We first meet Esperanza Ortega as a six-year-old girl walking with her father, Sixto, whom she calls Papa, through a vineyard in the valley where they live in Aguascalientes, Mexico. Papa describes the valley as a living thing with breath and a heartbeat. He tells Esperanza that when a person lies down on the ground, they can feel the land breathe and hear its heart beating. Esperanza giggles as they lie down to listen, and says she can’t hear it, but Papa tells her to be patient. After a few moments, Esperanza can hear and feel the land beneath her.
Esperanza is the only child of Sixto and Ramona Ortega. Sixto is the wealthy owner of El Rancho de las Rosas. Everyone at the ranch is preparing for the year’s grape harvest, including Esperanza’s family, their servants, cowboys, and field workers. It is also almost Esperanza’s thirteenth birthday. While gathering roses, Esperanza pricks her thumb on a thorn, and believes it is a sign of bad luck. Papa has not returned from the fields, and Esperanza and her mother are worried. Papa had been warned about bandits in the area who were angry with wealthy landowners like him. Papa has given some workers their own plots of land, but there are still many who own nothing.
Mama sends two workers, Alfonso and his son, Miguel, out to find Papa while she waits with Esperanza and Esperanza’s grandmother, Abuelita, and their housekeeper, Hortensia, who is Alfonso’s wife and Miguel’s mother. Miguel is sixteen. He and Esperanza have been friends since they were children. But one day she told Miguel that because his family worked for hers, there was a river between them that couldn’t be crossed. Now Miguel calls Esperanza his queen.
Abuelita and Esperanza crochet to take their minds off worrying about Papa. Esperanza’s work is lopsided compared to Abuelita’s, but Abuelita tells her not to be afraid of starting over. Esperanza’s uncles, Tío Luis and Tío Marco, arrive at the house. Tío Luis is the bank president and Tío Marco is the town’s mayor. They are Papa’s older stepbrothers. The men bring bad news: a ranch worker has found Papa’s silver belt buckle. Abuelita, Hortensia, and Mama begin to pray for Papa’s safety. Alfonso and Miguel finally arrive in a wagon, carrying the dead body of Esperanza’s father covered in a blanket. Esperanza falls to her knees, crying.
Esperanza learns that Papa and his workers were attacked and killed by bandits. She tells the story to Señor Rodriguez, her friend Marisol’s father who has brought the papayas Esperanza’s father had ordered for Esperanza’s party. Papa’s funeral services last for three days, and people leave the family food and flowers. Esperanza doesn’t want to open her birthday presents, but Esperanza’s mother says that her father would have wanted Esperanza to do so. Esperanza receives several gifts, including a porcelain doll from Papa.
Tío Luis and Tío Marco visit the family every day, becoming more frustrated as Esperanza’s mother continues to grieve for Papa. A lawyer tells Mama that Papa left the ranch house to her and Esperanza, but he left the land to Tío Luis. Luis wants to buy the house, and makes an offer that Esperanza’s mother does not think is fair. Luis then offers to marry her so she can continue to live in the house. Mama refuses this offer as well, and Luis warns that he will make her life hard.
While Mama, Abuelita, and Hortensia discuss what can be done, Esperanza meets Miguel outside. They talk about the rose bushes Papa planted for each of them, side by side. Miguel tells her that his family will leave for the United States soon to look for work rather than work for Luis, but they will stay for a while to help Esperanza’s family. Esperanza is grateful, but determined that she will never leave her home.
Esperanza is woken by her mother screaming. Their house is on fire. They struggle to leave while Miguel runs inside the house for Abuelita. Abuelita is injured and cannot walk, but she still holds her bag of crocheting. Esperanza, Mama, Abuelita, Hortensia, Miguel, and Alfonso watch as the fire destroys the house.
