Isolation, Alienation, and Fear of Intimacy in Under the Feet of Jesus
Helena María Viramontes’s novel Under the Feet of Jesus adequately describes the trials and tribulations of migrant workers, which includes a constant shift of home, uncertainness of survival, unnacceptance, overwork, and loss of loved ones. The story takes place in a rural farming valley that Estrella’s family is forced to live in because of the need for jobs, and her and all four of her siblings—all under the age of ten—must work alongside the adults in harsh conditions. After being poisoned by pesticides, Estrella’s first love must be abandoned at a hospital in hopes that he will be taken care of. In the end, the reader sees her ascend into what can only be hoped to be a true sense of freedom and control over her own life. This novel has brought forth many critical examinations about racism, feminism, environmental ethics, and Marxism in the story. Yet psychologically, Viramontes takes us into the minds of all the main characters, giving the reader a large palette of viewpoints in which to see migrant life. At the same time that the reader is allowed to see the characters’ sufferings and weaknesses, the reader also experiences their mental isolation, which then furthers the novel’s racial, feminist, environmental, and economic issues. As Scott A. Beck and Dolores E. Rangel state, “Viramontes’s characters have almost no regular contact with the Anglo world. … [She] take[s] us within the very small, limiting, and confusing world of migrants, a world defined by near total physical and psychological isolation.” Thus, the isolation of the few becomes the alienation of the many.
Intimacy comes from the Latin word intimus, meaning inner or innermost. Andrea B. Horn defines intimacy as “the feeling[s] of being understood, validated, and cared for by the partner” (617); put much more simply by Michael E. McGill in The McGill Report on Male Intimacy, “Intimacy is the state of being close” (2). Most researchers agree that some basic elements in establishing this state are effective communication, emotional openness with personal topics, and, in the case of romantic relationships, sexual closeness. Thomas C. Oden, in Game Free: A Guide to the Meaning of Intimacy,says the results of such elements include wholeness, freedom, spontaneity, and a gift-like quality, among other things. Horn has created a simple formula for this system of sharing and taking: enacted responsiveness (or personal disclosure) leads to perceived partner responsiveness (or an empathic reaction from the receiver) which then leads to intimacy. Unfortunately, this system is often—and perhaps, at times, necessarily—disrupted in migrant worker life; the separation starts on an individual level, which then overflows into the community as a whole. This is successfully represented in Under the Feet of Jesus. Unfortunately, it has not received as much analysis as the story’s racial, environmental, feminist, and economic issues have. A general analysis of individual and cultural isolation within the novel, their negative effects, and possible solutions to these issues is in order to fully comprehend what Viramontes has accomplished with her writing.
The main character, Estrella, first encounters isolation when her family is abandoned by her biological father. Estrella seems to both obsess over and reject her father by her lack of respect for Perfecto, her stepfather. Through this action (or lack thereof), she is both demanding the presence of her father and denying any male authority. In fact, she does not seem to approve of any authority; she does not respect the nurse in the clinic, nor does she listen to her mother’s commands to stay inside at night. She separates herself from the adults, and, when she becomes one herself, she is a much different kind of adult than any other older character in the story. She is generally distrustful of others, even within the Hispanic community. For instance, Alejo, the boy who loves her, gathers the courage to ask her a couple of innocent questions about her name and siblings. In response, Estrella tells him she doesn’t appreciate too many questions and frankly implies that it is none of his business. Interestingly, this is the one person who becomes close to her. It is possible that her relationship with Alejo subconsciously functions as a replacement for the relationship she did not have with her father, for it is certainly much more rewarding in terms of intimacy. Even so, Estrella has trouble:
Yeah, and Estrella pointed to the bottle because she wanted to tell him how good she felt but didn’t know how to build the house of words she could invite him into. That was real good, she said, and they looked at one another and waited. Build rooms as big as barns. He held the neck of the empty bottle tight and traced the thick spout with his thumb. Wide-open windows where she could put candlelights and people from across the way would point at the glow and not feel so alone in the night (Viramontes 70).
