When Esperanza Ortega and her mother, Ramona, arrive in California to work on a company farm harvesting and preparing fruits and vegetables, they are forced to leave behind the privileged world they once knew. On the farm, a burgeoning labor movement is taking place, and workers, led by the young but fierce Marta, are preparing to strike to demand better wages and living conditions. As Esperanza works to shed her attachment to her own wealth, privilege, and classism, the importance of workers’ rights and solidarity against oppressors becomes evident to her and her family. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression and the fallout of the Mexican Revolution, Pam Muñoz Ryan argues through Esperanza Rising that activism is a healthy, necessary part of any society, whether on a large or small scale, and that solidarity with one’s friends, peers, and workers in the face of unfairness and persecution is of paramount importance.
Esperanza’s fall from a position of wealth and privilege to one of poverty and desperation at first disorients, embarrasses, and upsets her. Once she accepts her new circumstances as permanent, though, she starts learning how to take care of herself and others and realizing what it means to do an honest day’s work. Esperanza quickly becomes aware of the injustices her fellow workers face—injustices based in the racism, greed, and corruption of people in the kinds of powerful positions that Esperanza and her family once held. Though Esperanza at first feels as if she and her mother are somehow separate from their fellow workers at the California company camp—or are only there “temporarily”—she soon realizes that no lucky twist of events is going to save her and her mother from poverty. Rather than dreaming of ways to escape her circumstances, Esperanza realizes, over the course of the novel, that she must join together with her fellow friends and workers (and even make friends with adversaries, such as the fiery but often cruel Marta) to make the best of their situation—and to try to secure a better future through organized resistance against corrupt bosses, unfair wages, and unlivable conditions. Muñoz Ryan draws her young readers’ attention to the fact that demonstrating on behalf of workers’ rights is complicated and often frightening; racism and corruption can render even a well-organized, committed strike useless or even harmful. Esperanza and her fellow Mexican workers are deeply aware that the wages they’re making aren’t fair—but also know that striking for more money and better housing could lead their racist, money-hungry bosses to give their jobs to the desperate white workers from “places like Oklahoma,” which have been devastated by the Depression and the Dust Bowl. Esperanza and her fellow migrant workers also face the constant threat of deportation—something the white American workers on the farm will never have to worry about.
Esperanza, Hortensia, Alfonso, and Alfonso’s brother and sister-in-law, Juan and Josefina, ultimately decide not to strike—they know that strikers will be unfairly targeted, and are afraid to lose their jobs or be forced back to Mexico under the federal government’s recently-passed Deportation Act. Marta, meanwhile, becomes the voice of the movement and faces exactly what Esperanza and the others feared as a result of her brash outspokenness. Though Esperanza and Marta have had their differences—and though Marta cruelly teased the pampered Esperanza upon her arrival at the farm—they lay aside the tensions between them at the end of the novel, when Esperanza helps to shield Marta from forced deportation when the much-anticipated workers’ strike goes horribly awry. Esperanza sees the corruption of “sending people away from their own ‘free country’ because they had spoken their minds,” and decides to help disguise Marta as a worker so that she can avoid deportation. In the wake of the strike, having seen their fellow workers defeated and deported, Esperanza, Hortensia, Josefina, and the others have mixed feelings about having crossed the picket line and not contributed to the strike. They are grateful to have kept their jobs, but they are aware that the conflict is not over, and that when another strike inevitably comes, they will all be forced to “decide all over again” whether or not to fight for what’s right, even in the face of fear, corruption, and the threat of losing all they’ve been working towards.
In many ways, Esperanza Rising is a radical book. It places importance not on material wealth but rather spiritual and emotional wealth, shows how in the wake of grief and loss, corrupt and individuals often swoop in to take advantage of bereaved people, and, perhaps most importantly, dedicates a lot of narrative real estate to the importance of workers’ rights, the injustice of racist policies that disproportionately affect immigrants and migrant workers in search of a better future, and the ways in which periods of enormous historical suffering are often only redeemed by the lessons they teach about the need for solidarity and togetherness in the face of structural inequality. Esperanza Rising is a book about how the promise of hard work for fair pay in the American imagination is, all too often, nothing but a fallacy, and about how in order to combat this cruel truth, people of all backgrounds must come together to stand up for what’s right.
Activism and Solidarity ThemeTracker
Activism and Solidarity Quotes in Esperanza Rising
Marta and some of her friends stood in the bed of a truck that was parked nearby, each of them holding up one of the tiny kittens.
“This is what we are!” she yelled. “Small, meek animals. And that is how they treat us because we don't speak up. If we don’t ask for what is rightfully ours, we will never get it! Is this how we want to live?” She held the kitten by the back of the neck, waving it high in the air. It hung limp in front of the crowd. “With no decent home and at the mercy of those bigger than us, richer than us?”
Irene continued working on the flour sack and shaking her head. “So many Mexicans have the revolution still in their blood. I am sympathetic to those who are striking, and I am sympathetic to those of us who want to keep working. We all want the same things. To eat and feed our children.”
Esperanza nodded. She had decided that if she and Mama were to get Abuelita here, they could not afford to strike. Not now. Not when they so desperately needed money and a roof over their heads. She worried about what many were saying: If they didn’t work, the people from Oklahoma would happily take their jobs. Then what would they do?
“What will we do tomorrow?” asked Esperanza.
“The grapes are higher off the ground,” said Alfonso. “The trunks of the vines are covered but the fruit was not affected. The grapes are ready and cannot wait. So mañana, we will go back to work.”
The next morning, the sky was blue and calm and the dust had left the air. It had settled on the world, covering everything like a suede blanket. Everyone who lived at the camp shook out the powdery soil, went back to work, and came home again, as if nothing had happened.
Several immigration officials accompanied by police began searching the platform, turning over boxes and dumping out field bins. Hortensia was right. They ignored the workers in their stained aprons, their hands still holding the green asparagus. Finding no strikers on the dock, they jumped back down and hurried to where a crowd was being loaded onto the buses.
“iAmericana! iAmericana!” yelled one woman and she began to unfold some papers. One of the officials took the papers from her hand and tore them into pieces. “Get on the bus,” he ordered.
“What will they do with them?” asked Esperanza.
“They will take them to Los Angeles, and put them on the train to El Paso, Texas, and then to Mexico,” said Josefina.
“But some of them are citizens,” said Esperanza.
“It doesn’t matter. They are causing problems for the government. They are talking about forming a farm workers’ union and the government and the growers don’t like that.”
Esperanza lay in bed that night and listened to the others in the front room talk about the sweeps and the deportations.
“They went to every major grower and put hundreds of strikers on the buses,” said Juan.
“Some say they did it to create more jobs for those coming from the east,” said Josefina. “We are lucky the company needs us right now. If they didn’t, we could be next.”
“We have been loyal to the company and the company will be loyal to us!” said Alfonso.
“I’m just glad it’s over,” said Hortensia.
“It is not over,” said Miguel. “In time, they will be back, especially if they have families here. They will reorganize and they will be stronger. There will come a time when we will have to decide all over again whether to join them or not.”