Undergraduate Student Critical Essays about Under the Feet of Jesus
The Story of the Oppressed: The People and the Land in Under the Feet of Jesus
The American public often digests popularly offered discourse about immigration or illegal workers. The American consumer is aware of the existence of these issues in our country, but there also exists a discrepancy between our awareness of the issue and our understanding of the marginalized communities that these issues affect. But this problem usually exists far from our sphere of experiences. We stroll through the supermarket and purchase our produce, while barely considering the origin and implications of our fresh food supply. Helena Maria Viramontes, in her novel Under the Feet of Jesus shatters the Euro-American imagination of farm production and the myth of the “family farm” by providing a glimpse into the existence of an immigrant, farm-working family of migrant workers. This novel asks readers to give consideration to the treatment of the land and the people who make our fresh grocery consumption possible.
By narrowing our focus to the plight of one family, Viramontes provides us with the personal narrative necessary to understanding the overall existence of the marginalized migrant worker community. Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, in her 2007 article “Sickness in the System: The Health Costs of the Harvest,” claims that the purpose of narrative in general, is to “disturb our peace” (104). While a documentary or informative article may quantify the horror of mistreatment, a story qualifies the consequences that arise for our protagonists.
Estrella, the novel’s main protagonist, is the 13-year-old daughter of Petra, a Mexican immigrant that travels across the border illegally. The two, along with a new husband and father, Perfecto, and more young family members, labor as migrant workers in grape and peach fields to sustain themselves. The job is almost unbearable; the piscadores faint throughout the work day (83); they burn their feet, head and eyes (84). Perfecto is the living illustration that “the nature of their lives had a way of putting twenty years on a face, so that a man of fifty looked like he was seventy” (63). Estrella is vaguely aware of larger forces that are imposing this difficult life upon her:
There was something unsettling about this whole affair to Estrella, but she couldn't stop long enough to figure out what it was . . . She did not want to think what she was thinking now: God was mean and did not care and she was alone to fend for herself. (139)
Estrella believes her God has left her to be oppressed by some unnamed power, but she cannot quite specify where her oppression is coming from. Standing in our grocery stores, we are like Estrella, unaware of the real power structures that make our decisions about our lives for us. Popularly known as “the man,” these unseen sources embed their practices so deeply into our culture that we must seriously examine our lives to determine the true culprits. Because Estrella has only a vague idea of her oppressors in her situation, the reader cannot have a clear picture either. But as we examine the text in a larger cultural context, we begin to find evidence of the destructive practices of the American government, the farming corporations, and the public education system on the lives of the disempowered.
Additionally, in her novel, Viramontes does more than tell us the story of this one family under the oppression of these hidden power groups. Viramontes highlights another protagonist, one even more marginalized and abused than Mexican immigrants: the earth. Viramontes personifies the earth and parallels the plight of this “character” to the plight of the family. The universal and the personal struggle become one struggle. Viramontes uses this parallel to highlight the horror of the injustices forced on both entities. This farm and this family become microcosmic representations of the whole Mexican immigrant community and of the farmlands of the earth at large.
When we try to define “oppressed,” we frustrate ourselves attempting to accommodate for the different types of oppressive situations. For this purpose, the most applicable definition of “oppression” is the forced removal of choices. Neither this family nor these lands are allowed to decide their future for themselves; the larger powers decide for them. For example, Alejo, a friend of the family and fellow migrant worker, has dreams of becoming a geologist.
His grandmother had reassured him, this field work was not forever. And everything time he awoke to the pisca, he thought only of his last day her and his first day of high school. He planned to buy a canvas backpack to carry his books, a pencil sharpener, and Bobcat book covers; and planned to major in geology after graduating. He loved stones and the history of stones because he believed himself to be a solid mass of boulder trust out of the earth and not some particle lost in infinite and cosmic space. With a simple touch of a hand and a hungry wonder of his connection to it all, he not only became a part of the earth’s history, but would exist as the boulders did, for eternity. (42)
Alejo’s dream is to have the life of the stereotypical Euro-American boy —to carry his clean backpack to school each day. This can never come true for Alejo and some of the other children. Often, young immigrant children are rid of the choice to participate in education. Their teachers are apparently more concerned about the appearance of the children than their education:
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. (24-25)
The migrant children are forced away from school, and therefore, the choice of an educated future.
Alejo’s desire is not only to go to school, but to become a productive member of society and to study the earth’s ecological history. Alejo has a fascination with the origin of oil. He excitedly shares his knowledge of oil’s origins with Estrella, telling her, “Millions of years ago, the dead animals and plants fell to the bottom of the sea. . . The bones lay in the seabed for millions of years. That’s how it was. Makes sense, don’t it, bones becoming tar oil?” (87). When Estrella asks if people were ever stuck, he replies, “Only one. . . in the La Brea tar pits, they found some human bones. A young girl” (88). Alejo is unable to construct the conclusion that would make him realize his true power—that the oil was made from his own people. This suggests a larger force had interests for keeping him out of school; to educate him would be to make him aware of his oppressors and their unethical ownerships of this oil, and even the crops. The immigrant migrant community is rather isolated, physically, culturally and educationally, from the larger American culture throughout the entire novel. This isolation holds them in not-so-blissful ignorance.
