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.
Despite these ties to the past, Esperanza leaves no doubt that she is destined to leave this neighborhood for a bigger world outside the barrio, an allusion to her dual cultural loyalties. Esperanza believes that one day she will own her own house outside the neighborhood. However, she also leaves no doubt that she will return one day for those unable to leave the environment on their own. In “Bums in the Attic,” for example, she describes how she will let bums sleep in the attic of her house one day, “because I know how it is to be without a house.” In “The Three Sisters,” Esperanza gives further foreshadowing that she will one day leave Mango Street, but will return to help others. “You will always be Mango Street,” three ladies tell her. “You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.” Esperanza leaves the reader with the notion that she will leave but will not forget her roots. Though she does not always want to belong to this environment, she realizes that her roots are too strong to resist. The books and papers Esperanza takes with her at the end of the book are her means of freedom from the ugly house and the social constraints on the neighborhood.
B Gender Roles
The House on Mango Street is dedicated-“a las Mujeres”-to the women, and as the narrator, Esperanza offers the reader the greatest insights into the lives of female characters. One of the most enduring themes of the book is the socialization of females within Chicano society based on the fixed roles of the family. Cisneros explores the dynamics of women’s lives within this precarious and male-dominated society, where the conditions of females are predetermined by economic and social constraints. For most women in the neighborhood, these constraints are too powerful to overcome. However, Esperanza possesses the power to see beyond her circumstances and the world of the ghetto, while those around her fall prey to it and perpetuate its cycle. Esperanza’s mother is typical of the Hispanic woman grounded in this way of life.
Throughout the book, Esperanza deals with themes of womanhood, especially the role of single mothers. The interior world of females whose lives are tied to activities inside the house is contrasted with the external world of males, who go to work and operate in society at large. In “Boys & Girls,” for example, Esperanza notes the difference between herself and her brothers: “The boys and the girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours. My brothers for example. They’ve got plenty to say to me and Nenny inside the house. But outside they can’t be seen talking to girls.”
Esperanza offers a feminine view of growing up in a Chicano neighborhood in the face of a socialization process that keeps women married, at home, and immobile within the society. The women in this book face domineering fathers and husbands, and raise children, often as single parents, under difficult circumstances. Many tales have tragic sides, such as those that paint the constrained existence of some of the women and girls in the neighborhood under the strong arm of husbands or fathers. The story “There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn’t Know What to Do,” tells of an abandoned young wife and her unruly children. In “Linoleum Roses,” Sally is not allowed to talk on the phone or look out the window because of a jealous, domineering husband. Girls marry young in this society: “Minerva is only a little bit older than me but already she has two kids and a husband who left.” But Esperanza is a courageous character who defies the stereotypes of Chicanas. She laments the attitudes that prevail in her community. Of her name, Esperanza says, “It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse-which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female-but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.” It is Esperanza’s power to see beyond the barriers of her neighborhood, fueled by her education gained through reading and writing, that keep her from being trapped in the same roles as the women who surround her.