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Introduction

The House on Mango Street, which appeared in 1984, is a linked collection of forty-four short tales that evoke the circumstances and conditions of a Hispanic American ghetto in Chicago as seen through the eyes of Esperanza Cordero, a fictionalized adolescent girl coming of age. These concise and poetic tales also offer snapshots of the roles of women in this society and uncover the dual forces that pull Esperanza to stay rooted in her cultural traditions on the one hand, and those that compel her to pursue a better way of life outside the barrio on the other. Throughout the book Sandra Cisneros explores themes of cultural tradition, gender roles, and coming of age in a binary society that struggles to hang onto its collective past while integrating itself into the American cultural landscape. Cisneros wrote the vignettes while struggling with her identity as an author at the University of Iowa’s Writers Workshop in the 1970s and was influenced by Russian-born novelist and poet Vladimir Nabokov’s memoirs and by her own experiences as a child in the Chicago barrio. This engaging book has brought the author critical acclaim and a 1985 Before Columbus American Book Award, and has been highly lauded for its impressionistic, poetic style and powerful imagery. Though Cisneros is a young writer and her work is not plentiful, The House on Mango Street establishes her as a major figure in American literature. Her work has already been the subject of numerous scholarly studies and is often at the forefront of works that explore the role of Latinas in American society.

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Sandra Cisneros

The experiences of Esperanza, the adolescent protagonist of The House on Mango Street, closely resemble those of Sandra Cisneros’s childhood. The author was born to a Mexican father and a Mexican American mother in 1954 in Chicago, Illinois, the only daughter of seven children. The family, for whom money was always in short supply, frequently moved between the ghetto neighborhoods of Chicago and the areas of Mexico where her father’s family lived. Cisneros remembers that as a child she often felt a sense of displacement. By 1966 her parents had saved enough money for a down payment on a run-down, two-story house in a decrepit Puerto Rican neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, where Cisneros spent much of her childhood. This house, as well as the colorful group of characters Cisneros observed around her in the barrio, served as inspiration for some of the stories in The House on Mango Street.

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Plot Summary

The House on Mango Street is the coming of age story of Esperanza Cordero, a preadolescent Mexican American girl (Chicana) living in the contemporary United States. A marked departure from the traditional novel form, The House on Mango Street is a slim book consisting of forty-four vignettes, or literary sketches, narrated by Esperanza and ranging in length from two paragraphs to four pages. In deceptively simple language, the novel recounts the complex experience of being young, poor, female, and Chicana in America. The novel opens with a description of the Cordero family’s house on Mango Street, the most recent in a long line of houses they have occupied. Esperanza is dissatisfied with the house, which is small and cramped, and doesn’t want to stay there. But Mango Street is her home now, and she sets out to try to understand it.

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Characters

A Esperanza Cordero

“In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters,” says Esperanza Cordero. In a child-like voice, Esperanza records impressions of the world around her. Her perceptions range from humorous anecdotes pulled from life in the barrio to more dark references to crime and sexual provocation. Through Esperanza’s eyes, the reader catches short yet vivid glimpses of the other characters, particularly the females in Esperanza’s neighborhood. In part, Esperanza finds her sense of self-identity among these women. With a sense of awe and mystery, for example, she looks to older girls who wear black clothes and makeup. She experiments with womanhood herself in “The Family of Little Feet,” a story in which Esperanza and her friends cavort about the neighborhood in high heel shoes, but are forced to flee when they attract unwanted male attention. Esperanza’s sense of self-identity is also interwoven with her family’s house, which emerges throughout the book as an important metaphor for her circumstances. She longs for her own house, which serves as a symbol of the stability, financial means, and sense of belonging that she lacks in her environment: “a house all my own-Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” As the stories develop, Esperanza matures, and she turns from looking outward at her world to a more introspective viewpoint that reveals several sides of her character. Esperanza is a courageous girl who recognizes the existence of a bigger world beyond her constraining neighborhood, and who, toward the end of the book, is compelled by her own inner strength to leave the barrio. Nonetheless, Esperanza demonstrates empathy for those around her, particularly those who do not see beyond the confines of their situations: “One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away. Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all these books and paper? Why did she march so far away? They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.” In “Bums in the Attic,” Esperanza says, “One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who or where I came from.” The tension between Esperanza’s emotional ties to this community and her desire to transcend it establish a sense of attraction and repulsion that characterize the work.

