Esperanza Rising, written by Pam Munoz Ryan, is a classic upper elementary to middle school-aged novel. I have taught this beloved book for going on ten years now. It’s a favorite among boys and girls, and from 4th graders to 7th graders.
Centered around a thirteen-year-old named Esperanza who lives in Mexico with her wealthy family, the reader is taken on a journey of loss and transformation.
We discover early on that Esperanza’s father is killed at the hands of bandits a day before her thirteenth birthday. This tragic event leaves behind her and her mother, and the vineyard, El Rancho De Las Rosas. Esperanza’s step-uncles quickly swoop in to take care of the affairs of the ranch. One uncle, in particular, blackmails Esperanza’s mother into marriage.
Instead of accepting the proposal, Ramona and Esperanza flee to California with their ex-servants, during the time of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era. Esperanza quickly realizes she has not only lost her father but her security and identity as she’s now a poor migrant worker living in a shack.
This story is one of Esperanza showing tremendous growth, maturity, and transformation as she endured one valley after another.
Esperanza Rising is a novel that pulls readers in as there is one tragedy after another, but Pam Munoz Ryan offers glimpses of hope throughout to stir the reader on.
Because of the many deep layers this historical fictional novel yields, it is a wonderful book to teach.
Here are 5 activities for teaching Esperanza Rising.
1. Explore Symbolism
Pam Munoz Ryan has named each chapter of Esperanza Rising after a season of harvest or a type of food that appears within the story. Not only does the food appear literally in the story, but it comes with deeper meanings in each chapter.
The first chapter is called “Grapes,” and the author begins the book in the beautiful, expansive vineyard that Esperanza’s family owns, right before harvest season. Esperanza even is tasked with cutting the first cluster of grapes before the workers harvest the fruit. The grapes represented fruitfulness, wealth, liveliness, happiness, and home.
Later on, in the chapter titled “Figs,” as Esperanza and her mother devised a way to escape to California, a family friend who is a farmer brings figs over as a decoy to distract the real reason he is there, which is to help carry out their plan. Just as they leave their family ranch for the last time, the figs are trampled and squashed beneath their feet. This action symbolizes how they stomped out their past that was riddled with tragedy.
Esperanza Rising is rich with deep symbolism and the chapter titles are the perfect place to begin. Ryan weaves profound meanings in the simplest of ways. When reading this novel, I always point out the chapter title to students and have them predict how this particular food item will appear literally and figuratively. Once we read the chapter, the students track the symbolism on a chart. The students list how it appears in the story and the deeper meaning that can be taken from it.
We also illustrate the symbolism behind the chapter titles. In a graphic organizer, students illustrate a chapter title. For instance, students can draw the image of almonds, which appears in the novel as Esperanza’s friends and family make almond flan, her favorite dessert, for a fiesta that takes place while living in California in a migrant farming camp. Then, students illustrate the symbolism. Esperanza had to crack open the almonds from the shells to prepare to make the almond flan. This action can be drawn to show symbolism. That act demonstrates the deeper meaning of how Esperanza is coming out of her shell and stepping into a new identity.
2. Explore Metaphors
Pam Munoz Ryan writes just beautifully, ebbing her writing with copious amounts of metaphors. Even the basic premise of the novel is based on the metaphor of mountains and valleys. I take this thematic metaphor and run with it to explore the novel in my “Mountains and Valleys” project I complete with students.
Esperanza’s grandmother, lovingly referred to as Abuelita, is known for her peppermint smell and her soft, elderly skin as well as her hobby of crocheting. During another tragedy that occurs on the vineyard, Abuelita risks her life for her crocheting materials and spends hours weaving a blanket with mountains and valleys pictures on it.
She teaches Esperanza how to crochet and before Abuelita and her are separated, she gives Esperanza the blanket. She told her that after they have lived many mountains and valleys, they will be together again.
“Look at the zigzag of the blanket. Mountains and valleys. Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you. But soon, you will be at the top of a mountain again.” (pg 51)
Esperanza takes the unfinished blanket to California and continues to crochet mountains and valleys in it. As her mother, Ramona, gets sick from a Dust Bowl disease, Esperanza lays it on her mother as she’s sick in bed and continues to weave the mountains and valleys in it.
“Esperanza tucked the blanket around her, hoping that the color from the blanket would slowly seep into Mama’s cheeks.” (pg 177)
In the classroom, we explore how the mountains represent the wonderful times in Esperanza’s life and the valleys represent the tragedies, the sicknesses, and the never-ending string of hard times. Students draw ten mountains and valleys on a poster board. Students color it and for each mountain, they must explain the good event that occurred in Esperanza’s life in 3 or more sentences, along with a quote to support it. For each valley, they are to do the same thing.
Students then write an essay in which they they pick two mountains and two valleys that they believe mostly influenced Esperanza’s life and support their reasoning with analysis and quotes. This project takes about a week of work in the classroom and is a wonderful way to explore the metaphor of mountains and valleys.
