The American Dream in Under the Feet of Jesus

Lois Tyson, in her book Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature, defines the American Dream, through a Marxist perspective, as “a capitalist ideology associated specifically with American history and culture.” This ideology revolves around working hard to push oneself higher in the economic ladder, commonly referred to as “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” Signs of success, according to a common understanding of the American Dream, are usually fame, wealth, extravagant material possessions, and a stable sense of home.

This definition may be one interpretation of the American Dream, but the dream is always changing, for each new generation, and is skewed by class, race, religion, and ethnicity. Typically, supporters of the American Dream point out the opportunities that allowed people to become “more successful than their parents.” Socio-economic “rags to riches” stories are popular in American culture; Orphan Annie, Horatio Alger, Jr. stories, Orwell’s Citizen Kane, and other pieces of Americana stress this.

Sadly, the mythos of the American Dream also leads many to believe that the poor are simply too lazy and thus undeserving of better living conditions, when they are unable to “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” As Tyson summarizes, “the American Dream tells us that…those who don’t make it have only themselves to blame.” However, in many cases, the poor have been unable to better themselves because of unfair working conditions, existing discriminatory laws or racially-based social norms. Some also overlook evident inequality in education, healthcare, and employment availability. Since some minority groups are not given equal opportunity because of their race or current economic status, they will sometimes never be able to achieve the same American Dream as somewhat wealthier Americans.

The migrant family portrayed in Helena Maria Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus has dreams much more different than those of typical empowered Americans, and in many ways Viramontes discredits some portions of the myth of the American Dream. For Estrella and her family, a simple desire for home, health, and belonging are all that are needed for their dreams to come true. However, most of the characters in the novel, with the exception of the smaller children, are represented as over-worked and underpaid. Their poverty and sickness are, in part, results of intentional or unintentional racism by other Americans, and not due to laziness or indifference in wanting a better life. In fact, when the protagonist, Estrella, symbolically achieves her freedom at the end of the novel, she is still a poor migrant worker that will most likely be denied extensive education, decent employment, and universal healthcare. On one level, this novel shows that the commonly accepted elements of the American dream must be critically examined by individuals.

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