Often compared to John Steibeck's rural American masterpiece The Grapes of Wrath, Under the Feet of Jesus tells the story of a young migrant worker and her family. Set in the Western United States and spanning a single summer harvest, the novel depicts the brutal working conditions that inspired Cesar Chavez to unionize farm laborers. Indeed, Under the Feet of Jesus is dedicated to the activist's memory. In the book, Maria Helena Viramontes tackles themes of marginalization and erasure, paying particular attention the experience of women. The novel is notable not only for its content, but for its unique shifting perspective and timeline, which allows readers to consider events from several perspectives.
Published in 1995 to critical acclaim, Under the Feet of Jesus represents Viramontes' first novel. Her prior work was largely in the form of short stories and essays. Her literary achievement in Under the Feet of Jesus earned her the John Dos Passos Prize in 1996 and brought her to national prominence. Today, Under the Feet of Jesus remains Helena Maria Viramontes' most studied and best known work.
Viramontes was inspired not only by Cesar Chavez' political work, but also by the depiction of Mexican rural life Pedro Paramo (Viramontes 231). She was further influenced by her own childhood experiences, having been raised by a poor Mexican American family in California. Though not fluent in Spanish, Viramontes attempted to capture the essence of Hispanic culture by including Spanish phrases and terms in the novel (Viramontes 227). In a 2001 interview the author expressed surprise that so many non-Chicano readers had identified strongly with Under the Feet of Jesus, explaining that she had written the work to better express a uniquely Chicano experience (Viramontes 227).