Discriminations of a society: A look into Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus
Helena María Viramontes’ novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, is partially and justly aimed towards middle and upper class white Americans who happily and freely live their day-to-day lives. This novel follows a young girl of 13, Estrella, and her migrant family from one farm to the next while they continue to move with the crop. In this novel, Viramontes aspires to make the upper class white Americans see the trials and tribulations that migrant families face every single day. Under the Feet of Jesus is not a novel of Marxist ideologies, nor is it a novel of racist ideologies, but in fact, it is a novel that examines how these two theories can be used together to reveal a tale about oppressed migrant workers in the United States of America.
Marxist theory is a lens which is used to analyze literature based solely on the factors of socioeconomic class. Lois Tyson describes Marxism as “how the socioeconomic system in which we live shapes our personal identity” (111). This socioeconomic class defines the education we receive, the place of religion in our lives, and, overall, how we view the world. Marxism depends on a multitude of beliefs that support its main points; using this lens one can closely examine Viramontes’s novel through its touch on classism, a small amount of capitalism, the American Dream, and the role of religion on a Marxist society. Classism relies on the acceptance that our value as a human being is directly correlated to the social class in which we were born. classist ideology insists that any specific person born to a certain class will forever stay in that class. People born into the higher-class will then feel that persons belonging to the lower class are not as hard working, not as good-looking, not as smart, and most definitely not as deserving of a good education or an opportunity of a well-paid job. This system “grants privileges to a small segment of the population and withholds privileges from a large segment of the population without regard for individual merit” (Tyson 112). Capitalism, on the other hand, has nothing to do with the class in which one is born, but more to do with the idea that every possession a person owns has a monetary value. Capitalism even instills in American people the concept that certain people may have a monetary value. Within the capitalist system, the myth of the American Dream appears. Lois Tyson states, “According to the American Dream, anyone who has determination to work hard enough and the persistence to work long enough can arise from rags to ‘rags to riches’ because American is the land of equal opportunity for all.” (115) However, readers can see through the unrealistic American Dream with specific textual examples from Under the Feet of Jesus. One of the most important Marxist ideas found in the novel is presented through the role of religion in a society. Marxism regards religion as a drug that oppresses the poor, leading them to believe that a hard life is tolerable now because they will get their reward in heaven (Tyson 116).
African American Theory is another analytical lens and theory, often used to analyze a text based on its use of race or racist qualities. Lois Tyson describes African American Theory as having a strong value system, which stresses the importance and need of family, community, and church. She states that these qualities are important in the lives of minority races in order to “survive the harsh realities of racism; to seek the positive, often spiritual, aspects of life” (210). In order to fully understand African American theory, one must know the complete meaning of racism:
Racism is the economic, political, social, or psychological oppression of individuals or groups based on their race. Racism is fueled by the myth that the oppressed race is inferior to the ‘dominant’ race-that is, to the race holding power in the given society. (Tyson 211)
Tyson further explains the different types of racism that go on in any given society. For the sake of examining this novel, institutionalized and internalized racism will be the primary focus. Institutionalized racism takes place in societies most popular and sacred institutions. This form of racism can be seen in the educational system, the political system, entertainment, law enforcement, labor practices, and housing regulations (212). Internalized racism, on the other hand, takes place within the heart and soul of the oppressed people. Internalized racism is the literal acceptance of the belief pressed upon the oppressed race. People who accept their fate and accept being inferior in every way possible suffer from internalized racism. Tyson describes the circular problem of racism, which can be used to see these two theories working as one. The circular problem first states, “racism beliefs tell us that (the minority) are inferior to white Americans. These beliefs put (the minority) in situations that are inferior to those of white Americans” (Tyson 208). These situations can include education, work and payment, housing, legal status, and most any opportunity. The circle then finishes, stating, “the inferior situations of (the minority) are used to justify racist beliefs,” (Tyson 208) and to justify a group’s lower socioeconomic status, as we see within the Marxist theory.
