Stacie A. Townsend makes the case for Helena María Viramontes’s 1995 novel, “Under the Feet of Jesus.”
Author Helena María Viramontes’s 1995 novel Under the Feet of Jesus is an essential exposition of the inequities that permeate the production of food in the major farming region of the most agriculturally significant state in the nation: California’s Central Valley. Viramontes’s novel is fictional yet provides powerful and poetic narrative about the realities of social injustices surrounding agricultural labor in the Western United States. The novel treats the agricultural landscape as a place of resistance against the classist and racist structures that surround food labor in the Central Valley.
Viramontes’s story has the potential to be a valuable resource to food studies scholars: more specifically, it is pertinent to those interested in topics at the intersection of social, racial, and environmental justice issues, especially as they concern farm workers. Under the Feet of Jesus is a direct response to the plight of Latinx farm laborers in the Delano area of the San Joaquin Valley and the labor movement that led to the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW). Given its significance, the novel has been underdiscussed within the broader discipline of academic food studies. Struggles around organizing farm labor “gained national, and even international, dimensions when it erupted into public view from Delano in 1966…with the [strike of] farmworkers fighting for the right to bargain collectively.” Ultimately, the strike lasted three years and was strengthened by a consumer boycott of non-union grown grapes. It successfully altered the established balance of power in this region. Above all, the Delano grape strike significantly limited the established hegemony of growers in the Central Valley.
Viramontes’s novel speaks candidly to this boycott and the labor conditions that led to it. The story is fictional but set in the location on a timeline directly leading up to the formation of the UFW. The novel follows the coming-of-age of one young woman, Estrella, amid the personal drama of family and romantic relationships, but it also tells a more public drama of her circumstances as a farm laborer working grape fields in mid-twentieth century Central California. In the text, the land being labored over is not just a location but also a representation of hardship and heartbreak. In narrating the experience of one laborer, Viramontes writes: “Feeling unspeakable sadness, he sat under the vines for relief and he could hear his heart pumping in his ears. He staked the soil between his workshoes with his knife again and again. The soil dulled the sharpness of his blade as it did his own life” (83). The landscape of the Central Valley is harsh and its working conditions even more so. The very soil the workers till takes a toll on their physicalities, emotions, and lives. The novel’s young protagonist, Estrella, takes particular note of the racialized exclusions that she sees in her own labor: she notes the very white face on the raisin boxes that she packs (a clear allusion to Sun-Maid raisin imagery) in direct contrast to her own brown face. Viramontes writes:
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 grapes with her smiling, ruby lips, the sun a flat orange behind her. The sun was white and it made Estrella’s eyes sting like an onion…The woman with the red bonnet did not know this. Her knees did not sink in the hot white soil…The woman’s bonnet would be as useless as Estrella’s own straw hat under a white sun so mighty, it toasted the green grapes to black raisins (49-50).
The novel also chronicles other issues, such as pesticide exposure among food laborers. Of course, those with the most direct exposure to polluting agents are the subjects working the fields. One character, Alejo, is caught in the direct spray of a field with pesticide agents. The experience is described as follows:
At first it was just a slight moisture until the poison rolled down his face in deep sticky streaks. The lingering smell was a scent of ocean salt and bleached kelp until he inhaled again and could detect under the innocence the heavy chemical choke of poison. Air clogged in his lungs and he thought he was just holding his breath, until he tried exhaling but couldn’t, which meant he couldn’t breathe (77).
Alejo is sick for days, close to death. He “could no longer stand upright without feeling faint, his body weak from bouts of diarrhea and vomiting” (93). Even as he improves, he is watched closely by the other laborers. Alejo’s recovery is slow, and it is implied that the fact that he heals at all can be credited to his relative youth. Here, landscape damage and bodily turmoil is a constant presence within the landscape of the Valley and has a distinctly racialized dimension.
Buoyed by UFW support, 1966 saw a major turn in union support and action on behalf of food labor movements. In 1970, faced with major economic jeopardy, Delano-area growers agreed to UFW union contracts for table-grape farm laborers. The year 1975 marked the signing of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act by Governor Jerry Brown, which seemed to mark the promise of lasting success to the union. In reality, stability eluded the union in subsequent decades, with intra-union conflicts, declines in membership, and the loss of support in enforcing UFW contracts by later administrations. However, these challenges did not hinder the UFW from becoming arguably the most powerful farm labor union in U.S. history. Some have made the case that increasing reliance on technology in agricultural production will render these union and labor victories invalid as mechanization will make farm workers an “obsolete feature” on the landscape of the Central Valley. In truth, as Johnson, Haslam, and Dawson argue, “even if mechanization continues, people will, albeit in diminishing numbers, continue to work these fields for a long time to come.” We can look to successes in places like Delano for precedent that upheavals on behalf of social justice will prevail. If it can work here in California’s Central Valley, perhaps it can work elsewhere in the nation and beyond. Viramontes’s novel provides artful insight into this important dynamic within food production. The novel is well-positioned to be a valuable resource to food studies scholars, especially those interested in topics at the intersection of social, racial, and environmental justice issues.
Stacie A. Townsend is a PhD candidate in the Geography Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. She also holds a Master’s degree in Geography from California State University, Long Beach. Her research specialties surround topics in the GeoHumanities and literary geographies, especially depictions of the American West and California. Recent work has also included lecturing in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at California State University, Northridge.