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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Migrant Struggle Helena Maria Viramontes (b. 1954)

[6125] Anonymous, Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions [for Migrant Farm Workers] (1969), courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection.

Viramontes is a Chicana writer who was born in East Los Angeles, California. She attended Immaculate Heart College and the University of California, Irvine. She is co-founder of the Southern California Latino Writers and Film Makers group and teaches at Cornell University. Her first published book of short stories, “The Moth” and Other Stories (1985), focuses on everyday oppression in the lives of ordinary women, mostly Chicanas. In 1993 she published Paris Rats in E.L.A., which she also rewrote as a screenplay. Her best-known work, the 1995 novel Under the Feet of Jesus, portrays the life of Estrella, a young migrant worker who must cope with the many difficult situations in which she and her family find themselves. Viramontes’s most recent novel is Their Dogs Came with Them (1996), which explores the brutality of the Spanish Conquest of the Americas. Viramontes’s powerful style is sweepingly realistic in scope and uses natural and religious symbolism.

Because Viramontes believes that writing can bring about social change, she tackles social issues in her work. In Feminism on the Border, Sonia Saldivar-Hull notes that many of Viramontes’s works are not typical Latina “quest for origins” stories but rather seek to transform and rework concepts of the Chicano family. They tend to disrupt the notion of the monolithic Latino/a family as a refuge from racism and class exploitation and instead relocate “chicano families from secretive, barricaded sites of male rule to contested terrains where girls and women perform valued rituals that do not necessarily adhere to androcentric familial traditions.” According to Saldivar-Hull, Viramontes’s work permits both Chicanas and Chicanos to exist as unique subjects in a U.S. Latino/a America.

Teaching Tips

  • Ask your students to imagine that producers have decided to make a film of Under the Feet of Jesus but want to extend the story beyond the novel’s ending. Have them make a plot outline for a new Section 6 and consider these questions: How would you carry on the story? Would you radically change the mood, tone, or theme of the story or keep it the same? How would Viramontes feel about this new ending?
  • Have students consider where their fresh produce comes from, other than shelves in the supermarket. Ask them to ponder on all the people who have touched the fruits and vegetables they eat.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Early in Under the Feet of Jesus, Estrella thinks, “It was always a question of work, and work depended on the harvest, the car running, their health, the condition of the road, how long the money held out, and the weather, which meant they could depend on nothing.” How does this foreshadowing affect the novel?
  2. Comprehension: Do you think Estrella was justified in the actions she took at the doctor’s office? Was the nurse to blame? Why or why not?
  3. Comprehension: Why does Viramontes use so many Spanish phrases and sentences in the novel? How does the presence of so much Spanish affect a reader’s experience of the text?
  4. Comprehension: What does the statue of Jesucristo represent or symbolize for Petra? What happens to the statue? What might this signify?
  5. Context: Compare and contrast the racial, social, and economic conditions of the migrant workers in Under the Feet of JesusAmerica Is in the Heart, and The Grapes of Wrath. Make a table or chart that clearly displays your findings. Create categories that are repeated in all these works.
  6. Context: At the center of Under the Feet of Jesus are two women who must endure enormous suffering and hardship. How does having women as protagonists make this work different from similar works with male protagonists?
  7. Exploration: One definition of charity is benevolence or generosity toward others. Many claim that significant portions of our own social and governmental structures are based on this concept of charity. If this is the case, why is such a lack of charity by either socially dominant white characters or uncaring governmental organizations portrayed in the literary works associated with this unit? In what ways does this lack of charity seem to extend particularly to migrants, immigrants, and minorities?
  8. Exploration: Compare Viramontes to the Chicana authors in Unit 2, particularly to Gloria Anzaldúa and her definition of the Borderlands as an open wound. How are these authors similar? How are they different? Do they concentrate on the same subjects and themes? How do the authors in Unit 2 provide a context for Viramontes’s works?

Selected Archive Items

[6125] Anonymous, Protest for Legislature to Improve Conditions [for Migrant Farm Workers] (1969),
courtesy of the Denver Public Library, Western History Collection. 
Photograph of a migrant worker protest at the Capitol Building in Denver, Colorado. Hispanic and white men and women join together to urge improved living conditions for migrant workers. A priest holds a flag that says, “Huelga U.F.W.O.C. AFL-CIO Delano.” Another man holds a sign that reads, “Denver Witnesses for Human Dignity.”

[6708] Judith F. Baca, Pieces of Stardust (1992),
courtesy of the Social and Public Art Resource Center, © Judith F. Baca, Pieces of Stardust, 1992. 
Judith Baca is an acclaimed muralist whose work is informed by the belief that art can be a forum for social dialogue, as well as a tool for social change. In this sense, her work shares much with the writings of Gloria Anzaldúa, Cherrie Moraga, and Helena Maria Viramontes and builds on the work of Mexican muralist Diego Rivera.

[7916] Helena Maria Viramontes, Helena Maria Viramontes–Writer (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg Media. 
Frame of author Helena Maria Viramontes. Best known for her novel Under the Feet of Jesus, Viramontes deals with social justice in much of her work.

[8755] Helena Maria Viramontes, Interview: “Dominant Cultures in the United States” (2002),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Helena Maria Viramontes discusses the message of the dominant U.S. cultures to the Chicano/a population.

[8981] Helena Maria Viramontes, Interview: “Looking for Hope” (2002),
courtesy of American Passages and Annenberg Media. 
Helena Maria Viramontes discusses the importance of communication to the creation of hope.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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