Last Updated on May 17, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1163
Esperanza Cordero: the narrator of the novel
Nenny (Magdalena): Esperanza’s younger sister
Mama: Esperanza’s mother
Papa: Esperanza’s father
Carlos: Esperanza’s younger brother
Kiki: Esperanza’s youngest brother
Nun: a nun from Esperanza’s school
The House on Mango Street
Esperanza and her family have just moved to a house on Mango Street. They have lived on a number of different streets in the past, and Esperanza names as many of them as she can remember. What she remembers most, however, is moving around a lot.
This is the first house the Corderos own. Esperanza is glad that there is no landlord and that they don’t have to share the backyard, but the house on Mango Street is a disappointment—it’s not the kind of house she wanted.
They moved to Mango Street because the water pipes broke in their previous apartment, a run-down flat on Loomis Street, and the landlord refused to fix them. Esperanza had expected the house on Mango Street to be a “real” house: a house like the ones she’d seen on TV, the kind her mother described in bedtime stories. The house on Mango Street, however, is small, cramped, and crumbling.
Once, when the Corderos lived on Loomis Street, a nun from Esperanza’s school saw her playing in front of their flat. The nun asked Esperanza where she lived, and when Esperanza pointed to the third floor of the building behind her, the nun made Esperanza feel ashamed that she lived “there.” Esperanza vowed then that someday she would live in a house that she “could point to.” Her parents say that the house on Mango Street is temporary, but Esperanza knows “how those things go.”
Esperanza describes how everyone in her family has different hair. Her favorite is her mother’s hair, which smells like bread and makes Esperanza feel safe and warm.
Boys & Girls
To Esperanza, boys and girls seem to live in two completely different worlds. She notices that her brothers are best friends with each other and regrets that she’s not best friends with Nenny, who, she says, is too young to be her friend. Instead, Esperanza feels Nenny is her “responsibility.” In the meantime, Esperanza dreams of having her own best friend.
The main conflict in “The House on Mango Street” is the clash between Esperanza’s dream—the “American Dream” of owning a spacious, private, and secure house like the ones Esperanza sees on TV—and her Mango Street reality. Esperanza is forced to realize that she does not belong to the race or class of people who live in such houses. But Esperanza does not want to believe that she belongs in the house on Mango Street.
Esperanza is clearly aware of the poverty that forces the Corderos to keep moving from place to run-down place. It is also possible, if not likely, that their landlord on Loomis Street refused to fix the pipes not because the building was too old but because he wanted the Chicanos out of his building. To achieve their dream, the Corderos must struggle against both poverty and racism.
Perhaps Esperanza would not have felt so disappointed in the house on Mango Street if she had not had the encounter with the nun on Loomis Street. Ironically, it is the nun, not someone from the barrio, who teaches Esperanza to be ashamed of her house and makes her vow to have a “real” house one day. The word “there,” which is repeated several times in this passage, sets up the conflict between “here” and “there.” Esperanza is stuck here, in the barrio, but she wants to be there, on the other side, in the place where people have real houses.
The house is the dominant symbol throughout The House on Mango Street. For Esperanza, a house represents status, security, and a rise above poverty. A real house would give her privacy: It would give her a space of her own where she could forge her identity. It would be a place she could be proud of, and it would be physical evidence that she belonged somewhere. With all the moving that her family has done, Esperanza hasn’t had the chance to develop a sense of place, and she feels that she doesn’t belong anywhere.
It is also this moving around that has deprived Esperanza of a best friend. She envies her brothers’ closeness and aches for someone to whom she can tell her secrets, someone who will understand her jokes without her “having to explain them.” She feels that a best friend would release her, and without a friend—someone with whom she would be an equal—she is “a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.” That anchor—poverty—is holding her down, preventing her from soaring into the sky.
Cisneros meets the difficult challenge of finding a style appropriate for her young narrator, Esperanza. Esperanza is naive about some things, like boys and men, but very wise about others. By having Esperanza tell her story in many little vignettes that add up to a whole, Cisneros reflects Esperanza’s reality: For her, Mango Street is a collection of stories and characters, and each story means something on its own but gains greater meaning when seen in light of the others. People are like this, too: they are valuable as individuals, but more valuable as part of a community. The stories, like the people in Esperanza’s neighborhood, interact with each other, and with each interaction the stories deepen in significance.
Cisneros uses a combination of poetry and storytelling to portray Esperanza’s world. Cisneros’ figurative and imagistic language, especially in “Hairs,” makes the vignettes sound almost like poems. (Many of these stories did, in fact, start out as poems.) The windows in the house on Mango Street, for example, are “so small you’d think they were holding their breath.” Esperanza’s father’s hair “is like a broom,” and Kiki “has hair like fur”—but her mother’s hair, which she likes best, takes several similes and metaphors to describe. It is “like little rosettes, like little candy circles,” and it “is the warm smell of bread before you bake it.”
It is significant that her mother’s hair is Esperanza’s favorite and makes her feel safe, for it is from her mother that Esperanza will learn her “place”—her roles as a young Chicana girl and woman. However, Esperanza’s hair “never obeys barrettes or bands,” and this suggests that Esperanza may not obey her mother’s traditions.
The prevailing metaphor, however, is the house, which is a metaphor for the self. We live in houses like we live inside ourselves—our feelings, thoughts, and memories take up residence within us. They, too, need a house where they feel they belong. Esperanza’s desire for a “real” house can thus be seen as a desire for an understanding and acceptance of the self.
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