My teaching partner and I decided to squeeze one more book into our lessons this year and we picked Esperanza Rising, knowing that it was both old enough that our students had never read it before, but recent enough to not be outdated. Our district’s reading list needs a serious overhaul, so this book, published in 2002, seemed like a great choice. Out of my 29 sixth graders, only one had read it before, so our instinct was spot-on!
The book starts in 1924, in Mexico, where Esperanza’s father is the owner of a large ranch. They live in a large house with servants, the family employs many workers, they are well-regarded in the community, and Esperanza is a spoiled only child. She is not a very likable character at the beginning of the story and my students had a hard time relating to her life. A tragedy occurs that rocks Esperanza and her mother’s world, and after some relatives threaten blackmail, they decide to leave Mexico in the hopes of a better life in America. They join a migrant farming camp where they are faced with having to do manual labor for the first time in their lives. Esperanza doesn’t even know how to use a broom to sweep! Life is very hard for Esperanza and she is quickly humbled by her new circumstances. When her mother becomes ill, she must learn to step up and take care of business. A terrible plot twist left my students gasping out loud as they came across the gut-dropping moment themselves.
I took an informal poll of the kids after we finished up. Girls liked this book more than boys, hands down. This is probably because it was written from a girl’s perspective and had so much to do with the mother/daughter relationship. One boy said it was “more boring than interesting” and another noted that there were “some places that didn’t have a lot of action.” One boy wished for “a chase scene” and a different ending! Many said that they thought it started out slowly and then got a little better. Reviews from the girls tended to have way more exclamation points, indicating that they were feeling strongly about the book. One of the girls wrote:
I think that the story “Esperanza Rising” was a great, amazing story. It gives you the history of how Hispanics work to get a little money to survive. People that are Mexicans come as immigrants to California to get a better life. That’s how Esperanza came with her mother to the immigrant camp because she didn’t have any papers. The story really got me because that’s how my grandparents came and I’m proud of it.”
We had looked at a legal case earlier this year that took place in our very own school district, called Mendez v. Westminster, which was an early school segregation ruling, and we looked at some of the laws and social rules that enforced discrimination in the pre-civil rights time. Esperanza Rising allowed us a look at the farm workers’ union and the impact of Cesar Chavez, and like the student above, gave some understanding as to why people take such risks to cross the border into the US. Even though not all of the students loved the book, it provided them with a background on some of the parts of California history that is not covered in the fourth grade curriculum, and so I think it was a worthwhile read for my future social activists. When these topics come up again in their studies, they will be able to reflect back to this book and make connections to what they read and the images they saw this year.
Esperanza Rising was especially loved by my students who enjoy the historical fiction series, Dear America, which has a whopping 42 books to choose from, all in diary form. Boys who enjoy this type of story will also probably like the I Survived series. Esperanza Rising has an AR level of 5.3 and is worth 6 points.