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Ghosts in the Barn: Dead Labor and Capital Accumulation in Helena Maria Viramontes's: Under the Feet of Jesus.

In my country, we were reduced to bodies. We became commodities, all of us; imprisoned bodies of labor, holding together a patriarchal and capitalist currency so strong, it cannibalized us.

--Helena Maria Viramontes, "Marks of the Chicana Corpus"

History ... is that ghostly (abstract in the Marxist sense) totality that articulates and disarticulates itself and the subjects who inhabit it.... To be haunted is to be tied to historical and social effects.

--Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters

There are ghosts in the barn, or at least Helena Maria Viramontes s Under the Feet of Jesus (1996) leads one to believe so. The book's first sentence cryptically asks, "Had they been heading for the barn all along?" (UF 3). Our protagonist "didn't know," we are told in the next line, but by the novel's end Estrella "knew what to do" (171) as she instinctively follows the moonlit "worn pathway toward the barn," her final outing in a series of excursions that emplot the course of the narrative. Estrella's newfound sense of direction and purpose partially answers the book's opening question. And yet, at the close of the novel, the barn remains hauntingly enigmatic, as much for Viramontes's characters as for her critics. (1)

After arriving at the run-down, two-room bungalow that will shelter the family of seven during the harvest, Estrella is immediately drawn to the ruined barn (as she will be throughout the narrative), "a cathedral of a building" that leaves her sister Perla "frightened" (9). "Strangely vacant," with an "absence [that) clung heavy," the inside of the barn evokes an eerie spectral presence for Estrella, who notices a "thick-linked, long and rusty" chain suspended from the ceiling that "swayed like a pendulum, as if someone had just touched it and ran off" (10). When Estrella peers through the door left ajar, it suddenly swings loose, its "rusted hinge" releasing a "screech" whose "squeaking" cry sounds, to Dan Latimer's (2002: 336) ear (and mine), uncannily like "the door of a haunted house." That screech, joined by "a riot of feathers and fluttering" from the roosting owls and swallows in the gable, leaves a startled Estrella and her twin sisters "screaming" before the slow, ominous swaying of the "long and rusty" chain (UF 10). (2)

The ghostly tropes of the first scene remain implicit but nevertheless persist throughout the novel, particularly in connection to the barn. (3) For Alejo, and especially Gumecindo, the howling "screech" recalls the mournful wailing of La Llorona. "I always thought La Llorona was just a story" (11), Gumecindo confesses and anxiously retells communal tales about "La Llorona and the ghosts of her drowned children" (39) as the two cousins furtively gather peaches from their employer's orchard at sundown. The "ghosts of her drowned children" suddenly materialize before Alejo and Gumecindo in the figure of the "harelip boy" (75), who apparently haunts the barn. "This is too weird, 'mano," exclaims Gumecindo, when in the barn the "startled" (21) cousins discover the child, who "jumped out of nowhere, his short stumps of arms raised high, his face like a puff fish" (22). About what he calls this "uncanny child," Latimer (2002: 337) suggestively asks, "Is it a ghost child?"--a reasonable question, especially in light of Viramontes's comment on Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo (1955): "What Rulfo does is that he interweaves reality with non-reality and so you don't know at certain points in the novel who is a phantom and who is not.... It is the most fantastic novella I have ever heard. I thought: I wanna try this" (Rodriguez 2013: 254). Later in the novel, again evoking the supernatural, Petra cautions her daughter Estrella that women who do not heed their mother's warning are in danger of exposing their "unborn children . . . [to] having their lips bitten like the hare on the moon," since "the moon and earth and sun's alignment was a powerful thing" (UF 69). While Petra yells, "Is that what you want, ... a child sin labios? Without a mouth?" Estrella "looked at the barn," no doubt with the "ghost child" in mind. If Viramontes's spectral allusions to La Llorona and the phantom child register the systemic political silencing of (im)migrant communities of color ("without a mouth"), then, they also evoke the oft-concealed realities of pesticide poisoning, birth defects, and infant and childhood mortalities in the fields, central concerns for farmworker families to which Under the Feet of Jesus returns time and again. (4) When Estrella tells her stepfather Perfecto Flores about the boy she has seen at the barn, he tells her, "You must be dreaming" (76), but his disbelief is somewhat surprising, since Perfecto is himself haunted by "ghosts [who] were working in the dream world to tell him something" (100)--a man routinely visited by the spirits of his buried wife and stillborn child, both of whom "died ... centuries ago" (81). Indeed, it is Perfecto who warns Estrella to "stay away from the barn" (27), not only because "the walls [are] ready to collapse" (15) but, more importantly, "someone died there," a point underscored by the narrator's grave addendum, "This was true. This one was not a lie" (75).

Further instances of spectrality abound in Under the Feet of Jesus, suggesting a fundamental connection between Viramontes's figurative appeal to the "ghostly" and her more openly political and economic concerns in telling a story about the poverty, exploitation, violence, and humiliation inflicted yearly on farmworkers in the United States by capitalist agribusiness. (5) Accordingly, this essay argues that her novel's persistent spectral tropes speak to the very antagonisms and contradictions inherent in the discrete social relationships and economic activities composing the labor regime that is her central subject matter. The turn to spectrality in Under the Feet of Jesus aims to lay bare the fundamental phantasmagoria surrounding the value form and the products of labor (not to mention labor itself) under capitalist commodity production and exchange--what Karl Marx ([1867] 1977: 169) suggestively calls "all the magic and necromancy" shrouding capital accumulation. As with hauntings and spirits, value is "immaterial but objective," to borrow David Harvey's (2018: 5) pithy formulation. As bearers of value, consumer goods are "supra-sensible" (Marx [1867] 1977: 165) even as they partake in a "phantom-like objectivity" (128) that depends (ironically) on the necessary disavowal of the "dead labor" interred in commodities. A product of labor becomes "a magical object," Theodor Adorno explains, insofar as "there is no longer anything that is supposed to remind us how it came into being ... insofar as the labor stored up in it comes to seem supernatural and sacred at the very moment when it can no longer be recognized as labor" (quoted in Benjamin 1999: 669; emphasis mine). Value's "phantom-like" existence, then, is produced by the systemic erasure of the social and material requirements for its production--or, more precisely, the relentless effacement of the laboring body.

Sensuous, living labor power is transformed, under the auspices of capital, into abstract and alienated "dead labor," momentarily crystalized in commodity values but actively concealed in the objective immateriality of the value form. According to Marx, both capital and value are best understood as a social relation, not as things; at the same time, as Don Mitchell (2007: 564) contends, "Marx makes it clear that while capital is always a relationship, its form is always the form of dead labor--labor past, materialized, and realized through exchange." Marx utilizes "dead labor" metaphorically to name the exploited laboring of working people solidified and congealed in the social and material wealth produced during the working day--that is, the expended (living) labor power transferred and incorporated into (lifeless) commodities (and money). (6) It signifies the outcome of workers' toil and spent energies in the labor process: the new use values given shape in the products of labor and, from the perspective of capital, the "crystals" of abstract labor (for example, exchange value or socially necessary labor time) incarnated for the moment in the body of commodity values (Marx [1867] 1977: 128). Moreover, "dead labor" encompasses the broader social relationships determining the very conditions under which such work is performed--it lends concreteness to capitalist relations and material arrangements that subtend the eclipsing of use value by exchange value, the rule of dead labor over living labor. For Mitchell (2003: 237), "while produced by very much living labor, the commodity is itself dead labor, that is, labor ossified, concretized, materialized into a definite thing with a definite shape and a definable structure." But, as a commodity, this "definite thing" also remains "a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" (Marx [1867] 1977: 163)--it is now a fetish cloaked in the ideological mystifications and falsifications of the value form. Consequently, Mitchell (2003: 237) reasons, the pressing question "is always one of how labor is made dead, and to what end." From this vantage, to speak of labor from within the accumulation processes of capitalist production and circulation is to speak of ghosts. Capitalism inescapably conjures its own phantoms and so remains haunted by the spectral figures of "dead labor" occulted under the sign of value.

By the same token, in a novel preoccupied with the social and economic conditions of (im)migrant farmworkers--wage-laborers bound to the land by the material and social relations of capitalist agricultural production--Viramontes writes a world that demands the recognition of ghosts. In his study of California agribusiness, Mitchell underscores the fact that "the landscape, like the commodity (or rather, because it is a commodity), is dead labor," and for this reason, "the landscape, again like the commodity, mystifies the relationships that go into its making" (238). Accordingly, Under the Feet of Jesus depicts a California agricultural landscape haunted at every turn by disavowed dead labor, both in Marx's figurative sense and in a tragically literal sense.

