Saturday, September 24, 2011

Module 5: Esperanza Rising

The YA book Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan is (so far) the best YA book I've read in a while.  Maybe it's because of the recent blatant bigotry being directed towards migrant workers and immigrants, maybe it's the universal themes that run throughout the book, maybe it's because of the characters themselves.  Whatever the case may be, though, Esperanza Rising gets five stars from me.  (And clearly from the pickers of the Pura Belpre award too, since it won said award.)


Esperanza is fourteen when her life of El Rancho de las Rosas changes forever, as tragedy befalls her family.  The story follows the riches-to-rags formula and readers follow Esperanza and her mother Ramona as they travel from Aguascalientes to the United States to work on a farm and live in a migrant camp.  At first, Esperanza is not entirely a likable character -- she is not used to work, and doesn't even know how to sweep a floor, and this is one reason why I love the book: the protagonist is not immediately 100% likeable.  The reader grows to like her though as her attitude shifts, and Esperanza (like the phoenix) learns to work, and encounters strikes and battles over the ideas and interacts with characters who are good, bad, and morally ambiguous.  Perhaps another wonderful thing I should mention is the idea of moral ambiguity.  When characters actively acknowledge the fact that there are sometimes no right/wrong side to issues, I find it quite refreshing (in YA lit most of all, perhaps because it's less of a trope in younger-person literature).  In the end, Esperanza is able to be a working part of her new loving community, and has truly risen from the ashes.

The book covers such topics as the death of a parent, a parent with depression, migrant workers' historical conditions, strikes, poverty, and social justice.


The biggest impression the book made on me actually came from the author's note at the end of the book, believe it or not.  I'm going to quote it at length.  While the notes are speaking of the historical context of the book, I found myself saying to myself "Just like today" time and time again as I listened to the audiobook portion of the notes.  Bolded sections are bolded by me, not the author.

"During the early 1930's there were many strikes in the California agricultural fields. Often, growers evicted the strikers from their labor camps, forcing many to live together in makeshift refugee camps, sometimes on farms on the outskirts of towns. The growers were powerful and could sometimes influence local governments. In Kings County, sheriffs arrested picketers for obstructing traffic, even though the roads were deserted. In Kings County, one Mexican man was arrested for speaking to a crowd in Spanish. Sometimes the strikes failed, especially in areas that were flooded with people from states like Oklahoma, who were desperate for work at any wage. In other instances, the strong voices of many people changed some of the pitiful conditions.

The Mexican Repatriation was very real and an often overlooked part of our history. In March of 1929, the federal government passed the Deportation Act that gave counties the power to send great numbers of Mexicans back to Mexico. Government officials thought this would solve the unemployment associated with the Great Depression (it didn't). County officials in Los Angeles, California, organized "deportation trains" and the Immigration Bureau made "sweeps" in the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles, arresting anyone who looked Mexican, regardless of whether or not they were citizens or in the United States legally. Many of those sent to Mexico were native-born United States citizens and had never been to Mexico. The numbers of Mexicans deported during this so-called "voluntary repatriation" was greater than the Native American removals of the nineteenth century and greater than the Japanese-American relocations during World War II. It was the largest involuntary migration in the United States up to that time. Between 1929 and 1935 at least 450,000 Mexicans and Mexican Americans were sent back to Mexico. Some historians think the numbers were closer to a million.

Even though my grandmother lived in this country for over fifty years, I can still remember her breaking out in nervous perspiration and trembling as her passport was checked at the border when we returned to the United States from a shopping trip in Tijuana. She always carried the fear that she could be sent back on a whim, even though repatriation had long been over" (Muñoz Ryan, para. 5-7).

This simply isn't something that people talk about today.  People try to forget it happened.  People try to forget these things happen.  (People who aren't the affected persons, I mean.)  And that's dangerous.

Bridgeton, New Jersey. Seabrook Farm. Migrant's child working in bean field (Collier)
This book is not only a book that is easily accessible to people who may not personally have a history connected with the histories described in the book.  The themes transcend the experiences in a way, and more importantly, history repeats itself, particularly when history is shoved under the rug.  This book is not only then excellent Hispanic literature, it is literature that should (in my opinion) be read by all young adults.  The experiences described in the book are worth knowing, and bear repeating.  It is "teachable moment" material.


"Ryan’s narrative has an epic tone, characters that develop little and predictably, and a romantic patina that often undercuts the harshness of her story. But her style is engaging, her characters appealing, and her story is one that—though a deep-rooted part of the history of California, the Depression, and thus the nation—is little heard in children’s fiction. It bears telling to a wider audience" (Kirkus Reviews, para 1).


This book is an excellent teaching material for history lessons on agricultural history, Hispanic/minority studies, and young adult literature that touches on topics of depression (economic, that is, although Esperanza's mother Ramona also deals with depression in the book as well).  This would be a wonderful book to use for a book talk on any of the themes mentioned above.  If one were to plan a library fiesta celebrating Latino and Latina literature, this book should definitely be on the agenda (along with a little donkey piñata).


Muñoz Ryan, P. (2000). Esperanza Rising Author's Notes. Retrieved September 24, 2011 from

Kirkus Reviews (2000) ESPERANZA RISING. Retrieved September 24, 2011 from

Collier, J. (1942, June) Bridgeton, New Jersey. Seabrook Farm. Migrant's child working in bean field.  Retrieved September 24, 2011 from

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