Finding the Metaphorical Key Under the Feet of Jesus

Norma Helsper, State University of New York College at Cortland

Prepared for delivery at the 2001 meeting of the

Latin American Studies Association,

Washington, DC, September 6-8, 2001

 

(Under the Feet of Jesus is the first novel of Mexican-American writer

Helena María Viramontes, Dutton, New York, 1995)

 

"I believe that a novel is an encoded representation of reality, a type

of riddle of the world. The reality that one deals with in a novel is

different than the reality of life, although the novel's reality is based

on life's reality, as is the case with dreams"

--Gabriel García Márquez, Olor de la guayaba, 36

A few semesters ago, I asked my students on their final exam to

write about how different authors we had studied conceived of "reality" and

how each portrayed it in his or her work. My assumption was that they

would talk about how the definition of "what is real" has changed over time,

from the realist idea of describing in detail (as if the eye were a camera)

and including as many sordid details of life as possible, to the ideas of a

Borges that reality is not so easy to pin down given our mental capacities. To

give another example, they would need to explain that José María Arguedas

was trying to portray the reality of indigenous people in the Andes, and did

so by creating a fictitious language to communicate that Quechua-speaking

reality to Spanish-speaking readers. So, I decided to give myself the same

assignment with regard to UFJ. How does Viramontes conceive of reality in

her novel, and how does she choose to portray it?

In this novel, the harsh reality of the daily existence of migrant farm

workers, their poverty, is presented in constant contrast with the incredible

natural beauty and wealth of California. Viramontes portrays this world with

a highly metaphorical language, a language that dignifies her characters and

reveals the complexity of the inner lives of these "simple" working class

people. In addition, the author problematizes the presentation of reality by

narrating her story from multiple points of view.

The central characters of the novel are members of a Mexican-

American family of migrant farm workers. The mother, Petra, and her five

children have been abandoned by the children's father. The man who

becomes Petra's lover, Perfecto Flores, is 30 years her senior; he is longing

to return to his native Mexico. Estrella, the oldest daughter, is l3, and the

novel's protagonist. She has her first love experience with Alejo, a young

migrant worker who is taken in by the family after he suffers pesticide

poisoning.

The novel opens with the family arriving at yet another temporary

home in their old station wagon. From the present of the narration

established by the opening scene, the events previous to that moment are

told via a series of flashbacks, using a third person omniscient narrative

voice that takes on the viewpoint of one or another of the characters in

turn. The handling of space and simultaneity often owes a debt to film, with

the equivalent of wide-angle camera sweeps from one scene to another. Two

examples come from the novel's first few pages. The novel begins with the

scene inside the station wagon, then switches to the perspective of two

young migrants watching the distant car from up in a peach tree, where they

are stealing fruit to supplement their meager wages. Later Estrella and her

siblings disturb the birds in an old barn and their flight serves to link the

two scenes again: "the swallows and owls shrieking in a burst of furious

flight, feathers snowing down, the girls screaming." (A space on the page

indicates the change of scene.) "--Cats fighting. Alejo whispered between

the toes of his Concord tennis shoes, through the branches and down to

Gumecindo. Then the cousins looked up. Birds whirled like frantic bits of

torn paper " (10). This technique, along with the shifting allegiance of the

narrator, gives the reader a multiple vantage point, showing, in effect, "this

is how it looks from here where person X is standing, while this is how it

looks from this other angle where Y is." Later in the novel, Viramontes is

even more explicit about this, narrating the same scene three times, each

time from the point of view of another character. The Spanish saying "Cada

cabeza, un mundo" ("Every head its own world") comes to mind. These

characters don't talk much, but the narrative techniques allow us to hear

what's going on inside each individual. The relative lack of dialog as we are

shown, in turn, the inner monologues of the characters, emphasizes their

emotional isolation in contrast with their physical proximity. And yet, there

is not a sense of total alienation because people share their images many

times, almost as if they are dreaming collectively.

The narrative is full of similes, metaphors and symbolic imagery-- its

most notable feature. The novel opens with a direct suggestion of

symbolism: "Had they been heading for the the barn all along? Estrella

didn't know. The barn had burst through a clearing of trees and the

cratered roof reminded her of the full moon" "(3). This image and those

that follow are from the book's first two paragraphs: "the clouds above

them ready to burst like cotton plants . . .Sunlight weaved in and out of the

clouds . . .the etched horizon of the mountain range . . .A cluster of

amputated trees marked the entrance of the side road"(4). The novel's

third paragraph already suggests the process of decipherment needed, but

brings the meaning back down to the concrete nitty-gritty of daily life:

"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" (4).

