In Brief: Dignity in poverty. Generosity of families and individuals, helping others even when it is difficult.
Publisher: The Chicken House
Published in: 2003
Age Range: Pre Teens+
Period: Early 20th C
Setting: Mexico / California
- Esperanza is the 13-year-old daughter of a well-to-do Mexican farmer who must endure adversity and hardship when the family is unexpectedly impoverished.
- Miguel is the slightly older son of their housekeeper, Hortensia.
- Isabel is Miguel's 8-year-old cousin
Esperanza, accustomed to a comfortable life, has to come to terms with poverty when her father is killed, leaving their land to his self-serving brothers. To avoid having to marry one of the brothers, Esperanza's mother travels with her house servants to California where they all hope to start a new life as workers. Esperanza goes with them, but her injured grandmother is left behind.
The work is hard, although their fellow workers form a supportive community, and Esperanza learns to accept the change of circumstances gracefully, especially once her mother succumbs to Valley Fever and must spend many months in hospital.
General: Wow. Don't be put off by the cover illustration: this is a down-to-earth story about a girl who must grow up quickly when her father is killed, her beautiful house is burnt down, and she and her mother escape the attentions of her greedy uncle to start a new life as farm workers in California. Their situation is ugly, and might be desperate, but for the kindness of the family who were formerly their servants, well-treated but “on the other side of the river”. Helped by them, Esperanza learns how to work with and for the others and how to find joy and — obviously — hope in the simplest of things. The story is heartwarming, but by no means sententious.
Literary: The style of the book is simple, seen as it is through the eyes of a sheltered 13-year-old Mexican. The narrative tells of life from the farm-worker's perspective, where every season is defined by the crop it brings and the particular difficulties it involves. Without letting the reader get lost in a welter of local and historical facts, the story paints the picture of life for the rich and poor in Mexico, and of the vast numbers of people trying to find a new life in America around the time of the Depression, desperate for any honest way to feed their family and give them a better chance.
Poverty: In a certain respect, this story is about human dignity, the dignity of those who are already poor, and that of those who become poor by misfortune. It is a riches-to-rags story, but a Mexican proverb on the frontispiece says “The rich person is richer when he becomes poor, than the poor person when he becomes rich.”
“Senora, why do you travel with the hens?” asked Mama.
“I sell eggs to feed my family. My brother raises hens and he gave these to me.”
“And you can support your large family that way?” asked Hortensia.
Carmen smiled. “I am poor, but I am rich. I have my children, I have a garden with roses, and I have my faith and the memories of those who have gone before me. What more is there?”
Hortensia and Mama smiled, nodding their heads. And after a few thoughtful moments, Mama was blotting away stray tears.
The three women continued talking as the train passed fields of corn, orange orchards and cows grazing on rolling hills. They talked as the train travelled through small towns, where peasant children ran after the guard's van, just for the sake of running. Soon, Mama was confiding in Carmen, telling her all that had happened with Papa and Tio Luis.
When they pulled into Carmen's town, Mama gave her three of the beautiful lace carpetas she had made. “For your house,” she said.
Carmen gave Mama two chickens, in an old shopping bag that she tied with string. “For your future,” she said.
Then Mama, Hortensia and Carmen hugged as if they had been friends forever.
Sunday 7th December 2003