In Jesusita, the author takes us on Jesusita’s journey that begins as a young widow reduced to trekking the Central Valley farms as a migrant worker to support four children. Jesusita is forced to work most waking hours and begins to consider suicide. When she settles in Fresno, she starts attending, out of desperation, early Mass at Santa Teresa Parish. The congregation is composed of Mexican immigrant families and served by a strange young priest. Padre Montes has his own odd backstory and left home when he received the call to serve the poor, but finds himself unable to connect to his congregation. Jesusita helps him in relating better to his followers. This uncharacteristic kindness leads to her gaining Montes’s confidence and a leading role in the church. However, her limitations, including poor parenting skills, over-confidence in her leadership role, and, finally, religious fanaticism will lead to tragedy that will devastate her and her family.
This book pulled me in from the start with Jesusita’s and Father Montes’s compelling characters. Both are deeply flawed, but also sympathetic, in that they try to overcome their limitations—Jesusita of the poverty and single parenthood that has been thrust upon her, Montes his difficulty in relating to others. The setting, the Central Valley of California, and its small towns and farms, is also deeply interwoven into the story, especially in the importance of the church to social life. Gossip and the local “grapevine” of information play a huge role, as it does to any culture, especially an intimate one. It is this church life and its rumors that first uplifts Jesusita and then as quickly leads to her downfall. The dynamics of religious fanaticism are also well portrayed.
One subplot, about a young girl’s spiral downward into prostitution seems unrelated to the main plot, but may mirror it thematically in its story of a tragic fall. It is ultimately Jesusita’s fanaticism that makes her a classic tragic figure who gains great heights—within her social context—but which also leads to her fall.