Manuel Muñoz portrait

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Fiction writer Manuel Muñoz, MFA ’98, draws inspiration from his upbringing in a Mexican-American farming family

By Joe Wilensky

Manuel Muñoz, MFA ’98, is an acclaimed fiction writer and a professor of creative writing at the University of Arizona—and he recently won one of the nation’s most coveted honors, an $800,000 “genius grant” from the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation.

But in his prose, Muñoz draws on roots a world away from academia: he grew up in a Mexican-American family of farm workers in California’s Central Valley, laboring in the fields while also going to school.

“I am very careful when I tell my story, especially when I speak with students, to affirm that it isn’t about ‘bootstraps,’ but access,” notes Muñoz, who attended Harvard on scholarship as a first-generation student before matriculating into Cornell’s highly selective MFA program in creative writing.

“Many, many young people have creative drives, ambitions, and dreams, but we don’t all get access. Nothing is improbable if we are actually given equitable opportunities.”

Muñoz’s writing explores the lives of mothers and sons, U.S.-born citizens and immigrants, young gay men and teenage parents—and grapples with the impacts of racial politics and the limited economic opportunities in the Central Valley region.

The cover of "The Consequences"

His latest work, The Consequences, comprises 10 tales, mostly set in communities of Mexican and Mexican-American farmworkers outside Fresno, CA, in the 1980s.

“Lucid and elegantly written,” raves the L.A. Times,The Consequences tells the stories of characters who ache for one another or for ephemeral moments of release; who ache—bodily—from a life spent harvesting the sweetness that will grace other tables.”

Says NPR: “Muñoz’s prose is shining and hypnotic, and suffused with care and tenderness.”

Muñoz’s prose is shining and hypnotic, and suffused with care and tenderness.


In one story, a recent arrival in the neighborhood joins the women who wait each evening for their men to come home from the fields—always worried about the immigration vans that sometimes take them away for days, or longer.

“When the street fell silent at dusk, the screen doors of the dark houses opened one by one,” Muñoz writes, “and the shadows of the women came to sit outside, a vigil on the concrete steps.”

Manuel Muñoz chats with an attendee at a conference and book signing on campus in 2022
At a book signing on campus in 2022. (Simon Wheeler / Cornell University)

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Muñoz has published two other short-story collections—Zigzagger and The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue—as well as the novel What You See in the Dark, a cinematic look at lives unfolding in small-town California in 1959 as the movie Psycho is being filmed.

Says Instinct magazine in a review of the novel: “Muñoz’s work is rich with description and so beautifully written that it borders on poetry.”

The annual MacArthur Fellowships—which come with no conditions as to how the funds are used—honor luminaries from a wide variety of fields who have demonstrated exceptional originality in, and dedication to, their creative pursuits.

Just a few weeks after his win was announced, Muñoz returned to the Hill to give a reading at a conference honoring his longtime mentor, Helena María Viramontes, a professor of literatures in English in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Manuel Muñoz, center, at the A.D. White House in 1996 with Helena Viramontes, right, and her husband, now-retired professor Eloy Rodriguez, at left
In 1996 with Viramontes (right) and her husband, Professor Eloy Rodriguez (left). (Provided)

“She was very attuned to where I came from,” he reflects of his studies under Viramontes. “She knew, without having to delve too deep, what my socioeconomic circumstances were—and also how to help me put all of that into fiction.”

After the MacArthur win was announced, Viramontes reflected on Muñoz's application for graduate study in creative writing.

“Coming from very humble beginnings as a farmworker, here was this young man who is the youngest child of a large family who just by sheer intelligence, talent, and humility gets a scholarship to Harvard, and then decides to apply to MFA programs,” she said.

Manuel Muñoz sports a "Viramontes Taught Me" shirt at the recent on-campus conference honoring his mentor
Sporting an appreciative T-shirt at the recent conference honoring his mentor. (Provided)

“From our application pool at the time I remember his manuscript as being so strong we all agreed he should be admitted.”

(Viramontes blurbed his debut book, Zigzagger, calling it, "stunning in voice, lyrical in language, forceful in subject matter.")

In addition to the MacArthur, Muñoz won the 2023 Joyce Carol Oates Prize.

He also boasts three O. Henry Awards and two appearances in the annual Best American Short Stories anthology, among other honors.

“I take great pride in how happy others were for me and embrace that it is a recognition for all of us in the literary and scholarly community,” Muñoz says of the MacArthur.

“It’s quite rare for someone who focuses on Mexican and Mexican-American lives and experiences to be lauded with a major recognition like this—so, when it happens, the elation is understandably communal.”

Top: Photo courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Published November 30, 2023


  1. Therese Raphael, Class of 1990

    Beautiful, inspiring story and introduction to an author whose work I don’t yet know but look forward to exploring.

  2. Kent Davis-Packard

    I can’t wait to read his beautiful work! Professor Viramontes also taught me and I am about to publish my first book!

  3. Jeanne Schwetje, Class of 1978

    I cannot wait to read his work.

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