Reader Response for Under the Feet of Jesus

About This Activity 

You will be asked to turn in reading responses regularly throughout the course. A Reader Response is an opportunity for you to formalize your thinking about a text. This week, I’ll ask you to share your response as a discussion post with your peers and to engage with one another’s responses. 

INSTRUCTIONS

For your Reader Response, please select an option below. You are free to combine options and/or follow your own train of thought. Minimum: 500 words. 

OPTION 1: SOCIAL JUSTICE TODAY

There are millions of agricultural workers in the U.S., including migrants and other categories of seasonal and guest program workers. Helena María Viramontes’ Under the Feet of Jesus presents the dilemmas faced by a migrant family and addresses social justice issues such as poverty, limited health care, substandard housing, lack of access to education, and abysmal working conditions. Research one of the social justice issues above as it relates to migrant workers/ families today; make connections between the novel and your findings. Provide links as needed. 

OPTION 2: POWER OF THE VISUAL

View the Sun-Maid raisin box (1970) (Links to an external site.) as well as Ester Hernandez’s “Sun Mad” (1982) (Links to an external site.) and “Sun Raid” (2008) (Links to an external site.)

  • How does the original box of raisins (1970) depict the farm labor of picking grapes? What stands out to you about the image? To what is the eye drawn? What does this depiction communicate about the labor that provides this food item to certain communities within the greater public? How does the Sun-Maid attire compare with that of actual farmworkers? Does it matter that the person depicted is a woman? Why or why not? 
  • Discuss the ways in which the novel critiques the image of the woman on the box of raisins. Look at pages 49–50, the scene in which Estrella problematizes the image of the Sun Maid Girl. What other parts of the novel contest Sun Maid’s representation of farm labor? How does the Sun Maid image contrast with the everyday experience of farmworkers in the novel? 
  • Finally, view Hernandez’s “Sun Mad” (1982) and “Sun Raid” (2008). Compare and contrast the two pieces, which are separated by 26 years. To what historical events might these pieces be responding? Discuss the novel, published in 1995, in relation to this history. What does Hernandez add to Viramontes’s critique? 

OPTION 3: CHALLENGING THE DOMINANT NARRATIVE

In the United States, the farmer is often depicted as the embodiment of American independence, hard work, and grit. However, Helena María Viramontes’s Under the Feet of Jesus does not focus on the figure of the oft-idealized, land-owning farmer. Instead, it focuses on the overlooked lives of farmworkers in California—those who are employed in order to cultivate, till, grow, harvest, and otherwise work to produce agricultural goods. Viramontes’s novel does not offer a story of organized collective action around labor. Rather, the story narrates the day-to-day lives of farmworkers in ways that challenge popular narratives about farm labor and farmworkers, including dispelling the myths that 1) all farmworkers are undocumented immigrants and 2) all farmworkers are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In the process, the novel highlights connections between farm labor and everyday experiences of toxicity, chronic stress, and health issues, underscoring the ways in which farmworkers in the U.S. experience greater risk of exposure to toxins while, at the same time, lack access to healthcare. 

  • How does the focus on Estrella, Alejo, and the farmworker community portrayed in Under the Feet of Jesus challenge popular conceptions of farmworkers and their experiences in the United States? For example, how does the novel contest myths that all farmworkers are immigrants, men, or adults? How does it challenge our understanding of farmworker labor, housing, and/or healthcare?
  • In the novel, Estrella is given a flyer with a black eagle on it. This is the symbol of the United Farm Workers. She stuffs the flyer in her back pocket because she is too tired to read it. Why does the novel include this moment? What is the effect of not making farm labor organizing more explicit? 
  • In what ways does Viramontes acknowledge the multifaceted history of farm labor in the United States? How does she position her characters within this larger narrative?

OPTION 4: FARM LABOR HISTORY & THE MEXICAN AND CHICANX COMMUNITY 

Research topics such as Mexican workers prior to World War II; The Bracero Program; Post-Bracero Program migration; and contemporary farmworkers. How do these histories of farm labor inform one’s reading of Under the Feet of Jesus? 

OPTION 5: ¡SI, SE PUEDE!

Tap into your prior knowledge of labor organizing and unions. Then investigate the ways we see both farmworker exploitation and activism historically and in the present moment. What does it mean to organize labor? To unionize? To go on strike (huelga)? What is so powerful about striking or boycotting agricultural products like grapes or lettuce?

Finally, where do we see the United Farm Workers (UFW) showing up in Under the Feet of Jesus? In what ways, beyond farm labor organizing, can we see examples of farmworkers empowering themselves in the novel?

Use United Farmworkers (Links to an external site.) extensive website as a resource.

OPTION 6: DEDICATION

The dedication page of the novel says, “In Memory of Cesar Chavez.” Research Chavez and his ideas and share the following in a post: 

  • A brief overview of Chavez’s life and/or highlights of particular interest to you
  • 2 – 3 quotes from Chavez that you encountered in your research and your interpretation of the key ideas Chavez expresses 
  • An answer as to why you think this novel might be dedicated to him

Some places to begin your research, include: 

  • The Story of Cesar Chavez  (Links to an external site.)
  • The Cesar Chavez Foundation  (Links to an external site.)
  • The Rise and Fall of Cesar Chavez (Links to an external site.) 
  • Cesar Chavez (Biography.com) (Links to an external site.)

OPTION 7: ON BELONGING

  • How does Under the Feet of Jesus represent the experiences of farmworkers who are U.S. citizens? Consider, for example, the scenes that describe Estrella’s fear of La Migra and her mother’s response. You may also consider the characters’ treatment when they seek medical care for Alejo.
  • How are connections to places, cultures, and identities discussed in the text? Consider, for example, Perfecto’s yearning to return home, the role of the Spanish language and certain foods, and the corporations that employ Estrella’s family. How do the issues of U.S. immigration and citizenship create, disrupt, or impact these connections?
  • The characters in the novel claim multiple forms of belonging that often escape the legal framework of the nation-state. To what places do characters claim connections and relationships, and how are these forms of belonging discussed?

