Migrant Farm Workers in “Under the Feet of Jesus” and
“…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”
The harsh treatment of Mexican Americans as migrant farm workers during the early 20th century has been the subject of two great novels. One is “Under the Feet of Jesus” by Helena Maria Viramontes and another is “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” by Tomas Rivera. These two novels are closely similar to each other as Viramontes and Rivera explore the dehumanization of Mexican-American migrant farm workers and the hardships that they must go through in order to make a living as well as in the hope for a better life for their children. They are also similar in terms of the rhetorical strategies used, the narrator’s age and the geographical location except that they are different in the narrative format, the text structure, the historical context, and the narrator’s gender. This essay will attempt to elaborate on all these similarities and differences in detail.
First, the novels “Under the Feet of Jesus” and “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” illustrate the same sufferings, social problems and issues as well as the hopes and dreams of the migrant farm workers. The characters in both novels suffer from long hours of back-breaking work under the intense heat of the sun, low wages, poor food, substandard housing and fatal health risks. In “Under the Feet of Jesus”, these sufferings are expressed in: “The silence and the barn and the clouds meant many things. 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” (Viramontes 4). Alejo, the farmer boy whom the central character Estrella falls in love with, is seen to be suffering from pesticide poisoning and who eventually dies. Similar conditions happen to the characters in “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”. “The Children Couldn’t Wait” shows that the farmers together with the children work in the fields despite that “the heat had set in with severity” and their boss “didn’t much like the idea of their losing time going to drink water from a tank at the edge of the furrow” (Rivera 86). Potential health hazards are also presented when the uncle and the aunt of the “I” narrator “had caught tuberculosis”” (Rivera 108) due to their work in the fields and eventually died. His father also “suffered a sunstroke” (Rivera 108) and got very sick.
Both stories present the social problems and issues such as racial discrimination, social injustice, unfair and inhumane treatment and exploitation faced by Mexican migrants. Viramontes portrays the racial discrimination that happened to Estrella in school when “some of the teachers were more concerned about the dirt under her fingernails” and when she was asked why “her mama never gave her a bath” (24). Alejo experiences social injustice and exploitation when he got sick due to a spray of pesticide and he was brought to a nurse yet the nurse exacted a very high price of nine dollars when she all she did was to tell Estrella and her family to bring him to the hospital. Perfecto also experienced exploitation as he thinks: “He had given this country his all, and in this land that used his bones for kindling, in this land that never once in the thirty years he lived and worked, never once said thank you” (155). He never felt gratitude from the local people despite of all his sacrifices. Likewise, Rivera points out the existence of exploitation and social injustice of the workers when “the boss became aware” that there are workers drinking water from a tank at the edge of the furrow, “he didn’t let on. He wanted to catch a bunch of them and that way he could pay fewer of them and only after they had done more work” (86). There is also one awful sight that happened in that same part of the novel. The boss tried to scare the boy who keeps “going to drink water every little while”, but “when he pulled the trigger he saw the boy with a hole in his head.” (86). There is also racial discrimination that can be found in the “Its That It Hurts” part of the novel where the male narrator reveals: “they made me take off my clothes and they even examined my behind. But where they took the longest was on my head… After a while they let me go but I was so ashamed because I had to take off my pants, even my underwear, in front of the nurse” (92-3). It can also be seen that the main character and “his brothers and sisters began the day’s labor… they endured the heat but by ten-thirty the sun had suddenly cleared the skies and pressed down against the world” (110). Even if they are young children, they are made to work like grown-ups.
Because of these sufferings, the farm workers hope and dream that they will one day have a better life and that they will be able to find another occupation besides farming. In Viramontes’ novel, Alejo hoped and dreamed of finishing high school which is evident in his plans to “buy a canvas backpack to carry his books” for he wanted as he “believed himself to be a solid mass of boulder thrust out of the earth and not some particle lost in space”(52). He longs to have an easier job and a good life so he can stay strong like a boulder. Estrella was also able to read in school when she “realized words could become as excruciating as rusted nails, piercing the heels of her bare feet” (24). In Rivera’s novel, the “I” narrator and his family hope and dream that he will become a telephone operator. But he also knows “You need to finish school for that” (95). He also adds: “All that my parents wanted was for me to finish school so I could find me some job that wasn’t so hard” (101).
