Feminist Theory in Helena Maria Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus
The novel Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes follows the experiences of thirteen-year-old Estrella and her migrant family. As the story progresses in this work, each of the characters has their own set of struggles that they must overcome. tOne can, perhaps, best analyze this text and the characters’ struggles through a feminist point of view. During this exploration feminist theory itself will be defined, examples will be drawn from the novel, and outside sources will be consulted to help establish a deeper understanding in this important book.
Many readers think that looking at a work through a feminist lens means that they are taking a strictly female point of view on a certain book or article. However, according to Lois Tyson in her book Using Critical Theory, “Feminist theory asks us to examine, instead, the ways in which our personal identity is formed by our culture’s definitions of what it means to be a man or a woman” (139). This theory focuses on traditional roles that are associated with both genders. Some important concepts that readers should know regarding feminism include patriarchal society, traditional gender roles, the objectification of women, sexism, and the “cult of true womanhood.” A patriarchal society refers to a society in which men hold most of the power. These societies typically limit the power and options that women have (Tyson 141). Traditional gender roles are the roles that are associated more closely with a certain gender. Strong decision-making roles are traditionally held by men, while submissive, nurturing roles are considered feminine. The objectification of women breaks down into the concepts of “good girls,” “bad girls,” and other female stereotypes. The “good girls” adhere to the traditional female gender roles and are desirable as wives and mothers. “Bad girls,” on the other hand, break their expected roles and are usually considered impure and are therefore discarded (Tyson 142). Sexism is the belief that women are inferior to men. Finally, the “cult of true womanhood” refers to the ideal or “true” woman. According to Tyson, this ideal woman is “fragile, submissive, and sexually pure.” This woman is also associated with the home, not with hard labor out in the world (Tyson 143). With the basic terms defined, one can dive into an examination of the novel.
Knowing Viramontes’ family history sheds new light on the novel Under the Feet of Jesus. Helena Maria Viramontes was a migrant worker in California, much like the characters in the novel. Like Estrella, Viramontes had many siblings that she helped take care of. Her mother was kind and energetic (Latimer 324). Though the mother in the novel, Petra, is tired and suffers from varicose veins, she does all she can to be a good mother. Petra loves her children, but knows that they are living a difficult life. “She wanted her children to stay innocent and honest, wanted them to be as content as when they first arrived somewhere; but she forced them to be older for their own safety” (Viramontes 40). Viramontes father, much like Estrella’s, was not someone she had a close relationship with. According to Latimer, Viramontes’ father was a cruel alcoholic (324). The lack of a strong father figure ends up being a source of resentment within Estrella, but the roots of this abandonment run even deeper knowing the author’s own history. Another similarity between Viramontes and Estrella is their household. When she was growing up, Viramontes had many people living with her –including distant family and friends (Latimer 325). This also connects to an idea of family being more than just parents and children –as she writes in the book, “If we don’t take care of each other, who would take care of us? Petra asked. We have to look out for our own” (Viramontes 96).
The migrant community is often considered a patriarchal society. In a flashback, Viramontes alludes to the fact that Petra had thought about leaving her husband, but the women in the camp told her that this idea was dangerous, “To run away from your husband would be a mistake…You’ll be a forever alone woman…nobody wants a woman with a bunch of orphans, nobody. You don’t know what hunger is until your huercos tell you to your face, then what you gonna do?” (Viramontes 13). These warnings turn out to be futile when Petra’s husband ends up abandoning her instead. Even though he has left her alone with their children, she continues sending him her hard earned money until she has nothing left. Petra was put in a terrible position due to this abandonment. She had five children that she had to take care of single-handedly. The kids needed to hear something, and she didn’t know what to say. “Petra lied to Estrella because she shouldn’t know her father evicted all of them from the vacancy of his heart and so she lied right to her daughter’s face, right through the cage of her very teeth and then she realized that truth was only a lesser degree of lies” (Viramontes 17). Petra is put into an awkward position as a loving, hard working mother. No one wants to tell their children that they have been abandoned by their own father. Lies might be frustrating, but the truth can sometimes cause more damage.
