Esperanza Ortega’s picture-perfect life on a lush, sprawling ranch in Mexico is upended in mere days when her father dies after being attacked by bandits, and her corrupt, lecherous uncles, Luis and Marco, burn the ranch house to the ground after Esperanza’s grieving mother Ramona rejects Luis’s sudden marriage proposal—a proposal meant to consolidate his wealth and power in the town where they all live. Esperanza and her mother are at the depths of their grief, confusion, and pain when they decide to follow their former servants to California to search for work. Though the journey they undertake is difficult, painful, and disorienting, it sets in motion a new beginning, and provides Esperanza—whose name is the Spanish word for “hope”—and her mother with the chance to make a fresh start on their own terms. Through the emotional and physical voyages these two women make, Muñoz Ryan suggests that one need not “be afraid to start over.”
Though Esperanza faces many challenges both personal and practical, the novel is at its heart the story of her search for hope in the face of pain and a new start even from the ashes, literal and metaphorical, of her childhood in Mexico. Esperanza’s life in Mexico is uprooted in a matter of days when her father Sixto dies and her uncles, hoping to extort political allegiance and money from Ramona, burn El Rancho de las Rosas to the ground. In the aftermath, Esperanza fears she will never know happiness again. She and her mother escape to America with the help of their servants and begin a new life on a farm in California—but with both emotional and physical toil in front of her with no end in sight, Esperanza has a hard time finding hope and sharing in her mother’s graceful acceptance of the chance they’ve been given to rebuild their lives. Rebirth is frightening to Esperanza. To pull herself out of her sullen, angry rut and commit to building a new life in America means admitting that her old life is over: something she definitely does not want to do. She insists to anyone who will listen that she’ll soon return to Mexico and resume her life of happiness and luxury, but ultimately must admit to herself that the only way to recapture the happiness of her youth is to begin the painful journey of starting over and surrendering to hope, faith, and the unknown.
Pam Muñoz Ryan reinforces the theme of hope and rebirth—and foreshadows Esperanza’s ultimate victory over her fears—through several major and minor symbols, most notably Papa’s roses, crocheting, and the legendary bird, the phoenix. Papa’s roses—which Miguel and Alfonso salvage from the fire that destroyed El Rancho de las Rosas and replant in California—take a long time to bloom, and for a while Esperanza fears they will never take root. But just as she and her extended family slowly, reluctantly put down roots and start to “bloom” in California, so too do the roses. Through the symbol of Abuelita’s crocheting, which requires the knitter to maneuver the needles and thread up and down to the “bottom of the valley,” constantly taking several steps forward and one step back, Muñoz Ryan signifies the pain of hope and rebirth. Abuelita warns Esperanza that though she may find herself at the “bottom of the valley” in her real life, she will soon “be at the top of a mountain again.” Only after Esperanza traverses many mountains and valleys alike will the problems of her life, big and small, make sense. Abuelita also tells Esperanza that it is okay to start over when she’s frustrated, and that she should never be afraid to do so, symbolizing the leap of faith required of all situations that make rebirth and renewal ultimately possible. The phoenix, a bird that is reborn from its ashes after it periodically combusts throughout its many lifetimes, serves as a symbol of Esperanza and Ramona’s ability to rise from the ashes of their destroyed home—and razed emotional lives—in the wake of Papa’s death. Abuelita reminds Esperanza of the legend of the phoenix in the wake of Papa’s death, and, at the end of the novel, Esperanza briefly imagines herself as riding on the “wings of the phoenix” as she looks around her and realizes that despite all she has faced, she has more goodness in her life now than she ever had back in Mexico.
Esperanza ultimately realizes that though it is frightening to admit one has lost everything—and that toughening up and beginning the process of rebuilding can often seem impossible—life is indeed a series of peaks and valleys, and hope is a skill one cultivates rather than a distant star one pins one’s dreams to. Esperanza ultimately embodies the spirit of optimism, courage, and faith that her name calls her to rise up into, and conquers her fears of starting anew in the face of uncertainty. As the novel ends, she is even able to spread the wisdom she has learned to others: as she helps Isabel with her crocheting, Esperanza bids the frustrated child: “Do not ever be afraid to start over.”
Hope and Rebirth ThemeTracker
Hope and Rebirth 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.
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.”
“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.