by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Mama (Ramona Ortega)
For Richer or Poorer
Mama is a vision of loveliness. Check out "her way of walking into a room, graceful and regal" (11.9); her elegant way of wearing her hair "in the usual braided wreath that crowned her head" (2.4); and her nimble fingers kept soft with homemade avocado beauty treatments. By all appearances, this is a wealthy and privileged lady. She must be loaded.
Not necessarily. Mama has the bearing of a queen, no matter how much money she has in the bank. She always "held her head high and looked beautiful, even dressed in the old clothes from the poor box" (4.89). And when it comes time to roll up her sleeves and get down to work, Mama can hang with the best of them.
How do we know? Well, she comes right out and says it: "I am stronger than you think" (4.66). But we don't have to take Mama's word for it. Even after years of pampered living, Mama submits to sore muscles and long hours of packing vegetables in the sheds. And she still remembers how to cook arroz, knowing "just how to brown it first in oil with onions and peppers" (8.4).
It's not just about physical strength; Mama is emotionally tough, too. Despite losing her husband, her home, and all her money, Mama keeps her chin up for Esperanza's sake. She cunningly escapes Tío Luis's plans to make her his bride, and she whisks her daughter away to the United States. And Mama makes it all look easy.
Mama teaches Esperanza lots of stuff, like how to be grateful for what you have, how to be generous, and how to treasure your family more than any possession. She instructs her daughter with patience (ahem, lots of patience) and strength, leading by example. Check out the speech Mama gives her daughter when Esperanza throws a temper tantrum at the sight of their new, shabby digs:
"Esperanza, if we had stayed in Mexico and I had married Tío Luis, we would have had one choice. To be apart and miserable. Here, we have two choices. To be together and miserable or to be together and happy. Mija, we have each other and Abuelita will come. How would she want you to behave? I choose to be happy. So which will you choose?"
"Do you know how lucky we are, Esperanza? Many people come to this valley and wait months for a job. Juan went to a lot of trouble to make sure we had this cabin waiting for us when we got here. Please be grateful for the favors bestowed upon us." (7.23, 25)
Whoa. How could you not feel a little ashamed of your bad behavior after such a reasonable speech? Choosing to be happy and being grateful for what you've got is easier said than done. But thanks to Mama's good example, Esperanza starts working on it. (Oh, and by the way, Mama doesn't just lecture; she also makes sure to acknowledge Esperanza's hard work, saying: "Esperanza, do you know that I am so proud of you? For all that you are learning" (8.84). Aw, thanks, Mom.)
Out of the Picture
These are all important lessons in Esperanza's growth from spoiled rich girl to mature young lady. But ultimately, the most significant way that Mama affects Esperanza's development is by... going away.
Yep, that's right. When Mama gets sick and has to go to the hospital, her daughter is forced to grow up, and fast. She tells her sleeping mother: "Don't worry. I will take care of everything. I will be la patrona for the family now" (10.87). Mama's sickness convinces Esperanza she needs to woman up and be the new boss of the family. She gets a job so she can pay Mama's medical bills and bring Abuelita to the U.S.
Bottom line: in Mama's absence, we get to see just how strong Esperanza can be. And we're pretty sure we have Mama to thank for that strength.