Esperanza Rising begins with six-year-old Esperanza Ortega walking with her father, whom she calls "Papa." The Ortegas are wealthy landowners in Aguascalientes, Mexico. They grow several different kinds of fruits on their large farm, el Rancho de las Rosas. As Esperanza and Papa walk through their vineyards, in which the grapes are not quite ripe, Papa explains to his daughter that the land is alive. Esperanza and Papa lie down with their ears to the ground in order to listen to the earth. Esperanza imagines that she hears three hearts beating – hers, Papa’s, and the heart of the valley.
Six years later, Esperanza is three weeks shy of turning thirteen. She is excited to celebrate the day, which she anticipates will be as full of presents and merriment as her previous birthdays. It is harvest time at the ranch, and Esperanza's father allows her to cut the first grapes before the swarm of field-workers and servants start picking. The three weeks pass by quickly and Esperanza continues daydreaming about her birthday and all the fun things she will do with her best friend, Marisol Rodríguez. She looks forward two years to her 15th birthday celebration (known as a Quinceañera) which is when Esperanza will be old enough to marry.
On the day before her birthday, Esperanza accidentally pricks her finger on a rose thorn, a sign of bad luck. Esperanza and her mother try to downplay the omen as they wrap her wound, but that night, Papa is late coming home. To distract herself from worrying, Esperanza spends time with her beloved Abuelita (grandmother). Abuelita suggests that they crochet together, but Esperanza finds the practice tedious. Instead, she occupies her mind with thoughts of Miguel - the teenage son of Alfonso, Papa’s right hand man and boss of the field-workers, and Hortensia, the family's housekeeper.
Esperanza remembers a time when she was younger and declared that she would marry Miguel. Now that she is older, she understands that she should marry into a ‘good family’ and that a relationship with a member of the staff would be inappropriate. Esperanza reflects on the fact that the difference in their social status has caused a rift in hers and Miguel's relationship, even though she wishes that they were still close. When it is dark outside, Papa’s older stepbrothers – Tío Luis, the bank president, and Tío Marco, the mayor of Aguascalientes - arrive at the farm. Though they are family, neither Esperanza nor Mama likes Papa's stepbrothers. When Esperanza spots her Papa’s one-of-a-kind silver belt buckle in her uncle's hand, she realizes that something terrible has happened. Nobody knows where Papa is, but it is likely that bandits have attacked him.
Some time later, after candles have been lit and prayers have been said, Alfonso and Miguel return with the sad news that Papa is dead. Mama faints and Esperanza is filled with despair.
Esperanza Rising is written in the third-person point of view; young Esperanza Ortega is the flawed protagonist. In this chapter, the reader gets a sense of Esperanza's life thus far. She has every luxury she could want and therefore, her perspective is full of wonder and hope. Her parents have provided well for Esperanza, and her world revolves around them and the family's farm. Papa is strong - a protector - and he is generous with birthday gifts. Esperanza sees her Mama as beautiful and believes that she can heal all wounds. Her Abuelita, meanwhile, possesses a soothing wisdom. Because of her strong family structure, Esperanza has never experienced hardship. However, her father's untimely death shatters her innocence.
Muñoz Ryan contrasts Esperanza’s hopeful and innocent musings with certain ominous events that foreshadow the struggles to come. While Esperanza gathers roses for her birthday celebration, she pricks her finger on a thorn. She knows that it is a sign of bad luck and seeks help from Mama and Abuelita. Though they try to comfort her, Esperanza cannot shake the feeling that something bad has happened. Soon thereafter, she hears about her father's murder.
Esperanza's naïveté is a result of her sheltered upbringing. For example, Esperanza takes great joy in starting the harvest, but does not spend much time thinking about the field workers' hard labor. Instead, Esperanza is preoccupied with thoughts of her upcoming birthday. In this opening chapter, Abuelita serves as a foil to her young granddaughter. Abuelita tells Esperanza about the difficulties of her own life – a concept that Esperanza can only grasp in the abstract, as she has never experienced any real struggle. This scene is crucial in establishing Esperanza's character before her father's death. Esperanza's transition into a strong and mature adolescent forms the emotional backbone of the novel.
It is clear that Esperanza's social status has had a large effect on her outlook. For example, she only mentions the field workers in passing. However, the relationship between Miguel and Esperanza is significantly more complicated. Miguel comes from a lower social class, but his father is one of Papa’s most loyal friends. Esperanza admits that before she understood the differences in their backgrounds, she declared her love for Miguel. However, as Esperanza has become aware of her social superiority, she understands that she will never be able to marry Miguel. Furthermore, Esperanza has inadvertently revealed to Miguel that she thinks she is better than him, causing a seemingly irreparable rift in their friendship.
Muñoz Ryan also establishes the fact that Esperanza's father has a special relationship with the earth. Papa owns the land that makes up el Rancho de las Rosas, but he also respects and appreciates it. He tries to pass on this understanding of nature to Esperanza. Esperanza hears the earth's heartbeat, pulsing alongside her father’s and her own - thus personifying their land and illustrating the family's connection to nature.