Cisneros’ training as a poet is evident in her ability to capture voices in her fiction and to craft prose of great lyric intensity. She has suggested that although her book was written in English, the syntax, sensibility, and ways of seeing things are very culturally Mexican. To catch some of the subtleties and jokes, a reader might even need intimate knowledge of Chicana culture, although the author is very conscious of having an English-speaking or worldwide audience. Thus Cisneros attempts in the rhythms as well as in the content of her language to share her Mexicana culture, as she prefers to call it. For effect and mood, she sometimes uses Spanish phrases that an English-only speaker must comprehend from context.
The House on Mango Street is between genres, between poetry and fiction—an experiment. It could be described as prose poems, a chain of vignettes, or short stories unified by the narrator’s voice and identity. The novel is not linear, but moves from one event to another, often revisiting settings and characters in much the same way that a young girl’s conversation or inner thoughts might skip from story to story or person to person by association or some other trigger of memory.
Cisneros’ primary concern is to chart a girl’s struggle for selfhood, exploring how one accepts or chooses not to accept one’s family, circumstances, and community. Throughout the novel, Esperanza insists, whimsically and desperately, that she must have a house of her own. She also intends to become a writer. The two needs are inseparable in the narrative. For Esperanza, the house symbolizes the act of writing, or a place in which to accomplish it. Her two wishes, to be a writer and to own her own house, are her prerequisites to freedom and self-identity. How artistic creation strengthens identity and provides dignity is an important theme. The house provides creative space.
Esperanza often thinks aloud about her identity, in subconscious or naïve ways. She is Chicana, or American by birth, and Mexican by parentage. This dual identity leads her to perceive two possibilities in everything that she encounters. One fundamental example is her name: In English it means “hope”; in Spanish it means “too many letters,” sadness, and waiting. She says she would like a new name: Esperanza wants to re-create herself from scratch and build the house that will reflect and define her. The house symbolizes the book of stories that she wants to write and her freedom to express herself.
Alicia, Esperanza’s mentor, is the woman who teaches her social responsibility. She shows her protégée that a woman can pursue her dreams despite male domination. Furthermore, Alicia tells Esperanza that she must come back to Mango Street. In the end, Esperanza acknowledges this tie, saying what she remembers most is the sad red house that “I belong but do not belong to.” The stories that she tells release her from and also tie her to her past and her community, to the women to whom the book is dedicated. By handing down the stories of their lives to the girls of the next generation, she rescues them from anonymous oppression.
Esperanza often refers to racism and classism, although her child’s voice suggests that her awareness of these social problems has only begun to deepen. Cathy, “Queen of Cats,” and her family will move away from the neighborhood because “people like us move in,” Esperanza notes. In the vignette “Those Who Don’t,” she talks about people from outside the neighborhood who come by mistake and are scared because “They think we’re dangerous.” Esperanza recognizes that racial...
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solidarity creates both warmth (“All brown all around, we are safe”) and isolation, which breeds further suspicion between the cultures.
Cisneros’ careful treatment of Esperanza’s narratives and her use of English phrasings that reflect Spanish idioms allow the author to share some nuances of the Mexican American culture that she cherishes. Thus Esperanza describes with pride and tenderness the strong ties that families and neighbors keep, especially the bonds between women. Yet she is also a strong critic of sexual and physical violence, an endemic problem in Esperanza’s neighborhood and in Latino society in general.