Esperanza Rising chronicles one year in Esperanza's life. Over the course of the story, the young teenager experiences many challenges. She loses her father, her home, and everything she has ever known. However, following the example of her mother and grandmother, Esperanza is able to adapt to and succeed in the changing world around her. Although she wants to give up many times, Esperanza perseveres in order to hold her family together and help those around her who are struggling.
Esperanza and Mama lose everything - first Papa, then their home, and with it, their social status. When they arrive in the United States, they must start from the lowest possible class status and work their way up again. Before Esperanza leaves Mexico, Abuelita urges the young girl to embrace the process of starting over. There are numerous examples of Esperanza learning from her past mistakes, especially concerning her treatment of those poorer than herself. Over the course of the novel, Esperanza successfully starts over financially and socially, but she also makes major strides in her personal growth.
The tension between different social classes and societal expectations pervades the novel. Before Papa's death, Esperanza makes a clear distinction between hers and Miguel's social status using the metaphor of them standing on either side of a river which they can never cross. During that time in Mexico, social class was a hierarchy of wealth and skin tone, but in the United States, everyone in Esperanza's camp is poor. The only distinctions are between the Mexicans, the Japanese, and workers from other parts of the United States, like Oklahoma. Esperanza struggles to adapt to the lower social class because she initially refuses to share her possessions and argues with Miguel. While most of the Mexican immigrants in Esperanza's camp have come the United States go for a better life, Esperanza's social status is lower in California than it was in her native Mexico. Nonetheless, Esperanza eventually comes to accept her position as she matures.
Esperanza's family is central to her growth and work. Though she loses Papa and is forced to leave Abuelita in Mexico, Esperanza's main motivation for working hard is to reunite her broken family. Although they are not related by blood, Esperanza thinks of Hortensia, Alfonso, Miguel, Juan, Josefina, and Isabel as her family. They look out for and depend upon each other.
Upward Social Mobility and the American Dream
After the Mexican Revolution, the U.S. offered the possibility of upward social mobility for many Mexican immigrants. Miguel's description of the United States at the beginning of the novel is prime example of the kind of social ascension many Mexican immigrants were pursuing. However, as Esperanza realizes at the end of the novel, it is not easy to climb up any social ladder without money. Even those immigrants who were landowners and well-educated in their own country are grouped into a generalized Mexican identity in the United States. Although the American Dream is something that everyone in the camp is hoping for, it always seems just beyond their reach.
Despite the many setbacks that Esperanza and her family experience, the overall tone of the novel is hopeful. Esperanza learns that by being a diligent worker, there is hope that she will exceed everyone's expectations and bring her family a better life. Even in the darkest times, Esperanza's hope propels her into to action.
There are several instances of prejudice in the novel. Esperanza's feelings for Miguel change when she realizes that he is of a lower class. Later, Marta looks down on Esperanza for her wealthy upbringing. Initially, Esperanza is ignorant about the pervasive racial prejudice against Mexicans in the United States because she is isolated in the Mexican workers' camp. Then, she and Miguel must travel a long distance to Mr. Yakota's store because he is the only merchant who treats Mexican workers with respect. Esperanza recognizes that prejudice exists even amongst the workers when the Oklahoma workers' camp gets a pool. Those from the Mexican camp are only allowed to swim in the pool on the day prior to the weekly cleaning because of the common belief that Mexicans are more dirty.
Esperanza Rising Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Esperanza Rising is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
“Americans see us as one big, brown group who are good for only manual labor. At this market, no one stares at us or treats us like outsiders or calls us ‘dirty greasers.’” Esperanza had not seen this before in Mexico.