Early on, readers are introduced to the difficult situations that these two women are placed in and how they handle them. In the event of her father leaving, Estrella shoulders some of the parental duties around the house. Petra struggles to hold herself together, while Estrella helps keep the younger children content. During a flashback in the novel, after Estrella’s father had left, we see some of the aftermath. She sets the children down in the kitchen to play with pots and pans. Petra comes from the other room screaming for them to stop. Her two sons, Ricky and Arnulfo, hide from her, but Estrella steps between her mother and her siblings telling her, “Stop this now!” (Viramontes 18). Petra runs from the apartment. She remembers her own childhood and slowly trudges back to the apartment where Estrella is drumming on an empty Quaker Oats box as she dances for the kids.
The next father figure that this family obtains in the novel is Perfecto Flores. In another of Viramontes flashback scenes, readers see how Petra first met Perfecto. She and her five children make the long trek to the market for food. Estrella carries the twins across the road, much to Petra’s chagrin. She tells the twins next time they can walk. As Petra and Estrella start to fill their basket with Spam, Perfecto is in the back fixing the freezer. Petra hears him tell the store owner, “Trust me” (Viramontes 109). Perfecto then helps her pick out garlic, and he gives her small children outside some ice to eat. As they begin the walk home, she starts thinking to herself, “Trust me, he had said when she entered the store, and by chance, she would” (Viramontes 114). Here, Petra has met a man old enough to be her father, but she has seen his kindness and builds hope upon that. As their relationship grows, Petra begins to get paranoid. She depends more on him as the leader of their family than she should. At one point she takes away his car keys without telling him why. When he gives them to her, she puts them into her apron pocket so that she will have them close. She is scared that he is going to leave like her husband had, which ends up being a justifiable fear. When Petra finds herself pregnant again, Perfecto, readers learn, becomes more convinced than ever that he should leave. He wants to go home to Mexico. At the end of the novel, Perfecto is leaning against the car thinking about packing up and leaving at that moment. Petra is watching him from the porch. She feels the possibility of him leaving her alone. “That was all she had: papers and sticks and broken faith and Perfecto, and at this moment all of this seemed as weightless against the massive darkness, as the head she held” (Viramontes 168-9). Petra feels it in her gut that her life is not as solid as she had been hoping it had become. Everything is falling apart on her again, and she doesn’t seem sure that she is strong enough to salvage her family again. Both Petra and Estrella continually learn the same lesson –men cannot always be counted on. Estrella’s father walked out on the family, and now Perfecto is considering doing the same. As soon as Petra learns to trust a man, he abandons her. Estrella is forced to experience this concept as well with Alejo. Though he is not the one who abandons her, the situation breaks her heart. Estrella leaves him at the hospital after he begged her to stay. “Alejo’s lower lip had trembled and his eyes began to well and his tears caught her by surprise. Please, he begged. Just stay with me for a while” (Viramontes 169). Estrella knew she had bigger responsibilities than caring for another migrant worker who comes and goes with the crops.
Under the Feet of Jesus also tackles the objectification of women. For the most part the women in this novel could be considered “bad girls.” One example of this concept is Perfecto’s wife Mercedes. They have sex out of wedlock in a canyon. She becomes pregnant, and the baby dies. She blames Perfecto because his religion denied her the right to an education about birthing. He found it to be a punishment for what they had done. “But Perfecto knew better; there was no absolution for their love in the canyon. It was about travesties, about transgression” (Viramontes 80). Mercedes put a large amount of trust in Perfecto to love her and keep her safe, but due to their indiscretion and the consequence, he saw that what they had done was truly sin. She broke the traditional role of purity and paid the consequences with Perfecto.
Petra can also be seen as a “bad girl.” She tries to nurture her family as much as she can, but she struggles a lot along the way. At first she is a “good girl.” She has a husband and takes care of her home. She stays with her husband even though she has doubts. Then, her life is turned upside down when he abandons her. From that point on, she is working double time to try to provide for her children. She takes a lover that is twice her age. Petra begins to get paranoid that he will leave her too. Petra becomes pregnant again, and she expects that she will have a man there to help take care of her growing family. She believes that their love is lasting, and that Perfecto is loyal to her and her family. She thinks to herself, “Love, Petra knew, came and went. But it was loyalty that kept them on a tightrope together when it was gone, kept them from seeing the void beneath their feet…” (Viramontes 118). However, Perfecto is ready to bolt. He knows he is getting old, and he wants to return to his homeland. Even though she is pregnant with his child, he is ready to discard her. Petra breaks traditional roles out of necessity and desperation, rendering her a “bad girl.”
