avid reader and writer. She kept a diary in which she recorded her observations on life and the personal fluctuations in her own life. During high school she became interested in drama and performed in productions. Chávez recalled her discovery of the theater to Journal North interviewer Jim Sagel as a revelation: "I can extend myself, be more than myself." She wrote her first play while a senior in college at New Mexico State University. Originally titled The Wait, the play was renamed Novitiates when it was produced in 1971. A story about several persons in transitional periods in their lives, her play won a prize in a New Mexico literary contest.

Critics have noted that Chávez's plays typically focus on the characters' self-revelation and developing sense of their personal place within their community. Mario and the Room Maria, for example, is a play about personal growth: its protagonist, Mundo Reyes, is unable to develop emotionally due to his refusal to confront painful experiences from his past. Likewise, Si, hay posada depicts the agony of Johnny Briones, whose rejection of love during the Christmas season is the result of emotional difficulties experienced as a child. While Chávez's plays often concentrate on her characters' inner lives, some deal with external and cultural elements that impede social interaction. Set in Santa Fe, New Mexico, her well-known 1984 play Plaza contrasts characters who have different impressions of life in the town square. According to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Rowena A. Rivera, the theme of Plaza "emphasizes the importance of family and friendship bonds as a means by which individuals can recover their personal and cultural heritage."

Many of the themes pervading Chávez's plays are echoed and drawn together in her short-story collection The Last of the Menu Girls. Composed of seven related stories, the work explores the coming of age of Rocio Esquibel through high school and college. In the opening story, Rocio goes to work handing out menus in a hospital, where she is exposed to many different people and experiences. Her impressions are shaped, in large part, by the ordinary individuals whom she daily encounters: the local repairman, the grandmother, and the hospital staff, among others.

Reviewers have commented that Chávez interweaves the seven stories that comprise The Last of the Menu Girls in order to emphasize the human need for comunidad, or community. Although some scholars find her style to be disjointed and flawed, many laud her lively dialogue, revealing characterization, and ability to write with insight. Chávez does not look upon The Last of the Menu Girls as a novel, but as a series of dramatic vignettes that explore the mysteries of womanhood. In fact, she envisions all her work as a chronicle of the changing relationships between men and women as women continue to avow their independence. This assertion has led to the creation of non-stereotypical Chicana heroines like Rocio, who Women's Studies Review contributor Maria C. Gonzalez described as "an individual who fights the traditional boundaries of identity that society has set up and expects her to follow."

Chávez's ambitious first novel, Face of an Angel, centers on the life of Soveida Dosamantes and her relations with her family, coworkers, former husbands, and lovers in the small New Mexico town of Agua Oscura. Soveida has worked as a waitress for more than thirty years and is deeply involved in preparing a handbook, The Book of Service, that she hopes will aid other would-be waitresses. Face of an Angel received wide attention for a first novel. Groundbreaking in the Chicana fiction genre due to its nontraditional heroines and frank discussion of sexual matters, the book was generally hailed as the debut of an important new voice in Hispanic American letters. Belles Lettres correspondent Irene Campos Carr called Face of an Angel "engrossing, amusing, and definitely one to be savored," adding: "The author's mordant wit is pervasive, the language is pithy, blunt, and explicit." Campos Carr concluded: "Chávez has become a fine writer and a great storyteller. With Face of an Angel, her second book, her name can be added to the growing list of Chicana authors making their mark in contemporary American fiction."

Chávez once remarked, "I consider myself a performance writer. My training in theater has helped me to write roles that I myself would enjoy acting. My characters are survivors, and many of them are women. I feel, as a Chicana writer, that I am capturing the voice of so many who have been voiceless for years. I write about the neighborhood handymen, the waitresses, the bag ladies, the elevator operators. They all have something in common: they know what it is to love and to be merciful. My work as a playwright is to capture as best as I can the small gestures of the forgotten people, the old men sitting on park benches, the lonely spinsters inside their corner store. My work is rooted in the Southwest, in heat and dust, and reflects a world where love is as real as the land. In this dry and seemingly harsh and empty world there is much beauty to be found. That hope of the heart is what feeds me, my characters."

In her 2001 novel, Loving Pedro Infante, Chávez tells the story of a thirty-something teacher's aide named Teresina "Tere" Avila who is divorced and obsessed with a macho Mexican film star named Pedro Infante, despite the fact that he died in 1957. Tere has a married lover who, true to form, makes promises that he never intends to keep. Tere's deep emotional life, however, revolves around the Pedro Infante fan club and her friend Irma, who espouses the movies as one of the best ways to learn about Mexican culture and life in general. In reality, Tere's ability to function in the real world is being compromised by her obsession with the screen icon. Library Journal contributor Lee McQueen commented, "Through Tere, Chávez explores femininity and cultural identity." Bill Ott, writing in Booklist, noted, "This thoroughly engaging novel walks the delicate line between comedy and pathos perfectly, using laughter to pull us back from pain but never letting us forget that the laughs come with a price."

