Esperanza had a wonderful life in Mexico in 1930. She lived with her mother and father, Ramona and Sixto Ortega at a beautiful ranch where her grandmother taught Esperanza to crochet. El Rancho de las Rosas is a little piece of paradise. Beloved servants tend to Esperanza’s every need while field hands tend to the family’s vineyard. Everything in Esperanza’s life is perfect right down to the preparations for her fourteenth birthday.
That is, until the day Esperanza’s father does not come home from tending to the ranch. Suddenly Esperanza’s life is turned upside. Her father is gone. El Rancho de las Rosas is slipping away. Esperanza and her mother are fleeing to California with nothing to find work as field workers. Worse, they have to leave Abuelita behind.
Suddenly thrust into poverty, Esperanza feels lost. She and her mother are suddenly equal to the servants who helped them escape Mexico. Prejudice and inequality leap at Esperanza from everywhere. Nothing will ever be the same and the more Esperanza sees of America, the land of opportunity, the more she feels like she’s sinking. Will Esperanza be able to rise about her circumstances and embrace her new life before it’s too late in Esperanza Rising (2000) by Pam Muñoz Ryan?
Esperanza Rising is a Pura Belpre Winner (Pura Belpre being an award that highlights distinguished work in literature and illustration by hispanic or latino authors–I’m not sure which is stated specifically in the award criteria). It’s really popular and generally well-received. And it even has a play adaptation (apparently not playing anywhere right now, but you can see hints of it in an online search).
All the same, I was initially extremely resistant to this book. I did not want to like it. The story starts depressing and, frankly, Esperanza starts off irritating. Having finished the book, I greatly regret that resistance.
One of the coolest things about this book is that it’s based on the true story of the author’s grandmother’s immigration to the United States. Like most of the books I’ve listed as possible pairings, it is a quintessential immigrant story. Esperanza has a lot of growing up to when she is forced to move to California. She faces a lot of hardships and learns a lot about herself and her inner strength.
At its core Esperanza is, unsurprisingly, a story about hope and perseverance (esperanza means “hope” in Spanish). It is also a great introduction to the immigrant experience. While Esperanza remains at the center of the story, Ryan also touches upon the Depression, the Dust Bowl, social reform, and discrimination in this rich story.
This story also shines a light on the not-always-well-known world of migrant farm workers in a respectful and informative way. That is not to say that the story itself is not interesting. Far from it. Esperanza Rising is a wonderful blend of everything good about contemporary and historical fiction; Ryan skillfully presents the time period while making Esperanza and her world approachable to modern readers of all ages.
Possible Pairings: Ashes of Roses by Mary Jane Auch, Drown by Junot Diaz, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, From Ellis Island to JFK by Nancy Foner, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, Imagining America: Stories from the Promised Land by Amy Ling, …y no se lo tragó la tierra / …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomas Rivera and Evangelina Vigil-Pinon (translator), Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska