Though the early pages of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising are filled with joy and vitality, very quickly, a staggering and violent loss upends Esperanza Ortega’s world and plunges her and her family into grief, poverty, and danger. As Esperanza, her mother Ramona, and her Abuelita consider how they can rebuild from the literal and figurative ashes of loss, Muñoz Ryan suggests that though grief and loss are debilitating, destabilizing forces, no life is without them. As Esperanza learns what different kinds of grief and loss look like to different people, she comes to understand that she is not alone, and her journey reflects Muñoz Ryan’s argument that the surest way of understanding, processing, and overcoming feelings of grief is to find community and camaraderie in the love and friendship of others.
The story of Esperanza Rising is the story of a family learning to cope with grief and loss not just of their beloved patriarch, but of their entire way of life. The grief Esperanza and her mother feel after Sixto Ortega’s death is compounded by their sense of disorientation and hopelessness in losing their material wealth and being forced to flee Mexico to work on a farm in California. It is only through the strength and support of their friends, new and old, that they are able to begin to overcome their grief. When Esperanza, Ramona, and Abuelita lose Papa, they are plunged into unimaginable grief—but at least they have one another. However, when Sixto’s stepbrothers Luis and Marco begin a veritable campaign of terrorism meant to bully and scare Ramona into marrying Luis, thus ceding Sixto’s hard-earned wealth and land to his brothers’ joint custody, their feelings of isolation and paranoia begin. The first part of the novel, then, is meant to show how grief and loss are bearable when there is a sense of camaraderie and community to be found—when those things are absent, grief is amplified, and becomes, in Esperanza and Ramon’s case, unimaginable to overcome.
When Esperanza and Ramona successfully flee Mexico for California with the help of their former servants Hortensia, Alfonso, and Miguel, they are forced to leave behind the frail Abuelita. Their sense of loneliness increases, and though Ramona puts on a brave face and urges Esperanza to see the possibilities in their new life, it is not long before their feelings of grief catch up with them, with devastating consequences. Though Esperanza is initially smothered by her grief, she slowly begins to adjust—however begrudgingly—to life on the farm. Just when Esperanza seems on the upswing, though, Ramona falls ill with Valley Fever, and her doctors hospitalize her while informing Esperanza that Ramona’s depression is making her sickness worse. Esperanza had drawn what little strength she’d managed to muster from her mother—now, in Ramona’s absence, Esperanza must learn to lean on her larger community for support in the face of a new sense of grief: the grief of being separated from her mother and unsure of when, or if, they’ll be reunited.
Ultimately, a perceived betrayal on Miguel’s part—he steals the money orders Esperanza has been working hard to save and leaves the farm—is revealed to be an act of compassion and love when he returns, days later, with Abuelita in tow: he has gone to Mexico to bring her back and provide Ramona and Esperanza alike with a renewed sense of family, community, and hope. Esperanza and Ramona are struggling to feel a true sense of belonging in California without Abuelita when Miguel bravely goes back across the border to fetch her. Though they have both been putting on a brave face—for one another and for their generous hosts—Ramona has recently slipped into an illness compounded, her doctors inform Esperanza, by her sense of depression and suffering. Even the brave Ramona struggles against the isolating, debilitating forces of grief, and finds herself able to ward them off successfully only when reunited with her mother—and bolstered by the knowledge that her friends and her community, specifically Miguel, were looking out for her all along.
Grief, by nature, is isolating. The pain of loss creates a reticence to form new connections, for fear of having to go through even more suffering should another loss follow. However, as Esperanza and Ramona draw strength from their friends and their new community in California, they realize that the only way to overcome grief is to let others in. Only by opening themselves up to new connections and seeking strength from those around them can they begin to hope again and discover how to make their way through their new world.
Grief and Loss ThemeTracker
Grief and Loss Quotes in Esperanza Rising
“Now watch. Ten stitches up to the top of the mountain. Add one stitch. Nine stitches down to the bottom of the valley. Skip one.”
Esperanza picked up her own crochet needle and copied Abuelita’s movements and then looked at her own crocheting. The tops of her mountains were lopsided and the bottoms of her valleys were all bunched up.
Abuelita smiled, reached over, and pulled the yarn, unraveling all of Esperanza’s rows. “Do not be afraid to start over,” she said.
“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.”
Abuelita squeezed Esperanza’s hand. “Do not be afraid to start over. When I was your age, I left Spain with my mother, father, and sisters. A Mexican official had offered my father a job here in Mexico. So we came. We had to take several ships and the journey lasted months. When we arrived, nothing was as promised. There were many hard times. But life was also exciting. And we had each other. Esperanza, do you remember the story of the phoenix, the lovely young bird that is reborn from its own ashes?”
Esperanza nodded. Abuelita had read it to her many times from a book of myths.
“We are like the phoenix,” said Abuelita. “Rising again, with a new life ahead of us.”
Isabel gasped. “It’s beautiful. Is that our statue?”
Josefina nodded. “But the roses come from far away.”
Esperanza searched Miguel’s face, her eyes hopeful. “Papa’s?”
“Yes, these are your papa’s roses,” said Miguel, smiling at her.
Alfonso had dug circles of earth around each plant, casitas, little houses, that made moats for deep watering. Just like he had done in Aguascalientes.
“But how?” Esperanza remembered the rose garden as a blackened graveyard.
“After the fire, my father and I dug down to the roots. Many were still healthy. We carried the cuttings from Aguascalientes. And that’s why we had to keep them wet. We think they will grow. In time, we will see how many bloom.”
Esperanza bent closer to look at the stems rooted in mulch. They were leafless and stubby, but lovingly planted.
The blanket grew longer. And Mama grew more pale. Women in the camp brought her extra skeins of yarn and Esperanza didn’t care that they didn’t match. Each night when she went to bed, she put the growing blanket back over Mama, covering her in hopeful color.
“What was Christmas like at El Rancho de las Rosas?” Isabel never tired of Esperanza’s stories about her previous life.
Esperanza stared up at the ceiling, searching her memories. “Mama decorated with Advent wreaths and candles. Papa set up the nativity on a bed of moss in the front hall. And Hortensia cooked for days. There were empanadas filled with meat and sweet raisin tamales. You would have loved how Abuelita decorated her gifts. She used dried grapevines and flowers, instead of ribbons. On Christmas Eve, the house was always filled with laughter and people calling out, ‘Feliz Navidad.’ Later, we went to the catedral and sat with hundreds of people and held candles during midnight mass. Then we came home in the middle of the night, still smelling of incense from the church, and drank warm atole de chocolate, and opened our gifts.”
Isabel sucked in her breath and gushed, “What kind of gifts?”
“I . . . I can’t remember,” said Esperanza, braiding the yarn doll’s legs. “All I remember is being happy.”
Hortensia rubbed the avocado mixture into Esperanza’s hands. “You must keep it on for twenty minutes so your hands will soak up the oils.”
Esperanza looked at her hands covered in the greasy green lotion and remembered when Mama used to sit like this, after a long day of gardening or after horseback rides with Papa through the dry mesquite grasslands. When she was a little girl, she had laughed at Mama’s hands covered in what looked like guacamole. But she had loved for her to rinse them because afterward, Esperanza would take Mama’s hands and put the palms on her own face so she could feel their suppleness and breathe in the fresh smell.
[Esperanza] put her hands under the faucet, rinsed off the avocado, and patted them dry. They felt better, but still looked red and weathered. She took another avocado, cut it in half, swung the knife into the pit and pulled it from the flesh. She repeated Hortensia’s recipe and as she sat for the second time with her hands smothered, she realized that it wouldn’t matter how much avocado and glycerine she put on them, they would never look like the hands of a wealthy woman from El Rancho de las Rosas. Because they were the hands of a poor campesina.
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.”
“Is this the better life that you left Mexico for? Is it? Nothing is right here! Isabel will certainly not be queen no matter how badly she wants it because she is Mexican. You cannot work on engines because you are Mexican. We have gone to work through angry crowds of our own people who threw rocks at us, and I’m afraid they might have been right! They send people back to Mexico even if they don’t belong there, just for speaking up. We live in a horse stall. And none of this bothers you? Have you heard that they are building a new camp for Okies, with a swimming pool? The Mexicans can only swim in it on the afternoon before they clean it! Have you heard they will be given inside toilets and hot water? Why is that, Miguel? Is it because they are the fairest in the land? Tell me! Is this life really better than being a servant in Mexico?”
“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.
On the morning of her birthday, Esperanza heard the voices coming from outside her window. She could pick out Miguel’s, Alfonso’s, and Juan’s.
She sat up in bed and listened. And smiled. Esperanza lifted the curtain. Isabel came over to her bed and looked out with her, clutching her doll. They both blew kisses to the men who sang the birthday song. Then Esperanza waved them inside, not to open gifts, but because she could already smell coffee coming from the kitchen.
They gathered for breakfast: Mama and Abuelita, Hortensia and Alfonso, Josefina and Juan, the babies and Isabel. Irene and Melina came, too, with their family. And Miguel. It wasn’t exactly like the birthdays of her past. But it would still be a celebration, under the mulberry and chinaberry trees, with newborn rosebuds from Papa’s garden.