Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

Esperanza Rising is a book I can wholeheartedly recommend to everyone.  (How often do you get to say that?)  It’s a middle-grade novel, published in 2000, and it won the Pura Belpré award, which is the award is named after Pura Belpré, the first Latina librarian at the New York Public Library. (From the ALA website: The award, established in 1996, is presented annually to a Latino/Latina writer and illustrator whose work best portrays, affirms, and celebrates the Latino cultural experience in an outstanding work of literature for children and youth.)  I chose this because I was prompted by Naz’s excellent Latinx Heritage Month posts at Read Diverse Books.  This engaging, warm-hearted novel not only made me feel, it made me think, opening my eyes to a chapter of American history I’d regretfully never been aware of.

esperanza_rising_coverEsperanza, a young girl about to turn twelve in 1930, is the daughter of a wealthy Mexican rancher.  She has only ever known a life of privilege, with dresses and dolls and servants to help her bathe and dress.  She is only vaguely aware of the “bandits” who roam the outskirts of the ranch, robbing and killing wealthy landowners.  Esperanza’s mother tells her that even though her father is kind and has given his workers land, many people are still upset about the slow pace of change after the Mexican Revolution ten year before. Esperanza thinks that her father will be saved by his kindness.  But very early on in the book, her father is indeed killed by bandits, and that sets in motion the events of the story.

She and her mother, along with their most trusted servants, end up having to escape one of her father’s evil relatives to a life in a farm camp in California.  It is a dramatically different existence than the one she grew up in.  She has to not only adjust to small and spare living quarters but also an entirely new mindset to survive. Esperanza doesn’t know how to do basic chores, like sweep, wash clothes, or change the diaper of a baby that shares their living space, much less work in fields picking grapes and peaches.  She has to learn not only how to work hard but to adjust her mentality to not condescend to the people she is now among.

Ryan portrays Esperanza not as a spoiled brat but as a sympathetic young woman who is overwhelmed by but trying to understand the difficult changes in her life.  Esperanza meets a girl in a nearby camp named Marta, who is allied with a group of workers who are threatening a labor strike to get better living conditions.  Through Marta the reader learns that the Filipinos, Japanese, and Okies (people from Oklahoma) all live in different camps.

“They don’t want us banding together for higher wages or better housing,” said Marta.  The owners think if Mexicans have no hot water, that we won’t mind as long as we think no one has any.  They don’t want us talking to the Okies from Oklahoma or anyone else because we might discover that they have hot water.  See?”       

This brings me to the most surprising thing I learned from this book.  I can’t recall ever reading or hearing about this in any of my history classes in high school or college.  As Ryan wrote in her author’s note at the end,

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 though this would solve the unemployment associated with the Great Depression (it didn’t.)  County officials in Los Angels, 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.  … 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 that numbers were closer to a million.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I had no idea that this happened.  We see local officials in the novel make these deportation sweeps, and some characters are in the thick of the chaos.  After I finished reading this, I googled “Mexican Repatriation” and found an interesting NPR interview with Francisco Balderrama,  the co-author of  Decade Of Betrayal: Mexican Repatriation In The 1930s.  It illuminates more of the history of this dark chapter of America’s past.  Another link I found is from Yes! magazine, and it appears that a fifth-grade class in Los Angeles conducted a letter-writing campaign that resulted in a bill passed to make teaching of the Mexican Repatriation part of California curriculum.

I am grateful to this novel for enlightening me on a shameful part of our nation’s past, and I also happened to enjoy the reading experience tremendously.  Despite the challenges Esperanza and her family and friends face, this book is not despairing.  It has a lyrical, hopeful quality, with Ryan structuring the chapters by the fruits and vegetables that the farm workers are picking and the seasons’ natural rhythms.  Based on Ryan’s own grandmother’s true story, this is an excellent, fast-paced historical novel for children and adults alike, and a terrific jumping off point for further discussion and education.


25 thoughts on “Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan

  1. I think I’ve seen this book at our library (I remember that sweet cover!). I also had no idea about the Mexican Repatriation. I’ve found over the years that reading children’s historical fiction a huge source of information about events I didn’t learn about in school. I’ve got a review going up soon that includes just such a book. Thanks for introducing me to this one – I’ll be keeping my eye out for it!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for this lovely review! I learned about the Mexican Repatriation in college. Never heard a peep about it in high school, which is disheartening because it shows how we like to hide some of the darker (lesser-known) aspects of American history.

    I’d love to read this book sometime this year!
    Also, I with your permission, I will reblog your review onto my blog on Tuesday using the WordPress “reblog” function, but I think I would prefer to copy the text of your review into a new post so it looks more professional. I’d give you full credit of course with links to your blog. Let me know which method you’d prefer. :]

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Well I’m glad that at least some colleges are teaching this sad past of ours. Yes, you are absolutely welcome to reblog and reformat my post in any way that you choose! Thanks for including me in Latinx Heritage Month. I’d like to read more Latinx authors before the year is out. I just use the ready format through WordPress, so I don’t know how to make it look more professional, ha ha! 😀


  3. I also knew nothing about this – isn’t it incredible how the bits of history we know are still largely controlled? In fact, when I think about it, I know next to nothing about the Latino experience in the US – unlike slavery, which gets well covered in modern fiction now, it still seems to be a kinda blank area. When I asked ages ago for recommendations for great american novels, I noticed that though there were several women and a few black writers, there didn’t appear to be any recommendations for people with South American heritage. Thanks for this post – you’ve piqued my interest and I’m going to see if I can fill some of that gap in my knowledge! 🙂

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  4. Sounds like a good book. Interesting how things like this get left out of school teachings. I grew up in southern California and no one ever talked about this even in a California history class! There were hints, but not such big hints that an unsuspecting grade-school kid would have any understanding of what was being left out. So good on those 5th graders! We need to know the good and bad of our country’s history.

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  5. Fabulous review! That was another sad chapter of U.S. history. This is on my reading list, and now I look forward to reading it even more. Thank you for the supplemental information and links!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fabulous review – I saw it first over on Naz’s site, and have added the book to my TBR. I am a huge fan of historical fiction; it is a wonderful way to make history come alive for children (and adults!), and to make sure that important lessons aren’t lost. Non-fiction history books can be very dry and academic, and we lose the impact of these events!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I used to teach at a college where they really liked creating tandem classes–pairing a history and lit class that cover the same time period, or art and bio (that sort of thing). I think pairing history and lit is something they should do in high schools to solve this very problem, especially for those of us who don’t take in facts and retain them well because they’re so out of context.

        Liked by 2 people

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