Mexican woman farm laborer picking tomatoes in a California field, 1938. These were the very same circumstances and times that Esperanza lived and worked in as a child.
Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.
When she is a young girl learning with difficulty to crochet, her grandmother unravels all of Esperanza's rows and tells her, "Do not be afraid to start over." Although she does not realize it at the time, this advice will become Esperanza's guiding principle as she learns to confront some of life's harsher realities.
Pam Muñoz Ryan was inspired to write Esperanza Rising by the stories she heard as a child from her grandmother, Esperanza Ortega Muñoz. Set in the early 1930s, twenty years after the Mexican Revolution and during the Great Depression, Esperanza Rising tells the story of a young Mexican girl's courage and resourcefulness when at the tender age of thirteen she finds herself living in a strange new world. Esperanza, whose name means "hope" in Spanish, is born to a world of pampered comfort and privilege on a large and successful ranch. But when her father is killed by bandits, she and her mother are eventually forced to flee their life of privilege and travel to the United States where they survive as best they can as migrant farm laborers. When her mother falls ill with Valley Fever, Esperanza learns the value of family and friends. She finds ways to care for her mother and cope with the difficulties of making a new home, rising again like the mythical phoenix in the stories her grandmother told her when she was a child.
In this lesson students will explore some of the contrasts that Esperanza experiences when she suddenly falls from her lofty perch as the darling child of a wealthy landowner surrounded by family and servants to become a servant herself among an extended family of immigrant farm workers. The lesson will also look behind the story at the historical, social, and cultural circumstances that help to account for the great contrasts and contradictions that Esperanza discovers when she comes to the United States. And, finally, the lesson will invite students to contemplate some of the changes that Esperanza undergoes as she confronts herself and her circumstances and grows from a pampered child into a resourceful and responsible young woman.
A Spanish-language edition Esperanza Renace is also available.
At the end of this lesson, students will be able to
On one important level Esperanza Rising is a heart warming story of a young girl who learns the importance of love and sacrifice for family and friends, but on another level it is also a lesson in the cultural as well as personal struggles that poor families, especially immigrants and farm laborers, must experience.
The novel begins with Esperanza as a child of six in 1924, then jumps ahead six years to the eve of her thirteenth birthday. An EDSITEment feature, The Centennial of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-2010, has some excellent background on The Mexican Revolution. Although the Revolution officially ended with the proclamation of the new Constitution of 1917, fighting continued until 1920, and instances of lawlessness and revolutionary activity lingered with the assassinations of Zapata in 1919, of Carranza, the first President elected after the proclamation of the new Constitution, in 1920, and of Pancho Villa in 1923. At the time of the story, bandits, some of them former revolutionaries, were still active, especially against the large landowners like Esperanza's family. This historical background lends depth and richness to the plot and setting as well as the characters.
The novel is set on a large ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico, which a decade earlier had been a center of revolutionary activity, and in migrant labor camps near Arvin, California.
The opening chapters of the book introduce students to the class divides in early 20th-century Mexico, which, like similar distinctions in the United States, were based not only on social class and education but on economics and ethnicity. In the early decades of the 20th century there was great discontent among Mexicans over the distribution of land and wealth as well as over participation in Mexican politics. The EDSITEment-reviewed Getty Museum website online exhibition on "Mexico from Empire to Revolution" includes photographs and background information on the lives of ordinary people in the time of the revolution.
Although the Revolution of 1910 brought political reform, some remained unsatisfied with the results. Pam Muñoz Ryan mentions at least two occasions when bandits attack the ranch owned by Esperanza's family, and it was bandits who killed her father, Sixto Ortega, and set the story of Esperanza's immigration to the United States in motion. These bandits, sometimes former revolutionaries, continued to carry out raids against the large landowners many years after the revolution. And even though Esperanza's father is generous and has given land to his campesinos, or field workers, there are still those who remember the revolution and the great resentment over the unfair distribution of land and the divide between the rich and the poor. During and after the Mexican Revolution many Mexicans who could not find work immigrated to the U.S. where they often became migrant farm laborers on the large farms of California.
Esperanza Rising is also set in the midst of the Great Depression that affected much of the world in the 1930s. The website for the another PBS documentary, Surviving the Dustbowl, has helpful background on The Great Depression and other events leading to the enormous internal migration of American farm families from the dustbowl of the American Midwest. These displaced families were the Okies made famous by John Steinbeck in his Grapes of Wrath and also referred to in Esperanza Rising. The Dustbowl website includes a timeline of related historical events.
The Okies were as desperate for work as the Mexican farm laborers and their growing numbers were creating a labor glut in California. Farmers and growers were able to take advantage of this situation and reduce labor costs, paying lower wages and providing only the bare minimum in the way of accommodations. Some of the farm laborers attempted to form a union and encourage other laborers to strike for better working conditions and higher wages. In time the U.S. Government stepped in and attempted to force repatriation of many of the Mexican farm laborers, some of whom were born in the U.S. or had become citizens. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service conducted raids and deported many thousands of Mexican laborers and their families. Photos of the Great Depression are available on the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory website at the Library of Congress. Another photo essay on the Great Depression is on the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry site.