The power to define the family and the immigrant community lies with the immigration legislation system. The family loses their choice for identity as they lose their ability to define themselves as citizens of any particular place. By migrating to their new country to look for work, they have been forced to abandon their genetic and cultural identities as Mexicans. But in this new place, they are also denied the legal or cultural identity of an American. Anne Shea, in her article “’Don’t Let Them Make You Feel You Did A Crime’: Immigration Law, Labor Rights, and Farmworker Testimony,” attempts to sift through the historical and legal definitions available to immigrant workers and shows us another way that the immigrant, migrant workers are being forced into a suspended and pre-determined identity. She describes the H-2A visa, a work visa given to Mexican immigrants that allows them to be classified as “non-immigrants,” “effectively ensuring their continued alien status within the United States, and establishing formal barriers to naturalization” (125). To be labeled as a “legal,” “illegal,” or “H-2A” or “somewhere in between,” is a practice that enforces strict prescribed classifications of a person. Petra understands these rules as strange and teaches her daughter to not be afraid of being seen as an illegal, because Estrella belongs, as she says, “Aqui [Here]” as she points her finger not to America, but to earth (63). The land is subject to the same strict classifications. Just as the family must belong to somewhere, the earth must be somewhere. Although made of the same rock, one piece of land is rid of its identity as it is blemished with a boundary line, marking which opposing government claims each piece as their own possession. There is no freedom to move from one place to the other, and no freedom to move from one identity to the other.
It seems that this desire to create boundaries and remove opportunities stems from the purpose of fabricating control. The rationalization is that if people are allowed to move freely, without a label on themselves or on their places, there would be social disorder. But Viramontes shows us arbitrary rules that exist without any possibility of rationalization. For example, the family is not allowed to eat the rotten fruit that has fallen to the ground. She also hints that The pesticides are sprayed on the crops not only for added profit, but to extinguish any natural or uncontrollable behavior on the part of the hungry workers who may take some of those crops for themselves.
Beyond the need for control and ownership, is the desire for profit. The farming corporations have high interest and influence in immigration legislation. Shea notes that due to pressure from the agricultural industry, farm workers are exempt from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, meaning they are not required to be paid overtime or even be given breaks (127). Shea also notes the discrepancy between the rise of the value of fruits and vegetables from 1988 to 1999 with the decline of wage rates of migrant farm workers over that same period of time (127).
In the novel, we see the consequences of such decisions being made for the sake of profit rather than for the sake of human or environmental well-being. Viramontes shows many instances of the migrant workers being used as means to make a profit, as mechanical resources, rather than something that can feel pain. Viramontes shows a scene of the workers being treated like cattle: “The driver released the bolt of the back door and the first of the piscadores were herded out of the corralled flatbed” (67). Christina Grewe-Volpp points out how Viramontes uses all characters that are not in good condition to do work: Perfecto is too old, Petra is with child, and Estrella and the boys are children themselves (68). But Shea notes that farm labor is also exempt from laws governing child labor (127). This legislation was passed, no doubt, with the intentions of providing cheap labor for the farming corporations.
The earth is also treated as means of profit. Pickable parts of the earth are taken and given new names and new owners. And while it is easy to notice that this kind of mistreatment is bad for humans, it may be harder to realize the violence that is being done to the land because we, as people, cannot directly communicate with it. But, like the humans, the earth’s perspective is often not considered when the larger industry is making business decisions. The climax of this exposed brutality to earth and humans alike, in the novel, comes from Alejo’s unfortunate encounter with the pesticide spray.
Alejo slid through the bushy branches, the tangled twigs scratching his face, and he was ready to jump when he felt the mist. He shut his eyes tight to the mist of black afternoon. At first it was just a slight moisture until the poison rolled down his face in deep sticky streaks. The lingering smell was a scent of ocean salt and beached kelp until he inhaled again and could detect under the innocence the heavy chemical choke of poison. Air clogged in his lungs and he thought he was just holding his breath, until he tried exhaling but couldn’t, which meant he couldn’t breathe. He panicked when he realized he was choking, clamped his neck with one hand, feeling his Adam’s apple against his palm, but still held onto a branch tightly with the other. Afraid he would fall long and hard, like the insects did. He swallowed finally and the spit in his throat felt like the balls of scratchy sand. Was this punishment for his thievery? He was sorry Lord, so sorry. (77)
Here, the reader is introduced to the true iniquity of the pesticides through a human’s perspective. This violent scene forces us to question not only the pesticides’ safety for the human workers, but also the earth and the landscape that is sprayed with poisons constantly without the ability to speak up. Although the reader cannot hear the screams of the earth, we wonder if the earth is screaming just as Alejo is. Or, as Estrella thinks, “Is that what happens? Estrella thought, people just use you until you’re all used up, then rip you into pieces when they’re finished using you?” (75).
