The House on Mango Street, published in 1984, is Sandra Cisneros’s first work of fiction. With its appearance she became recognized as the most powerful writer of a group of emerging Chicana writers that included Ana Castillo, Denise Chávez, and Gloria Anzaldua. This group was the second big wave of Latin American writers to emerge in late twentieth century American fiction, following the successes of a number of Latin American male writers in the 1970’s.
Cisneros’s training as a poet is evident in her fiction. The author has described the forty-six short vignettes that make up the novel as combining aspects of poetry and short stories. The tiny chapters are intensely lyrical, written in a prose highly charged with metaphor. Each section has a title, and each can stand alone as an autonomous piece, like a prose poem. Esperanza’s voice unifies the pieces, however, and creates a continuing narrative. Her quest for identity shapes the otherwise loose plot. The nonlinear narrative moves from one event to another, often revisiting settings and characters in much the same way a young girl’s conversation or inner thoughts might skip from one story to another.
Based on Cisneros’s experiences growing up in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago, The House on Mango Street is the story of a girl’s search for identity as she comes of age. The narrative covers one crucial year in the life of Esperanza, a Chicana, who is ethnically Mexican and culturally Mexican American. Cisneros has suggested that her book, though written in English, employs Latina syntax and sensibility. For effect and mood she sometimes uses Spanish phrases that an English-only reader must comprehend from context.
Esperanza describes her world with a child’s innocence that is beginning to fade. Despite approaching puberty, with its longings and confusion, she is an astute observer of the world around her, especially of the adults and their actions. She seems to understand intuitively the emotions of her friends, family, and neighbors.
She begins to reject traditional roles and to seek out those who can give her support as a fledgling writer. “Bums in the Attic,” “The Three Sisters,” and “A House of My Own” are significant pieces in the narrative, marking stages in the development of Esperanza’s sense of identity, which she knows is linked to her need to write.
The world of Mango Street is filtered through Esperanza’s sensibility. Each event or person she describes has affected her in an essential way. Her youth makes her a reliable narrator; her observations are honest and unexaggerated, without guile. She narrates a story with a dual plot: One is the story of her own search for identity, about creativity and becoming an artist; the other is the story of her Latino neighborhood and the individuals the reader comes to know in her neighborhood. She alludes to racism and classism, although her child’s voice suggests that her awareness of these social problems has only just begun. The humor, joys, frustrations, and desperation she describes in the women’s stories create a mosaic of Latina life.
Esperanza’s descriptions focus on the women she knows, and her portraits reveal how women’s lives are made difficult by the men who dominate them. Her perspective often points to the ways society at large oppresses Latin Americans, which impose a double yoke on Latina women. Living in a strongly patriarchal society, often in fear of violence, they find their choices for survival and self-expression limited. It is their fate the narrator wants to escape.
Esperanza insists that she must have a house of her own to support her intent to be a writer. The need for a house and the need to be a writer are actually inseparable. The house she imagines and describes becomes her symbol for freedom and artistic expression. It also ties her to her community and is the source of her identity and of her stories. How artistic creation strengthens identity and provides dignity is an important theme of the novel.
In subsequent works—including the collection of stories Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories (1991) and the volumes of poetry My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987) and Loose Woman (1994)—Cisneros continues to explore feminism, biculturalism, family violence, artistic creativity, and personal identity. Her work offers insights into what it means to be a Mexican American living in the United States.
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Power of Language
Throughout The House on Mango Street, particularly in “No Speak English,” those who are not able to communicate effectively (or at all) are relegated to the bottom levels of society. Mamacita moves to the country to be with her husband, and she becomes a prisoner of her apartment because she does not speak English. She misses home and listens to the Spanish radio station, and she is distraught when her baby begins learning English words. His new language excludes her. Similarly, Esperanza’s father could not even choose what he ate when he first moved to the country, because he did not know the words for any of the foods but ham and eggs. Esperanza’s mother may be a native English speaker, but her letter to the nuns at Esperanza’s school is unconvincing to them in part because it is poorly written.
Esperanza observes the people around her and realizes that if not knowing or not mastering the language creates powerlessness, then having the ability to manipulate language will give her power. She wants to change her name so that she can have power over her own destiny. Her Aunt Lupe tells her to keep writing because it will keep her free, and Esperanza eventually understands what her aunt means. Writing keeps Esperanza spiritually free, because putting her experiences into words gives her power over them. If she can use beautiful language to write about a terrible experience, then the experience seems less awful. Esperanza’s spiritual freedom may eventually give her the power to be literally free as well.
The Struggle for Self-Definition
The struggle for self-definition is a common theme in a coming-of-age novel, or bildungsroman, and in The House on Mango Street, Esperanza’s struggle to define herself underscores her every action and encounter. Esperanza must define herself both as a woman and as an artist, and her perception of her identity changes over the course of the novel. In the beginning of the novel Esperanza wants to change her name so that she can define herself on her own terms, instead of accepting a name that expresses her family heritage. She wants to separate herself from her parents and her younger sister in order to create her own life, and changing her name seems to her an important step in that direction. Later, after she becomes more sexually aware, Esperanza would like to be “beautiful and cruel” so men will like her but not hurt her, and she pursues that goal by becoming friends with Sally. After she is assaulted, she doesn’t want to define herself as “beautiful and cruel” anymore, and she is, once again, unsure of who she is.
Eventually, Esperanza decides she does not need to set herself apart from the others in her neighborhood or her family heritage by changing her name, and she stops forcing herself to develop sexually, which she isn’t fully ready for. She accepts her place in her community and decides that the most important way she can define herself is as a writer. As a writer, she observes and interacts with the world in a way that sets her apart from non-writers, giving her the legitimate new identity she’s been searching for. Writing promises to help her leave Mango Street emotionally, and possibly physically as well.
Sexuality vs. Autonomy
In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza’s goals are clear: she wants to escape her neighborhood and live in a house of her own. These ambitions are always in her mind, but as she begins to mature, the desire for men appears in her thoughts as well. At first, the desire to escape and the desire for men don’t seem mutually exclusive, but as Esperanza observes other women in the neighborhood and the marriages that bind them, she begins to doubt that she can pursue both. Most of the women Esperanza meets are either trapped in marriages that keep them on Mango Street or tied down by their children. Esperanza decides she does not want to be like these women, but her dire observations of married life do not erase her sexual yearnings for neighborhood boys.
Esperanza decides she’ll combine sexuality with autonomy by being “beautiful and cruel” like Sally and the women in movies. However, Esperanza finds out that being “beautiful and cruel” is impossible in her male-dominated society when she experiences sexual assault. In her dreams about being with Sire, Esperanza is always in control, but in her encounter with the boys who assault her, she has no power whatsoever. The assault makes Esperanza realize that achieving true independence won’t be possible if she pursues relationships with the men in her neighborhood. She puts aside her newfound sexual awareness, rejoins Lucy and Rachel, her less sexually mature friends, and spends her time concentrating on writing instead of on boys. She chooses, for the present, autonomy over sexuality, which gives her the best chance of escape.
More main ideas from The House on Mango Street