Labor Exploitation and the Immigrant Worker in The Jungle and Under the Feet of Jesus

As my thesis will be exploring narratives of food labor in literature, the fields of study I have found to be most useful in framing this exploration and my understanding of my primary texts are Food Studies, Labor in Literature, and Migration in Literature.  While Food Studies is not specifically dedicated to literature, the discipline has been useful to me so I can ground literary depictions of food production at different points in history to the realities of this production as explained by food historians. The study of depictions of labor in literature is admittedly one that can be broad and subjective at points.  However, from the research I have conducted so far, this field has lent me ideas on how to put the literary in conversation with discourses of labor justice and alternatives to exploitative labor systems (such as Socialism and Marxism). In addition to these two fields, Migration in Literature is of prime importance as I plan on centering the narratives of food laborers who specifically hold migrant or undocumented status.  This field centers the experiences and narratives of immigrants/ migrants, and in studying this, I have been able to learn more about different literary depictions about and told through the voices of Latinx migrant food laborers.

The central question that has led my research on this topic is:  Why do stories about our food resonate with us more than those of the people who provide us with this food?  This was born out of the realization that in most discourses about and depictions of ‘food’ in literature, scholars and writers almost always seem to prioritize the culinary and the act of consumption (in an eating and purchasing sense).  I found this to be concerning, as the invisibility of the stories of food laborers can lead to the obscuring of the exploitation they face in reality. While this question has led me to forming ideas specifically about food labor exploitation, I have also been forming ideas about the interactions between this labor exploitation and systems of racism and xenophobia- and how they culminate in the stories of immigrant food laborers.

AP Photo / The Ledger, Ernst Peters

The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair

Of the two primary texts I will be focusing on in this blog post, The Jungle (1906) by Upton Sinclair is responsible for introducing me to narratives of food labor, as it is often considered to be a foundational text in this respect.  Detailing the lives of a large family of Lithuanian immigrants who migrate to the United States for a better life, the novel follows them as they arrive in Chicago’s meatpacking district, try to survive and navigate the brutalities of this area and industry, and eventually find themselves either dead or trapped in abject poverty.  Relayed by a third person narrator, the stories of these individual family members ultimately revolve around the central narrative of Jurgis Rudkus’ experiences as an immigrant and worker in a slaughterhouse. It is he who helps bring his father Dede and the extensive family of his new bride- the teenage Ona- to America. And it is his journey from an immigrant who is hopeful of the prosperity he believes America will provide, to a widowed, homeless, and traumatized man serves as Sinclair’s metaphor for the lecherous nature of capitalism and worker exploitation.  It is not until he has reached his lowest point, following the death of Ona and their baby during childbirth, the successive death of their only surviving child- known as Baby- due to the repulsive conditions of their neighborhood, and Jurgis’ descent into alcoholism and self destruction, that Jurgis finds a semblance of salvation in the newly emerged Socialist party after literally stumbling into a Socialist lecture.

From my understanding, The Jungle is a foundational text in the field of literary food labor.  Therefore, when considering its legacy in the general sense, I find it interesting to view its immediate reception as foreshadowing what would become my main criticism of food writing and discourses of food.  However, it has become important to me to figure out the different factors and figures (including and especially Sinclair himself), that can be responsible for the prioritization of consumption over production.  To unpack this, I plan to turn to the text and analyze the language and aesthetics used to characterize the labor, workers, and settings.  As I would like to focus on the racialized and xenophobic oppression that immigrant laborers face, Sinclair’s lack of dedication to these specific oppressions- that his characters like Jurgis undoubtedly struggle against- is something that will complicate my analysis and that I will be contending with.  

Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) by Helena Maria Viramontes

Where Sinclair’s narrator follows the struggles of a family of immigrant laborers in the Chicago meatpacking industry in the early 1900s, Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) by Helena Maria Viramontes similarly explores the struggles of a family of immigrant laborers.  However, Viramontes’ novel is set about 90 years after the events of The Jungle and thousands of miles away from the Chicago slaughterhouses to the farmworker communities in Southern California.  Additionally, in the vein of Sinclair, the novel’s third person narrator makes sure to outline the different experiences and hardships of the individual family members, but ultimately places those of 13-year-old Chicana farmworker Estrella at the forefront of the text.  While Estrella is a US citizen, her mother Petra and most of the Chicanx laborers she works along with in the fruit fields are undocumented, forcing Estrella and her family into a vulnerability that leads to poverty, anxiety, and constant movement between different labor camps in search of work.  These consequences of their vulnerability are culminated in Viramontes’ descriptions of the exploitation the family faces at labor camps and the physical and psychological pain they endure as farmworkers. Upon meeting a fellow farmworker boy, Alejo, Estrella finds strength and hope in their new romance, which motivates her to begin questioning the structures that have forced her and her family into these conditions.  When Alejo’s life is threatened by pesticide poisoning and he is in desperate need of medical attention, Estrella’s resentment of the racist and exploitative structures that have contributed to his poisoning comes to a head. Presented in a powerful moment where she physically threatens a white nurse who took her family’s scarce savings and disregarded Alejo’s health crisis, Estrella finds herself resisting further exploitation.  While the novel intentionally does not reveal Alejo’s fate, it concludes with Estrella hoping to seek further freedom despite the weight of her struggles.

I would like to unpack the role of agency amongst the novel’s different farmworkers.  Specifically, how Viramontes navigates the difficult territory of mapping out exploitation and struggle without completely victimizing these characters and stripping them of their agency.  In figuring this out, I am also hoping to understand what the extent of the sociopolitical agency held by the different characters in this novel actually is. As Viramontes privileges the stories and voices of these fictional farmworkers, is there space to privilege their ability to organize and resist their exploitation in a labor activist awakening that echoes the Socialist awakening of Jurgis?  I am hoping to unpack these themes and questions further throughout my thesis research process through close reading of this primary text and by consulting with various sources that analyze Under the Feet of Jesus (1995) and narratives of migrant food laborers.

Conclusion + Concerns

The main challenge that I am concerned about as I begin to unpack The Jungle and Under the Feet of Jesus for my thesis is the tone I choose when I discuss both texts.  In other words: as both texts have different elements I see as negative and positive, I’m wondering whether I will end up using one text’s positives to criticize the other text’s negatives.  This is an issue I find in how I might frame my writing on The Jungle, as I do have strong hesitations on Sinclair’s ability to humanize the workers in his novel.  However, I am also aware of the novel’s intention and significance in the greater history of food labor justice, and do not want to discount that.  Additionally, I find shortcomings in Under the Feet of Jesus as I feel the novel’s message could benefit from a stronger tie to an anti-capitalist exploitation stance.  But again, I do not want to discount its influence. As my thesis will be taking on a comparative route, I would rather not condemn or praise one over the other too much.

Blog Post #6

Works Cited:

Sinclair, Upton.  The Jungle.  Doubleday, 1906.

Viramontes, Helena M.  Under the Feet of Jesus.  Plume, 1995.