In many ways, Estrella most closely resembles a “good girl” in this novel. Though she does break some traditional roles by being a hard working independent woman, she still maintains her purity and angelic features. Her name translates as “Star.” The last image we have of Estrella is ethereal. Viramontes writes, “Estrella remained as immobile as an angel standing on the verge of faith. Like the chiming bells of the great cathedrals, she believed her heart powerful enough to summon home all those who strayed” (176). She remains strong and pure in the face of so much strife. Alejo watches Estrella because she is a “good girl” living the tough life of a migrant worker. Alejo has respect for Estrella as a person. One morning he wants to hold her and talk to her. Alejo says, “Wait, wait. I wish I could spend a whole day with you and talk about everything under the sky. I mean it” (Viramontes 116). He respects Estrella and her company. In the end, whenever they must leave Alejo at the hospital, he wants her to stay with him. He is scared of being alone. Estrella realizes in that moment that her family needs her more. When she exits the hospital she pretends that she has powers to part the glass doors. “Estrella parted the doors like a sea of glass and walked through and the glass shut behind her and they couldn’t believe what they saw” (Viramontes 156). The kids are mesmerized by the idea that Estrella could do magic. She is like a guardian angel to the family.
This novel contains literal examples of the objectification of women as well. The first real depiction of women being objectified is in Maxine’s comics. When Maxine first asks Estrella to read to her, Viramontes describes the picture on the cover, “…Maxine pointed to the picture of Millie the Model, her bold yellow hair in a flowing flip, her painted breasts perfect smiles on her chest. The model was crying, big tears melting from her ice blue eyes” (Viramontes 30). Maxine and Estrella work hard every day as migrant workers. They get dirty, wear torn clothes, and do not have the luxury of bathing regularly. The magazine that they read has a typical blonde hair, blue-eyed “bombshell” on the cover. This much coveted all-American girl appearance is something that these girls simply do not have access too.
Another instance of objectification in this novel involves Alejo. Though he respects and cares for Estrella, he often finds himself staring at her. The first example of this is when Alejo first notices Estrella as he is gathering peaches and she is trying to gather her dropped watermelon. Of the encounter, Vitramontes writes, “It was probably not as smooth as he imagined and it took less than a minute, the way she gathered her printed dress up and over her bare buttocks, to the small of her back, over her neck, and onto the weeds” (39). He is unable to stop himself from watching this mesmerizing girl as she struggles to pick up her dropped watermelon. He is drawn to her again later on in the novel when the workers are all in the truck on the way to the fields. “Her chest jiggled like flan custard beneath her shirt whenever the truck bounced” (Viramontes 65). These two awkward situations in which Alejo is studying Estrella really show how young he is. The migrant life makes children grow up quickly, but Alejo is a prime example of a fifteen-year-old-boy trying to figure out how life works.
Another aspect of feminist theory that most of the women in this story defy is the “cult of true womanhood.” A woman in this category, according to Lois Tyson, is supposed to be submissive, weak, domestic, and pure. Estrella and Petra completely break this mold. They work incredibly hard. As Estrella says, “Morning, noon, or night, four or fourteen or forty it was all the same. She stepped forward, her body never knowing how tired it was until she moved once again. Don’t cry” (Viramontes 53). Women are forced to multi-task out in the fields. They not only work hard, but they also have to take care of their young children in these dangerous fields. In an article by critic Anne Shea, she talks about the life of migrant working women. She uses a passage from Maria Carmona, one of the founders of the Farmworker Women’s Leadership Project that applies well to the experiences of the women in Under the Feet of Jesus. She says:
Farm work is hard. After working in the fields, you come home exhausted. As a woman, when you get home, you don’t lay down to rest… You have to keep on working. When you get home, you have to do all the housework –cleaning, sweeping, washing dishes, and cooking… That’s the experience that thousands of women live through every day…(136-7)
This is how the world works for Estrella and Petra. Petra seems to always be cleaning, cooking, and caring for the little kids. Estrella picks up some of these duties, but they are both constantly working. Estrella even asks Petra, “Don’t you ever get tired?” Petra simply says “And?” (Viramontes 42) before she turns away. They lack the luxury of staying at home, being weak, or being cared for –they have to be strong enough to provide for the rest of their family.
