Ryan, Pam Munoz. 2000. Esperanza Rising. New York, NY: Scholastic Press. ISBN 0-439-12041-1
This fictional story is based on the story of the author’s grandmother who lived a life of comfort and leisure in Mexico but was moved into a life of hard work and hardship in the United States. The main character, Esperanza, loses her father and the life of priviledge he created for his family in Mexico. Through the help of faithful servants and friends, Esperanza and her mother move to a company farm in California where they must now live like the servants they once employed. For the thirteen year old, the transition is difficult but Esperanza rises to the occasion, “like the phoenix…rising again, with a new life ahead.”
This beautiful tale of hope for a better life gives a lot of insight into the Mexican American culture, especially the aspect of the culture rooted in the field work of the 1920 and 1930s. Each chapter title is given in Spanish with an English translation listed below. Also, much of the dialog is given in Spanish but translated in the next words or sentence. In fact, the book often reads like translated English which gives it a more authentic feel. The people are described as vaqueros and campesinos and even a Zapotec Indian woman from Oaxaca. The book describes men who wear straw hats and bandanas to protect them from the sun, dust, and spiders. Women braid their long black hair and have dark lashes and fair, creamy skin – when it isn’t covered in dust and sweat and tears. These men and women enjoy the treat of papayas and flan de almendras but typically have to settle for what they harvest and beans and rice and tortillas though they can drive quite a distance away to a store that stocks masa, chilies, and chorizo that can be bought without looks of disdain or prejudice.
In addition to describing the language, people and food of the culture, this story also gives the culture’s background. It begins with the separation of classes in Mexico that lead to the Mexican Revolution which drove many Mexicans to the United States in search of a life as something more than a servant. This story tells us about the hardships these Mexicans dealt with once they were in the United States; how despite their background in Mexico, many Americans saw Mexican Americans as “one big brown group who are good for only manual labor.” It describes the anger that grows within good and hard-working people when they are daily faced with injustice and malice. It also shows how loyalty to your work, to your family, and to the hope of something better can overcome the anger. Ultimately, this is a touching story of triumph that is set within the Mexican American culture but is relatable to any culture.
From Deborah Kaplan (KLIATT Review, November 2002 (Vol. 36, No. 6))
The day before her 13th birthday, Esperanza's life shatters. Her father dies, and Esperanza and her mother must leave their easy life on the lovely family ranch in Mexico. With the aid of former servants, they immigrate to Depression-era California to become farm laborers. For Esperanza, who has always had servants, dolls, and lovely clothes, the dirt, illness, and labor are unbearable. She wants to fit in, but the other women and children in the camp know that she doesn't know how to wash clothes, sweep a floor, or even bathe herself. When illness strikes, Esperanza must fight despair to become her family's provider. The underlying political situation in the camp is dangerous. The poverty of the Depression and the influx of refugees from the Dust Bowl lend themselves to terrible living conditions in the company farm camp, and troublemakers are always in danger from the government. Strikers agitate for better conditions, but for Esperanza and her friends, to strike is to lose the pittance they need to survive. Both the strikers and those who refuse to strike are shown making necessary and difficult choices in Esperanza's story. Despite the hardship of the farm work, Esperanza finds peace in the cycle of harvest and the heartbeat of the earth. In the midst of hunger, struggle, and terrifying collusion between the landowners and the government, Esperanza and her friends are still tied to the rhythms of the earth, and Esperanza--Spanish for "hope"--is rising. The rich metaphors and complex political issues in Esperanza's story never undercut the pleasure of this coming-of-age tale. Esperanza's first year in California makes for a delightful read; the added layers are a bonus. An ALA Best Book for YAs. Category: Paperback Fiction. KLIATT Codes: J--Recommended for junior high school students.
From School Library Journal
Grade 6-9-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. Francisca Goldsmith, Berkeley Public Library, CA
This story lends itself to teaching Mexican and Mexican American history. It could also be used to describe the pattern of crops and agriculture. The book is a strong example of character development and foreshadowing as well.