115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Rhetoric of Motion and Emotion: Narrating the Moves towards Empathy in Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising

Laura Poladian, Loyola Marymount University

While YA literature is generally understood to foster empathy, this paper more specifically investigates how narrative strategies and cognitive experience make that process visible. I argue that by linking the rhetoric of motion with emotion, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising contributes to the genre as a site for constructing empathetic social reader-actors, especially related to experiences of class.


Against the backdrop of the 1930s migrant worker experience, Esperanza becomes the “other” to her earlier existence when she must suddenly cross the border illegally and leave behind her affluent ranch life. While novels and picture books relating to migrant worker experience have been published since the 1970s with a wider spread in publication during the late 1990s, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, released in 2000, is not only focused on making the experiences of a particular population visible but also forming its readers to have an ongoing awareness of the inner workings of classist pressures.  By way of narratology and inter-disciplinary phenomenological theories, the process of how Esperanza’s “othering” transfers to a change for the reader is made visible. Specifically, through existing scholarship from criticisms and theories of Children’s and YA literature, publications in the field of cognitive psychology, and theories at the intersection of philosophy and emotion, I develop a lens and language for looking at the particular in Muñoz Ryan’s text to think about the universal effects in a readership.

For this paper, I propose to do a reading of the rhetoric of movement in Esperanza Rising to argue that the rhetoric of motion, as it is related to emotion, both features and thematizes empathy in the text. Ultimately, the role empathy plays in the construction of the protagonist and the reader can be understood in the larger arguments about the function of the YA genre, so that Muñoz Ryan’s text is both engaged in forming its readers and the generic qualities that define YA literature.

This generic argument is explored in empathy’s relationship to class. My interpretation is grounded on the claim that motion, as the specific act of movement between two states of being, is a focus in Esperanza Rising. The text is structured on movement—by chapter names evocative of changing regions with seasons , filled with tropes of movement—in Esperanza’s sweeping and sewing, and storied along a plot about movement—in the border crossing from Mexico to the US. These movements can be tied to conceptions of class. Even the title itself calls attention to this pattern by subverting a common trope—the downward class movement—by reimagining the opposite movement, rising, as a descriptor of Esperanza’s internal changes, rather than her outward social status. By questioning, practicing at, observing, failing at and ultimately engaging in empathy, Esperanza learns to think and act outside of class expectations.

This paper goes beyond that empathy happens to work in YA fiction to reveal how it happens. Pam Muñoz Ryan’s text, as representative of this process, not only provides empathetic characters, which is arguably an archetype in the genre; not only makes the increase in empathy the central effect of the plot, which may be the case of many texts within the genre; but also offers themes and makes arguments about the value of and process of constructing empathy. By engaging readers in these arguments and this process, Pam Muñoz Ryan is going beyond demonstrating a world in which readers may be empathetic into a socialization that requires readers have worked through the concept, linked the emotions of it to motion, so that they can cognitively retrieve their increased empathy, especially in relation to motions that delineate class experience.