Perhaps the most important aspect of feminism in relation to Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus is through portrayals and manipulations of traditional gender roles. Generally, children are expected to learn and grow. They typically go to school and play with their friends; however, in this novel, children grow up fast. From the time they are babies, migrant children are in the fields. Estrella recollects the memories of her mother allowing her to lie down and sleep on the bag of cotton. She remembers her mother dragging her around lulled her to sleep. Not long after remembering her own childhood in the fields, her little brother Ricky finds her. “He looked feverish…You don’t know how to work with the sun yet” (Viramontes 53). Though young, the kids are expected to work in the fields even though they are not quite able to handle the severity of the conditions. The kids also struggle to grow up. Petra recalls what it was like when she menstruated for the first time, “The first time she saw her own undergarment darkened with purple blood, she swore she was bleeding to death because no one had told her otherwise” (Viramontes 121). Petra fears Estrella growing up –she knows that she will not be able to protect her daughter from the pain to come. As mothers, the migrant women feel the pressure to protect their children even though they know that kids must grow up fast to survive. They feel the pressure as they walk the thin line between being tender mothers and forcing their children to be strong and independent.
Men are expected to be hard-working individuals who can support their families; however, many of the men in this story break this mold. Petra’s husband abandons the family, leaving her alone to care for their five children. Once he is gone, he reaches out to Petra only to receive money. Later in the story, Petra meets Perfecto. Though he is much older, he is an incredibly hard worker. When he walks into a building he looks for anything he can fix so he can barter with the business owner. Perfecto goes so far as to care for Petra’s kids as if they were his own. As the story winds down, however, readers see that he too may abandon the family so he can return to his Mexican roots. The final strong male presence in this novel is Alejo. He is a loyal young man with big dreams. He works hard, and he sends money to his grandma in Texas whenever he can. After he becomes ill, he is forced to be bedridden and cared for by Estrella and her family. His role as a hardworking dreamer gets taken from him.
Typically, assigned roles for women are traditionally given as vulnerable, weak caretakers. Petra, in contrast, works hard to take care of her family. She works in the fields and goes home to work there too. Even when she breaks down after her husband leaves her, Petra quickly returns to her children. She has learned to be strong and resourceful with deep maternal instincts. “Petra has learned to shape the shelter of home from the people, the family that surrounds her rather than to seek stability from buildings” (Lawless 366). Because the family is constantly moving, they have not been able to have a house to call their own. Petra works to build a home full of family that she can depend on. Her role is much more masculine than it would typically be. Estrella begins as a carefree girl running through the weeds with her siblings, and she ends as a strong young woman seemingly ready to take on the difficulties of her migrant life. She grows and evolves before the readers’ eyes.
In stark contrast to the physically demanding work the migrant workers do on a daily basis, the nurse from the nursing station works in a clean environment:
A young woman emerged holding her purse and car keys. She looked both surprised and distraught. She had on a fresh coat of red lipstick, and the thick scent of carnation perfume made Estrella think she was there in the trailer all along, in the bathroom. The woman looked at her Timex wristwatch. (137)
The nurse represents a more stereotypical “female role.” The nurse has what the family pictures as the typical “American” life. She wears a clean white uniform, perfume, and bright red lipstick while Estrella and her family wear dirty clothes. The nurse’s children get to go to school and daycare –they have access to a “normal” childhood. Estrella and her siblings have constantly been turned away and denied by the education system for being “dirty” and “transient.” “But some of the teachers were more concerned about the dirt under her fingernails…They said good luck to her when the pisca was over, reserving the desks in the back of the classroom for the next batch of migrant children” (Viramontes 24-5). The nurse goes home every night, has a stable job, and a salary that can support her family.
