The House on Mango Street, published in 1984, is Sandra Cisneros’s first work of fiction. With its appearance she became recognized as the most powerful writer of a group of emerging Chicana writers that included Ana Castillo, Denise Chávez, and Gloria Anzaldua. This group was the second big wave of Latin American writers to emerge in late twentieth century American fiction, following the successes of a number of Latin American male writers in the 1970’s.
Cisneros’s training as a poet is evident in her fiction. The author has described the forty-six short vignettes that make up the novel as combining aspects of poetry and short stories. The tiny chapters are intensely lyrical, written in a prose highly charged with metaphor. Each section has a title, and each can stand alone as an autonomous piece, like a prose poem. Esperanza’s voice unifies the pieces, however, and creates a continuing narrative. Her quest for identity shapes the otherwise loose plot. The nonlinear narrative moves from one event to another, often revisiting settings and characters in much the same way a young girl’s conversation or inner thoughts might skip from one story to another.
Based on Cisneros’s experiences growing up in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago, The House on Mango Street is the story of a girl’s search for identity as she comes of age. The narrative covers one crucial year in the life of Esperanza, a Chicana, who is ethnically Mexican and culturally Mexican American. Cisneros has suggested that her book, though written in English, employs Latina syntax and sensibility. For effect and mood she sometimes uses Spanish phrases that an English-only reader must comprehend from context.
Esperanza describes her world with a child’s innocence that is beginning to fade. Despite approaching puberty, with its longings and confusion, she is an astute observer of the world around her, especially of the adults and their actions. She seems to understand intuitively the emotions of her friends, family, and neighbors.
She begins to reject traditional roles and to seek out those who can give her support as a fledgling writer. “Bums in the Attic,” “The Three Sisters,” and “A House of My Own” are significant pieces in the narrative, marking stages in the development of Esperanza’s sense of identity, which she knows is linked to her need to write.
The world of Mango Street is filtered through Esperanza’s sensibility. Each event or person she describes has affected her in an essential way. Her youth makes her a reliable narrator; her observations are honest and unexaggerated, without guile. She narrates a story with a dual plot: One is the story of her own search for identity, about creativity and becoming an artist; the other is the story of her Latino neighborhood and the individuals the reader comes to know in her neighborhood. She alludes to racism and classism, although her child’s voice suggests that her awareness of these social problems has only just begun. The humor, joys, frustrations, and desperation she describes in the women’s stories create a mosaic of Latina life.
Esperanza’s descriptions focus on the women she knows, and her portraits reveal how women’s lives are made difficult by the men who dominate them. Her perspective often points to the ways society at large oppresses Latin Americans, which impose a double yoke on Latina women. Living in a strongly patriarchal society, often in fear of violence, they find their choices for survival and self-expression limited. It is their fate the narrator wants to escape.
Esperanza insists that she must have a house of her own to support her intent to be a writer. The need for a house and the need to be a writer are actually inseparable. The house she imagines and describes becomes her symbol for freedom and artistic expression. It also ties her to her community and is the source of her identity and of her stories. How artistic creation strengthens identity and provides dignity is an important theme of the novel.
In subsequent works—including the collection of stories Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories (1991) and the volumes of poetry My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987) and Loose Woman (1994)—Cisneros continues to explore feminism, biculturalism, family violence, artistic creativity, and personal identity. Her work offers insights into what it means to be a Mexican American living in the United States.