Under the Feet of Jesus
One Identity, Two Parts
The emotional heart of Helena Maria Viramontes’ novel, Under the Feet of Jesus, revolves around the mental, physical, and spiritual coming-of-age of Estrella, a 13-year-old Latina girl living with her family on a migrant labor farm. As a foil to Estrella’s transformation, Viramontes presents us with another character—Petra, Estrella’s mother, who demonstrates immense courage in the face of the same oppression as Estrella, but who processes her frustrations in the opposite way of her daughter, contrasting the externalized, action-based feistiness of Estrella with the internal, faith-based perseverance of her mother.
In the grand scheme of the novel, Estrella’s agency is not distillable to one single moment or action—it is built up over the course of Under the Feet of Jesus, resulting in a turning point that represents the infinite moments, realizations, and frustrations that she experiences before it. This gradual coming of age process mirrors, and is intertwined with, Estrella’s recovery from the loss of her father, which is first example of emotional growth we see in Estrella. Early in chapter one, we are introduced to the character of the father through flashbacks, a character whose absence distinguishes his role in the story more than his actions themselves. At the beginning of the novel, Estrella still struggles with her father’s abandonment: “[Is] he waiting like I am?” (22). With no possibility of an answer, Estrella considers her own process of realization, mimicking the emotional growth and coming-of-age that she undergoes later in the novel;“It didn’t happen so fast, the realization that he was not coming back. Estrella didn’t wake up one day knowing what she knew now. It came upon her as it did her mother. Like morning light, passing, the absence of night, just there, his not returning” (22).
Not only does she struggle with past childhood emotional trauma and the reconciliation of newfound knowledge—Estrella also begins to subconsciously question her current paradigm. In the first and second chapters, it is subtle, seemingly insignificant thoughts that foreshadow the heavier emotional growth that occurs in future chapters. While walking home one night, Estrella can’t “remember which side she was on and which side of the wire mesh she was safe in” (54). The mental clarity that oblivion allows children begins to fade as Estrella is forced to accept more responsibility on behalf of her family; she struggles to remember the black-and-white, good-vs-evil paradigm of her youth. Her perception of her reality begins to shift. Even in the baseball game she passes, Estrella can’t help but question what’s really going on— “the floodlights aimed at the phantoms in the field. Or were the lights directed at her? Could the spectators see her from where she stood?” This prompts her to ask, among a seemingly unrelated flurry of questions, “Where was home?” (54). It is the subconscious examination of roles in the baseball game that connects this question to the ones before it—we see the seeds of Estrella’s coming of age process starting to grow.
In processing her frustration with the realities of her circumstances, Estrella externalizes her emotions—she literally forms a ‘second self’ as part of her identity, and refers to it when acting upon her newfound consciousness. In chapter four, we first see the formation of this second self, when Estrella uses a crowbar to demand her family’s money back from the nurse, highlighting the separation between her childhood obedience and newly-awoken adolescent consciousness; “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” (123). Viramontes explicitly relates this mental separation to a moment of extreme clarity—the moment when Estrella realizes that “the nurse owed them as much as they owed her”. (121) This mental clarity is indivisible from Estrella’s subsequent actions. It is her recognition of her oppression that spearheads her emotional growth, and brings into focus her ‘second self.’
If chapter four shows us the turning point, the moment of separation, chapter five shows us a more seamless integration of this second self: “Okay, she said to her other self” (139). This casual inclusion of the second self illustrates the initial shock of a split identity being replaced with acceptance, cooperation, a willingness to embrace her mental awakening. “There was no turning back now,” Estrella remarks, illustrating a change in perspective, and a forward progression in the coming of age process (139). No longer does Estrella “stumble blindly,” neither while physically climbing the old barn on her land nor while facing the facets and frustrations of her reality as the daughter of an immigrant family at a labor camp (141).
Petra, on the other hand, internalizes these frustrations. Faced with the glaring reality of her circumstances, she remains aware of her oppression, but unlike her daughter, she avoids confrontation with her oppressors. In the first chapter, we learn though a flashback that Petra originally lied about her ex-husband’s abandonment to Estrella because Petra knew that “the truth was only a lesser degree of lies”; this quote allows us insight into the perspective with which Petra examines her reality (24). As a mother of 5, Petra has obviously had her own coming-of-age. Ironically, even though Estrella is the one who must create a ‘second self’ to deal with the mental upheaval that accompanies coming-of-age, it is Petra who is literally carrying a ‘second self’—the unborn baby inside of her, which likely informs the internalization of her anger for the sake of protecting her baby’s future.
