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.
Mango Street is populated by people with many different life stories, stories of hope and despair. First there is Esperanza’s own family, her kind father who works two jobs and is absent most of the time, her mother who can speak two languages and sing opera but never finished high school, her two brothers Carlos and Kiki, and her little sister Nenny. Of the neighborhood children Esperanza meets, there is Cathy, who shows her around Mango Street but moves out shortly thereafter because the neighborhood is “getting bad.” Then there are Rachel and Lucy, sisters from Texas, who become Esperanza and Nenny’s best friends. There is Meme, who has a dog with two names, one in Spanish and one in English, and Louie the boy from Puerto Rico whose cousin steals a Cadillac one day and gives all the children a ride.
Then there are the teenage girls of Mango Street, whom Esperanza studies carefully for clues about becoming a woman. There is Marin from Puerto Rico, who sells Avon cosmetics and takes care of her younger cousins, but is waiting for a boyfriend to change her life. There is Alicia, who must take care of her father and siblings because her mother is dead, but is determined to keep going to college. And there is Esperanza’s beautiful friend Sally, who marries in the eighth grade in order to get away from her father but is now forbidden by her husband to see her friends. Esperanza, Nenny, Lucy, and Rachel discover that acting sexy is more dangerous than liberating when a neighbor gives them four pairs of hand-me-down high heels. They strut around the neighborhood acting like the older girls until a homeless man accosts them. After fleeing, the girls quickly take off the shoes with the intention of never wearing them again.
The grown women Esperanza comes across on Mango Street are less daring and hopeful than the teenage girls, but they have acquired the wisdom that comes with experience. They advise Esperanza not to give up her independence in order to become a girlfriend or wife. Her Aunt Lupe, who was once pretty and strong but is now dying, encourages Esperanza to write poetry. Her mother, who was once a good student, a “smart cookie,” regrets having dropped out of school. There are other women in the neighborhood who don’t fit into either category, like Edna’s Ruthie, a grown-up who “likes to play.” While the text implies that Ruthie is developmentally disabled, Esperanza perceives her as somebody who “sees lovely things everywhere.”
Through observing and interacting with her neighbors, Esperanza forms a connection to Mango Street which conflicts with her desire to leave. At the funeral for Rachel and Lucy’s baby sister she meets their three old aunts who read her palm and her mind: Esperanza. The one with marble hands called me aside. Esperanza. She held my face with her blue-veined hands and looked and looked at me. A long silence. When you leave you must remember always to come back, she said.
When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.
Then I didn’t know what to say. It was as if she could read my mind, as if she knew what I had wished for, and I felt ashamed for having made such a selfish wish.
You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember? She asked as if she was telling me. Yes, yes, I said a little confused.
The three sisters tell Esperanza that while she will go far in life she must remember to come back to Mango Street for the others who do not get as far. By the novel’s end Esperanza has realized that her writing is one way to maintain the connection to Mango Street without having to give up her own independence. She will tell the stories of the “ones who cannot out.”