In an interview with William Clark of Publishers Weekly, Chávez commented on what writing means to her, noting, "Writing for me is a healing, therapeutic, invigorating, sensuous manifestation of the energy that comes to you from the world, from everything that's alive. Everything has a voice and you just have to listen as closely as you can. That's what's so exciting--a character comes to you and you can't write fast enough because the character is speaking through you. It's a divine moment."

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born August 15, 1948, in Las Cruces, NM; daughter of Ernesto E. (an attorney) and Delfina (a teacher; maiden name, Rede) Chávez; married Daniel Zolinsky (a photographer and sculptor), December 29, 1984. Education: New Mexico State University, B.A., 1971; Trinity University (San Antonio, TX), M.F.A., 1974; University of New Mexico, M.A., 1982. Politics: Democrat. Religion: Roman Catholic. Avocational Interests: Swimming, bowling, movies. Memberships: National Institute of Chicana Writers (founding member), PEN USA, PEN USA West, Authors Guild, Western Writers of America, Women Writing the West, Santa Fe Writers Cooperative. Addresses: Home: 80 La Colonia, Las Cruces, NM 88005.

AWARDS

Best Play Award, New Mexico State University, 1970, for The Wait; grants from New Mexico Arts Division, 1979-80, 1981, and 1988; award for citizen advocacy, Dona Ana County Human Services Consortium, 1981; grants from National Endowment for the Arts, 1981 and 1982, Rockefeller Foundation, 1984, and University of Houston, 1989; creative writing fellowship, University of New Mexico, 1982; Steele Jones Fiction Award, New Mexico State University, 1986, for short story "The Last of the Menu Girls"; Puerto del Sol Fiction award, 1986, for The Last of the Menu Girls; creative artist fellowship, Cultural Arts Council of Houston, 1990; Favorite Teacher Award, University of Houston, 1991; Premio Aztlan Award, American Book Award, and Mesilla Valley Writer of the Year Award, all 1995, all for Face of an Angel; New Mexico Governor's Award in literature and El Paso Herald Post Writers of the Pass distinction, both 1995; Luminaria Award for Community Service, New Mexico Community Foundation, 1996.

CAREER

Northern New Mexico Community College, Espanola, instructor in English, 1975-77, professor of English and theatre, 1977-80; playwright, 1977--; New Mexico Arts Division, Santa Fe, artist in the schools, 1977-83; University of Houston, Houston, TX, visiting scholar, 1988, assistant professor of drama, 1988-91; New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, assistant professor of creative writing, playwrighting, and Chicano literature, 1996--. Instructor at American School of Paris, 1975-77; visiting professor of creative writing at New Mexico State University, 1992-93 and 1995-96; artistic director of the Border Book Festival, 1994--; past member of faculty at College of Santa Fe; teacher at Radium Springs Center for Women (medium-security prison); gives lectures, readings, and workshops throughout the United States and Europe; has given performances of the one- woman show Women in the State of Grace throughout the United States. Writer in residence at La Compania de Teatro, Albuquerque, NM, and Theatre-in-the-Red, Santa Fe, NM; artist-in-residence at Arts with Elders Program, Santa Fe and Las Cruces; codirector of senior citizen workshop in creative writing and puppetry at Community Action Agency, Las Cruces, 1986- 89.

WRITINGS

PLAYS

  • The Wait (one-act), 1970, also produced as Novitiates, Dallas Theater Center, Dallas, TX, 1971.
  • Elevators (one-act), produced in Santa Fe, NM, 1972.
  • The Flying Tortilla Man (one-act), produced in Espanola, NM, 1975.
  • The Mask of November (one-act), produced in Espanola, NM, 1977.
  • Nacimiento (one-act; title means "Birth"), produced in Albuquerque, NM, 1979.
  • The Adobe Rabbit (one-act), produced in Taos, NM, 1979.
  • Santa Fe Charm (one-act), produced in Santa Fe, NM, 1980.
  • Si, hay posada (one-act; title means "Yes, There Is Shelter"), produced in Albuquerque, NM, 1980.
  • El santero de Cordova (one-act; title means "The Woodcarver of Cordova"), produced in Albuquerque, NM, 1981.
  • How Junior Got Throwed in the Joint (one-act), produced in Santa Fe at Penitentiary of New Mexico, 1981.
  • (With Nita Luna) Hecho en Mexico (one-act; title means "Made in Mexico"), produced in Santa Fe, NM, 1982.
  • The Green Madonna (one-act), produced in Santa Fe, NM, 1982.
  • La morenita (one-act; title means "The Dark Virgin"), produced in Las Cruces, NM, 1983.
  • Francis! (one-act), produced in Las Cruces, NM, 1983.
  • El mas pequeno de mis hijos (one-act; title means "The Smallest of My Children"), produced in Albuquerque, NM, 1983.
  • Plaza (one-act), produced in Albuquerque, NM, 1984, also produced in Edinburgh, Scotland, and at the Festival Latino, New York, NY.
  • Novena narrativas (one-woman show; title means "The Novena Narratives"), produced in Taos, NM, 1986.
  • The Step (one-act), produced in Houston, TX, at Museum of Fine Arts, 1987.
  • Language of Vision (one-act), produced in Albuquerque, NM, 1987.
  • Women in the State of Grace (one-woman show), produced in Grinnell, IA, 1989; produced nationally since 1993.
  • The Last of the Menu Girls (one-act; adapted from Chávez's short story of the same title), produced in Houston, TX, 1990.

