Sandra Cisneros

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Julian Olivares (essay date fall-winter 1987)

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SOURCE: Olivares, Julian. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space.” Americas Review 15, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1987): 160-70.

[In the following essay, Olivares examines Cisneros's use of imagery in The House on Mango Street, analysing the metaphor of the house and the dialectics of inside vs. outside, here vs. there, integration vs. alienation, and comfort vs. anxiety.]

In some recent essays collectively titled “From a Writer's Notebook,”1 Sandra Cisneros talks about her development as a writer, making particular references to her award-winning book, The House on Mango Street.2 She states that the nostalgia for the perfect house was impressed on her at an early age from reading many times Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House. It was not until her tenure at the Iowa Writers Workshop, however, that it dawned on her that a house, her childhood home, could be the subject of a book. In a class discussion of Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, she came to this realization: “the metaphor of a house, a house, a house, it hit me. What did I know except third-floor flats. Surely my classmates knew nothing about that” (“Ghosts and Voices,” 72-3). Yet Cisneros' reverie and depiction of house differ markedly from Bachelard's poetic space of house. With Bachelard we note a house conceived in terms of a male-centered ideology. A man born in the upper crust family house, probably never having to do “female” housework and probably never having been confined to the house for reason of his sex, can easily contrive states of reverie and images of a house that a woman might not have, especially an impoverished woman raised in a ghetto. Thus, for Bachelard the house is an image of “felicitous space (…) the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace (…) A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability.”3 Cisneros inverts Bachelard's nostalgic and privileged utopia, for her's is a different reality: “That's precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible. And this is when I discovered the voice I'd been suppressing all along without realizing it.”4

The determination of genre for Mango Street has posed a problem for some critics.5 Is Mango Street a novel, short stories, prose poems, vignettes? Cisneros herself states:

I recall I wanted to write stories that were a cross between poetry and fiction. I was greatly impressed by Jorge Luis Borges' Dream Tigers stories for their form. I liked how he could fit so much into a page and that the last line of each story was important to the whole in much the same way that the final lines in poems resonate. Except I wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after. Or that could be read in a series to tell one big story. I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation.

(“Do You Know Me?,” 78)

She adds that if some of the stories read like poems, it is because some had been poems redone as stories or constructed from the debris of unfinished poems.6 The focus, then, on compression and lyricism contributes to the brevity of the narratives. With regard to this generic classification, Cisneros states:

I said once that I wrote Mango Street naively, that they...

(This entire section contains 4687 words.)

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were “lazy poems.” In other words, for me each of the stories could've developed into poems, but they were not poems. They were stories, albeit hovering in that grey area between two genres. My newer work is still exploring this terrain.

(“Do You Know Me?,” 79)

On a different occasion, Cisneros has called the stories “vignettes.”7 I would affirm that, although some of the narratives of Mango Street are “short stories,” most are vignettes, that is, literary sketches, like small illustrations nonetheless “hovering in that grey area between two genres.”

I should like to discuss some of these stories and vignettes in order to demonstrate the manner in which Cisneros employs her imagery as a poetics of space and, while treating an “unpoetic” subject—as she says, expresses it poetically so that she conveys another element that Bachelard notes inherent to this space, the dialectic of inside and outside, that is, here and there, integration and alienation, comfort and anxiety (211-12). However, Cisneros again inverts Bachelard's pronouncement on the poetics of space; for Cisneros the inside, the here, can be confinement and a source of anguish and alienation. In this discussion we will note examples of (1) how Cisneros expresses an ideological perspective of the downtrodden but, primarily, the condition of the Hispanic woman; (2) the process of a girl's growing up; and (3) the formation of the writer who contrives a special house of her own.

This book begins with the story of the same title: “The House on Mango Street”:

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Pauline, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot. Each time it seemed there'd be one more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me. (…)

They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn't have to move each year. (…)

But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It's small and red with tight little steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don't own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they're ordinary hallway stairs, and the house has only one washroom, very small. Everybody has to share a bedroom—Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.

Once when we were living on Loomis, a nun from my school passed by and saw me playing out front. The laundromat downstairs had been boarded up because it had been robbed two days before and the owner had painted on the wood YES WE'RE OPEN so as not to lose business.

Where do you live? she asked.