As I mentioned, the book has little dialog and lots of interior

monologue, which makes it interesting to observe an almost obsessive

repetition of images involving mouths. In some of the images, the mouth

seems to represent its function as source of sustenance--air, food, drink,

and love's kisses. When Estrella's real father leaves the family destitute

the mother's panic is described in terms of "her mouth desperate,

desperate for air" (l7) and "Petra broke, her mouth a cut jagged line" (l9).

The farmworkers' fear of physical deformity as a result of pesticide

exposure is represented repeatedly by references to missing mouths: "--You

think 'cause of the water our babies are gonna come out with no mouth or

something? Estrella asked" (33). And later: "Unborn children lurking in their

bodies were in danger of having their lips bitten just like the hare on the

moon if nothing was done to protect them. Is that what you want, the

mother yelled, a child born sin labios? Without a mouth?" (69). And yet

again: "Petra thought of the lima bean in her, the bean floating in the night

of her belly . . . Would the child be born without a mouth, would the poisons

of the fields harden in its tiny little veins?" (125) Alejo, the adolescent boy

who becomes Estrella's friend, manages to connect with a mysterious hare-

lipped child: "It seemed to Alejo that he was crying, though all he heard

were the wind-tossed trees. Even the gaping hole of his own shirt hung like

a speechless mouth on his belly" (22). This last image is one of several that

see the mouth as origin of the voice, which makes possible expressions of

protest, anger and therefore is a source of power and self determination if

present and a sign of powerlessness when absent. "Perfect Flores was not

her papa. In the last labor camp, near the water spigot where the farm

workers got their drinking water, Estrella used her knuckles to rip Maxine

Devridge's mouth into a torn pocket to prove it" (28). During Estrella's visit

to the barn that ends the novel: " . . .the swallows flew out from under eaves

of the cedar shakes like angry words spewing out of a mouth" (l75). When

Perfecto asks her to help him tear down the old barn to earn some extra

money, Estrella thinks: "Is that what happens? . . . people just use you until

you're all used up, then rip you into pieces when they're finished using you?"

"The nails would screech and the wood would moan and she would pull the

veins out and the woodsheet wall would collapse like a toothless mouth" (75).

The personifying simile emphasizes Estrella's identification with the old

barn and the metonymical function of the mouth image.

This last mouth image is also part of another series of images: images

of people and things stretched to the limit, on the edge, feeling impending

disaster or collapse, images that echo and mirror the situation of the

migrant workers, always just getting by, barely. The old barn with the

cratered roof is the first visual image of the book, and is in the background

throughout. Its precarious situation is referred to repeatedly. One of the

first flashbacks of the novel is Estrella's memories (recounted by a limited

omniscient narrator with her perspective) of the time when her father

abandoned the family, "just as they settled in a city apartment with the

hope of never seeing another labor camp again" (l3). The view out the

apartment window provides an image that reflects the family's "on edge"

existence: "A car wreck waiting to happen, Petra had said . . . The freeway

interchange . . . looped like knots of asphalt and cement and the cars

swerved into unexpected steep turns with squeals of braking tires. Sunlight

glistened off the bending steel guardrails of the ramps. Just you wait and

see, Petra said in a puff of breath on the window glass, a car will flip over

the edge" (16). This image is expanded in intermittent fragments of

narration that emphasize the family's precarious economic situation as the

story of the man's leaving and its aftermath for his wife and children is

told. "The traffic swelled and cars lined up on the curving on-ramp of the

freeway until the cars yanked loose like a broken necklace and the beads

scattered across the asphalt rolling, rolling, and she waited, her breath gone

until the rubber treads of the tires connected with the pavement again" (l7).

On a day when the money has run out and the children are hungry, Petra

"loses it" and runs out of the apartment. "Petra . . . stalled on the boulevard

intersection divide and waited for the cars to stop, waited for him, for

anyone, to guide her across the wide pavement; but the beads rolled on, fast

howling shrieks of sharp silver pins just inches away from her (l9).

A variation of the "on edge" image string is the "stretched to the

limit" image. Estrella is in the fields on the verge of weeping from sheer

exhaustion: . . .her eyes fell on the flatbeds of grapes she had lined

carefully, sheet after sheet of grapes down as far as she could see . . .