Second, the title of these two stories suggest something about religion and both conclude that religion or faith in God might be lacking. “Under the Feet of Jesus” implies a religious connotation as mentioned at the end of the novel: “The termite-softened shack crunched beneath her bare feet like the serpent under the feet of Jesus” (Viramontes 176). In the earlier parts of the novel there are expressed doubts about God such as: “God was mean and did not care and she was alone to fend for herself” (Viramontes 139) and “If only God could help” (Viramontes 147). But at the end, the novel concludes of the importance of a person’s faith in God. Similarly, Rivera’s “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” suggests a religious belief mentioned in the novel when the young boy narrator was cursing God; “Upon doing this he felt that fear instilled in him by the years and by his parents. For a second he saw the earth opening up to devour him” (111). Doubts about God are also expressed in Rivera’s novel such as: “I am certain that God has no concern for us” and “God could care less about the poor” (109). But just like Viramonte, Rivera shows that young boy is able to hold on to his faith in God in the “First Communion” part of the novel. He says: “I wanted salvation from all evil, that was all I could think of” (114).
Third, the central characters or protagonists in the two stories are young adolescents. The young age of the central characters and at the same time the narrators of the story because the readers are able to discover together with them the gradual unfolding of the truths found in the story as they also grow up and come to gradually understand the things that are happening to them. In Viramontes’ novel, Estrella begins with asking “over and over, so what is this…” (24). But she concludes near the end that she “No longer did she stumble blindly” because she already knows. Correspondingly, Rivera unfolds the same experience of the young boy who has been “asking himself why?” (111) but who later said “I felt like knowing more about everything” (117).
Fourth, the stories are narrated through the use the rhetorical strategies of simile, metaphor and irony and through the use of multiple points of view with the use of different characters. Viramonte used a lot of similes and metaphors in the novel such as the word mouth in “her mouth desperate, desperate for air” (17) and “the gaping hole of his own shirt hung like a speechless mouth on his belly” (22) to resemble source of sustenance or power. Other words such as stones, bones and tar are repeatedly mentioned throughout the novel to present similes and metaphors. The author also uses irony to illustrate the situation of the migrants because they are farmers yet they do not have enough food on their table. In the same way, Rivera uses simile in the sentences: “…I heard something like when you put a conch to your ear” (Rivera 94) and “They leave you soft as a glove” (Rivera 95). Irony is also used in the sentence: “The only thing that didn’t get burnt up was the pair of gloves” (Rivera 121) to portray an ironical situation in “The Little Burnt Victims”. Both Viramontes and Rivera use the narrator’s point of view as well as the view points of other characters in the story from time to time.
Lastly, both novels are set in the farm fields in the United States where Mexican migrants have worked in the past. The story “Under the Feet of Jesus” happens in the fields of California while “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” is set somewhere within the United States of America.
Through the two novels have a lot of similarities, there are also differences. One is the narrative format of “Under the Feet of Jesus” and “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”. Viramontes’ novel uses poetic language and are fragmented which somehow reflects the feeling of being displaced from one’s origins. It also has little dialogue and more of monologues by individual characters. On the other hand, Rivera’s novel uses the prose style of narration and it has adequate dialogues and less of the monologues. Next, the text structure of the two stories is also different from one another. “Under the Feet of Jesus” use a dash instead of the quotation marks while “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” use the conventional quotation marks. On the other hand, the language of the two stories is somewhat different. “Under the Feet of Jesus” uses figurative language such as simile and imagery while “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” uses plain prose language. The main characters of the stories have opposite gender. Estrella, a young girl, is the main character of “Under the Feet of Jesus” and a nameless young boy is the central character of “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him”. Consequently, the historical context of the two stories is unlike. “Under the Feet of Jesus” is set during the early 1980s while the events in “…And the Earth Did Not Devour Him” happened during the late 1940s up to the early 1950s.
In conclusion, the two stories by Helena Maria Viramontes and Tomas Rivera are both great novels that closely mirror the facts about the Mexican migrant farm workers’ experience in the United States.
Rivera, Tomas. …y no se lo trago la tierra/ …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (School and Library Binding). Evangelina Vigil- Piñon (Translator). USA: Topeka Bindery , 1999.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. Under the Feet of Jesus. USA: Penguin Group, 1995.