Once upon a time... okay, Esperanza Rising doesn't really start like this. But it might as well, because Esperanza leads a fairytale life. Her father is a wealthy landowner in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and Esperanza is his only pampered child. She has silk dresses, porcelain dolls, and all the papaya salad she can eat. Every year after the grape harvest, her parents, grandmother, and all the household servants throw her a huge birthday party.
But things take a sudden turn for the worse. It's 1930, and even though the Mexican Revolution is technically over, there's still a lot of resentment against wealthy landowners. Bandits capture and kill Papa while he's out working on the ranch, and as if that weren't bad enough, Papa's evil stepbrother takes over Papa's land. When Mama refuses to sell him the house, he burns it down. Homeless and penniless, Mama has to make a decision—marry Mr. Evil to get her fortune back, or flee the country with Esperanza.
Um... we pick option B. (Please. Like Mama was really going to marry that jerk.) Mama and Esperanza tag along with their former household servants, Hortensia, Alfonso, and Miguel, who hope to become more than servants when they make it to the United States. Soon enough, they join Alfonso's brother and his family on a company farm in the San Joaquin Valley in California. But sadly, Esperanza's grandmother, Abuelita, has to stay behind.
This new life is entirely different from the one Esperanza had grown accustomed to. Living conditions are shabby and crowded, and Esperanza has to work for the first time in her life. When Mama gets sick, Esperanza realizes it's up to her to take care of the family, so she stops complaining about all the things she has lost and womans up. She knows Mama will get better if she can bring Abuelita to the United States, but that will take something she doesn't have—money. At only thirteen years old, Esperanza starts working in the farm sheds, packing produce for pitiful wages.
Now we get down to serious. The unfairness of the working conditions inspires many Mexican workers to strike or stop working until the employers agree to pay them more. Esperanza isn't too psyched about it, but when a bunch of the strikers are rounded up and deported, she changes her tune. She thinks it's unfair to deport the workers, many of them citizens, just for speaking their mind. Realizing that Mexicans aren't treated fairly in the United States, Esperanza loses it. Miguel tells her things will get better, but Esperanza thinks they might as well have stayed in Mexico. (That's what we call a defeatist attitude.)
Eventually, Esperanza's pennies add up, and by the time Mama gets out of the hospital, Esperanza thinks she has enough dough for Abuelita's journey. But when she goes to show Mama the money she has saved, it's missing—Miguel has stolen the money in order to go look for railroad work up North. This is obviously not cool, but soon enough, Miguel shows up again... with Abuelita. Turns out that whole story about going north to look for work was just a ruse. Clever, Miguel. Very clever.
Abuelita is the proof Esperanza needed that things will get better. By the time her fourteenth birthday rolls around, Esperanza has new dreams that she never could have imagined a year ago. She wants to learn English, start a family (perhaps with that cutie-pie, Miguel), and maybe buy a tiny house. Esperanza is far from her fairytale beginnings, but with her newly-expanded family, she is happy. And that's what counts.