Sandra Cisneros Short Fiction Analysis
Sandra Cisneros said that she writes about the memories that will not let her sleep at night—about the stories that are waiting to be told. Drawing on the memories of her childhood and her cultural identity—the run-down, crowded apartment, the double-edged sword of being American yet not being considered American, the sight of women in her community closed in behind apartment windows—Cisneros’s fiction avoids any romantic clichés of life in the barrio. Despite the sobering themes upon which Cisneros touches—poverty, sexism, and racism—she tells her stories with a voice that is at the same time strong, playful, and deceptively simple. Cisneros’s distinctive style is marked by the grace with which Spanish words and phrases are woven into her stories. Central to her stories is a preoccupation with the house, the community, and the condition of women. Her images are vivid and lyrical. She acknowledges that she was influenced in style by the mix of poetry and fiction in Jorge Luis Borges’s El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers, 1964). Indeed, while Cisneros herself classifies her fiction as stories that read like poems, critics have not reached an agreement, labeling her works The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories alternatively as novels, short-story collections, series of vignettes, and prose poems.
The House on Mango Street
The series of sketches in The House on Mango Street offers a bittersweet view of life in a Chicago barrio. Readers follow the young adolescent narrator Esperanza—whose name (as explained in the story “My Name”) means “hope” in Spanish and also implies too many letters, sadness, and waiting—as she makes the discoveries associated with maturing. She introduces the reader to her neighbors and her neighborhood, making them as familiar to the reader as they are to her. In the title story, Esperanza explains how her family came to live on Mango Street. The family had hoped that the house on Mango Street would be like the ones they had always dreamed of—with real stairs and several washrooms and a great big yard with trees and grass.
Esperanza sadly explains, however, that their house does not fulfill this wish at all. She is ashamed of her red brick house, as she has been of all of her family’s previous dwellings. She succinctly describes the embarrassment that she felt when the family was living on Loomis and she had to show her apartment to a nun from her school. She pointed to the family’s third-floor flat, located above a boarded-up laundry, and suffered the blow of the nun’s disbelieving response, “there?” From that moment, Esperanza knew that she had to have a house—one that she could show with pride to people as if it were a reflection of herself. She was sure the family would have such a house soon. Yet the house on Mango Street is not that house.
Because Esperanza remarks that she wants a house “all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories,” Cisneros has been read as creating a grasping and selfish protagonist. Yet the section titled “Bums in the Attic” dispels this notion of untoward individualism. In this sketch—which resembles one of Cisneros’s favorite children’s stories, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House (1978), in which the owners of a house on a country hill promise the house never to sell it—Esperanza speculates about the grand home on a hill that she will have someday. As much as she wants to leave Mango Street, however, she stresses that even in her country home she will not forget from where she came. She will not make her house a secured palace that locks out the world; she will instead offer her attic to the homeless so that they too will have a home.
In “Those Who Don’t,” the young Esperanza discusses in a matter-of-fact tone the concept of being the “other” in society. She knows that people who happen into her neighborhood think that her community is dangerous, but she knows her neighbors by name and knows their backgrounds. Among her Latino friends she feels safe. Yet Esperanza can understand the stranger’s apprehension, for when she and her family venture out of the security of their neighborhood, their bodies get tense and their eyes look straight ahead.
Cisneros’s concern for the place women hold in Latino society is evident in the powerful story “Alicia Who Sees Mice.” Alicia, Esperanza’s friend, must rise early every morning “with the tortilla star” and the mice in the kitchen to make her father’s lunch-box tortillas. Alicia’s mother has died, and, Esperanza remarks, young Alicia has inherited her mother’s duty as the family caregiver along with her “rolling pin and sleepiness.” Alicia has dreams of escaping this life of confinement and sacrifice, however, with a university education. She studies hard all night with the mice that her father says do not exist. With its precise imagery, “Alicia Who Sees Mice” is at once a criticism of patriarchal oppression of women and a beacon for those women who would struggle to break away from that oppression.
The theme of education and writing as a means whereby women can escape from the barrio is also found in “Minerva Writes Poems.” Minerva is only a bit older than Esperanza, “but already she has two kids and a husband who left and keeps leaving.” Minerva’s husband reappears sporadically, but their reunion usually ends in violence and abuse. Minerva cries every day over her bad situation and writes poems at night. In an act of artistic and sisterly solidarity, she and Esperanza read their poems to each other, yet at this point, Esperanza feels helpless, unable to stop the beatings. In her reply, “There is nothing I can do,” there is a sense that Esperanza is inciting Minerva to take action for herself as well as implying that society itself must change its attitudes.
This sisterly support for fulfillment through learning is echoed in “Edna’s Ruthie.” The title character is a talented but damaged woman who returns to her mother’s home when she can no longer care for herself. Her own fondness for books—for hearing and telling a...
(The entire section is 2561 words.)