Immigration has always been a polarizing topic of discussion within the United States. The annuls of history are littered with the details of how poorly this country has treated Chinese, Polish, Irish, German, Italian, Jewish, Mexican, and pretty much any group of immigrants who left impoverished or war-torn countries in the hopes of building a better life here. All of these groups, and even the African hostages that were brought here against their will to work as slaves, has been accused by poor White Americans of “stealing all the jobs”, and this point of economic contention has been used for generations to justify racism and xenophobia. Though some of these groups had the privilege of being White and were therefore able to fully assimilate into White American culture in a couple decades (complete with the same hatred of immigrants, ironically), the people of colour among them cannot, and several generations later, are still being told to “go back” to their grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ homelands. In Esperanza Rising, we follow the journey of a young girl and her family who, like many immigrants, left everything they knew and came here with little more than fervent hope.
Esperanza Ortega lives comfortably with her very wealthy family in Aguascalientes, Mexico, and wants for absolutely nothing, but when her father dies under mysterious circumstances, she learns that his half-brother has found a loophole in his will that would allow him to take all that should have gone to her and her mother, Ramona. Their only hope of keeping the life to which they’ve grown accustomed is for Ramona to marry Esperanza’s Tio Luis, but when she rejects his proposal, their ranch burns to the ground in a fire, and it becomes clear that Luis will not stop until Ramona becomes his wife.
After Ramona crafts a clever plan to get the family some money and transportation, Esperanza, Ramona, and their servants, Alfonso, Miguel, and Hortensia, cross the border into the United States during the Great Depression, a time when a record level of unemployment made anti-immigrant sentiments and violence stronger than ever before. Ramona and Esperanza are now living day to day with the help and compassion of their former servants as they adjust to life as migrant workers. Both worried for her injured grandmother back in Mexico, and unwilling to face her new reality, Esperanza cannot rise about being poor for the first time in her life.
Esperanza Rising, while historical fiction, is rich in facts about how migrant workers, especially those who do not speak English as a first language (or at all) are so often exploited by the very people who hate them. Migrant workers in the United States are still paid well below minimum wage (sometimes, not at all), exposed to various toxins, pesticides, and harsh environments, and are the reason why so much of the produce in this country is at consistently low prices, even out of season. They are simultaneously abused and used. Esperanza faces xenophobia, and comes to terms with her own internalized racism and colourism of the Indigenuous people in her own country, and how they are similarly exploited by the elite back home. In this moving coming-of-age story, we follow this young girl as she rises above adversity, loss, and grief. Thought not the common war and poverty narrative that Americans believe to be the only immigrant background story, Esperanza Rising is the story of many immigrants who never experienced poverty until entering the United States, but came anyway, because what they were running from was a far greater threat. Esperanza, and her hope and belief in herself and her family, rise in the midst of the most harrowing time of her life, and Esperanza Rising is a beautiful homage to every immigrant who never wanted to leave home, but recognized that home is wherever family is.
I give this one 4.25 stars.