Because of her age and experience, Petra is able to paint a more nuanced, informed picture of her reality than Estrella is, which then affects how she teaches her children about the world. When Estrella expresses her fears about the border patrol, Petra tells her, “Don’t let them make you feel you did a crime for picking the vegetables they’ll be eating for dinner,” knowledge that progresses Estrella’s own coming-of-age narrative (57). Petra and Estrella begin to share the same frustrations and realizations about their circumstances, though their mechanisms for processing this knowledge differ, with Estrella’s action-based externalization and Petra’s faith-based internalization. When faced with this difference, Petra acknowledges, once again, that there is nothing she can do to stop another force—Estrella—from acting out how she deems fit: if Petra had “learned anything in her thirty-five years,” it was that “her two hands couldn’t hold anything back, including time” (100).
The difference between Estrella and Petra’s own methods for dealing with their respective “conscience awakenings” allows the novel to maintain a character dynamic that supports the idea of a nuanced reality, without obvious heroes or villains or a simplification of complex issues. In Under the Feet of Jesus, Estrella and Petra might influence each other, and carry similar experiences, but how they react to these experiences demonstrates much more about their characters than their age or knowledge alone. Petra offers us a reserved, internalized perspective, one that practices confrontation through radical devotion rather than action. Estrella, on the other hand, embraces what is outside of herself, and through her coming-of-age transformation, steps boldly up to the plate, armed with newfound agency, ready to practice radical action in defense of her integrity instead.
Adversity Shapes Morale in Under the Feet of Jesus
In the novel Under the Feet of Jesus, author Helena María Viramontes introduces the protagonist Estrella as a poor and uneducated girl. Estrella is a migrant, and therefore her teachers do not treat her well. Her inability to speak or write English deprives her of the necessary skills to make due in society. In the excerpt, society is a place where the values of morality, such as benevolence, are ignored by the majority and practiced by the few. Additionally, Viramontes contrasts positions of power throughout the excerpt to represent the ability to affect others through actions and words. Due to the fact that the excerpt takes place during the 20th century in the United States, tension between migrants and whites is high. The third-person omniscient point-of-view that Viramontes employs allows the reader to understand the sentiments of multiple characters, thus creating a more personal connection to the excerpt. Viramontes reveals Estrella as a girl with an ardent passion to learn, but who is initially frustrated with the lack of information she receives from her teachers. With the help of a handyman named Perfecto Flores; however, Estrella is able to convert her negative emotions towards the lack of education she receives into positive energy. Perfecto’s faith in Estrella’s ability transforms Estrella into a student who meets social academic standards despite her initial frustration. Perfecto gives Estrella the necessary tools—both literal and symbolic—to help her overcome the challenge of adapting to society. In a sense, Perfecto creates a new world for Estrella. In this world, Estrella is free to entertain her curiosity in any way that she wishes without having to worry about the negative influence of others. Through the character of Estrella, Viramontes shows that adversity—commonly a negative obstacle—can be seen as the impetus behind people achieving their goals. Viramontes opens the excerpt with an interrogative to characterize Estrella’s uncertainty: “So what is this?” (Viramontes line 1). Viramontes refers to Perfecto’s red tool chest at the beginning of the excerpt to inform the reader of Estrella’s confusion. When Estrella comes across the tool chest she does not know what to make of it. To her, the contents of the tool chest represent foreign objects; she feels as if she will never know the meaning behind these objects. Viramontes also uses the interrogative to foreshadow the tone. Estrella will be hesitant in her thoughts and actions throughout the excerpt. In addition, Viramontes goes on to say that “[…] [Estrella] became very angry [after coming upon Perfecto’s tool chest]” (lines 3 and 4). Here, Viramontes establishes Estrella’s character. Estrella is the type of girl who succumbs to adversity rather than overcome it. She is angered by her inability to understand the contents of the tool chest. Although Estrella is eager to learn, her negative attitude toward overcoming hardship shows that she lacks maturity. To further emphasize Estrella’s negative attitude, Viramontes also describes Estrella as easily frustrated: “Estrella hated when things were kept from her. The teachers in the schools did the same, never giving her the information she wanted” (line 13-15). In this instance, Viramontes specifically describes Estrella’s hunger for knowledge. Estrella is incensed when her teachers do not give her the information she wants. Instead, they are more concerned about her hygiene rather than her education. This prevalent thought amongst her teachers annoys Estrella. Estrella’s teacher, Mrs. Horn, epitomizes this idea of hygiene before education. “Mrs. Horn […] asked how come her mama never gave her a bath” (lines 32-35). Estrella realizes the power of words after Mrs. Horn asks Estrella why her mother never bathes her. It takes a rude comment such as Mrs. Horn’s to make Estrella recognize that words have power. Mrs. Horn’s comments hurt Estrella psychologically in that they make her self-conscious of her appearance, but they also make Estrella understand that if said with enough spite, words have the power to inflict the deepest pain. Mrs. Horn’s harsh words cause Estrella to come to a realization, and a direct result of that