There, I said, pointing up to the third floor. You live there?

There. I had to look to where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.

I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn't it. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama said. Temporary, said Papa. But I know how those things go.


Mango Street is a street sign, a marker, that circumscribes the neighborhood to its latino population of Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and Mexican immigrants. This house is not the young protagonist's dream house; it is only a temporary house. The semes that we ordinarily perceive in house, and the ones that Bachelard assumes—such as comfort, security, tranquility, esteem—, are lacking. This is a house that constrains, one that she wants to leave; consequently, the house sets up a dialectic of inside and outside: of living here and wishing to leave for there.

The house becomes, essentially, the narrator's first universe. She begins here because it is the beginning of her conscious narrative reflection. She describes the house from the outside; this external depiction is a metonymical description and presentation of self: “I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to.” By pointing to this dilapidated house, she points to herself. House and narrator become identified as one, thereby revealing an ideological perspective of poverty and shame. Consequently, she wants to point to another house and to point to another self. And as she longs for this other house and self, she also longs for another name. But she will find that in growing up and writing, she will come to inhabit a special house and to fit into, find comfort, in her name.

In “My Name” the protagonist says: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting … It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing” (12). In this vignette Esperanza traces the reason for the discomfiture with her name to cultural oppression, the Mexican males' suppression of their women. Esperanza was named after her Mexican great-grandmother who was wild but tamed by her husband, so that: “She looked out the window all her life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow … Esperanza, I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window” (12). Here we have not the space of contentment but of sadness, and a dialectic of inside/outside. The woman's place is one of domestic confinement, not one of liberation and choice. Thus, Esperanza would like to baptize herself “under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do” (13). That is, Esperanza prefers a name not culturally embedded in a dominating, male-centered ideology.

Such a dialectic of inside/outside, of confinement and desire for the freedom of the outside world is expressed in various stories. Marin, from the story of the same name, who is too beautiful for her own good and will be sent back to Puerto Rico to her mother, who wants to work downtown because “you … can meet someone in the subway who might marry and take you to live in a big house far away,” never comes out of the house “until her aunt comes home from work, and even then she can only stay out in front. She is there every night with the radio … Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall. Someone to change her life. Anybody” (27-8). And then there is Raphaela, too beautiful for her own good:

On Tuesdays Rafaela's husband comes home late because that's the night he plays dominoes. And then Rafaela, who is still young, gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at.

(“Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut and Papaya Juice on Tuesdays,” 76)

One way to leave house and barrio is to acquire an education. In “Alicia Who Sees Mice” (32), a vignette both lyrical and hauntingly realistic, the narrator describes her friend's life. Alicia, whose mother has died so she has inherited her “mama's rolling pin and sleepiness,” must arise early to make her father's lunchbox tortillas:

Close your eyes and they'll go away her father says, or you're just imagining. And anyway, a woman's place is sleeping so she can wake up early with the tortilla star, the one that appears early just in time to rise and catch the hind legs hidden behind the sink, beneath the four-clawed tub, under the swollen floorboards nobody fixes in the corner of your eyes.

Here we note a space of misery and subjugation, a dialectic of inside/outside, a latina's perception of life—all magnificently crystallized in the image of the “tortilla star.” To Alicia Venus, the morning star, does not mean wishing upon or waiting for a star to fall down—as it does for Raphaela, nor romance nor the freedom of the outside world; instead, it means having to get up early, a rolling pin and tortillas. Here we do not see the tortilla as a symbol of cultural identity but as a symbol of a subjugating ideology, of sexual domination, of the imposition of a role that the young woman must assume. Here Venus—and the implication of sex and marriage as escape—is deromanticized, is eclipsed by a cultural reality that points to the drudgery of the inside. Alicia “studies for the first time at the university. Two trains and a bus, because she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin … Is afraid of nothing except four-legged fur and fathers.”

There are two types of girls in Mango Street. There are those few who strive for an education, like Alicia and the narrator, but most want to grow up fast, get married and get out.8 But these, like Minerva, usually have to get married, and they leave a father for a domineering husband. Such is the fate of Sally in “Linoleum Roses”:

Sally got married like we knew she would, young and not ready but married just the same. She met a marshmallow salesman at a school bazaar and she married him in another state where it's legal to get married before eighth grade … She says she is in love, but I think she did it to escape. (…)

[Her husband] won't let her talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window. And he doesn't like her friends, so nobody gets to visit her unless he is working.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.


