Esperanza Rising Summary
Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan
The book is set in two places, Aguascalientes, Mexico, and San Joaquin Valley, California.
Esperanza Ortega – she is the novel’s protagonist, whose name is the Spanish word for "hope.”
Ramona Ortega / Mama – she is Esperanza’s mother who is a spirited woman who would do anything for the good of her family.
Sixto Ortega / Papa – he is Esperanza’s father who is killed by bandits while riding on the outskirts of his ranch, El Rancho de las Rosas.
Abuelita – she is Ramona’s mother, known to Esperanza only as Abuelita.
Tío Luis – he is Papa’s eldest stepbrother and the president of the local bank.
Tío Marco – he is Papa’s older stepbrother and the mayor of the town.
Alfonso – he is the boss of all the field workers on El Rancho de las Rosas and Sixto’s close friend and companion.
Hortensia – she is Alfonso’s wife, Miguel’s mother, and the Ortega family’s housekeeper,
Miguel – he is the sixteen-year-old son of Alfonso and Hortensia,
Marta – she is a teenage girl who lives and works on a neighboring farm owned by a different company picking cotton.
Isabel – she is Juan and Josefina’s eight-year-old daughter.
Thirteen-year-old Esperanza Ortega lives a life of abundance and luxury on her father Sixto’s sprawling vineyard, El Rancho de las Rosas. It is 1930, and in Aguascalientes, Mexico, the pain and tumult of the Mexican Revolution has at last begun to subside. She and her family enjoy a lush, beautiful life full of happiness and plenty, and Esperanza hopes that she will never have to leave her family’s ranch, even as she grows increasingly aware of an invisible "river” that divides her from others, such as her housemaid Hortensia’s teenage son, Miguel. The day before Esperanza’s birthday, at the start of the grape harvest, she picks flowers in her father’s rose garden and waits for him to come home from a day in the fields. When he does not arrive, though, Esperanza and her mother grow worried.
Hortensia sends her husband Alfonso out with Miguel to look for Papa. While the family sits up and waits, Esperanza’s Abuelita comforts her with a crocheting lesson, in which she urges Esperanza not to be afraid of starting over in the face of a mistake. Papa’s older stepbrothers, the shady Luis and Marco, come by the house to offer their good wishes, but Esperanza is wary of their presence. Late that night, Alfonso and Miguel at last return with Papa’s body in the back of their wagon. He has been killed by a group of bandits, though Papa was a kind, generous man who loved the land and all of the people he employed to work on it, many people in Mexico harbor resentment towards wealthy landowners like Sixto.
As Papa’s funeral and Esperanza’s birthday fly by, all is a hazy storm of grief and commotion. Marco and Luis come by the house each day to meet with lawyers and "take care of the family business,” but in a meeting to settle Sixto’s will, it becomes clear that they are trying to take over his land and wealth. Luis proposes marriage to Esperanza’s mother Ramona in an attempt to secure control of the ranch but Ramona refuses, telling him that she will never agree to marry him. That night, Esperanza is awoken by Ramona shaking her, their house is on fire. Ramona, Esperanza, Abuelita, Miguel, Hortensia, and Alfonso escape with their lives, but the house and the vineyard are burnt to the ground by morning.
Luis arrives to "comfort” Ramona and to offer her a chance to reconsider his proposal and it becomes clear that he and Marco have burned the ranch down in an attempt to blackmail Ramona. She tells Luis she will consider his offer, but once he leaves the ranch, she privately meets with Alfonso, Hortensia, Miguel, and Esperanza to come up with a plan for how they can escape Luis’s clutches. Alfonso and Hortensia, now out of a job on the ranch, declare their intent to travel to California and join Alfonso’s brother and his family working on a company farm. They offer Ramona the chance to come with them but warn her that the work will be physical and demanding. Ramona says she is ready for anything. The next day, she tells Luis that she accepts his proposal, but over the next several days, schemes with the group and with her neighbor, Señor Rodriguez, to devise an escape plan. Esperanza is devastated to learn that they will have to leave the frail Abuelita behind, but as they part ways, Abuelita reminds Esperanza that life is a series of "mountains and valleys,” just like in crochet.
Late one night, Esperanza and the others hastily set out on their journey. They will be taking a wagon to the nearby town of Zacatecas to board a train there, away from the watchful eyes of Esperanza’s powerful uncles. At the station, though, Esperanza is shocked and horrified to realize she and her family will be traveling in steerage with "peasants.” Ramona urges Esperanza to understand that they, too, are now poor peasants and no better than anyone else on the train, but Esperanza clings to Papa’s final present to her, a beautiful porcelain doll, and refuses to accept her fate.
After an arduous journey, Esperanza, Ramona, and the others arrive in California. They are greeted by Alfonso's family. Isabel, a girl of eight, wants to hear all of Esperanza’s stories about her beautiful life back in Mexico and how rich she once "was.” Esperanza insists she is still rich and is just awaiting the arrival of her wealthy Abuelita. After arriving at the farm, Esperanza is shocked by the pitiful living conditions; there is no indoor plumbing, and the cabin she, Ramona, Hortensia, Miguel, and Alfonso must share is small and drafty. Esperanza meets a girl named Marta, who teases her for being a "princess,” and Esperanza worries she will never be happy again. The next morning, as Mama and Hortensia go to work in the fields, Isabel helps Esperanza learn her way around the camp, and introduces her to some of their neighbors including the kindly Irene and Melina. When Isabel tries to instruct Esperanza in some housework, she is amazed to realize how little Esperanza knows about taking care of herself, and endeavors to teach her to watch the babies, do laundry, cook, and clean house.
Meanwhile, Miguel and Alfonso reveal that they have salvaged some stems from Papa’s beloved rose garden and replanted them out back in hopes they’ll bloom. A large fiesta in the middle of camp is a nice distraction for everyone but quickly grows serious when the radical Marta takes center stage and announces that a strike for better wages and conditions will be starting soon. Many boo her out of the party, but it is clear that she has a strong group of supporters behind her.
- Wealth, Privilege, and Class. Esperanza Ortega is a pampered, spoiled only child whose servants teasingly call her la Reina, the queen. When her father, a wealthy rancher, dies after being attacked by bandits outside their family’s ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Esperanza, her mother Ramona, and her Abuelita lose everything. Plunged into poverty, Esperanza must confront and overcome her misconceptions about class, poverty, and the "river” that she believes divides her from "peasants” and servants.
- Grief and Loss. Though the early pages of the novel are filled with joy and vitality, very quickly, a staggering and violent loss upends Esperanza Ortega’s world and plunges her and her family into grief, poverty, and danger. As Esperanza, her mother Ramona, and her Abuelita consider how they can rebuild from the literal and figurative ashes of loss,