The novel begins as Estrella and her family drive down the road, crowded into an old car. She spies a barn in the distance and wonders if it is their destination. Estrella, one of five children—including her brothers Ricky and Arnulfo and twin sisters Perla and Cookie—lives with her mother Petra and her mother’s boyfriend Perfecto. As Perfecto stops the car to adjust the heavy load on the roof, the narrative switches perspectives.
Alejo and his cousin Gumecindo spy Estrella’s family from their vantage point in the orchard, where they are stealing peaches to sell in a flea market. Alejo, perched in a tree, rapidly picks fruit before he and his cousin are seen.
The family arrives at a “shabby wood frame bungalow,” which Petra confirms is their destination (6). As the children pour out of the car, Ricky steps on Estrella’s doll, which she tosses back onto the seat, unruffled. She and her siblings scatter into the countryside. Petra and Perfecto begin to inspect the old cabin. He finds a scorpion and a dead bird, hiding the latter to prevent Petra from being upset. Nervous, she yells at the children for running barefoot in a place with scorpions. Estrella, also called Star, and the twins run to the old barn, which seems like a “cathedral” (9). Estrella’s eyes follow a dangling chain all the way up to the barn roof. The door suddenly swings close, causing scared birds to flutter loudly out of the barn. The girls scream.
Alejo and Gumecindo see a flock of birds take flight and guess two cats must be fighting. Gumecindo begs Alejo to hurry, as he is afraid of La Llorona, a mythic Mexican figure who drowns wandering children. As they head for another tree, Alejo drops his bag of peaches, bruising them.
The narrative returns to Estrella’s perspective but zooms back in time. The story jumps from past to present and person to person throughout the novel. Each episode is written as it is unfolding in the present. Estrella travels north with her mother and real father. When the family stops for a break, Petra finds large oranges in an orchard. Estrella brings one to her father and he peels it with the nail of his thumb, taking the skin off in “one long spiral” (12). Since then, she has always associated her father with oranges. The women from the camp had warned Petra against leaving, explaining that Estrella’s father would kill the family in a jealous rage. But ultimately it was her father who left, pushing the family to the brink of starvation. Eventually they were forced become migrant workers, living in temporary camps.
Back in the present Perfecto tells the children to leave the barn, since it is close to collapse. Estrella is furious, claiming Perfecto is not her father. She jerks her brother Ricky around, frustrated that Perfecto chastised her.
In the past, Petra nervously gazes at the freeway outside her window. Estrella’s father rethreads the laces on his leather shoes and walks out the door, never to return. Petra curses her husband for leaving her, feeling as if she is plummeting from a freeway bridge. Estrella is distracting the hungry younger children with a dance. Petra bites her finger and screams at her sons to be quiet. Desperate, she runs out into the street looking for someone to save her. Finally she remembers how hard her father worked and how Estrella is working to entertain the boys; with these new thoughts she returns to the apartment.
In the present, Alejo spots a young boy by the barn. As the cousins look for him, the boy jumps “out of nowhere” (21). He has a cleft palate. The boy plays until he falls on a piece of glass, cutting himself. Alejo makes hand shadow puppets to calm the boy's crying.
Earlier, Petra realizes that her husband is never coming back, when Estrella pleads with her to hide his shoes so he cannot leave. By the time the weight of the moment hits her, her husband is already out the door.
Still in the past, Estrella is furious when she finds Perfecto’s toolbox by the door. The implements inside are confusing, just like the letters she studies. At school, teachers treat her poorly, asking her why her mother doesn’t give her a bath. Hurt, Estrella discovers how brutal words can be. Perfecto, trying to appease Estrella, shows he what each tool does. Realizing the power of Perfecto’s implements, Estrella commits herself to learning to read.
Back in the present Estrella helps Perfecto prepare the house, patching holes and hanging up sheets. Perfecto is excited to be able to sleep lying down, instead of cramped inside the car.
