Pam Muñoz Ryan’s award-winning novel Esperanza Rising is a powerful book to introduce into your middle school classroom. The story of a young girl’s journey from a prosperous ranch in Mexico to the growing fields of California, Esperanza Rising is a tale of overcoming difficulties and, above all, of the power of a family’s love. Ryan’s book is based on the true life experiences of her grandmother, and seamlessly works the cultural and historical realities of 1930s life into the plot. The novel explores issues of belonging, identity, and respect. It also provides context for discussions about immigration, prejudice, and fair trade. Ryan brings it all to life with vivid imagery and figurative language.
A number of real historical events form the backdrop of Esperanza’s experiences. Her father’s death stems from the class warfare stirred up by the Mexican Revolution. The wage struggles she and her family encounter in Los Angeles result from the economic hardships of the Great Depression. With so many Okies leaving the Dust Bowl in the Midwest and migrating to the farms of California, the labor market became over-saturated, causing wages to plummet. Labor strikes like those Marta tries to incite were a natural consequence of low wages. Since Esperanza Rising’s third person point of view is attached to Esperanza, the reader is presented only with Esperanza’s limited understanding of these complex political and economic issues. Many of the historical references in the novel are discussed in the Author’s Note at the end of the book, but students may benefit from additional research on the topics below.