OPTION 7: CITIZENSHIP & ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE

Watch the videoA Brief History of Environmental Justice (Links to an external site.), and consider the following stories from the Voices from the Valley website (Links to an external site.): Teresa DeAnda’s story (Links to an external site.), Ruth Martinez’s story (Links to an external site.), excerpts from Raji Brar’s interview, (Links to an external site.) and excerpts from Mary Lou Mares’s interview (Links to an external site.).

In what ways might a person’s citizenship status affect his/her/their ability to confront an issue of environmental justice in his/her/their community? How do issues of race and ethnicity figure into these stories? How do these stories compare/contrast to the story in Under the Feet of Jesus?

OPTION 8: EDUCATION

While reading Under the Feet of Jesus, it is important to consider how the characters in the novel reflect on the structures of knowledge and education. Viramontes draws readers’ attention to the significance of education and knowledge in the characters’ lives both directly and indirectly. She points to Estrella’s early educational experience in a traditional school as one fraught with discrimination and disregard. Estrella finds more value in the literacy she gains from Perfecto, drawing an astute connection between mechanical tools and the alphabet/language.

Another direct reference the author makes to education is when Alejo recalls his grandmother’s encouragement that he attends high school. He fantasizes about buying school supplies, returning to school, and studying geology in college, all while life circumstances seem to be propelling him down an entirely different course. This consideration confronts readers with whether this could ever be his reality. Viramontes also alludes to the influence of education and knowledge in subtler ways; in instances where characters draw from previous experiences to solve a current problem or address something new, readers are asked to modify their current understanding of education to incorporate situational knowledgeOne example of this is when, on the way to the medical clinic, the car gets stuck and Estrella knows exactly what to do because “[i]t had happened before. The tire getting stuck in mud or sand was not new” (Viramontes 128). Under the Feet of Jesus interrogates the disproportionate attainability of education and the narrow cultural understanding of knowledge.

  • Why does Alejo desire an education? What empowerment does he feel this might lend him, and why? Are his dreams inaccessible despite his U.S. citizenship? If so, why?
  • Why does Viramontes use Perfecto’s toolbox as a metaphor for Estrella’s literacy?
  • What are other moments of learning in the text for Estrella or other characters?
  • What is the role of multilingualism in the text and the characters’ education?

OPTION 9: COMING OF AGE

Like Bless Me, Ultima, Under the Feet of Jesus is a coming-of-age novel, a bildungsroman. Under the Feet of Jesus charts the obstacles encountered by Estrella and how she works to overcome them.The typical bildungsroman has three parts:

•  Introduction of the character, usually in childhood

•  Chronicles of the experiences of the protagonist, which often lead to a crisis or loss of faith

•  Resolution in which the character reaches maturity and often gains a sense of peace or belonging

Focus on Estrella and reflect on her experiences. Is the novel following the typical Bildungsroman structure? How? What obstacles does Estrella face? Does Estrella grow in maturity as she overcomes these obstacles?

OPTION 10: LA CHICANA

In the initial waves of feminism, the unique concerns of women of color were often treated as peripheral to those of white, middle-class women. Many Chicanas in the early Chicano Movement felt that their voices as women were going unheard. Alongside other women of color feminisms, Chicana feminists began to insist that an intersectional approach be taken up. Chicana feminism and activism focuses on the specific intersectional oppression Chicanas face (colonialism, racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, etc.), potential paths to liberation, and the uniqueness of Chicanas as mestiza  Download mestiza. Some members of the movement emphasized a reclaiming of the colonized land of Aztlán as part of this connection to indigeneity.

Under the Feet of Jesus opens with a young Estrella who, through the course of the novel, develops a sense of the multi-layered borderlands she faces as a Mexican American, member of the working-class, and Chicana within an anglocentric culture. Tensions between women of color feminisms and the early waves of primarily white, middle-class feminism (a controversy that was at its peak during the novel’s publication) are highlighted in the novel when Estrella confronts an embodiment of white middle-class feminism: the nurse. During the family’s visit to the medical clinic, Estrella comes head to head with the nurse’s indifference toward her family and herself, particularly with “[h]ow easily [the nurse] put herself in a position to judge” (144 -149). In addition, the author’s strategic imagery of the mythical La Llorona  Download La Lloronathroughout the novel draws on the Chicana literary practice of refiguring traditional images of disenfranchised women as embodiments of decolonized feminine power.

  • How does a Chicana feminist lens help us understand the specificity of intersecting oppression and privileges (gendered/raced/classed) in the family, farm worker community, and greater social dynamics in Under the Feet of Jesus?
  • In the moment with Estrella and the nurse, do you find yourself sympathetic toward the nurse and/or Estrella? Why? How do you see Estrella’s role in this encounter? How might Estrella’s confrontation with the nurse be interpreted as a critical feminist moment?
  • In Chapter Five, Petra considers her own mother and grandmother’s roles in connection with her relationship with Estrella. Why do you think Viramontes spends some time here introducing readers to the interconnectedness and individual personhood of “las mujeres de la familia” (165)? How and where do you see intergenerational relationships among women functioning in the text, and for what purpose?
  • Where do you see religious imagery, figures, or practices in the novel? How do you interpret these images, figures, or practices in relation to the novel’s Chicana feminist perspective? How might you interpret the meaning of the title Under the Feet of Jesus?

NOTE: DUE Date is suggested for Initial Post. 

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