When the bleakness of poverty and political degradation vie with the comforts of home, many people feel they are forced to leave their own countries for “something better” in America. Over the past centuries, immigration to the United States has been called anything from a blessing to a dire problem, depending on the speaker. South Americans fleeing over the border to the United States have been a particular point of contention among U.S. citizens. Many argue that these people provide a valuable labor force in conditions that are still better than their previous lives. Others contend that these illegals, or legals for that matter, are taking jobs from U.S. citizens and draining our government of its resources. The issue has greatly influenced both government and business politics in the past twenty years or so.
Helena Maria Viramontes’s novel Under the Feet of Jesus should offer a new perspective in terms of struggling immigrants as very real people who are lost and besieged in a very big world that seems to be turned completely against their happiness and well-being. Despite the perceived problems in the political realm, a Christian perspective on immigration as a moral issue should be based on understanding the people. A Christian response is not one of malcontent but rather of loving those who are impoverished and who need the grace of Christ just as much, if not more, than many other people groups.
The characters in Viramontes’ novel offer clear pictures of real people working through their hard lives in the fields of the southwestern United States, quite literally scraping a living from the ground. The cousins Alejo and Gumecindo are forced to sell stolen fruit so they can go back to school eventually. Petra and her family are constantly on the move and just getting by with the help of another man after Petra’s husband took off for the “something better.” These characters are not malicious interlopers trying to leech off the prosperity of America. They are hard workers who only want to get by with their relative freedom and enough to survive but tend toward failure, as stereotypes and their working conditions dictate.
Viramontes does an excellent job of constructing relatable characters who face the realistic problems of immigrants in the United States. As Christians, we should not view these people as commodities or as disposable lawbreakers. We ought to be aware of the stereotypes that harm these people and then reject these stereotypes in favor of offering love and grace. This is not to say that laws may not be necessary and basic rules essential, but immigrants themselves are not just products of rules and regulations. They are people of Christ who need to be offered the same love that we as Christians would desire to offer anyone of our “own kind.” We are all children of Christ; when we do not treat others as His children, we commit a heinous offense in the eyes of God no matter our political standing. It is wrong to play into the hateful stereotypes of larger society when faced with the reality of these people and we ought to be fighting this type of passivity.
I don’t pretend to be involved with the politics surrounding immigration. It is obvious our immigration policies do need some reform, but I can’t speak with an informative tone pass that. One thing I do know, and can at least understand to an extent, is people, and to me one of the most appealing aspects of literature is its ability to convey human experience through its characters. I appreciate Viramontes’s successful attempt at delineating real-life circumstances in a meaningful way that merits a response from Christians and prompts rethinking of political issues as personal opportunities to show the love of Christ.