Introductory Lecture and Objectives
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.