Told in a series of brief but vivid and lyrical vignettes, Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street draws us into the world of a young Chicana adolescent living in the barrio in Chicago in the 1960s. The book consists primarily of Esperanza Cordero’s observations of her neighbors crowded into the nearby apartments. An acute observer of human nature who is grappling to find her own identity, the young Esperanza tries to learn what she can of the world from those around her. Surrounded by poverty, racism, abusive men, submissive women, and other characters cast to the margins of society, she finds few role models. Despite this, Esperanza’s own fervent desire to break free of the shackles of her race, gender, and class continues to grow. By watching those around her closely and following her heart, she gradually defines what she wants for herself and forges a path out of the barrio.
Although some students may not be able to relate to all of Esperanza’s specific challenges, many students will be able to identify with her intense emotional landscape: shame, self-consciousness, shyness, anger, newfound sexuality, simultaneous fear and excitement at the prospect of growing up, and her conflicting desires both to belong and to become her own person. These are universal emotions with which most of us have grappled at one point or another, particularly during the emotionally charged transition from childhood to adulthood when we are trying to figure out the world and our place in it.
In addition to the universal themes of adolescence, Cisneros also tackles the broader topics of racism, discrimination, abuse, and poverty. Through Esperanza, readers see how difficult it is to break out of the cycle of poverty and what a struggle it is to rise above the expectations of one’s culture. Cisneros looks at cultural heritage and the difficulty of making the transition to life in America. Several characters struggle with letting go of the past and seem unsure what place to call home; the wiser ones tell Esperanza that she cannot reject her past or her present. By the end of the book, it is clear that the American Dream can be elusive if one doesn’t fight hard for it.
Cisneros’s distinctive writing style is also central to the story. She describes the “chapters” as “lazy poems.” Her short, spare vignettes, or prose poems, appear deceptively simple, but they are taut, emotional, and sometimes shocking. Since Esperanza only gives snapshots of her life—albeit powerful ones—we are left to read between the lines and fill in the gaps. Cisneros does not answer all the questions raised through Esperanza’s character. Consequently, moving from one vignette to the next, we experience some of the same uncertainty, emotional impact, and confusion that Esperanza feels.
Although The House on Mango Street is not considered an autobiography, it is very clearly based on Sandra Cisneros’s own experience growing up in the barrio of Chicago in the 1960s. Born to a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother in 1954, she too was determined to rise above the expectations that everyone held for her and to reject the submissive female role that women have traditionally assumed in Latino culture. Although it took her some time to find her own compelling voice, for Cisneros, as for Esperanza, writing was the path to freedom. The winner of numerous writing awards, Cisneros established a foundation to assist other writers who use their talents to promote social change within under-served communities. Just as Esperanza realizes for herself in The House on Mango Street, Cisneros learned in her own life that embracing her roots, rather than rejecting them, was crucial in finding her powerful narrative voice and her place in the world.
By the end of the unit the student will be able to:
1. Identify the major themes of the novel: poverty, racism, gender, and identity.
2. Explain the author’s message in regard to gender roles.
3. Explain what the house itself symbolizes.
4. Describe Esperanza’s emotional trajectory and what makes this a coming-of-age novel.
5. Explain the reasons for structuring the novel with the distinctive vignette format, and discuss the significance of various vignettes.
6. Describe how Esperanza hopes to rise above her circumstances.
7. Identify elements of his or her own experience in Esperanza’s story.
This eNotes lesson plan is designed so that it may be used in numerous ways to accommodate ESL students and to differentiate instruction in the classroom.
Student Study Guide
• The Study Guide is organized to study the novel in sections. Study Guide pages may be assigned individually and completed at a student’s own pace.
• Study Guide pages may be used as pre-reading activities to preview for students the vocabulary words they will encounter in reading the sections of the novel and to acquaint them generally with its content.
• Before Study Guide pages are assigned, questions may be selected from them to use as short quizzes to assess reading comprehension.
• Study Guide...
(The entire section is 427 words.)
1. The idea of “home” is a central metaphor in the story. Do homes always represent the same thing, or do they have different meanings?
2. Consider the author’s choice of narrator. What are the limitations and benefits of having a child as a narrator?
3. In what way is Esperanza both an insider and an outsider?
4. How do Esperanza’s concerns change over the course of the story? What does she notice in the early chapters? What does she think about toward the end?
5. Esperanza experiences a wide range of emotions—shame, self-consciousness, anger, rebelliousness—throughout the novel. Can you relate to any of these emotions, and why she might feel them?...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
elm: a type of tree
rosette: a rose-shaped decoration
1. Contrast the narrator’s dream house with the house on Mango Street.
The narrator’s dream house is white, with three washrooms, a big yard with trees, running water, “pipes that worked,” and stairs on the inside like the ones she sees on television. The house on Mango Street, by contrast, is red. It is small and crumbling, with a single bedroom, one washroom, and a tiny yard. The windows are very small. It is not a house to which she wishes to belong.
2. How is the house on Mango Street a step up for the family?
(The entire section is 779 words.)
aisle: a corridor, the space between two rows of shelves
chip in: to help
inherit: to receive personal property, typically from a parent who has died
sassy: cheeky, impertinent
1. Why does Esperanza want to change her name? What does it suggest about her?
Esperanza was named after her great-grandmother, who had a very sad life. She wants to separate herself from her great-grandmother’s tragic legacy, to reject her history and to define herself in a new way. Her desire for a new name represents her desire for a new identity. Though silly, the name she selects—Zeze the X—is original and imaginative; it also has a...
(The entire section is 1019 words.)
cumulus: a type of cloud, puffy in appearance
flooring: slang pressing a car’s accelerator down to the floor, causing the car to gain speed quickly
nimbus: a type of cloud, thin and flat in appearance
nylons: sheer stockings that cover women’s legs beneath their skirts
1. What happens when Louie’s cousin shows up?
Louie’s cousin arrives in a yellow Cadillac. He gives the neighborhood kids a ride, but when he hears sirens approaching, he tells them all to get out and tries to escape. However, the alley is too narrow, and he crashes the car. The police...
(The entire section is 923 words.)
anemic: extremely thin
authority: power, expertise
canteen: a cafeteria
chanclas: Mexican flip-flops
scuffed: scraped up
strutted: walked with confidence and attitude
tamales: a type of Mexican food made with a cornmeal exterior and usually a meat stuffing
1. Why does Mr. Benny disapprove of the shoes that the girls are wearing?
The shoes make the girls look older than they are, and he worries that the girls will attract inappropriate attention. He is afraid the shoes will make them look cheap, available to the men in the neighborhood.
2. What do the shoes symbolize? What...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
abuelito: Spanish diminutive for abuelo (grandfather)
brazer: Spanish slang a migrant worker
cumbias: a type of Mexican dance
está muerto: Spanish he is dead
goblets: drinking glasses which have a foot and a stem
los espíritus: Spanish the spirits
maroon: dark red, burgundy
notify: to inform
pillar: a column, a supporting element
rancheras: a type of Mexican dance
wetback: slang derogatory term for Mexicans living in the US, especially illegal immigrants
(The entire section is 720 words.)
babushka: a Russian headscarf
braille: a raised alphabet that blind people can read with their fingers
hollyhocks: type of flower
nightingale: a type of song bird
sphinx: a mythical animal with a lion’s body and a human head
1. How does Esperanza describe Ruthie? How does Esperanza feel about her? Why?
Although Ruthie is an adult, she acts like a child; she sees the world differently. Ruthie has an active imagination and makes up stories. She is scared of normal activities, like going into stores. Esperanza seems to like her and to enjoy spending time with her, perhaps because Ruthie is another person who...
(The entire section is 689 words.)
comadres: Spanish female friends
Minerva: the Roman goddess of war
morning glories: type of flower
1. How does Rafaela’s experience reinforce Esperanza’s ideas about men and women?
Rafaela is locked inside her home when her husband goes out to play dominoes on Tuesdays. She is physically trapped and confined within her own home, at the mercy of a man. Esperanza has been getting this message in many forms, but this is an example of a woman being physically caged by a man.
2. What does Esperanza mean when she says, “the whole world waiting for you to make a mistake”?...
(The entire section is 733 words.)
cockscombs: type of flower
thistle: a thorny plant
1. What is the monkey garden? What happens there, and what does it suggest?
The monkey garden is an abandoned garden in the neighborhood where all the children go to play. When Sally and the boys are there flirting, one of the boys steals her keys, agreeing to return them only if she kisses them. It is yet another scene in which girls are powerless and boys exercise control, making all the rules.
2. Why does Esperanza get so upset that she wishes her heart would stop beating?
Esperanza experiences several emotions at the end of this scene. She is...
(The entire section is 528 words.)
1. What is the message the three aunts give to Esperanza at the wake?
The three aunts are like fortune-tellers, and they sense that Esperanza is destined to leave. They encourage her to remember her roots and tell her not to “forget who you are.” Esperanza admits that she is a little confused by their message, but she also doesn’t fight it.
2. What does Alicia mean when she tells Esperanza, “Like it or not, you are Mango Street”?
Alicia is sending the same message as the aunt “with marble hands” who calls Esperanza aside. Esperanza’s past and her present are an indelible part of who she is, and it’s a mistake to try to...
(The entire section is 475 words.)
1. What is the setting of The House on Mango Street?
A. the projects of Philadelphia
B. a ghetto in New York
C. a small town outside of Houston
D. the barrio (Latino neighborhood) of Chicago
E. suburban Los Angeles
2. Who is Esperanza?
A. the wild child of Mango Street
B. the unnamed narrator’s best friend
C. the smart and sensitive early adolescent Chicana narrator
D. the only girl on her street to get a scholarship to college
E. the insecure high-school-aged Chicana narrator
3. Where did...
(The entire section is 966 words.)
1. Using different episodes from the book as examples, describe how Esperanza changes over the course of the story.
As a young adolescent, Esperanza is on the cusp of great change when we first meet her. Struggling to find her identity, she spends a great deal of time observing others in an effort to define herself. When she moves into the house on Mango Street, she is still just a young girl, albeit one who is wise beyond her years. At the end of the first vignette, in regard to her parents’ claims that the house is temporary, it is clear that she no longer has total faith in them: “But I know how those things go.” In the early vignettes, she is like any young girl: she wants to find friends, and she wants to...
(The entire section is 2697 words.)