The title is an oxymoron expressing an inversion of the positive semes of house and revealing a dialectic of inside/outside. “Linoleum roses” is a trope for household confinement and drudgery, in which the semes of rose—beauty, femininity, garden (the outside)—and rose as a metaphor for woman are ironically treated. The roses decorate the linoleum floor that Sally will have to scrub. This is an image of her future. The image of the final line, the “ceiling smooth as wedding cake,” resonates through the story in an ironical twist, a wedding picture of despair.

Such images as “tortilla star” and “linoleum roses” are the type of imagery that perhaps only a woman could create, because they are derived from a woman's perception of reality; that is to say, that this imagery is not biologically determined but that it is culturally inscribed. A woman's place may be in the home but it is a patriarchic domain.

With regard to the poetics of space and the dialectic of inside/outside and as these apply to the process of growing up, I shall give only one example, but one that also touches on the formation of the writer.9 It is taken from the story “Hips,” in which the process of a girl's growing up is initially described as a physical change, the widening of the hips:

One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?

They're good for holding a baby when you're cooking, Rachel says turning the jump rope a little quicker. She has no imagination. (…)

They bloom like roses, I continue because it's obvious I'm the only one that can speak with any authority; I have science on my side. The bones just one day open. Just like that.


Here, then, Esperanza, Lucy and Rachel are discussing hips while jumping rope with little Nenny. At this point the kids' game turns into a creative exercise as the older girls take turns improvising rhymes about hips as they jump to the rhythm of the jump rope. Esperanza sings:

Some are skinny like chicken lips.
Some are baggy like soggy band-aids
after you get out of the bathtub.
I don't care what kind I get.
Just as long as I get hips.


Then little Nenny jumps inside but can only sing the usual kids' rhymes: “Engine, engine, number nine.” Suddenly, the awareness of time passing and of growing up is given a spatial dimension. Esperanza, on the outside, is looking at Nenny inside the arc of the swinging rope that now separates Nenny's childhood dimension from her present awareness of just having left behind that very same childhood: “Nenny, I say, but she doesn't hear me. She is too many light years away. She is in a world we don't belong to anymore. Nenny. Going. Going” (50). Yet Esperanza has not totally grown out of her childhood. She is still tied to that dimension. Although we perceive a change in voice at the end of the story, she is still swinging the rope.

Indications of Esperanza's formation as a writer and predictions of her eventual move from home and Mango Street are given in two stories related to death, suggesting perhaps that creativity is not only a means of escape from the confines of Mango Street but also an affirmation of life and a rebirth. The first story is “Born Bad,” in which Esperanza reads her poetry to her aunt who appears to be dying from polio. The aunt replies:

That's nice. That's very good, she said in her tired voice. You must remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will help keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn't know what she meant.


In “The Three Sisters” three mysterious women appear at the funeral of a neighbor's child. Here Esperanza begins to fit into the cultural space of her name. These women seek out Esperanza for special attention:

What's your name, the cat-eyed one asked.

Esperanza, I said.

Esperanza, the old blue-veined one repeated in a high thin voice. Esperanza … a good name. (…)

Look at her hands, cat-eyed said.

And they turned them over and over as if they were looking for something.

She's special.

Yes, she'll go very far …

Make a wish.

A wish?

Yes, make a wish. What do you want?

Anything? I said.

Well, why not?

I closed my eyes.

Did you wish already?

Yes, I said.

Well, that's all there is to it. It'll come true.

How do you know? I asked.

We know, we know.

Esperanza. The one with marble hands called aside. Esperanza. She held my face with her blue-veined hands and looked and looked at me. A long silence. When you leave you must remember always to come back, she said.


When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are.

Then I didn't know what to say. It was as if she could read my mind, as if she knew what I had wished for, and I felt ashamed for having made such a selfish wish.

You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember? She asked as if she was telling me. Yes, yes, I said a little confused.


