Viramontes was born into a Mexican-American family.
Viramontes graduated from Garfield High School, which was one of the high schools that participated in the 1968 Chicano Blowouts, a series of protests against unequal conditions in East Los Angeles public schools. The Chicano Movement would play a significant role in her development as a writer. She then worked part-time while attending Immaculate Heart College, from which she earned her Bachelor of Arts in English literature in 1975.
Viramontes attended the graduate program in creative writing at the University of California, Irvine. In 1977, her short story "Requiem for the Poor" was awarded a prize from Statement Magazine. In 1979, she won a literary prize from the Spanish department at UC Irvine. In 1981, she left the MFA program. In 1985, Arte Público Press published The Moths, collection of short stories. During her hiatus from academia she published in many underground literary journals such as ChismeArte. In 1988, she co-edited Chicana Creativity and Criticism with María Herrera-Sobek, a volume dedicated to the literary output of Mexican-American women. She returned to UC Irvine to complete her MFA, which was awarded in 1994. As part of the program, she received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to attend a writing workshop with the Colombian Nobel Laureate Gabriel García Márquez. In 1995, her first novel Under the Feet of Jesus was published to critical acclaim. Recently, Their Dogs Came With Them, a novel that took her 17 years to complete, has been published and is gaining notoriety for its tough characters and strikingly personal and realistic prose. This novel is largely inspired by her childhood in the midst of East Los Angeles, with the gang conflicts and social strife at the center of her novel. She has said that her house is next to four cemeteries, and that when the freeways were built in East Los Angeles in the 1960s (see East LA Freeway) myth has it that the cement was poured over the resting places of some forgotten souls; their bones disturbed.
She had been spurred to write the novel because of her passion not to let these souls be forgotten, while at the same time telling a beautifully woven work on life.