Avery Gordon (2008: 25) teaches that a ghost is not the spirit of a dead or missing relative, friend, or stranger but, rather, a "social figure" (18), an active ideological sign that marks a space of "political mediation and historical memory," operating principally as an indicator of a lack, distortion, or effacement in our daily social scenes and historical realities--a reminder of the violence of everyday life. Hauntings thus bear witness to the tenebrous socioeconomic and political practices that quietly, obscurely, and anonymously shape material life. In Chicana/o literature, spectral tropes routinely recall the silenced and forgotten rituals of violence historically perpetrated against Mexicana/o communities in the United States. Raul Villa (2000: 31) observes that Chicana/o writers frequently draw on ghostly metaphors of social death, or the condition of "living dead," as a means by which to reclaim and give voice to the lived experience of racial and economic domination commonly omitted from the official annals of American history and culture. Similarly, in Under the Feet of Jesus Viramontes attends to various social and political acts of haunting, turning to the richly allegorical and allusive language of spectrality to conjure the hidden, displaced lives of superexploited (im)migrant farmworkers in what Carey McWilliams ([1935] 2000: 102) aptly labels California's "factories in the fields." Her marshaling of spectral tropes almost exclusively in reference to the barn indicates the specific nature of the haunting: stirring in the barn is the collective laboring body of past and present-day farmworkers--a body systematically maimed and effaced by the daily activities of a regime of accumulation founded on private property and the value form.

As my epigraph suggests, Viramontes (2009: 6) herself understands capital and its inherent commodification of labor as "cannibalizing" working-class Mexicana/os and Chicana/os, reducing individual workers to "imprisoned bodies of labor" in the name of "a patriarchal and capitalist currency." As her novel decries economic and human rights violations in the US agricultural industry, it also gives voice to a broader, more fundamental critique that takes direct aim at the "cannibalizing" practices of capitalist accumulation and the whole system of wage-labor, challenging the way the political and economic practices of US capitalist agribusiness have long rendered "Mexicans as faceless abstractions rather than as a group of human beings" (Gutierrez 1995: 56). From the perspective of US capital, David Gutierrez reminds us, Mexicana/os have always "represented little more than a huge, tractable pool to be exploited at the whim of American industry." (7) Such is the cold logic of capitalism: laboring bodies function as the key nexus for the capital-relation, acting solely as abstract vehicles for variable capital in the valorization process--that is, for commodity production and consumption in the service of profit making. For this reason, Harvey (2000: 97) follows Donna Haraway in designating the body "an accumulation strategy in the deepest sense," and in drawing attention to "imprisoned bodies of labor" across the agricultural fields of California and the Southwest, Viramontes casts the gendered and racialized bodies of (im)migrant farmworkers in particular as "an accumulation strategy" in this sense.

Under the Feet of Jesus thus takes up what McWilliams ([1935] 2000: 3-4) has termed the "hidden history"--a "violent history of racial exploitation," as he puts it--buried beneath the reifying romantic myths of a "fabled land" of agricultural bountifulness. And it is by means of spectrality that Viramontes expresses this "hidden history," documenting the hauntings of dead labor and making legible once again the systemic erasure of "imprisoned bodies," racialized and exploited, from the shimmering white surfaces of commodity culture. In this way, she sheds light on the effacements and occultations of commodity fetishism, offering a glimpse of the dead labor lurking behind the bars of the dollar sign.

Fetishism, Landscape, and the American Pastoral

"Those who labour in the earth," Thomas Jefferson ([1785] 1999: 170) famously writes in Notes on the State of Virginia, "are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people." Jefferson's agrarian vision of the United States casts the yeoman farmer, independent and self-reliant, as the paragon of the nascent republic--a vision of the newfound nation-state that ignores the constitutive place of enslaved Black labor and the institution of chattel slavery in its formation and subsequent nation-building practices (Wald 2016: 6-8). As Sarah Wald concludes, "the plantation slave is an unwritten subject that haunts Jefferson's vision of the free and independent farmer" (6)--and, by extension, haunts the nation's long-standing conceptions of "Americanness." For Jefferson's racialized agrarian ideal established the basis for an American pastoral mythos that persisted long after the disappearance of the Western frontier, the pioneer farmer, and the small, preindustrial farm. Indeed, ideological and commercial recourse to an American pastoral idyll proved crucial during the shift to industrial capitalist agribusiness toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Appeals to this national pastoral imaginary were especially important to the capitalizing and industrializing of agriculture in California. According to Mitchell (1996: 13-14), "California as dream, as spectacle" comes to be understood "as a culmination of the American Dream--perhaps not the shining city of a hill, but a prosperous, rural, Jeffersonian, yeoman, countryside ideal." For Mitchell, growers in California not only invested in the expansion of industrial agribusiness but also reinvested ideologically "in images of the California rural landscape as a place of beauty, tranquility, and neighborly civility ... [and] quickly revived old ideologies of the rural idyll" (83). The creation of this "rural idyll" remains linked in vital ways to the obfuscation and erasure of laboring bodies from the California landscape, despite their centrality to the material production of this very same physical territory. From its inception as an official state of the republic in 1850, California has been pictured "purely as a playground of beauty in which the damned remain quite invisible" (22). California's idyllic valleys "withhold many secrets," McWilliams ([1935] 2000: 5-6) confesses--none perhaps more haunting than "the untold human suffering" buried deep beneath the splendor of its many agricultural riches. A product of labor in its own right, California cropland adopts a commodified form that, while projecting the appearance of a fixed and stable topography, conceals the basic facts of its material (reproduction and the superexploitative social relations behind it. Mitchell (2003: 246) concludes that, "as dead labor, as the physical embodiment of reified social relations, the landscape is a fetish. Or more accurately, the landscape necessarily, as part of its being, fetishizes the labored over social relations that make it." The fields and orchards of California disavow the grim history of racialized and gendered violence, impoverished wage labor, and capitalist exploitation--or the dead labor--that has defined US agribusiness throughout the late nineteenth, twentieth, and early twenty-first centuries.

Viramontes opens Under the Feet of Jesus by drawing immediate attention to the lands of the San Joaquin Valley---just one of no more than a handful of scenic depictions of the countryside in a novel centered almost exclusively around farmwork and agricultural spaces. This dearth of panoramic rural imagery functions to disrupt and deromanticize the long-standing reified representation of the California landscape that pervades both the history and the literature of the region. Focalized through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Estrella, the narrative's first rendering of the Central Valley immediately unsettles the bucolic idyll typically associated with California, what the state's foremost historian Kevin Starr (1986: 134) characterizes as "a sun-graced land resplendent with the goodness of the fruitful earth." Rather than offering a pristine portrait of picturesque farmhouses, orchards, and vineyards, Viramontes foregrounds the disconcerting presence of an impoverished Chicana/o (im)migrant farm-working family and, through a series of subtle allusions and metonymic references of allegorical import, communicates the long history of exploited racialized and gendered agricultural labor in the United States:
   Had they been heading for 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. They were seven
   altogether--their belongings weighed down an old Chevy Capri
   station wagon, the clouds above them ready to burst like cotton
   plants. Then the barn disappeared into a hillside of brittle bush
   and opuntia cactus as the man who was not her father maneuvered the
   wagon through a laborious curve. (UF 3)

Viramontes begins with the barn, a significant gesture given the powerfully iconic status barns hold in the American national imaginary. Standing as the architectural embodiment of the harvest, barns are traditionally associated with the tools and products of farm labor, yet, in the United States, they have also operated as "one of the nation's most ubiquitous architectural signifiers" (Black 2004: 52), a central link in a discursive chain binding several key ideological elements of American pastoralism and Western frontier mythology: the politics of agrarianism and representations of the independent farmer; notions of private property, self-reliance, and prosperity; and the belief in America's moral righteousness, innocence, and expansionist claims to the land. As Simon Bronner (2011: 113) suggests, barns have historically been "a symbol of growth and abundance on the American landscape and of the accessibility of individual property." Likewise, American landscape painter and cultural historian Eric Sloane (2003: 53) notes that barns represent "the standard symbol for the American Farmer," since for early European colonists and immigrants the barn "became the symbol of a new life" (51). Where barns in Europe tended to be economical in size, "the American barn was big, like the hopes and plans for life in the New World. It was unlike anything built anywhere else. It was entirely American." Barns thus serve as "the vernacular symbol of a new America" (Clarke 1989: 163)--in short, of the American Dream itself--and of the ideals, values, and myths produced in its service.

