Esperanza Ortega is a pampered, spoiled only child whose servants teasingly call her la reina—the queen. When her father, a wealthy rancher, dies after being attacked by bandits outside their family’s ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico, Esperanza, her mother Ramona, and her Abuelita (grandmother) lose everything. Plunged into poverty, Esperanza must confront—and overcome—her misconceptions about class, poverty, and the “river” that she believes divides her from “peasants” and servants. Over the course of the novel, Esperanza realizes that she is not above hard work, and that no one is better than anyone else because of how much money they make or what kind of clothes they wear. Through Esperanza’s journey, Pam Muñoz Ryan argues that true wealth is not based on material possessions, but rather comes from the love in one’s life—and the good within.
Muñoz Ryan uses Esperanza’s father’s painful death as a catalyst for the story of Esperanza’s “fall” from a position of privilege to one of poverty and desperation. As Esperanza travels with her mother and her former servants—now her equals in the search for paying work on a company farm in California—she comes to see the first twelve years of her life through new eyes, and begins to understand the larger meaning and purpose of what it means to be “wealthy.” In the novel’s early chapters, Esperanza’s life is rich in both love and material things. She has fine silk dresses, expensive porcelain dolls, and has never lifted a finger to do a simple task for herself. Her maid Hortensia bathes her each day, and though Esperanza nurses a childhood crush on Hortensia and her husband Alfonso’s son, Miguel, Esperanza begins to believe that there is a “deep river” that runs between them—though she never puts it into words, it clearly represents the class divide. Esperanza is thoughtlessly cruel in the novel’s early chapters: she rejects Miguel’s friendship, telling him that they can never be truly close because of the “river,” and spends her days thinking narcissistically about her possessions and the attention that is lavished on her from both her family and her servants.
After Esperanza’s father is killed, her father’s stepbrothers, Luis and Marco—powerful men in their village—conspire to secure their late brother’s wealth by marrying Luis off to Ramona and moving onto El Rancho de las Rosas, becoming the proprietors of the lucrative, thriving ranch. Ramona accepts Luis’s proposal, but secretly concocts a plan to take Esperanza and flee across the border alongside their longtime servants Hortensia, Alfonso, and Miguel. The journey is difficult, and Esperanza is horrified to find that she and her mother must travel in the steerage class on the train rather than the luxurious first-class cabins she remembers from a previous trip in her childhood. Ramona, who has accepted her new circumstances with both grace and grit, tries to impress upon Esperanza that they, too, are “peasants” now, and that their lives are going to be different—but even when they arrive at the company camp, settle into their barracks, and begin backbreaking work in the field, Esperanza refuses to accept that her “new” life is anything but temporary.
When Esperanza begins growing embarrassed by her inability to perform simple tasks, such as feeding babies and sweeping with a broom, she decides that she must accept her fate and come to terms with her new normal. Esperanza leans into the tasks that once revolted her with newfound gusto, and she begins to actually enjoy her time on the farm with Hortensia, Alfonso, Miguel, and the rest of their family, including the young Isabel, who begs Esperanza to lull her to sleep every night with tales of her life’s former luxury. Once embarrassed by her new “peasant” life, Esperanza finds herself embarrassed now to tell these stories, and to recall that she had so much when so many people—people she’d never even known existed—had so little all along.
When Ramona is hospitalized with Valley Fever, Esperanza becomes anxious, sad, and desperate to bring Abuelita—who has remained behind in Mexico to gather her strength—to America. Esperanza’s life is truly impoverished for the first time since her arrival in California not because of her financial circumstances, but because of the emotional pain of losing Papa and worrying over Mama. Esperanza begins to realize that it is the people in her life and the memories they share—not the things she has, or the clothes she wears—that have made her wealthy. The novel’s earlier chapters are thus cast in a new light: Esperanza, nourished by the love of her mother, father, grandmother, and even the hardworking servants who sacrificed their own happiness for hers, felt richer because of these things. Esperanza reaches the low point of her misery over Mama’s condition when she gives away one of her precious porcelain dolls, which she had previously refused to allow a peasant girl on the train to play with, to Isabel. This moment symbolizes that Esperanza has, through her pain and suffering, come to realize that her possessions mean nothing without those she loves around her.
Throughout the novel, in moments of despair, Esperanza shuts her eyes and pictures herself floating high above herself, apart from the grief and pain that wrack her body and soul. Towards the end of the novel—after Esperanza has learned a great deal about the true nature of wealth and privilege and (through her dealings with the fiery Marta, who campaigns for workers’ rights throughout the camps) the illusion of the class divide, she finds herself “floating” for the last time. In the midst of her vision, she sees herself flying “over a river, a thrusting torrent that cut through the mountains.” This moment symbolizes that Esperanza has at last learned that the “river” that seemed to divide her from Miguel, and her wealthy family from the rest of the world, only appeared difficult and fearful to cross. Now on the other side—and surrounded by her friends and family in a new place—Esperanza has at last learned that it is one’s family, friends, and service to others that defines one’s wealth.
Wealth, Privilege, and Class ThemeTracker
Wealth, Privilege, and Class Quotes in Esperanza Rising
“He is just a little late,” said Mama. And part of Esperanza’s mind believed her. But the other part scolded him.
“Mama, the neighbors warned him just last night about bandits.”
Mama nodded and bit the corner of her lip in worry. They both knew that even though it was 1930 and the revolution in Mexico had been over for ten years, there was still resentment against the large landowners.
“Change has not come fast enough, Esperanza. The wealthy still own most of the land while some of the poor have not even a garden plot. There are cattle grazing on the big ranches yet some peasants are forced to eat cats. Papa is sympathetic and has given land to many of his workers. The people know that.”
“But Mama, do the bandits know that?”
“I hope so,” said Mama quietly. “I have already sent Alfonso and Miguel to look for him. Let’s wait inside.”
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.
Esperanza went to one of the washtubs, put her hands out to her sides, and waited. Josefina looked at Hortensia and raised her eyebrows.
Isabel said, “Esperanza, what are you doing?”
Mama walked over to Esperanza and said softly, “I’ve been thinking that you are old enough to bathe yourself, don’t you think?”
Esperanza quickly dropped her arms and remembered Marta’s taunting voice saying, “No one will be waiting on you here.”
“Yes, Mama,” she said, and for the second time in two days, she felt her face burning as everyone stared at her.
Hortensia came over, put her arm around Esperanza and said, “We are accustomed to doing things a certain way, aren’t we, Esperanza? But I guess I am not too old to change. We will help each other. I will unbutton the buttons you cannot reach and you will help Isabel, yes? Josefina, we need more hot water in these tubs. Andale, hurry.”
As Hortensia helped her with her blouse, Esperanza whispered, “Thank you.”
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?”
“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.
“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.