Estrella and Eloisa

The Chicana Por Mi Raza collection of video autobiographies was fascinating to compare with the book “Under the Feet of Jesus.” The stories told in each are very different, but feature similar figures: resistant young women and power structures that seek to hold them back. This is my favorite kind of story. I loved the emphasis on women and their relationships in “Under the Feet of Jesus,” particularly Estrella and her mother. Although Petra is much “weaker” and less exciting character than Estrella, I saw strength in the way she raises her children, and in her perseverance. She may be afraid to take risks but that is undoubtedly because of how she has been treated as a woman her whole life. But she does not treat Estrella like this, she encourages her in her own small ways, with faith and love. This matriarchal bond is also present in Eloisa Gomez’s oral history. In her first segment, she discusses her confident grandmother who was always in charge of the family. She carved out a space for herself in the privacy of the home, and was empowered through that. Eloisa was inspired by this to extend her own space to her community, wanting to feel powerful and have agency no matter where she was. Although that matriarchal figure is far from Petra, both care intensely for their families and are willing to work ridiculously hard to support them.

As I mentioned in class, I loved the interwoven Spanish in the Gloria Anzaldua piece we read. I noticed some of the same in both “Under the Feet of Jesus” and several of the oral histories I watched. I noticed that often, in the oral histories and the book, Spanish would be substituted when English simply would not do. Often, when speaking as a multilingual person, you will find yourself wanting to use a word that does not exist in the language you are speaking. In those cases, other languages sometimes just slip in. The other situation I was reminded of was comfort- when you are more comfortable in one language than another, often that will show through in times of stress or relaxation. When Petra calls Estrella mi’ja, which is an endearment meaning daughter, it shows that she is comfortable in Spanish and uses it around family. In Eloisa’s narrative, she speaks ‘perfect’ English but uses Spanish words as she sees fit. It is not a failure of literacy or speaking ability, but rather a beautiful pairing of elements to create a new, better way of speaking.

-Isabel Mandelbaum

Bibliography

Viramontes, Helena M. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Dutton, 1995. Print.

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Narrative and Perspective: Differing View on Similar Experiences

In Under the Feet of Jesus, Helena Maria Viramontes explores the life and dynamic of a poverty-stricken family of migrant workers, focusing primarily on Estrella, a thirteen-year-old girl and the oldest of her family’s five children. Estrella and her family deal with the realities of poverty, of trying to stay together as a family, and of the racism and prejudice with which they are often treated. Although this narrative is a fiction, it echoes the histories of real Chicana women. One such woman, Emily Martinez, also grew up poor and prejudiced against in a large family of migrant workers, as retold in a series of oral history videos. However, despite her similar financial and familial situation, Martinez’s telling of her life story contains an optimism and security that Viramontes’s anxiety-tinged tale does not.

Although Emily Martinez’s childhood was marked by some of the same struggles as Estrella’s was in Under the Feet of Jesus, her story belays a feeling of security, borne from partial ignorance, that Estrella’s does not. Martinez was the oldest of ten children in a large family, which she found a “struggle, because [she] was like a second mom to [her] brothers and sisters (Martinez, Childhood, 0:54). Estrella, one of five children in a family without a permanent father figure, is called “mama” by her younger twin siblings (Viramontes 12). Martinez describes her youthful position as mother figure, a position that Estrella similarly occupies, as a “struggle,” but also recalls a youthful ignorance of the realities of her situation that Estrella does not possess. Martinez’s family was “very poor,” but not truly aware of that poverty, and her family felt “very fortunate to be together,” (Childhood 0:30). In sharp contrast, Estrella’s deep-seated awareness of the dire realities of her family’s precarious financial situation overshadows a great portion of her life. Estrella describes her family’s reality as a constant movement from job to job, where “every job was not enough wage, every uncertainty rested on one certainty: food” (13). While Martinez and her family have very little, she recalls little awareness of this poverty, instead recounting a feeling of familiar closeness and security. Her remembering familial security over extreme poverty contrasts sharply with Estrella’s own deep awareness of the “uncertainty” of her family’s poverty and constant battle with the very real threat of hunger.

Both fictional Estrella and the very real Emily Martinez share similar backgrounds of living in a fairly large, poor, migrant family, but their narratives diverge with how they recount and relate to these upbringings. Martinez describes a “struggle” as the oldest of ten children, but also a sense of her own fortune to exist in this family, while Estrella finds herself mired in the constant uncertainty of her family’s unpredictable, nomadic life. Possibly, the sharp divergence of attitudes towards similar experiences can be attributed to perspective; Martinez, participating in an oral story-telling project, has the benefit of years of memory and hindsight, while teenage Estrella, who goes so far as to defend her struggling family with a crowbar, remains perpetually in a state of anxiety and poverty within her fictional narrative.