Luis and Marco express sorrow for another tragedy so soon after Papa’s death, and Luis wonders what the family will do if more accidents happen. He offers again to marry Mama, and she says she will consider his proposal. Esperanza is furious, and tells Luis that she hates him. The family and friends agree that Luis will destroy more of the ranch unless Mama marries him. Hortensia tells Mama that her family is going to the United States to live and work on a big farm. There will be jobs for everyone. Mama asks if she and Esperanza can go with them. Abuelita will come later, after her injuries have healed. Until then, she will stay with her sisters at a nearby convent.
The group discusses the difficulties of crossing the border into the United States. Abuelita says that her sisters at a convent will get the correct papers for Esperanza and her mother. Abuelita reminds Esperanza not to be afraid of starting over. She gives Esperanza the bag of crocheting and tells her to finish her work. Mama tells Luis she will accept his proposal, but he must rebuild the ranch, and send a wagon so she can visit Abuelita at the convent. Luis is surprised but agrees.
A few nights later, Esperanza and her mother escape. Esperanza leaves with a bag containing clothes, tamales, and her new doll. She looks back at the ranch, but Mama tells her that Papa’s heart will find them wherever they go.
Esperanza, her mother, and Hortensia hide inside the back of the wagon so they won’t be seen as they escape from Aguascalientes. Esperanza is scared of being in the tight space, but Hortensia distracts her with memories from when they once hid from thieves inside the ranch house by crawling under a bed. After two days, the group boards a train car full of people Esperanza calls peasants. Many are dirty, carrying animals, and wearing old, torn clothes. A little girl stares at Esperanza’s porcelain doll, but Esperanza yanks it back when the girl reaches for it, making the girl cry. Esperanza’s mother apologizes for Esperanza’s bad manners, and has Esperanza help her make a yarn doll for the girl.
At every stop, Miguel and Alfonso step off the train to add water to an oilcloth package. Esperanza is irritated by Miguel’s happiness at being on the train, but Miguel tells her that he is going to try to work on the railroad in California. He has always wanted to work on trains, and Esperanza’s father had promised to help him find a job. Miguel tells Esperanza that in the United States, even the poorest man can become rich if he works hard enough.
After four days and nights on the train, Esperanza meets Carmen, an egg seller who tells the group that even though she is poor, she is rich because she has her children, her garden, and memories of the people she loves. When she leaves the train, Esperanza and Miguel watch as Carmen gives a beggar on the train platform some money and food. Miguel tells Esperanza that the poor take care of those who have even less than they do, while the rich only take care of each other.
The train reaches the California border. The police frighten Esperanza, but Mama shows that their papers are good and that they have come to the United States to work. The group boards another train, to Los Angeles. They are met by Alfonso’s brother Juan, his wife, Josefina, and their children, Isabel and the babies Lupe and Pepe. On the way to the farm, Isabel tells Esperanza that she wants to learn English in school this year.
When the group stops for lunch, Esperanza tries to hear the land’s heartbeat, as Papa taught her to do. She can’t hear or feel anything, and she cries before she has the sensation of flying high, then falling back down. Esperanza faints, and wakes to find Miguel standing above her.
Marta, a worker from another camp, joins the group. Isabel tells Marta that Esperanza’s father owned a ranch, and Miguel worked for Esperanza’s family. Marta asks if Esperanza is a princess who has come to be a peasant. Miguel and Isabel defend Esperanza, explaining that her father died and a fire destroyed her home. Marta tells Esperanza that her own father died fighting in the Mexican revolution against wealthy landowners. Esperanza tries to explain that her father was a good man, but Marta doesn’t care.
Isabel shows Esperanza the camps of workers from the Philippines, Oklahoma, and Japan. Marta explains that the land owners don’t want the groups to live and work together. As long as all groups think the others are living the same way, no one will care. But if one group receives better treatment, then other groups will strike. Miguel and Marta discuss the jamaica fiesta happening in camp on Saturday night. When the truck arrives at the Mexican camp, Marta taunts Esperanza, saying no one will be her servant there.