This implies, in Estrella, a case of alexithymia, a personality trait literally translated as “without words for emotions.” People suffering from alexithymia find it difficult to identify and express emotions. Although men are diagnosed more often than women, a study by Ronald F. Levant and Y. Joel Wong found that traditional masculine ideology, an ideology that, among other things, stresses emotional repression and is a possible factor in the cause of alexithymia, was emphasized upon racial minority women as much as white men. Not only that, but the study also found that racial minority men statistically emphasize this ideology as much or more than white men. In this novel, Estrella has been exposed to traditional masculine ideology, firstly through the fact that her biological father left the family (supposedly with another woman), leaving her mother to take care of the children alone. Secondly, when he does leave, it is Estrella who must immediately take care of the children by playing music on an empty Quaker Oats oatmeal container, the music just as empty as the instrument. Petra was informed before the abandonment that it would be unwise of her to leave her husband even though it was obvious that the marriage was dissolving. Ultimately, Estrella is shown that it is not Petra who can support her own family but Perfecto, who comes along later in her life and supports them. Trauma or emotional neglect has also been found to be linked to alexithymia (Malek Bajbouj, et al). As previously mentioned, Estrella has experienced emotional neglect by her father, and her mother, an overworked mother of five, cannot possibly make up for it. As for being able to identify her emotions, Estrella shows difficulty in the clinic scene when she threatens the nurse: “She did not feel like herself holding the money. She felt like two Estrellas. One was a silent phantom who obediently marked a circle with a stick around the bungalow as the mother had requested, while the other held the crowbar and the money” (150).
It is encouraging to note that despite Estrella’s difficulties with intimacy, she is not indifferent to the concept, as Viramontes shows here: “Estrella often wondered what happened to all the things they boxed away in tool chests and kept to themselves” (25). She actually starts to form a friendship in the beginning of the novel with Maxine Devridge, the girl who was the most difficult to befriend in the whole labor camp. Maxine is crude, much too forward, unclean, uneducated, and has multiple family members in jail, yet when they both engage in a massive fist fight, Estrella immediately expects her to “say something like forget it, or let’s go look for the dead dog, or read me this one or even, what you do that fo’?” (36). Unfortunately, like so many friendships for migrant workers, it is inevitable that they separate even if they did not fight. When Estrella is finally willing to form an intimate bond, her necessary lifestyle forces her to detach herself.
The abandonment by Estrella’s father links daughter and mother: as far as the reader knows, this incident introduces both characters to isolation and is a semi-traumatic event that possibly causes subconscious discontent. Before being abandoned by him, the reader learns that nobody could stop Petra from running away with and marrying him. This rash action would take some amount of trust, thus implying intimacy. When it becomes clear that the marriage is falling apart, Petra apparently considers leaving him, for she is told: “To run away from your husband would be a mistake. … You’ll be a forever alone woman” (13). Again, traditional masculine ideology is emphasized here for both Petra and Estrella, in that Petra cannot run away because she cannot support her children alone as well as in the fact that he has the power to find and hurt them while Petra does not. Besides this ideological link, mother and daughter do not share a close relationship. Petra has four other children, an adopted husband, and a laborious job to take care of, which does not leave her much time to give enough attention to any of them. Estrella herself has a laborious job and a boyfriend to distract her in addition to the numerous chores she has in their makeshift home. Coupled with her distrustful and reserved nature, Estrella would not be prone to be open to her mother even if the time were given to them. For the life this mother lives, there is just not enough time in the day to establish meaningful relationships with the ones she loves. It is interesting to note, however, that she does not completely cut herself off: when Alejo becomes deathly ill, she is the authority figure to pronounce him worthy of hospitality. She refuses to leave him, saying, “If we don’t take care of each other, who would take care of us? … We have to look out for our own” (96). Estrella, on the other hand, abandons him with little sign of outward emotion, even though it is not out of indifference or dislike that she behaves this way but rather through sheer practicality. Perfecto did not initially want him in the household, using him only as a bargaining tool with Estrella. The rest of Petra’s family—namely the smaller children—are assumedly indifferent to Alejo’s fate. So therefore, even though she is just as isolated as anyone else in the story, Petra is nevertheless capable and willing to involve herself with others. She still feels a close connection to family and people, unlike some of the other characters.
Perfecto’s distance from his adopted family might come as a surprise to some; after all, he did adopt them. Why else would he agree to take care of them under no obligation if he didn’t like or wish to connect with them in some way? The reader learns that Perfecto is very lonely, which Andre Steptoe supports by stating that older people are more likely to feel this way because they are usually more socially isolated. They are also more likely to be unactive, smokers, drinkers, and have bad diets, all of which affect physical and mental health. While Perfecto doesn’t drink, smoke, or stay inactive, he has significantly more stress than the average American older male, which negatively affects his heart (he shakes and loses his breath when trying to get the car out of the mud to take Alejo to the clinic). Without proper social support, Perfecto—and the elderly in general—will have a harder time overcoming health problems.
