In 1924, Papa tells 6-year-old Esperanza that the land is alive. They lie down on the earth and listen for its heartbeat. Six years later, Esperanza’s wealthy family prepares for her birthday at their Mexican home, El Rancho de las Rosas. When Papa is late returning from work, Esperanza, her Mama and her grandmother Abuelita worry about bandits. There is resentment between the rich and poor in Mexico, and even though Papa is sympathetic and generous to his workers, many of the poor consider him no different than other abusive landowners. Soon Esperanza’s family learns that bandits have killed Papa.
Esperanza and her family mourn the death of Papa. Eventually Esperanza opens her birthday presents, which include a porcelain doll. Tío Luiz, Papa’s brother and the owner of the town’s bank, is the most powerful man in town. He asks Mama to marry him, and she refuses. Tío Luiz tells her she will regret it and burns down their house.
If Mama marries Tío Luiz, Esperanza will be sent away to boarding school. Mama tells him that she will consider his offer, but this is a ploy to keep him from committing additional violent acts and to lull him into a false sense of security. Esperanza’s family decides to flee Mexico and go to the United States. They wish to protect Mama from Tío Luiz and keep the family together.
Alfonso, who was Papa’s close friend and the head of Papa’s field workers, takes Esperanza and her mother to live with his family in the United States. Abuelita, Esperanza’s grandmother, is injured in the fire, so she agrees to follow later. Before they leave, Abuelita says that the family is a like a phoenix, rising again to their new life. Alfonso smuggles Esperanza and her mother to the train station.
Mama and Esperanza travel in a train car full of peasants. Esperanza feels her family belongs in a car for the upper class, but they no longer have the money needed, as they did when Papa was alive. Esperanza is uncomfortable around the lower class. After she is unkind to a young girl on the train, Mama scolds her. They make a yarn doll for the young girl. Mama bonds with a poor woman named Carmen, telling her their story. When Esperanza asks if they should be telling her their business, Mama explains that they are peasants now, too.
Esperanza and her family make it through immigration. Esperanza falls asleep and wakes up in Los Angeles. They meet Alfonso’s brother, Juan, his wife, Josefina, their daughter, Isabel, and their two babies, Lupe and Pepe. Esperanza tries to hear the heartbeat of this new land, as she did with her father in Mexico, but she cannot. This upsets her. She has a vision of flying and spinning out of control. Miguel, Alfonso’s son and her childhood friend, comforts her.
Esperanza’s and Alfonso’s families travel to their new home, a work camp where Juan’s family has been living. On the way, Esperanza meets Marta, who rudely calls her a princess turned peasant. Marta’s father died in the Mexican Revolution fighting against landowners like Espearanza’s father.
Marta is a part of a workers’ union, determined to strike against bad working and living conditions in their segregated camps. Esperanza is shocked by the meager living conditions, but Mama tells her to choose to be happy in her new situation.
Esperanza’s job is to take care of Juan and Josephina’s babies and to sweep the public platform used for events in the camp. Esperanza has never taken care of babies or swept before. She is humiliated when others in the camp see her struggling to sweep. Miguel shows her how to sweep, and Esperanza promises to tell Isabel about her old life if she teaches Esperanza how to work. Both girls keep their promises.
When everyone returns from work, Alfonso and Miguel show Esperanza and Mama rose bushes that they brought from Papa’s rose garden in Mexico. At a party, called a jamiaca, that night, Marta encourages the workers to strike. The workers value their jobs and have to compete with other groups for them, so they ask Marta to leave. Although their situation is not ideal, Esperanza’s and Alfonso’s families want to keep working and earning a living.
Esperanza struggles to take care of the babies when Isabel goes to school, but slowly becomes accustomed to the task. Esperanza received some schooling in Mexico, so she does not go to the local school. A dust storm hits the fields, and the workers have to wait for trucks to leave. Mama becomes sick with valley fever, which is an infection caused by dust spores in the lungs. Esperanza thinks that Mama may be giving up on the inside because of everything she has lost. Her condition worsens, and she is taken to the hospital.
Esperanza begins to work in the sheds with the other women, doing work such as preparing potato eyes to be planted, in order to save money to bring Abuelita to the United States. Esperanza hears that the strikers may harm those who continue to work. Strikes have failed in the past because too many people have continued to work.
Mama contracts pneumonia, and Esperanza can’t visit her for a while. Miguel and Esperanza give Marta and her mother a ride home. Marta tells them that the strikers are organizing. The strikers’ camp, where Marta and her mother live, has terrible living conditions. Thanks to those leaving jobs to go on strike, Miguel gets his dream job of working for the railroad.
The strikers harass Esperanza and the other workers, leaving behind snakes and razorblades in their field bins and crates in an attempt to intimidate them and slow production. Immigration officials come and deport the strikers to Mexico, including those who are documented citizens. Esperanza helps Marta hide to avoid deportation.
Esperanza thinks it is unfair when Isabel is not appointed May queen, despite having the best grades in her class. Then inexperienced Oklahoman men are given Miguel’s job. Miguel tries to be optimistic, calling the United States the land of opportunity and saying that things will work out. Esperanza says there is no proof that the United States is the land of opportunity and calls him a peasant.
Miguel leaves that night. Isabel is upset about not being May queen, so Esperanza gives her the porcelain doll from Papa. Soon Mama returns home, her health improved, and Esperanza discovers that Miguel stole the money she had been saving. Esperanza is furious, but Mama says he needed the money to go to northern California, where he will look for work on the railroad.
Miguel uses the stolen money to bring Abuelita home, as proof that things will get better. Mama and Esperanza have a joyful reunion with Abuelita. Miguel and Esperanza lie down and hear the heartbeat of the earth together. Esperanza has another vision of flying over the valley. The family celebrates Esperanza’s birthday once again.