Morning, noon, or night, four or fourteen or forty it was all the same. She

stepped forward, her body never knowing how tired it was until she moved

once again. Don't cry" (53). Another example comes from Petra's thoughts:

"Love, Petra knew, came and went. But it was loyalty that kept them on the

tightrope together when it was gone, kept them from seeing the void

beneath their feet . . . Just keep your balance, tiptoe across the tightrope,

one foot up one foot down . . ." (118).

Viramontes' world is reminiscent of García Lorca's poetic universe, a

world in which everything is itself and something else as well, for example,

" . . . her words netted in the rustle of the trees" (9) (words are birds, the

sounds of the wind in the trees are nets, vibrations become concrete).

Images are repeated and linked, as in the following example:

"Estrella would ask over and over, So what is this, and point to the

diagonal lines written in chalk on the blackboard with a dirty

fingernail. The script A's had the curlicue of a pry bar, a

hammerhead split like a V. The small i's resembled nails. So tell me,

But some of the teachers were more concerned about the dirt under

her fingernails . . . She remembered how one teacher . . .asked how

come her mama never gave her a bath. . .. And for the first time,

Estrella realized words could become as excruciating as rusted nails

piercing the heels of her bare feet.

The curves and tails of the tools made no sense and the shapes

were as foreign and meaningless to her as chalky lines on the

blackboard. But Perfecto Flores was a man who came with his tool

chest and stayed . . . Perfecto Flores taught her the names that went

with the tools: a claw hammer, he said with authority, miming its

function . . . Tools to build, bury, tear down, rearrange and repair, a

box of reasons his hands took pride in. She lifted the pry bar in her

hand, felt the coolness of iron and power of function, weighed the

significance it awarded her, and soon she came to understand how

essential it was to know these things. That was when she began to

read" (24).

The novel's repetitions and linkages are a way of representing every human

being's search for meaning: things are like other things because of the

human urge to find connections in order to make it all make sense. God is

tried but is found ineffective: "There was something unsettling about this

whole affair to Estrella, but she couldn't stop long enough to figure out what

it was . . . She did not want to think what she was thinking now: God was

mean and did not care and she was alone to fend for herself" (139) " . . . a

break. If only God could help" (l47). He doesn't, so when the clinic nurse

charges them their last nine dollars to tell them Alejo is very ill and needs to

go to the hospital, Estrella threatens her with a crowbar to get their money

back so they can buy gas to get him there.

In the novel's last pages, the mother's statue of Jesus falls over and

breaks, and the mother thinks: "That was all she had: papers and sticks and

broken faith . . ." (168) Characters even tend to blame themselves in order

to find some explanation for the way things are. "Remembering Perfecto's

withdrawal, she wondered if he thought she had failed somehow . . . She had

failed, failed the test" (124). While Alejo is being sprayed with pesticides

he thinks, "Was this punishment for his thievery? He was sorry, Lord, so

sorry" (77).

The final image of the novel is Estrella standing on the edge of the old

barn's roof: "Estrella remained as immobile as an angel standing on the verge

of faith" (176). Contrasted throughout with the adults' feelings of being

worn out, her strength is also shown to be fragile, fleeting. She is powerful,

but mortal. Her precarious position at the end of the novel emphasizes the

for-this-moment-ness of her power. As she stands at the roof's edge, it is

unclear what she is doing. Is she contemplating suicide, so as not to be

beaten down eventually? Or is she pausing to concentrate her strength,

which she will exercise for as long as she can before the next generation

must take over? The reader must draw his or her own conclusions from the

novel's final paragraph:

"The roof tilted downward and she felt gravity pulling but did not lose

her footing. The termite-softened shakes crunched beneath her bare

feet like the serpent under the feet of Jesus . . . No longer did she

stumble blindly. She had to trust the soles of her feet, her hands,

the shovel of her back, and the pounding bells of her heart. . . .Like

the chiming bells of the great cathedrals, she believed her heart

powerful enough to summon home all those who strayed" (176).

Not only is the novel a riddle of the world, as García Márquez would

contend. Life itself is a riddle and is portrayed as such in Under the feet of

Jesus. It is interesting to note that the other great Chicano novel about

migrant farm workers, Tomás Rivera's "...y no se lo tragó la tierra, also

refers in its title to a loss of faith in traditional religious explanations that

traditionally have given life coherence. As religion is found to be lacking,

characters (like some of the rest of us) must create their own meaning from

the materials at hand, just as Viramontes' readers struggle to tease out the

meaning of her novel.

