Throughout Under the Feet of Jesus, Viramontes focuses on the physical labor Estrella and her family perform in the fields. The effect of work is often written on the piscadores' bodies. Picking grapes leaves Estrella's "back coiled like barbed wire" (53). Her grandfather was similarly stooped: carrying cement "[bent] his back like a mangled nail" (20). The work is so brutal and intensive, it reshapes bodies. Indeed, the novel's characters are continuously tired, hungry, and aching after spending long hours in the fields. By focusing on the nature of migrant labor, Viramontes combats a culture in which piscador work is erased. Raisin ads depict a "woman wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips" (49). The reality of picking grapes is completely different; Estrella is so exhausted and worn down she struggles not to cry (53). By acknowledging the real nature and extent of Estrella's work, Viramontes highlights everything that migrant labors contribute to American society.
Estrella's life is plagued with insecurity. Her family's position depends on "the harvest, the car running, their health, the conditions of the road, how long the money [holds] out, and the weather" (4). Work picking fruit or vegetables is short-term and seasonal, Petra and Perfecto struggle to support children in an unreliable environment. Just as the family cannot depend on steady income, Estrella cannot depend on the adults in her life. Her father abandoned her, and Perfecto, her surrogate father, is on the verge of leaving the family. Only Petra is fully committed to her children; yet by the end of the novel, her legs are so weak, she struggles to stand. Petra's ability to work in the future remains in question. Estrella will be left to care for her four current siblings and the infant currently in Petra's womb. Coming of age in such instability, Estrella has learned that she can rely only on herself.
Religion and Superstition
Petra relies on both religion and superstition to navigate daily life. She faithfully draws a circle in the dirt around the bungalow to protect her children from scorpions. Similarly, she routinely prays at the family altar under the statue of Jesus. Yet by then end of the novel, Petra begins to question her faith (169). Unlike her mother, Estrella has never particularly embraced either religion or superstition. During the episode in the clinic, Estrella comes to the conclusion that "God was mean and did not care and she was alone to fend for herself" (139). Instead of asking God to help her, Estrella decides to help herself. The novel's final section is filled with language comparing Estrella to Christian images, suggesting Estrella has filled the void of religion with self-empowerment. Viramontes exemplifies the failure of religion when Alejo begs for God's forgiveness after being poisoned. Instead of providing strength, religion has encouraged Alejo to berate himself for events beyond his control. In this way, Christianity facilitates the oppression of marginalized groups.
In Under the Feet of Jesus, migrant laborers are neither seen nor heard by wider American society. Their labor is erased by cheery ads that depict farm work as pleasant and easy (49). Alejo best articulates the process of erasure when he explains how tar pits function. Animals drown in tar, eventually producing oil for consumption (87). The animal's sacrifice is invisible, as society doesn't acknowledge their struggle. They quite literally disappear into inky blackness. Likewise, migrant laborers sacrifice their bodies and time to produce fruit and vegetables for consumption. As with the tar pits, this offering proves invisible. Middle-class Americans are loathe to admit that their dinner relies on brutal labor that pays starvation wages. The migrants live in isolated communities that have little contact with wider society. Accordingly, Estrella and her family rarely interact with someone who isn't a laborer. As a result, many Americans don't know or care about their plight. Their struggle has been effectively erased.
Legality vs. Morality
Viramontes draws a sharp distinction between legality and morality. Though migrant laborers contribute their lives to American society by producing fruits and vegetables, they are not legally citizens and have few, if any, rights. The author argues that it is immoral to deprive workers of citizenship, as they invest their bodies and time in the country's soil. Petra tells her daughter that "the birth certificates are under the feet of Jesus" (63). By referencing Jesus, her ethical guide, Petra is making a moral, rather than legal claim to citizenship. Estrella is a citizen, not because she has a birth certificate, but because she has contributed her sweat and tears to America. Whether she technically qualifies under American laws is unimportant. Estrella embraces her mother's moral claim when she realizes at the clinic that she is owed something for all her work (148). By focusing on moral arguments for citizenship, Viramontes criticizes an American legal system that excludes and ignores those who give their labor and their lives to the country.
Literacy is a source of great power in Under the Feet of Jesus. Viramontes draws attention to the power of words by comparing them to tools (24). Just as a crowbar and hammer enable Estrella to build and tear down houses, words allow the protagonist to build and tear down ideas. Using words, Estrella begins to formulate her own ideas and point of view. At the clinic she inverts the concept of indebtedness the nurse is promoting. She explains to herself and the reader that it is not she who owes the nurse, it is the nurse who owes her. Having articulated her perspective, Estrella is empowered to act, saving Alejo's life. Without her ability to manipulate words and form ideas, Estrella would be just as paralyzed and deferential as Petra and Perfecto. In the novel literacy is the key to changing one's life for the better.
Burden of Being Female
As a feminist author, Helena Maria Viramontes focuses on the unique burdens of being female in Under the Feet of Jesus. All family members must work in the fields, but only women bare the additional responsibility of domestic work. Though she harvests grapes all day, Petra must also cook, clean, and care for the children (60). Likewise, Estrella is expected to help with cooking (63). In contrast, Perfecto and Estrella's brothers don't complete any chores. Beyond domestic labor, Under the Feet of Jesus suggests that children themselves are a burden to women. The child growing in Petra’s belly is compared to the sack of cotton she must haul through the fields (51). Indeed, Estrella falls asleep in her mother’s cotton sack and becomes a literal burden for Petra (52). Her husband’s abandonment further reflects this theme; Petra is ultimately responsible for the children. Fathers may escape and live independent lives, but mothers are permanently tied to their children.
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.