The House on Mango Street
|Cover artist||illustration: Nivia Gonzalez|
design: Lorraine Louie
lettering: Henry Sene Yee
|Genre||Coming-of-age story, novella, a book of vignettes|
|Published||1984 (Arte Público Press)|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover, Paperback, & library binding), audio cassette, and audio CD|
|Pages||110 (2nd edition, paperback)|
|ISBN||0-679-73477-5 (2nd edition, paperback)|
|LC Class||PS3553.I78 H6 1991|
The House on Mango Street is a 1984 coming-of-age/bildungsroman novel by Mexican-American author Sandra Cisneros. It is written from the perspective of teenage Latina, Esperanza Cordero, who struggles with her life in a Chicano and Puerto Rican neighborhood of Chicago. Esperanza wishes to escape her impoverished life in her small red house on Mango Street to then return one day to rescue her loved ones as well. It is an account of life in an immigrant community addressing themes of Marxism, racism, sexism, sexuality, sexual abuse, feminism, and Chicana culture. The novel combines old Mexican traditions with modern American customs and explores the plight of marginalized Latinos struggling to survive in a dominantly white country. It is presented in a series of vignettes and is Sandra Cisneros’ first published novel. The book has earned many awards and accolades, and is considered to be a modern classic of Chicana literature. It is a New York Times Bestseller and has been adapted into a stage play by Tanya Saracho.
Because the novel deals with controversial subject matter and has become a staple of young adult academia, it has been banned from many schools and has faced a lot of criticism. Though it has faced a lot of criticism from censors and school boards, it is considered an important and highly influential coming-of-age novel, and has appeared on many young adult reading lists.
The story begins with Esperanza, the protagonist, describing how her family arrived at the house on Mango Street. Before the family settled in their new house, they moved around frequently. The reader develops a sense of Esperanza’s observant and descriptive nature as she begins the novel with descriptions of minute behaviors and observations about her family members. Though Esperanza's age is never revealed to the reader, it is implied that she is about thirteen. She begins to write as a way of expressing herself and as a way to escape the suffocating effect of the neighborhood. The novel also includes the stories of many of Esperanza’s neighbors, providing a picture of the neighborhood and offering examples of the many influences surrounding her. Esperanza quickly befriends Lucy and Rachel Guerrero, two Texan girls who live across the street. Lucy, Rachel, Esperanza, and Esperanza’s little sister, Nenny, have many adventures in the small space of their neighborhood. As the vignettes progress, the novel depicts Esperanza's budding personal maturity and developing world outlook.
Esperanza later slips into puberty and likes it when a boy watches her dance at a baptism party. Esperanza's newfound views lead her to become friends with Sally, a girl her age who wears black nylon stockings, makeup, high heels, and short skirts, and uses boys as an escape from her abusive father. Sally, a beautiful girl according to her father, can get into trouble with being as beautiful as she is. Esperanza is not completely comfortable with Sally’s sexuality. Their friendship is compromised when Sally ditches Esperanza for a boy at a carnival. As a result, Esperanza is sexually assaulted by a man at the carnival. Earlier at her first job, an elderly man tricked her into kissing him on the lips. Esperanza’s traumatic experiences and observations of the women in her neighborhood cement her desire to escape Mango Street. She later realizes that she will never fully be able to leave Mango Street behind. She vows that after she leaves she will return to help the people she has left behind. Esperanza exclaims that Mango Street does not hold her in both arms; instead, which sets her free.
The House on Mango Street is made up of vignettes that are not quite poems and not quite full stories. Not wanting to write directly about herself, Cisneros constructs the book in a combnation of genres pulling mantles of poetry, autobiography, and fiction. Certain parts of the book directly reflect Cisneros’ life, while others stray. Esperanza narrates these vignettes in first-person present tense, focusing on her day-to-day activities but sometimes narrating sections that are a series of observations. The vignettes can be as short as two or three paragraphs long and sometimes contain internal rhymes. In "The Family of Little Feet" for example, Esperanza says:
"Their arms were little, and their hands were little, and their height was not tall, and their feet very small." Each vignette can stand as a dependent story. These vignettes follow a complete or chronological narrative, although they often mention characters introduced in earlier sections. The conflicts and problems in these short stories are always fully resolved, just as the futures of people in the neighborhood are often uncertain. The overall tone of the novel is earnest and isn't very intimate, with very little distance between the reader and the narrator. The tone varies from pessimistic to hopeful, as Esperanza herself sometimes expresses her jaded views on life:
"I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn't it. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go."
The set of vignettes charts her life as Esperanza Cordero grows during the year: both physically and emotionally.
Cisneros asserts that the goal of The House on Mango Street was to make the novel accessible to everyone. She wrote the book initially as a catharsis, not realizing that it would eventually represent a voice for Latinos and become enveloped in the works of great Latino literature. She wanted it to be lyrical enough to be appreciated by poetry enthusiasts, but also accessible enough that laymen could read and enjoy the novel. She desired the book to resonate with children, adults, and ages in between, and in totality chose to keep the novel short so that even the busiest of parents and adults who worked long shifts like her father always had, could still find time to read it.