If as a symbol the barn evokes a transparent and stable ("organic") image of American society and history, Viramontes turns to what remains displaced and concealed by such symbolic figuration. The barn in her novel thus functions more like an allegory than a symbol, if we observe the distinction that Walter Benjamin makes between them. Elaborating that distinction, Lisa Lowe (1996: 35) argues that the symbolic operates through "a persistent belief in a knowable social totality of which the representative figure is a reflection and in terms of which that figure can be recognized," while allegory relies on "correspondences" rather than "reflection." As Lowe explains, "Benjamin's concept of correspondences does not imply an analogy or homology between the figure and the totality but rather proposes a dialectic of displaced connections, a dialectic that considers the relation of parts to fractured wholes and seeks to be 'historical' amid the losses and contingencies of history" (197n79). For Lowe, as for Benjamin, allegory thus potentially affords a form of politico-historical insight and ideology critique unavailable by means of the symbol.

As an allegorical vehicle, rather than symbol, the barn in Under the Feet of Jesus thus both emblematizes and disrupts a much larger and pervasive American pastoral ideology of exclusion, disenfranchisement, and exploitation, one that Viramontes challenges at the outset of the novel. The "cratered" barn draws attention to the breaks, the gaps and absences, in the historiography of the United States, and with its "splintery wood sheeting" and "cratered roof" (UF 9) signals the reality of the social and economic injustices at the heart of the US agricultural system obscured by pastoral ideology. And the "cratered" barn also underscores the hollowness and deception of the American Dream in general, connecting agrarian images of an Edenic pastoral life to the promise of equal opportunity and prosperity so fundamental to the country's national identity. (8)

Countering the fabled pastoral vision of an idyllic "New World" landscape, then, Viramontes demystifies the real economies of US agricultural labor--from chattel slavery to sharecropping, tenant farming, and convict leasing to monopoly capitalist agribusiness--behind the hallowed Jeffersonian image of the independent and self-sufficient American farmer. The California landscape is the product of (disavowed) "living labor" performed under historically determinate social and material conditions, and, as Mitchell (2003: 239) clarifies, "those specific historical and geographical conditions ... are themselves the product of past work, or past labor: they are the 'dead labor' that makes specific forms of living labor, specific labor practices, historically and geographically necessary." The sequence of figurative associations in the novel's first paragraphs unearths this disavowed and forgotten history of "dead labor" bound to the "sun-graced land." In a narrative dealing with farmwork in the United States, the reference to "cotton plants" cannot help but to evoke metonymically the legacies of racialized slavery and debt peonage in the cotton-producing South--echoing McWilliams's ([1949] 1999: 150) revealing (if overstated) point that (im)migrant farm labor "is California's 'peculiar institution' in much the same sense that chattel slavery was the South's peculiar institution" (9)--a connection furthered by the implication that Petra, who also is linked repeatedly to cotton picking, has Afro-Latin American ancestry, with her "deep coffee-colored skin and black, kinked hair that she tamed with a short braid" (UF 7). (10) This initial mention of cotton plants prefigures Viramontes's detailed depiction of Petra and other (im)migrant farmworkers laboring on southwestern cotton fields: "Estrella was not more than four when she first accompanied the mother to the fields.... Even then, the mother seemed old to Estrella. Yet, she hauled pounds and pounds of cotton by the pull of her back, plucking with two swift hands, stuffing the cloudy bolls into her burlap sack, the row of plants between her legs" (51-52). While "cloudy bolls" recalls descriptions of "clouds above them ready to burst like cotton plants," here it is Petra's body ("the pull of her back") that appears "ready to burst" under the weight of the burlap sack. The image of Petra with young Estrella in tow calls attention to the persistence in the United States of an economic bondage to the land, in this case perpetuated by the capitalist wage-labor system and its social relations of "free" labor.

Cotton in Under the Fee of Jesus thus functions allegorically, (re)articulating the "correspondences," or "displaced connections," between present-day racialized and gendered divisions of labor and the long modern history of colonial domination and displacement, enslavement, and capitalist exploitation in the Americas. In the same vein, the itinerant family's "weighed down ... old Chevy Capri station wagon," loaded with all of "their belongings," offers an almost Steinbeckian image of Depression-era privation and Dust Bowl migration. (11) Throughout the Great Depression, as Erin Battat (2014: 9) observes, "photographs of overloaded jalopies traversing America's roads and highways appeared in countless newspapers, magazines, photobooks, museum galleries, and even the halls of Grand Central Station," and Viramontes's tableau of the displaced Chicana/o farmworker family thus evokes an experience deeply etched in the cultural and social imaginary of the United States. In the description of Perfecto "maneuvering] the wagon through a laborious curve," the iteration of "labor" offers a faint echo of the dis(re)membered ghostly body of the agrarian laborer in romanticized accounts of the American landscape, just as referring to what was introduced as an "old Chevy Capri station wagon" as simply the "wagon" invites us to contrast this journey with that of the classic American journey of the pioneer family, in a covered wagon heading toward the western frontier, as well as, again, the Great Depression's Dust Bowl and the attendant forced displacement, westward exodus, and unrelenting impoverishment of Midwestern and Oklahoman farm laborers. As James Gregory (1991: 31-32) notes, the Depression era and the image of the covered wagon have a long-standing and intimate attachment in US literary and cultural productions, despite the fact that many 1930s agricultural migrants reached California by bus, train, and primarily automobile (33). Viramontes thus positions Chicana/o farmworker experiences within and against a well-established literary tradition and sociocultural history in the United States, in which migration stands for wide-ranging political, economic, and social dislocations impacting working-class communities. Battat (2014: 9) points out that during the Depression years "dozens of socially conscious writers, black and white, shared this popular fascination with migration, producing narratives that built on a long-standing American tradition but challenged its capitalist faith in progress and prosperity." Likewise, Viramontes disrupts dominant historical discourses of Manifest Destiny, here foregrounding the long-standing presence of exploited (im)migrant farmworkers in the Western idyll. Ultimately, the novel's initial scene taps into a still deeply resonant national archive of cultural images, with particular reference to what Paula Rabinowitz (1994: 90) describes as "icons" of the Depression era: "the overloaded cars migrating West, the endless lines of men looking for work, the blown-out land, dry and dusty from drought." Perhaps fittingly, then, Viramontes closes the opening paragraph with the overloaded "wagon" maneuvering "a laborious curve" as the blown-out barn "disappeared into a hillside," awash not with bounteous fruits and vegetables but, rather, with desertic "brittle bush and opuntia cactus."

In turn, the gothic "cluster of amputated trees" (UF 3) at the head of the side road to the barn immediately undercuts the serene panorama of sunlit "orange and avocado and peach trees" lyrically rendered at the start of the next paragraph. And what follows is Estrella's rumination on farmwork's precarity--"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)--reminding us that "under capitalism," as Michael Denning (2010: 79) writes, "the only thing worse than being exploited is not being exploited." Viramontes captures the permanent state of insecurity and dislocation affecting the lives of US (im)migrant farmworkers for over a century, not to mention of the growing number of wage laborers more recently relegated to the ranks of the global "precariat" by the practices and policies of neoliberal regimes of accumulation. The bleak image of "amputated trees" and Estrella's reflections on what Neil Larsen (1990: 69) characterizes in a slightly different context as "the utterly familiar and universal parable of labor--looking for it, finding it, and surviving it" give way in the succeeding paragraph to a description of Perfecto's "tired" and "wiry" body, whose "skin was like the bark of a Juniper tree" (UF 4--5). Here, the "imprisoned bodies of labor" return, expressed in the figurative language of the very landscape that disavows the origins of its material reproduction in (im)migrant wage-labor.

From the novel's opening, then, the sun-graced California landscape betrays a haunting: the faint material traces of an effaced and dis(re)membered history of dead labor. And it is this political economy of haunting--of the rule of dead labor over living labor--that subtends Viramontes's account of the social relations and conditions of farmwork in Under the Feet of Jesus.