Lois Tyson incorporates the role of religion in Marxist theory by saying it oppresses the poor. When she says this, she is referring to the ever popular belief that God will get a poor person through their trying time and that as long as they have God, they don’t need anything else in life. In Under the Feet of Jesus, religion plays a much more crucial role than what could be expected. In their new house, the only true possessions the family owns are the statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, and Joseph. Under the statue of Jesus, Petra keeps all of her legal documents safe and hidden, yet able to be found if La Migra, or the immigration police, was to ever question them. By keeping all important documents under the feet of Jesus, Petra truly shows her faith. Marilyn McIntyre, in her analysis of Under the Feet of Jesus called “Sickness in the System: Health Cost of the Harvest,” explains Petra’s relationship with religion and being a migrant worker. McEntyre states, “Petra avoids engaging in the migrant workers’ political struggle for justice by fixing her attention and hopes entirely on a kind of private piety that allows her to survive psychologically and make meaning of a desperate situation” (98). This can truly be seen in a moment of true desperation when Estrella comes running home, scared out of her mind. Estrella has sworn that something is after her, possibly La Migrato come and take her away. During this moment in the novel, Petra tells her young daughter not to be scared and to look for Jesus:
Don’t run scared. You stay there and look them in the eye. Don’t let them make you feel you did a crime for picking the vegetables they’ll be eating for dinner. If they stop you, if they try to pull you into the green vans, you tell them the birth certificates are under the feet of Jesus, just tell them. (Viramontes 63)
This shows that Petra believes most situations will turn out all right as long as the family looks for Jesus in tough times. Tyson also states that religion plays a large role in minority culture. Religion plays this large role to “survive the harsh realities of racism” (Tyson 210). This passage about La Migra emphasizes the need for religion by minorities in racist cultures. Throughout the novel, Petra stands by her strong belief in Jesus and the good he can do for her family.
However, in the last chapter of the novel, when the family is in the most need of a religious savior, they are symbolically abandoned. The statue of Jesus that Petra had put so much of her faith in and guarded their papers and birth certificates is broken when Petra uses the crate on which they stood to steady herself:
Her reflexes were no longer fast enough to catch a falling statue; she could almost see the head splitting away from the body before it even hit the wood planks of the floor. The head of jesucristo broke from His neck and when His eyes stared up at her like pools of dark ominous water, she felt a wave of anger swelling in her chest. (Viramontes 167)
Lene Johannssen, in her “Meaning of Place” analysis of Under the Feet of Jesus, discusses this moment in the novel and Petra’s broken faith. “Her broken faith refers not merely to the broken Jesus statue, but perhaps more so to her perception of her own place in the dubious constellation she trusts” (106). This is not the only moment in the novel in which someone feels abandoned by his or her savior. The pesticides used to keep bugs out of crops poison Alejo unexpectedly. This moment in the novel is littered with sickening descriptions and imagery of pesticide poisoning. Alejo, sure he will die, asks himself, “was this punishment for his thievery? He was sorry Lord, so sorry” (Viramontes 77). McEntyre points out “how immediately Alejo identifies the event as punishment for the petty theft of peaches and other food” (102). In these sad but realistic moments, the characters of this novel have been abandoned by their faith, and now left to pick up the pieces.
Tyson also discusses the idea of intraracial racism, which is the discrimination within the same racial group of people who are darker skinned rather than lighter skinned. I believe this concept can be pushed into the Marxist lens by the use of discrimination within the same socioeconomic class towards those who are not white. In Under the Feet of Jesus, this can be seen mostly through the short memory Estrella shows us of her first white friend, Maxine. Maxine is a young white girl in the same financial situation as Estrella and her family. She belongs to a family of ten members, which is considered to be the most disgusting of all the families at the labor camp because of their repulsive habits and lack of shame. Upon their first true encounter, Maxine asks Estrella if she “speaks ‘merican” (Viramontes 29), then proceeds to call her stupid. At this point Estrella politely asks Maxine to call her Star. Over a short period of time the two young girls become friends, and Maxine tells Estrella to read to her from comics her brother had stolen. Even though Maxine can’t read and is in the same financial situation as Estrella and her family, she still looks down upon Estrella. She considers her unintelligent and beneath her because Estrella is a Latin American and Maxine is a white American.
