Esperanza Ortega

We feel like we really get Esperanza. Sure, this thirteen-year old experiences more drama and turmoil in one year than most of us will encounter in a lifetime. But really, she"s just a normal kid. In fact, she"s a lot like you: smart, determined, and compassionate. (You"re welcome. Flattery will get us everywhere.)

So why do we feel so fondly toward our protagonist? Well, it has a lot to do with the fact that Pam Muñoz Ryan lets us get right inside Esperanza"s head. We feel what she feels, see what she sees, and uh... smell what she smells. (Remember those poopy diapers?) You get the idea.


Sure, there are moments where Esperanza can be a real diva. Remember when Esperanza explains to her friend Miguel that they can"t get married because he"s the son of a mere servant? Hmmm. Or how about when she first boards the train in Mexico and realizes they definitely won"t be traveling first class. Her reaction is basically: "You expect me to travel coach?! Yeah right." There"s a reason Miguel refers to her as "my queen."

Growing up in a rich family, Esperanza doesn"t know much about roughing it. And she knows a bit too much about being a snob.

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Family First

Esperanza"s relationship to her family is what keeps her grounded. In some cases, literally. The very first scene of the book shows Papa encouraging to put her ear to the ground to "feel the earth"s heartbeat" (1.8).

Even once Papa has passed away, Abuelita, Mama, and Miguel (who might as well be family) all make sure that Esperanza loses her diva "tude.

Growing Up

And sure enough these diva temper tantrums don"t last long—Mama just wouldn"t allow it. Once they move to the U.S., Esperanza learns that her life is different now and that she has to be realistic. Going from riches to rags is tough, but she"s going to have to deal.

Eventually Esperanza learns not just to deal with being poor, but also to have compassion for those who are even poorer than she is. Check out how much Esperanza changes. In Mexico, she didn"t understand why anyone should bother giving food to beggars, when there"s plenty of food at the store. She says to Miguel: "But why does Carmen need to take care of the beggar at all? <...> Look. Only a few yards away is the farmer"s market with carts of fresh food" (5.97).

But after a few months of working in the United States, Esperanza understands that poverty can be a problem even in the middle of great wealth. When Esperanza encounters a man unable to feed his starving family, she fills his hat with dried beans and gives the piñata she bought for her mother to his children (11.80). Can this really be the same girl who was afraid to sit next to peasants on the train?

Not-So-Material Girl

Back in the day, Esperanza thought that her birthday presents were everything. But when she finally recognizes that her most precious possession is her family, she becomes very generous with the few material things she has.

For example, the doll that she once jealously guarded from the grubby hands of a peasant child becomes a new gift to cheer up little Isabel. Esperanza tells Isabel, "I want you to have something that will last more than one day," and she reassure the little girl that "Mama would be very proud that she belongs to you" (13.72, 80). We think Mama would be proud, too. Proud of how Esperanza has learned to value other people"s emotions over her own material possessions.

She Hasn"t Lost the Fight

Esperanza has dropped the diva act, and she doesn"t lose her temper at the drop of a hat. But she definitely hasn"t lost her spark.

When Esperanza"s friends and family are treated unfairly because they are Mexican, she throws down. Near the end of the novel, Esperanza has a fight with Miguel in which she gives voice to the injustice she"s seen since arriving in the U.S.:

"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?" (13.46)

And this is just the beginning.

Esperanza doesn"t know how to solve any of these problems, but she is able to stand up and say something, and that"s what Esperanza is all about—the spark.

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Esperanza Rising

This sympathetic protagonist gives a name and a face to the Mexican immigrant experience. No matter what your political opinions, Esperanza"s story allows us to better understand the real people behind the immigration debates.

P.S. Esperanza"s name means "hope" in Spanish. That"s pretty self-explanatory, right? If you want some more thoughts on the matter, check out "What"s Up With the Title?" and "Themes."