[In the following essay, Sarbanes, a doctoral candidate at the University of California–Los Angeles, assesses The House on Mango Street as an unusual example of the both the novel form and the bildungsroman (“coming of age” story) as previously explored from the Chicano perspective.]
Sandra Cisneros is a Chicago-born Chicana activist, poet, and fiction writer. She has published two collections of poems, Bad Boys(1980) and My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987), and a collection of short stories entitled Woman Hollering Creek (1991). Her novel, The House on Mango Street, (1984) was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award.
The House on Mango Street is the fictional autobiography of Esperanza Cordero, an adolescent Mexican American girl who wants to be a writer. Unlike the chapters in a conventional novel, the forty-four vignettes, or literary sketches, which make up the novel could each stand on its own as a short story. Read together, they paint a striking portrait of a young Chicana struggling to find a place in her community without relinquishing her sense of self.
Critics have identified the novel as an example of the growing–up story, or bildungsroman, which forms a general theme of Chicano and Chicana literature. But Cisneros's text differs from the traditional Chicano bildungsroman, in which the boy becomes a man by first acquiring self-sufficiency and then assuming his rightful place as a leader in the community. It also differs from the traditional Chicana bildungsroman, in which the girl must give up her freedom and sense of individuality in order to join the community as a wife and mother. The goal of Esperanza, this novel's protagonist and narrator, is to fashion an identity for herself which allows her to control her own destiny and at the same time maintain a strong connection to her community.
The novel's central image is the image of the house. The book begins with a description of the Corderos' new house on Mango Street, a far cry from the dream house with “a great big yard and grass growing without a fence” they'd always wanted, the house that would give them space and freedom. Instead, the house on Mango Street is “small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath.” Though her parents insist they are only there temporarily, Esperanza knows the move is probably permanent. This is the house, the street, the identity she must now come to terms with one way or another.
As evidenced by her reaction to the new house, Esperanza has a very strong sense of place: both of where she is and of where others are in relation to her. In the opening vignette she tells of when a nun from her school passed by the ramshackle apartment the Cordero family lived in before Mango Street and asked Esperanza in surprise if she lived there. Esperanza confesses “The way she said it made me feel like nothing.” Esperanza also struggles with being “placed” by her race and class in houses that are not hers, as in “Rice Sandwich,” when another nun assumes she lives in “a row of three-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into.”
Mango Street is populated by people who feel out of place, caught between two countries—like Mamacita in “No Speak English,” who wants to return to Mexico. When her husband insists that the United States is her home and she must learn to speak English, Mamacita “lets out a cry, hysterical, high, as if he had torn the only skinny thread that kept her alive, the only road out.” Esperanza herself feels caught between two cultures because of her name: “At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver.” Rather than be defined by either pronunciation, however, Esperanza asserts: “I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X.”
As a girl on the cusp of adulthood, Esperanza is particularly concerned with the place of women in Latino culture. In “My Name,” she describes how her great-grandmother, also named Esperanza, was forced to marry her great-grandfather and then placed in his house like a “fancy chandelier.” The house became for her, as it is for many of the women Esperanza observes, a site of confinement: “she looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow.” This image of the ventanera or woman by the window, recurs throughout the novel. As Esperanza looks around Mango Street, she sees other women trapped in their houses, women like Rafaela, who gets locked indoors when her husband goes out to play poker because she is too beautiful. Rafaela, who has traded in her own sexuality and independence for security and respectability, wishes she could go to “the dance hall down the street where women much older than her throw green eyes easily like dice and open homes with keys.”
Another ventanera is Esperanza's friend Sally, who marries before she has finished eight grade in order to escape her father's house. Rather than freedom, however, a house of her own merely means more restrictions for Sally: her husband does not allow her to talk on the telephone or have friends visit or even look out of the window. Instead, Sally looks at “all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes.” But she, too, must give over control of her life to her husband. Cisneros employs conventional romantic imagery to describe her new home: “the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake,” but in Sally's case the romance is a trap, the roses and the wedding cake are the floor and ceiling of her cage.
By making the narrator of her novel a preadolescent girl, Cisneros represents Mango Street from the point of view of someone who is not yet placed, not yet put into position. Esperanza's is a voice that can question, a voice of hope (Esperanza), a voice of transition. She is not inside the house looking out, like many of the other girls and women, nor is she outside the community looking in with strange eyes, like the nuns. Often she is out in the street, looking in at the other women—observing, analyzing, evaluating their situation.
In an interview with Pilar Rodriguez-Aranda in the America's Review, Cisneros discusses what she perceives to be the two predominant and contradictory images of women in Mexican culture: La Malinche and la Virgen de Guadalupe. The La Malinche myth figures women as sexual, evil, and traitorous. The way history tells it, Malinche was an Aztec noblewoman who was presented to Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico, and served as his lover, translator, and strategist. This is the historical Malinche, but she has come to stand in Mexican culture for the prostitute, the bearer of illegitimate children, responsible for the foreign Spanish invasion which put an end to the Aztec empire. The Malinche myth is the reason the pretty young women of Mango Street are locked in their houses when their husbands go out. The other image Cisneros mentions in her interview, that of the Virgen de Guadalupe, or Mexican Madonna, encourages women to be self-sacrificing wives and mothers. As demonstrated above, however, it hardly works better for the women in her novel.
There are women in the community, however, who encourage Esperanza to resist both images. There is Alicia, who takes two trains and a bus to her classes at the university because “she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin.” There is her mother, who in “Smart Cookie” warns Esperanza against letting the shame of being poor keep her from living up to her potential: “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You know why I quit school? Because I didn't have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains.” There is her Aunt Lupe, who encourages her to write poems, telling her “it will keep you free.” There are also the “three sisters,” three old aunts of Esperanza's friends Lucy and Rachel who come to Mango Street to attend the funeral of their baby sister. Like supernatural beings, the three sisters appear out of nowhere, possessed of mind reading and fortune telling powers. With the image of three sisters Cisneros makes reference to the Fates of Greek mythology, three old crones who know the fate of all human beings. The sisters look at Esperanza's palms and tell her she will go far, but they also tell her that wherever she goes, she will take Mango Street with her. They remind her, too: “You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you.”
While Esperanza may not accept the house on Mango Street as her home—that is to say, while she may refuse to accept the self that is handed to her—she does ultimately accept Mango Street as a part of herself. She comes to identify with the street itself, that border space which is within the community (within Chicano culture), but outside of the house (outside of the traditional feminine gender role). As the novel draws to a close, Esperanza begins to realize that storytelling, or writing, is one way to create this relationship between self and community, to carve out her own place in the world: “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.” But, Esperanza reminds us and herself,“ I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.” Like Cisneros, Esperanza will free them with her stories.