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, 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.