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—or at least the sheltered Esperanza believes. 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 doesn’t arrive, though, Esperanza and her mother grow worried. Hortensia sends her husband Alfonso—the boss of all the field workers and Sixto’s good friend—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—and bolster his upcoming campaign for governor—but Ramona refuses, telling him that she will never agree to marry him. That night, Esperanza is awoken by Ramona shaking her—the 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’ll 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’s 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’ll 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 travelling 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’re greeted by Alfsonso’s family—his brother and sister-in-law Juan and Josefina, and their children Isabel, Lupe, and Pepe. 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’s 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’ll 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’s clear that she has a strong group of supporters behind her.
Just as Esperanza gets a handle on caring for the babies and keeping house all day, the arrival of a terrible dust storm shakes things up. Mama falls ill with Valley Fever, an infection of the lungs, and is taken into the hospital to recover. Esperanza fears the worst, and falls into a depression. She knows she must work to bring some money in, though, and begins going to work at the packing shed with Hortensia and Josefina. Rumors of the strike have spread throughout the camp, and anxieties are high. Though white Americans from places like Oklahoma are willing to work for pennies, threatening the Mexican workers’ job stability, participating in a strike for fairer wages and better housing could put them out of a job entirely and force them to roam about migrant camps looking for work. Esperanza understands the value of the strike, but is determined to keep working no matter what. Even though the work is difficult and has transformed Esperanza’s hands into cracked, dry claws, she is determined to save enough money to bring Abuelita to America.
On the weekends, Esperanza visits Mama—but one day, she’s told that the infection has worsened and Mama cannot have any visitors. Miguel takes Esperanza into town to cheer her up, but when they run into Marta and her mother on the way back, Esperanza is filled with jealousy. In the midst of Esperanza’s misery, Marta looks forward to the start of the strike while Miguel celebrates having at last secured a job as a railroad mechanic. The strike begins, and Esperanza and her fellow workers are tormented daily for crossing the picket line, but remain desperate to hold onto their jobs. When at last la migra, or the immigration police, arrive at the farm to deport anyone caught striking, Esperanza helps Marta disguise herself as a worker—but when she and Miguel go to check up on Marta the next day, they can’t find any sign of her or her mother anywhere.
As Isabel and Miguel suffer racist treatment at work and school, Esperanza grows increasingly frustrated with the conditions she’s found herself in. One night, she explodes and vents to Miguel about how life is not better in America for anyone. Miguel urges Esperanza to remain positive, but she cruelly tells him she won’t stand for his blind hope. The morning after their argument, Esperanza wakes to find that Miguel has left the farm to look for railroad work in northern California. She is overcome with guilt and worry—but is momentarily distracted when she receives the good news that Mama has recovered enough to return home. On Mama’s first day back, Esperanza opens her valise to show her mother all the money she’s worked so hard to save—but is shocked when she finds that all of her funds are gone. Everyone believes that Miguel has stolen the money, and Alfonso promises to pay Esperanza back.
Mama grows stronger, and Papa’s roses begin to bloom at last. Things are easy and nice for a change—and then one day Alfonso receives word that Miguel is returning by bus to Los Angeles. Everyone goes to the station to meet him, concerned and confused—but they are delighted when he steps off the bus with none other than Abuelita. Miguel took Esperanza’s money to go to Mexico and retrieve her, and as they all arrive back at the farm and reunite Abuelita and Ramona, a happiness fills their humble home.
The day before her fourteenth birthday, Esperanza asks Miguel to drive her out to the foothills—she wants to listen for the earth’s heartbeat, a tradition she and her father began when she was small. As Esperanza urges Miguel to lie down in the grass with her and listen for the sounds of the earth, she pictures herself floating high in the air, looking down on all her loved ones, and at last crossing a torrential river to land, with Miguel, on the other side. At Esperanza’s birthday celebration, there are no presents to open, but the house is filled with love, joy, and warmth. Esperanza teaches Isabel to crochet, and repeats Abuelita’s most important lesson: in the face of difficulty or mistakes, one must never be afraid to start all over again.