Black, white, and orange illustration of Esperanza standing in front of a building or structure

The House on Mango Street

by Sandra Cisneros

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The House on Mango Street Themes

The main themes in The House on Mango Street are trapped and oppressed women, the growth of a poet’s mind, and English America and Latin America.

  • Trapped and oppressed women: Many of the women on Mango Street are trapped and oppressed by poverty, gender roles, and abusive husbands and fathers.
  • The growth of a poet’s mind: Esperanza develops her poetic voice over the course of the narrative as she observes both the beauty and the injustice in her surroundings.
  • English America and Latin America: Cisneros explores the racial and class distinctions between Spanish-speaking America and English-speaking America.

 

Themes

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Last Updated on January 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 943

Trapped and Oppressed Women

Esperanza finds beauty and friendship on Mango Street, but she is constantly afraid of being trapped there, as many other women are. The House on Mango Street is dedicated A las Mujeres, To the Women, and the most important, compelling figures in the book—Esperanza herself, Marin, Sally, Alicia, Ruthie, and Minerva—are all female. At the beginning of the book, Esperanza notes that “boys and girls live in separate worlds,” and it does not take her long to see that the world in which the girls and women live is far harsher and more restrictive.

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The lives of the women in Mango Street form a litany of misery and oppression. At best, they endure lives of pointless drudgery; at worst, imprisonment and violence. Sally is beaten by her father, and Minerva by her husband. When Sally marries, her husband will not even allow her to look out of the window or talk on the telephone. Rafaela’s husband locks her in the house so she does not run away. Meanwhile, Earl, Esperanza’s neighbor, has a succession of women, probably sex workers, in his apartment, and the neighbors turn a blind eye, maintaining the fiction that all these different women are a single wife who visits him from time to time.

Toward the end of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza realizes that her mother is one of these trapped women, angry and bitter that she has not accomplished more in her life. She tells Esperanza to study so that she does not share the same fate. Esperanza does not think she is beautiful and concludes that she cannot rely on a man to save her from a life of poverty and drudgery. Moreover, her first sexual encounters, at work and at a carnival, frighten and disgust her. She knows that she will not only have to study hard, but also be assertive and forceful if she is to avoid becoming one of the trapped, downtrodden women of Mango Street and achieve her dream of owning a home of her own.

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The Growth of a Poet’s Mind

From the beginning of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza displays a gift for acute observation and for lyrical and eloquent description. The second story, “Hairs,” could be read as a prose poem, a masterpiece of compression and synecdoche, in which each member of her family is described through the appearance, the behavior, and even the smell of their hair. The third story ends with a powerful metaphor, as Esperanza describes herself in her solitude as “a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor.” In the fourth, she meditates on the significance of names in general and the meaning of her own in particular, showing a fine ear for language when she observes that her own name is not as thick as her sister’s and remarks alliteratively: “in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver.” The sibilance reflects the softness of the language it describes.

As she grows older, Esperanza’s poetic gifts develop quickly, as her understanding of the world around her grows. She still sees beauty everywhere but also becomes more aware of pain, unhappiness, and injustice. This adds new notes to her writing, including melancholy, bitterness, and anger. The stories addressed directly to her friend Sally, who neglects and betrays her, have an impressionist quality, in which the emotions (sadness and helplessness in “Sally,” anger and disgust in “Red Clowns”) are clearer than the events. As she makes the transition to adulthood, the images Esperanza uses to describe the world around her remain vivid and forceful. Two dogs jump in the air “like an apostrophe and a comma,” and the branches of ragged trees “bite the sky with violent teeth.” However, she also grows sadder and wiser as she understands more about that world and is more determined to assert her independence, as a personality and as a poet with a unique vision.

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English America and Latin America

Esperanza, her family, and most of the other people who live on Mango Street are Latin American. When Esperanza arrives, the first child of her own age she meets is a girl called Cathy, who is one of the few white residents and quickly comments that the neighborhood is going downhill. Her family moves away almost immediately afterward, making way for more immigrants from Latin America.

In the first story, Esperanza relates an episode that occurred before she moved to Mango Street. She had been playing in front of her home on Loomis when a nun who taught at her school asked her where she lived. She pointed at the family’s third-floor apartment, and the nun appeared horrified at such squalor. There is an echo of this event in “A Rice Sandwich,” when the Sister Superior at her school asks her to point out her house from the window of her office. Esperanza is ashamed of the run-down building she indicates, even though this is not even her house.

The racial distinctions between Spanish-speaking America and English-speaking America are reinforced by both age and class. The younger generation grows up speaking English. Mamacita, who speaks only Spanish and never leaves her house for fear of having to interact with the English-speaking world, is heartbroken when her son picks up the words of a Pepsi commercial from the television and begins to speak a language she does not understand. Esperanza attends a private Catholic school which her parents can ill afford and receives an elite education among white students, which makes her feel out of place both at school and at home.

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