Marta is a political firecracker. She's just a kid, maybe sixteen or seventeen, but this girl has some serious political convictions, and she's not afraid to speak her mind. She helps organize strikes against the big farmers, arguing that it's the only way to make sure the workers are treated fairly and paid decently. Look at this speech that she gives in front of a crowd of Mexican laborers (using a small, fuzzy kitten as an illustration*):
"This is what we are!" she yelled. "Small, meek animals. And that is how they treat us because we don't speak up. If we don't ask for what is rightfully ours, we will never get it! Is this how we want to live?" She held the kitten by the back of the neck, waving it high in the air. It hung limp in front of the crowd. "With no decent home and at the mercy of those bigger than us, richer than us?" (8.57)
Wow. Them's fightin' words. One thing is clear—Marta is no meek kitten. She's more like a big, tough wildcat.
Marta is constantly trying to convince other workers to be as brave as she is and join her and her friends in the strike. But this is a very unpopular message at Esperanza's camp, where the workers just want to keep their heads down and hang onto their jobs. They tell Marta to chill: "That is a chance we cannot take. We just want to work. That's why we came here. Get out of our camp!" (8.62). They don't want to be wildcats. They'll take the kitten route, thank you very much.
Marta and Esperanza could not be more different. Marta is a bit of a Mean Girl, who makes fun of Esperanza for growing up wealthy and for not knowing how to do housework. The girls do not get off to a good start, to say the very least:
"So you're a princess who's come to be a peasant? Where's all your finery?"
Esperanza stared at her and said nothing.
"What's the matter, silver spoon stuck in your mouth?" Her voice was smart and biting. (6)
Dude, what is this girl's problem? Well, it turns out Marta's dad was a revolutionary who fought on the side of the poor in Mexico. (Check out our discussion of "Setting" for more about the Mexican Revolution.) That means Marta probably would have been raised to resent wealthy Mexican landowners like Esperanza's dad.
How else are the girls different? Well, Esperanza grew up in luxury, while Marta had to work her way through her entire life. Esperanza is a Spanish-speaking immigrant, while Marta was born in the U.S. and speaks fluent English. Bottom line: Marta makes Esperanza feel really out of place.
Despite Marta's mean streak, Esperanza eventually comes to have some sympathy for this brave and stubborn young lady. Marta's tender relationship with her mother shows Esperanza that Marta really does have a heart. On the way back from a shopping trip, Esperanza spots Marta and her mom walking home:
Esperanza noticed a girl and a woman walking hand in hand, each with a grocery bag in her other arm. She couldn't help but think what a nice scene it made, with the two women framed against so many spring blossoms. (11.54)
With Esperanza's Mama still in the hospital, "Esperanza felt a twinge of envy when she noticed that Marta never let go of her mother's hand" (11.65).
Marta's character really lets us see how much Esperanza's attitudes change towards the strikers throughout her life in California.
At first, Esperanza doesn't like Marta, and—surprise, surprise—she thinks the strikers are all as mean as she is. They put rattlesnakes into the boxes she has to unpack, and they intimidate her and the other workers as they try to go to work.
But when Marta and the strikers are targeted by the immigration officials, Esperanza actually saves Marta from being deported. Finding Marta hiding in the shed during the raid, Esperanza decides to help her:
But then she thought about Marta and her mother holding hands, and couldn't imagine them being separated from each other. And besides, they were both citizens. They had every right to be here. (12.55)
Why the change of heart? Well, despite the fact that Esperanza doesn't like Marta very much, Esperanza's encounter with this teenage activist forces her to question the fairness of some of the policies of the U.S. government:
She was glad she had kept working and thankful that her camp had voted not to strike, but she knew that under different circumstances, it could have been her on that bus. And then what would Mama have done? Her thoughts jumped back and forth. Some of those people did not deserve their fate today. How was it that the United States could send people to Mexico who had never even lived there? (12.67)
Esperanza is developing her own political beliefs and learning to respect other people's as well. And Marta finally comes to have some respect for Esperanza, too. "Gracias," she tells Esperanza. "I'm sorry I misjudged you" (12.57). Okay, maybe these ladies will never be best buds, but if Esperanza can impress Marta, then she's really come a long way.
(*No actual kittens were harmed in the writing of this learning guide.)