Under the Feet of Jesus Summary
Under the Feet of Jesus is a novella telling a powerful story about California’s migrant farmworkers. Viramontes has dedicated this work to her parents, who met while picking cotton, and to the memory of César Chávez, the revered leader of the United Farm Workers. The work centers on Estrella, a thirteen-year-old girl traveling with her family from job to job in California’s central San Joaquin Valley. Estrella’s father has abandoned the family of five children, and her mother is pregnant again by the seventy-three-year-old Perfecto Flores, who drives them to their new job in his aging car but dreams of getting away himself. The family moves into a dilapidated house near an aging barn, works picking grapes, and befriends two cousins, Alejo and Gumecindo. Estrella and Alejo have an immediate attraction, and the novella’s drama builds when Alejo is sprayed by pesticides one night while he and Gumecindo are stealing apples from a nearby orchard to sell. Alarmed by his worsening illness, the family drives him to a clinic, where a nurse takes their money, only to direct them to a nearby hospital. Knowing they need their money for gas, Estrella takes a crowbar from the car and shatters the nurse’s glass-topped desk. It is Estrella’s symbolic rite of passage; the nurse gives back their money, and Estrella and her family drive Alejo to the hospital. Estrella comes out of the hospital entrance to her waiting family, and Viramontes underlines the religious imagery she employs throughout the novella: “she stepped forward and the glass doors split open before her as if obeying her command. . . . Estrella parted the doors like a sea of glass and walked through . . . .”
When they return to their camp, Estrella climbs onto the roof of the old barn, and, in a continuation of this rich religious imagery, the shingles feel like “the serpent under the feet of Jesus” and Estrella stands on the roof “as immobile as an angel standing on the verge of faith.” In this symbolism that Viramontes has taken from Christian iconography, Estrella has gained the strength, not to save Alejo, perhaps, but to hold her family together. She has become a star, like her name, and a savior.
Readers may be reminded here of another Latino coming-of-age classic, Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (1972), and there are a number of similarities, including the mixed use of religious and folk images. Under the Feet of Jesus is even closer in subject and sympathy to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), however. Estrella’s migrant farm family, Viramontes assures readers—as Steinbeck did with the migrant Joads a half century earlier in the same region—has its spiritual figures and power in spite of what society does to it, how it is pummeled and poisoned. Estrella’s growth to young adulthood at the end of the novella, like much of the symbolism in Steinbeck’s work (both books end in barns, for example), gives a power to the migrant family and its transformative potential. “If we don’t take care of each other, who would take care of us?” her mother asks earlier. “We have to look out for our own.”
Under the Feet of Jesus traces the day-to-day lives of a group of Chicano migrant farmworkers, revealing the struggles they must endure as they attempt to survive on low wages and in poor living conditions. Helena María Viramontes is connected to this group of people in that her parents were migrant workers, and the book is dedicated to them and to the memory of César Chávez, a man who fought for the rights of farmworkers.
The narrative focuses on a large family headed by Perfecto Flores, a man in his seventies, and Petra, a woman who is thirty-seven years younger. Perfecto and Petra travel together with Petra’s children, finding field work wherever they can. Estrella is Petra’s eldest daughter; she is thirteen, and her voice controls much of the narrative. There are...
(The entire section is 1,018 words.)