Several uses of Marxist theory are present throughout the text of The House on Mango Street. The economic and social conditions are discussed within the very first chapter. Esperanza gives an account of her family having to move frequently and how the last time in particular was a rushed move because of a plumbing issue and their landlord wouldn’t fix it because the house was too old. She tells of having to carry water in milk jugs to the washroom just to bathe. This issue is related to Marxist theory however, the relationship between the upper class and proletariat is not easily defined. It is a much more complex issue that is rooted in a system that favors the upper class and bourgeoisie over the proletariat class in the case of Esperanza and her family’s living conditions.
In this same chapter the instilment of the concept regarding “the American dream,” is present as well. Cisneros ends the chapter with Esperanza longing for a “real house” for once, and how for now the house on Mango Street is the best they can afford.
“The American dream” haunts another chapter in the book even more frighteningly. In the chapter titled “Bums in the Attic,” Cisneros writes about how embarrassing it is for Esperanza on Sundays (her father’s only day off) when her family ventures into a bourgeois neighborhood on the hill and fantasize about one day owning a house like the houses there. Her mother even remarks about how one day when she wins the lottery, she’ll make the dream come true. Esperanza is the only one awake and not lost in the dream. She has an understanding that this dream is just that, a dream, and never will come true. Cisneros is clearly remarking on the constant reinforcement of the concept of “the American dream” unto the proletariat.
The poverty of Esperanza’s own neighborhood is consistently addressed throughout the book. The neighborhood is full of people in either denial of their own social position or are content enough with the small pleasures to aid in distracting them from their own socio-economic oppression. In the chapter “Our Good Day,” Esperanza and her soon-to-be close friends pitch in money to purchase one bicycle. They are very content with the sharing of ownership of the bicycle as it brings them some joy. The low cost of the bicycle and the need to scrounge up the money to purchase it, is an example of the poverty of Esperanza’s neighborhood.
This simple small sense of happiness from the bicycle to the hopes and dreams of the youth on the street is another example of Marxist theory. The impoverished cling to hope because often that is all that they have, and is the one thing they can claim complete ownership of. For example, Esperanza’s name in Spanish means “hope.” Cisneros shares this information cleverly in the chapter “My Name.” There are other appearances of the concept of hope within the text as well. For example, the chapter “Alicia Who Sees Mice” is about a little girl forced to take on the role of a grown woman according to her family’s culture because her mother is dead. But she doesn’t believe in this role for herself. She has a different destiny in mind and through studying hard at university, she is able to hope for a better life.
Accounts of racism are peppered throughout the book. In the chapter titled “Those Who Don’t” Esperanza discusses how other ethnicities, in this case most likely white, accidentally arrive in Esperanza’s neighborhood and are filled with fear by the sight of brown skinned people whom they believe to be dangerous.
In the Chapter “Red Clowns,” not only is Esperanza assaulted, but she is referred to as “Spanish girl” when she’s being cat-called. Loose and wild sexuality is a Hispanic stereotype. The line, “I love you, I love you little Spanish girl,” represents a common threat that Hispanic women face when out alone in public: the expectation to be sexually wild and easy.
Esperanza struggles against the traditional gender roles within her own culture and the limitations these impose upon women. In her essay “On Not Being La Malinche” women’s literature scholar Jean Wyatt writes: “Mexican social myths of gender crystallize with special force in three icons: “Guadalupe[disambiguation needed], the virgin mother who has not abandoned us, la Chingada (Malinche), the raped mother whom we have abandoned, and la Llorona, the mother who seeks her lost children.” According to the evidence of Chicana feminist writers, these “three Our Mothers” haunt the sexual and maternal identities of contemporary Mexican and Chicana women.”
Every female character within the novel is trapped either by an abusive partner, teenage motherhood, or poverty. Cisneros utilizes her character of Esperanza to be a strong female voice. Esperanza finds a way out of patriarchal oppression, and then examines and analyzes her escape. The lesson Cisneros wishes to express, is that there is always a way out for women who are trapped in one way or another.
The theme of sexual abuse occurs throughout The House on Mango Street. One example is when Esperanza’s friend Sally, who under the strict control of her father, escapes the household and ventures off with her lover and ends up being a beaten and abused housewife, which is an unfortunate common theme with women from abusive childhood homes. The cycle of abuse continues with Sally’s husband replacing her father. This can be argued as not being about sexual abuse, but it can equally be argued that it indeed is, because of man’s domination over women, which is sexual in nature.
There are scenes of first-hand sexual abuse inflicted upon Esperanza when she is molested by her boss at work and when later in the novel she is raped at a carnival by three boys.
The theme of adolescence is dominant throughout the book, incorporating the other themes. When the girls are given high-heeled shoes, they experiment with walking like a woman. They often observe older women with a mix of wonder and fear of their futures. The attention men give them is unwanted by Esperanza, but her friends feel a bit more conflicted, because attention from the opposite sex is representative of their self-worth. Esperanza is different than her friends, she wants to break free and live life by her own rules.
