- Their Bones Kept Them Moving:Latinx Studies, Helena María Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus, and the Crosscurrents of Ecocriticism
Chemical pollution is . . . a central issue for American environmentalism, at the same time that it functions as a crucial trope by means of which writers and filmmakers explore the porous boundaries between body and environment, public and domestic space, and harmful and beneficial technologies.Ursula K. Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet
Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar (Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks).Gloria E. Anzaldúa, This Bridge Called My Back
At the center of Helena María Viramontes's 1995 novel Under the Feet of Jesus is the poisoning via an aerial crop duster of Alejo, a sixteen-year-old farmworker on a raisin farm in California's Central Valley. Although Alejo is poisoned with at least one other character present, his illness is an enigma. Even he does not seem to recognize the implications of the event: Alejo, who "had not guessed the biplane was so close until its gray shadow crossed over him like a crucifix" (76),
thought first of his feet sinking, sinking to his knee joints, swallowing his waist and torso, the pressure of tar squeezing his chest and crushing his ribs. Engulfing his skin up to his chin, his mouth, his nose, bubbled air. Black bubbles erasing him. Finally the eyes. Blankness. Thousands of bones, the bleached white marrow of bones. Splintered bone pieced together by wire to make a whole, surfaced bone. No fingerprint or history, bone. No lava stone. No story or family, bone.(78) [End Page 361]
This transformation of the poisoning into a refiguring of the La Brea Tar Pits and the anonymity of a skeleton highlights the invisibility of migrant workers and their labor in the United States. Alejo's disorientation also accords with the confusion one would experience after ingesting a near-lethal dose of pesticide. That no one―not the farmworkers working alongside Alejo (who would presumably recognize the effects of pesticide poisoning), nor his cousin Gumecindo (who witnessed the poisoning)―is able to correctly diagnose Alejo mystifies what should be a readily identifiable and treatable illness. This point is even more curious given the relative ubiquity of poisonings of this type among the nation's farmworkers.1
The inscrutability of Alejo's poisoning and the novel's general awareness of environmental issues like toxic exposure, food justice, and sustainable agriculture provide opportunities to build on a conversation between two fields that have had overlapping engagements with Under the Feet of Jesus: Latinx studies2 and ecocriticism.3 [End Page 362] Because Under the Feet of Jesus represents environmental justice as an integral aspect of a larger discursive quest for social justice, the novel offers a case study for understanding how Latinxs imagine alternative responses to environmental marginalization. This essay combines Latinx literary critical methodologies, including formal analysis of the novel's spatial representations, with ecocritical considerations of toxicity in order to unpack how Under the Feet of Jesus posits a form of environmental literacy that critiques dominant paradigms of critical resistance including conventional environmental discourse. These representations emphasize how environmental injustice functions as an integral aspect of the racialization of farmworkers. Rather than presenting environmental racism as aberrant, or detailing individual instances of environmental harm outside a larger context, the novel suggests that toxicity and environmental degradation are structural aspects of farmworker life. By bringing the ecocritical attention to what Lawrence Buell calls "toxic discourse" into further conversation with the Latinx studies focus on racial and social justice, it is possible to appreciate Viramontes's complex intertwining of social, political, and economic resistance with critiques of environmental injustice.
Expanding Conversations between Latinx and Environmental Studies
This essay does not claim to stage the first or only conversation between Latinx and Chicanx studies or other branches of critical race and ethnic studies and ecocriticism. Ecocritical scholars like Buell, Ursula K. Heise, and Joni Adamson have long called for environmental analyses that reflect on entwined aspects of race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, and gender. As Buell puts it, "[n]o...