Debatifying ‘Esperanza Rising’
Pam Muñoz Ryan’s young adult novel Esperanza Rising, published in 2000, tells the title character’s story, a 14 year old Mexican girl, who with her mother lose their large estate in Aguascalientes and emigrate to southern California in the 1930s, like tens of thousands of Mexicans did. Esperanza is thrust from an upper-class privileged life into a working class, meager existence, and the servants that she had in Mexico (who make the trip to the United States to re-locate with her) are now her peers.
But the U.S. holds the promise of more opportunity for girls and women, and even of a classless society, where people are judged based on character and achievements, rather than on their lineage or background. That promise doesn’t always hold up in the face of Esperanza’s experience and observations, but one year after the novel begins, Esperanza ends the novel with a hopeful, optimistic quincenera, one occasioned by a vision of herself soaring high above her current home in the San Joaquin Valley.
Esperanza Rising is a widely assigned book in middle school ELA classes in part because kids respond well to and are engaged by the challenges and adventures faced by the novel’s young protagonist, in part because it speaks to Latino and more broadly the American immigrant experience, and in part because it delivers the uplift for readers that is codified by the title. It is also, as we discovered last spring with a partner school, an excellent subject of debatifcation, which for a literary work is itself a sign of its depth and salutary complexity.
Often the key to debatifying a unit is identifying and formulating the debatable issues that you want to organize instruction around and have students thinking hardest and most deeply about. That was certainly the case with Esperanza Rising. Through a productive couple of meetings with the teachers, we arrived at these three debatable issues, ensuring that they met the criteria of openness, balance, focus, authenticity, and intellectual interest.
Debatable Issue #1
Would Esperanza have been a better person if she had been allowed to stay with Ramona, her mother, on their estate in Aguascalientes after her father died?
Debatable Issue #2
Author Pam Muñoz Ryan has said in interviews that she was influenced in writing Esperanza Rising by the Latin American literary genre of “magical realism,” in which make-believe or magical events occur in otherwise realistic settings, usually to underline the significance of the moment in the story, or to develop a theme in the work. Which of the “magical moments” in the novel is the most important, both to the story and to the themes?
Debatable Issue #3
Marta and the other California farm-working strikers are shown in both a positive and a negative light in the novel. Does Esperanza Rising support or oppose the strikers, on balance?
We recognized these three questions go to the heart of what the novel is about, what meaning we want the students to make of it, and why it is – and should be – of such interest to our students, and to us. The first issue asks us to think more reflectively, more critically, about the novel’s theme of the redemptive power of hope. Yes, Esperanza (literally “hope” in Spanish, of course) ends the novel in a state of uplift (literally rising, in her magic-realist vision), but does her positive attitude completely erase the adversities and injustices she has suffered in the past year, in the United States and even more so in Mexico, where her property and pleasure is stolen from her? Another way to think about this question is: according to the novel, just how powerful is hope?
The second issue is a formalistic one, asking students to learn about and then think through the use of tropes from the literary genre invented by Spanish-speaking writers, namely “magic realism.” By identifying a set of “magic moments” in the text, and then re-contextualizing them within the novel’s plot and its various themes, students become more sensitive to and appreciative of the way that in fiction (in literary writing more broadly) style and content are fundamentally inter-related. This debatable issue illustrates for us that we can and should think openly about the questions we want students to make arguments about, when we study a text. Rather than thinking formulaically about “controversial issues,” we should understand that no issue is off limits – certainly not formalistic or stylistic ones – and that any question we have about a work (if it is higher-order, if it is rich) can be formulated as a debatable issue.
The third issue a political one, asking students to think deeply about an important political question raised in the novel – namely, whether unions are a good thing for workers or not. This is a question clearly asked and addressed by the narrative, though a recent parental protest in North Carolina shows that in some localities making this a debatable issue for study can generate community opposition. We think that this kind of opposition to studying genuinely open political and historical questions is unwarranted and counter-educational – which, however, doesn’t make them any less real as impediments to certain argument-centered instructional choices in certain parts of the country. Our partner school in this instance isn’t in such a locality, so the students were able to study and make interpretive arguments about this fictional narrative’s implicit position on the question of the virtue and impact of trade unions in America.
This post is focused on framing and formulating the debatable issues in the study of a novel, so I won’t spend much time summarizing – nor posting resources on – the argument-centered projects and assessments that we worked with our partner school on in implementing this unit.
For the second issue, we identified five instances of magical realism in the novel, and asked students to come up with five additional instances on their own. Then students were put in groups of four. In those groups, each student chose two “magic moments” to defend as the most important for both the plot and the themes of the book. Students were told to negotiate in instances where more than one student picked the same incident, so that each of the four students had two distinct moments to argue for and defend. They then had an informal argument-based discussion format to use, one in which they were each tracking each other’s arguments and counter-arguments. Finally they completed graphic organizers in which they rank-ordered the instances in terms of importance to plot and theme, summarizing argumentation from the discussions.
With the third issue, we conducted a condensed Shaping Arguments activity with the full class. Students were able to take their own preferred position, and they were to build two arguments in favor of it and counter-arguments to possible arguments in favor of an opposed position to theirs. The teacher led a classroom-wide argument-based discussion using the Shaping Arguments format.
And finally we conducted Table Debates on the second issue – that of novel’s view of the power of hope, as we put it above. This was the most formal and developed of the three activities. Not only were these debates fully prepared, and assessed summatively by the teachers, but they also were used as pre-writing preparation for a final on-demand essay on the same question, one that culminated the unit.