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  • Privilege and Exploitation:Food as Dual Signifier in Pamela Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising
  • Kara Keeling (bio) and Scott Pollard (bio)

Those who labor in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever he had a chosen people, whose breasts he had made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue. It is the focus in which he keeps alive that sacred fire, which otherwise might escape from the face of the earth. Corruption of morals in the mass of cultivators is a phenomenon of which no age nor nation has furnished an example. (164)

—Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

In Bitter Harvest: A History of California Farmworkers, 1870–1941, Cletus Daniel begins the first chapter, “The Erosion of Agrarian Ideals,” with the above quotation, calling Jefferson “America’s foremost and most influential celebrant of Arcadian values” (15). Daniel begins with Jefferson’s early idealization of the East Coast American farmer and farm practices as a contrasting frame out of which he develops its binary opposite, the history of exploitative labor practices in the West. We find a similar opposition in Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising (2000), an initial idealization of farming and the land contrasting with the subsequent portrayal of the industrial exploitation of Mexican immigrant farm laborers and the land they work. In some ways, Esperanza Rising thus fits into labor protest literature such as John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Carey McWilliams’ Factories in the Field, and Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion. Muñoz Ryan chooses to start, however, by following the practice of many other children’s books: she initially defines her protagonist through her food preferences, sprinkling throughout the opening chapters dishes that Esperanza loves to eat. Yet in the course of [End Page 280] the story Muñoz Ryan makes the unusual choice to shift the focus of the narrative from food consumption to production, a change that enables her to explore the evolution of Esperanza’s class, gender, and subjectivity as the young girl moves from hegemonic consumer to marginalized farm laborer.

Esperanza Rising offers a view from the inside of the exploitative farm labor systems in Mexico and the United States in the early 1930s. Its heroine, Esperanza, is loosely based on Muñoz Ryan’s grandmother and her experiences in the year that she moved from Mexico to California. Esperanza transitions from the comfortable life of the Mexican land-owning class to the life of an exploited California farm laborer. In the introductory chapter, the only one not titled with a harvested crop, Muñoz Ryan establishes the idealized view of the land that Esperanza’s father teaches her: “‘Aguántate tantito y la fruta caerá en tu mano,’ he said. ‘Wait a little while and the fruit will fall into your hand. You must be patient, Esperanza’” (2). Subsequently, Muñoz Ryan structures the story around crop cycles, focusing chapters on particular crops to capture metaphorically Esperanza’s experiences as she loses her status as privileged consumer, who believes the earth offers its bounty effortlessly, and instead is forced to adapt to the difficult and demanding world of industrial food production. She is no longer concerned with her Quinceañera as her first step toward becoming the wife of a rich man. Over the course of a year, the experience of picking and processing crops restructures Esperanza’s own expectations based on class and gender. In essence, her labor redefines her subjectivity.

In the opening chapters of the novel, Muñoz Ryan sets up her protagonist as a member of the land-owning upper class, with its distanced symbolic appreciation of the land’s wealth and productivity,1 yet she also foreshadows the upcoming shift in focus from consumption to production through her portrayal of the men who harvest the grapes. In the chapter “Las Uvas/Grapes,” Esperanza is given the honor of cutting the first grapes of the harvest, a task usually assigned to the inheriting child of the patrón. The ritual is not simply familial, but deeply seated within the culture, a class-based affirmation of ownership and control...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6563
Print ISSN
0147-2593
Pages
pp. 280-299
Launched on MUSE
2017-01-31
Open Access
No
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