Manañaland & Esperanza Rising | Femicide, Female Trauma, & Seeking a Better Tomorrow


Warning: Spoilers ahead for Esperanza Rising and Manañaland by Pam Muñoz Ryan, as well as a discussion of gender-based violence, domestic abuse, and sexual abuse. 

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s impact spans generations. Her novel, Esperanza Rising, which initially released in 2000, is taught in classrooms across the country and has received numerous awards, including the coveted Pura Belpré Award, which is presented to Latinx authors and illustrators for their exceptional work in children’s literature, as well as the WILLA Literary Award for its portrayal of women’s stories, and The Jane Addams Children’s Book Award for the ways that it brought readers to consider peace and social equality. It’s been two decades since Esperanza Rising first graced our shelves and Muñoz Ryan is still capturing readers with this impactful story today. 

With more than forty books under her belt, Muñoz Ryan released her most recent middle-grade novel, Manañaland, last march. I can now say after reading it that it did not disappoint and will probably stick with me for years to come. Despite Pam Muñoz Ryan’s widespread success, it was actually the combined insistence of my niece, my own excitement to read Manañaland, and the fact that Esperanza Rising has just celebrated its 20th anniversary, that inspired me to discuss these two stories together. After reading them both, I realized that these books have more in common than I initially thought, each covering the culturally significant experiences of immigration, machismo, and women’s trauma, while still emphasizing a profound sense of hope. With these particular themes in mind, I began to consider my own status as a woman and the ongoing protests against femicide in Mexico and greater Latin America. 

This year, I learned the word “femicide,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as, “The deliberate killing of a woman; Femicide is a sex-based hate crime.” I came across this word through discussions held online and the podcast BitterBrownFemmes, which incited me to dive further into articles that spoke on the devastating murders of women across Mexico. Whether a woman is in her home or out in the streets, she faces the near-constant threat of violence, often with no repercussions for her abuser because, regardless of laws, government officials fail to provide justice for such crimes. This is not entirely unlike women’s treatment in other countries, including the United States— especially considering the high rates at which trans women endure violence and are murdered. 

According to, “In Mexico, at least seven women were victims of gender-related killings every day in 2016.” As of 2019, this number has jumped to ten women a day, which is devastating. They also offer statistics that show how, “One out of every three women in Latin America has experienced sexual or physical violence.” Although, an astounding “98 percent of gender-related killings in the region are not prosecuted.” Often, these murders are publicly framed as “voluntary disappearances,” arguing that women supposedly left of their own free will; any sort of investigation is usually out of the question and many of these women are eventually found dead. 

As the current pandemic forced countless people to quarantine at home, reports of domestic and sexual violence have increased across the globe. In early April of this year, the United Nations called for all governments to “prioritize the safety of their female inhabitants.” Last year alone, 243 million women and adolescent girls were sexually or physically abused by their partners. In Mexico specifically, CNN reports that this past April “was the deadliest month in the last five years with a record 267 murders of women.” Out of fear of provoking more violence, many women flee rather than report abuse to a government that devalues—or outright silences— their experiences. Even Mexico’s president claimed that “ninety percent” of domestic abuse reports made during the COVID-19 quarantine were “fake”—which is simply not true. As government officials and law enforcement themselves have been known to physically or sexually abuse those who do come forward, it is unsurprising that this widespread repudiation continues. This is especially true for women (and children) in ICE detention camps, who must endure rampant and unchecked sexual abuse and harassment. 

When reading both Manañaland and Esperanza Rising, I noticed how women were at the center of these stories, fleeing what they once knew to get away from men who sought to control or hurt them. While the story of Esperanza Rising is based on the experiences of Muñoz’s grandmother, they are also reflective of a shared experience among many Mexican women. Growing up in a Mexican community myself, many women are expected to dote upon the men in their families. This story is no different with Esperanza’s father, Sixto, garnering great respect, and sometimes envy, from those in his family and his many employees. 