But does Perfecto’s adopted family really help him? From the flashback at their first meeting, Viramontes implies that he perhaps saw an opportunity for a symbiotic relationship, which is how Perfecto survives. Every new place he enters he scans for disrepair and deficiency, hoping to fix something in exchange for services or goods. In Petra’s case, he might have seen a woman in need of a man, and he in return is probably a man in need of a woman. This is not to say that Perfecto is using Petra for sex; as already mentioned, he is in fact very lonely and wishes only to go home. He had a wife with whom he, as far as the reader knows, had a loving and lasting relationship, and somewhere he has children. Petra might have been a chance of replicating this situation, thereby creating a loose tie with his own family. Petra, of course, now has a man to help support her children. However, their relationship is not the ideal basis for a marriage. By the end of the novel, she still has not told him that she is pregnant, and he has not told her of his home sickness or his plans to potentially abandon the family. When they first arrive to their temporary home, Petra does not give a direct answer to Perfecto’s question of “Is this it?” but instead crosses her arms and thanks God (6). Because of the traditional masculine ideology that is stressed in their lives, Petra and Perfecto are further separated by their gender roles; what could be bonding time is used up by either taking care of the children or fixing the shabby house. Thus, Perfecto does not have an adequate social network to help his aging difficulties.
Scott D. Siegel, in an experiment with couples experiencing breast cancer, found that those with well-functioning marriages were the best at coping and recovering from the disease. Married people in general, he noted, tend to live longer lives and have better chances of overcoming stress. McGill’s study on male intimacy supports this, stating that those without effective stress management have increased chances for heart disease, depression, ulcers, insomnia, weight loss or gain, impotence, and suicide. Males, his study found, are generally more likely to withhold personal information from their wives and less likely to seek emotional advice, consequently furthering their high stress. Perfecto’s temporary “marriage” with Petra, then, is already doomed to fail based off this data and will not help either partner in their health problems (Perfecto with his heart and Petra with her varicose veins). The reader can then assume that both of their conditions will only worsen under their strained relationship.
The one character who shows the most intimacy in Viramontes’s novel is Alejo. He has a loving relationship with his grandmother, by whom he was raised, shown by Viramtones’s comment that “She would do anything to allow her grandson to get schooling” (50-51). He sends her money from every pay check, and if he were not working the fields “he would be rubbing [her cold hands] with camphor balsam as thick as Vaseline right this minute, then wrapping them with a towel warmed in the oven” (54). He has a brotherly bond with Gumecindo, his cousin, who is helping him in the fields to earn money for high school; whenever Gumecindo gets jumpy, it is Alejo who comforts him, such as when he tells Gumecindo that the noises in the night are just cats fighting and not La Llorona coming to get them. It does not take long for Alejo to fall in love with Estrella. He is entranced at his first sight of her swimming in the creek, and, only one day later, he visits the family and gives them food in an attempt to meet her. It only takes four more encounters for him to kiss her. He even fears for a young boy he spots playing near the decaying barn at night, and he helps the boy forget his wound by creating shadow puppets with his hands. Nevertheless, even Alejo is abandoned by none other than Estrella herself. While it is not the same kind of abandonment that her father and perhaps Perfecto commit, Alejo too experiences isolation. Unlike the other characters, though, Alejo’s abandonment may very well end in death.
According to Shi Huang, identity formation is the “central developmental task” of adolescence (318). Along with intimacy within committed relationships, identity formation can be a predictor of future happiness. Young migrant workers—such as Alejo, Gumecindo, Estrella, and her siblings—have much difficulty establishing identity formation because they are presented with two different cultures. They must choose between the culture of Perfecto and Petra, which includes superstitions, traditional masculine ideology, and an unstable sense of home, and the culture of the nurse in the clinic, which includes a permanent home, cleanliness, and the promise of equal opportunity. Both cultures have their pros and cons, and to young migrant workers it may be confusing as to which is right and which they belong to. As legal citizens, Alejo and Estrella have always lived in a place that has technically given them equal rights and opportunities to health care, education, and employment, but they are a part of a community that experiences the opposite and to which they are closer since it includes their families. They are stuck in the middle, therefore inhibiting any formation of an identity in a cultural sense. Alejo and Estrella demonstrate a relatively committed relationship, but Petra and both men she has lived with show that this is not necessarily a usual case within the migrant worker community. Even if Alejo had not been sprayed with pesticide, it is probable that Estrella would have been separated from him in the end; he would have gone back to his grandmother to attend high school, and Estrella would inevitably move to another job. Migrant workers, as the novel says in the beginning, can “depend on nothing,” including any type of constant relationship (4). According to Huang, then, Estrella’s and Alejo’s future happiness—whether together or alone—seems doubtful.