Deciphering the Social Hieroglyphic of Value

Value, as Marx ([1867] 1977: 167) reminds us, "does not have its description branded on its forehead." Indeed, value actively conceals and falsifies its true origin in labor, "transform(ing) every product of labour into a social hieroglyphic," Marx concludes, while only later do workers "try to decipher the hieroglyphic, to get behind the secret of their own social product." But where there are secrets, there are ghosts--for, as Gordon (2008: 183) observes, following Nicolas Abraham, '"What haunts are ... the gaps left within us by the secrets of others' or the articulated and often disarticulated traces of that abstraction we call a social relationship of power." Produced by labor, commodities are full of gaps and breaks, inhabited by the silences of many secrets left untold, and commodity culture operates as a palimpsest, the final pristine and lustrous inscriptions of value prominently displayed and easily legible on the commodity-body, while nonetheless shadowed by the faintest "disarticulated traces," the print and mark of lost laboring hands. But the social hieroglyphic of value can be deciphered, the gleaming surfaces of the commodity, on which value inscribes its name, made transparent and forced to reveal capital's buried truths. The ghosts of dead labor can be prevailed on to tell value's well-kept secret.

In an important early scene in Under the Feet of Jesus, Estrella unmasks the exploitative realities of farm labor by rending the veil of commodity fetishism as she "deciphers" the iconic Sun Maid raisins advertisement. The pisca "was not like the picture on the red raisin boxes Estrella saw in the markets, not like the woman wearing a fluffy bonnet, holding out the grapes with her smiling, ruby lips, the sun a flat orange behind her" (UF 49). This romanticized pastoral image of a sun-graced and bountiful California landscape, where harvesting appears more as a leisure activity than a brutalizing labor-intensive occupation, offers an ideological misrepresentation that underwrites the consumer's fetishistic (mis)recognition of the products of labor as values, (12) a process described by Marxist philosopher Wolfgang Haug (1986: 50), who notes that consumer advertising further strips the commodity-body of its foundational relation to concrete labor and use value, compounding the abstraction from "living" to "dead" labor performed by the capital relation. In advertisements and product packaging, customers encounter an "aesthetic abstraction" of the commodity, a kind of "second skin" casting "amorous glances" that aim to enchant and seduce potential buyers. Promising nothing less than complete satisfaction of consumer needs and desires, the product's "second skin" ultimately "becomes completely disembodied and drifts unencumbered like a multicolored spirit of the commodity into every household." Phantom-like to the nth degree, the commodity's aestheticized and promissory "second skin" further occults the living labor at its core.

Estrella's critique of the Sun Maid advertisement pierces its aestheticized "second skin," challenging its disembodying abstraction by forcing into view the dis(re)membered laboring bodies of superexploited farmworkers:

The sun was white and it made Estrella's eyes sting like an onion, and the baskets of grapes resisted her muscles, pulling their magnetic weight back to the earth. The woman with the red bonnet did not know this. Her knees did not sink in the hot white soil, and she did not know how to pour the baskets of grapes inside the frame gently and spread the bunches evenly on top of the newsprint paper. She did not remove the frame, straighten her creaking knees, the bend of her back, set down another sheet of newsprint paper, reset the frame, then return to the pisca again with the empty basket, row after row, sun after sun. (UF 49-50)

The repetition of "white," associated now with an oppressive rather than idyllic sun and soil, hints at the racialized labor regime that the pastoral portrait of the maiden-like white "woman with the red bonnet" actively conceals, while Estrella's precise description of an almost Taylorized labor process in the "factory fields" deromanticizes the label's bucolic image of the California landscape, reinscribing agribusiness's iniquitous division of labor and exploitative conditions of production into the ostensibly equitable market realm of commodity exchange and consumption. As Arianne Burford (2008) argues, "Viramontes dismantles this prepackaged epistemology of farm work" on display in the Sun Maid raisins advertisement, her phrase "prepackaged epistemology" pithily pointing to how one's understanding of the world and one's place in it is conditioned by the overriding social relations of capital accumulation. (13)

Here, and elsewhere in her novel, Viramontes interrogates this "prepackaged epistemology" that actively mediates individual and collective interpretations of social life. Her piercing commentary begins to reorient what is discernible and knowable, as she traces the erasure of "imprisoned bodies of labor" from the commodity at market. At the start of the Sun Maid advertisement passage, Estrella "readied the large rectangular sheet of newsprint paper over an even bed of tractor levelled soil" (UF 49). Unlikely to consider the social and political visions Estrella needs, the paper is "readied" instead of being "read." Aligned with "newsprint," however, the word "readied," with its "ramifying resemblance" (Godden 2007: 16) to read, again presents a "subsemantic" whispering, (14) an instruction to note carefully the dereifying reading--the appraisal and decrypting of the commodity form--that Estrella carries out in the subsequent paragraph. Viramontes aims to develop an "expanded notion of literacy," Paula Moya (2002: 178-79) argues, one that ultimately rests on "a concept of literacy that is not confined to reading printed texts, but encompasses the totality of a human being's active engagement with the world." According to Moya, Under the Feet of Jesus challenges readers "to become a better, more sensitive interpreter of the social world" (191) by adopting a kind of politico-historical literacy that "includes as one of its elements a more objective understanding of the socioeconomic system they all live in" (210). Where Moya stresses an "expanded notion of literacy," entailing the full spectrum of critical ways of seeing and knowing in society, as the basis for political agency, Carlos Gallego (2014: 42) calls attention to the formative relationship in Viramontes's text between praxis and "cognitive mapping." For Gallego, "cognitive mapping, totality, and capitalism" provide the analytical scaffolding that facilitates "Estrella's agency and the interventionist politics ... [that] emerge from her capacity to map her situatedness within a late capitalist geopolitical totality." While dissimilar in their methodological approaches, Moya and Gallego each delineate an epistemology and a hermeneutics intimately linked to social agency and political forms of radical intervention that depend on ever more expansive, nuanced, and engaged "readings" or "mappings" of historical totality. In agreement with Moya and Gallego, I add simply that Viramontes appears particularly concerned with supplying an "expanded literacy" or "cognitive map" of the value form and its systemic effacement of labor. In fact, Estrella's grappling with the "ineffable knowledge" that Gallego suggests "constitute[s] the novel's relationship to cognitive mapping" (42), again invites one to reflect on the phantasmagoria of capitalist commodification and commoditized culture--what Gordon (2008: 168) describes as our "wavering present," that unsettling sense of being endlessly haunted by "the propinquity of hard-to-touch, hard-to-see abstractions powerfully crisscrossing our concrete quotidian lives."

One evening after a long day in the fields, Estrella stops to watch through "the mesh of the fence" a young group of baseball players in "bleached white uniforms" (UF 59) play a little league game. Several references to the barriers lying between Estrella and the families at leisure position her as racialized political and economic other; as an (im)migrant farmworker, she is relegated to what Lisa Marie Cacho (2012: 6) calls a space of "social death" founded on "contemporary (il)legal statuses" that "are legally illegible because they engender populations not just racialized but rightless, living nonbeings." The two little league teams and their fans enjoy themselves in a "bleached white" space of leisure located "behind the tall wire mesh fence" and demarcated by "chalked boundaries" (UF 58), a space economically and socially far afield from the croplands where racialized and exploited (im)migrant families toil. Toward the end of the passage, Viramontes makes explicit these early allusions to the fenced "boundaries" of the US-Mexico border and its militarized state violence: Estrella "startled when the sheets of high-powered lights beamed on the playing field like headlights of cars, blinding her. The round, sharp white lights burned her eyes and she made a feeble attempt to shield them with an arm. The border patrol, she thought, and she tried to remember which side she was on and which side of the wire mesh she was safe in" (59-60). Although Estrella is by birth a US citizen, her panic here exemplifies Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Sarah Mayorga's (2011: 77) observation that "the racial status of individuals trumps their citizenship standing in any polity." "Estrella's racialized social class position attenuates her relative privilege of citizenship," as Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano (2013: 78) has it, illustrating how "US-born migrants' lives are also pervaded by fear and anxiety," so that her automatic association of the "high-powered lights" with the "border patrol" registers how as a member of a working-class (im)migrant community of color she carries with her the collective historical traumas of racialization and the communal knowledge that the institution of citizenship in the United States is always already "bleached white." Put differently, legal definitions of US citizenship historically arise in mutual (and, at times, contestatory) relation to the interdependent racializing and proletarianizing processes of US capital accumulation and its attendant white supremacy. (15) Racialized working-class populations like Estrella's community of (im)migrant farm laborers suffer "ineligibility to personhood" (Cacho 2012: 7), a category of "social death" that "not only defines who does not matter, [but] also makes mattering meaningful" (6). In rendering particular kinds of bodies excessively vulnerable to the dictates of global capital, systemic "ineligibility to personhood" operates as one of the central repressive technologies of power for policing, regulating, and disciplining racialized workers on both sides of the "wire mesh fence." As a consequence, the leisured spaces of the "bleached white" middle-class American Dream come to matter meaningfully only to the extent that racialized, exploited bodies and zones continue to matter not at all.