Among the many hardships that Esperanza and her mother experience is the very difficult case of Valley Fever that Ramona, Esperanza's mother, catches after the dust storm. Although medical care is expensive for Esperanza, it is available in the county hospital. You can learn more about this disease, Coccidioidomycosis, at Medline Plus on the National Institutes of Health website.
This lesson assumes that students have already been asked to read Esperanza Rising, and although some of the activities could begin while they are reading, the fourth activity requires knowledge of the entire novel.
Prior to assigning activities
After students have read at least the first three or four chapters of Esperanza Rising, ask them to imagine what Esperanza's life was like as the pampered child of a wealthy landowner. The goal of this activity is to introduce students to some elements of Mexican culture from the novel, but also to emphasize some of the stark contrasts between Esperanza's privileged position early in the story and her later experiences. Students should also begin to understand the various social and class distinctions as well as the economic divisions between Esperanza's immediate family and their servants and farm workers.
To introduce some of these important differences ask students to take part in a short dramatic sketch reenacting Esperanza's twelfth birthday party. You may want to begin by asking your class to locate Aguascalientes on a map of Mexico such as this one on the EDSITEment-reviewed National Geographic website. Then ask them to imagine what it would have been like to be Esperanza on her birthday? This activity could take the form of a short play that the students write in which they assume the roles of the family and farm workers and friends from the area celebrating Esperanza's twelfth birthday, the one prior to the family tragedy.
Ask students to use details from the novel to create a birthday celebration for Esperanza. Encourage them to mention food, games, gifts, and the birthday song, as well as the parts played by the family, friends, and servants. The Texas State Library has online audio files of Las Mañanitas, the Birthday Song. Before they begin ask them to discuss and answer the following questions.
When they have written and performed their play, ask students to discuss what they have learned about Esperanza and her family from the birthday party? Try to get them to notice and comment on any cultural differences that occur to them, such as the absence of a birthday cake and the relatively small number of children Esperanza's own age.
After students have looked at the web resources and have read at least the first six chapters of the book, through "Los Melones" (cantaloupes), ask them to imagine what it would have been like for Esperanza and her mother to decide to leave their family's ranch and travel to California. The goal of this second activity is to encourage students to appreciate some of the jarring dislocations that Esperanza and her mother, Ramona, and grandmother experience after the death of Esperanza's father, Sixto Ortega. Their family tragedy is made worse by the greed and cruelty of Esperanza's uncles, Tío Marco and Tío Luis, who force Ramona to decide whether to marry her brother-in-law Luis and stay on in Aguascalientes, along with all the hardships that would bring, or to take her daughter and flee with her former servants Alfonzo and Hortensia and their son Miguel and begin a new life in what for them will be a strange new country.
In preparation for this activity, students will benefit from reviewing some of the following web resources. You can assign some of this as homework, using the EDSITEment LaunchPad, but you may want to introduce some of the many photographs on these sites, not all of which will be relevant to Esperanza Rising, in class. A good place to start is by asking students to return to Aguascalientes on a map of Mexico, such as the one on the National Geographic website; then ask them to find Mexicali, the railroad terminus on the California border, and Los Angeles and Arvin (which is not named but is near Bakersfield) on the National Geographic map of California. This should help them to appreciate the great distance that Esperanza and her mother must travel (and that Miguel will have to travel later in the story to bring Esperanza's grandmother Abuelita to join them in California).
There is some helpful background information on the history of the Mexican Revolution of 1910 and its aftermath on the Mexico for Kids website on the EDSITEment-reviewed Latin American Network Information Center. Students can also learn more about the lives of ordinary people like those in the story and look at a collection of photographs on the "Mexico from Empire to Revolution" on the EDSITEment-reviewed website of the Getty Museum.
This activity, which encourages critical thinking and analysis, can be assigned individually or to small work groups. Ask students to make lists of the pros and cons to help them understand what was at stake for Ramona and Esperanza when they had to decide whether to stay in Aguascalientes or flee to California. Encourage them to think about what the consequences might be for each decision. Students may also want to trace the route of the trip to the United States on a map. As they work on the assignment they will be asked to consider the following questions:
When they have finished answering these questions and making their lists, assemble the entire class for an opportunity to compare their lists and to discuss Ramona's decision. Most students will very likely conclude that Ramona made the right decision, but if some conclude she should have stayed and married her husband's brother, Tío Luis, that will provide the basis for a better discussion. If none of the students favor Ramona's staying, be sure that their discussion fully acknowledges the numerous hardships of leaving home and of the journey itself, as well as the natural reluctance to face an uncertain future in a new country. The goal is to help students appreciate the difficulty of such a decision and to understand the hoped for rewards as well as the hardships. A good way to add depth to this discussion is to ask if anyone in the class has had to make such a journey or knows someone, perhaps in their own families, who have done so.
What would it be like to be a migrant farm worker in the 1930s? When students have nearly completed their reading of the novel, at least through the chapter titled "Los Esparagos" (asparaguses), they will be ready for the third activity in this lesson. One goal of this activity is to encourage students to appreciate the many hardships and difficulties that Esperanza encounters and eventually overcomes in her new home. But another related goal is to introduce some of the historical background that Pam Muñoz Ryan uses to add depth and detail to her story.