 

I believe that a novel is an encoded representation of reality, a type

of riddle of the world. The reality that one deals with in a novel is

different than the reality of life, although the novel's reality is based

on life's reality, as is the case with dreams"

--Gabriel García Márquez, Olor de la guayaba, 36

A few semesters ago, I asked my students on their final exam to

write about how different authors we had studied conceived of "reality" and

how each portrayed it in his or her work. My assumption was that they

would talk about how the definition of "what is real" has changed over time,

from the realist idea of describing in detail (as if the eye were a camera)

and including as many sordid details of life as possible, to the ideas of a

Borges that reality is not so easy to pin down given our mental capacities. To

give another example, they would need to explain that José María Arguedas

was trying to portray the reality of indigenous people in the Andes, and did

so by creating a fictitious language to communicate that Quechua-speaking

reality to Spanish-speaking readers. So, I decided to give myself the same

assignment with regard to UFJ. How does Viramontes conceive of reality in

her novel, and how does she choose to portray it?

In this novel, the harsh reality of the daily existence of migrant farm

workers, their poverty, is presented in constant contrast with the incredible

natural beauty and wealth of California. Viramontes portrays this world with

a highly metaphorical language, a language that dignifies her characters and

reveals the complexity of the inner lives of these "simple" working class

people. In addition, the author problematizes the presentation of reality by

narrating her story from multiple points of view.

The central characters of the novel are members of a Mexican-

American family of migrant farm workers. The mother, Petra, and her five

children have been abandoned by the children's father. The man who

becomes Petra's lover, Perfecto Flores, is 30 years her senior; he is longing

to return to his native Mexico. Estrella, the oldest daughter, is l3, and the

novel's protagonist. She has her first love experience with Alejo, a young

migrant worker who is taken in by the family after he suffers pesticide

poisoning.

The novel opens with the family arriving at yet another temporary

home in their old station wagon. From the present of the narration

established by the opening scene, the events previous to that moment are

told via a series of flashbacks, using a third person omniscient narrative

voice that takes on the viewpoint of one or another of the characters in

turn. The handling of space and simultaneity often owes a debt to film, with

the equivalent of wide-angle camera sweeps from one scene to another. Two

examples come from the novel's first few pages. The novel begins with the

scene inside the station wagon, then switches to the perspective of two

young migrants watching the distant car from up in a peach tree, where they

are stealing fruit to supplement their meager wages. Later Estrella and her

siblings disturb the birds in an old barn and their flight serves to link the

two scenes again: "the swallows and owls shrieking in a burst of furious

flight, feathers snowing down, the girls screaming." (A space on the page

indicates the change of scene.) "--Cats fighting. Alejo whispered between

the toes of his Concord tennis shoes, through the branches and down to

Gumecindo. Then the cousins looked up. Birds whirled like frantic bits of

torn paper " (10). This technique, along with the shifting allegiance of the

narrator, gives the reader a multiple vantage point, showing, in effect, "this

is how it looks from here where person X is standing, while this is how it

looks from this other angle where Y is." Later in the novel, Viramontes is

even more explicit about this, narrating the same scene three times, each

time from the point of view of another character. The Spanish saying "Cada

cabeza, un mundo" ("Every head its own world") comes to mind. These

characters don't talk much, but the narrative techniques allow us to hear

what's going on inside each individual. The relative lack of dialog as we are

shown, in turn, the inner monologues of the characters, emphasizes their

emotional isolation in contrast with their physical proximity. And yet, there

is not a sense of total alienation because people share their images many

times, almost as if they are dreaming collectively.

The narrative is full of similes, metaphors and symbolic imagery-- its

most notable feature. The novel opens with a direct suggestion of

symbolism: "Had they been heading for the the barn all along? Estrella

didn't know. The barn had burst through a clearing of trees and the

cratered roof reminded her of the full moon" "(3). This image and those

that follow are from the book's first two paragraphs: "the clouds above

them ready to burst like cotton plants . . .Sunlight weaved in and out of the

clouds . . .the etched horizon of the mountain range . . .A cluster of

amputated trees marked the entrance of the side road"(4). The novel's

third paragraph already suggests the process of decipherment needed, but

brings the meaning back down to the concrete nitty-gritty of daily life:

"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" (4).

