The House on Mango Street Essays and Criticism
by Sandra Cisneros

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Assessement of The House on Mango Street

(Novels for Students)

Sandra Cisneros is a Chicago-born Chicana activist, poet, and fiction writer. She has published two collections of poems, Bad Boys (1980) and My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987), and a collection of short stories entitled Woman Hollering Creek (1991). Her novel, The House on Mango Street, (1983) was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award.

The House on Mango Street is the fictional autobiography of Esperanza Cordera, an adolescent Mexican American girl who wants to be a writer. Unlike the chapters in a conventional novel, the forty-four vignettes, or literary sketches, which make up the novel could each stand on its own as a short story. Read together, they paint a striking portrait of a young Chicana struggling to find a place in her community without relinquishing her sense of self.

Critics have identified the novel as an example of the growing up story, or bildungsroman, which forms a general theme of Chicano and Chicana literature. But Cisneros's text differs from the traditional Chicano bildungsroman, in which the boy becomes a man by first acquiring self-sufficiency and then assuming his rightful place as a leader in the community. It also differs from the traditional Chicana bildungsroman, in which the girl must give up her freedom and sense of individuality in order to join the community as a wife and mother. The goal of Esperanza, this novel's protagonist and narrator, is to fashion an identity for herself which allows her to control her own destiny and at the same time maintain a strong connection to her community.

The novel's central image is the image of the house. The book begins with a description of the Corderos' new house on Mango Street, a far cry from the dream house with "a great big yard and grass growing without a fence" they'd always wanted, the house that would give them space and freedom. Instead, the house on Mango Street is "small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath." Though her parents insist they are only there temporarily, Esperanza knows the move is probably permanent. This is the house, the street, the identity she must now come to terms with one way or another.

As evidenced by her reaction to the new house, Esperanza has a very strong sense of place: both of where she is and of where others are in relation to her. In the opening vignette she tells of when a nun from her school passed by the ramshackle apartment the Cordero family lived in before Mango Street and asked Esperanza in surprise if she lived there. Esperanza confesses "The way she said it made me feel like nothing." Esperanza also struggles with being "placed" by her race and class in houses that are not hers, as in "Rice Sandwich," when another nun assumes she lives in "a row of three-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into."

Mango Street is populated by people who feel out of place, caught between two countries—like Mamacita in "No Speak English," who wants to return to Mexico. When her husband insists that the United States is her home and she must learn to speak English, Mamacita "lets out a cry, hysterical, high, as if he had torn the only skinny thread that kept her alive, the only road out." Esperanza herself feels caught between two cultures because of her name: "At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver." Rather than be defined by either pronunciation, however, Esperanza asserts: "I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X."

As a girl on the cusp of adulthood, Esperanza is particularly concerned with the place of women in Latino culture. In "My Name," she describes how her great-grandmother, also named Esperanza, was forced to marry her great-grandfather and then placed in his house like a "fancy chandelier." The house became...

(The entire section is 5,976 words.)