realization is that Estrella becomes even more determined to learn. Additionally, Viramontes uses similes and metaphors throughout the excerpt to further accentuate Estrella’s lack of knowledge: “The curves of the tools made no sense and the shapes were as foreign and meaningless to her as chalky lines on the blackboard” (lines 43-45). Although Estrella has an immense hunger to learn, she has trouble understanding the symbols on the blackboard. Viramontes uses a simile to describe Estrella’s inability to grasp the meaning behind the figures in order to further convey her message. She implies that although it may seem like Estrella’s struggles are slowing her down, in reality they are actually inadvertently making Estrella reach her goal of being educated by forcing her to adapt to society. As the excerpt progresses, Estrella learns to channel her displeasure in a more positive manner with the help of Perfecto Flores. Perfecto does what Estrella’s teachers do not: give her the opportunity to learn. “He opened up the tool chest, as if bartering for her voice, lifted a chisel and hammer; aquí, pegarle aquí […]” (lines 53-54). Perfecto opening the tool chest for Estrella can be interpreted in two different ways. First, it can be interpreted literally, as Perfecto shows Estrella the physical contents of the tool chest. Second, and more importantly, it can be perceived as metaphoric. By opening the tool chest, Perfecto opens the door to an unknown world for Estrella—a world full of knowledge. Estrella has never entered the world of knowledge, but with the helping hand of Perfecto, she is able to enter this world and learn beyond measure. Perfecto nurtures Estrella’s curiosity by giving her the necessary tools to satisfy her inquisitive mind. Unlike Estrella’s teachers at school, Perfecto cares enough about Estrella to take the time to teach her. Moreover, it is also important to note that Perfecto transitions from speaking English to Spanish with Estrella when he says “aquí, pegarle aquí” (here, hit here). This change in language during one of the most critical parts of the excerpt indicates that Perfecto actually cares about Estrella and her education. By speaking Spanish to Estrella Perfecto sympathizes with Estrella’s struggles and shows that he is willing to help her overcome them. It is also important to note that the excerpt changes point-of-view from third-person to second-person when Perfecto teaches Estrella how to open the tool chest: “If that doesn’t work, because your manitas aren’t strong yet, fasten the vise pliers, these, then twist the pliers with your hammer” (lines 60-62). The change in point-of-view signifies the extent to which Perfecto cares about Estrella. As Viramontes did when switching the language from English to Spanish, changing the point-of-view from third to second-person reveals Perfecto as a man who truly cares about Estrella and her education. He wants more than anything for Estrella to learn and to be successful. In addition to teaching Estrella how to open the tool chest and showing her the contents of the tool chest, Perfecto also takes time to explain the significance of each tool: “Perfecto Flores taught her the names that went with the tools: a claw hammer, he said with authority, miming its function; screwdrivers, see, holding up various heads and pointing to them […] names that gave meaning to the tools” (lines 63-70). When showing Estrella the contents of the tool chest, Perfecto takes time to indicate the importance of each tool. Perfecto teaches Estrella—something that her teachers refuse to do. Perfecto’s actions suggest that he values education much more than Estrella’s teachers. By taking the time to teach Estrella, Perfecto refocuses Estrella’s anger and turns it into a newfound desire to learn. Now more than ever, Estrella develops an endless hunger for knowledge. In concluding her excerpt, Viramontes thereby leaves the reader with a sense of how much Estrella’s character develops. She is no longer stubborn and naïve, rather a girl who has matured to the fullest degree. Viramontes concludes: “She lifted the pry bar in her hand […] weighed the significance it awarded her, and soon she came to understand how essential it was to know these things. That was when she began to read” (lines 71-76). The fact that Viramontes ends her excerpt on an optimistic note suggests that Estrella is ultimately successful in overcoming adversity. Through the help of Perfecto and his tools, Estrella is able to adjust to the standards of society by learning how to read. When contrasted, the first paragraph and last paragraph of the excerpt represent two different ideas, yet these ideas are of vital importance to the development of the excerpt. The first paragraph reveals Estrella’s uncertainty and frustration; the last exposes Estrella in a more positive light. Viramontes brings Estrella’s character into full circle. Estrella has undergone the most dramatic of character transformations. Viramontes uses Estrella’s situation to depict that a negative emotion such as anger or frustration can actually be used as motivation to achieve one’s goals. Estrella’s transformation from a spiteful girl to a mature child with a hunger to learn signifies the extent to which the obstacles Estrella faces have helped her. At first, Estrella must deal with the challenge of overcoming a language barrier that impedes her ability to clearly articulate her emotions. As a result, Estrella is consistently frustrated with her inability to adapt to society. Yet, through the guidance of Perfecto Flores and a newfound ambition to learn, Estrella is able to change her outlook and conform to society by learning how to read. Perfecto’s patience and dedication towards Estrella’s education contributes greatly to Estrella’s success. With the help of Perfecto, Estrella turns her frustration into motivation. Through her excerpt, Viramontes suggests that although adversity is commonly seen as a hurdle in overcoming obstacles, in some cases, such as Estrella’s, it can actually be seen as positive, inspiring people to achieve the impossible.