The migrant community lives in unnamed fear of their oppressors. More than just worry for their own well-being, Viramontes is constantly showing us how they fear for their offspring. The pregnant Petra “thought of the lima bean in her, the bean floating in the night of her belly . . . Would the child be born without a mouth, would the poisons of the fields harden in its tiny little veins?” (125). Petra becomes a symbolic Mother Earth here, as she imagines the young seed within her that needs the best care so that it can grow in order to sustain more life. She fears, as the rest of the community has gossiped about, that exposure to the pesticides will lead to birth defects, specifically, babies “sin labios [without lips]” (69). The danger is so real that Estrella’s emerging sexuality is also met with fear. Her natural maturation could be a beautiful experience. But Estrella cannot enjoy it because someone else influences her womb. The health and the future of the children are both predetermined. The earth likewise recognizes the fate of her children, her offspring. Her fruit will be owned by the corporation and then bought when, “only relics remained,” where “squished old tomatoes spilled over onto the bruised apples and the jalapenos mixed with soft tomatillos and cucumbers peeked from between blotchy oranges” (110). The fear for the fate of the offspring disrupts the natural progression of life. Viramontes demonstrates how the farming corporations, backed by the American government, have chosen profit over the natural processes of life and nature.
The oppression and endangerment of the migrant workers and the land are historically and inexorably linked, in Viramontes’ novel and beyond. The marginalized classes and the land are treated as equals, as entities that exist for dominating. As McEntyre puts it “the consequences of environmental degradation are not borne equally, but fall heavily on the poor. They are the primary victims of pollution, since most of them live “downstream” from our factories and megafarms, and most of them cannot afford the self-protective strategies available to the affluent—distance from dumps, from direct exposure to pesticides, from industrial plants and their spillage” (McEntrye 99) Additionally, Hsuan L. Hsu, in “Fatal Contiquities: Metonymy and Environmental Justice,” argues that environmental-justice inequalities and racial inequalities cannot be separated. (147) He claims that, “In U.S. cities, the production and reconfiguration of built space has been instrumental to perpetuation racial inequalities” (147). But this can be expanded to mean that the reconfiguration and renaming of all land has been instrumental to all cultural and social inequalities. The fate of the earth and the fate of the people are interdependently related, one cannot exist without the health of the other. A sick social system is tied to a sick ecosystem.
Viramontes clearly understands this relationship of the land to the worker. She writes, “It was always a question of work, and work depended on the harvest, the car running, their health, the conditions of the road, how long the money and out, and the weather, which meant they could depend on nothing (4).” The family’s well-being depends on the temperament of the weather. The migrant community and the earth and interdependent; they are one. As Alejo is sprayed with the pesticides, he feels himself becoming oil.
He thought first of his feet sinking, sinking to his knee joints, swallowing his waist and torso, the pressure of tar squeezing his chest and crushing his ribs. Engulfing his skin up to his chin, his mouth, his nose, bubbled air. Black bubbles erasing him. Finally the eyes. Blankness. Thousands of bones, the bleached white marrow of bones. Splintered bone pieced together by wire to make a whole, surfaced bone. No fingerprint or history, bone. No lave stone. No story or family, bone. (78)
Alejo feels himself becoming the earth, becoming the oil. He feels the same pain that the earth feels. Viramontes metaphorically changes the human into earth.
Viramontes also changes the earth into the human with figurative language. Estrella, a girl used to the farm, describes the clouds as ”ready to burst like cotton plants’ (3) and Perfecto’s veins ‘like irrigation canals clogged with dying insects, twitching on their backs, their little twig legs jerking’ (100). Petra’s baby is the lima bean in her, “bursting a root with each breath’ (125). These metaphors merge the natural and the personal, as Viramontes demonstrates the interrelatedness of the earth and the human characters.
These metaphors come to an end in the final scene of the novel and Estrella recognizes the truth about her community’s relationship to the earth and to the larger unseen profit-seeking powers.
She remembered the tar pits. Energy money, the fossilized bones of energy matter. How bones made oil and oil made gasoline. The oil was made from their bones, and it was their bones that kept the nurse’s car from halting on some highway, kept her on her way to Daisyfield to pick up her boys a six. It was their bones that kept the air conditioning tin the cars humming, that kept them moving on the long, dotted line on the map. Their bones. (148)
Despite any attempts to suppress her understanding, Estrella recognizes her people as the sacrificial bones in the oil. She realizes that the power belongs not to the government, nor the farming corporations, but to the people and to the land. She can, as the earth cannot, speak against the unnatural practices and injustices. She climbs up, free from her forced identities as human or earth, into the supernatural sky, and becomes a guiding star for her people.
Grewe-Volpp, Christa. "'The Oil Was Made from Their Bones': Environmental (In)Justice in Helena Maria Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus." Isle: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment 12.1 (2005): 61-78. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 3 December, 2012.
Hsu, Hsuan L. "Fatal Contiguities: Metonymy and Environmental Justice." New Literary History 42.1 (2011): 147-168. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 December, 2012.
McEntyre, Marilyn Chandler. "Sickness in the System: The Health Costs of the Harvest." Journal of Medical Humanities 28.2 (2007): 97-104. Academic Search Premier. Web. 3 December, 2012.
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 28.1 (2003): 124- 44. JSTOR. Web. 3 December, 2012.
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