Education is another significan topic discussed throughout Under the Feet of Jesus. Though not a main topic, it is seen multiple times in the novel and is greatly influenced by the family’s financial situation and race. We learn from Lois Tyson that even though a family may put their children into the education system, the type of education they receive relies directly on the financial stability and area in which their child is wishing to receive an education. We also learn from Tyson that because people of color are already placed on the bottom rung of the financial ladder, it is almost impossible for them to receive an education worthy of pushing them up through the social hierarchy. It is hard enough for Estrella and her brothers to receive a proper education due to the fact that they are constantly moving to follow the harvest, however, there are many other factors that play into their unsuitable educational experience. Jeehyun Lim, in his article “Reimagining Citizenship through Bilingualism: The Migrant Bilingual Child in Helena María Viramontes’ “Under the Feet of Jesus,” articulates how necessary it is for Estrella to learn English in order to work her way up by society's standards:
An awareness of how language can hurt accompanies the understanding of what language can do. If one views Estrella’s entrance into literacy as her symbolic entrance into the existing social order, her potential as an actor within this social order is already delimited by how language couples with power to maintain the status quo. Viramontes addresses Estrella’s vexed relationship to the social order by using Estrella’s bilingualism both to mark her place in the social order and to establish a distance from it. (Lim 226)
However, in order for Estrella to learn the English language, she must be taught, and in order to be taught, her teachers have to be willing to spend time with her. Our first experience as readers with Estella’s education comes through a teacher who is much more interested in making Estrella look better than teaching her the information she yearned to know:
Estrella would ask over and over, so what is this, and point to the diagonal lines written in chalk on the blackboard with a dirty fingernail. The script A’s had the curlicue of a pry bar, a hammerhead split like a V. The small i’s resembled nails. So tell me. But some of the teachers were more concerned about the dirt under her fingernails. They inspected her head for lice, parting her long hair with ice cream sticks. They scrubbed her fingers with a toothbrush until they were so sore she couldn’t hold a pencil properly. (Viramontes 24)
These teachers save seats in the backs of their classrooms for the forever coming and going migrant children. In this passage from the novel, it is easy to see the institutionalized racism going on in the educational system. Estrella’s teachers decide from the moment she walks through the door of their classroom that she will not be worth the amount of time they think she will need in order to learn what they have to teach. Instead, these teachers believe it to be more worth their time to work on Estrella’s hygiene:
Until then, it had never occurred to Estrella that she was dirty, that the wet towel wiped on her resistant face each morning, that the rigorous brushing and tight braids her mother neatly weaved were not enough for Mrs. Horn. And for the first time, Estrella realized words could become as excruciating as rusted nails piercing the heels of her bare feet (Viramontes 25).
