© 2016 Shmoop University, Inc. All rights reserved.
Esperanza Rising

Esperanza Rising


by Pam Muñoz Ryan


Character Analysis

Confession: we have a big crush on Miguel. (Don't tell Esperanza. Did you see how mad she looked when Marta was checking him out?) He's super cute and he knows how to fix things. Swoon. If that's not the makings of a literary crush, we don't know what is.

But we have a feeling Miguel's got his sights set on Esperanza. Pet name? Check. Hand holding? Check. Huge, romantic gestures? Check. (The boy surprises her with a rose garden, for crying out loud.) Miguel is even tight with her family. There's no surer way to impress a girl than by rescuing her grandmother from a burning building.

Yeah, this guy's a keeper.

And since Miguel is based on Pam Muñoz Ryan's grandfather, while Esperanza is based on her grandmother, we have a feeling it works out between the two of them in the end.

Miguel and the American Dream

Okay, Miguel is super dreamy, but he's also got big dreams of his own. (See what we did there?) Namely one, big, important dream that you've probably heard of before: the American Dream.

Miguel is the embodiment of the American Dreamer. He's the optimistic, hard-working immigrant who moves to the United States in search of Opportunity with a capital O. And he has the two most important qualities that a dreamer needs to succeed: ambition and optimism.

Let's take a closer look, shall we?

Ambition: Go get 'em, tiger

Miguel's ambition is what drives him to leave Mexico, where he knows he will always be a "second-class citizen" (13.48). He's pretty articulate about his drive to succeed:

"My father and I have lost faith in our country. We were born servants here and no matter how hard we work we will always be servants. […] The work is hard in the United States but at least there we have a chance to be more than servants." (3.66)

The work is hard, all right—when Miguel can't find the job he wants in the U.S., he does farm labor. When he gets fired from the railroad, he digs ditches. But nothing can sway Miguel's determination. This young man has big dreams, and he's willing to travel far and work tirelessly in order to make them come true.

So what is Miguel's dream job? To work as a mechanic on a railroad. As a little kid, Miguel was fascinated by trains. He even asked Esperanza's Papa to take him on a train ride as a reward for saving Esperanza's life. (We might have asked for cash… just sayin'.) Even as a child, he's "mesmerized by the locomotive, watching it slowly pull in" (5.33).

And his childhood dreams stick around. When Esperanza and Miguel's families take the long train ride from Zacatecas to California, Miguel bores Esperanza with his "constant talk about trains": "He chatted with the conductors. He got off at every stop and watched the engineers. He studied the train schedule and wanted to report it all to Esperanza" (5.70). Esperanza may be exasperated with Miguel's enthusiasm when she's tired and cranky, but deep down, she appreciates it; she sees "his eyes, dancing like Papa's when he used to talk about the land" (11.95). Miguel is clearly passionate, and that's going to take him far.

Optimism: I think I can

Miguel definitely has the positive thinking it takes to make his American Dream come true. When it comes to getting a job at the railroad, he's like the Little Engine that Could, huffing and puffing "I think I can!" even when the obstacles seem insurmountable.

Miguel is convinced that it will be much easier to get a job at the railroads in the United States than in Mexico. In Mexico, you have to have una palanca, a lever. In other words, you need connections—it doesn't matter what you know, but who you know.

The United States is supposed to be different. Miguel tells Esperanza: "I hear that in the United States, you do not need una palanca. That even the poorest man can become rich if he works hard enough" (5.76). That's American optimism in a nutshell—the belief that anyone can succeed in this country if they try.

So is the American Dream realistic? Well, Miguel's dreams don't always work out as he hoped. It takes him a while to find work. And after a promising start as a machine shop mechanic, he loses his job to men who "have never even worked a motor before" but are willing to work for half the money (13.31). But despite these setbacks, Miguel remains convinced that "everything will work out" (13.55). And that's why he keeps trying.

A Classy Guy

Miguel is also a key figure in Esperanza's image of the river, a model that she uses to explain class difference in Mexico and the United States. For more on this, check out our discussion of the symbolism of "The River."

Miguel's Timeline