Once again, in preparation for this activity, you can go over the web resources in class or ask students to review some of them on their own using the EDSITEment LaunchPad. The online resources for the PBS documentary "Surviving the Dustbowl" provides information about The Great Depression and the migration of the Okies as well as a timeline of related historical events. Oakland Museum of California, host of the EDSITEment-reviewed California Gold Rush site, also has resources and photos related to Mexican and Mexican American migrant laborers. Another photo essay on the Great Depression is on the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry website. The EDSITEment-reviewed New Deal Network also has a photo library of images from farm labor camps and migrant labor camps. Not all of these photos will be appropriate to the story of Esperanza, so you may want to select a few examples of families of migrant workers and photographs of farm labor camps for viewing by the class as part of the preparation for this activity.
The Library of Congress American Memory website also has audio recordings of interviews made in 1940 and 1941 at migrant work camps in California. An interview with Augustus Martinez and two with Jose Flores discuss work in the fields and life in the camps as well as labor issues and discrimination against Mexicans. Each interview lasts approximately eight to ten minutes.
After students have reviewed the web resources and finished reading a sufficient portion of the novel, divide the class once again into small work groups and ask each group to choose a subject for a short dramatic scene describing some activity from a day in the life of a farm laborer or a member of a farm laborer's family. These scenes should be based on their reading of Esperanza Rising as well as their background research. Some students may want to take the roles of union organizers who visit with the others and try to persuade them to join the union and strike. Others may describe a shopping trip at the Japanese grocery or preparing a meal after a day in the fields. While the class works on their dramatizations based on the novel, ask them to consider some of the following questions:
When they have completed their dramatic scenes, let the students share them with the assembled class. They can either read them or act them out. The goal is to get students to identify with the hard work and living conditions, but also with the camaraderie among the laborers and their families. Ask the students what they have learned about the difficulties of Esperanza's life in California and the ways she has had to adapt to her new role and her new home.
While the previous activities have been directed at the setting and historical context of Esperanza Rising, the goal of this activity is to focus student attention on the literary qualities of the novel as well as the larger themes and the lessons learned by Esperanza from her experiences. Once again it may be more productive to divide the class into small work groups. Ask each group to make a chart on which they list the parts of the story, the setting, the characters, themes, symbols, imagery, etc. Then ask them to create an outline of the plot of the story. Use the story worksheet in the EDSITEment LaunchPad for this activity. Students should be encouraged to begin by asking and answering some of these questions:
When each group is finished, ask them to compare results with one another. It is likely that each group will see the story in slightly different ways, but as they compare their worksheets, they should begin to see how Pam Muñoz Ryan uses the various elements of the story to make some larger points about the importance of family and friendship and courage and strength of character. Some students may have difficulty identifying symbols and images. Try to get them to notice the way that the author uses the names of fruits and vegetables in the titles of the story's chapters. Ask them to identify all of the objects that seem to have special meaning for Esperanza or one of the other characters.
This activity is a good preliminary to the discussion questions and writing assignments in the assessment section of this lesson. If the class has completed reading the entire novel before beginning this lesson, this activity could be used as the first activity in preparation for the others.
Here are some discussion questions that can also be used as writing assignments:
Although there is a Spanish language edition of this book, some teachers may also want to ask students reading the English language version to learn some of the Spanish words used in the story. As they read Esperanza Rising, ask students to make a list of all the Spanish words they encounter along with the English equivalents. Encourage students to look up the definitions in a Spanish-English dictionary or online. When they have finished their reading, ask them to compare their lists. If there are Spanish-speaking students in the class, ask them to comment on the Spanish words and discuss the similarities and differences between the Spanish and English equivalents that Pam Muñoz Ryan provides. For example, campesinos is translated as field worker, the root of the word is campo, or field. Vaqueros are cowboys, vaca is the Spanish word for cow. Quinceañeras, which Pam Muñoz Ryan refers to as the "presentation party" held on a girl's fifteenth birthday derives from the Spanish quince años, literally fifteen years. There are many Spanish words in the novel, from the very common and familiar ones, such as gracias, thank you; de nada you're welcome, buena suerte, good luck; dulces, sweets; to more complex words, such as una palanca, a lever, meaning some kind of "connection" which Miguel says he would need to get a job on the railroad in Mexico. Pam Muñoz Ryan also uses the Spanish names of various fruits and vegetables as chapter titles, to mark the progress of the story and the passing of time with the seasons of the harvests.
If there is time, especially if you team teach with someone in social studies, you may want to introduce the story "We didn't go to el Norte to gather flowers," told by Don Miguel Gutiérrez in May, 1992, one of the oral histories collected by the Mexican Migration Project, a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Latin American Network Information Center. The similarities and differences in this true story of a Mexican migrant worker and his family may help place Esperanza Rising in an even more contemporary context. This story is one of several told by recent immigrants in both Spanish and English.
4-5 class periods