Born into a prosperous ranching family in Mexico, Esperanza lives a life of privilege and plenty with her parents and her grandmother, Abuelita, until the eve of her fourteenth birthday in 1930, when her adored Papa is murdered by bandits. Esperanza's mother is now faced with the prospect of being forced into marriage to her husband's older stepbrother, Tío Luis, a corrupt banker with political ambitions, who now owns her land. When she refuses his proposal, he is furious, and the house, El Rancho de las Rosas, is set afire and destroyed. Mama gratefully accepts the help of her former servants, Hortensia and Alfonso, to cross the border into California where she and Esperanza will work on a farm. Abuelita comforts Esperanza saying, "We are like the phoenix. Rising again with a new life ahead of us."
They escape by wagon and train, taking only what they can carry, though proper Esperanza is horrified at traveling among poor, dirty peasants. She is even more appalled at her new home, a company camp of cabins that remind her of horse stalls, and a new life picking crops in the San Joaquin Valley. On her first day there, she meets girls her age, including kind Isabel and sharp-tongued Marta who says, "So you're a princess who's come to be a peasant? . . . What's the matter, silver spoon stuck in your mouth?"
When Esperanza is told to sweep a big wooden platform in the middle of the camp, she assumes it will be easy. She has watched people sweep many times, but since she has never actually held a broom before, she cannot figure how to make it work. Turning around, she sees a group of women laughing at the poor little rich girl, and Marta calls to her, "¡La Cenicienta! Cinderella." Later, Miguel, Hortensia and Alfonso's handsome son and Esperanza's childhood friend, takes pity on her and shows her how to use a broom. It is her first lesson in humility. (Readers will want to take out a broom and see if they know how to use it.)
Based on the life of the author's grandmother, this moving and involving novel deals with the overwhelming hardships faced by Mexican migrant workers, including a disastrous strike and deportation, Valley Fever, and discrimination, but also the love and pride that helps them survive. Pair this with other biographical and historical novels based on real-life relatives, including Christopher Paul Curtis's Bud, Not Buddy, Jennifer L. Holms's Our Only May Amelia, and, Gail Carson Levine's Dave at Night. Never forget the power of family stories. Too many children have never asked their parents or grandparents to talk about themselves when they were young. To collect those family stories, either in writing or on tape, is to preserve a part of ourselves before it's too late. Encourage your children to interview grandparents and other relatives and record their own essential family stories before they are forgotten. For inspiration, look at how Mexican American artist Carmen Lomas Garza melded words and paintings to trace her childhood memories and family traditions in her beautifully detailed picture book memoir, In My Family/En Mi Familia.
Reviewed by JF.
THEMES: HISPANIC AMERICANS. HISTORICAL FICTION. MULTICULTURAL BOOKS.
Scholastic Press, 2000
Suggested Ages: 10 and Up