Donald S. Williamson, in his book The Intimacy Paradox, argues for another fundamental issue in adolescence: “How does one leave home emotionally and yet somehow still remain lovingly connected within the family of origin?” (3). It is a paradox, he says, because a young person wants to become independent and free but at the same time wants to share his or her feelings and ideas within the context of a close relationship with the very people he or she plans on leaving. This situation can either lead to well-functioning transgenerational connections or stressful competitions for power. Alejo, in one sense, seems to have dealt with this well because he has successfully left home to make money for his education. His grandmother, for all the reader knows, has no issue with his leaving home. In another sense, Alejo has not dealt with this situation at all because he will eventually go back. Williamson’s book seems to directly target Estrella’s character, even though she is not physically leaving home. At the end of the novel, it is apparent that the family structure is changing to allow the protagonist more power within the family unit. Perhaps this will lead to a more psychological equality—and thus understanding—between Estrella and Petra. Williamson also notes the opposite result, in which the parent feels threatened by the potential loss of self and role in the family. However, in this case, Petra might not mind the extra help, and, in fact, might be too stressed to notice any change. Whether this change will be better or worse for Estrella’s ability to form close relationships is hard to tell; with her current social behavior and new role as leader, it is easy to imagine less time for bonding, but her power may also bring forth opportunities and perhaps duties to get to know others (one has to know others to lead them).
Bernard Murchland, in The Age of Alienation, links personal isolation to the alienation of a whole community: “… the conditions of society can create problems for the self. Conversely, sick people are likely to create a sick society” (23). James D. Wright, in quoting J. Fraser, supports this view in The Dissent of the Governed: Alienation and Democracy in America: “political [alienation] is not caused by political actors and objects at all, but is solely a function of essentially non-political feelings” (104). One can be alienated from the self as much as he or she is alienated from society or from friends and family, possibly resulting in depersonalization, depression, amnesia, hysteria, schizophrenia, unresponsiveness, indifference, and insensitivity, among other things. Thus, there is a wall within the characters that must be overcome before surmounting the wall between themselves and others. Estrella experiences alienation of self in the health clinic scene when she sees herself as two different people. She is not necessarily indifferent to the incident, but she is insensitive to an extent; not only does she believe that she is justified in threatening the nurse, but she also suddenly contemplates red bell peppers immediately afterwards for no apparent reason (“Estrella looked out again at the valleys and peaks of the mountains they were heading for. She thought of bell peppers. It was odd that this thought came to her” (152) ). Her nature, as already established, is distrustful and stand-offish, resulting in multiple occasions of outward unresponsiveness (when she abandons Alejo at the hospital, it is surprising to see her act so stoically. Is she not heartbroken at losing her love?). Perfecto has sensed a growing distance between himself and his home—in many ways his former and perhaps ideal self. Throughout the novel, he expresses a fear of losing the knowledge of how to gain himself back (“What would happen if he forgot his way home?” (79) ). Petra also experiences anxiety, which Murchland describes as one of the “principle psychological cognates for alienation,” although she experiences fear on a larger scale (23). She is very superstitious, always creating circles in the dusty ground to ward off scorpions. When she realizes that her husband has left her and his children, she experiences something similar to a panic attack: “ … her mouth desperate, desperate for air. She was falling, toppling over a freeway bridge, her eyes shut to the swamp-colored trash bags squatting full of the family’s belongings scattered about the room. … She clapped her hands against her ears and screamed Stop it, Stop it, Stop it!” (17-18). As a mother, she is afraid for her children, both born and unborn. Due to Perfecto’s support of her offspring, she is naturally nervous of him leaving (and possibly opening old wounds). Viramontes even tells the reader that nervousness runs in her family: “They had whispered among them, las mujeres de la familia, about grandmother and how much of a nervous viejita she was” (165). Anxiety can be just as isolating as silence; as Murchland explains, fear can squeeze and smother a person, and can act as an “oppressive constriction” (23). The Latin word from which anxiety derives, angustia, implies confining and limited living space. Petra’s so-called home is a perfect example of anxiety materialized, representing another angle to the alienation of this family. Alejo, meanwhile, seems to be well-grounded in this regard; he sees himself as a rock, a piece of the earth, implying a world view that includes a direct and solid reality: “ … he believed himself to be a solid mass of boulder thrust out of the earth and not some particle lost in infinite and cosmic space” (52). Confusion does not exist in Alejo’s world because reality is forward and concrete. However, like Perfecto, a part of him remains somewhere besides the labor camp, back in Texas with his grandmother and potential education. Unfortunately, and partly due to the characters’ necessary lifestyles, alienation of the self is not overcome, and consequently neither is alienation from society.