Author of unproduced plays Mario and the Room Maria, 1974, Rainy Day Waterloo, 1976, The Third Door (trilogy), 1979, Plague-Time, 1985, and Cruz Blanca, Story of a Town.

OTHER

  • (Editor) Life Is a Two-Way Street (poetry anthology), Rosetta Press ( Las Cruces, NM), 1980.
  • The Last of the Menu Girls (stories), Arte Publico ( Houston, TX), 1986, reprinted, Vintage Contemporaries ( New York, NY), 2004.
  • The Woman Who Knew the Language of Animals (juvenile), Houghton Mifflin ( Boston, MA), 1992.
  • (Selector) Shattering the Myth: Plays by Hispanic Women, edited by Linda Feyder, Arte Publico ( Houston, TX), 1992.
  • Face of an Angel (novel), Farrar, Straus ( New York, NY), 1994.
  • (Author of essays) Writing down the River: Into the Heart of the Grand Canyon, photographed and produced by Kathleen Jo Ryan, foreword by Gretel Ehrlich, Northland ( Flagstaff, AZ), 1998.
  • Loving Pedro Infante, Farrar, Straus & Giroux ( New York, NY), 2001.

Work represented in numerous anthologies, including An Anthology of Southwestern Literature, University of New Mexico Press, 1977; An Anthology: The Indian Rio Grande, San Marcos Press, 1977; Voces: An Anthology of Nuevo Mexicano Writers, El Norte Publications, 1987; Iguana Dreams: New Latino Fiction, HarperCollins, 1992; Mirrors beneath the Earth, Curbstone Press, 1992; Growing Up Latino: Memories and Stories, Houghton Mifflin, 1993; New Mexico Poetry Renaissance, Red Crane Books, 1994; Modern Fiction about Schoolteaching, Allyn & Bacon, 1996; Mother of the America, Riverhead Books, 1996; Chicana Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature, edited by Maraia Herrera-Sobek and Helena Maraia Viramontes, University of New Mexico Press, 1996; and Walking the Twilight II: Women Writers of the Southwest, edited by Kathryn Wilder, Northland, 1996. Contributor to periodicals, including Americas Review,New Mexico,Journal of Ethnic Studies, and Revista Chicano-Riquena.

FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

BOOKS

  • Balassi, William, John Crawford, and Annie Eysturoy, editors, This Is about Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, University of New Mexico Press (Albuquerque, NM), 1990.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 122: Chicano Writers, Second Series, Thomson Gale ( Detroit, MI), 1992, pp. 70-76.
  • Kester-Shelton, Pamela, editor, Feminist Writers, St. James Press ( Detroit, MI), 1996, pp. 94-96.
  • Saldivar, Jose-David, and Rolando Hinojosa, editors, Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, Duke University Press ( Durham, NC), 1991.

PERIODICALS

  • American Studies International, April, 1990, p. 48.
  • Americas Review, Volume 16, number 2, 1988.
  • Belles Lettres, spring, 1995, Irene Campos Carr, review of Face of an Angel, p. 35.
  • Bloomsbury Review, September-October 1993; May-June 1995.
  • Booklist, April 15, 2001, Bill Ott, review of Loving Pedro Infante, p. 1532.
  • Boston Globe, September 30, 1994, p. 61.
  • Journal North, August 14, 1982, Jim Sagel, interview with author, p. E4.
  • Journal of Semiotic and Cultural Studies, 1991, pp. 29-43.
  • Library Journal, April 1, 2001, Lee McQueen, review of Loving Pedro Infante, p. 132.
  • Los Angeles Times, November 9, 1994, pp. E1, E4.
  • New York Times Book Review, October 12, 1986, p. 28; September 25, 1994, p. 20.
  • Performance, April 8, 1983, p. 6.
  • Publishers Weekly, August 15, 1994, William Clark, "It's All One Language Here" (interview), pp. 77-78.
  • School Library Journal, September, 2001, Adriana Lopez, "Chávez Hunts for Translator," p. S7.
  • Village Voice, November 8, 1994, p. 18.
  • Women's Studies Review, September-October, 1986, Maria C. Gonzalez, review of The Last of the Menu Girls.
  • World Literature Today, autumn, 1995, p. 792.

ONLINE

  • Desert Exposure, http: //www.zianet.com/desertx/ (March, 1998), "An Interview with Denise Chavez."*

 

SOURCE CITATION


Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2007.
Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale. 2007.

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