Closer Readings Commentary

Cultivating Hope through “Esperanza Rising”

I am poor, but I am rich. I have my children, I have a garden with roses, and I have my faith and the memories of those who have gone before me. What more is there? ―Pam Muñoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising is a story filled with dichotomies—wealth and poverty, rose gardens and hard labor, faith and doubt, memory and thinking ahead. Set in post-revolutionary Mexico and in California during the time of the Great Depression, the novel, on one level, portrays the personal challenges of a young immigrant girl as she comes of age and awakens to the adult requirements of love and sacrifice for others. On another level, the novel transcends the cultural and personal struggles of this particular character, and reflects the harsh realities that many poor migrant families experience regardless of their cultural orientation.

The author of Esperanza Rising, Pam Muñoz Ryan, a Mexican-American writer, was born in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, in Bakersfield, California, in 1951. She has written more than thirty books, which have garnered many accolades, including the NEA’s Human and Civil Rights Award, and the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for multicultural literature. Esperanza Rising itself has received numerous honors, including the Pura Belpré Award which is presented to a Latino or Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays the Latino cultural experience in a work of literature for children or youth.

In Esperanza Rising, Ryan introduces Esperanza (in Spanish the name means “hope”) as a child of six in 1924. The narrative then jumps ahead six years to the eve of her thirteenth birthday and continues to follow the resourceful adolescent as she matures into young adulthood. The setting shifts from the large ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico, which a decade earlier had been a center of revolutionary activity, to migrant labor camps near Arvin, California.

EDSITEment’s feature on the Mexican Revolution offers pertinent background to Esperanza’s story. Although the Mexican Revolution officially ended with the proclamation of the new Constitution in 1917, many instances of lawlessness and insurgent activity lingered, including subsequent assassinations of government officials. At the time when Esperanza Rising takes place, some of these former revolutionaries are still active as bandits, especially against the large landowners like the Esperanza family. Knowledge of this historical background lends depth and richness to the students’ understanding of the plot and setting as well as the characters in the novel.

EDSITEment lesson Esperanza Rising: Learning Not to Be Afraid to Start Over explores the historical, social, and cultural conditions that contributed to the great contrasts and contradictions that migrants confronted as they entered the United States during the Great Depression. Activities in this lesson help students understand the underlying issues farm laborers dealt with in the 1930s, and address the attitudes of American landowners toward those workers who emigrated from Mexico. It is targeted to middle school students, but can be adapted for other grade levels. (A Spanish-language version of the lesson, Esperanza Renace, is also available.)

Classroom Activities

Activity 2 encourages critical thinking and analysis by asking students to make lists of the pros and cons of what was at stake for Esperanza and her mother, Ramona, when they had to make the difficult choice of whether to stay in Aguascalientes or flee to California. It traces the route of the proposed trip to the United States on a map and offers students a way to think about what the consequences might be for each option. The goal is to help students understand the characters’ struggle and to appreciate the hoped-for rewards as well as the hardships involved in the decision.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.9: Compare and contrast a fictional portrayal of a time, place, or character and a historical account of the same period as a means of understanding how authors of fiction use or alter history.

Activity 3 is a dramatization exercise that commences after students have finished reading a sufficient portion of the novel and have reviewed the suggested online resources. Working in groups, students choose a subject for a short dramatic scene depicting some activity from a day in the life of a farm laborer or a member of a farm laborer’s family, based on their reading of Esperanza Rising as well as their background research.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.7.4: Present claims and findings, emphasizing salient points in a focused, coherent manner with pertinent descriptions, facts, details, and examples; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation.

Activity 4 focuses students’ attention on the literary qualities of the novel as well as the larger themes and the lessons learned by Esperanza from her experiences. Each group makes a chart on which they list the parts of the story, the setting, the characters, themes, symbols, imagery, and so on. They create an outline of the plot of the story. The Esperanza Rising LaunchPad can be used as an additional or alternate independent student activity.

Aligns with CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.3: Analyze how particular elements of a story or drama interact (e.g., how setting shapes the characters or plot).

Through a careful reading of this narrative, students uncover the difficult choices faced by many who decide to leave their home country and migrate to the United States. Esperanza Rising epitomizes the similar plight faced by immigrant children the world over. It offers a hopeful outcome to the challenges of making a new home and reinventing yourself in a strange land—a model in how to rise again like the mythical phoenix from the stories Esperanza’s grandmother told her when she was a child.