In this paradigm of the fairy godmother, Esperanza receives a wish that she does not understand. How can she leave from here to there and still be Mango Street? How can she come back for the others? What is the meaning of the circle? Esperanza thought that by leaving Mango Street and living in another house, one that she could point to with pride, she would leave behind forever an environment she believed to be only temporary. A mysterious woman embeds in Esperanza's psyche a cultural and political determination which will find expression in her vocation as a writer. Esperanza will move away from the confining space of house and barrio, but paradoxically within them she has encountered a different sort of space, the space of writing. Through her creativity, she comes to inhabit the house of story-telling. Although she longs for “A House of My Own” (100)—

Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.

—it is clear, nonetheless, that a magical house is had though the creative imagination: “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.”

The realization of the possibility of escape through the space of writing, as well as the determination to move away from Mango Street, are expressed in “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes (101-02)”:

I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Pauline, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.

One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out.

I do not hold with Juan Rodríguez that Cisneros' book ultimately sets forth the traditional ideology that happiness, for example, comes with the realization of the “American Dream,” a house of one's own. In his review of Mango Street, Rodríguez states:

That Esperanza chooses to leave Mango St., chooses to move away from her social/cultural base to become more “Anglicized,” more individualistic; that she chooses to move from the real to the fantasy plane of the world as the only means of accepting and surviving the limited and limiting social conditions of her barrio becomes problematic to the more serious reader.10

This insistence on the preference for a comforting and materialistic life ignores the ideology of a social class' liberation, particularly that of its women, to whom the book is dedicated. The house the protagonist longs for, certainly, is a house where she can have her own room11 and one that she can point to in pride, but, as noted through this discussion of the poetics of space, it is fundamentally a metaphor for the house of storytelling. Neither here in the house on Mango Street nor in the “fantasy plane of the world”—as Rodríguez states, does the protagonist indulge in escapism. Esperanza wants to leave but is unable, so she attains release from her confinement through her writing. Yet even here she never leaves Mango Street; because, instead of fantasizing, she writes of her reality.12 Erlinda Gonzales and Diana Rebolledo confirm that the house is symbolic of consciousness and collective memory, and is a nourishing structure so that “the narrator comes to understand that, despite her need for a space of her own, Mango Street is really a part of her—an essential creative part she will never be able to leave”; consequently, she searches in (as narrator) and will return to (as author) her neighborhood “for the human and historical materials of which [her] stories will be made.”13 On the higher plane of art, then, Esperanza transcends her condition, finding another house which is the space of literature. Yet what she writes about—“third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible”—reinforces her solidarity with the people, the women, of Mango Street.

We can agree, and probably Cisneros on this occasion does, with Bachelard's observation on the house as the space of daydreaming: “the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling places of the past remain in us for all time” (6). The house that Esperanza lives and lived in will always be associated with the house of story-telling—“What I remember most is Mango Street”; because of it she became a writer. Esperanza will leave Mango Street but take it with her for always, for it is inscribed within her.


  1. “From a Writer's Notebook”: “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession,” “Do You Know Me? I Wrote The House on Mango Street,The Americas Review 15:1 (1987), 69-73, 77-79.

  2. The House on Mango Street (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1984).

  3. The Poetics of Space, Trans. María Jolas (Boston: Beacon Press, 19692).

  4. Although Cisneros echoes the strong family bonds that Tomás Rivera speaks of with regard to the casa, home, theme, her criticism of patriarchal domination offers a challenging perspective. See Rivera for his discussion of the themes of casa, barrio and lucha in Chicano literature, in “Chicano Literature: Fiesta of the Living,” Books Abroad 49:3 (1975), 439-52.

  5. See, Pedro Gutiérrez-Revuelta, “Género e ideología en el libro de Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street,Crítica 1:3 (1986), 48-59.

  6. Eg., “The Three Sisters,” “Beautiful and Cruel,” “A House of My Own,” in “Do You Know Me?” 79.

  7. “The softly insistent voice of a poet,” Austin American Statesman (March 11, 1986), 14-15.

  8. The dialectic of inside/outside also is manifested in the personae some of the characters assume. For example, there is Sally who, outside the house, “is the girl with eyes like Egypt and nylons the color of smoke. The boys at school think she's beautiful (…) Her father says to be this beautiful is trouble (…) And why do you always have to go straight home after school? You become a different Sally. You pull your skirt straight, you rub the blue paint off your eyelids. You don't laugh, Sally. You look at your feet and walk fast to the house you can't come out from. Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn't have to go home?” (“Sally,” 77-8).

