This is a middle-grade book that gets everything right. Historical fiction based on the life of author Pam Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother, it is authentic and heartbreaking.
Esperanza spent the first 13 years of her life in luxury on her ranch home in Aguascalientes, Mexico. But the murder of her father by bandits put an end to the beautiful dresses and servants waiting on her hand and foot. She and her mama, Ramona, flee with their former servants to the United States, leaving behind their wealth and her Abuelita.
They settle in California at a camp for Mexicans working the local farms, and for the first time in her life, Esperanza must earn her keep, and earn the respect of those she lives and works with. Facing not only hard labour but racism and more loss, Esperanza has to reinvent herself and learn what she is capable of surviving.
The characters in this novel are fabulous. Esperanza starts off as a slightly spoiled, pampered young girl, who has had a life never wanting for anything. As an only child, she is the centre of her parents’ lives, and of those of the servants that cater to her. She is a bit hot-tempered and doesn’t really think of her words and how they can affect other people. Servants are there to serve, and she loves them, but they are not her status. That is just the way it is. As life hands her hardships, she starts to change her expectations and learns to work. But it is not only her attitude towards labour that changes.
Esperanza begins to see that no one is better than another. And it is a tough lesson to learn. She goes from shunning a poor peasant girl on the train to working alongside and befriending people she would have once thought were lower than her. I love the passage where she realizes she cannot sweep the floor, and instead of ridiculing her, her friends teach her. She learns pride in her work and that friendship has no level.
Ramona is a wonderful character. After a life of privilege and losing her husband, she gives up her wealth and status to work on a farm and to stay with her daughter. And in doing so, she sets an example for the girl about what is actually important, and how all people are created equal, a lesson Esperanza had yet to learn.
Miguel, Isabel, Abuelita, Hortensia, Alfonso, Josefina and so many others make up Esperanza’s new extended family, and all contribute to her education and strength. They live with racism in every form, from Isabel losing the Queen of May crown in her third-grade classroom to a blond, blue-eyed girl, to Miguel losing his machine shop job to the unqualified white man from Oklahoma. They witness forced deportations of American-born Mexicans to a country they never lived in, and they struggle with the urge to strike for better working conditions, knowing that they could be among those sent across the border.
Muñoz Ryan’s descriptions make the story come alive. I could picture the thousands of acres of rolling hills of El Rancho de las Rosas, the plump juicy grapes waiting for harvest, the crowded and steamy train across the border, and the Depression-era dust storms and tiny accommodations of the work camp in California. She writes about events in America’s history that aren’t well known but affected the lives of thousands of people who came looking for a better life. Some may have found it, but some ended up worse off.
Read the author’s notes at the end. She talks about her grandmother and “Miguel,” and you might just jump for joy.
Esperanza Rising was published May 1st, 2002 by Scholastic Press. First published January 1st, 2000.