Stones, Bones, and Tar: The Legacy of Migrant Workers
The images of stones, bones, and tar form a motif in Helena Maria Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus. From Alejo’s sickness to the encounter with the nurse, these images are continually linked to each other to depict a wide range of the experiences, dreams, and sufferings of migrant workers. Stones, symbolic of the migrant workers’ history and tie to the earth, are ancient like the bones that ache, provide the labor, and eventually become the tar oil that supplies fuel and energy for America. This relationship between stones, bones, and tar is similar to the community of the migrant workers: all the members are connected and provide for one another. Through their prevalence in the novel, these images leave a trail the way migrant workers leave behind a trail of their lives as they move from place to place; the reoccurring images represent the continual sacrifices of migrant workers and portray their hope to leave a legacy that will remain long on this earth like the stones, bones, and tar. Alejo’s interest in stones exemplifies the desire of the migrant worker to earn a name for himself in the land where he must struggle to survive. His interest, evident in his plan to major in geology, is equated with his goal to obtain an education. His plans also include “buy[ing] a canvas backpack to carry his books, a pencil sharpener, and Bobcat bookcovers” as well as graduating high school (52). Although his plans are simple, they exhibit ambition and reveal his dream to progress in life. Plus, stones symbolize permanence and durability, traits that Alejo hopes to attain. “He loved stones and the history of stones because he believed himself to be a solid mass of boulder thrust out of the earth and not some particle lost in infinite space” (52). The contrast between the presence of a boulder “thrust out of the earth” and an essentially invisible particle is applied to Alejo’s wish to become a bold, noticeable and distinct being on the earth. He does not want to end up like a lost particle, something lacking direction and purpose. In addition, he wishes to become “a part of the earth’s history” and “exist as the boulders did, for eternity” (52). He hopes that his memory and his life struggles will not just die out and be forgotten; instead, he longs to be remembered and to leave part of himself on earth that will remind the world of his existence and his accomplishments. Complete erasure of one’s existence is a fear of the migrant worker in the novel. The scene in which Alejo falls from the tree as he desperately tries to escape the shower of pesticide depicts this fear. Images of bones and tar prevail in this scene and foreshadow death, a force that causes one to vanish from the face of this earth. Sepulchral images, such as the “thousands of bones, the bleached white marrow of bones” and the “splintered bone pierced together by wire to make a whole, surfaced bone” describe a setting appropriate for a burial site or a death camp (78). Although they symbolize death, the bones also represent the memory of a person, for they are his remains and are typically the only things that his body leaves behind. Yet, if these cannot even be preserved, then it seems as if truly nothing is left to remind others of that person, as if he never lived; this is what Alejo fears. As the biplane spraying the pesticide approaches, Alejo imagines “sinking into the tar pits” (78). This is where he sees his bones vanishing, leaving behind “no fingerprint or history, bone. No lava stone. No story or family, bone” (78). Death is so inevitable that even lava stone, a formation that has been on this earth for millions of years, cannot withstand disappearance. Language used to depict this scene is repetitive and employs many commas to make the pace slow. This makes Alejo more helpless and powerless to save himself, regardless of his determination to fight the oncoming force. “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” (78). Like a slow, painful death, Alejo envisions himself gradually sinking into darkness and blankness forever. This feared entrapment extends to preventing migrant workers from progressing; in addition to not being able to escape the approach of death and disappearance, migrant workers must face another struggle if they become “stuck”. Since they rely on migrating from place to place to earn their living, getting stuck, particularly being stranded in one place, poses a threat to their livelihood. Images of people getting stuck in tar pits, such as Alejo’s vision of sinking into tar, relate to this dilemma. The horror of this type of incidence is also portrayed in the conversation between Alejo and Estrella while they are lying under the truck. Here, Alejo introduces the topic of tar oil: Once, when I picked peaches, I heard screams. It reminded me of the animals stuck in the tar pits. Did people? Did people ever get stuck? Only one, Alejo replied, in the La Brea tar pits, they found some human bones. A young girl. (88)This brings back the chilling images of bones and tar that death accompanies. Evidently, the girl stuck in the tar pits became erased for a period