Just as the "white" sun of the fields "made Estrella's eyes sting like an onion," the "round, sharp white lights" on the baseball diamond "burned her eyes," "blinding her." In both instances, Estrella's sight is compromised--the latter case ascribed figuratively to the violence of the state, the former to the hazardous conditions of agricultural wage labor. But while manufacturing forms of blindness regarding political economy and civil society is indeed key to the maintenance of capitalist hegemony, Viramontes's spectral tropes militate against such social blindness, mainly by training our eyes on the "immaterial but objective" relations of power and exploitation behind even the most seemingly innocent of everyday events: "The flood lights aimed at the phantoms in the [baseball] field" (UF 60). The phantoms that materialize before Estrella's eyes constitute what Cacho (2012: 8) calls "populations 'dead-to-others'": the victims of racialized exploitation, structural violence, and the political erasures of social death, who thereby provide the very conditions of possibility for value and the ideological rationale for the logic of value that allows certain lives to matter meaningfully while rendering others redundant and disposable. A frightened Estrella tells her mother, "Something's out there," prompting Petra to respond, "Ya callate [be quiet] before you spook the kids" (UF 62). What haunts the little league baseball game--that all-American pastime whose fetishistic "bleached white" image of the American Dream here strikingly connotes exclusion and disavowal (16)--are the ghosts of "populations dead-to-others," who are thus seen and remembered, at the very least by Estrella and the reader. Both in content and in form, Viramontes's paratactic narration represents how the immediately visible leisured world of the American Dream is inhabited by the "imprisoned bodies" of dead labor buried beneath the reified surfaces of the value form and consumer culture: (17)
   The sound of contact, of a ball splitting a bat, dull snap of wood,
   turned her attention to the game and the spectators cheered and she
   saw the ball suspended above left field and the players converged,
   their arms to the sky, the ball like a peach tossed out to hungry
   hands. The spectators rose and Estrella jumped to her feet to see
   mitts form holes like Mr. Kawamoto's mouth readied for the catch.
   One short player in a blue uniform took the ball out of the cradle
   of his glove and held it up as she had done with the peach and the
   audience broke out in sporadic applause. (59)

Here, "with his 'hole' of a mouth, Kawamoto stands in for migrant hunger," as Yarbro-Bejarano (2013: 79-80) observes, "becom[ing] proliferating mouths, which then superimpose themselves on the bodies and elements of the baseball game." Her reading of the scene convincingly makes the case: The "ball like a peach tossed out to hungry hands" expresses not only the physical hunger suffered by impoverished farmworker families but also the social, political, and even existential "hunger" of redundant labor judged "dead-to-others." Made visible once again by the incongruous similes used to capture the all-American pastime, the bodies of marginalized and exploited farmworkers indict the empty promises of the American Dream, especially for (im)migrants, that "form holes like Mr. Kawamoto's mouth" and like the mouths of all struggling agricultural wage laborers. As these bodies appear before Estrella on the baseball diamond, Viramontes condemns the systematic exclusion and erasure of racialized working-class communities from the "bleached white" social spaces of US prosperity and leisure.

The heightened parataxis in the scene's final paragraph collapses two distinct geographic, geopolitical, economic, and sociohistorical spaces manifesting how the ideological and material conditions for American leisure and consumption are predicated on state violence and a brutalizing regime of racist labor extraction and profit making:

The flood lights aimed at the phantoms in the field. Or were the lights directed at her? Could the spectators see her from where she stood? Where was home? A ball hit, a blunt instrument against a skull. A player ran the bases for the point. A score. Destination: home plate. Who would catch the peach, who was hungry enough to run the field in all that light? The perfect target. The lushest peach. The element of surprise. A stunned deer waiting for the bullet. A few of the spectators applauded. (UF 59-60)

Here, the "ball hit" by a baseball bat parallels "a blunt instrument against a skull," and the succeeding paratactic sentences continue to superimpose the violence, deprivation, and desperation produced by the militarized US-Mexico border onto the picturesque all-American baseball game, in the rendering of which Viramontes disarticulates a central ideologeme of American prosperity and exceptionalism. The leisured spaces of American consumption thus remain fundamentally implicated in the injustice and abuse inherent to sites of capitalist production and accumulation. Serving as a sociopolitical palimpsest, the baseball game here discloses its hidden script and silenced voices, as Viramontes lays bare the relentless state violence and racist exploitation--and the impoverishment and dispossession--that historically have proven prerequisites for the American Dream. Accordingly, the "phantoms in the field" become perceptible to Estrella, who recognizes their shared social position as exploited (im)migrant wage labor and thus fearfully wonders if the hostility of the "round, sharp white lights" was also "directed at her?" Confronted by the threat of state-sanctioned racist violence, like her fellow "phantoms in the field" Estrella is cast dead-to-others, "her shadow fading into the approaching night" (60).

Here, Marx's metaphor of dead labor is terribly and tragically literalized. "Our good California living," Mitchell (2003: 245) stresses, "is subsidized by the daily California dying (the violent repression of organizing, the dead labor integral to commodity production) that marks the California agricultural landscape." As with Viramontes's little league game, "what look like pretty ordinary landscapes of agricultural production and suburban consumption are in fact complex, and inextricably linked, places defined by a geography of injustice that [allow one] to live an easy California life only because others' labor--other dead labor--had made that life possible, even as the landscapes of production and consumption fetishize and mystify those relationships" (242). And, as Mitchell stresses, one must look beyond the immediate spaces of production and consumption--to "the whole of the networks through which farmworkers travel, daily and over the life course, to get to those fields" (238)--in order to understand truly the scale of violence perpetrated in the name of capital accumulation. Watching the little league game from the railroad tracks behind the "wire mesh fence," Estrella turns "to the long stretch of railroad ties.... To the north lay the ties and to the south of her, the same, and in between she stood, not knowing where they ended or began" (UF 59). Here, the endless "railroad ties" serve as metonym for interlocked global commerce, and Estrella finds herself caught "in between" structures of this vast network of transnational capital--trafficking in dead and living labor--that she aims to comprehend but for which she presently has no political "cognitive map." Nevertheless, Estrella does convey affectively the same vision that Mitchell (2003: 243) formulates in a critical idiom, pointing to "how landscapes in different places are linked together through the moving bodies of workers (and consumers), the moving flows of capital (and commodities), and the moving targets of regional, national, and global policy (and its violent enforcement)." Similarly, a few pages earlier, we see Estrella's nascent intuition regarding capital's vast "geography of injustice "The piscadores heard the bells of the railroad crossing somewhere in the distance and they stopped to listen.... The train reminded the piscadores of destinations, of arrivals and departures, of home and not of home" (UF 54-55). As with the little league game scene that follows, here the exploitation in the fields is linked to the violence of migration and border crossings, to the racialized oppression embodied by the US-Mexico border, and to the painful realities of poverty and forced displacement occasioned by global capitalism and the social violence behind commodity exchange. It reminds readers, since fetishism is always a form of forgetting, that the beauty and bounty of the California landscape demands "labor be made dead at a range of linked places stretching from the point of production across the globe" (Mitchell 2003: 244).

