Esperanza wakes up from a series of frightening nightmares to the sound of someone calling her name. When she opens her eyes, Mama is standing above her, shaking her—the house is on fire. Esperanza grabs her new porcelain doll while Mama ties a wet rag over each of their mouths. As they run downstairs, Mama screams that no one can find Abuelita, but Alfonso urges them to hurry—the house is being enveloped in thick smoke.
As soon as Esperanza realizes that the house is on fire, it becomes clear that the blaze is no coincidence—it is a deliberate tactic meant to force Esperanza and her family from their home.
Outside in the courtyard, things are even more chaotic. Horses, loose from their corrals, are running wild across the vineyard, while servants and field-workers scurry every which way, leaving the ranch en masse. Esperanza feels dizzy and wonders if she is dreaming—she watches as sparks from the house blow over to the stables and catch them alight, too; everything is burning.
The chaos outside mirrors the chaos Esperanza feels within: first she lost her father, and now she is losing not just her home but the ranch surrounding it, as well.
Miguel carries Abuelita out of the house. Abuelita is alive but weak, and has sustained an injury to her ankle. Abuelita holds up her bag of crocheting—she managed to get it out safely. Esperanza’s family and Miguel’s all huddle together and watch as the fire spreads to the vineyard, and El Rancho de las Rosas burns.
Even in the face of death and destruction, Abuelita saves her crocheting from the fire—in spite of at all, her craft is a symbol of perseverance in the face of difficulty or even defeat.
The next morning, after a sleepless night spent in the servants’ cabins, Esperanza goes out to the rubble hoping to find some of her things to salvage. Everything, though, has turned to ash—even Papa’s rose garden has burned up, leaving only flowerless stems behind.
This passage makes it seem as if the rose garden has been completely decimated in order to mirror Esperanza’s internal state—she feels as if all hope is lost.
Soon, Esperanza spots Luis and Marco approaching on horseback. They ride right up to Mama and apologize for her having suffered “another sadness in so short a time.” Luis tells Ramona that he has come to give her another chance to reconsider his proposal—together, he says, they could build a new house on the ranch, even bigger and more beautiful than the one that has burned. If Ramona prefers, though, she is free to deny Luis’s proposal and live in the servants’ quarters—“as long as another tragedy does not happen to their homes as well.”
This passage makes it clear that Luis and Marco were behind the fire, and that they are trying to threaten and manipulate Ramona into accepting Luis’s offer. Even as they backhandedly apologize for her losses, they implicitly threaten “another tragedy” in the same breath.
After a quiet moment, Ramona meekly tells Luis that she will consider his proposal. Luis, delighted, tells Ramona he’ll return in a few days for her answer. As he turns to leave, Esperanza shouts that she hates Luis—he turns around, and tells her that he’ll start looking into boarding schools where he can send his new “daughter” so that she can learn some manners. As Luis leaves, Esperanza screams at Ramona, and asks what she has done—Ramona tells Esperanza, though, that she knows what she is doing, and hurries her, Alfonso, Hortensia, and Miguel back into the cabin so that they can talk privately.
Though Esperanza fears that her mother is giving in and capitulating to Luis’s demands, it seems as if Ramona in fact has a plan. Luis, though, makes clear his hatred of Esperanza—and what fate will befall her if she and her mother do actually stay in Mexico.
Inside, Mama and Alfonso discuss what options the Ortegas have. If they choose to stay on the ranch in the servants’ quarters, those will surely burn next—with no income, Ramona and Esperanza would have to depend on the charity of others, but due to Marco and Luis’s influence they’d probably have no friends or allies. Hortensia speaks up and says that together, she and Alfonso have decided to go to the United States to look for work on a “big farm in California,” where Alfonso’s brother works. Mama asks if she and Esperanza could come along, and though Esperanza insists they couldn’t leave Abuelita, Abuelita says she could stay at a nearby convent where two of her sisters live until she is strong enough to join them.
Faced with two equally painful options—stay behind in Mexico and marry Luis, or abandon the ranch and seek the unknown in a strange new country—Ramona wants to choose the option that allows her and Esperanza to remain in charge of their own hearts, bodies, and fates.
Esperanza still doesn’t like the plan, but Mama tells her that if they stay, they will be separated by Luis’s cruel plans. Esperanza agrees at last that going to California is the only option. Abuelita says she’ll find a way to discreetly get Esperanza and Ramona new papers for the border crossing. Though Hortensia and Miguel warn Mama that there is only fieldwork in California, she insists she is strong enough to undertake it.
Even though Ramona knows that traveling to Mexico will mean forfeiting the wealth and privilege she and Esperanza have been lucky enough to enjoy, she insists that she is ready to work hard alongside her former servants—anything is better than marrying the cruel, corrupt Luis and forfeiting herself to him.
Sensing Esperanza’s worry, Abuelita squeezes her hand and reminds her: “Do not ever be afraid to start over.” She tells Esperanza that when she herself was a young girl she came to Mexico from Spain—though the journey was scary, it was also exciting. Abuelita also reminds Esperanza of the story of the phoenix—a legendary bird who is reborn from its own ashes.
The next day, the nuns come to take Abuelita away to the convent. As she bids Esperanza farewell, Abuelita reminds her granddaughter that life is a series of “mountains and valleys,” and that after Esperanza has “lived many mountains and valleys,” they will be together again. The nuns leave Ramona and Esperanza with a trunk containing their papers and clothes from the poor box—Esperanza is confused about why they are going to donate clothes to the poor “at a time like this,” but Mama explains that the clothes are for them—they, now, are poor.
Things continue to change rapidly and frighteningly as Abuelita is taken away and Esperanza is informed that the luxurious, beautiful clothes and toys she once owned will perhaps never come her way again.
Over the next few days, Mama and Esperanza plot in secret with Señor Rodriguez—the only person in town they can trust—and craft an escape plan. When Luis comes back to the ranch, Mama tells him that she plans to accept his proposal—a ruse meant to throw him off. There are conditions to her acceptance though: she tells Luis that he must begin replanting and rebuilding immediately, as the servants need their jobs, and that he must supply them with a wagon so that they can go visit Abuelita at the convent. As Luis agrees to these terms and happily rides away, Esperanza wishes she would be around to “see his face when he realize[s] that they [have] escaped.”
Mama sneakily talks Luis into unwittingly providing the means of her own escape: a wagon. Though the plans she’s making are dangerous, and could have devastating effects for her and Esperanza if they’re caught, Mama relies on the goodness and friendship of her neighbors in pursuit of her and her daughter’s freedom.
One night, Mama wakes Esperanza before dawn and they leave in the wagon, taking only what they can carry. Esperanza takes a small valise filled with clothes and her porcelain doll from Papa. Miguel and Alfonso lead them through the burnt grape rows to the Rodriguez ranch. At the edge of the fig orchard that separates the two plots of lands, Mama and Esperanza take one last look at El Rancho de las Rosas, and then hurry onward. Esperanza stomps figs beneath her feet the rest of the way to the Rodriguezes’.
As Esperanza leaves her burnt, mangled home behind, she is filled not with hope for rebirth or excitement about the future, but anger and resentment for those whose lives have been unmoored by tragedy.