Pam Muñoz Ryan really loves Esperanza. How can we tell? Well, she's kind of like a too-nice friend: she's never critical or harsh, even when Esperanza acts like a spoiled brat. Instead, she tries to explain why Esperanza is acting that way.
Let's take a look at an example. When Esperanza refuses to share her doll with a little peasant girl, we know she's being selfish. But instead of judging her, the author lets us know what Esperanza is feeling: anger (at being reprimanded by Mama), a little bit of guilt, and shame:
Esperanza tried not to look back at the little girl but she couldn't help it. She wished she could tell the little girl's mother that she had always given her old toys to the orphanage, but that this doll was special. Besides, the child would have soiled it with her hands. (5)
Yikes, we're pretty embarrassed for Esperanza. But the author doesn't judge. She lets Esperanza's own feelings of shame and embarrassment speak for themselves. The lack of authorial judgment makes us feel like Pam Muñoz Ryan is really rooting for Esperanza.
On top of just rooting for her, our author really admires her leading lady. When Esperanza learns to work hard, give generously, and speak out against injustice, she gets her deserved props from Muñoz Ryan. Check out the words she puts in Esperanza's mouth as she gives her doll to Isabel:
Esperanza stroked Isabel's hair. "Do you think my papa would want her buried inside a valise all this time with no one playing with her? Look at her. She must be lonely. She is even getting dusty! And look at me. I am much too old for dolls. People would make fun of me if I carried her around and you know how I hate it when people laugh at me. Isabel, you would be doing me and my papa a favor if you would love her." (13.74)
Pretty tactful, right? Instead of making it seem like a big sacrifice on her part, Esperanza convinces Isabel that she'll actually be doing her a favor by taking the beautiful present. That takes a lot of maturity, we'd say.
Clearly Pam Muñoz Ryan wants to make Esperanza look like a big-time good guy. It makes sense, since, as it turns out, the author really is writing about someone she loves—her grandmother.
Esperanza Rising is a classic coming-of-age tale that explores Esperanza's transition from slightly-spoiled little rich girl to mature, reflective adult. But since Esperanza's family plays a central role in the story, we can also call it a family drama. It definitely has family, and hoo-boy does it have drama.
But neither of these genres captures the historical aspect of the novel. If you've read our discussion of "Setting," you know that Esperanza Rising is majorly rooted in real-life history. While it's definitely a work of fiction, the characters in Esperanza Rising move around in a world shaped by real historical events: the Mexican Revolution, the migration of Mexican and American workers to California in search of work, the Great Depression, and the period of "voluntary deportation" of Mexicans from the U.S. in the 1930s. So we've got a story that places fictional characters and events in a real historical setting; that, folks, is historical fiction.
Two little words, so much meaning.
Spoiler alert: Esperanza is the main character. But wait, there's more! The word "esperanza" also means "hope" in Spanish. Hope, eh? There is quite a bit of that going around in this novel, that's for sure. The double meaning of the novel's title lets us know that no matter how bad things might seem, both Esperanza the person and esperanza the emotion are movin' on up.
What does it mean that Esperanza is rising? Here are a few thoughts:
In all these ways that Esperanza is rising, hope is rising, too. Sure, Miguel has been hopeful the whole time—he's just a half-glass-full kind of guy—but it's taken Esperanza some time to gain that hope. Think about her situation when she first arrived in California and compare it her situation at the end of the novel. Things are little more hopeful now, wouldn't you say?
When we get to the end of Esperanza Rising, we get the feeling that we've been here before. Not only because we've read this novel twenty times already—because the ending kind of reminds us of the beginning.
Did you notice that the title of the final chapter, "Las Uvas (Grapes)," is the same as the title of the first full chapter? Yep, the harvest has come full circle, and it's time to pick grapes again. But this time, Esperanza will really be working instead of just cutting one ceremonial cluster of grapes while wearing a silk dress. That's right—this repetition makes us realize how much has changed for Esperanza in the last year.
It's not only the title of the chapter that reminds us of the novel's opening. It's also the context—once again, it's our heroine's birthday. On last year's birthday, Esperanza was in the dumps, big time. Her father had just been killed, and when she woke up, "Her smile faded, her chest tightened, and a heavy blanket of anguish smothered her smallest joy" (3.1). Well how's this for different? When Esperanza hears the traditional serenade on the morning of her fourteenth birthday, she "sat up in bed and listened. And smiled" (14.106).
Esperanza may have lost a lot, but she's also figured out what's really important to her. Some serious healing has taken place over the course of 365 days.
There's one more repetition worth thinking about. Check out the novel's final sentences:
Esperanza smiled and reached over and gently pulled the yarn, unraveling the uneven stitches. Then she looked into Isabel's trusting eyes and said, "Do not ever be afraid to start over." (14.111)
Sound familiar? Esperanza repeats to Isabel the lessons (about needlework and life) that Abuelita once taught her. In one short year, this young lady has come a long, long way.
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—
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.
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 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.
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.
Aquel que hoy se cae, se levantará mañana. He who falls today may rise tomorrow.
