By Pam Muñoz Ryan
Grade Levels: 6-8 and Parents
Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising explores the history of the Mexican immigrants who became working poor in America during the Great Depression. It does so through the titular and semi-biographical main character, Esperanza. Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother is the inspiration for this story - both she and Esperanza were born to wealth in Mexico but were forced to emigrate to the United States and grew up in a newly-poor family in California during the hard times of the 1930s. After her family’s fortunes change, she comes face-to-face with poverty for the first time in her life.
In this way, Muñoz Ryan uses Esperanza to introduce us to this historical period. Esperanza is just as much a stranger to this life as most of us are, living in comfort in the 21st century. This allows her to show us what this life was like from the perspective of an outsider, while also telling a deep and meaningful story about the character, Esperanza. Esperanza isn't ready for the hard labor, financial struggles, or lack of acceptance she faces in California. But ultimately, Esperanza must find a way to rise above her difficult circumstance and protect the life that she and her mother have made in this new place.
This is an extremely powerful story about the hardships of immigrants and the poor in early 20th century America. But these are lessons which we, as readers, are expected to carry with us into the modern world, not leave buried in the past. This book is fantastic for parents looking for stories about immigrant families, with female protagonists, or exploring multiculturalism in the United States. Never quite a biography, but painfully relevant to our modern experiences, it’s a story that can be enjoyed by any child starting to grapple with issues of race and class, both historically and now.