Fifth or sixth grade teachers looking for a good book for students in their classes to read over the summer should pick up a copy of Esperanza Rising (Scholastic, 2002) by Pam Munoz Ryan. The book follows the adventures of the main character, a twelve year old Mexican girl who must flee to the United States after her wealthy ranchero father is murdered by vaqueros while out mending fences on his property. It is a tragedy with far-ranging consequences. It is also a powerful story that is perfect for students in intermediate grades because the author focuses on character development and poetic language. Ryan creates a realistic world and does not shy away from the dangers and difficulties faced by migrant workers in the central valley of California.
Esperanza’s father is a wise and important presence in her life who first teaches her to love the land. He tells her the earth breathes and is alive, like a person. On a grassy hill, they lay down on their stomachs to feel the earth’s heartbeat. By being still and quiet, Esperanza senses the living land. When she displays the impatient attitude of a child who desperately wants to grow up, her father tells her, “Wait a little while and the fruit will fall into your hand. You must be patient, Esperanza.” Additional lessons come from the roses her father has so carefully cultivated, one he names for her and the other for a son of his ranchero worker. The son, Miguel, and Esperanza, although in separate classes within Mexican society, are linked together in the plot and face the dangers and uncertainties in the new world of America. Before the tragedy of her father’s death, Esperanza picks a rose and pricks her finger on a sharp thorn, a harbinger of the bad luck to come. Throughout the story, Ryan laces in the folklore and traditions of Mexican culture, to which many students will be able to relate and appreciate.
The story is set in the 1920s parallel to the time and place of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The journey to the U.S. for Esperanza and her family is fraught with danger, and not much different from the perilous journey of Latino immigrants today. The story is interesting for the point of view it presents alongside that of the Okies in Steinbeck’s work. Those white migrants from the Dust Bowl are peripheral to this story, as are the Filipino and Japanese workers who occupy similar camps in the valley as the one where Esperanza and her family stay. All of the migrant farm workers faced incredible hardships and challenges, and Esperanza’s story presents yet another side to that period in California history. Throughout the novel, the sense of political upheaval is present. In Mexico, Esperanza’s mother tells her, “Change has not come fast enough, Esperanza. The wealthy still own most of the land while some of the poor have not even a garden plot.” Later in California, some workers want to strike for higher wages while others, like Esperanza and her family, value their jobs and do not wish to make waves. This conflict results in violent and bloody consequences for the workers.
The ending of the book is a little too easy and neat. There is definitely room for more story or a sequel, but the plot as a whole is satisfying and enlightening. Ryan manages to maintain the poetry of the Spanish language, which she translates whenever she uses a phrase. It flows naturally without seeming to be too pedantic.
Teachers are always on the hunt for works that offer a good story and well-developed characters that will interest young readers while also challenging them to improve their reading skills. Since they are reading these books on their own over the summer break, they require works that do not need a teacher’s guidance as the students read. Good literature demands readers, and Esperanza Rising will certainly connect with intermediate grade level students. Pam Munoz Ryan does an excellent job of pulling together an interesting and wise story. It is perfect in scope and content for intermediate grades, and would offer many opportunities for cultural insight and exploration of folklore and traditions. It is a part of “Hispanic literature,” but is readily accessible for a multicultural audience. It would make a good addition to any summer reading list.