Es más rico el rico cuando empobrece que el pobre cuando enriquece. The rich person is richer when he becomes poor, than the poor person when he becomes rich.
How's that for deep?
Putting these two traditional Mexican proverbs at the beginning of Esperanza Rising makes sense. After all, Mexican culture, history, and identity play such a large role in this novel.
Okay, so they make sense. But what do they mean?
The first proverb is pretty straightforward. The idea of rising (ahem) after you've fallen echoes the novel's title, Esperanza Rising. It also calls to mind the symbol of "The Phoenix," which rises from its own ashes to live a new life. We get it, right? When Esperanza's family suffers a series of tragedies, they may be down but they're not out. With plenty of perseverance, they can pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and try, try again.
The second proverb can be a little more confusing. Why are rich people still rich when they lose all their money? Why are poor people still poor when they gain wealth? Well, we get the feeling that the author of the proverb isn't using the terms "rich" and "poor" in a literal way. Instead, these words ask us to consider a few questions: in what way is Esperanza rich, even after her family loses all of its money? Do we encounter any characters who have a lot of money, but are poor in a spiritual or moral way? (We're looking at you, Tío Luis.)
Bottom line: this second proverb is open to a lot of interpretations. What's your take on it?
Sure, there are a few Spanish words and phrases in Esperanza Rising, but don't let that scare you off—the author explains them all within the story. Plus, you might learn a little Spanish along the way. Not a bad deal.
The tough part of this novel isn't in the writing, but in the complicated ideas that Esperanza's journey forces us to consider. No matter how clear she is, Pam Muñoz Ryan throws us a curveball with these controversial topics.
Our author sure isn't trying to hide anything. With her straightforward sentences, it's pretty clear that she really wants us to understand what she's trying to say. And that's helpful, since she's writing about some pretty complicated parts of American history.
Think about the farmworkers' strike against the cotton farmers. It's a complex and controversial historical event that even the workers couldn't all agree on. But Pam Muñoz Ryan tackles the issue, breaking it down so that we can understand it from every point of view. She carefully considers the desperation of the poorest workers ("'Yesterday I worked all day and made less than fifty cents and I cannot buy food for one day with that'" [11.76]), the motivation of the strikers ("'Of course I need my job, but if all the workers join together and refuse to work, we might all get better conditions'" [6.101]), and the anxiety of the workers who do not strike ("She wanted to tell them that her mother was sick. That she had to pay the bills. [...] Then maybe they'd understand why she needed her job" [12.8]). Because of all of this straightforward info, we're able to form our own opinions about the strike. Just like Esperanza.
Muñoz Ryan also includes tons of descriptive details that make us feel like we're really inside Esperanza's head. For example, instead of just telling us that Esperanza misses Mama when she's in the hospital, she writes,
She missed her way of walking into a room, graceful and regal. She missed watching her hands crocheting, her fingers moving nimbly. And most of all, she longed for the sound of Mama's strong and assured laughter. (11.9)
These surprising and intimate details let us feel the love that Esperanza has for her mom. And because these details last throughout the book, we're also able to feel the love that Muñoz Ryan has for Esperanza.
Like the continuous thread of yarn that forms its colorful zigzags, Abuelita's blanket connects all the different parts of Esperanza's story. It carries us from the beginning of the novel, where Abuelita teaches Esperanza to crochet the zigzag pattern, to the very end, where Esperanza finally finishes Abuelita's blanket and teaches little Isabel its complicated stitch. Now that's some pretty powerful yarn.
Remember that super deep and wise saying that Abuelita passes along to Esperanza? "Do not be afraid to start over" (2.38). And do you remember when she says it? Yep, while she's showing Esperanza how to crochet. As it turns out, the lessons of crocheting often expand beyond the skill and into—wait for it—real life.
As Abuelita explains to Esperanza, the zigzags in the blanket's pattern look like mountains and valleys, representing the series of obstacles that Esperanza will have to overcome in life. "Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you," Abuelita explains when she and Esperanza have to say goodbye. "But soon, you will be at the top of a mountain again" (4.76).
In other words, it will take patience (just like crocheting!) but these mountains, or obstacles, can be overcome. After she has lived—and crocheted—many mountains and valleys, Esperanza and her grandmother will be together again.
Esperanza's life in the United States turns out to be even more difficult than she expected. And guess what? By the time she's reunited with Abuelita, the blanket is huge—long enough to cover three beds. It's also kind of funny looking, because Esperanza has had to use yarn given to her by her neighbors at the camp. She stopped worrying about whether the yarn matched a long time ago. It's not about the final product—it's about the journey.
When Abuelita joins Esperanza and Mama at the camp, Esperanza puts the final stitches on the enormous blanket. It's a hodgepodge of colorful yarn from caring neighbors and bits of hair from Abuelita's and Esperanza's heads, sealing their love and good wishes into the blanket forever. It smells of burned smoke from the fire, and a little bit of mint, Abuelita's signature scent. It has many, many mountains and valleys. Sounds like it kind of represents Esperanza's new life, don't you think?
