Summary: “Edna’s Ruthie”
Ruthie is the grown-up daughter of Edna, a mean and exploitative landlord who owns the apartment building next door to Esperanza’s house. One day when Angel Vargas is teaching them to whistle, Ruthie comes up and whistles beautifully. She likes to play with the children because she has never grown up enough to handle the adult world. She doesn’t go into stores with the children, and one night when her mother’s friends invite her to play bingo, she is paralyzed at the thought of going out with them. Ruthie is talented, but when she was young she got married instead of taking a job. Now she lives with her mother, but she waits for her husband to come and take her home. Esperanza brings her books. One day, Esperanza memorizes and recites “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from Through the Looking Glass. The beauty of Esperanza’s recital moves Ruthie, but she cannot express herself. Instead, she tells Esperanza she has beautiful teeth.
Summary: “The Earl of Tennessee”
Earl, another of Esperanza’s neighbors, is a jukebox repairman who works nights and is seen only when he comes out to tell the children sitting in front of his door to keep quiet. He has two lively dogs, and occasionally he gives the children old jukebox records. Earl supposedly has a wife, and many of the neighbors claim to have seen her, but everyone describes her differently. Earl clearly has a series of women whom he brings to his apartment for quick visits every now and then.
Sire is Esperanza’s first real crush. He is a neighborhood boy who sometimes stares at her. Esperanza always tries to stare straight ahead when she passes him and not to be afraid. Her parents tell her Sire is a punk and that she shouldn’t talk to him. Sire has a pretty, petite girlfriend, Lois, who doesn’t know how to tie her shoes. Esperanza watches Sire and Lois take walks, or Lois riding Sire’s bike. Esperanza wonders what it would be like to be in Lois’s place, but her parents say that Lois is the kind of girl who goes into alleys. That doesn’t keep Esperanza from wishing she could sit up outside late at night on the steps with Sire, or from wondering what it feels like to be held by a boy, something she so far has felt only in her dreams.
Summary: “Four Skinny Trees”
Esperanza compares herself to the trees outside her house. She thinks that both she and the trees do not belong in the barrio, but are stuck there anyway. Both she and they have secret strength and anger. The trees teach her not to forget her reason for being. They inspire her because they have grown despite the concrete that tries to keep them in the ground.
Ruthie demonstrates the limited nature of a child’s perspective, but her section also brings up the darker, very adult subject of death. Despite Ruthie’s childishness, Esperanza hopes she’ll act as another Aunt Lupe and encourage her to create art, but Ruthie is either not mature or not aware enough to be of any help. Whether she is mentally handicapped or mentally ill is not clear, and whether her statements about her past are true is also a mystery. Although Ruthie shares some of Esperanza’s poetic talents, Esperanza can see more of people’s motives than Ruthie can, which makes her more adult than Ruthie. Because of Ruthie’s many limitations, she is another figure who, like Geraldo in the last section, represents the ultimate outcast—she fits into neither the child’s world nor the world of adults. Angel Vargas, the boy who fell and died in “There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn’t Know What to Do,” reappears in this section, which indicates that Esperanza met Ruthie fairly early on. However, not until she needs someone else to listen to her read poetry does Esperanza feel compelled to mention Ruthie. Angel Vargas’s reappearance in this section acts as a reminder that death lurks everywhere and that it doesn’t affect only older people, such as those who died in the previous sections.
The womanizing Earl reveals the neighborhood’s vastly different standards for men and women regarding sex. Earl is one of the few grown men actually present in the barrio during the day. While Ruthie innocently waits for her husband to return for her, neighbors gossip about a wife Earl abandoned. He brings home many women, and different people believe different women might be his wife, though these women are most likely prostitutes. Esperanza notes off-handedly that no one in the neighborhood can agree on what Earl’s wife actually looks like. This is one of Esperanza’s more naïve observations, since the adults in the neighborhood are almost certainly aware that these “wives” are all different women. Associating sex with marriage and love is a child’s mistake, but the neighbors, who insist, seriously or otherwise, that all these different women are somehow his one “wife,” perpetuate the misunderstanding. No ugly judgments are made about Earl. He can do as he pleases with as many women as he wants, while Lois from “Sire” already has a bad reputation as a sexually willing and available girl.