Esperanza Rising by Pam Murioz Ryan;
Scholastic Press: New York, 2000; $15.95
Did you know that esperanza means hope in Spanish? That word, and that word alone, is the perfect way to describe the young heroine of this novel, Esperanza Ortega.
Esperanza Ortega is a pampered little rich girl in Aguascalientes, Mexico in 1930, who has all the food, clothes, and toys that any twelve-year-old child could want. She has many servants and she has her love for her mother, father, and grandmother. The novel starts by showing the theme of the book: when Esperanza was six years old, her father took her for a walk in El Rancho de Rosas, their home, and told her to lie down in the field, and she could feel the heart of the valley. When Esperanza did as he said, it turned out to be true, and she and her father shared this little secret.
The day before Esperanza’s thirteenth birthday, however, a horrible thing happens: her father is attacked and killed by bandits, who believe that they killed righteously, because Papa is rich and most likely scorns the poor, like them. When this dreadful news is delivered to Esperanza and her mother, they go into mourning, and Papa’s older stepbrothers, Tio Marco and Tio Luis, come to supposedly help them through their time of need. The true purpose for their staying comes clear, though, when Tio Luis announces that he wishes to marry Mama. However, Mama turns his proposal down. But after the uncles burn their house to the ground, the family realizes that they must leave Mexico.
Esperanza, Mama, and their former servants—Miguel, Alfonso, and Hortensia—take the train to California and begin to work as farm laborers. Esperanza is enraged, however, because she is not used to “being treated like horses” or living among poor people. Even after she befriends Miguel’s younger cousin Isabel, she still scorns and fears the labor camp because there are the strikers in it who are trying to get better working conditions and will stop at nothing and no one to get what they want.
I liked Esperanza Rising, but there was one big thing that I didn’t like: Esperanza was so real a character that I felt a little bit queasy. I’m not very comfortable around realistic fiction books. I’m more the fantasy-novel type. I still don’t like books that don’t end “happily ever after.”
There were some things that Esperanza experienced that I have as well. When Esperanza was asked to sweep the porch and she didn’t know how to even use a broom, I knew just how she felt, because I’ve had that feeling more than once. When I was little, I begged my mom to let me have a bike, so I could be “just like the big kids,” and I never rode it, so I’ve never learned how to ride a bike. When my friends ask me to ride my bike with them, I always have to lie and say that it’s “much closer to walk,” and “oh, couldn’t you walk, too?” It’s very difficult when you can’t do something that most other people can. But Esperanza learned how to use a broom, while I still have yet to learn how to ride a bike!
Esperanza Rising is written so you could definitely feel what the characters were feeling. I very nearly almost laughed out loud at the part when Esperanza had to wash the babies’ diapers and she didn’t know how, so she was just dipping them into the washing basin with two fingers.
Esperanza Rising is a vivid, well-written book. The author takes her time, and describes every scene and every character as though the whole novel revolved around them. And she shows how Esperanza changes: from a pampered, stuck-up girl, to an understanding young woman. And the whole story contains hope. Hope that the strikers will understand why Esperanza and her family and the other workers need their jobs and will not join them. Hope that Esperanza will one day become rich again. And hope that Abuelita, Esperanza’s grandmother, will one day come and join Esperanza and Mama in the labor camp, because she was left behind at El Rancho de Rosas.