Sunday, April 13, 2014

Reading: Esperanza Rising

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Esperanza Ortega was anticipating the celebration of her thirteenth birthday: fresh papayas from Papa, a brand new doll, joy and merriment abundant at El Rancho de las Rosas, or the Ranch of the Roses.  Her dreams come to a sudden halt, however, when her father is killed by Mexican bandits and her home is burned to the ground.  Escaping the beautiful land of Mexico that she and her father shared a love for, Esperanza and her mother flee to the United States where they can be employed as migrant workers.  Now, Esperanza no longer sends her old dresses to the "poor box" at church; instead, she receives them.  

Esperanza Rising, winner of the Pura Belpré Award and published by Scholastic in 2000, is one of the most devastating, yet beautiful, novels I have ever read.  I was engrossed in the story and captivated with the rich language expressed by author Pam Munoz Ryan.  For young readers who have ever had the experience of moving to a new land with a new language, or for young readers who have ever lost a person close to their heart, or for young readers experiencing immense pain, or just for young readers who like to read good books, Esperanza Rising has something for everyone.  

One of the themes that I noticed expressed by Ms. Ryan is how often she explores the land of Mexico and the land of the United States.  In Mexico, Esperanza's father owns a large, plentiful ranch that specializes in growing las uvas, or grapes.  Each chapter of the book is titled with an in-season fruit (Las Uvas, Los Papayas, and so forth) to show the seasons transforming and repeating, one after the other.  Esperanza feels connected to the land on the ranch, which is evident on the first page when the author writes, " 'Our land is alive, Esperanza,' said Papa.  Esperanza [gazed] at him and [watched] his eyes dance for the love of the land.  [Isn't that so beautiful, though?] 'Did you know that when you lie down on the land, you can feel it breathe?  That you can feel its heart beating?' " After this exchange, they slink "down like caterpillars" and lay with their hands on the ground and listen for the heartbeat of the earth.  

When Esperanza and her mother arrive in California, Esperanza does the same thing.  But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot hear the heartbeat of the earth.  Not only has she moved to a new, unusual place, but her mother gets sick; her Abuelita is still in Mexico; she is in a completely different social class than she had been in Mexico; people are talking about strikes and creating violence and danger for the rest of the migrants; and Esperanza isn't voted May Queen.  Instead, the honor is given to a small, blonde-headed girl instead.  Esperanza must endure these difficult times in this coming-of-age story that presents issues of injustice to young readers in an authentic way. 

In fact, the author of Esperanza Rising has written many books that feature Hispanic children, and many of her books has been honored with the Pura Belpré award and other awards.  In the afterwords of this novel, Ms. Ryan explains that this book was written to honor her grandmother who was a migrant worker from Mexico in the 1920's.  She includes an interview telling about her interests and how she became a writer, a recipe for a beverage mentioned in the book (Jamaica Flower Punch), translated sayings from the book, and directions for creating a yarn doll similar to the one Esperanza made while at a migrant camp.  

I am planning to use this novel as my next read-aloud in class, as it provides lessons in history, geography, and empathy.  With its challenging, fun-to-read vocabulary ("Esperanza loved Abuelita more for her capricious ways than for her propriety") and concrete lesson that "It is never too late to start over," I am excited to share Esperanza Rising with my class. If you would like to read this richly crafted novel for yourself, visit your local library.  You can also check out other books Ms. Ryan has written at her personal website, along with classroom activities, and check out other Pura Belpré winners at the award site, too! 

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