Esperanza Rising: A Mexican-American perspective of the Great Depression

By: Varely Cantú and Elizabeth Villegas

This post is written by students in READ 4351 Learning through Literacy. Students in this course are part of the high school and all-level teacher preparation programs and are pursuing certification in a wide variety of subject areas.

College made us classmates; a book made us great friends. Seven months ago, I met my friend Elizabeth Villegas. As class work intensified, so did the amount of time we spent together. Elizabeth’s major was history as was my minor. Yet, we would find that history would be more than just a commonality. As we talked about our adolescent experiences, we learned we came from very different backgrounds. Elizabeth grew up in the Valley, while I came from Mesquite; a town east of Dallas. Our school experiences seemed so opposite to each other a similarity was unlikely. As we spoke of our favorite things, I mentioned a book I had read as a 6th grader. I began by describing the book cover when suddenly Elizabeth yelled, “Esperanza Rising!” I had not even mentioned the book title which my friend had correctly declared. As it turned out, this book was also my friends’ favorite book. Too many were our differences that we found this similarity hysterically amusing.  Esperanza Rising was a book we both read as adolescents; a book that made us cry and that definitely, left an impression on us.

 Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan is the story of a Mexican girl and her mother forced to make their way to the United States during the Great Depression. This novel provides a Mexican-American perspective of the 1930’s; illustrative of the struggles faced by Mexicans as they adapted to American way of life.  I remember that when I read this book, I was amazed by the similarities between “Esperanza” and me. My father had crossed into the United States illegally, just a few decades after “Esperanza.” He has told me stories of his first jobs and his living conditions as a “mojado.”  In the early 1970s, he left Texas and made his way to Bakersfield, California to pick grapes. He remembers ending his shifts with an aching back and hands black as the dirt under his feet. Elizabeth’s parents and ancestors had also been workers of the field. For Elizabeth’s parents, life in the United States consisted of picking pickles, apples, tomatoes and strawberries. By the time Elizabeth was born, her family had already changed life styles. For one summer though, Elizabeth’s parents decided to give their children a taste of the migrant life. Elizabeth was only 9 years old when she traveled with her family to Freemont, Ohio. There, she experienced the difficulties that came with working in the fields, and the emotions that are felt when being culturally isolated.

While many of our resources and activities regarding the Great Depression include the traditional “Okie” experience, we often fail to acknowledge the lives of other individuals whom also lived through this hardship. As a History or Spanish teacher, we can use this book (or the translated version) as a form of engaging our students in literacy.  Students will be more interested in reading about the Great Depression if the material is meaningful to them. Being that the majority of the students in the Rio Grande Valley are of Hispanic descent, they have probably experienced or heard of a similar situation as migrant working.  The students will be more attentive to the subject since many of our parents and grandparents once migrated to this country. Just like Elizabeth and myself, I know that students will feel a strong connection to the book, and will be drawn to literacy.

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