of time until her bones were discovered. Another instance of getting stuck occurs in the following excerpt from the conversation between Alejo and Estrella regarding oil: You know where that oil comes from? . . . Why you asking me? If we don’t have oil, we don’t have gasoline. Good. We’d stay put then. Stuck, more like it. Stuck. (86)At first, the possibility of staying in one place is appealing, especially to Estrella who perceives it as having to stay put. After years of constant packing up and moving, sometimes having no destination, remaining stationary seems like a pleasant idea. However, Alejo’s response differs in diction from Estrella’s, implying a negative side to this immobility, for he calls it being “stuck.” The word implies a sense of being trapped and unable to get out of a place or situation, as if one is imprisoned for a long time. It also connotes helplessness for it makes one think of the possibility of being abandoned and forgotten. Through its language and imagery, the conversation between Alejo and Estrella demonstrates how the inability to move forward can make one disappear without a legacy. Ironically, the bones of the migrant workers provide the fuel and energy that allow the rest of the people to progress while they are prevented from doing so. After Perfecto pays the nurse the family’s last nine dollars, Estrella becomes enraged because she feels that they have paid much more than they deserved to pay. They have lost more than money, for they have paid with their lives, with their sweat, and with their bones. The oil was made from their bones, and it was their bones that kept the nurse’s car from not halting on some highway, kept her on her way to Daisyfield to pick up her boys at six. It was their bones that kept the air conditioning in the cars humming, that kept them moving on the long dotted line on the map. Their bones. (148)This metaphor describes the bones of the migrant workers as if they were fossil fuels, thus giving their bones ancient attributes. It symbolizes not only the consumption of human lives, but also the exploitation of these bones that make up a part of the earth’s history and natural resources, all for the sake of progress. Eventually, all these lives and resources will be used up, leaving no more for future generations. Because this is part of the legacy that the migrant workers leave behind, the loss of these bones, figuratively speaking, is analogous to erasing the remnants of the migrant workers from the face of the earth.Despite their numerous sacrifices for America, the migrant workers receive nothing in compensation and are essentially forgotten by those who benefit from their sufferings. One example is the ignorance of the nurse when she does not realize that nine dollars is still extremely valuable to Estrella and her family. Even though she lets them pay nine dollars instead of fifteen for the visit, she still lacks compassion for the family’s situation. The nurse exhibits this as she takes the money with indifference from Estrella’s hands and drops it into the metal box. Also, after Estrella pleads with the nurse to let her baby-sit and to let Perfecto fix something in the office instead of paying the last of their money, the nurse does not feel the least bit of pity; all she can worry about is picking up her kids in Daisyfield by six. Lastly, the nurse’s ignorance is manifested when Estrella thinks, “The nurse owed them as much as they owed her” (148). Estrella’s comment refers to the metaphor relating their bones to the fossil fuels that make the nurse’s car run so she can pick up her kids. Considering this, their payment is in fact an unfair trade-off. Unfortunately, the encounter with the nurse is only one of many cases that refuse the migrant workers what is rightfully theirs; even gratitude is denied them. A significant moment in the novel occurs when Estrella gives Perfecto his first “Thank you” in America. He had given this country his all, and in this land that used his bones for kindling, in this land that never once in the thirty years he lived and worked, never once said thank you, this young woman . . . had said the words with such honest gratitude, he was struck by how deeply these words touched him. (155)Again, the image of the migrant worker’s bones providing the country with energy is associated with exploitation. Despite all his offerings and sacrifices for America, Perfecto, like other migrant workers, has never received anything beneficial in return, has never encountered a thankful expression, until Estrella said “Thank you.” By not receiving the thanks that they deserve, the migrant workers’ efforts and struggles are left unnoticed, unacknowledged, and forgotten. The images of stones, bones, and tar emphasize the great extent to which the migrant workers sacrifice not just to survive, but to have something on this earth that they can leave behind to remind others of their experiences, their contributions, and their existence. Although the rest of the world passes them by, the stories and determined spirits of the migrant workers will not die out. Through their sufferings, the migrant workers are all connected collectively and share this legacy.