The heavy cost of capitalist profit making for workers is revealed in Alejo's possible death, after he is poisoned with pesticides in the fields: "As the rotary motor of the biplane approached again, he closed his eyes and imagined sinking into the tar pits.... 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" (UF 78). The "blankness" that consumes Alejo's laboring body makes vivid the violence of the value form and its transformation of concrete living labor into abstract dead labor. "No fingerprint or history.... No story or family" but only "thousands of bones" that in "becoming tar oil" yield the very material conditions for capitalist production itself, offering a felicitous analogy for Marx's labor theory of value. Alejo clarifies that "millions of years ago, the dead animals and plants fell to the bottom of the sea.... The bones lay in the seabed for millions of years. That's how it was" (87). Foregrounding the parallel, Alejo remembers, "Once, when I picked peaches, I heard screams. It reminded me of the animals stuck in the tar pits" (88), recalling the earlier ghostly reference to La Llorona and her dead children (11) but also directly linking the "imprisoned bodies" of (im)migrant farmworkers with Alejo's account of the tar pits and tar oil. At the clinic with Alejo, Estrella later makes the analogy explicit: "She remembered the tar pits. Energy money, the fossilized bones of energy matter. How bones made oil and oil made gasoline. The oil was made from their bones ... Why couldn't the nurse see that? Estrella had figured it out: the nurse owed them as much as they owed her" (148). The exploited "fossilized bones" of laboring bodies, that is, provide the basic source of the "energy money" and "energy matter" powering the societal engines of capitalist accumulation. As Latimer (2002: 335) concisely puts it: "The petroleum becomes, in her [Estrella's] mind, the correlative, the estranged value, of the labor of her underpaid, underappreciated people." Despite the "blankness" that suffuses the pages of wage labor's "story" and "history" under capitalism, Estrella's emergent class consciousness ("Estrella had figured it out: the nurse owed them as much as they owed her") makes legible once again the "fingerprint" of dead labor obscured behind the social hieroglyphic of value.

While the references to tar oil and tar pits evoke Marx's metaphoric use of dead labor, Alejo's deteriorating health again points to how the deaths necessitated by capital are quite literal. Petra's thoughts during the clinic scene are informed by an understanding of this structural violence. Describing Alejo's condition, Petra turns to an early memory of working in southwestern cotton fields, when "she'd wet the cotton or hid handsized rocks in the middle of her sack so that the scale tipped in her favor when the cotton was weighed" (UF 136). "The scale predicted what she would be able to eat, the measurement of her work," Petra thinks to herself, "and the thought that she had to cheat for food made her resentful of any scale" (136-37). As the nurse directs Alejo toward the clinic scale, Petra watches him "dra[g] his bare feet as if the remaining flesh on his bones was too heavy and she couldn't help but think of rocks in the cotton sacks of his bones, his eyes and stomach, his pockets, rocks" (139). Petra "couldn't help but" to render Alejo's failing strength by superimposing the sacks of cotton (Petra's own past, dead labor) onto Alejo's debilitated body, a laboring body that has been transformed piecemeal into dead labor (i.e., commodities) during the pisca and is now near death due to the working conditions in California's agricultural fields. Like Estrella earlier, Petra collapses the spheres of production and consumption, rendering transparent the commoditized fetishism. Their growing political consciousness makes visible the systemic cannibalizing of "imprisoned bodies of labor" under capitalism, and thus works to unmask the social relations of exploitation and power that expunge the collective histories and private lives of racialized working-class families from the "bleached white marrow" of American commodity culture.

Haunted Barns and the Ghosts of Dead Labor

Attuned to the way dead labor haunts the barn (and, with it, the entire history and mythology of American agriculture), Estrella begins to see the barn as the body of the (im)migrant farmworker when she is enlisted by Perfecto to help tear it down:

She looked at the barn as she had done when they first arrived, and tried to imagine herself with the ball of the hammer, pulling the resistant long rusted nails out of the woodsheet walls. The nails would screech and the wood would moan and she would pull the veins out and the woodsheet would collapse like a toothless mouth.... Is that what happens? Estrella thought, people just use you until you're all used up, then rip you into pieces when they're finished using you? (UF 74-75)

In this oft-quoted passage, Estrella bears witness to the material traces of a counterhistory of economic abuse and violence. The indefinite pronoun "you" registers the presence of abstract dead labor in the barn--traditionally, the site for storing the alienated products of farm labor--as it confronts Estrella's own living labor. As she imagines the barn being torn down, Estrella alludes to her earlier encounter with the "Toothless Kawamoto" (56), whose ghostly afterimage appears later in the form of the barn collapsing like a "toothless mouth."

Estrella's rhetorical questions also suggest it is she herself that she recognizes in the abstract body of dead labor materializing before her in the architecture of the barn. Toward the end of the novel, Estrella's own body is described in much the same terms as the anthropomorphized barn, terms that also now stress how behind capital accumulation the "geography of injustice" is pervaded by violence: "Her muscles strained with every body movement.... She felt as if her body had been beaten into a pulp of ligaments and cartilage." And earlier, when "Estrella carried the full basket with the help of a sore hip," that "the muscles of her back coiled like barbed wire and clawed against whatever movement she made" (53) not only suggests the exploitative violence of the working day but also calls forth images of militarized border security, immigration enforcement, and the political dynamics of state repression. We thus see how Estrella's laboring body "is made dead" in the capitalist production process, gradually commodified into units of abstract dead labor, whose ghostly afterimage she will later envisage while staring at the battered beams and walls of the barn.

Through a system of commodification and of labor extraction and exploitation that "fundamentally objectifies and dominates," Gordon (2008: 169) argues, capitalist relations of production and exchange "transform the living into the dead." We can glimpse such a transformation in Perfecto's experiences as an (im)migrant worker, as he thinks to himself, "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" (UF 155), echoing Marx's ([1939] 1993: 361) contention in the Grundrisse that labor embodies "the living, form-giving fire." Underscoring that what is extinguished in the capitalist production process is precisely the body of the worker--the "form-giving fire" of living labor--a lifetime of wage labor has immolated Perfecto's body, his "bones," and muscles, and sinews supplying "kindling" for the process of making profit. A product of his laboring in the fields, his body is reduced to "a phantom of a man once made of hearty flesh" (UF 117).

Viramontes's (2009: 7) remarks on her own father suggest the ways in which workers' bodies, like Perfecto's, are defined by capital as an accumulation strategy, a mere means to an end: "In a labor market that capitalized on the muscles of his back unmercifully, my father showed up for work every day.... It would have been impossible for employers to treat my father as such if they didn't believe that he was less than human.... Although my father's will to work could not be easily replaced, his body was, and since there were so many like him on any given day, on any given corner, his body became meaningless, an object like a Styrofoam cup--functional up to a point, useless and tossed in the trash in a minute." "Capital circulates, as it were, through the body of the labourer as variable capital," Harvey observes, and "thereby turns the labourer into a mere appendage of the circulations of capital itself" ([1982] 1999: 175), so that, as United Farm Workers cofounder Dolores Huerta (quoted in Shea 2003: 135) puts it with respect to US agribusiness: "Growers view farmworkers as tools." It is this social reality of (im)migrant labor, cloaked behind both the fetishisms of value and the commodity form, and the ideologies of American exceptionalism and the American Dream, that Viramontes aims to bring to light for her readers.

Time and again, Viramontes documents the social relations of value creation subtending the dehumanization of wage workers. Being trucked to work, as "the piscadores bumped into one another like loose change in a pocket," they represent only the available capital, the "loose change" invested in order to take ownership of labor power. When the truck arrived, "the driver released the bolt of the back door, and the first of the piscadores were herded out of the corralled flatbed," like beasts of burden" (UF 67). At the close of the working day, the labor power once contained within the laboring body has been "bound up" and "objectified" in the alienated products of labor (Marx [1867] 1977: 287)--lifeless sums of exchange values from which all traces of the worker have been effaced. Such is the cold calculus of capitalism, an arithmetic of exploitation:

The honking signaled the return of the trucks and the piscadores gathered their tools and jugs and aches and bags and children and pouches and emerged from the fields, a patch quilt of people charred by the sun: brittle women with bandannas over their noses, their salt-and-pepper hair dusted brown; young teens rinsing their faces and running wet fingers through their hair; children bored, tired, and antsy; and men so old they were thought to be dead when they slept.... The Foreman produced a tablet of tables and columns of numbers, scribbled rows completed, names, erased calculations while the piscadores climbed the flatbed trucks. (UF 57)

For Marx ([1867] 1977: 296), capital cannot concern itself with the qualitative particularities of the labor, its "content" and "character," but "merely with its quantity." Thus, here, the "patch quilt of people charred by the sun"--whose individual bodies and actions Viramontes meticulously details in an attempt to reinscribe their social visibility--disappears behind the calculated "tables and columns" of the foreman's accounting. (18) What survives of the laborer, now abstracted and quantified, are "numbers, scribbled rows completed, names, erased calculations." (19)

At the end of novel's second section, Estrella runs to the barn, filled with excitement over her first romantic encounter with Alejo. Lying under an old truck to escape the sweltering sun in the fields, Alejo takes Estrella's oil-stained hand, "carefully smoothing] her fingers flat as if unfolding a map" (UF 88), and holding her hand to his face, Alejo kisses Estrella twice, "damp and pleadingly and still. Her oiled handprint, the shape of fingers, imprinted on his face" (89). Estrella "was used to bodies, those of her sisters and brothers, pressing themselves against her while they slept; or the body of the mother whenever she looped her arms around her without embarrassment at the strangest times.... But this skin was different, this heat was different, this scent" (87-88). With their growing intimacy, Alejo and Estrella help each other to "map" their own bodies in a manner quite different from what has been the norm up to this point: for Estrella, it is the coordinates of desire rather than those of capital and wage-labor that now plot the geography of her body. At the same time, however, even this private encounter is marked by capital, the "oiled handprint" signaling capital's claim on their bodies.