Perfecto and Estrella seem to engage in a gender role reversal during this story. In the beginning, Perfecto can be seen as the head of the family. While Estrella runs around the barn, Perfecto is inspecting the bungalow to see what he has to do. After she scares the children at the barn, he reprimands her. This seems to depict a normal father figure and daughter relationship –he is in charge, and she is a child; however, early on readers get a clue that this situation might change. Estrella and Perfecto are working on the bungalow to make the bedrooms livable, and he is struggling to get up. “Although reluctant at first, Estrella helped him up from his knees by cupping her hand under his elbow” (Viramontes 27). This is an early indicator that Perfecto is getting tired, and that he needs some help –Estrella can easily lend him a hand.
As the plot evolves, it becomes more evident that Estrella is maturing and Perfecto is becoming more helpless. At one point, Estrella is described, “Except for the dress she’d pulled over her work clothes, she resembled a young man, standing in the barn’s shadow” (Viramontes 74). This image makes Estrella seem older, and the idea of her looking masculine makes the new role she is taking on seem less shocking. Many clues add together to make Perfecto’s withdrawal from his traditional role seem obvious. One of the first signs that presents itself is that his memory starts to fade. He continuously forgets details about his life and every day events. He also pulls away from Petra in bed. “She [Petra] felt Perfecto grab her hand if only for a moment, then push it away, in a gesture that was not mean, just definite” (Viramontes 118). He has already grown distant from Petra, who depends on him more than he realizes.
One of the key actions that shows the shift in leadership and roles between Estrella and Perfecto is when they are pushing the truck. After he starts to get shaky with effort, Estrella takes over, “Perfecto Flores, Estrella said, tapping the top of his straw hat gently, let me do it. You get behind the wheel. Without objecting, he relinquished the shovel and leaned against the hood of the wagon, struggling for breath” (Viramontes 129). Perfecto struggles with his health. He constantly loses his breath and grips his heart in the novel. Estrella becomes the force pushing the truck, and therefore she is the one moving the family forward, while he remains static.
The final stage of the shift of power is in the infamous scene with nurse. Perfecto has paid the money for the already known information, and he begins to lead the family back to the car. Estrella comes back with the crowbar demanding only what her family deserves. “Perfecto moved forward to grab the crowbar, but Petra held him back” (Viramontes 149). Perfeto makes a half-hearted effort to stop Estrella, but he is easily swayed not to. Estrella has taken over the family in the leadership role. He had relinquished all the money the family had like the honorable man he is, but Estrella knows that her family needs the money back for Alejo’s survival. She comes back in to claim it by force.
The end of the novel solidifies the decisions that the characters have been making all along. Perfecto seems like he will run away, just like Estrella’s father did in the past. “Perfecto wanted to load up his tools, a few blankets, some peaches. He couldn’t tell whether it was love or simply fear that held him back…If he left right this minute, without even turning back, pulled the arrow of pain from his belly, he would have a second chance” (Viramontes 163). Perfecto loves this family, but he had his own life before he found them. With his health in question and his wavering memory, Perfecto has a decision to make. The final powerful image readers have of Estrella is of her standing on the roof of the dilapidated barn. “Estrella remained as immobile as an angel standing on the verge of faith. Like the chiming bells of the great cathedrals, she believed her heart powerful enough to summon home all those who strayed” (Viramontes 176). In the end, while Perfecto and Petra seem to be shattering, Estrella stands tall on the barn. The image of strength and courage to get her family through the hard times is evident. She truly wants those she loves to be home.
Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus focuses on this migrant family as they struggle to make ends meet. The men in this story struggle to find themselves. Alejo has big dreams, but he may be too ill to ever reach them. Perfecto must decide whether he wants to stay to support the family he has become so involved with, or if he wants to return to Mexico to live his last days in peace. While the men suffer with these choices and experiences, the women have to hold themselves, and the family, together. Petra has no choice other than to bear her pregnancy, care for her children, and work in the fields. Estrella seems to embrace her lot in life as she rises to the challenge rather than allowing herself to sink into despair. She stands proudly on the barn amongst the stars, ready to lead her family forward in their constant fight for survival.
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