"It was always a question of work, and work depended on the harvest, the car running, their health, the conditions of the road, how long the money held out, and the weather, which meant they could depend on nothing."
By enumerating all the things that could fail Estrella's family, Viramontes highlights their tenuous position in the novel. Their lives are defined primarily by instability. Laborers are paid according to how much produce they harvest, which in turn depends on an array of variables partially or completely out of their control. Picking not only pays poorly, but offers only short-term work. This unstable landscape forms the young Estrella's entire world.
“She lifted the pry bar in her hand, felt the coolness of iron and power of function, 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."
Estrella realizes tools will allow her to accomplish things otherwise outside her power. Just as a crowbar empowers her to tear apart a house, literacy empowers her to participate fully in society. A teacher's hurtful words reveal to the protagonist exactly how powerful speech can be. Literacy allows Estrella to redefine and therefore change her world. It is only until Estrella articulates the injustice at the clinic that she is able to act.
“Carrying the full basket to the paper was not like the picture on the red raisin boxes Estrella saw in the markets, not like the woman wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips, the sun a flat orange behind her."
Viramontes compares Estrella's brutal labor with the sanitized image of farming found in supermarkets. In order to sell more raisins, corporate interests have erased the hard work necessary to produce the food. If middle-class Americans were forced to consider that a young girl performed back-breaking labor so they could have a snack, very few people would buy raisins. By hiding the work Estrella does in the field with a cutesy, bucolic image, marketing teams save consumers from guilt.
“Don’t let them make you feel you did a crime for picking the vegetables they’ll be eating for dinner. If they stop you, if they try to pull you into the green vans, you tell them the birth certificates are under the feet of Jesus, just tell them."
Petra criticizes a legal and political system that relies on migrant labor while condemning it. The same people who persecute Estrella benefit directly from her work by enjoying the cheap vegetables and fruits she helps produce. Instead of appealing to the law, Petra appeals to morality. Estrella may not have a legal right to citizenship, but her mother argues she has a moral one. Petra invokes the authority of religion, her primary source of morality, to confirm her daughter's status as a citizen.
"Was this punishment for his thievery? He was sorry Lord, so sorry."
After being poisoned with pesticides, Alejo wonders if God is punishing him, blaming himself for what has happened. The quote highlights the role religion plays in oppressing marginalized people. Instead encouraging Alejo to question the unjust system that forced him to steal, religion holds him responsible for his poor treatment. Through religion, Alejo has internalized the broader societal message that he is unworthy of basic human rights. As a young man paid starvation wages to perform hard labor, Alejo is a victim, not a sinner.
“But the tire resisted, Alejo’s body resisted, and she did not want to think what she was thinking now: God was mean and did not care and she was alone to fend for herself."
After suffering a lifetime of repression, Estrella challenges traditional religion. By her estimation, she has never received help from the Christian God, even when she desperately needed it. She rejects her mother's religion, instead trusting in herself. Estrella does not pray or wait for miracles; she personally acts to ensure the survival of her friend. It is she, not God, that can be relied on. By the end of the novel, Estrella replaces religion with personal empowerment. Through action, she assures her own salvation.
“Estrella had figured it out: the nurse owed them as much as they owed her."
Panicked in the clinic, Estrella has an important revelation: society owes her for her hard labor. She works tirelessly in the fields to make others' middle-class existence possible; it is her sweat that allows the nurse to buy cheap produce at the grocery store. Despite the nurse's attitude, Estrella is not indebted to her or the clinic. Her labor has earned her a right to medical care for Alejo. Once she has reframed the situation, Estrella is empowered to act: returning confidently to the car for Perfecto's crowbar.
“You talk and talk and talk to them and they ignore you. But you pick up a crowbar and break the pictures of their children, and all of a sudden they listen real fast."
Throughout the novel, laborers are depicted as being voiceless. Even though Estrella attempts to communicate with the nurse, the woman ignores her, refusing to understand her position. It is only when Estrella acts, smashing a pry bar against the nurse's desk, that she is finally heard. In this scene Viramontes argues that action, and even potential violence, are necessary to ensure that migrant laborers have a voice. Estrella's message is accusatory; the nurse ignores it because it would require her to examine her own, middle-class privilege.
“Then she lifted her arms, her palms up and then spread them wide and the twins watched as she stepped forward and the glass doors split open before her as if obeying her command."
After saving Alejo, Estrella appears to be magic to her younger sisters. She walks through an automatic door, seemingly opening it with her mystical powers. Viramontes' image recalls the Biblical story of Moses; just as Moses parted the Red Sea, Estrella parts the glass hospital doors. By acting to save Alejo, Estrella has realized the true breadth of her powers. Later she will be compared to both Jesus and an angel. She becomes, like Moses or Jesus, a sort of savior.
“Like the chiming bells of the great cathedrals, she believed her heart powerful enough to summon home all those who strayed."
The final sentence in the novel, the above quote expresses Estrella's transformation. Just as cathedral bells call believers to the church, Estrella's leadership will call the oppressed and marginalized to her. Estrella has been empowered; her actions to help Alejo have made her a genuine leader and agent of change. Optimistic, Estrella feels she can help all those who need her. In the last passage, she has supplanted Jesus as a source of support and strength. Estrella has replaced a passive religion with active personal empowerment.
Under the Feet of Jesus Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Under the Feet of Jesus is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.