Study Guide

Esperanza Rising Themes

  • Perseverance

    Abuelita is full of wise little gems in Esperanza Rising, but our favorite one is this: "Do not be afraid to start over" (2.38). If perseverance had a tagline, that would be it, don't you think? That or "get up off your lazy bum and keep at it." Either way.

    Esperanza quickly figures out that Abuelita isn't just talking about crocheting. Our young protagonist is forced to leave her home, her friends, and all of the comforts of her former life in order to start over in a strange new country—the United States. Esperanza and her family work hard for pennies a day and live in poverty. And to make matters worse, they have to contend with racism and prejudice. But Esperanza, whose name means "hope" in Spanish, never gives up. Why? Because she has the support and love of her family and that special spark inside her.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Esperanza's grandmother uses the zigzag pattern in her blanket as a way of explaining the ups and downs of life. When things are easy, you're at the top of a mountain. When things are hard, you're at the bottom of a valley. What do you think? Is this a good metaphor for life? What object would you use to represent the difficulties and complications of life?
    2. What challenges does Esperanza face in her new life in the United States?
    3. Papa used to tell Esperanza, "Aguántate tantito y la fruta caerá en tu mano" ("Wait a little while, and the fruit will fall into your hand"). Is he really talking about fruit? What does Esperanza's father really mean when he says this? When does Esperanza think about these words that her father used to say?
    4. Who are the most determined characters in this story? Do any of them ever get discouraged or give up? What convinces them to keep going?

    Chew on This

    Esperanza really learns what it means to be determined when her mom gets sick and she has to take on the responsibility of leading the family.

    Miguel is the main force behind Esperanza's perseverance—his ambition and optimism convince her to keep on keepin' on.

  • The Home

    Next time on Soap Opera Central, a young woman's idea of "home" is thrown into crisis when her evil uncle burns down her family's house. Oh wait, no, that's actually what happens in Esperanza Rising. Esperanza and her Mama have to make a choice: keep their wealth and be separated by the evil Tío Luis, or flee the country and live together in poverty. In the end, it's a pretty easy decision.

    Their new digs in California aren't what Esperanza is used to. Instead of a luxuriously furnished mansion, she and her Mama have to share a two-room shack with three other people. But as Esperanza's Mama teaches her, it doesn't really matter where they go. As long as they're with the people they love, they are home. (Cue sappy music.)

    Questions About The Home

    1. Draw a picture of El Rancho de las Rosas, Esperanza's childhood home. Pretty swank, huh?
    2. What objects do Esperanza, Mama, Hortensia, Alfonso, and Miguel bring from Mexico to the farm camp in California? Why are these objects special?
    3. What does Esperanza's new house look like in California? What things does the family use to decorate the cabin? Are they old things? New things?
    4. Draw Esperanza's family tree. What does it look like? Are all the members of Esperanza's family related by blood? Who feels more like family to Esperanza: Tío Luis or Isabel?

    Chew on This

    The objects that decorate Esperanza's new home in California—babies' toys, Isabel's pictures, peaches from the field, and Papa's roses—represent the blending of Esperanza's old and new lives.

    Even though Esperanza is related to her uncles by blood, she doesn't really consider them to be her family. On the other hand, Hortensia, Alfonso, Miguel, and their relatives in the United States do become part of Esperanza's family, even though they're not technically related.

  • Justice and Judgment

    Esperanza Rising is fictionalized, sure, but the events behind the story are incredibly real. And when it comes to farm laborers during the Great Depression, questions of fairness and justice are everywhere.

    In our story, Marta and some of the other workers protest that the farmers are taking advantage of them. They go on strike, refusing to work until the farmers pay better wages and provide better living conditions. Marta believes that Mexicans will never be able to get ahead because of racial prejudice, and she thinks that striking is the only way to achieve justice. At first Esperanza disagrees, but eventually she starts to have some sympathy for Marta's point of view.

    What do you think? It's not easy to form your own political opinions—especially when real people are involved—but Esperanza Rising encourages us to do just that.

    Questions About Justice and Judgment

    1. Are the farmers smart businessmen to hire workers for the lowest wages possible? Or are they taking advantage of desperate people?
    2. Why does Miguel lose his job as a railroad mechanic? Is this unjust, or just bad luck?
    3. What is a "strike"? Why do Marta and some of the other workers go on strike? What do they hope to accomplish by refusing to work?
    4. Why are Esperanza and her family reluctant to join the strikers? What are they afraid will happen if they refuse to work?

    Chew on This

    Esperanza and her family are silly not to join the strike right away. Their employers are treating them unjustly by paying such low wages and providing terrible housing. The only way the workers can hope to be treated fairly is to get everyone to refuse to work until the farmers agree to pay higher wages.

