Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan is a powerful story about a rich and spoiled Mexican girl whose sudden impoverishment in the 1930s takes her into the migrant worker camps of California. It teaches much about the Great Depression as well as discrimination during that period.
At the beginning of the novel, Esperanza lives a life of privilege. She is the only child of a wealthy Mexican landowner. She lives in a mansion on many acres, and as her teenage years begin, she looks forward to being the one who cuts the first vine of grapes, the one who receives a new china doll with every birthday, and the one adding every year to her trousseau as she plans for her future. She struggles with her life-long friendship with Miguel, her maid’s son, with whom she has grown up. Now that she is older, she realizes that there is a class divide. Her awkwardness with the class divide is one major challenge for her.
But all changes when her father is killed by unhappy and violent peasants. Now her unkind uncle, who seeks more power in the community, demands her mother’s hand in marriage in order to save their farm. When violence and threats escalate, it becomes clear that Esperanza and her mother must flee Mexico if they want to survive. With the help of Miguel’s family, they flee, into a situation quite different from that Esperanza’s previous years.
I loved how, until this point, Esperanza’s privileged life seemed like it could be in any other era. It seemed she was a princess in a palace. Only upon leaving her home did we see the realities of life in the 1930s. Now, Esperanza was an immigrant, destined to work hard in the migrant worker camps. Miguel had to show her how to sweep a floor, and quickly Esperanza’s life is no longer monitored by the gorgeous dolls that line her shelves, growing each year, but by the rotation of the crops in the camps in California. Her story provided a clear look at the unfair situations minorities faced during the Great Depression.
Amazingly, much of Esperanza’s story was based on the experiences of the author’s own grandmother.
One thing that I learned about the era as I read Esperanza’s story was the sudden deportation of hundreds of thousands of striking Mexicans, even those who had lived in America their entire lives. I had been aware of the Japanese internment camps during World War II, but I had never heard of the Mexican deportations, which likely broke up many more families that had long been established in America. Discrimination was real and obviously supported by governmental agencies.
Esperanza’s story is full of loneliness as she adjusts to her new life. But through it all, there is woven a thread of hope, which is appropriate since Esperanza’s name means “hope.” As many likely learned in reality during the times in the migrant worker camps and throughout the country during the Great Depression, family and friends are what make like worth living. Despite harsh living circumstances and hard work, life can be full of hope and joy as one embraces the things that truly matter.
I highly recommend this book for children and adults alike.
It is well deserving of the Newbery Award it received. It received the Pura Belpre award in 2002.