At the end of this section, cupping her hands to catch the sunbeams piercing the barn, Estrella "felt the laser heat slowly penetrate her palms he [Alejo] had kissed, saw the blood of her body, a brilliant pink rose, and she laughed" (89-90). As with the preceding scene, Viramontes stresses Estrella's sensual discovery of her body, but the experience is shadowed by the sociohistorical forces that delimit the body of the worker as accumulation strategy. Estrella's attention is drawn toward the interior of the barn, as she hears "the creak of old wood complaining ... and it was then she realized she was not alone" (90). The personification of "old wood complaining" calls to mind Estrella's initial description of the barn in the afterimage of "Toothless Kawamoto," when, imagining the consequences of tearing it down, she thinks "the wood would moan . . . and the woodsheet would collapse like a toothless mouth." Alluding to this earlier scene, Viramontes once more conjures the ghosts of dead labor, as the uncanny depiction of the interior of the barn extends the sociopolitical and historical dynamics of Viramontes's spectral trope:

Now unafraid, she walked to the center of the barn where the chain suspended in an almost unnatural way. Everything else belonged: the stalls, the thick scent of damp hay, the straw spread on the flattened earth, the rusted pitchfork leaning against the deep grooves of weathered sheet wood, everything except the chain.... Why was the chain there? ... She took hold of its end, yanked it like a bell ringer, lightly at first to test it, then jerked it with all her muscle, then jumped out of the way in case the chain was not hooked securely.... The chain barely resisted.... As she bent to pick up her hat, Estrella noticed her hands. Once filled with light, her palms were now tainted with brick red rust. (UF 90)

While "everything else belonged" in relation to the basic requirements of working on the land, the hooked chain calls attention to the historical realities of bondage and exploitation that have characterized that work. Earlier, Viramontes compares the chain to a pendulum, intimating with the clockwork sway of the chain the "ghostly haunt" of the dead labor that symptomatically announces itself in the barn: "Thick-linked, long and rusty, it swayed like a pendulum, as if someone had just touched it and ran off" (10). Swaying under a ghostly touch, the rusty chain registers the long history of bound laboring bodies on the land, from chattel slavery, sharecropping, and tenant farming to modern-day racialized gendered wage-labor. Estrella attempts to dislodge the chain, to symbolically break free of its hold, but where initially she experiences her hands as a "brilliant pink rose" filled with the vitalizing "blood of her body," by the end of the passage they appear blood-stained, "tainted with brick red rust," the historical imprint of capital's social violence against her working-class community.

Haunted by dead labor, a reminder of the exploitation and violence permanently attached to the value form, the barn prompts Estrella to face the harsh social reality that is the fate of workers under capitalism. From this vantage, her question at the opening of the novel proves prescient: as members of the (im)migrant agricultural labor force, a community of wage-workers comprising the living laboring bodies exploited and expended piecemeal to generate value (dead labor) under the social relations of capital accumulation, Estrella and her family have indeed inexorably "been heading for the barn all along." Among its shadows, Estrella gradually senses the ghostly residue of past "imprisoned bodies of labor," entire generations of exploited agricultural workers, and thus she foresees the prospect of her own ghost. In "The Theory of Ghosts," a concluding sketch to Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno ([1944] 2002: 178) venture that "the proper relation to the dead" is one of "unity with them, since we, like them, are victims of the same conditions and of the same disappointed hope," and Estrella seems to arrive at a similar conclusion. As a result, breaking free from the ideological, if not yet material, bondage of capital, in the last scene Estrella speaks "to her shadow as if she were not alone. It's over there, she said and she directed her lantern for a better view of the chain" (UF 172). This recalls her earlier feeling like "two Estrellas" after the political epiphany experienced while confronting the nurse: "One was a silent phantom who obediently marked a circle with a stick around the bungalow as the mother had requested, while the other held the crowbar and the money" (150). In the closing scene, Estrella's "silent phantom"--the obedient farmworker and daughter--follows the crowbar-wielding Estrella who has a "better view of the chain" (172-73), a view that supplies the basis for reclaiming an emancipatory political consciousness and agency. Where her labor in the fields produces self-erasure, Estrella's climbing of the chain concludes in a politically symbolic act of ascension and self-affirmation.

Breaking out of the barn loft and climbing onto the roof, in this final scene Estrella reclaims her body in a deliberate act of defiance, applying its force "again and again until whatever resistance there was gave way to her back" (175). As she escapes the confines of the barn, Estrella is challenging the superexploitation on which US agribusiness depends. "The stifling heat of the loft" parallels the conditions of labor in the fields, but in forcing open the barn's trapdoor and climbing onto the roof, Estrella "pierce[s] the stifling heat" and, as "the light broke through," appears to come to some new (political) perspective. Now, despite her strenuous efforts, she no longer "feel[s] her blouse damp with sweat" and "no longer did she stumble blindly." Indeed, she stands "bathed in a flood of gray light" from the moon, which throughout the novel has been associated with feminine/feminist sexuality and power. This baptismal moment signals the recasting of Estrella's body beyond the control and dictates of the capital-relation: she has established a new relationship to her own body, learning "to trust the soles of her feet, her hands, the shovel of her back, and pounding bells of her heart." In an earlier scene, while working in the fields, Estrella is unable to resist the weight of oppressive conditions that "pull" her laboring body toward the land: "The baskets of grapes resisted her muscles, pulling their magnetic weight back to the earth" (50). By novel's end, while Estrella again feels "gravity pulling" (175) her toward the earth, she does "not lose her footing," revealing a newfound self-control of her own body.

Estrella's symbolic actions here reclaim dead labor, in essence calling forth the historically disremembered and exploited bodies of agricultural workers in the United States. Just as earlier in the narrative "she realized she was not alone" in the barn, Estrella's final climb out of the coffin-like "box" of the barn is collective, not individual. (20) The narrative's final image offers a utopian figuration of Estrella as a shining embodiment of political solidarity and community: "Estrella remained as immobile as an angel standing on the verge of faith. Like the chiming bells of the great cathedrals, she believed her heart powerful enough to summon home all those who strayed" (176). As her name suggests, then, Estrella illuminates a path toward collective self-emancipation and social transformation, one guided by a radicalized notion of love exemplified in Estrella and her family's response to Alejo's pesticide poisoning: "If we don't take care of each other, who would take care of us? Petra asked. We have to look out for our own.... It's not good to leave people behind" (96). Ultimately, Under the Feet of Jesus reflects a radical sense of love that, Viramontes suggests, might well help energize a political will and collective agency. When Alejo seems to accept the systemic social devaluing and disposability of his body, humanity, and life--"I'm not worth it, Star. Not me" (152)--Estrella angrily replies, "Can't you see they want to take your heart?" (153). Reclaiming one's "heart" offers a way to resist the social death and bodily expendability suffered by Estrella's community, to "summon home all those who strayed," and in this way oppose the neoliberal social violence of militarized borders and free-flowing global capital. At the close of the novel, Estrella stands transformed--a secular icon "on the verge" of a politicized "faith" in collective redemption, radical communal love, and utopian hope.

Despite the parlous conditions of the characters in the final section of Under the Feet of Jesus, our final glimpse of Estrella leaves us with that hope: "Nothing had ever seemed as pleasing to her as this" (175--76). Reclaiming her "imprisoned body" Estrella sets herself free and stands as a beacon of political confidence, social conviction, and communal love. Under the providence of Estrella's radical revelation and light, the ghosts in the barn can finally bear historical witness.

DOI 10.1215/0041462X-7995579

Dennis Lopez is associate professor of English at California State University, Long Beach. His teaching and research focus on Chicana/o and Latina/o literature, US ethnic literature, and US radical protest literatures. His scholarship has appeared in MELUS, College Literature, and Science and Society.