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Themes

Coming of Age

Through various themes in The House on Mango Street Esperanza reveals herself as both a product of the community in which she lives and one of the only figures courageous enough to transcend her circumstances. Like all adolescents, Esperanza struggles to forge her own self-identity. In many respects, Esperanza’s own keen observations and musings about the women in her neighborhood are her way of processing what will happen to her in the future and what is within her power to change. On the one hand, she is surrounded by adolescent myths and superstitions about sexuality. In the story “Hips,” the adolescent Esperanza contemplates why women have hips: “The bones just one day open. One day you might decide to have kids, and then where are you going to put them?” Esperanza boldly experiments with the trappings of womanhood by wearing high heels in “The Family of Little Feet,” and in “Sally,” she looks enviously to the girl as an image of maturity: “My mother says to wear black so young is dangerous, but I want to buy shoes just like yours.” However, Esperanza’s brushes with sexuality are dangerous and negative in “The First Job” and “Red Clowns,” and she feels betrayed by the way love is portrayed by her friends, the movies, and magazines. After observing characters such as Sally, Minerva, and Rafaela, who, through early and abusive marriages, are trapped in the neighborhood and into identifying themselves through their male connections, Esperanza, in “Beautiful & Cruel,” says, “I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.” Esperanza also forges her identity through the metaphor of the house. Her longing for a house of her own underscores her need for something uplifting and stable with which she can identify. Throughout the book there is a tension between Esperanza’s ties to the barrio and her impressions of another kind of life outside of it. Ultimately, Esperanza’s ability to see beyond her immediate surroundings allows her to transcend her circumstances and immaturity.

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Culture and Heritage

A Difference

Esperanza keenly observes the struggles of Hispanic Americans who wish to preserve the essence of their heritage while striving to forge productive lives within American culture. It is through the sordid details of the lives of Esperanza’s neighbors that we glimpse the humorous, moving, and tragic sides of these struggles. Esperanza’s community serves as a microcosm of Latinos in America, and her own identity is interwoven with the identity of the neighborhood. People in the barrio relate to one another because of a shared past and current experience. In “Those Who Don’t,” Esperanza considers the stereotypes and fears that whites have of Latinos and vice versa. Cisneros weaves together popular beliefs, traditions, and other vestiges of the countries from which she and her neighbors trace their ancestry. In “No Speak English,” for example, an old woman paints her walls pink to recall the colorful appearance of the houses in Mexico, a seemingly hopeless gesture in the drab underbelly of Chicago. She wails when her grandson sings the lyrics to an American television commercial but cannot speak Spanish. The tragic Mamacita risks losing her identity if she assimilates, like her little grandson, into American culture. In “Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water,” the so-called “witch woman” of the neighborhood preserves the old wives’ tales, superstitions, and traditional remedies for curing headaches, forgetting an old flame, and curing insomnia.

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Construction

A Point of View

The House on Mango Street is narrated by the adolescent Esperanza, who tells her story in the form of short, vivid tales. The stories are narrated in the first person (“I”), giving the reader an intimate glimpse of the girl’s outlook on the world. Although critics often describe Esperanza as a childlike narrator, Cisneros said in a 1992 interview in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World: “If you take Mango Street and translate it, it’s Spanish. The syntax, the sensibility, the diminutives, the way of looking at inanimate objects-that’s not a child’s voice as is sometimes said. That’s Spanish! I didn’t notice that when I was writing it.” Incorporating and translating Spanish expressions literally into English, often without quotation marks, adds a singular narrative flavor that distinguishes Cisneros’s work from that of her peers.

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Historical Perspective

A Mexican Immigration to the United States

Cisneros plays on her dual Mexican American heritage throughout her work, and The House on Mango Street in particular reflects the experience of Mexicans in the United States. In the mid-nineteenth century, Mexico ceded its northern territories (present-day California, Arizona, and New Mexico) to the United States at the end of the Mexican War, and Mexican landowners lost many of their rights under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. From about 1900 to 1920, immigrants from Mexico were actively recruited into the United States as low-cost labor for railroad, mining, and other industries, especially throughout the southwestern United States. Mexican immigration was widespread and unregulated through the 1920s, when immigration from Mexico and some other countries hit its peak. Between World War I and World War II, however, Mexican immigration came to a halt due in part to the pressures of the Great Depression, and Mexican Americans faced repatriation, poverty, and rampant discrimination.

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Questions

Characterize the social constraints of the women in Esperanza’s neighborhood, and describe how Esperanza both responds to and transcends the social forces in her environment.

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