During a previous harvest, Estrella’s family works in a tomato farm. There she meets a girl named Maxine, a member of the Devridges, a family known for starting trouble. Maxine, who is illiterate but has a collection of comic books, asks Estrella to read to her. The girls bond over the stories. One day the girls meet to read a comic in the fields. As they grow increasingly thirsty, they come to a ditch, but cannot drink as Estrella knows it is filled with pesticides. She worries about having a baby with “no mouth” (33). They lay down by the ditch to read the comic but are soon interrupted by a rotting smell. A dead dog floats down the ditch and becomes caught on the bank. After attempting to dislodge the corpse, the girls walk back to the camp. A talkative Maxine teasingly says that Estrella’s mother is having sex with Perfecto. Furious, Estrella pulls Maxine’s hair, starting a fight. Mrs. Devridge finally intervenes and sends Estrella home. The foreman, wary of workers fighting, forces Estrella’s family to move, firing them.
In the present, Alejo perches on a peach tree overlooking the river. Gumecindo hurries his cousin, still frightened of La Llorona. Alejo watches Estrella wash a watermelon. When she drops it in the river, she undresses and wades in to find it. Alejo watches, spellbound. As he looks, the branch snaps under Alejo, throwing him to the ground.
Petra tends a fire and sings an old song to herself. Estrella returns with the watermelon to find Perfecto gone. Petra explains he has left for the store to try and barter for food. At her mother’s bidding, Estrella draws a circle in the dirt around the cabin to protect it from scorpions. She encourages her mother to come inside, but Petra remains by the fire.
In the morning, Alejo heads for Estrella’s house where Ricky is excitedly watching a biplane in the sky. Alejo gives Petra a bag of peaches, welcoming them to the camp. Petra puts some beans and tortillas in a bag, and asks Alejo to take them to his mother. Alejo reveals his mother is dead; he is traveling with his cousin Gumecindo. All the while he watches Estrella, who he is fascinated by.
Estrella and her family are on the edge, constantly in danger of facing hunger or homelessness. Indeed when abandoned by her husband, Petra feels as if she is falling off the edge of a bridge (18). As Estrella explains, “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” (4). The children face hunger (18) and the family is constantly moving from place to place (37). Given their limited access to money, Perfecto barters his skills for food in order to help the family survive (48). This lifestyle has a marked, physical effect on the body. Petra remembers how work bent her father’s back “like a mangled nail” (20). Even Estrella is marked - after working in the tomato fields, the scent of the fruit sticks to her like a permanent “paste” (32).
Despite the brutal stories she is recounting, Helena Maria Viramontes uses lush, even beautiful language. She describes how “wisps of wind ruffled the orange and avocado and peach trees which rolled and tumbled as far back as the etched horizon of the mountain range” (3). Later, when Alejo spies Estrella in the river, Viramontes' language is romantic, even magical. She writes of the water “lick[ing] around her in velvet waves as the moonlight broke like chipped silver” (40). The contrast between the characters experiences and the prose used to describe them, highlights both the desperation of Estrella’s life and the beauty of the land. Viramontes’ language is encased in a complex narrative structure that shifts perspective and jumps back and forth in time. Her structure highlights the importance of memory and allows the reader to experience events from several points of view.
Throughout Part I, there is an emphasis on silenced speech. Perfecto opens his mouth but swallows his words (15). A young boy screams silently and a hole in Alejo’s shirt hangs “like a speechless mouth” (22). Petra stops a cry in her throat (24). Later, when considering drinking the pesticide-tainted water from a drainage ditch, Estrella worries that she will have a baby with “no mouth” (33). All these images reaffirm the character’s place at the margins of society. As migrant workers, Estrella and her family aren’t given a voice or treated like true citizens; nobody listens to their words. Viramontes reflects this truth symbolically, by invoking images of silent mouths. Indeed, there is very little speech or dialogue in the novel.
Estrella begins to combat her powerless position in society when she learns to read. She compares letters to tools, highlighting the functional power of both (24). Being hurt by her teacher’s careless words reveals the control and influence that can flow from speech (25). Estrella has an epiphany as she listens to Perfecto enumerate the uses of his tools, which allow him to achieve things: “ to build, bury, tear down, rearrange and repair” (26). At that moment she decides to dedicate herself to reading, because of the power it will give her to manipulate her world. If migrant laborers are speechless, Estrella can gain a voice through literacy.
Pesticides play a large role in Under the Feet of Jesus, acting as a prime example of how corporate interests are placed above the lives of laborers. In Part I we see how widespread the use of pesticides are. Pesticides spill into the workers’ drinking water (32); Estrella wipes a white, chemical film off a tomato (38); and young Ricky watches a biplane rain pesticides down onto a field (42). Though Estrella is wary of the effects, she cannot practically avoid pesticides in her environment.