Esquivel was born in 1951 in Mexico, the third of four children of Julio Caesar Esquivel, a telegraph operator, and his wife Josephina. In an interview with Molly O’Neill in the New York Times, Esquivel explained, “I grew up in a modern home, but my grandmother lived across the street in an old house that was built when churches were illegal in Mexico. She had a chapel in the home, right between the kitchen and dining room. The smell of nuts and chilies and garlic got all mixed up with the smells from the chapel, my grandmother’s carnations, the liniments and healing herbs.” These experiences in her family’s kitchen provided the inspiration for her first novel.
Esquivel grew up in Mexico City and attended the Escuela Normal de Maestros, the national teachers’ college. After teaching school for eight years, Esquivel began writing and directing for children’s theater. In the early 1980s she wrote the screenplay for the Mexican film Chido One, directed by her husband Alfonso Arau and released in 1985. Arau also directed her screenplay for Like Water for Chocolate, released in Mexico in 1989 and in the United States in 1993. First published in 1989, the novel version of Like Water for Chocolate became a best seller in Mexico and the United States and has been translated into numerous languages. The film version has become one of the most popular foreign films of the past few decades. In her second, less successful novel, Ley del amor, published in English in 1996 as The Law of Love, Esquivel again creates a magical world where love becomes the dominant force of life. The novel includes illustrations and a compact disc of music to accompany it.