Marta joins a group of girls, gossiping with them in English about Esperanza. Isabel points out the building with the camp toilets, and Miguel leads Esperanza and her mother to the group’s cabin. Alfonso has told the landowners that Esperanza and her mother are his cousins, so they will live as a family in one cabin. Esperanza complains that they are living like horses, but her mother tells Esperanza to be grateful for what they have.
Esperanza and Isabel will watch the babies while the others work in the fields. Esperanza’s main job will be to sweep the wooden platform in the middle of the camp every afternoon. Isabel shows Esperanza the platform and brooms before they meet Isabel’s best friend Silvia and two women, Irene and Melina. Melina tells Esperanza she knows about how she came from Aguascalientes. When Esperanza wonders how people know about her already, Isabel tells her that everyone in the camp knows each other’s business.
Isabel is surprised to learn that Esperanza doesn’t know how to wash clothes. Isabel reminds Esperanza that next week she will go to school, and Esperanza will be alone with the babies. Isabel asks if Esperanza knows how to sweep, and Esperanza assures her that she does. But when it is time for her to sweep the platform, she ends up making a bigger mess. She notices some women watching her and laughing, including Marta, who calls her Cinderella. Humiliated, Esperanza runs back inside the cabin. That evening, Miguel shows Esperanza how to sweep. She thanks him, and Miguel again calls her his queen. Later, Isabel asks about Esperanza’s life as a queen, and Esperanza agrees to tell her about her life in Aguascalientes, if Isabel will teach her how to do laundry and take care of the babies.
Miguel leads Esperanza and her mother behind the cabin to a makeshift shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe. Miguel has planted rosebushes there that he dug from the burnt ground of the ranch. He and Alfonso kept the cuttings wet during the journey from Mexico. Miguel has placed Esperanza’s rose beside a trellis, allowing it to climb. Mama reminds Esperanza that Papa’s heart would find them wherever they went.
The following night is the jamaica fiesta. Esperanza is nervous about facing the others in camp, and asks about Marta. Isabel tells Esperanza that Marta knows English because she and her mother were born in the United States. Isabel’s father doesn’t like it when Marta comes to the jamaicas, because she talks too much about workers striking.
At the fiesta, Esperanza notices a group gathered around Marta and her friends. Marta yells that the workers are being treated like kittens, meek animals who have no choice. Marta’s group is planning to strike in two weeks, at the height of the cotton season. They want others to join them so everyone’s lives can get better. Marta and her friends are ordered to leave the camp. Later, Josefina explains that Marta and her mother are migrant workers. Migrant camps have no protection and very little pay. Josefina tells Esperanza that Mexicans cannot risk striking, because the landowners will hire other workers from Oklahoma or elsewhere.
Late that night, Mama tells Esperanza that she is proud of all that Esperanza is learning. Esperanza says that she will light a candle for Papa at church the next day, and pray for a railroad job for Miguel, for help with the babies, and for Abuelita to get well. Mama says that she will pray too for Esperanza to be strong, no matter what happens.
On her first day alone with the babies, Esperanza mashes ripe plums for them to eat before they nap. When they wake, both babies have made a terrible mess in their diapers. They have been sick from eating too much. Esperanza remembers that when she was sick as a child, Hortensia would make her drink rice water. Esperanza prepares rice water for the babies, feeding them small amounts until Isabel comes home. Isabel tells her she did the right thing, because raw plums are too hard on babies’ stomachs.
Esperanza spends time with Irene and Milena. The women talk about how this is the day of the strike, before a hot wind blows across the field, and the sky goes dark. There is a vicious dust storm coming. The women hide in the cabin with the children as dirt and dust fly outside. Irene and Melina leave after the storm settles, and Esperanza waits for Isabel and the others to come home.
Once home, the family members take turns washing their bodies and clothes. Esperanza’s mother is coughing hard from the dust. At the table, the family discusses how the strike did not happen because of the storm. The cotton pickers now have no jobs because the storm covered the crop in dirt, but the others will go back to work tomorrow, because the grapes are ready.
