Last Updated on November 7, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2390
The novel begins with Esperanza, aged six, walking through "the gentle slopes of the vineyard" on the family's ranch in Aguascalientes, Mexico, with her father, whom she calls Papi (and later Papa). Papi explains that the valley "breathes and lives" and urges her to feel the heartbeat of the earth. The two lie together in the grass; Papi tells Esperanza she must be patient in order to feel the "gentle thumping." When she feels "the heart of the valley," she looks at Papa, and they understand each other: their hearts and that of the valley are beating together.
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The story flashes forward to six years later. It is now 1930, and Esperanza is ceremonially invited to cut the first grapes of the harvest. We learn that Esperanza's family are wealthy estate owners, with Esperanza's parents, Ramona and Sixto Ortega, employing numerous campesinos who work in the fields. Esperanza will be thirteen this year, which puts her two years closer to her longed-for fifteenth birthday, at which point she will be considered a woman. For now, however, Esperanza is still thinking about entering her teens. While gathering flowers for her party, Esperanza cuts herself on a thorn and ponders whether this is "bad luck." Her father is late returning from work.
There have been reports of bandits in the area; Esperanza's mother is concerned about this, because Papa is the sort of wealthy landowner who was targeted during the recent Mexican Revolution. Esperanza's grandmother, whom she calls Abuelita, tries to distract Esperanza from her worry by teaching her to crochet. Meanwhile, the housekeeper's husband and her son, Miguel—a sixteen-year-old whom Esperanza once wanted to marry, before she realized they were divided by class differences—have gone to look for Papa.
Papa's brothers, Luis and Marcos, arrive at the house carrying a belt buckle that was brought to them by one of their fieldworkers. Esperanza recognizes it as Papa's and has a sinking feeling, moments before Miguel and his father, Alfonso, return with Papa's body. He has been killed by bandits.
The next day, Esperanza's birthday, is not the celebration she had planned. Instead, she has to suffer through Papa's funeral, which nothing, even the presence of her friend Marisol, can make better. She does not want to open her birthday presents; when she eventually does, she finds a doll in a white dress, her final present from Papa. She is devastated by this and unable to open any of her other presents.
Meanwhile, Luis and Marco are dealing with Papa's estate, and it is implied that Luis has an interest in Mama—he suggests her mourning clothes do not flatter her. His interests become more sinister when the family that, although the house and all Papa's goods have been left to his wife and daughter, the land itself has been left to Luis. When Mama refuses to sell the house to Luis, Luis asks her to marry him instead.
Mama refuses, but this will make life difficult for her family for a number of reasons. Luis, the bank president, has control of all their money and wants Mama by his side to help him secure a position as governor. When Miguel and Esperanza discuss the difficult situation, Miguel explains that if Luis does take over control of the ranch, Miguel and his parents will emigrate to the United States, which distresses Esperanza. But Miguel explains that, here in Mexico, the "river" of class will always separate them, whereas in the United States that might not be true.
That night, the house is set on fire. Mama and Esperanza, who carries her precious doll, escape the house, while Miguel helps Abuelita to escape. In the morning, Luis asks Mama again to marry him, saying that if she does not, he will not rebuild the house or replant the vines, and everyone will be destitute. Luis also threatens to send Esperanza away to be educated. Mama does not want to marry Luis, but she also cannot see a way out—except perhaps by traveling to the United States with Alfonso, Miguel, and Hortensia. They decide they must do this, leaving Abuelita behind at a nunnery. Esperanza takes Abuelita's crocheting to remember her by—and to complete for her. Meanwhile, Mama tells Luis she will marry him if he starts the rebuilding process at once. When he agrees, she and Esperanza flee in the night.
Señor Rodríguez, who is masterminding the escape plan, has created a wagon with a false floor in which the women will hide. The claustrophobic journey to Zacatecas takes two days, after which they escape the wagon and walk to a train, which is uncomfortable and full of lower-class people, whom Esperanza has never previously associated with. Mama criticizes Esperanza for her behavior toward these people, suggesting that she will need to get used to it. While on the train, they meet Carmen, who, while she is a peasant, explains that she is happy and has everything she needs. Mama tells their story to Carmen, and by the time they leave the train, they are friends. She points out to Esperanza that Carmen gives money to a beggar, even though she has very little herself—this is the sort of selflessness Esperanza must aspire to, even though they, too, are now poor.
Immigration to the US is difficult and slow, with many people turned away. Eventually, the group reaches Los Angeles, where Alfonso's brother and his wife live with their children. The daughter, Isabel, describes to them the camp where they will live and says that that this one is an improvement on their previous home, where there was no school or running water. Esperanza is distressed, missing Mexico and feeling as if she has left Papa. But the San Joaquin Valley is impressive, promising acres of arable land. Here, they meet Marta, a girl who clearly has designs on Miguel—and dislikes Esperanza when she discovers her previous family circumstances. Here, Marta explains, the Mexicans stick together, as do the Filipinos and other groups.
The camp is like nothing Esperanza has ever known; she realizes she will have to learn English, share toilets, and live with poor people. But Mama cautions her that they are lucky to have escaped to the US and that they must learn to be happy together. Esperanza is offered payment for menial chores, while Miguel seeks work in town. Esperanza at first resists the idea of blending in and is distressed when her mother begins to wear her hair like a peasant woman. But slowly, she is charmed by Isabel and her young friends, and tells them stories of her previous life. In return, Isabel helps Esperanza with the menial chores she has never learned how to do. This is embarrassing even before Marta sees Esperanza at work and teases her. She is devastated until Miguel arrives and, despite having failed to find any work, patiently teaches Esperanza how to sweep. It is clear that he does not see her any differently and that, with the help of the younger girls—whom Esperanza will pay in stories—she will be able to learn to do what she must.