Mrs. Horn was quite aware of the family’s situation and that the possibility of a bath was out of the question for Estrella. Instead of teaching her to read and write, as Estrella wants, Mrs. Horn find it much more suitable to her time to worry about Estrella’s cleanliness. However, she is not worried because she cares, she simply does not want to spend the time she believes it would take to teach a migrant child to read and write. Because they are migrant children and have a primary language of Spanish, these teachers assume it will take much too much time to teach them the information they need for the future. Because of this, these children will never receive the education they need to know to thrive in the United States. Jeehyun Lim discusses the pain and embarrassment the teachers instill in Estrella when it comes to education and learning:
As she methodically matches the letters of the alphabet to the tools, however, her mental process of ordering is upset by memories of shame and humiliation associated with school. The memory of the teachers’ treatment of her based on her external difference from other students disrupts the calm of Estrella’s mental play and puts an end to the activity. The emotional disturbance, however, turns out to facilitate Estrella’s realization of the power of words. “For the first time, Estrella realized words could become as excruciating as rusted nails piercing the heels of her bare feet” (25). Estrella recognizes the power of words by associating them with bodily pain, a sensation which she knows by experience and which resonates with the sensation of shame she was subject to. (225)
Estrella now associates learning and school with humiliation and embarrassment. However, Estrella is a smart girl and teaches herself to read and write without the aid of a teacher. During the moments seen with Maxine, Estrella has already learned to read English, even though she has never owned a true book besides a catechism book. Even though Estrella can now read and write, “the teachers in the schools had never let her take picture books outside of the classroom” (Viramontes 30). Estrella, by bringing up that fact that she was not allowed to take books home, proves that she can see the distrust the teachers have for the migrant children. Estrella may have proven herself to be smarter than all of the other students by teaching herself how to read and write, but she was not trustworthy enough to take a book home to practice with.
Lois Tyson also writes about Marxist viewpoints of the capitalism that is the monetary system that the United States lives under. Using this lens is the idea that every possession a person may own has monetary value, in other words, everything is worth money. Throughout Under the Feet of Jesus, one can see the constant worry about money and how the family is going to pay for the things they need. This is first seen through the character Perfecto Flores. Perfecto is a handyman and can fix just about everything. Though the family does not make much money due to their working situation, Perfecto can oftentimes fix something in order to make money or to get them what they need. This theme reaches its climax at the health center with the nurse. Perfecto can be seen fixing things throughout the novel and receiving items in return, but during the scene at the health clinic the entire family is looking for a way to pay for Alojo’s visit:
Perfecto slid his hand on the wood-panel wall, checked for a loose knob. He read the room for signs of disrepair so that he could barter his services for theirs. He knew by instinct, and he thought of a shellac paint job as he ran his big flattened palm against the flaking wood grain. The smell of bad plumbing. A toilet needing repairing, what else? (Viramontes 136)
During this scene readers witness the skill and professionalism used by Perfecto in times of need. McEntyre describes Perfecto as:
Accustomed to surviving by wit and skill and through a kind of “literacy” arguably as sophisticated and valuable as formal education, Perfecto “reads” the room with an expert pragmatism. He can fix what others have let fall into disrepair.---- Perfecto’s first act upon entering the clinic was to scan it for any repair work that he might be able to take on in lieu of cash payment. (103)
In this case, Perfecto knows the family does not have enough money to take care of Alejo, and is hoping to find something he can trade his services with. Perfecto is not the only one who is searching for alternatives to pay the health clinic nurse. The whole family knows of the financial situation they are in. Estrella also feels the pressure. When the nurse will not allow Perfecto to fix the plumbing in lieu of cash, Estrella thinks of the tar pits and of the hard labor her family performs in order for this woman to eat every night. In her mind, this woman owes Estrella and her family and Alejo every bit as much money as they owe her. When she sees no other opportunity, Estrella resorts to violence to take the money back. McEntyre has also analyzed Estrella’s reaction during the clinical visit, and notices her last resort to violence.
The threat of violence is a last resort—and indeed, a sudden inspiration—for Estrella, but even then the violence is directed entirely toward material objects, each of which, in its ironic way, represents privilege from Estrella’s perspective, though to other eyes they might seem merely pathetic efforts to personalize a thankless job carried out in heat and isolation, itself near the bottom rung of the economic ladder. (103) There is no escaping a violent resolution for this family to make it to the hospital in order to possibly save Alejo’s life. Estrella and her family have hit rock bottom and must do whatever they can to pay for the short visit to a nurse who has given them nothing.