3. Dynamic Characters
Esperanza undergoes a huge transformation internally as well as outwardly throughout the book. The novel starts of by introducing Esperanza as a well-loved daughter of a wealthy vineyard-owner. Her father threw a fiesta for her birthday every year. He and the servants would sing underneath her window on her birthday as if she was a queen. She was gifted with porcelain dolls and ornate buffets. Then, all in the matter of a couple of weeks, her world is turned upside down. She loses her father, loses her comfortable and wealthy lifestyle, and must move to a migrant farm camp in California. Her once large bed is now a dingy mattress on the floor.
Esperanza is a perfect example of a dynamic character. She faces life without a personal servant to cater to her. In addition, Esperanza is given chores for the first time. She is humbled beyond belief. Plus, she is forced to take on actual jobs once her mother falls ill. She physically changes her appearance, wearing old worn-out clothes, and putting her hair in a long braid, making it easier for her working life.
In class, we learn about dynamic and static characters. We discuss how Esperanza undergoes so many changes. We explore what specifically caused those changes. They see how this is a dynamic character, one who undergoes a transformation of some sort.
I like to have students fold a piece of paper in half. On the outside, students draw what Esperanza originally looked like, with her ornate outfits and beautiful hair. They place quotes around the drawing to support Esperanza’s original identity. Then, students lift the paper up and draw what Esperanza likely looks like near the end of the novel. Most drawings show weather-beaten, long, braided hair, old clothes, and maybe even some wrinkles. The students write text-based evidence around the picture to support this new Esperanza.
4. Historical Context
Some of my most favorite novels are historical fiction. As an English and History teacher, I love being able to merge the two concepts in books. If I can emphasize a historical event in a novel, I feel like I can hit two birds with one stone.
Esperanza Rising takes place in the 1930s, smack in the middle of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era. Esperanza and her mother take jobs as migrant workers in California, but quickly face discrimination for being of Mexican heritage. The pair face discrimination when hundreds of Oklahoma residents move to California looking for work due to the Dust Bowl.
I have often used excerpts from the Newberry medal-winning book, Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse. The novel, Out of the Dust, tells the perspective of those living in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl and how hard their plight was, as well.
Esperanza and her friends face the idea of protesting to gain better wages as Oklahoma residents come in and work for less money. When some of the characters, like Marta, stage protests and uprisings, then Repatriation comes into play. The US government displaced thousands of Mexicans, even legal Mexican-Americans during this time.
The Mexican Revolution was a period in history when the working class rebelled because their land was stolen from them. Esperanza’s father was killed by bandits as a result of tensions between poor working-class families and wealthy landowners in Mexico. Marta’s father was killed during the Mexican Revolution.
Before reading the book, we learn about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Repatriation, and even the Mexican Revolution. We do this through nonfiction passages and articles, social studies textbook excerpts, video clips, and discussion.
By exploring the historical context, students can see the material come to life. They are able to connect more to historical times as they place a face, albeit fictional, within the pages of their history textbook.
I like to have students create a timeline of the actual historical events that occurred during the fictional novel. This gives the students more of a personal connection to the story. Plus, they can see how different true historical events can intertwine with each other.
5. Types of Conflict
We explore types of conflict in Esperanza Rising. With so many tragedies, mountains, and valleys, conflicts abound all throughout the book. Between Esperanza’s inner conflict of facing grief head-on to her outer conflict with her long-time best friend, students have a plethora of conflicts to explore.
We learn the numerous types of conflict present and explore how the conflicts propel the novel through various writing assignments.
I have found it best to try to have students write a reading response every class period. I want my students to write every English class if possible. Quick, one-paragraph responses are an efficient method to accomplish this. I like to continually explore the various types of conflict throughout the whole novel through the one-paragraph writing responses.
A character vs character conflict we delve into deals with Esperanza and her best friend. For example, Esperanza has been friends with her servants’ son, Miguel, since she was very young. It is even pondered if they would marry one day. However, Esperanza even admits that, “In Mexico we stand on different sides of the river.” (pg 37). This upsets Miguel as he is a servant’s son and she is wealthy, and this creates conflict.
The conflict comes up again on page 223 when Esperanza is frustrated because Miguel’s life has not gotten better in America as he originally planned. Esperanza yells, “Are you standing on the other side of the river? No! You are still a peasant!”
Esperanza faces numerous internal conflicts. Two of the largest conflicts are the grief of losing her father and of the possibility of losing her mother. She has to gather courage, grit, and determination to go to work and earn money to pay for her mother’s medical bills.
Writing short responses to explore conflict is a wonderful way to meet many standards.
If you teach upper elementary to middle school and have not read or taught Esperanza Rising by Pam Munoz Ryan, I highly encourage you to do so. This novel is filled with symbolism, metaphors, dynamic characters, historical context, and numerous types of conflicts. There are so many standards you can hit. Furthermore, with standards aside, this is simply a wonderful book of transformation, courage, and hope. Esperanza, in Spanish, means “hope,” and hope truly does rise throughout this novel as you read it. Every class I’ve ever taught has enjoyed Esperanza Rising, and I know you will too.
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