After this, we see that there is some lightness to life in the camp. Esperanza has been feeling guilty about having left the land of her ancestors behind, but she then discovers that Miguel and Alfonso have brought roses all the way from Papa's garden and have planted them for her. These roses represent the heart of the land they have left.
While preparing for a party at the camp, Esperanza is unhappy at the thought of having to associate with Marta. But Isabel says it will be fun and that there will be wonderful food, so Esperanza allows herself to be convinced. At the party, however, Marta and her friends have gathered to try and induce the workers to strike. The strikers want higher wages for migrant workers like themselves, but those in the camp have a marginally better life than these workers and don't want to risk it.
When school begins, Esperanza has to face the new challenge of looking after the babies without Isabel's help. It is difficult, but soon she gets the hang of it, and life seems to be improving until the dust storm hits. The storm interrupts a planned strike and ruins a crop of cotton but does not interrupt the grape harvest, with which Esperanza's family is occupied. At first, it seems as if nothing has really changed as a result of the dust storm—except that the cough Mama contracts after it does not go away and eventually leads to fever.
Esperanza has already lost one parent and cannot bear the thought of losing another. As she watches over Mama, she takes out the crochet work Abuelita gave her and begins to work, praying that Mama will live. Eventually, the blanket is big enough to cover Mama with, but Mama still does not improve. When winter comes, Alfonso drives them to the hospital, where Mama is diagnosed with depression.
Esperanza becomes convinced that Abuelita is what Mama needs to get better again, but she cannot write to her in case the letter is intercepted by Luis. At the same time, Abuelita's money is tied up in Luis's bank, so she cannot come to them. Esperanza determines that she needs to find a job of her own to make money to bring Abuelita to join them, and eventually she gets a job cutting potato eyes.
Marta's aunt is also in this group and explains to the others that the immigration authorities are becoming increasingly tough on Mexicans and sending them back to Mexico. Esperanza is determined that this is not going to happen to her.
By the following January, Esperanza has essentially become the head of the family. She works by day, helps with the housework, and visits Mama in the hospital, saving money all the time. Mama contracts pneumonia, to Esperanza's distress. On her way back from a market run by a local Japanese businessman—where Esperanza buys another money order to add to the collection she has been saving up for Abuelita's travel expenses—Esperanza sees Marta and her mother and learns that they have been evicted from their camp because of Marta's strike behavior. The camp for strikers has far worse conditions, and as they near it, a father approaches, begging for assistance. Remembering the behavior of Carmen, Esperanza helps the man, which impresses Marta and her mother, as it suggests that Esperanza's attitude toward the strikers is changing.
A few weeks later, another, more successful strike results in Miguel finally getting the job on the railroad he had been aiming for from the beginning.
The strike at this point is becoming a more organized enterprise. The strikers' goal is to break up the coming asparagus harvest. Esperanza is packing asparagus and now has to cross picket lines to do so. Miguel believes that the strikers have the right to strike but also fears that conditions will get worse, rather than better, as the number of immigrants increases. Eventually, the strikers scatter when immigration officials arrive and begin herding them onto buses. Even those who are American citizens are picked up and driven back to Mexico against their will. Esperanza knows that she could use this opportunity to rid herself of Marta forever but finds she does not want to. Instead, she tells Marta that immigration is nearby, allowing her to escape. The pair reconcile, but later, Esperanza sees that the strikers' camp is empty, and she does not know what has happened either to Marta or to her mother.
Isabel, meanwhile, is progressing well at school and wants to be Queen of the May. Usually, however, this honor goes to a white girl, so Isabel and Esperanza pray together that Isabel will be able to achieve this despite being Mexican and poor.
Isabel learns that a new camp is being built for workers from Oklahoma, which will have better conditions than those given to Mexicans, which makes Esperanza feel uneasy. Later, her feelings are confirmed when Miguel loses his job, replaced by a worker from Oklahoma. Esperanza asks Miguel whether this is what he had expected from America, stating that Miguel should stand up for himself, but Miguel argues that he could never have crossed the river of class which divided them in Mexico. Esperanza doesn't know what to do, but she loses her temper with Miguel, telling him he is still behaving like a peasant. The next morning, Miguel has vanished, apparently to look for more work on the railroad.
Esperanza feels despondent, especially when Isabel is not chosen as Queen of the May. Prejudice against Mexicans seems to be at an all-time high. But then Esperanza hears that Mama has finally recovered enough to be able to come home. Mama is very proud of Esperanza and promises her that Miguel will not stay away for long. Esperanza explains that she has been saving money to send to Abuelita and retrieves the valise in which she has been keeping her money orders, to show these to Mama. But when she opens the case, she finds it empty.
Esperanza is furious. She is sure that Miguel has stolen her money and disappeared with it. A few weeks later, Alfonso appears to tell her that Miguel is coming home and would like Esperanza to meet him at the bus station, along with his parents.
When the bus arrives, Miguel appears and tells Esperanza that things will improve, and he has proof. The proof, he reveals, is Abuelita: Miguel has brought her with him from Mexico.
Mama is overjoyed to see Abuelita. Abuelita explains that she received a letter from Miguel, brought to her in a box by one of the nuns. Miguel then helped her escape Aguascalientes, telling her that her daughter and granddaughter needed her.
Esperanza's birthday will soon be here. She and Miguel lie together in the grass and listen to the heartbeat of the earth, and Esperanza realizes that although her life is different now, she has hope. At the end of the story, Esperanza and Abuelita together teach Isabel how to crochet, a sign of the story beginning again—Isabel, they explain, must not ever be "afraid to start over."