A month later, Mama is still coughing, and she is weak and feverish. A doctor trusted by the field workers comes and tells the family that she has Valley Fever. Dust spores from the storm have infected her lungs. It is not contagious, but brings fever, pain, and coughing. Even with medicine, it could be six months before Mama is well—if she survives at all.
Esperanza takes care of her mother while Irene and Melina look after the babies. Mama is not getting worse, but she is also not getting better. She calls out for Abuelita, and asks Esperanza to give her the crocheted blanket Abuelita had started before they left Aguascalientes. As her mother sleeps, Esperanza attempts to finish the blanket.
Winter comes, and Mama has trouble breathing. The doctor says that she is weak and depressed, and must go to the hospital. Hortensia tells Esperanza that her mother has lost so much, and her strength is gone.
Esperanza goes with Hortensia and Josefina to cut potato eyes for three weeks. If she is a good worker, Esperanza might be hired to do more. Esperanza learns how the older women complete their tasks and stay warm in the shed where they work. One woman is Marta’s aunt, who says that the strikers are organizing now for the spring. She worries that the strikers will lose their cabins in the migrant camp and be sent back to Mexico. She warns that Mexicans who continue to work while others are striking may be harmed. Marta’s uncle has told her that she cannot stay with them if she strikes, because they cannot risk losing their jobs.
A few nights before Christmas, Isabel asks Esperanza about how the holiday was celebrated in Aguascalientes. Esperanza describes the sights and sounds, and remembers that she was happy. For Christmas this year, she wants her Mama to be well again, and to keep working. Esperanza visits her mother in the hospital on Christmas Day, but Mama does not wake from her sleep. Esperanza leaves her a gift of a small stone similar to one Abuelita carried in her coat, and tells her mother that she will take care of everything.
Esperanza’s life continues with work during the days, helping with the babies at night, and visiting Mama in the hospital on weekends. Every other week, Esperanza takes money she has saved and gets a money order from the market. She hides the money orders in her bag, hoping to save enough for Abuelita’s travel costs.
The doctor tells Esperanza that Mama has pneumonia, and must have no visitors for the next month, to avoid other infections. Esperanza asks to see Mama for a short time, and braids her mother’s hair before telling Mama that she loves her. Unable to visit her mother, Esperanza is sad. Miguel convinces Esperanza to go with him to a Japanese market where the owner is kind to Mexicans. At the market, Esperanza buys another money order and a piñata for her mother.
On their way home, Esperanza and Miguel see Marta with her mother, Ada. Ada tells Esperanza that she has been praying for Esperanza’s mother. Marta asks Miguel to take them to the farm where she and her mother are currently living. The farm is messy, with several families living in tents or cars. A family comes begging for food because the father lost his job after striking. Esperanza gives the father some beans and gives the children the piñata. Marta tells Miguel and Esperanza that the strikers are more organized now, and will shut down fields, roads, and the railroad during the asparagus season. Marta warns that they could be in danger if they do not join the strike.
A few nights later, Miguel brings news that he has found a job in the railroad’s machine shop. It may be temporary, but Miguel’s father Alfonso is sure that Miguel’s work will be so good that the railroad will keep him.
On the first day of the asparagus season, the workers are protected from the strikers by a man with a gun, but the gun frightens Esperanza as well. The strikers, including Marta and Ada, chant and threaten the workers all day. Alfonso and Juan tell the women that the same things are happening in the fields. One day, Josefina pulls asparagus from a crate to find a rat, and later, a woman sees snakes coming out of another crate. Other workers find razor blades and pieces of glass in packing crates.
One day, Esperanza notices that the shouting has stopped. She and Hortensia see that the strikers are gone, and then notice several vans and police cars moving toward the shed. Josefina tells Esperanza that they are immigration officers, coming to find workers who are in the country illegally. Josefina explains that the strikers will be deported back to Mexico even if they are citizens of the United States, because they are causing trouble for the government.
