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.
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