Ryan, Pam Muñoz. Esperanza Rising. 2000. New York: Scholastic, 2007. Print.
After Esperanza’s father is murdered and their house mysteriously burns down, Esperanza and her mother escape with a family of their former servants (Hortensia, Alfonzo and Miguel) in the middle of the night to avoid being caught by Tío Luis, who wants to marry Esperanza’s mother in order to increase his political status. They make the long journey to California hiding in the bed of a papaya truck and then on a dusty train, where they settle in with the family of Alfonzo’s brother to work in the fields picking fruits and vegetables. At first Esperanza has a hard time adjusting to the sudden poverty that she had never experienced before. When Esperanza’s mother falls seriously ill, Esperanza steps up and takes her place working in the fields to be able to pay the medical bills and save money to bring Abuelita from Mexico. One day, Miguel runs off and Esperanza discovers that he has stolen all of the money she saved. Esperanza’s mother recovers and Miguel eventually returns with a surprise that lifts everyone’s spirits.
Set in the 1920s and 1930s in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and the San Joaquin Valley, California.
Point of View:
Coming of age, riches-to-rags, humility, poverty, corruption, racism and classism, teamwork, importance of family.
The writing is descriptive and believable, from Esperanza’s spoiled brat attitudes to her extreme worry over her mother’s health. Muñoz Ryan creatively uses fruits and vegetables as themes for each chapter, symbolizing an important event and eventually the growing season that Esperanza and her “extended family” arrange their lives around. This book won the Pura Belpré Award, was honored by the Américas Award for Children’s and Young Adult Literature and made multiple “best books” lists.
The book is peppered with Mexican proverbs and even a traditional birthday song in Spanish, all translated to English as well. Muñoz Ryan wrote this book based on the recollections and the life of her own grandmother who immigrated to the United States to work in the migrant farm camps under similar circumstances and conditions. She researched the strikes and labor movements described in the book, the Repatriation and Deportation Acts and the Valley Fever that made Esperanza’s mother sick (and that Muñoz Ryan herself tested positive for the antibodies of due to growing up in the same valley).
This book would be appropriate for an upper-elementary or middle school audience. It has a general appeal and a twist on the rags-to-riches theme where the wealthy are humbled instead. The Spanish language and cultural content is handled with support for the unfamiliar reader.
This book pleasantly surprised me, because I expected a more babyish story. Instead I got a realistic look at life during this time period, with dynamic characters that had very human emotions and reactions. Esperanza’s difficulty with adjusting and her irritation with Isabel were so very well done. I had always meant to read this story and had even always heard positive reviews of it, even from students who are reluctant readers, so I am glad that I had the chance. The book was so engaging that I just ate it up.