September is Hispanic Heritage month; upon that prompt, a few years ago I picked up a copy of Pamela Munoz Ryan's excellent historical fiction novel, Esperanza Rising. For those of you who are not bilingual, "esperanza" means "hope", and is a particularly apt name for the main character of this novel. Despite tremendous heartbreak, the 12-year-old Esperanza rises again and again in her story.
Esperanza and her mother, both accustomed to a life of wealth and indulgence in Mexico, are forced by various circumstances to flee to California and find work as agricultural laborers. There, they face racial prejudice that gives already-limited jobs to displaced white Americans who have fled the Dust Bowl to also find work in California. The tiny family must fight not only to survive, but also to maintain their rich cultural heritage and ties to family still living in Mexico.
Set as it is in the 1930's, the short novel really could be an excellent companion to larger works of Great Depression literature, such as John Steinbeck's classic Grapes of Wrath. In fact, there are so many similarities between the stories of Esperanza and her family and Steinbeck's Joad family, that older teens could conceivably read both and write an excellent comparative essay on them. (My daughter is taking American Lit right now, so you can see where my mind is!)
For younger readers, however, the story of 12-year-old Esperanza will serve as both heartwarming entertainment and a wonderful lesson about a specific time and place in American history. There is much here to enrich cross-cultural learning, as well: Esperanza and her mother strive to carry out Hispanic traditions despite the hard times in which they live. For moms and dads, consider this book for readers from about the 5th grade up, especially if you want to encourage discussion about tolerance and diversity.
Unfortunately, not all Young Adult books about Mexican-Americans are as positive. La Linea, a 2006 title by Ann Jaramillo, presents immigration in a more desperate, realistic tone, and raises questions our country will have to consider about the actual individuals who are attempting to cross the border, whether legally or not. The story of a brother and sister who have been essentially deserted by their parents, La Linea is, according to the author, fiction, but based on real-life events.
More recent titles include Mexican Whiteboy, by Matthew de la Pena. This story presents the racial prejudices and obstacles that so many American teenagers of mixed heritage are facing today. de la Pena has several titles out; this one deals particularly with sports, and so is more appealing to teenage boys than Esperanza. Try it for a reluctant reader, and especially for a teen who is himself (or herself) dealing with racism.
Use Sherman Alexie's wonderful, and very funny, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian for the same type of audience. This book deals with prejudice toward Native Americans rather than Hispanic Americans, but the underlying themes are the same: How much should one's cultural heritage influence one's opportunities in life? How much do we judge others by their culture, before knowing them as individuals? How can the expectations of one's own cultural group, even one's own family, act as limitations in life? Be aware that these last two titles are recommended for grades 7 and up.
Hope you find one of these books to open your own eyes, or those of a child you care about.