Growing up in the lap of luxury on the beautiful, sprawling Rancho de las Rosas in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Esperanza approaches the start of her thirteenth year surrounded by beautiful toys and dolls, dressed in finery, and attended to day and night by servants and maids who call her “la reina,” or the queen. As Esperanza grows older, she has come to understand that a “river” separates her from her servants—even her friend, playmate, and crush, the sixteen-year-old Miguel, who works alongside his father Alfonso on Esperanza’s wealthy father Sixto’s ranch. Esperanza even tells Miguel about the “river” in an attempt to explain her feelings—creating an even greater distance between them. Esperanza somewhat foolishly believes that she, as a wealthy young girl, is somehow separate from the peasants and servants who occupy the ranch and the land around it. After Sixto dies and she herself is plunged into poverty—pushed, so to speak, to the other side of the river—she begins to understand that the divides of wealth, class, and privilege are manufactured and false, constructed only to keep the rich rich and the poor poor, their experiences of life never used to help enrich the others’ journey. Towards the end of the novel, after having learned some hard lessons about the nature of wealth, the importance of community, solidarity, and workers’ rights, and the need to overcome one’s prejudices and false beliefs, Esperanza at last envisions herself floating up over the “river” with ease. Though it once seemed to be a “thrusting torrent” which divided her from others, she has now seen it for what it is, and has risen above it once and for all.
The River Quotes in Esperanza Rising
Now that [Esperanza] was a young woman, she understood that Miguel was the housekeeper’s son and she was the ranch owner’s daughter and between them ran a deep river. Esperanza stood on one side and Miguel stood on the other and the river could never be crossed. In a moment of self-importance, Esperanza had told all of this to Miguel. Since then, he had spoken only a few words to her. When their paths crossed, he nodded and said politely, “Mi reina, my queen,” but nothing more. There was no teasing or laughing or talking about every little thing. Esperanza pretended not to care, though she secretly wished she had never told Miguel about the river.
“My father and I have lost faith in our country. We were born servants here and no matter how hard we work we will always be servants. Your father was a good man. He gave us a small piece of land and a cabin. But your uncles . . . you know their reputation. They would take it all away and treat us like animals. We will not work for them. The work is hard in the United States but at least there we have a chance to be more than servants.”
“But Mama and Abuelita . . . they need . . . we need you.”
“My father says we won’t leave until it is necessary.” He reached over and took her hand. “I’m sorry about your papa.”
His touch was warm and Esperanza’s heart skipped. She looked at her hand in his and felt the color rushing to her face. Surprised at her own blush, she pulled away from him. She stood and stared at the roses.
An awkward silence built a wall between them. She glanced quickly at him. He was still looking at her, with eyes full of hurt. Before Miguel left her there, he said softly, “You were right, Esperanza. In Mexico we stand on different sides of the river.”
Mama looked at Esperanza. “I don’t think it would have hurt to let her hold [the doll] for a few moments.”
"Mama, she is poor and dirty . . . ” said Esperanza.
But Mama interrupted. "When you scorn these people, you scorn Miguel, Hortensia, and Alfonso. And you embarrass me and yourself. As difficult as it is to accept, our lives are different now.”
The child kept crying. Her face was so dirty that her tears washed clean streaks down her cheeks. Esperanza suddenly felt ashamed and the color rose in her face, but she still pushed the valise farther under the seat with her feet and turned her body away from Mama.
“Anza, everything will work out,” he said.
Esperanza backed away from him and shook her head, “How do you know these things, Miguel? Do you have some prophecy that I do not? I have lost everything. Every single thing and all the things that I was meant to be. See these perfect rows, Miguel? They are like what my life would have been. These rows know where they are going. Straight ahead. Now my life is like the zigzag in the blanket on Mama’s bed. I need to get Abuelita here, but I cannot even send her my pitiful savings for fear my uncles will find out and keep her there forever. I pay Mama’s medical bills but next month there will be more. I can’t stand your blind hope. I don’t want to hear your optimism about this land of possibility when I see no proof!”
“As bad as things are, we have to keep trying.”
“But it does no good! Look at yourself. Are you standing on the other side of the river? No! You are still a peasant!”
With eyes as hard as green plums, Miguel stared at her and his face contorted into a disgusted grimace. “And you still think you are a queen.”
[Esperanza] had her family, a garden full of roses, her faith, and the memories of those who had gone before her. But now, she had even more than that, and it carried her up, as on the wings of the phoenix. She soared with the anticipation of dreams she never knew she could have, of learning English, of supporting her family, of someday buying a tiny house. Miguel had been right about never giving up, and she had been right, too, about rising above those who held them down.
She hovered high above the valley, its basin surrounded by the mountains. She swooped over Papa’s rose blooms, buoyed by rosehips that remembered all the beauty they had seen. She waved at Isabel and Abuelita, walking barefoot in the vineyards, wearing grapevine wreaths in their hair. She saw Mama, sitting on a blanket, a cacophony of color that covered an acre in zigzag rows. She saw Marta and her mother walking in an almond grove, holding hands. Then she flew over a river, a thrusting torrent that cut through the mountains.