Friday, July 6, 2007

Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Munoz Ryan, Pam. (2000). Esperanza Rising. New York: Scholastic. ISBN 043912042X.

Esperanza Rising is the tale of the true courage it takes to leave one’s comfort zone—physical, geographical, emotional, linguistic—and learn to make a new start, a new life, in a foreign place. Esperanza is a young girl who lives on her father’s farm in Mexico. Their family is well-off and respected amongst the farming families but there are dangers—banditos who out of desperation and jealousy raid the farming families. Not much of this seems to affect Esperanza—who cares mostly about the upcoming grape harvest, her thirteenth birthday which will come at the end of the harvest and the new doll her father will give her. Sure, her father has taught her the importance of the land and of connecting with her history and the land itself, but her daily preoccupations have more to do with herself and the activities that befit a young wealthy girl.

All this changes when her father fails to return from working the cattle. She’s worried about him being late, but consoles herself with the thoughts of how he’ll serenade her in the morning. But he doesn’t come. And to make things worse, Esperanza’s uncles show up the next day with a silver belt buckle, engraved with the ranch’s brand—her father’s belt buckle. Her father was dead.

After Esperanza’s uncle tries to coerce her mother to marry him—and fails—he sets the harvest on fire. Esperanza and her mother flee in the middle of the night, with immigration papers, headed for the border of the United States. Esperanza, forced to ride in the lower class train cars, gets her first real exposure to class difference and thinks herself better than those around her.

It’s when she gets to California that she begins to realize that she is now a campesino just like the others and that in order to survive, she’ll have to roll up her sleeves. But she is reluctant—that is, until her mother falls ill and Esperanza has to work twice as hard to earn the money her mother needs in order to get better. She even saves up enough to bring her beloved Abuelita to California—the cure she’s sure her mother needs.

This story is a great account of riches to rags and the struggles of the immigrant worker. Readers get an intimate look at what the lives of the poorest, most put-upon and perhaps hardest working people of the Great Depression looked like.

The linguistic considerations of this book are very interesting. The first half of the book is set in Mexico and the text seems to echo this fact in that nearly every other paragraph has Spanish peppered throughout. However, once Esperanza gets to the United States, the occurrence of Spanish fades to nearly nothing and then nearly always in the actual dialogue. It makes you wonder whether it is because maybe Esperanza doesn’t speak English, or she feels pressured to only speak English. Or maybe she’s trying to forget the pain she left behind in Mexico and shuts out the vocabulary that reminds her of it. There is no explicit explanation for the change, but it is, nevertheless, an interesting linguistic phenomenon of the book.

In most instances where Spanish occurs, the English translation immediately follows. This seems less authentic than if the author were to allow the context to explain the meaning of those words. On the other hand, later in the book there are two specific instances where the English translation is not given and they are actually obscure enough words, that I—even with my Spanish minor and history of travel in Hispanic countries—did not recognize (comal and carpetas). One thing I found interesting was that many food items which have become mainstream in the English language (especially in the South/Southwest) such as tortilla, tamale and burrito were all italicized, implying that it was somehow foreign (other instances of this appeared—dulces, sopa de albondigas and flan de almoneda—where italicization seemed perfectly natural).

One thing that rang particularly authentic was how in the narration, Esperanza’s father was referred to as “Papa” but when actually speaking to him, Esperanza called him “Papi” several times. At first, the reference to her grandmother as “Abuelita” in the narration seemed to counteract the authenticity of the first instance (with the father), however, it was mentioned explicitly that “everyone called her Abuelita”; hence, explaining why such an intimate term of endearment shouldn’t be awkward in the narration.

As for the story itself and its themes, this is not your typical tale of immigrant hardship. This isn’t the story of a poor, homeless family in search of the land of plenty in the United States, but rather a tale of refuge. Given the choice, Esperanza and her mother would have stayed on their ranch to carry on the legacy her father worked so hard to build. It’s still the story of a clandestine journey—though they both have papers, they are still running from Esperanza’s angry and evil uncles—and of hunger and hard work. It is the story of learning humility.

It also gives us a fictionalized window into the hardships migrant and immigrant workers suffered before standing up for their rights—as well as how hard it must have been to choose between standing up for yourself and doing as you were told in order to survive.

As to the cultural accuracy/authenticity of this book, the author herself recounts in the Author’s Note that not only has she done her research on the growers activities and injustices, but that research was started and fuelled by the stories her grandmother told her of her own journey to the United States, going from a prominent ranching family to a campesina.

Reviews (via

Publishers Weekly:
"With a hint of magical realism, this robust novel set in 1930 captures a Mexican girl's fall from riches and her immigration to California," said PW in our Best Books citation. Ages 8-12.

Gr. 5-8. Moving from a Mexican ranch to the company labor camps of California, Ryan's lyrical novel manages the contradictory: a story of migration and movement deeply rooted in the earth. When 14-year-old Esperanza's father is killed, she and her mother must emigrate to the U.S., where a family of former ranch workers has helped them find jobs in the agricultural labor camps. Coming from such privilege, Esperanza is ill prepared for the hard work and difficult conditions she now faces. She quickly learns household chores, though, and when her mother falls ill, she works packing produce until she makes enough money to bring her beloved abuelita to the U.S.. Set during the Great Depression, the story weaves cultural, economic, and political unrest into Esperanza's poignant tale of growing up: she witnesses strikes, government sweeps, and deep injustice while finding strength and love in her family and romance with a childhood friend. The symbolism is heavy-handed, as when Esperanza ominously pricks her finger on a rose thorne just before her father is killed. But Ryan writes movingly in clear, poetic language that children will sink into, and the books offers excellent opportunities for discussion and curriculum support.

School Library Journal:
Grade 6-9-Ryan uses the experiences of her own Mexican grandmother as the basis for this compelling story of immigration and assimilation, not only to a new country but also into a different social class. … Set against the multiethnic, labor-organizing era of the Depression, the story of Esperanza remaking herself is satisfyingly complete, including dire illness and a difficult romance. Except for the evil uncles, all of the characters are rounded, their motives genuine, with class issues honestly portrayed. Easy to booktalk, useful in classroom discussions, and accessible as pleasure reading, this well-written novel belongs in all collections.

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