Wright expresses a frightening outcome of this situation in his research: “What alienation ‘is’ depends on its effects” (256). Since the alienated do not always express their alienation, possibly because they cannot overcome the alienation of themselves first, it is therefore not a threat to democracy. Indeed, to refrain from voting or participating politically in other ways is often the only form of power the alienated group has. Alienated groups also maintain the beliefs that nothing they do can make a difference and that they are forever powerless. What is troubling about this is that the American belief that a democratic government is completely dependent upon the people it governs is shattered, and, in fact, alienation might possibly be a normal function in a democratic, capitalist society. The American Dream, a resulting phenomenon from this basic belief, is thus unattainable for Estrella and her family if not for many American citizens. Since they cannot further themselves economically, they most likely will not have the power to express their social alienation, and thus it becomes a vicious cycle.
Although political alienation is not necessarily counter-productive to government, as Wright suggests, this does not mean that it cannot be alleviated. Murchland cites theories that suggest science and technology help humanity progress towards freedom; however, those who praise technology for its potential can turn around and criticize it for the same thing. For example, the Internet, while extremely important in society and the globalization of the world, can just as easily be denounced for the access it gives pedophiles and cyberbullies to their victims. Other theories suggest higher education as a simple solution. Education, though, does not seem to be an accurate indicator of those who support or oppress freedom; Abraham Lincoln was not formerly educated, while Joseph Göbbels, Propaganda Minister for the Nazis, had a PhD in Romantic Literature. What Murchland mentions as a better solution is a way to unify experiences; “What alienation comes to, after all, is the fragmentation of experience” (181). What will unify experiences is simple creativity;since reality is made and not discovered, Murchland asserts, “the work of intelligence functioning imaginatively” is a great way to overcome social barriers (188). Works such as Under the Feet of Jesus or even John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which is extremely similar to Viramontes’s novel, accomplish this by representing the opposite of what they mean to solve, and in many ways give to the reader what the characters lack. Murchland sums it up quite nicely when he states, “The center of moral gravity lies along the horizon of [man’s] creative powers” (199).
Personal isolation, however, is not so easy to fix for Viramontes’s characters. Sexual closeness, an essential part of romantic relationships, does not seem to help Perfecto or Petra, nor does it seem to be a defining piece of Estrella’s and Alejo’s relationship. In fact, it could likely destroy a relationship in this community by producing an unwanted child as is Petra’s case at the end of the novel. Concrete, visible ways of showing affection, such as cooking a meal or buying presents, and which could potentially lead to intimacy according to Horn’s formula for intimacy, are very difficult for migrant workers to perform because of financial and time constraints. There are rarely any stable elements, such as identity formation in adolescence, in a migrant worker’s life that could lead to committed relationships. Traditional masculine ideology tells women like Petra and Estrella that their opinions will not be heard in many areas of adult life, such as budgetary issues; likewise, men like Perfecto and Alejo are told to repress emotions, which raises their stress levels. Children coming to age, like Estrella, are not guaranteed emotional equality in the home, and their independency may well end in estrangement from their families. Marriages rarely have any solid ground in this type of community, and friendships are doomed by the constant shift of harvest jobs. At the end of the novel, many readers see hope in Estrella’s symbolical ascension into freedom; psychologically, one could interpret the scene to mean that she will break all barriers, both mental and spiritual. However, the ending is also discouraging when the reader realizes that there is still the threat of jail, still harvesting to be done, Perfecto may very well abandon the family, and discrimination against the migrant worker community has not vanished. In result, the ending could mean more isolation for Estrella—and ultimately, all the characters—rather than less.
None of the characters in Under the Feet of Jesus have a reliable reason to believe in committed and close relationships, whether they desire them or not. This is mainly due to their lifestyles, which are necessary and, some would argue, imposed upon them by the larger American society they find themselves in. These lifestyles are defined by unpredictability, untrustworthiness, high stress, low satisfaction, and constant change, none of which is conducive to intimacy. This represents itself on a larger scale through the political alienation of migrant workers, which can have similar effects on a wider group of people as personal isolation does on one individual. Solutions to these problems are not easy, although many have given theories; alas, they do not do much to serve Estrella, her family, and those who can relate to them. In the end, all one can do is make society aware. As Murchland states, “ … some new combination of art and politics would be a most desirable form of creativity today” (199). Such is Viramontes’s work, and such is the first step in bridging the gap between the lonely and the powerful.
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