As I mentioned, the book has little dialog and lots of interior

monologue, which makes it interesting to observe an almost obsessive

repetition of images involving mouths. In some of the images, the mouth

seems to represent its function as source of sustenance--air, food, drink,

and love's kisses. When Estrella's real father leaves the family destitute

the mother's panic is described in terms of "her mouth desperate,

desperate for air" (l7) and "Petra broke, her mouth a cut jagged line" (l9).

The farmworkers' fear of physical deformity as a result of pesticide

exposure is represented repeatedly by references to missing mouths: "--You

think 'cause of the water our babies are gonna come out with no mouth or

something? Estrella asked" (33). And later: "Unborn children lurking in their

bodies were in danger of having their lips bitten just like the hare on the

moon if nothing was done to protect them. Is that what you want, the

mother yelled, a child born sin labios? Without a mouth?" (69). And yet

again: "Petra thought of the lima bean in her, the bean floating in the night

of her belly . . . Would the child be born without a mouth, would the poisons

of the fields harden in its tiny little veins?" (125) Alejo, the adolescent boy

who becomes Estrella's friend, manages to connect with a mysterious hare-

lipped child: "It seemed to Alejo that he was crying, though all he heard

were the wind-tossed trees. Even the gaping hole of his own shirt hung like

a speechless mouth on his belly" (22). This last image is one of several that

see the mouth as origin of the voice, which makes possible expressions of

protest, anger and therefore is a source of power and self determination if

present and a sign of powerlessness when absent. "Perfect Flores was not

her papa. In the last labor camp, near the water spigot where the farm

workers got their drinking water, Estrella used her knuckles to rip Maxine

Devridge's mouth into a torn pocket to prove it" (28). During Estrella's visit

to the barn that ends the novel: " . . .the swallows flew out from under eaves

of the cedar shakes like angry words spewing out of a mouth" (l75). When

Perfecto asks her to help him tear down the old barn to earn some extra

money, Estrella thinks: "Is that what happens? . . . people just use you until

you're all used up, then rip you into pieces when they're finished using you?"

"The nails would screech and the wood would moan and she would pull the

veins out and the woodsheet wall would collapse like a toothless mouth" (75).

The personifying simile emphasizes Estrella's identification with the old

barn and the metonymical function of the mouth image.

This last mouth image is also part of another series of images: images

of people and things stretched to the limit, on the edge, feeling impending

disaster or collapse, images that echo and mirror the situation of the

migrant workers, always just getting by, barely. The old barn with the

cratered roof is the first visual image of the book, and is in the background

throughout. Its precarious situation is referred to repeatedly. One of the

first flashbacks of the novel is Estrella's memories (recounted by a limited

omniscient narrator with her perspective) of the time when her father

abandoned the family, "just as they settled in a city apartment with the

hope of never seeing another labor camp again" (l3). The view out the

apartment window provides an image that reflects the family's "on edge"

existence: "A car wreck waiting to happen, Petra had said . . . The freeway

interchange . . . looped like knots of asphalt and cement and the cars

swerved into unexpected steep turns with squeals of braking tires. Sunlight

glistened off the bending steel guardrails of the ramps. Just you wait and

see, Petra said in a puff of breath on the window glass, a car will flip over

the edge" (16). This image is expanded in intermittent fragments of

narration that emphasize the family's precarious economic situation as the

story of the man's leaving and its aftermath for his wife and children is

told. "The traffic swelled and cars lined up on the curving on-ramp of the

freeway until the cars yanked loose like a broken necklace and the beads

scattered across the asphalt rolling, rolling, and she waited, her breath gone

until the rubber treads of the tires connected with the pavement again" (l7).

On a day when the money has run out and the children are hungry, Petra

"loses it" and runs out of the apartment. "Petra . . . stalled on the boulevard

intersection divide and waited for the cars to stop, waited for him, for

anyone, to guide her across the wide pavement; but the beads rolled on, fast

howling shrieks of sharp silver pins just inches away from her (l9).

A variation of the "on edge" image string is the "stretched to the

limit" image. Estrella is in the fields on the verge of weeping from sheer

exhaustion: . . .her eyes fell on the flatbeds of grapes she had lined

carefully, sheet after sheet of grapes down as far as she could see . . .

