by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Next to her stood a girl about eight years old, wearing a dress that was too big and shoes with no socks. Delicate and frail, with big brown eyes, long braids, and skinny legs, she looked like a young deer. Esperanza couldn't help but think how much she looked like the doll Papa had given her. (6.32)
This cute little girl is Isabel, the eight-year-old daughter of Juan and Josefina who Esperanza first spots from the train.
Wise Beyond Her Years
Isabel is as innocent as Bambi, but she's still got a head start on Esperanza on some important life lessons. Even though she's much younger than Esperanza, Isabel has grown up in agricultural camps, and knows a lot more than our girl does about what life is like in this environment. She teaches Esperanza how to do housework and take care of babies. Actually, the scene where Isabel teaches Esperanza how to wash clothes is pretty hilarious:
Then she started on the clothes. Esperanza was amazed. She had never washed anything in her life and Isabel, who was only eight years old, made it look so easy.
Puzzled, Isabel looked at Esperanza. "Don't you know how to wash clothes?"
[...] She looked at Isabel and shook her head no.
Isabel's eyes got bigger and she looked worried. "Esperanza, when I go to school next week, you will be here alone with the babies and will have to do the laundry."
Esperanza took a deep breath and said weakly, "I can learn."
"And later today, you must sweep the platform. You... you do know how to sweep?" (7.76-81)
Does she know how to sweep? Please, everybody knows how to sweep. Right? We bet you can see where this is going.
Through the Eyes of Isabel
She knows how to keep house like a pro, but Isabel is too young and innocent to understand racial discrimination. She excitedly tells Esperanza about a new farm camp being built for "Okies," white workers from the Midwest, which will be much nicer than the Mexican camp:
"They get inside toilets and hot water! And a swimming pool!" said Isabel. "Our teacher told us all about it. And we will all be able to swim in it."
"One day a week," said Hortensia, looking at Esperanza. "The Mexicans can only swim on Friday afternoons, before they clean the pool on Saturday mornings." (13.24-25)
Esperanza is angry about the difference in the way the white and Mexican workers are treated, but Isabel is just excited that she'll be able to swim in the new pool once a week.
Even though she's not quite picking it up, Isabel experiences one of the most obvious examples of racial discrimination in the book. Despite having the best grades in the class, and being cute, curious, cheerful, and generally awesome, Isabel is still passed over as Queen of May for a girl with light skin and blonde hair. Not cool.
Looking at Esperanza
Isabel's character gives us an opportunity to see how much Esperanza grows over the course of the novel. At first Esperanza is fiercely protective of the beautiful doll Papa gave her; but by the end of the novel, she generously gives it to Isabel when she's down in the dumps. And while Esperanza starts by being Isabel's student in the realm of housework, by the end Esperanza becomes Isabel's teacher: Esperanza shows Isabel how to crochet, just like her Abuelita taught her. And more importantly, she shares with Isabel Abuelita's other lesson: "Do not ever be afraid to start over" (14.111).