What better way to learn history than through the eyes of a beloved character as she experiences it firsthand? Esperanza Ortega guides us through her beautiful coming-of-age story in the 1930s. With the effects of the Mexican Revolution and the Great Depression lingering in her hometown of Aguascaleintes, Mexico, the wellborn Esperanza goes from anticipating her lavish birthday fiesta to struggling to survive in a California migrant farm workers’ camp in a matter of days. Forced to leave her home and her beloved abuela behind, the future is filled with uncertainty, hard work, and ultimately re-birth as a stronger Esperanza.
She lives at the camp amidst strikes and the threat of deportations. She assumes responsibilities that may seem trivial at first – like sweeping a platform – but for this child of privilege, it is all new and scary. And just as she is beginning to get her footing, her mother falls ill forcing Esperanza to grow up even faster. She finds solace and support from her fellow workers like young Isabel, and from her childhood friend, the steadfast Miguel. Her memories of her grandmother keep her focused on the goal of bringing the old woman to California to help save her mother.
Pam Muñoz Ryan’s own family history is the genesis of this novel as she weaves in elements of her own grandmother’s real-life story. Ryan’s writing is poetic with a lyrical quality that adds beauty to an already touching story. The characters are realistic and easy to identify with, so full of genuine kindness that they guide the reader through the harsh realities of the time period with a humanness that softens even the most dire situations. For example, when Esperanza and her mother are so weary from their new life in the work camp, Miguel and his father surprise them with a small garden, complete with prized roses they secretly brought from the ranch in Mexico. This gesture reminds Esperanza of her dear father, and makes the small cabin feel more like home. By the roses, Mama says to Esperanza, “Didn’t I tell you that Papa’s heart would find us wherever we go?”
The novel follows the rhythm of the agricultural calendar, with each chapter named for the produce harvested at that time of year. From Las Uvas (Grapes) through Las Papas (Potatoes) and Los Duraznos (Peaches) and many more, your students will gain a deeper connection to the food they see in the supermarket, and a deeper understanding of the hard-working people who work to get it there.
At its heart, Esperanza Rising is the story of a young girl forced to face a new reality. She heeds her grandmother’s advice, “Do not ever be afraid to start over.” As she adapts, learns, grows, and loves, she ultimately rises like the hope she is named for.