However, because Esperanza’s family is rather wealthy, they become targets of bandits who kill her father the day before her 13th birthday. This event forever changes the lives of Esperanza and her mother, Ramona. Seeing as their head of household was murdered, Esperanza’s uncles assume ownership over their land, livelihood, and home. To strike fear into their hearts, her uncle Luis sets their home ablaze and threatens worse things to come if they defy him. He later tries to coerce Ramona into marrying him while also demanding she send Esperanza away. Unwilling to submit to his demands, Esperanza joins forces with her mother, Abuelita, their friends, and former servants, to devise a plan to flee to the United States. After a grueling journey, the women arrive to work in a farm camp where Esperanza takes charge of caring for babies since she is too young to work in the fields. Over time, however, Esperanza has no choice but to work with the adults in order to recover lost wages and pay for medical bills once her mother falls ill for nearly a year. 

Esperanza Rising shows how three generations of women, who would traditionally take on more subservient roles, become the leaders of their own lives. At such a young age, Esperanza is thrust into a whole new world, which she admittedly once looked down on. It takes much of the novel for her to learn that wealth is not everything, and that the safety of her loved ones matters more than whatever comfort money can provide. Though the journey to personal freedom is difficult, and still not fully hers as Esperanza is still restricted by the time period and rough working conditions of the Great Depression, the story ends with her feeling fulfilled and content to just live alongside the people she loves most. Her character develops from someone who would not dare to do labor, to someone who works tirelessly for the sake of others.

Similarly, the protagonist of Manañaland, Maximiliano Córdoba, undergoes his own transformation on a long physical journey he takes to protect the life of a young girl, Isadora, who is trying to escape abuse herself. For many years, Max feels something is missing in his life because he never got to know his mother. So, instead, he pours himself into storytelling with his Buelo and playing soccer with his closest friend. However, everything changes when Max gets an opportunity he doesn’t want to pass up, but it requires finding his long-lost birth certificate. While his father treks back to their old home to recover it, Max uncovers a hidden truth about his family: for generations, they have run an underground organization called Los Guardianes de los Escondidos (“The Guardians of the Hidden Ones”). Their goal is simple: to help women fleeing dangerous situations across Mexico. 

In the story, there is a tower known as “La Reina Gigante,” which has operated as a pit stop for numerous women passing through, as well as a place to leave messages showing that they made it at least that far. This portion of the novel, where Max reads said messages, is heart-breaking and, more than that, reflective of how many women have been forcibly displaced due to gender-based violence. Many of the women who pass through the Córdoba family tower are escaping domestic abuse, yearning for the mere chance at a fresh start. Since the path to Manañaland is filled with dangers, the women must travel in small groups and are often separated from their sisters, mothers, aunts, or cousins. For Max, this is the first time he truly experiences his family’s efforts to protect every woman who crosses their path. When he meets a small girl seeking freedom, and no one else to guide her to Manañaland, Max must take on the responsibility to show her the way himself. Moreover, Max is only 11 years old during the events of the novel, but he still manages to remain brave in the face of multiple threats. He is guided not only by his desire to prove himself, but by his hope to bring Isadora to safety. Thus, the plot of Manañaland is a weighty one, exploring family secrets, fear, death of loved ones, struggle, and, like Esperanza Rising, a discussion of female trauma. 

Keeping both of these stories in mind, the grander dilemma of female suffering is one that must be addressed as an oppressive, systematic issue. Though the term “femicide” is fairly new to me, the fear that comes with being a woman is not. While I would never want to villainize Mexico—a place that my parents called home and that I would love to experience for all its beauty, culture and warmth—it is imperative to turn our attention to what continues to happen to women there. We must all stand in solidarity to end violence, especially that based on gender and sexuality. As such, I deeply appreciate Pam Muñoz Ryan’s efforts in showcasing women who seek to reclaim their lives, while also including positive male allies. 

It’s time we hold men accountable for their targeted injustice towards women. It’s time we safeguard the lives of women and girls so that things never escalate to the point of abuse, violence, and death. It’s time we say enough.  


PRR Writer, Jackie Balbastro

Check out my fellow PRR writer Karyme’s blog about Furia which touches on similar topics here!