The House on Mango Street
The House on Mango Street
Sandra Cisneros is a remarkable author and one of the most distinguished Hispanic-American writers in literature. As an author, she dabbled in both poetry and prose; in her career she has published numerous poems, short stories and even essays. Though she has written and published critically acclaimed collection of poems entitled My Wicked Wicked Ways as well as the fiction piece called Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, it was with her novel The House on Mango Street that Cisneros gained worldwide fame and recognition. The House of Mango Street is a novel which not only reveals the struggles of the Hispanic community in America, it also allows the reader to experience the kind of life that the author had.
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All works of literature are either directly or indirectly influenced by the life of its author. This is no surprise, as one could write best about a topic based on real experiences. The same holds true for Sandra Cisneros and her novel The House of Mango Street. Though it is not a biographical novel, the reader can get a glimpse of Cisneros’ own life through the story’s heroine Esperanza.
Cisneros was born in a family of seven children (GradeSaver). She was the only girl, and was surrounded by six brothers. It was said that her siblings all tried to make her into the stereotype of what they thought women should be; she was being placed in the mold of women as imposed by a male-dominated society. Though not directly stated in the story, her experience and opinion of it are evident in the story, as spoken from the point of view of Esperanza. In the vignette entitled My Name, Esperanza says:
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. (Cisneros 10)
In the above quote, Esperanza expresses how her culture does not encourage the strength and independence of women, just as Cisneros have learned through her experience with her siblings.
When Cisneros was a child, her family did not stay on one place for too long (GradeSaver). They were regularly moving; the family was going back and forth from the United States to Mexico. This was due to her father’s homesickness, as well as his dedication to her grandmother in Mexico. In the novel, Esperanza’s family regularly moved as well. She narrates:
We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot. (Cisneros 3)
Because of the frequent moving, Cisneros experienced isolation and displacement; she felt as if she did not have a home (GradeSaver). She turned to reading for comfort and solace. The love of reading was also evident in Esperanza’s character. She says: “I took my library books to her house. I read her stories. I like the book The Waterbabies” (Cisneros 60).
The themes of the novel are also inspired by the life experiences of Cisneros. The search for one’s identity is one of the novel’s themes. In almost every coming-of-age novel such as The House on Mango Street, one’s struggle to define himself or herself is a common thread (Martin). Early on in the novel, the reader can already see how Esperanza seeks to be her own self. In My Name, Esperanza speaks about changing her name to suit her better. She complains about how her name is almost painful to pronounce, and how she wants to change it. According to her, “I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees” (Cisneros 11). At a young age, she already acknowledges that her name does not describe who she really is. In this sense, she initially rejects the name she was born with, the one which reveals her culture and heritage (Martin). Later on in the story, she begins to grow up and be concerned with her looks. She calls herself ugly, and wishes to be like those women in movies who are “beautiful and cruel” (Cisneros 88-89). Here, it is evident that she equates beauty with power. By the end of the story, Esperanza no longer wishes to be someone else. She has realized that her identity is tied to her culture and her humble beginnings. This is best explained by one of the three sisters who said: “You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know” (Cisneros 105).
Consequently, it is this passage that shows how important the setting is in the actions of the characters and the flow of the story. Mango Street is located within a Hispanic community that is characterized by poverty. It is this setting that puts its residents in motion. The setting provides the backdrop in which the characters were to act, and in turn it dictates their actions. For instance, Louie’s cousin stole a Cadillac which he crashed and was arrested for it (Cisneros 24-25). Then there was Rosa Vargas, who had so many children that she cannot manage all of them. As a result, the children always got in trouble or ended up being hurt (Cisneros 29-30). Then there is Esperanza’s desire to own her own house (Cisneros 87). All these situations and desires are the result of the place in which they lived in. If he did not experience poverty, Louie’s cousin would not have reason to steal a car. If Rosa was not poor, she would have probably been educated about family planning. Lastly, Esperanza would not long for a house of her own if she was not disappointed about where she lives. All these actions and decisions are causes by the setting, as it influences the lives of the people in it.
Another theme of the novel is the plight of women in a male dominated society. In the story, Esperanza appears to be a spectator in the lives of the other characters. She is an observer who watches their struggles, as documented in the vignettes. Esperanza’s relationship with the other characters resembles that of a student and teacher. She is the student, and every character that comes along teaches her about life and herself. This holds most true for the women in the story. What she wants to be is shaped by the experiences of other women. For instance, Esperanza is exposed to the abuses of marital life that Rafaela, Minerva and Sally all experienced. Their stories prove how women are dominated and repressed by a community that males rule. A distinct example would be Esperanza’s great-grandmother. She was not the marrying type, but she was taken by her future husband in a sack and had no choice (Cisneros 11). Because of what happened, she sat by the window in sadness. Esperanza learned from this experience; she does not want to take her place by the window. She wants to be like those women in movies with very red lips who for Esperanza, had their own power (Cisneros 89).
Consequently, the community is also a place were women do not reach their full potential. Esperanza’s mother was smart and talented. However, she quit school because she did not have nice clothes to wear (Cisneros 91). Her shame was related to poverty, so she told Esperanza to study hard and make something out of herself.
The House of Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is indeed a literary gem. It is a coming-of-age story of a young woman in a poor Hispanic community who seeks to find her true identity against the backdrop of poverty and abuse. While also a reflection of the author’s life, the novel conveys a story of triumph against a harsh and cruel world.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
GradeSaver. “GradeSaver: ClassicNote: Biography of Sandra Cisneros.” Gradesaver. 9 June 2008. 9 June 2008 <http://www.gradesaver.com/classicnotes/authors/about_sandra_cisneros.html>.
Martin, Melissa. “Sparknote on The House on Mango Street.” SparkNotes. 9 June 2008 <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/mangostreet/themes.html>.