On Monday morning, Esperanza walks Isabel to the bus stop, and Isabel reminds Esperanza of the babies’ schedule for the day. Esperanza assures Isabel there is nothing to worry about—she’s been well prepared. Back at the cabin, Esperanza plays with the babies and sets some beans to simmer on the stove for dinner. She is proud of herself for a successful morning.
As Esperanza’s first day in charge of the house gets started, she is confident in her ability to keep things under control using the skills and tips Isabel has taught her.
That afternoon, when it is time to feed Lupe and Pepe their lunch, Esperanza mashes some ripe plums, and the babies eat every bite of the sweet fruit. After their nap, though, both babies wake up having soiled their diapers with runny brown liquid. By the time Esperanza changes and cleans both of them, she smells the beans burning on the stove. She adds some water and stirs them, but as she attends to dinner, the babies cry and soil their diapers again. Esperanza realizes that the plums must have been too much for their stomachs. She remembers that when she was little and feeling sick, Hortensia used to boil rice water to soothe her stomach. For the rest of the afternoon, Esperanza boils rice water and feeds it to the babies in spoonfuls, eventually settling their stomachs.
Esperanza was doing well with her morning tasks, but as the day demands more and more of her, she finds herself losing control of the situation. She is able to calm herself down, though, and draw upon some important wisdom from her childhood—wisdom that unexpectedly saves the day.
When Isabel comes home from school and sees the huge pile of soiled diapers, she chides Esperanza for feeding the babies raw plums, but Esperanza, exasperated, says that there’s a lot she still doesn’t know. She tells Isabel about the rice water, and Isabel congratulates her on doing the right thing. That night, after a dinner of slightly burnt beans, Esperanza heads off to bed exhausted.
This passage shows that though Esperanza still has a lot to learn, there are important skills she does have—skills she was able to learn even during her privileged life back in Mexico.
Each day, Esperanza gets a little bit better at all of her tasks: caring for the babies, preparing dinner, and doing laundry. Her days are busy, but her hard work makes her proud. Irene and Melina, who are mother and daughter, often come over in the afternoons to chat and crochet. One afternoon, Melina tells Esperanza that today is the day of the strike—but everyone from their camp has agreed to ignore it and continue working. Irene says she sees both sides of the conundrum, and Esperanza reflects on how badly Mama needs her job.
Just then, a blast of hot wind enters the room through the open window—the babies are frightened. Irene stands up and looks outside—she sees a brown cloud heading over the mountains and announces that a dust storm is approaching. As the women shut up the doors and windows, stuff rags in the cracks in the walls, and try to calm the babies, a sound “like a gentle rain” thrums on the roof as grains of sand blast against the cabin. The babies eventually fall asleep, but even after the wind stops raging, the dust continues swirling in the hot, stagnant air.
Esperanza’s first dust storm happens, luckily, while she’s safe inside and surrounded by people who know what to do. Still, she can sense its power to destroy and destabilize life on the farm. The dust storm is a reminder of the “Dust Bowl,” which was a devastating accompaniment to the Great Depression in America.
Soon after the storm stops, the others return—Isabel has been bused home from school, and Mama and the others have been brought in from the fields on trucks. Everyone is covered in brown dust, and Mama cannot stop coughing, though she assures Esperanza that she’s feeling fine. That evening, everyone takes turns rinsing off in the sink—they will have to go back to work tomorrow in spite of the storm, because the grapes in the field are still ripe and ready to be picked.
A few days later, Mama is looking pale and feeling lightheaded. Though Hortensia suggests Mama go to see a doctor, she insists she’s fine and just needs to lie down. That evening, though, Esperanza cannot wake the feverish Mama up from her nap, and Hortensia calls an American doctor to come take a look at her. After a brief exam, the doctor tells everyone that Mama has Valley Fever—an infection of the lungs caused by dust spores to which some, for unknown reasons, are more vulnerable than others.
Mama has already lost so much and suffered so deeply, but now a new challenge comes along to further destabilize her new life and threaten her well-being.
The doctor tells Hortensia and Esperanza that they will need to keep her fever down as the disease works its way out of her body. He tells them that it isn’t contagious, and that once Mama fights it off, she will be immune to it forever. Esperanza asks how long it will be until Mama is well. The doctor grimly replies that “if she survives,” it might take up to six months for Mama to regain her full strength. Esperanza is gripped with fear—she has already lost her Papa, and cannot lose her mother, too.
The doctor does not lie to Esperanza about how serious Mama’s condition is, and is frank with her about the possibility that Mama will not survive. This is almost more than Esperanza can bear, and she becomes determined not to lose her mother, too.