The case for Esperanza Ortega

March is Women's History Month, and to celebrate, we're spotlighting a strong female character from children's literature each week!

This week, our character is Esperanza Ortega from Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan. The heroine of this riches-to-rags story definitely deserves some celebrating — here are five reasons why:

1. Her story arc and change of heart

When the story opens, Esperanza is living like a princess on her family's ranch in Mexico. She's a bit of a diva who has no sympathy for the poor, and is appalled about the idea of traveling in anything less than first-class style.  But when she has to flee to America with her mother and former servants, things change quickly and drastically. Suddenly, she's living in a labor camp and doing hard labor for little pay. She's surrounded by starving and suffering, and while it's definitely a difficult adjustment for her, she has become an entirely different person by the end of the book: Someone who is selfless, hard-working, and empathetic to the suffering of others.

 

2. Her love for family

Esperanza's love for her family is what keeps her grounded. When Mama gets sick, she picks up an extra job to help take care of the rest of the household and to try to save enough to bring her Abuelita (grandmother) to America. 

3. Her willingness to get her hands dirty

Literally. When they first move to California, Esperanza must suddenly do household tasks like sweeping and doing laundry. Then, when Mama is sent to the hospital, Esperanza gets a job cutting out potato eyes.

4. Her strength

In additino to working hard to help her family and friends, no matter the cost, Esperanza never loses her willingness to fight for what she believes in. In one scene in particular, she has an argument with her friend Miguel about the injustice that she's seen and experienced since moving to California in which she says:

"Nothing is right here! Isabel will certainly not be queen no matter how badly she wants it because she is Mexican. You cannot work on engines because you are Mexican. We have gone to work through angry crowds of our own people who threw rocks at us, and I'm afraid they might have been right! They send people back to Mexico even if they don't belong there, just for speaking up. We live in a horse stall. And none of this bothers you?"

5. She was based on a real person

Pam Muñoz Ryan based Esperanza on the true story of her grandmother, the real life Esperanza Ortega! Pam writes:

"When I was a young girl, Grandma used to tell me what her life was like when she first came to the United States from Mexico. I had heard stories about the company farm camp where she lived and worked. . . It wasn't until I had children of my own that my grandmother told me about her life in Mexico, about a fairy-tale existence with servents, wealth, and grandeur. . . Eventually, I started to imagine a story based on the girl who might have been her."