In addition to praying for Abuelita and Mama at the little shrine in the back yard, Esperanza now begins praying for Marta. One night, Isabel comes out back with her and begins praying, too—she tells Esperanza that she is praying to be made the Queen of the May at the May Day festival at school. The honor is given to the girl with the highest grades—and Isabel is the only one in her class with straight A’s. Inside, Esperanza tells Josefina about Isabel’s cute prayer, but Josefina sadly says that the school “always find[s] a way to choose a blonde, blue-eyed queen.” Esperanza’s heart hurts for Isabel.
Though the hopeful young Isabel has big dreams for herself, she has no idea about the classist, racist systems of prejudice that rule everything around her. Esperanza is heartbroken to know that she will have to watch Isabel, sooner rather than later, suffer and learn this the hard way.
A week later, Esperanza has grown sick of looking at asparagus all day. Isabel’s class is announcing the Queen of the May tomorrow—and news has come to the camp that the company is building a new section for workers from Oklahoma. The Oklahomans will have indoor toilets and hot water—plus a swimming pool, which the Mexican camp residents will only be allowed to swim in one day a week, just before cleaning.
The racist policies surrounding the Mexican workers’ use of their white neighbors’ pool show that the Mexicans are seen, as Miguel earlier suggested, only in terms of how their labor can benefit their white bosses—their humanity is denied at every turn.
Miguel comes in and announces that a group of men from Oklahoma showed up to the railroad and said they’d work for half the Mexicans’ wages—the railroad hired them all on the spot. As a result, Miguel has been let go as a mechanic and is now being forced to dig ditches and lay tracks. Esperanza can’t believe Miguel allowed himself to be treated that way, but Miguel needs to bring home the money for his family.
This passage shows how desperate white workers unseated their hardworking Mexican counterparts from their jobs—and demonstrates the racist systems that allowed, and continue to allow, such unfairness to happen.
Esperanza, filled with rage, runs out of the cabin, slamming the door behind her. Miguel follows her out to the vineyard and asks what’s wrong. Esperanza angrily begins venting about how unfair everything is. Miguel and his family left Mexico for a “better life,” but racism and poor conditions hold them back from achieving anything. Isabel, too, faces cruelty and discrimination at school, and all around them, Mexicans are being rounded up and deported. Esperanza asks Miguel if their new lives here are really any better than they were in Mexico.
Esperanza has given up everything in the hopes that coming to America would offer her and her mother a chance to start anew. She was bolstered by Miguel and his family’s hopeful declarations that America would provide them all new opportunities for growth and advancement—but all Esperanza has found in America is racism, prejudice, pain, and suffering.
Miguel thoughtfully replies that in Mexico, he was a second-class citizen—he would have always been on “the other side of the river.” Here, he has a small chance to become more. He tells Esperanza that she will never understand this distinction. Esperanza retorts that Miguel is still a second-class citizen because he lets others take advantage of him. She urges him to stand up for himself. Miguel responds that Esperanza has begun to sound like the strikers. Esperanza begins to cry. She closes her eyes and imagines herself falling, hoping that if she never opens them again, she can “fall all the way back to Mexico.”
When faced with a tough discussion—a discussion about wealth, privilege, and the “river” that has divided her from Miguel all her life—Esperanza wishes she could simply will herself away from the confrontation. She has grown a lot these last few months, but still has some prejudiced, unfair ideas about class and social status that cause Miguel harm.
Miguel places a hand on Esperanza’s arm and assures her that “everything will work out.” Esperanza backs away from him and tells him she “can’t stand [his] blind hope.” She has no proof that things will get better—her life is a mess. Miguel continues to state that all they can do is keep trying. Esperanza cruelly urges Miguel to “look at [him]self” and see that he is not “on the other side of the river”—he is “still a peasant.” Defeated and disgusted, Miguel accuses Esperanza of thinking that she is still “a queen.”
This passage highlights how Esperanza has, despite all she has learned, retained the part of herself that still believes her new life to be a temporary one. She speaks condescendingly to Miguel about his goals for his own life, and he in return points out just how foolish and cruel Esperanza sounds when she acts as if she is better than him.
The next morning, Miguel is gone—he has left to go to Northern California to work on the railroad. Esperanza is worried for Miguel, and too ashamed of the cruel things she said in the vineyard to tell anyone that Miguel’s leaving is secretly her fault. She goes outside to the statue to pray for Miguel, and sees that the roses have begun to bloom.
Despite the painful fight with Miguel and his subsequent departure from camp, the roses out back start to bloom—signifying that even in this dark time, there is still the chance that Esperanza will be able to find hope and renewal.
The next day, when Esperanza comes home from work, she finds a miserable Isabel at home crying. She reveals that she was not chosen as the Queen of the May. To comfort Isabel, Esperanza pulls her beautiful white porcelain doll from her valise and gives it to the young girl. Isabel protests, but Esperanza insists that her Papa would not want the doll “buried inside a valise” with no one to play with. Esperanza urges Isabel to take the doll to school and show all her friends—being Queen of the May only lasts a day, but this doll will be Isabel’s for a long time to come.
By individualizing and amplifying the instances of injustice and racism her characters face, Muñoz Ryan shows how painful and demoralizing such prejudices can be—and how they have, arguably, only intensified over the course of the twentieth century.
A few days later, Esperanza and Hortensia visit the hospital to check on Mama. Good news awaits them—the doctor says that Mama has improved. She will be able to leave the hospital in a week and continue building up her strength at home. Esperanza is at last allowed to go into her mother’s room and see her, and Mama seems much better. She embraces Esperanza and remarks on how “mature” she’s grown. Hortensia brags about how skilled and useful Esperanza has become, and Mama declares that she is proud of Esperanza for all she’s shouldered.
Things are difficult back at the camp, and Esperanza is faced with innumerable setbacks and injustices, but at last a bright spot of good news reenters her life as Mama receives the all-clear to return “home.”
All week, Esperanza, Hortensia, and Josefina prepare for Mama’s return, making the house neat and clean. That Saturday, Mama returns, and receives visitors from all over the camp. The day is a joyful one—but that night, the conversation turns to Miguel, and Esperanza confesses that she said some cruel things to Miguel and pushed him away. Mama assures Esperanza that Miguel knows she didn’t mean the things she said, and will return soon. To lighten the mood, Esperanza decides to show Mama all the money orders she’s been saving up to bring Abuelita to America—when she opens up her valise, though, she is stunned. The money orders are all gone.
Esperanza is feeling terribly guilty about the things she said to Miguel, and even Mama’s return is not enough to distract her from the knowledge of how much pain and suffering she’s caused. All of that is flipped on its head, though, when she realizes that the money orders—from the hiding-place that she’d told only Miguel about—are missing.