Imagine living a life as a princess and you are part of a fairy tale with servants, wealth, beautiful clothes, and elaborate parties. Then, in an instant, your life is transformed, to a life of poverty and hardships that you aren’t sure you are able to endure. Pam Munoz Ryan is the author of Esperanza Rising the winner of the Pura Belpre Award. Ryan was inspired to write this novel as a result of listening to the many stories her grandmother shared with her as a child. While this story is fictional, it does parallel her grandmother’s life in some ways. Esperanza once thought she would rise to her mother’s position of presiding over El Rancho de las Rosas. Esperanza had a difficult time letting go of the past, but she does and she rises above the circumstances only to have her life filled with a richness that money can’t buy.
Esperanza Ortega was the daughter of a wealthy land owner at El Rancho de las Rosas in Aguascalientes, Mexico. It was the night before Esperanza’s birthday and her father had gone out to help a friend on his ranch. Her father was killed by bandits and Esperanza’s life was changed forever. Esperanza’s uncles made a proposition with Esperanza’s mother, and she had no choice but to flee to America with some of her servants.
It is during the Great Depression and situations are grim for everyone. Esperanza and her mother are able to live in a cramped migrant camp in California where they face challenges and adjustments socially and financially. Esperanza was well aware of the social class system and never imagined she would have to work. Initially, she was not prepared for the labor that was expected of her. After her mother contracted Valley Fever, Esperanza had to begin working in the fields to help pay for their food and her mother’s medical expenses. She was also saving money to help her grandmother move to the U.S. Esperanza was worried about the workers union and labor strikes. She could understand both sides but she didn’t want to be involved. Esperanza witnessed the deportation of union organizers and strikers to Mexico. What was most shocking was that some of the people deported were U.S. citizens and had never been to Mexico before. Esperanza just wanted to work to survive.
Ryan describes what life was like for Mexican farm laborers during the Great Depression. We learn about the growing strike movement, the influx of immigrants into California, the discrimination against Mexican workers, and the deportation practices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
This is a story about a young girl who is resilient when faced with emotional, social, financial, and cultural differences. Esperanza rises to each and every challenge. She never regains her wealthy status, but she does gain the love and respect from her family and friends, even the ones that were once on the other side of the river.
This book lends itself to much discussion about the class system, cultures, migrant workers, unions, striking, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It would be great dialogue to compare these issues from the past that are still present today.
Ryan used some foreshadowing at the beginning of the book. When Esperanza hurt her finger on the rose her grandmother said, “No hay rosa sin espinas. There is no rose without thorns.” Esperanza knew her grandmother was talking about life and with life comes difficulties. She was also teaching Esperanza how to crochet. “Ten stitches up to the top of the mountain. Add one stitch. Nine stitches down to the bottom of the valley. Skip one.” When Esperanza tried her mountain tops were lopsided and the bottoms of her valleys were all bunched up. Her grandmother reached over and unraveled all of Esperanza’s rows and said, “Do not be afraid to start over.”
Esperanza didn’t just crochet the mountains and valleys she was walking in them. Some days were good while other days seemed impossible. She was able to heed her grandmother’s advice and she was able to give up her past and start over.