After Esperanza's family home burns down, Abuelita asks her, "Esperanza, do you remember the story of the phoenix, the lovely young bird that is reborn from its own ashes?" (4.68)
Abuelita is talking about a bird from Egyptian and Greek mythology that was said to live forever. Whenever it gets old, it bursts into flame and burns itself up. Then it's reborn from its own pile of ashes, young and beautiful again. Talk about perseverance.
But What Does it Mean?
Not surprisingly, the phoenix is often used as a symbol of hope and rebirth. (Can you guess why?) Since it's born out of flames and ashes, it's especially appropriate that we encounter this symbol right after Esperanza's house burns to the ground. Like the phoenix, Esperanza and her family are literally emerging from a smoldering pile of debris. But are they going to lie down and give up? No way. Abuelita tells Esperanza that they will be like the phoenix, "rising again, with a new life ahead of us" (4.70).
Okay, so it's easy to see how the phoenix can serve as a symbol of Esperanza's particular experience. But could it also be a symbol for the immigration experience in general? Think about it. In Esperanza Rising the immigrants we encounter leave their homes because their old ways of life are spent, used up, and close to hopeless.
By coming to the United States, these characters have a renewed sense of hope. Their former lives may be history, but as immigrants in a new country, they hope for a new life, full of new opportunities. The image of the phoenix is a way to sum up the experience that every immigrant to a new country must go through—starting over.