You know those stories your grandparents tell you? They usually start with "when I was a kid…" and end with some message about how you have it easy? Yeah, those. Well Pam Muñoz Ryan heard plenty of those in her day. She knew that her grandma had immigrated to the United States from Mexico as a young woman, and for many years, she heard about how difficult it was to grow up in poverty on a company farm. So when she found out that, in Mexico, her grandmother had lived like a princess, she was shocked.
The story of this strong, vibrant woman who left the familiar behind and moved to California was just too good to resist. Muñoz Ryan had to put it down on paper. With a few novelistic tweaks, the author's grandmother became Esperanza Ortega, the heroine of the book you're about to read. And that's how Esperanza Rising came to be.
Besides Esperanza Rising, which came out in 2000, Muñoz Ryan has written numerous picture books and young adult novels that have earned her tons of impressive awards, like the Pura Belpré Award for portraying the Latino cultural experience, and the California Young Reader Medal. She's particularly good at the whole strong-young-woman thing. Many of her books, which have been published in Spanish and English, have Esperanza-like lady protagonists.
One of the author's goals in turning her grandmother's experiences into a novel was to help teach non-Latinos about the Mexican immigration experience. Done and done. But the most important goal was just to tell a good story. Straight from the horse's mouth: "My most ardent desire is for the reader to turn the page. For me, that's ultimately the most important reason to tell any story" (source).
What does the story of a Mexican immigrant to the United States set in 1930 have to do with our twenty-first century lives? Just ask Esperanza. When the young heroine of Esperanza Rising moves to a foreign country, she experiences a lot of social pressures that are familiar to the millions of immigrants living in the U.S. today. Like, for example, dealing with racial prejudice, learning a new language, and finding work in a really bad economy. As if being a teenager weren't hard enough already, right?
Today, just like in the 1930s, immigration is a major hot-button issue. Politicians spout their opinions every day on what to do about the number of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. We're talking everything from an electrified fence that would keep illegal immigrants out of the U.S. to the DREAM Act, a law that would make it easier for children of undocumented immigrants to become citizens. And about a zillion things in between.
No matter where your sympathies lie, Esperanza's story helps humanize this controversial issue. Through Esperanza's eyes, we learn what it would be like to leave our home, our friends, and even our language behind in order to start a new life in a new country.
Esperanza Rising reminds us that the challenges facing the U.S. today with regards to immigration aren't really new. And in the novel, just like in real life, there's no easy solution.