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The eighth principle of environmental justice states that all workers have rights to a safe and healthy working environment including one free of environmental hazards. These seventeen principles promote economic alternatives which develop an environmentally safe livelihood for people of color. The beginning of this ongoing battle was fueled by low income, colored communities that were becoming the resting ground for facilities with negative environmental impacts. In the early 1960s, Cesar Chavez lead Latino farmworkers on a march for workplace rights in the San Joaquin Valley.
Chavez testified before US senate the severe health effects endured by minority populations for decades, relating the harmful effects of pesticides to human life. Some of these effects include birth defects, learning disabilities, endocrine disruptors, and acute toxicity.
Despite the dangerous effects of these chemicals on both nature and humans, many workers don’t find out about the dangers until a family member has fallen ill because of only minimal training on the risks of pesticides.
Even children as young as 10 are legally allowed to work in these hazardous conditions, as we see in Under the Feet of Jesus. The book focuses on Estrella’s family of migrant workers and her love with fellow worker, Alejo. When Alejo is covered by pesticides in the field one day, he becomes violently ill and requires hospitalization. One day as young Estrella and Maxine are playing in a ditch they spot some water and they debate on drinking it before realizing the risk of it being contaminated with pesticides.
The characters in Under the Feet of Jesus are migrant workers who have no other choice but to live in labor camps often located next to an orchard or field where the spraying of pesticides is present. On more than one occasion Estrella, must realize that many living things around her are suffering due to these sprayings. Like when she experiences the poisoning of Alejo after he is sprayed and the dead dog that floats down the river near one of the labor camps.
However, Estrella also is aware of the side effects of pesticides are not immediately seen. In other words, she seems to be fully aware that the pesticides from the fields may have an impact on her children in the future and even Maxine Devridge goes to say “You think ‘cause of the water our babies are gonna come out with no mouth or something?” (Viramontes 33). Viramontes is displaying the fear migrant workers live with every day. Simply the fact that Estrella is only thirteen and already has to worry about her future, shows she’s used to the environmental racism surrounding her and her family. Pesticides in this story are a prime example of corporate interests placed above human rights. Farm workers are the only workers in the country that aren’t provided projections under OSHA and while a lot of time is spent on immigration, little is done to address the life threatening conditions. Since most employees are undocumented, most don’t seek medical help when dealing with pesticides and are rare to report poisonings while hundreds per year suffer. The reformation of US immigration policy would help Americans address the terrible working conditions.
Other aspects of the novel highlight environmental racism. The supermarket next to the family’s labor camp is located across a busy highway, and arrive to see only the bruised and rotten fruit, unlike the perfect and ripe fruit they pick in the fields. Estrella and Alejo are also teenagers, having to work alongside other children and their elders in nearly back breaking work. “Estrella’s eyes sting like and 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 into the hot white soil, and she did not know how to pour the basket of grapes inside the frame gently and spread the bunches evenly on top of the newsprint paper.” Estrella is picking grapes, which symbolizes the farmworker’s rights movements and describes her difference to the red bonnet girl from the Sun Maid Raisin box. This image lead to a poster called “Sun Mad,” in defence of the five year Delano grape boycott.
An undertone of this novel is the hopelessness of the characters situations. Kept on the outskirts of society, the family cares for each other because no one else will and Alejo because his family his absent. When they seek medical help, it’s too expensive for them and end up needing to take the money back that they gave the nurse. Estrella shortly realizes the strength she holds inside and demands the cash back to get Alejo to the hospital. “The oil was made from their bones,” Estrella observes as they fill up the tank, “and it was their bones that kept the nurse’s car from not halting on some highway, kept her on her way to Daisyfield to pick up her boys at six. She had figured it out: the nurse owed them as much as they owned her.” Since migrant families aren’t often protected under law, the family becomes paranoid about La Migra and the police coming since they were no longer able to move to another job.Migrant farm workers still continue to struggle with the same issues Estrella and her family do but slowly rules are changing and these conditions are being realized with social media.
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