Esperanza goes to the shed to gather bands for the asparagus bundles, and finds Marta hiding there, begging Esperanza not to let her get caught. Esperanza remembers how unkind Marta has been to her, but also knows that Marta cannot leave Ada, Marta’s mother. She tells Marta to put on an apron and carry a bundle of asparagus when she leaves the shed, so everyone will think she is just another worker. Marta apologizes for misjudging Esperanza.
Later that night, Esperanza wonders whether Marta made her way back to Ada. In the morning, she asks Miguel to take her to the farm. The strikers have all been taken by the immigration officers. As she leaves the farm, Esperanza sees that the piñata is broken, and the insides have been torn out.
Isabel prays that because of her good grades, she may be named Queen of the May at her school’s May Day festival. Girls who speak English and wear nice dresses are usually chosen, but she is the only female student with straight As. Isabel tells the family that there is a new camp for workers from Oklahoma with inside toilets, hot water, and a swimming pool. Mexicans will be allowed to use the pool only on the day before it is cleaned. Esperanza is angered by the idea that Mexicans are considered dirtier than other workers. When Miguel arrives home, he says the railroad has hired men from Oklahoma to work on the engines for half the money, and that Mexicans could dig ditches or lay tracks instead. Miguel chose to dig ditches rather than take no pay.
Esperanza is furious, wondering why the new workers couldn’t dig the ditches instead. She tells Miguel that their lives are no better than they were in Mexico. Miguel explains that at least in the United States he has a chance to become more than a servant. He reminds Esperanza of her father’s words about patience: to wait and the fruit will fall into your hand. Esperanza bursts into tears remembering her father, and cries that she can’t stand how hopeful Miguel still is. She tells Miguel that he is still a peasant, and he angrily tells Esperanza that she still thinks she is a queen. Miguel leaves the next morning to look for work in northern California.
When Isabel is not chosen Queen of the May, Esperanza feels sorry for her. She gives Isabel her porcelain doll, telling Isabel that it is a gift to last for more than one day.
Esperanza’s mother is finally able to come home from the hospital, but she is still depressed and needs to build up her strength. Mama comes home to see that Papa’s roses are blooming and the family has prepared her bed and a special chair for her outside. That night, Mama tells Esperanza that it is not all her fault that Miguel is gone, and that he will come back. Esperanza tells her mother that she has saved almost enough money to bring Abuelita to them and goes to show her the money orders. But when she opens her bag, she discovers that the money orders are gone.
The family is certain that Miguel took Esperanza’s money orders, but his father Alfonso promises to pay back the money. Esperanza is furious, but she focuses on how her mother appears to be getting stronger every day.
Alfonso comes one day to take Esperanza with him and Hortensia to pick up Miguel at the bus station in Bakersfield. Miguel hugs his parents, then tells Esperanza that he has brought her proof that things will get better. He turns to help an old woman down from the bus. It is Abuelita. Miguel has used the money to bring her from Mexico to California. Esperanza is overwhelmed and grateful, laughing and crying with Abuelita.
At the cabin, Esperanza leads Abuelita to Mama. Abuelita wakes Esperanza’s mother gently, and as the two women cry, Esperanza retrieves the crocheted blanket she has been working on for Mama. Abuelita tells Esperanza how she knew something was wrong with her daughter, and she prayed every day for the family’s safety. Esperanza tells Abuelita everything that has happened, explaining her story by the seasons of fruits and vegetables that have passed.
Later, Esperanza and Miguel go to the foothills beyond the farm and lie down on the grass there. Esperanza tells Miguel to listen for the sound of the land’s heart beating. They are quiet until they hear it. As the sun rises, Esperanza feels like she is rising, too, high above the valley. She remembers that she has her family, her garden of roses, her faith, and her memories.
The family celebrates Esperanza’s birthday with fruit and her favorite cake. Later, Esperanza watches as Abuelita teaches Isabel how to crochet. Isabel is impatient, upset that her rows of crocheted yard are uneven, but Esperanza gently unravels the yarn and tells Isabel never to be afraid of starting over.