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Last Updated on November 8, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1072

Socioeconomic Status, Materialism, and Poverty

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Esperanza Rising follows the story of Esperanza Ortega—a wealthy and spoiled thirteen-year-old girl who leads a comfortable, privileged life. Unfortunately, her life takes an unexpected turn for the worse when her father is killed by bandits. Her uncle then burns down the family's estate after Esperanza's mother refuses his marriage proposal. In just a few days, Esperanza loses almost everything she holds dear. As a result, Esperanza and her mother, Ramona—along with their servants Alfonso, Hortensia, and Miguel—flee to California. Once there, Esperanza learns what it's like to live in poverty and struggle to make ends meet. In this sense, Esperanza Rising is, essentially, a riches-to-rags story.

Growing up rich, Esperanza never truly learned to appreciate the value of hard work; she never cared about how the peasants lived their lives and she made sure to distance herself from them, as she believed herself above them in many ways. At one point, she even states that there is a metaphorical river between her and her servants—on one side of this river is Esperanza and her luxurious lifestyle, and on the other are the servants and the peasants who struggle to survive in their classist society. She notes that this river mustn't be crossed, but she also develops a crush on Miguel—the just and optimistic son of her servants Alfonso and Hortensia.

Now that Esperanza was a young woman, she understood that Miguel was the housekeeper’s son and she was the ranch owner’s daughter and between them ran a deep river. Esperanza stood on one side and Miguel stood on the other and the river could never be crossed. In a moment of self-importance, Esperanza had told all of this to Miguel. Since then, he had spoken only a few words to her. When their paths crossed, he nodded and said politely, “Mi reina, my queen,” but nothing more. There was no teasing or laughing or talking about every little thing. Esperanza pretended not to care, though she secretly wished she had never told Miguel about the river.

While living and working on the farm in California, Esperanza gradually comes to understand that the best things in life are free and that life's greatest treasures cannot be measured. She realizes that the material possessions she used to cherish are worthless and meaningless, and finally learns that happiness doesn't come from being rich but from being kind, loving, and compassionate.

Social Injustice, Discrimination, and Prejudice

Esperanza Rising is set in the 1930s, two decades after the Mexican Revolution and during the Great Depression. During this time, many people were mistreated and discriminated against based on their race and ethnicity, especially when it came to education and employment opportunities. The wealthy and powerful elite often mistreated agricultural workers and denied them jobs just because they were poor and Mexican. Such is the case with Miguel, who is a skilled and capable repairman. After many failed attempts, he finally finds a job as a railroad mechanic; however, he is soon fired because his bosses decide to give his job to an American who is less qualified than him. Afterward, he explains to Esperanza that the government is run by unjust, greedy, corrupt people whose main goal is to profit from the struggles of the poor.

Esperanza realizes that she, too, was once ignorant and prejudiced and treated those who weren't as wealthy as her unfairly. When she moves to California, she becomes a victim of discrimination as well, as the majority of the American population sees her only as a Mexican immigrant who came to their country to steal their jobs. Thus, she is finally able to understand how Miguel and the rest of her servants felt when she was belittling them. Fortunately, she realizes that she was wrong and learns to be more accepting and tolerant.

Hope, New Beginnings, and the Power of Never Giving Up

Throughout the novel, Esperanza goes through a great deal of emotional pain and suffering; she loses her father, her home, her wealth, and her social status. Despite all of the challenges she faces, Esperanza (whose name literally translates to “hope”) never loses faith that that things will eventually be better not just for her, but for everyone else as well. As time goes by, she learns how to accept her situation and adapts to it. She realizes that her Abuelita was right when she told her that life is a series of ups and downs and that everything will be all right as long as she and her loved ones have each other.

In this context, Muñoz Ryan incorporates two sub-themes—resolve and determination. Even though there are times when Esperanza wants to give up, she manages to remain strong and determined to keep moving forward with the help of her family and friends. Her mother, Ramona, is also incredibly resilient and steadfast, and she does everything she can to keep the family together.

Esperanza understands that in order to succeed, she must first let go of the past and her negative emotions, and embrace the fact that she was given the rare opportunity to start over. This is what the title Esperanza Rising means: Esperanza learns from her past mistakes and tries to be more considerate, ultimately realizing that the society in which she lives is harsh and unforgiving. She knows now that the key to finding happiness is learning to appreciate the simple pleasures in life. In this sense, Esperanza goes through major emotional growth and development. Thus, she "rises" as a courageous and ambitious young woman with a new goal and purpose in mind—to become someone better.

Abuelita squeezed Esperanza’s hand. “Do not be afraid to start over. When I was your age, I left Spain with my mother, father, and sisters. A Mexican official had offered my father a job here in Mexico. So we came. We had to take several ships and the journey lasted months. When we arrived, nothing was as promised. There were many hard times. But life was also exciting. And we had each other. Esperanza, do you remember the story of the phoenix, the lovely young bird that is reborn from its own ashes?”

Esperanza nodded. Abuelita had read it to her many times from a book of myths.

“We are like the phoenix,” said Abuelita. “Rising again, with a new life ahead of us.”

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