I have acted with honesty and integrity in producing this work and am unaware of anyone who has not.-Anne Finch

Works Cited

“Emily Martinez.” Online video clip. Chicana Por Miza. Web. 7 April 2016.

Viramontes, Helena Maria. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Plume, 1996.

 

Not just “The Farm Kids”

In an Oral Interview for the Chicana por mi raza digital memory collective, Emily Martinez describes the hardships and discrimination she faced growing up in a family of seasonal farm workers in Blissfield, Michigan. In the interview, Martinez focuses on the experiences she had as a Hispanic girl from a migrant family going to school in a traditionally Anglo neighborhood. Her video “Seeing Injustices in High School,” allows listeners insight into how she felt about the discrimination she faced. Her story relates well to the book Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes, as the protagonist in the book is also a young girl from a migrant farm working family. One of the major themes in the book is alienation and how capitalism almost affectively erases the struggle of the men and women working on the farm so that this product can be made. Martinez’s interview adds another angle to this theme, as she explains how discrimination and alienation actually united the Hispanic children and pushed her to be better in school and in her life.

In Under the Feet of Jesus, the main character is a young girl named Estrella. Estrella and her family live on a fruit farm, where they all work for little to no money. In the book, all of the migrant laborers are alienated and oppressed by capitalism. This is can be determined when reading the scene in the text where Estrella is talking about the woman on the Raisin box. QUOTE. It’s almost as if the migrant laborers are “erased” by society. Their labor is replaced with happy, cheesy ads that depict the farm work as pleasant and easy, when in reality they are working in terrible conditions and barely getting paid anything. At one point in the novel, it is revealed that the 9 dollars they gave a nurse is the only money they have left. Even young children worked as hard as they could out in the sun all day.

In the oral interview, Martinez explains how she failed a grade several times just for not being able to go to school enough days, as her and her family had to work on the fruit farm during the fruit season. The teachers never acknowledged her work nor did they ever allow her to pass the grade, even though she caught up with the other kids and made all A’s and B’s. (Missing school for farm work, 0:52). She also talks about the discrimination she saw in high school, saying, “they categorized us as the farm kids.” (0:12). Her video gives a real life example of the scene in the book when Estrella is talking about the teacher and how she was asked why her mother doesn’t bathe her. Estrella also describes how the migrant children sat in the back, as most were rotating in and out and didn’t stay long. Martinez’ interview gives a new angle on this discrimination, citing how “we had strength within us because we protected each other. (Seeing Injustices in High School 0:15)” She talks about how they bonded and how everything ended up okay because they had each other. This could explain the relationship Estrella had not only with her family but also with Alejo, as the migrant workers most likely did everything they could to stick together, and to always protect one another.

-Renee Walker

 

Works Cited

Viramontes, Helena María M. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York, NY: New American Library, 1996. Print.

Martinez, Emily “Missing School for Farm Work”Chicana por mi rasa Digital Memory Collective. Detroit, Michigan. 2015. Oral Online Interview.

Martinez, Emily “Seeing Injustices in High School” Chicana por mi rasa Digital Memory Collective. Detroit, Michigan. 2015. Oral Online Interview.

Truth in Fiction

There is a surprising amount of similarity between Estrella, the fictional heroine of Under the Feet of Jesus and Rita Sanchez, an oral history contributor for the Chicana por mi Raza project. Even though Estrella exists in a hazy fictional present and Sanchez was interviewed after 2011 with a story that reaches back into the 1940s, the two women faced very similar struggles. Both women were born into large and poor families, and were discriminated against for their Mexican heritage in a hegemonically white country. However while Rita Sanchez had the inspiration and support to continue her education, leading to a successful career, Estrella’s schooling was cut short by the demand for her labor, leaving an unsettling question mark where her happy ending should have been.

Both Estrella and Rita Sanchez experienced the strain of worrying about where their next meal would come from. Rita Sanchez remembers, “we didn’t have toys. We didn’t have a lot of things or a lot of food. We basically ate beans and rice” (Growing up in Poverty, 0:10). Similarly, Estrella flashes back to a memory in which her mother “picked up a can of El Pato Tomato sauce, checked the price, then checked a can of Carnation Milk, a jar of Tanag, then returned each to the shelf” (Viramontes 109). Food was not a certainty for either Chicana woman throughout her childhood. Both women also faced institutionalized racism, extending to professional educators singling them out. Estrella relates a vivid memory of “how one teacher, Mrs. Horn […] asked how come her mama never gave her a bath. Until then, it had never occurred to Estrella that she was dirty, that the wet towel wiped on her resistant face each morning, the vigorous brushing and tight braids her mother neatly weaved were not enough for Mrs. Horn” (Viramontes 25). The pain of being treated like an inferior and an outsider stayed with Estrella, making her mistrustful of white authority figures. Rita Sanchez also experienced an upsetting moment of racism during her education. She asked a high school academic counselor about going to college and was told “You’re in the wrong place,” and “you’re not gonna go to college,” and “your parents are poor people and they can’t send you to college” (Rita Sanchez, Secretarial Course, 0:46). Luckily this instance of racism in reality was not as damaging as it could have been, because Rita Sanchez had sisters who did go to college and a teacher who supported her and helped her find scholarships.