(1.) The barn and the various questions surrounding it appear to be what prompted the basic ideas, characters, and storyline of Viramontes's novel. As she explains during an interview: "I was reading Erlinda Gonzales Berry's 'Paletitas de Guayaba' and then the thing with the girl in the barn came up. I put the book down. So actually I started sketching out questions; why the barn? How come the girl could not be in the barn? Then all of a sudden I realized it had to be out in a rural setting and Estrella just took hold" (Dulfano 2001: 654). Viramontes's presentation of the barn has proven equally intriguing for her critics: see, especially, Brinson Curiel 2013; Cooper 2010; Johannessen 2000; Latimer 2002; and Lawless 1996.

(2.) In this opening scene, as throughout Under the Feet of Jesus, Viramontes appears to invoke not only spectral tropes but also many of the gothic conventions Eve Sedgwick ([1976] 1986: 9-10) catalogues in describing the gothic genre's key themes and motifs: an "oppressive ruin" and "wild landscape," the influence or authority of Catholicism, "subterranean spaces and live burial," "doubles," "unnatural echoes or silences," "nocturnal landscapes and dreams," "apparitions from the past" and ghostly hauntings, and a narrative sequence that is "discontinuous and involuted, perhaps incorporating tales within tales, [and] changes of narrators." While Viramontes arguably reverses at least two of the key features of the gothic genre--"the trembling sensibility of the heroine" (Estrella is strong-willed and resolute) and the presence of a "tyrannical older man with the piercing glance" (Perfecto Flores, in fact, is the exact opposite of this characterization)--the influence of gothic forms is difficult to miss in Under the Feet of Jesus, although the significance of the gothic to Viramontes's writing must be traced not only to its British and American classical varieties but also to what Lucie Armitt (2014: 224) terms "its more overtly political sister, magical realism."

(3.) Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano (2013: 81) associates Viramontes's adoption of spectral metaphors with an attempt to represent the "extreme insubstantiality [of] migrant existence," one characterized by "a state of uprootedness." While I present a different reading of spectrality in Under the Feet of Jesus, one tied to Viramontes's dereification of the value form, my analysis owes a great debt to Yarbro-Bejarano's.

(4.) As Don Mitchell (2007: 568) reports, "the highest rates of infant mortality in the United States are found in agricultural counties. Perhaps surprisingly, about 25% of agricultural work in the United States is done by children; but, perhaps unsurprisingly knowing that, children account for a much higher percentage of agricultural workplace fatalities and injuries in California."

(5.) "I consider myself a social realist," Viramontes comments, and observes that "in fact, I've been compared to the social realists of the 1930s ... Under the Feet of Jesus, of course, is very much compared to John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath" (quoted in Flys-Junquera 2001: 232-33). It should come as no surprise, then, that Viramontes raises old questions--no doubt, in new ways--about the relationship between literary and rhetorical modes of aesthetic representation, and political, socioeconomic, and ideological critique. For this reason, I'm partly guided by Paula Moya's (2002: 175) call to read the novel within and against "the tradition of American social realism," while at the same time stressing the often overlooked fact that Chicana/o and Latina/o writers have always been vital and chief contributors to the broad canons of US radical protest literature.

(6.) Mitchell (2007: 564) details and develops Marx's concept of "dead labor" in his scholarship on US agribusiness:
   For his part, Marx used the notion of dead labor almost entirely
   metaphorically.... For Marx "dead labor" is the labor power--the
   expended energy--"congealed" in a commodity. It is "labor
   materialized" or "labor incorporated with its subject." It is ...
   work and energy that has been trapped, metamorphosed from its
   kinetic back to its potential form. That is, through work, energy
   is transferred to raw materials and something new is shaped. That
   energy, minus some waste, is "frozen" or "solidified" in the
   commodity. Struggle--both direct struggle with materials and the
   more diffuse and perhaps even abstract struggle that is social
   relations--is staunched, given body in the form of a commodity.

See also, Mitchell 2003, and Kirscli and Mitchell 2004.

(7.) For more on the relationship between US capitalist agribusiness and Mexicana/o and Chicana/o labor, see Gonzalez ([2013] 2016); Gonzalez and Fernandez 2003; Weber 1994; Gonzalez 1994; Montejano 1987; and Barrera 1979.

(8.) Despite these negative connotations, however, the "cratered roof" of the barn also reminds Estrella of the "full moon," a significant image of feminine/feminist power and sexuality, both in the novel and in various cultural and literary traditions. Ultimately, the barn both contains the ghostly historical traces of exploitation and violence against agricultural workers and, perhaps for this very reason, itself becomes the space of Estrella's self-empowerment and political awakening. For more on the barn's feminist associations, see, for example, Short 1996 and Brinson Curiel 2013.

(9.) On this point Mitchell (2007: 566) also agrees with McWilliams: "Carey McWilliams once called California's agricultural labor system the state's own 'peculiar institution,' and, given high rates of debt peonage, and even the outright use of slave labor at times, his allusion to slavery is often more apt than one might assume." While making a slightly different point than McWilliams and Mitchell, Wald (2016: 7) also underscores the connection between the "peculiar institution" of slavery and anti-Black racism, on the one hand, and, on the other, more contemporary forms of racialized labor exploitation in the fields: "Racial scripts built around black slavery have been reactivated in relationship to undocumented Latina/o laborers. The black plantation slave and the undocumented Latina/o stoop laborer perform a similar cultural function in the way they invest the white farmer with a complex racial privilege, moral virtue, and citizenship rights."

(10.) In the same vein, Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano (2013: 87) contends that "the description of Petra at the beginning of the novel suggests an Afro-Hispanic heritage."

(11.) For more on the relationship between Viramontes's Under the Feet of Jesus and John Steinbeck's writing, see Brinson Curiel 2013.

(12.) For Sharla Hutchinson (2013: 983) the iconic advertisement for Sun Maid raisins "communicates ... a series of visual cues--a warm sun, bountiful harvest, and beautiful maiden--[that] lead viewers to recognize a message about California's agricultural industry as a paradise full of perpetual harvests and never-ending sunshine." In this way, Sun Maid invokes the national mythos of American pastoralism and agrarianism discussed in the previous section.

(13.) See also Hutchinson 2013: 983; Latimer 2002: 574; and Burford 2008: par. 34.

(14.) On the notion of "subsemantic whisperings," see Godden 2007: 16, 231nll.

(15.) See, especially, Molina 2014, Roediger 2010, Haney Lopez 2006, Nakano Glenn 2002, and Lowe 1996.

(16.) According to Yarbro-Bejarano (2013: 77), "Viramontes exploits this signifier [i.e., baseball] of All-American identity to portray and contest migrants' subordinate position with respect to the ideal citizen of the nation."

(17.) Marcial Gonzalez (2008: 83-88) considers how paratactic texts, in relying on nonlinear juxtaposition, compilation, and montage of distinct images, narrative events, and/or standpoints, effect new perspectives and judgments on society. Paratactic sentences "operate at the level of structural conflict," with the aim to "defamiliariz[e] what was previously felt to be known, forcing the audience to think in terms of conflict and tension rather than unity and coherence" (83). In this sense, parataxis works something like the notions of spectrality outlined by Gordon and Villa, among others. The paratactic logic of Viramontes's writing in this scene thus serves as formal complement to its spectral tropes and, as with the other Chicana/o writers Gonzalez discusses, her objective remains "to defamiliarize the immediately given or, more directly, to contest reification" (84).

(18.) Yarbro-Bejarano (2013: 76-77) argues:
   In the patch quilt metaphor, the temporary shift from the social
   and economic markers "workers" and "pickers" to "people" highlights
   their communal identity and evokes varied resistance and civil
   rights discourses.... In its materiality, the patch quilt brings
   workers together as 'people,' not in relation to their race,
   birthplace, or nationality, but in relation to their labor. It
   grounds them in a collectivity that owes less to familial ties than
   to the shared experience of migrant farmworkers.

(19.) For Fredric Jameson (2011: 25), capital requires that workers' "qualities must be repressed from the quantitative" and that "they must fall out of its frame, remain undetected on its screens of measurement." As much as the commodity conceals the conditions of its own production, of course, it remains haunted by what Jameson labels the "absent persistence of the body" in the value form.

(20.) Latimer (2002: 339) points to the imagery of burial and resurrection in the final scene of the novel: "To climb onto the roof is like climbing out of a box. This 'box' perhaps suggests a coffin, so there's a kind of resurrection of Estrella. There is a liberation, in any case, from the closeness and the ubiquitous manure of the barn."

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