Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 718

Although The House on Mango Street is Cisneros's first novel and appeared without high expectations, over time it has become well-known and lauded by critics. Bebe Moore Campbell, writing in New York Times Book Review, called The House on Mango Street a "radiant first collection." The book, published in 1983, has provided Cisneros broad exposure as a writer. Her works are not numerous, but this book established the author as a major figure in contemporary American literature. Her work has already been the subject of scholarly works by historians of Chicana and women's studies. In 1985, it was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award. Today many high schools and university departments, including Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies, English, and Creative Writing, use the book in college courses. Cisneros has read her poetry at several conferences and has won several grants and awards in the United States and abroad.

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Critics usually discuss the importance of The House on Mango Street in terms of its incisive portrayal of the race-class-gender paradigm that characterizes the Hispanic experience in the United States. The book eloquently expresses the tensions of growing up a minority in a white-dominated society and growing up a woman in a male-dominated society, accompanied by feelings of alienation and loneliness, change and transformation. Like many Chicano writers, Cisneros touches on themes of overcoming the burden of race, gender, and class, with which all the women in the book are strapped to a greater or lesser extent. Her vivid and powerful descriptions combined with her funny and compelling dialogue persuasively capture the essence of women's lives within this precarious society.

Critics also comment on the particularly feminine viewpoint of the socialization process that Cisneros offers as an important element of the work. In this regard, Cisneros parallels the work of other Chicano writers, forging a viewpoint heretofore only offered by male Hispanic American authors. Cisneros notes that it has taken longer for female Chicano writers to get educated and make contributions parallel to those of the male Chicano writers who have been publishing works a few decades longer. Esperanza is portrayed as a bold girl who experiments with nontraditional roles of females within her society "I have begun my own kind of war. Simple Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate." Cisneros says that she writes about the things that haunt her from her past "In my writing as well as in that of other Chicanos and other women, there is the necessary phase of dealing with those ghosts and voices most urgently haunting us, day by day."

Throughout her education Cisneros was exposed to mainstream English writing, and thus she began her own writing by imitating these authors. Her first poems were published in the journals Nuestro and Revista Chicano-Riquena, which gave Cisneros the confidence to turn to major book publishers thereafter. Although The House on Mango Street took five years to complete, she found her own voice and her own literary direction.

Most critics comment on Cisneros's ability to convey powerful images through short, compact statements, and to vividly portray an experience or feeling in just a few words. Eduardo F. Elias noted that, "Hers is the work of a poet, a painter with words, who relies on sounds, plural meanings, and resonances to produce rich and varied images in each reader's mind."
Cisneros has won numerous prestigious awards, most notably the 1985 Before Columbus American Book Award, and has read her poetry in public both in the United States and abroad.

In the late 1980s, Cisneros spent time in Austin, Texas under a Paisano Dobie Fellowship, and won first and third prizes in the Segundo Concurso National del Cuento Chicano from the University of Arizona for some of her short stories. In 1992 she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which permitted her to travel in Europe and develop new themes for her work. In the spring of 1993, she was in residence at the Fondation Michael Karolyi in Vence, France. Prior to winning these awards, she taught at Latino Youth Alternative High School in Chicago from 1978 to 1980. Her work is widely studied in the university and high school settings, and it fits well into different disciplines, including Women's Studies, American literature, and Mexican American history.

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