Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is a children’s book that details the life of Esperanza Ortega, a 13 year old girl growing up in post-Revolutionary Mexico. It won the Pura Belpre award in 2002.
Esperanza Ortega is the daughter of a ranch owner; her father, Sixto, owns El Rancho de las Rosas and produces grapes. However, Mexico after the revolution is unsafe and Esperanza’s father is murdered by bandits and robbers the night before Esperanza’s thirteenth birthday. Esperanza’s uncle, who is the mayor of their town, offers to marry her mother to save them from poverty — when her mother hesitates on the offer, a fire mysteriously burns down their house. In order to escape the marriage, Esperanza and her mother travel to California with a few of their friends, who also served as their servants on the ranch. Esperanza is devastated, not only to leave her life and the land that knew her father (Esperanza and her father could both hear music in the land by lying down on the ground; at one point, Esperanza feels herself physically rising while listening to the hum of the earth), but because they have to leave her grandmother, Abeulita, behind.
It’s difficult for Esperanza to acclimate to the her new station in life. The first time she goes to bathe, she prepares the way she’d been used to — for Hortensia to undress and bathe her. However, she quickly becomes aware that she has to get used to her new life; her mother falls ill with “Valley Fever,” a lung infection that afflicts workers in dusty environments. In order to pay for her mother’s hospital stay, Esperanza has to work in the fields. She works for her mother and grandmother — she is putting away money to send for her grandmother back in Mexico.
Some of the workers on the farms talk about striking. The conditions, while not abysmal, are not fair to all of the workers — even among migrant workers, there’s racism and unfair treatment. Esperanza and her friends and family avoid the strikers, and eventually immigration forces come in and wipe out the striking Mexican workers.
Esperanza reveals to Miguel, the son of her family’s servants and friends, that she has been saving money to bring her grandmother to them and is devastated when she wakes up one morning and discovers that Miguel and her money are gone. Her mother is released from the hospital and Miguel arrives on the train; he took Esperanza’s money and went to Mexico to bring Abeulita to her.
This book won the Pura Belpre award, which is awarded to Latin American authors whose work portrays and celebrates the Latin American culture. This book is wonderful in presenting the Mexican side of the Great Depression and migrant farmers in America. Before reading this book, my sole literary encounter with this era was Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Esperanza is a wonderful character (and was actually based partially on Pam Munoz Ryan’s grandmother, Esperanza) because she is childlike without being naive. The “rising” of the title is a metaphor for the rising she accomplishes from difficult circumstances, like a phoenix rising from the ashes. My only disappointment was that I wanted to know more about Esperanza’s life (mainly because I really wanted Esperanza to marry Miguel).
Moving from a Mexican ranch to the company labor camps of California, Ryan’s lyrical novel manages the contradictory: a story of migration and movement deeply rooted in the earth. When 14-year-old Esperanza’s father is killed, she and her mother must emigrate to the U.S., where a family of former ranch workers has helped them find jobs in the agricultural labor camps. Coming from such privilege, Esperanza is ill prepared for the hard work and difficult conditions she now faces. She quickly learns household chores, though, and when her mother falls ill, she works packing produce until she makes enough money to bring her beloved abuelita to the U.S.. Set during the Great Depression, the story weaves cultural, economic, and political unrest into Esperanza’s poignant tale of growing up: she witnesses strikes, government sweeps, and deep injustice while finding strength and love in her family and romance with a childhood friend. The symbolism is heavy-handed, as when Esperanza ominously pricks her finger on a rose thorne just before her father is killed. But Ryan writes movingly in clear, poetic language that children will sink into, and the books offers excellent opportunities for discussion and curriculum support.
Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class. Esperanza’s expectation that her 13th birthday will be celebrated with all the material pleasures and folk elements of her previous years is shattered when her father is murdered by bandits. His powerful stepbrothers then hold her mother as a social and economic hostage, wanting to force her remarriage to one of them, and go so far as to burn down the family home. Esperanza’s mother then decides to join the cook and gardener and their son as they move to the United States and work in California’s agricultural industry. They embark on a new way of life, away from the uncles, and Esperanza unwillingly enters a world where she is no longer a princess but a worker. Set against the multiethnic, labor-organizing era of the Depression, the story of Esperanza remaking herself is satisfyingly complete, including dire illness and a difficult romance. Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed. Easy to booktalk, useful in classroom discussions, and accessible as pleasure reading, this well-written novel belongs in all collections.
School Library Journal
This would be a great introduction for Hispanic Heritage Month or in an introduction for a unit on the Dust Bowl and migrant workers. The book cover is bold and vivid and would make a great display.
Engberg, G. (2000). Books for youth: Books for middle readers. Booklist, 97(7), 708. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/3840940/books-youth-books-middle-readers
Goldsmith, F. (2000). Esperanza rising (book review). School Library Journal, 46(10), 171. Retrieved from https://connection.ebscohost.com/c/book-reviews/3646672/esperanza-rising-book-review
Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic.