Last Updated January 6, 2023.
Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954. Her parents were immigrants from Mexico, and they initially lived in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. When she was eleven years old, however, they bought a home in Humboldt Park, a neighborhood on the city’s West Side inhabited predominantly by Puerto Ricans. This served as the primary model for Mango Street. Cisneros attended Josephinum Academy, a small private Catholic school for girls in the nearby district of Wicker Park, before enrolling as an undergraduate in the English program at Loyola University. She then took a Master of Fine Arts degree at the celebrated Iowa Writers’ Workshop, perhaps the best-known creative writing program in the United States, where former faculty members include Robert Lowell, Karl Shapiro, Robert Penn Warren, and John Cheever.
At Iowa, Cisneros was part of the poetry workshop. She wrote stories, including some of those that would eventually become part of The House on Mango Street, but notes in the introduction that these did not count toward her MFA thesis because she was not in the fiction workshop. In the introduction, Cisneros also describes the young woman she was when she started to write these stories:
She wants to write stories that ignore borders between genres, between written and spoken, between highbrow literature and children’s nursery rhymes, between New York and the imaginary village of Macondo, between the U.S. and Mexico.
She might have included the borders between prose and poetry in this list, since The House on Mango Street is full of passages which could easily be described as poems. In “The Family of Little Feet,” for instance, the first paragraph even employs meter and rhyme (“and their height was not tall, and their feet very small”). This is followed by a series of poetic similes. The grandfather’s feet are “fat and doughy like thick tamales,” the grandmother’s are “lovely as pink pearls,” and the baby’s toes are “pale and see-through like a salamander’s.”
The narrator, Esperanza, is clearly a proxy for the young Cisneros, not least because she continually displays the sensibilities and the descriptive powers of a poet. Her peculiar way of seeing the world often makes her lonely, even when surrounded by other children, but also leads to moments of connection. Darius seems to her a stupid boy, until he says that a cloud in the sky is God. She is able to understand Ruthie through their shared love of beauty and books, and Minerva, who is also a poet. Her sister, Nenny, usually seems too young and childish to be her friend, but when Esperanza says that a particular house reminds her of Mexico in a way she cannot explain, Nenny understands and agrees immediately.
Although Cisneros declares her intention to ignore borders, The House on Mango Street explores certain types of border obsessively. One is the divide between childhood and adult life. Esperanza grows up over the course of the book, and her transition to adulthood is a painful one. It is not clear whether she has sexual intercourse in the story “Red Clowns,” but if she does, then she is raped, and she feels at least as angry with her friend Sally, who abandoned her, as she does with the boy who forced himself upon her. Before this, in “The First Job,” an old man grabs her and forces her to kiss him on the mouth, in much the same way as the boy does at the carnival. Becoming an adult woman is a harsh and frightening process on Mango Street. Girls marry young to escape oppressive families, only to be...
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imprisoned and beaten by even more oppressive husbands. Cisneros’s grim descriptions of relationships lead her to explore another border: the division between men and women, who have completely different experiences of the same physical space.
Despite her declaration in the introduction that she intended to ignore the division between New York and Macondo, or the United States and Mexico, in her stories, Cisneros is also acutely aware of the borders that divide immigrants from white Americans. There are not many of the latter in The House on Mango Street, but when they do appear, they look down on their Latino neighbors. Visitors to Mango Street often think that the neighborhood is dangerous, and the nuns at Esperanza’s private school, who do not know where she lives, nonetheless assume that it must be in one of the nearby slums. Everyone agrees that the route out of Mango Street is education, but to take this route, Esperanza must cross the invisible border between Latin America and English America: a barrier of language, race, and class that is just as intractable as the borders between countries.