Esperanza Rising

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Unconditional Recommendation: When 13-year-old Esperanza moves from a ranch in Mexico to a farm labor camp in California, she learns to rise above her circumstances.

Age: Young Adult
Series: Stand-Alone
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Scholastic, Inc. (2002)
Genre: Historical Fiction

Awards: Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for Older Children (2001), California Young Readers Medal for Middle School/Junior High (2003), Judy Lopez Memorial Award for Children’s Literature (2001), Pura Belpré Award for Narrative (2002)

This book skillfully intertwines history with story and the main character matures, learning to value what’s important in life and to face the future with hope. What makes Esperanza Rising special is it’s based on a true story. Inspired by her own grandmother, Esperanza Ortego, the author imagines what it might have been like when her grandmother moved from wealthy living in Mexico to poor living in California. The story is eye-opening, absolutely compelling and full of heart.

Summary from the Publisher

When Esperanza and Mama are forced to flee from the bountiful region of Aguascalientes, Mexico, to a Mexican farm labor camp in California, they must adjust to a life without fancy dresses and servants they were accustomed to on Rancho de las Rosas. Now they must confront the challenges of hard work, acceptance by their own people, and economic difficulties brought on by the Great Depression. When Mama falls ill and a strike for better working conditions threatens to uproot their new life, Esperanza must relinquish her hold on the past and learn to embrace a future ripe with the riches of family and community.

Enduring Themes

Esperanza faces many hardships—loss, prejudice, poverty, hard work—and her process of rising above them is at times sad and desperate but then ultimately triumphant and hopeful. Experiencing loss, facing prejudice (for nationality as well as wealth), enduring poverty and unjust circumstances, and bracing up under hard labor are all themes relevant to the human experience and reading them through Esperanza’s eyes is enlightening. It encourages empathy.

Family is the strongest theme from beginning to end. In fact, the best part of Esperanza’s victory is she doesn’t achieve it alone; the bonds of love and support from her family and friends help lift Esperanza up through it all. She would have never matured and become the person she needed to be without her family.

Memorable Characters
Though I enjoyed all the characters in this book and found each of them interesting and unique, the main character of Esperanza naturally shines the brightest. If you’ve read any of my recommendations, you know that I love a story with good character growth and this book does not disappoint! In the beginning, Esperanza is spoiled and displays prejudice against “peasants” in Mexico, but she is put through the school of hard knocks when she becomes a “peasant” herself. Instances of maturity occur as the story progresses:
  • Esperanza takes it upon herself to work and save money to bring her abuelita (grandmother) to America.
  • She shows mercy and compassion to a girl who rudely teased her about once being wealthy.
  • She is devoted to her mother and works all week to pay the hospital bills and visits every weekend.
  • She gives up precious mementos of her past life in order to uplift and encourage other people.

Esperanza grows into a thoughtful, empathetic person and her transformation is a delight to read.

Historical Content
Please read the Author’s Note at the end of the book for information regarding the true events included in this historical fiction. The biggest two are:
  • The Great Depression
  • The Mexican Repatriation
Religious Content

God is not mentioned throughout the book but aspects of Catholicism are mentioned here and there such as attending mass and having a statue of “Our Lady”. These things don’t influence the plot in any way and they’re not what the story is about.

Language Well-Used

I think this book is beautifully and intelligently written because of its compelling use of metaphors and engrossing narrative. I enjoyed the words as much as the story. Also, the blend of Spanish and English languages throughout roots the reader in the people and place of the book.

A Satisfying Ending

My eyes filled with tears at the joyous and hopeful ending. No, everything isn’t resolved—the poverty and poor working and living conditions remain, but the story focuses on the blessings of family despite these things—their importance far outweighs the unjust circumstances. The story ends with a determined hope that one day things will be better. I think the Author’s Note is a must-read after the end of the book because it lends more meaning to the story.

Where to Find this Book: Amazon* or your local library!
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