At the end of the novel, Esperanza teaches Isabel the zigzag stitch and repeats Abuelita's advice: "Do not ever be afraid to start over" (14.111). It looks like the student has become the teacher. After all those mountains and valleys, Esperanza has grown up—a lot.
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.
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.
For a thirteen-year-old girl, Esperanza seems to think a lot in metaphors. One of her favorites? A river. To her, this river represents the social divide that separates her from Miguel:
"But now that she was a young woman, she understood that Miguel was the housekeeper's son and she was the ranch owner's daughter and between them ran a deep river. Esperanza stood on one side and Miguel stood on the other and the river could never be crossed." (2.52)
These lovers aren't star-crossed—they're river-crossed. You may have heard of this conundrum before: you know, Miguel and Esperanza are from two different social classes; Miguel is from the wrong side of the tracks; he's a Montague, and she's a Capulet; she's a human girl, and he's a sparkly, sparkly vampire. Get it? But remember, this little obstacle never manages to keep the lovebirds apart for long.
So does Miguel cross over to the wealthy, privileged side of the river? Nope, it doesn't quite work like that. Instead, Esperanza's father is murdered, her house burns down, and her family loses everything. She moves to the United States with her former servants and becomes a peasant, just like them. This is riches to rags.
Here's the deal: in the United States, there's not even supposed to be a river. The U.S. is supposed to be the land of opportunity, where anyone can make it big, no matter their race, religion or former social standing. Unfortunately, life in the U.S. isn't quite as easy as Esperanza and Miguel expect it to be. No matter how hard they work, they're held back by prejudice and pitiful working conditions. In a desperate moment, Esperanza looks at Miguel and tells him he's "still a second-class citizen" (13.49). He's still standing on the wrong side of the river.
But when Esperanza starts to feel more hopeful, she finally has a vision of herself and Miguel as children, eating mangos on the same side of the river (14.103). It's then that she finally takes Miguel's hand—and we see some pretty nice things in their future.
It's pretty clear from the get-go that Esperanza Rising is going to focus on Esperanza's perspective. And by get-go, we mean the very first paragraph:
"Our land is alive, Esperanza," said Papa, taking her small hand as they walked through the gentle slopes of the vineyard. Leafy green vines draped the arbors and the grapes were ready to drop. Esperanza was six years old and loved to walk with her papa through the winding rows, gazing up at him and watching his eyes dance with love for the land. (1.1)
Okay, so we're looking at Papa like an external observer. We get to watch his actions, but we can't read his mind. But that's not the case for Esperanza. We're not just watching Esperanza from the outside. We actually get to know what she loves, what she thinks and what she's seeing. It's like we're perched right inside her head, peeking out her eye sockets. (Only less gross.)
By giving us Esperanza's point of view, the story becomes all about the immigrant experience as lived by a thirteen-year-old Mexican girl. It's super subjective and feels really personal. In fact, we're even aware of Esperanza's deepest fears:
She felt the blood drain from her face. She wanted to tell the doctor that she could not lose Mama, too. That she had already lost Papa and that Abuelita was too far away. Her voice strangled with fear. All she could do was whisper the doctor's uncertain words, 'If she survives.' (9.102)
And we're privy to her most intimate hopes:
She soared with the anticipation of dreams she never knew she could have, of learning English, of supporting her family, of someday buying a tiny house. (14.102)
In sharing Esperanza's emotions with us, the author invites us to identify with Esperanza. We think this makes the text especially relatable to young, teenaged readers. Convenient, eh?
On El Rancho de las Rosas (The Ranch of Roses) in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Esperanza is surrounded by people who adore her. And as the daughter of the ranch owner, she has it pretty good. She has beautiful silk dresses, plenty of servants, and a party thrown in her honor every year. Consider the lavish setting set.
When Papa is murdered by bandits, Esperanza and her Mama have to flee the clutches of his evil stepbrothers. They decide to start a new life as farm laborers in the United States, working alongside their former servants. Something tells us Esperanza is in for a reality check.
When Mama gets sick with Valley Fever, things just get that much more… well, complicated. Esperanza is pretty much on her own at this point.
The turning point of the story occurs when Esperanza really takes charge. She's a totally new person, completely in control. She takes care of her mom, starts to work on the farm, and is kind and generous to all the people surrounding her. Talk about a complete 180.
After their big fight, Miguel disappears with all of Esperanza's savings. Huh? Something is up, but we have no idea what. When will he be back? How could he steal from Esperanza like that?
The denouement is meant to tie up loose ends and answer many of our questions. So when Miguel shows up at the bus station with Abuelita, we know we're in the right place—everything suddenly makes sense. Plus, with Abuelita back in town, we're pretty sure things are looking up.
Now that Esperanza's family is reunited, she feels hopeful again. In other words, esperanza (hope) has risen. Yep. She knows it will take a lot of hard work, but she dreams of learning English, supporting her family, and maybe even buying a house someday. This is a totally new girl than the one we met back in Mexico a year before.