    Esperanza and her family are wise not to join the strike. If they refuse to work, they will lose their jobs to unemployed workers from Oklahoma, who are willing to work for pennies a day. If they just keep working hard and don't cause trouble, Esperanza and her family will eventually prosper.

  • Society and Class

    The characters in Esperanza Rising aren't just running away from Esperanza's super scary uncle. They're also looking for jobs and an opportunity for a better life. In Mexico in the 1920s, people like Miguel, Alfonso, and Hortensia knew that the social divide between the upper class and the peasants was pretty much uncrossable. If you weren't born to an upper-class family, your social and economic status was limited, no matter how hard you worked. (Even Esperanza thinks so, and she doesn't hesitate to snobbishly make that clear to Miguel.)

    Cue the American Dream—the idea that, by working hard in the U.S., anyone can be successful. Unfortunately, Miguel and his family learn quickly that the United States of the 1930s has social problems of its own, including rampant racism and discrimination. But despite these setbacks, they soldier on and keep fighting for their dreams.

    Questions About Society and Class

    • Esperanza thinks that there's a river dividing her from Miguel. What does she mean by this? And how does the river function as a metaphor for Mexican society?
    • Where do Esperanza and Miguel stand in relation to Esperanza's river? Do their positions ever change?
    • How do Esperanza and Miguel imagine the United States before they get there? Do their preconceived notions change at all once they have lived in the U.S. for a little while?
    • How does Esperanza's mother change after she and Esperanza lose their home and their fortune? Which of her social "rules" does she break?
    • What connection does Miguel notice between race and class in Mexico?

    Chew on This

    The train ride from Mexico to the United States represents a space of social transition for Esperanza and her Mama. They are moving from a society that is sharply divided into two classes, to a society in which all Mexicans are seen as equal. The train is the physical connection between these two different spaces, and it's also the first place where Esperanza's Mama teaches her to interact with poor Mexicans as equals.

    Miguel and Esperanza were equals throughout the entire book; Esperanza just didn't realize it until the end.

  • Poverty

    For the first twelve years of her life, Esperanza lives the life of luxury. We kind of imagine it like this. But when she and her mother lose everything and have to flee to the United States, Esperanza gets a crash course in poverty. She learns about the connection between class and race, the relationships between the rich and the poor, and the quality of life for poor workers. What's more, she learns this all first hand. Talk about the biggest reality check ever.

    Questions About Poverty

    1. What does Esperanza learn about poverty while on the train from Mexico to the U.S.? Who is poor in Mexican society, and who is rich? Who takes care of the poor?
    2. Miguel observes that, in Mexico in 1930, light skinned people tend to be wealthy, while dark skinned people tend to be poor. Why do you think this is?
    3. Esperanza finds it hard to believe that anyone can live in shabbier conditions than the ones at the company camp where she lives. But as it turns out, things could be worse. What groups are struggling even more than the Mexican farm workers? What are their camps like?

    Chew on This

    If Esperanza had continued to live her life of luxury and privilege, she never would have learned that many people live in poverty and struggle to survive. Losing everything makes Esperanza a more knowledgeable and sympathetic character.

    The novel makes the argument that the unfairness of working conditions on the big farms is one of the causes of poverty.

  • Principles

    When we first meet Esperanza in Esperanza Rising, we can tell she's a sweet kid—but we have no idea if she's really a good person. After all, it's pretty easy to be agreeable when you're super wealthy and everyone throws you big parties all the time. The real test of a person's character is how they act when the going gets tough, right?

    Esperanza's parents and grandmother do their best to teach Esperanza some important lessons about patience, bravery, and kindness. And boy, do these lessons pay off. Esperanza keeps their words in mind as she's challenged by the death of her father, the loss of her home and fortune, and the difficulties of a new life in a strange country. It's not easy, and Esperanza definitely makes a few mistakes along the way. But ultimately we find out that this is a young lady with a lot of integrity.

    Questions About Principles

    1. On the train, Mama seems to break all of her social "rules" when she confides in a poor egg woman named Carmen. She also reprimands Esperanza for being rude to a barefoot peasant girl. Why has Mama's behavior changed? Does Mama have a deeper set of rules that is guiding her actions?
    2. According to all the examples we see in the novel, what does it mean to be a good or virtuous person? Does Esperanza always behave this way? Is she ultimately virtuous or not?
    3. At the beginning of the novel, Esperanza's Papa teaches her the importance of being patient, saying: "Wait a little while and the fruit will fall into your hand." Where else do we see this phrase repeated in the novel? How does this advice help Esperanza transition to a new life in the United States?
    4. Who are the biggest optimists out of all the characters in this novel? Why is it so important for them to remain optimistic?