Estrella’s family has no home, which is another major theme of this novel. They are forever in the space between a home and a house, forever moving, forever working, forever uncomfortable. Tyson describes unhomliness as the feeling of having no cultural identity. On top of feeling as if they do not belong, the U.S. is constantly making laws to exclude migrant workers from full citizenship. According to Anne Shea:
The H-2A visa classifies farm workers as non-citizens and ‘non-immigrants.’ This classification bars workers from the status of both ‘citizen’ and ‘immigrant,’ effectively ensuring their continues alien status within the United States, and establishing formal barriers to naturalization. (125)
Not only is Estrella’s family uncomfortable in the house they occupy, but in their own skin as a Chicano family. They will forever try to fit into a place that does not accept them. At one point in the novel, Estrella watches a baseball game, sees headlights, and automatically assumes it is La Migra coming to take her away. Is this the fate of non-white citizens in the supposedly just American system? Shea also states,
The “illegal alien” is constructed through discourses that implicitly and explicitly racialize “alien” status. Not only does this reflect a long history within the United States in which immigration law has been racially discriminatory but also the manner in which citizenship has been defined as white. (129)
Once again the words of Petra to Estrella comes to mind: “If they stop you, if they try to pull you into the green vans, you tell them the birth certificates are under the feet of Jesus, just tell them” (Viramontes 63). Estrella and her family will also always be on the lookout for the migration police, simply because they are not white and upon first glance, considered “illegal aliens.” The family continues to struggle with their racial identity and sense of belonging when Perfecto starts to dream and make plans of returning home. Perfecto is unhappy with his life in United States, he is working hard and never really gets anywhere. He wants to see his first family at “home.” But, where is “home” for Perfecto? Is his “common law” wife, Petra, and her children that he has helped raise not his home? Can he not find home in his unborn child? Furthermore, Estrella is the only family member who can read, write, and speak English. Because of this, she does not have a specific national identity to lean on. She is the bilingual child. She is both American and Mexican. Lim mentions Estrella’s bilingualism as “complications in Estrella’s belonging. It is something that needs to be negotiated both in Spanish and in English and something that pertains to both a legal notion of belonging as well as an ethical one” (233).
Helena María Viramontes, in her novel Under the Feet of Jesus, uses words and artistry to provide a realistic life picture of a migrant family. She weaves an accurate representation of the financial and racial plights Estrella’s family goes through from day to day. Viramontes leaves her readers with an open-ended conclusion as to what happens to the family, leaving them to decide for themselves what truly happens. Using the tools of Marxist theory and African American theory, it is safe for one to assume that Estrella and her family will forever be subject to a discriminatory society that will continue to repress them unless the causes of their plight are finally recognized by a wider range of Americans.
Johannessen, Lene. The Meaning of Place in Viramontes' Under the Feet of Jesus. pp. 101-09 IN: Fischer-Hornung, Dorothea (ed., preface and introd.); Raphael-Hernandez, Heike (ed., preface and introd.) Holding Their Own: Perspectives on the Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the United States. Tübingen, Germany: Stauffenburg; 2000. 352 pp. (book article)
Lim, Jeehyun; Reimagining Citizenship through Bilingualism: The Migrant Bilingual Child in Helena María Viramontes' Under the Feet of Jesus. WSQ: Women's Studies Quarterly, 2010 Spring-Summer; 38 (1-2): 221-242. (journal article)
McEntyre, Marilyn Chandler; Sickness in the System: The Health Costs of the Harvest. Journal of Medical Humanities, 2007 June; 28 (2): 97-104. (journal article)
Shea, Anne; 'Don't Let Them Make You Feel You Did a Crime': Immigration Law, Labor Rights, and Farmworker Testimony. MELUS: The Journal of the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, 2003 Spring; 28 (1): 124-44. (journal article)
Tyson, Lois. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write about Literature. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Viramontes, Helena María. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Dutton, 1995. Print.