The book is told from Esperanza’s perspective as she transitions from childhood to womanhood. She examines the way things are and the way things can be. Her choice is to explore the “can-be,” to decide her own future, and to take control of her life.
Sandra Cisneros' early life was a subject she would later draw on as a writer in books like The House on Mango Street. She was the only daughter among seven children in her family. Cisneros’ family and father specifically did not initially support her writing. Her father never wanted her to be an author. When she was growing up, the only famous Latinas were those on TV, and in the seventies they were seen most often on television as weather girls. Cisneros and her father envisioned her as a newscaster for that reason. Despite a lacking support system, Cisneros continued to pursue writing, and used her life to inspire her early works. The House on Mango Street includes information inspired by her life. The story also is about the subject of migration, and about the struggles of her life during it, which included poverty, as well as misogyny. Cisneros first began writing about the protagonist, Esperanza, when she had just finished graduate school. Cisneros created Esperanza from personal feelings of displacement she had while writing. She had recently graduated from the University of Iowa and had felt marginalized as a person of color, a woman, and an individual of lower socioeconomic status. The House on Mango Street became a way for her to solidify her identities through reflection in writing. Esperanza is one of four children, with a younger sister and two younger brothers. In reality, Cisneros was the middle child and only girl with six brothers, two older and four younger. While writing, Cisneros explains that because she was new to fiction, she initially craved simplicity, which resulted in Esperanza’s family being smaller than her actual family had been. She believed it would be easier to write about fewer family members.
Acclaimed by critics, The House on Mango Street has been translated into various languages and has been taught in schools across the United States and Canada. The book received highly positive reception upon release and has been re-issued in a 25th Anniversary Edition. The novel has especially earned high praise from the Latino/Latina community. Oscar Hijuelos, the first Hispanic writer to win a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, said that the novel has "conveyed the Southwestern Latino experience with verve, charm, and passion." The book won her the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation (1985).
After the initial release, the response to The House on Mango Street by the public and various academics was varied. Much of the critical reception surrounding the novel stems from the sexual content present throughout multiple scenes. During the “Red Clowns” chapter of the novel, Esperanza is raped by a male who repeatedly defines her as a “Spanish girl” whom he loves. Critics argued that the suspected audience of the book was perceived to be too young for this content.
Despite its high praise in the realm of Latino literature, The House on Mango Street has also received criticism and has been banned from some school curriculums.
In response to these criticisms as well as the removal of the MAS program from TUSD schools, teachers, authors, and activists headed by Tony Diaz, a teacher from the MAS program formed a caravan in spring of 2012 that moved across the southwest conducting workshops in major cities. The caravan, called the Librotraficante Project, originated at the Alamo and ended in Tucson orchestrating workshops distributing books that had been removed with the curriculum, and informing attendees of H.B. 2281. Though The House on Mango Street was never removed from TUSD's curriculum and continued to be taught in middle and high school English classes within TUSD, Cisneros traveled with the caravan reading The House on Mango Street and ran workshops about Chicano literature. She brought numerous copies of the book with her, distributed them, and discussed thematic implications of her novel as well as talked about the book’s autobiographical elements.
Parents and education boards in other areas have found the content to be too graphic/real for children of a young age. In response to this categorization as a children’s novel, Cisneros replies that even though it’s marketed as a young people’s book, the range of readers stems all the way to college level students. Cisneros’ novel has one general theme: to promote individuality and drive within individuals which will conversely promote a distaste for conformity and cultural labeling. Much of the critical reception surrounding the book today recants this theme due to its suspected negative effects on individuals challenging superior powers such as the government and educational institutions.
- Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, p.39
- Cisneros, The House on Mango Street, p. 5
- Cisneros, Sandra (2009-04-09). "House on Mango Street Celebrates 25 Years". National Public Radio. Retrieved 2016-11-13.
- Hijuelos, Oscar. "José Rubén De León Takes a Stab At 'The House on Mango Street". San Antonio Current. Retrieved 7 November 2016.
- American Booksellers Association (2013). "The American Book Awards / Before Columbus Foundation [1980–2012]". BookWeb. Archived from the original on March 13, 2013. Retrieved September 25, 2013.
1985 [...] The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
- Petty, Leslie. "Literature Resource Center - Document - Re-Envisioning Chicano Cultural Archetypes: The 'Dual'-ing Images of la Malinche and la Virgen de Guadalupe in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street". go.galegroup.com. Retrieved 2016-12-01.
- Cisneros, Sandra. "Spiritual Sustenance: Interview with Sandra Cisneros". go.galegroup.com. Susquehanna University Press. Retrieved 2016-12-01.
- Hoinski, Michael (2012-03-08). "GTT, The Papers Trail, San Antonio". New York Times. Retrieved 2016-11-13.
- Fernandez, Valeria (2012-03-15). "Librotraficantes Bring Banned Books into Arizona". New America Media. Retrieved 2016-11-13.
- Satz, Martha. "Returning to One's House: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros". go.galegroup.com. Gale Cengage Learning. Retrieved 2016-12-01.
- Matchie, Thomas. "Literary Continuity in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street". go.galegroup.com. Gale. Retrieved 2016-12-01.