    Chew on This

    The most important lesson that Esperanza learns from Mama is that nothing matters more than being with the people you consider your family.

    Esperanza has to learn to be a virtuous person. On the train, she is judgmental and unkind to the other passengers. But she learns from this mistake, and makes up for it by treating several other characters with kindness and generosity.

  • Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    Esperzanza Rising is the story of plans gone awry. And boy do we mean awry. As the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher, Esperanza looks forward to a future as straightforward as the rows of grapes in her father's vineyards. But that future soon disappears and Esperanza finds herself immigrating to a strange new country where she has no idea what lies around the bend. Her fellow immigrants come to the United States with big dreams and plans to work hard, and despite the many difficulties that Esperanza encounters, she comes to feel that making a new life in the United States is a dream worth having.

    Questions About Dreams, Hopes, and Plans

    1. How do Esperanza's plans and dreams change as the novel progresses? How does Esperanza picture her adult self when she's twelve? What about when she's fourteen?
    2. What are Miguel's dreams? Why does he feel that he needs to move to the United States in order to accomplish them?
    3. According to Josefina, why do many immigrants move to a new country?
    4. What goals does Esperanza actually accomplish in the novel? How do these accomplishments shape how she feels about the future?

    Chew on This

    Esperanza's goals at the end of the novel are much more awesome than the plans of her twelve-year-old self, because accomplishing them will require lots of hard work, and that's what really counts.

    When she has to take on the responsibility of caring for her sick mother, Esperanza becomes an adult—and her dreams become more adult, too, especially compared to her childish dream of getting her wealth back.

  • Visions of America

    Esperanza and Miguel imagine the United States to be a land of opportunity, where everyone gets a chance to succeed. Unfortunately, this dream turns out to be a wee bit idealistic. Sure, it looks like the United States is a prosperous place. With farmland extending as far as the eye can see, how could anyone starve in a place like this? But as it turns out, plenty of people in the U.S. are struggling with issues like poverty, exploitation, and racial prejudice. In Esperanza Rising, America is no utopia. But it's still a place with a better chance for making dreams come true.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Why do you think the novel presents so many panoramic views of the San Joaquin Valley? What do these huge, sweeping vistas of farmland say about America?
    2. What ideas do Esperanza and Miguel have about the United States before they get there? Do these ideas turn out to be true?
    3. What kinds of social problems are people dealing with in the United States in the 1930s? How do these issues affect Esperanza and the people she knows?
    4. Why do so many people want to immigrate to the United States in the 1930s? What are some of the particular challenges that they face as immigrants?

    Chew on This

    America in this book is a big old bummer. Poverty and prejudice make persevering tough work for our characters.

    The racial prejudice of American employers and the abuses of the immigration officials show Esperanza that working in the United States is no better than being a servant in Mexico. Mexicans in the United States are treated like "second-class citizens" (13.48).

  • Prejudice

    In moving from Mexico to the United States, Esperanza and her family move from a very classist society to one in which discrimination usually depends on racial and ethnic bias, rather than how much money you've got in your wallet. As a light-skinned member of Mexico's upper class, Esperanza isn't used to being discriminated against. In fact, she's used to being the one doing the discriminating. But Esperanza Rising is all about out with the old, in with the new, so Esperanza will have to figure out how to rise above the differences that divide her community. In doing so, we're pretty sure she'll create a new and better life for herself.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. How does American society characterize Mexican immigrants? How does the novel show us that these stereotypes are false?
    2. Why does Isabel deserve to be the Queen of May at school? Why isn't she chosen for this honor?
    3. Besides Mexicans, what other groups experience discrimination in the novel? What is that discrimination based on?
    4. Why does Miguel lose his job as a railroad mechanic? What is his reaction to being fired? What does he say he will have to do in order to succeed in the United States?
    5. Even though in Mexico Esperanza is one of the wealthy elite "with Spanish blood, who have the fairest complexions in the land," in the United States she is seen as part of "one big, brown group who are good for only manual labor" (5.100, 11.41). How can Esperanza be seen as "white" in one country, but as "brown" in another? What other factors besides skin color affect people's understanding of race in the novel?

    Chew on This

    So much for equality. Even though the United States is supposedly a classless society, racial discrimination in Esperanza Rising means that the Mexican immigrants, as well as any other groups that are not white, are treated as second-class citizens.

    Funny how the tables have turned. Esperanza goes from being a person who discriminates against the poor in Mexico to a person who experiences discrimination because she is Mexican.