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.

Despite their contribution and service to the U.S. Army during World War II and their push for civil rights throughout the sixties and seventies, Mexican Americans continued to face discrimination upon returning home after serving the U.S. Army in World War II. For example, many Mexican Americans were treated like second-class citizens. And throughout the fifties and sixties, despite their eagerness to integrate more fully into American society, Mexican Americans were still treated as “outsiders” by mainstream American culture. By 1984, when The House on Mango Street was published, stringent U.S. immigration laws had long limited the number of Mexicans who were allowed to immigrate to the United States, and those who had immigrated legally or been born in America still experienced stereotyping and biases in American culture at large. In “Those Who Don’t,” Cisneros evokes the stereotyping of Mexican Americans: “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives.”

Because of the discrimination often leveled at Spanish-speaking populations by English-speaking Americans, many Mexican Americans choose to resist speaking Spanish except among family within the privacy of their homes. Cisneros, for example, remembers that she only spoke Spanish with her father at home, while otherwise being fully integrated within the mainstream American educational system. On the other hand, other Mexican Americans, particularly those of the older generations who retained a nostalgia for their mother country, never relinquished the use of Spanish as their primary tongue. In The House on Mango Street, for example, Mamacita consciously refused to speak English because for her it represented a blatant rejection of her past and her identity, and she limited her English vocabulary to “He not here,” “No speak English,” and “Holy smokes.” Esperanza’s father remembers eating nothing but “hamandeggs” when he first arrived in the United States because it was the only English phrase he knew. In the United States today, there is a renewed interest among the younger generation of Mexican Americans to learn and more fully appreciate the Spanish language.

B Hispanic American Population and Culture

The largest number of Mexican Americans in the United States are concentrated in southern California and Texas, with another sizable population in New York City. As one of the largest cities in the United States, Chicago historically has also attracted immigrants from around the world, including those from Mexico. Cisneros and her mother were born in the United States, as are many of the characters in The House on Mango Street, though they retain strong ties with their Mexican heritage and are integrated into the Mexican American communities throughout the country. In different parts of the country, these groups are referred to as “Mexican American,” “Mexicanos,” “Chicanos,” and sometimes by the more general terms “Hispanics” or “Latinos,” which describes collectively people from those cultures colonized by Spain from the fifteenth century to the present, including Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and many other countries. The population of Hispanics in the United States continues to swell, and by some estimates, they will make up about thirteen percent of the nation’s population by the early years of the twenty-first century.

Historically, Mexican American men and women have suffered negative stereotyping and prejudices that prevented them from securing desirable jobs and being upwardly mobile within the society. Therefore, many remain concentrated in low-income neighborhoods like the one portrayed in The House on Mango Street. Poverty is a reality faced by many Mexican American populations living in the United States. In The House on Mango Street, the theme of poverty pervades the stories. In “Alicia Who Sees Mice,” for example, the mice are a symbol of poverty. Alicia, who stays up late studying because she “doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin,” sees the mice scurrying around after dark, a symbol of her circumstances in the neighborhood. In The House on Mango Street, the source of Esperanza’s embarrassment about her house and her circumstances derives from the poverty that many Mexican Americans face. In “Bums in the Attic,” the economic disparity between “people who live on hills” and those who live in the barrio is clear.

The role of women within the history of the Hispanic community is significant. Although in The House on Mango Street and other works by Cisneros, some Mexican American women are portrayed as trapped within a cycle of socialization, Cisneros noted in a 1992 interview in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, “I have to say that the traditional role is kind of a myth. The traditional Mexican woman is a fierce woman. There’s a lot of victimization but we are also fierce. We are very fierce.”

Cisneros says she was influenced by American and British writers throughout high school, and she remembers reading works such as Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But only when she was introduced to the Chicago writing scene in college and graduate school did Cisneros come in contact with Chicano writers. Later, Chicano writers like Gary Soto, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Alberto Rios were also among her circle of colleagues. Today, Sandra Cisneros stands foremost among Chicana writers who emerged in the 1980s, including Ana Castillo, Denise Chavez, and Gloria Anzaldua.

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