While Rita and Estrella faced similar challenges from the outside world, their support systems were vastly different. Estrella was taken out of school to work as a migrant laborer while Rita had the encouragement to continue on to get two masters degrees. Rita was able to devote her time to being an activist while all of Estrella’s passion went towards ensuring the survival of her family. At the end of Under the Feet of Jesus the reader has no idea what will happen to Estrella or those she loves, while Rita’s biography presents a comfortable and successful happy ending. The dichotomy between the factual oral history and the fictional narrative highlight what a huge difference a few key supportive people and opportunities can make in someone’s life.

By Carly Banner

Works Cited

Sanchez, Rita. Chicana Por Mi Raza. Chicana Por Mi Raza, 2015. Web. Apr. 8 2016.

Viramontes, Helena. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Penguin, 1995. Print.

The Disruption of Migrant Families

The experience of Latino/a migrants in the United States is a topic explored in Helena Maria Viramontes’ 1995 novel Under the Feet of Jesus and Jane Garcia’s oral history for the Chicana Digital Memory Collective. Viramontes’s novel tells the story of a migrant family of agricultural workers who arrive at a grape farm. Throughout the text, the exploitation of these workers by this labor system is made more and more apparent. In contrast, Jane Garcia’s oral history describes her early life as the child of Latino/a immigrants in Detroit, MI. Her experience in an urban setting is remarkably different from that of the characters in the novel in terms of material culture and daily life. However, through a critical analysis, it is apparent that the life of Jane Garcia and the lives of Estrella, Perfecto, and others in Under the Feet of Jesus are both marked by temporary and permanent disruptions of cultural values. In particular, the rules and notions of family are altered by the migrants’ experience in America.

In both the novel and the oral history, the children hold power over their parents through their ability to speak English. Towards the end of Under the Feet of Jesus, when the family is in the clinic, it is revealed for the first time that Petra and Perfecto do not speak English; Estrella serves as a translator between the nurse and her parental figures (Viramontes 138). By occupying this position, Estrella becomes the most important person in the room. Without her, the nurse would not know what the family needs and the family would not know how to tell her. Estrella’s status as the highest authority in this scene culminates with her demanding their money back from the nurse by violently striking the nurse’s desk with a crowbar (Viramontes 149). She takes charge of the situation in a way that Petra and Perfecto cannot due to their inability to speak English. In her oral history, Jane Garcia describes a similar situation occurring in her own childhood. She spent a lot of time in hospitals when she was young because she had polio. Jane had to converse with the medical professionals for her mother, who did not speak English well (“Growing Up in Detroit” 1:13). Being able to communicate with both language-speakers gives Estrella and Jane an authoritative role that transforms the boundaries of parent-child relationships. The profound shift in familial dynamic, though seemingly temporary, reflects the reality of immigrant children who are better able to integrate into the dominant culture than their parents and are therefore culturally separated from them, to some degree.

Families fall apart and are remade in both narratives. Estrella’s family is somewhat unconventional; it consists of her four younger siblings, her mother Petra, and her mother’s much-older boyfriend Perfecto. When she was younger, her father left their family without discussion, which was a painful betrayal (Viramontes 23). Perfecto is secretly thinking about leaving as well. The relationship between Estrella and Perfecto is an important one throughout the novel, reflecting the difficulties of creating a positive relationship with someone who is supposed to replace a lost loved one. Jane Garcia’s family history is also complicated. Her parents went through an “ugly divorce” when she was eight years old and her father won custody of her and her younger brother by proving that her mother was unfit (“Sarah Fisher Boarding School” 0:38). However, her father was then transferred by his company to another state and he wasn’t allowed to take his children with him, so Jane and her brother went into the foster care system; she remained a ward of the state until she got married at age 15 (“Foster Care” 1:26). With her own nuclear family fragmented and no mention of other relatives, Jane joined the very traditional, Mexican immigrant family of her husband. Growing up a “Detroit chick,” she had to adjust to new expectations of her role as a woman (“Sexism” 0:48). The creation of new families in the wake of the destruction of previous ones, at the hands of an unmerciful system (whether it’s agricultural labor or child services), is an important way that Viramontes and Jane Garcia demonstrate the agency of Latino/a migrants. Though their lives are constantly disrupted, new communities are formed in between those cracks.

-Rachel Robinson

Works Cited

“Jane Garcia.” Online video clip. Chicana Por Mi Raza. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

Viramontes, Helena Maria. Under the Feet of Jesus. New York: Dutton, 1995. Print.