Morning, noon, or night, four or fourteen or forty it was all the same. She

stepped forward, her body never knowing how tired it was until she moved

once again. Don't cry" (53). Another example comes from Petra's thoughts:

"Love, Petra knew, came and went. But it was loyalty that kept them on the

tightrope together when it was gone, kept them from seeing the void

beneath their feet . . . Just keep your balance, tiptoe across the tightrope,

one foot up one foot down . . ." (118).

Viramontes' world is reminiscent of García Lorca's poetic universe, a

world in which everything is itself and something else as well, for example,

" . . . her words netted in the rustle of the trees" (9) (words are birds, the

sounds of the wind in the trees are nets, vibrations become concrete).

Images are repeated and linked, as in the following example:

"Estrella would ask over and over, So what is this, and point to the

diagonal lines written in chalk on the blackboard with a dirty

fingernail. The script A's had the curlicue of a pry bar, a

hammerhead split like a V. The small i's resembled nails. So tell me,

But some of the teachers were more concerned about the dirt under

her fingernails . . . She remembered how one teacher . . .asked how

come her mama never gave her a bath. . .. And for the first time,

Estrella realized words could become as excruciating as rusted nails

piercing the heels of her bare feet.

The curves and tails of the tools made no sense and the shapes

were as foreign and meaningless to her as chalky lines on the

blackboard. But Perfecto Flores was a man who came with his tool

chest and stayed . . . Perfecto Flores taught her the names that went

with the tools: a claw hammer, he said with authority, miming its

function . . . Tools to build, bury, tear down, rearrange and repair, a

box of reasons his hands took pride in. She lifted the pry bar in her

hand, felt the coolness of iron and power of function, weighed the

significance it awarded her, and soon she came to understand how

essential it was to know these things. That was when she began to

read" (24).

The novel's repetitions and linkages are a way of representing every human

being's search for meaning: things are like other things because of the

human urge to find connections in order to make it all make sense. God is

tried but is found ineffective: "There was something unsettling about this

whole affair to Estrella, but she couldn't stop long enough to figure out what

it was . . . She did not want to think what she was thinking now: God was

mean and did not care and she was alone to fend for herself" (139) " . . . a

break. If only God could help" (l47). He doesn't, so when the clinic nurse

charges them their last nine dollars to tell them Alejo is very ill and needs to

go to the hospital, Estrella threatens her with a crowbar to get their money

back so they can buy gas to get him there.

In the novel's last pages, the mother's statue of Jesus falls over and

breaks, and the mother thinks: "That was all she had: papers and sticks and

broken faith . . ." (168) Characters even tend to blame themselves in order

to find some explanation for the way things are. "Remembering Perfecto's

withdrawal, she wondered if he thought she had failed somehow . . . She had

failed, failed the test" (124). While Alejo is being sprayed with pesticides

he thinks, "Was this punishment for his thievery? He was sorry, Lord, so

sorry" (77).

The final image of the novel is Estrella standing on the edge of the old

barn's roof: "Estrella remained as immobile as an angel standing on the verge

of faith" (176). Contrasted throughout with the adults' feelings of being

worn out, her strength is also shown to be fragile, fleeting. She is powerful,

but mortal. Her precarious position at the end of the novel emphasizes the

for-this-moment-ness of her power. As she stands at the roof's edge, it is

unclear what she is doing. Is she contemplating suicide, so as not to be

beaten down eventually? Or is she pausing to concentrate her strength,

which she will exercise for as long as she can before the next generation

must take over? The reader must draw his or her own conclusions from the

novel's final paragraph:

"The roof tilted downward and she felt gravity pulling but did not lose

her footing. The termite-softened shakes crunched beneath her bare

feet like the serpent under the feet of Jesus . . . No longer did she

stumble blindly. She had to trust the soles of her feet, her hands,

the shovel of her back, and the pounding bells of her heart. . . .Like

the chiming bells of the great cathedrals, she believed her heart

powerful enough to summon home all those who strayed" (176).

Not only is the novel a riddle of the world, as García Márquez would

contend. Life itself is a riddle and is portrayed as such in Under the feet of

Jesus. It is interesting to note that the other great Chicano novel about

migrant farm workers, Tomás Rivera's "...y no se lo tragó la tierra, also

refers in its title to a loss of faith in traditional religious explanations that

traditionally have given life coherence. As religion is found to be lacking,

characters (like some of the rest of us) must create their own meaning from

the materials at hand, just as Viramontes' readers struggle to tease out the

meaning of her novel.