by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Where It All Goes Down
Mexico and the U.S. in the Interwar Years
Aguascalientes, Mexico, 1924-1930
Aguascalientes is a teensy-tiny state in central Mexico that some people say is shaped like a kiss. (That's totally irrelevant information, but we just thought it was cute.) This is where Papa has his estate, El Rancho de las Rosas (The Ranch of Roses). And boy is it beautiful: there are mountains, valleys, and fertile vineyards (oh my!). Being the wise man that he is, Papa teaches Esperanza to love the land as much as he does:
"This whole valley breathes and lives," he said, sweeping his arm toward the distant mountains that guarded them. "It gives us the grapes and then they welcome us." (1.2)
Hmmm. Mountains, valleys, grapes (and don't forget roses)? Where else can we find all of these things? How about—wait for it—
The San Joaquin Valley, California, 1930-1931
California is like Aguascalientes—on steroids. On the one hand, the familiar plants that grow in the U.S. reassure Esperanza that her new home won't be so different from her old one:
She looked around and was relieved to see that compared to the desert, Los Angeles had lush palms and green grass and even though it was September, roses were still blooming in the flower beds. She took a deep breath. The aroma of oranges from a nearby grove was reassuring and familiar. Maybe it wouldn't be so different here. (6.42)
On the other hand, the San Joaquin Valley is so huge and sweeping, it makes the valley where she lived in Aguascalientes look like a pothole:
Flat and spacious, it spread out like a blanket of patchwork fields. Esperanza could see no end to the plots of yellow, brown, and shades of green. The road finally leveled out on the valley floor, and she gazed back at the mountains from where they'd come. They looked like monstrous lions' paws resting at the edge of the ridge. (6.75)
Esperanza has never seen anything so big and spacious. It actually makes her physically dizzy:
This was not a gently rolling landscape like Aguascalientes. For as far as the eye could travel, the land was unbroken by even a hillock. Esperanza felt dizzy looking at the repeated straight rows of grapes and had to turn her head away. (6.77)
To make things worse, Esperanza soon finds out that the climate in the San Joaquin Valley is just as extreme as the landscape. It has hot summers and cold, foggy winters that chill Esperanza to the bone when she works outside. Dust storms occur from time to time, even making Mama very sick. This is one harsh climate.
Connecting to the Land
With her Papa in Mexico, Esperanza felt connected to the land, but these new extremes alienate her. Luckily, Alfonso and Miguel have something up their sleeves. Together, they plant a rose garden with roses they've rescued from El Rancho de las Rosas. When they present their surprise, Miguel explains to Esperanza,
"After the fire, my father and I dug down to the roots. Many were still healthy. We carried the cuttings from Aguascalientes. [...] We think they will grow. In time, we will see how many bloom." (8.21)
The fact that the same roses that grew at El Rancho de las Rosas will grow in the San Joaquin Valley provides a physical connection between Esperanza's old life and her new life. Esperanza is grateful to know that "Now, if they bloomed she could drink the memories of the roses that had known Papa" (8.22).
Remember that ritual that Papa teaches Esperanza at the beginning of the book? The one where they lie down on the ground and try to listen to the earth's heartbeat? Well, a few days before her fourteenth birthday (and a few pages before the end of the novel) Esperanza tries to teach Miguel the same thing:
And then she felt it. Beginning softly. A gentle thumping, repeating itself. Then stronger. She heard it, too. Shoomp. Shoomp. Shoomp. The earth's heartbeat. Just like she had felt it that day with Papa. Miguel smiled and she knew that he felt it, too. (14.99)
She hovered high above the valley, its basin surrounded by the mountains. She swooped over Papa's rose blooms, buoyed by rosehips that remembered all the beauty they had seen. She waved at Isabel and Abuelita, walking barefoot in the vineyards, wearing grapevines in their hair. She saw Mama, sitting on a blanket, a cacophony of color that covered an acre in zigzag rows. She saw Marta and her mother walking in an almond grove, holding hands. (14.103)
Are you smiling yet? Esperanza's physical connection to the earth, as well as Papa's roses and the visions she has of her loved ones wandering through the landscape, prove to us that the San Joaquin Valley is connected to Aguascalientes in Esperanza's heart through memories, people, and rituals. By the end of a very difficult year, Esperanza is no longer overwhelmed by the extremes of the San Joaquin Valley. Instead, she comes to think of it as her new home.
The Great Depression
The Great Depression was a period of severe, worldwide economic awfulness. It lasted for about ten years, from 1929 to 1939—that's a decade of just about no money for most people. In the U.S., where the depression started, the stock market collapsed, banks failed, and many people lost their jobs.
In Esperanza Rising, we see some of the effects of this devastating economic collapse. As Josefina explains to Esperanza, "now, more people are coming to the valley to look for work, especially from places like Oklahoma, where there is little work, little rain, and little hope" (8.71). During the Great Depression, approximately 800,000 people made this journey from the Midwest to California, hoping to escape the drought and poverty of their current lives. Though many of these migrants were professionals and not farmers, most ended up competing for low-paying jobs picking crops—just like Esperanza and her family.
One last tidbit about this dreary time: during the Great Depression, anywhere from a few hundred thousand to two million people were deported to Mexico (source). Some of them—maybe as many as sixty percent of the deportees—were actually American citizens. Chances are you haven't you read about this important event in history class. But you sure do get a glimpse of it in Esperanza Rising.
The Mexican Revolution
In Mexico in the early 20th century, the issue of who got to own land was a touchy subject. Basically, wealthy, light-skinned people owned pretty much all of the land and wouldn't let anyone else into the exclusive club. This unfair concentration of wealth eventually provoked a little outbreak that we now call the Mexican Revolution. Okay, it wasn't actually little at all—it was a series of major conflicts that lasted almost twenty years and led to the complete restructuring of the Mexican government.
In Esperanza Rising, the revolution has officially been over for a while, but "there was still resentment against the large landowners" (2.24). As Mama explains, "the wealthy still own most of the land while some of the poor have not even a garden plot. There are cattle grazing on the big ranches yet some peasants are forced to eat cats" (2.25). Papa's death is a direct result of this lingering resentment. He's murdered by bandits who still consider wealthy, white landowners to be representative of the social unfairness in Mexico.
Bottom line: don't forget to keep the bigger picture—the historical context—in mind when you're reading Esperanza Rising. It'll sneak up on you on every page, we promise.