  9. Another example is “The Monkey Garden,” 87-91.

  10. The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros,” Austin Chronicle (August 10, 1984), cited in Gutiérrez-Revuelta, 52.

  11. Cf., Virginia Woolf, “A Room of One's Own.”

  12. Even were she to move away from the barrio and have her own house, Esperanza states her conviction not to forget who she is nor where she came from:

    One day I'll own my own house, but I won't forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I'll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house.

    Some days after dinner, guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble.

    Rats? they'll ask.

    Bums, I'll say, and I'll be happy.

    —“Bums in the Attic,” 81.

  13. “Growing Up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros,” International Studies in Honor of Tomás Rivera, Ed. Julián Olivares (Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1985), 109-20.


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Sandra Cisneros 1954-

American novelist, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cisneros's career through 2003. See also Sandra Cisneros Literary Criticism (Volume 118), Sandra Cisneros Short Story Criticism, Sandra Cisneros Poetry Criticism, and Woman Hollering Creek Criticism.

Cisneros is best known for her prose volume The House on Mango Street (1984), a collection of vignettes based on her experiences growing up in a working-class Latin-American neighborhood of Chicago. Cisneros received the American Book Award and the Before Columbus Foundation Book Award in 1985, both for The House on Mango Street, which was a bestseller and has become a mainstay on the reading lists of college courses in ethnic and gender studies. Through the character of Esperanza, a twelve-year-old Chicana girl and the narrator of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros examines issues of Chicana identity in the bi-cultural context of the Latin-American community. The House on Mango Street is also considered a coming-of-age story, highlighting Esperanza's quest for self-definition and self-empowerment through the creative act of writing. Cisneros is widely recognized for her groundbreaking work, which utilizes experimental forms of prose narrative and challenges traditional gender roles. Her work has been viewed as a vital part of expanding the literary canon to include the Chicana experience. Cisneros was awarded the McArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1995.

Biographical Information

Cisneros was born December 20, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois, to a Mexican father and a Chicana mother. The only girl in a family of seven children, she often felt dominated by her brothers and father. Her sense of cultural displacement as a Chicana was in part due to her family's frequent moves between Mexico and the United States. She spent the majority of her childhood living in apartment buildings in the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago's South Side. When she was a teenager, her parents bought a house, a goal they had always dreamed of achieving; but Cisneros regarded the house as ugly and shabby, and nothing like what she had imagined a house should be. As she was growing up, she spoke Spanish with her father and English with her mother, and most of her work is written in English but also contains smatterings of Spanish words and phrases. Cisneros earned a B.A. in English from Loyola University in 1976, and enrolled in the graduate program in creative writing at the renowned University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. While there she developed the idea of the house as a metaphor for Chicana identity. Thinking back on her childhood, she felt that her experiences living in impoverished urban apartment-dwellings in the Latin-American community was unique in comparison to those of her fellow students and professors. As she later related, “the metaphor of a house—a house, a house, it hit me. What did I know except third-floor flats. Surely my classmates knew nothing about that. That's precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows.” This idea formed the seed of what was to become The House on Mango Street. After earning an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1978, Cisneros returned to Chicago, where she taught at the Latino Youth Alternative High School. Her first poetry collection, a chapbook entitled Bad Boys, was published in 1980. In 1981, she began working as a college recruiter and counselor for minority students at Loyola. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1982, allowing her to serve for one year as artist-in-residence at the Michael Karolyi institute in Vence, France. Upon returning to the United States, Cisneros worked as the literature director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. With the success of The House on Mango Street, she began a series of guest professorships at universities throughout the United States, including California State University at Chico (1987 to 1988), University of California at Berkeley (1988), University of California at Irvine (1990), University of Michigan (1990), and University of New Mexico at Albuquerque (1991). Cisneros has written three essays in which she discusses her development as a writer and her conceptualization of The House on Mango Street: “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession,” “Notes to a Young(er) Writer,” and “Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street,” all published in The Americas Review.

Major Works

The House on Mango Street represents a unique work of prose that defies previously existing categories of literature. While it is autobiographical in nature, it is ultimately a work of fiction. Although it is frequently referred to as a novel, and sometimes as a collection of short stories, The House on Mango Street has been more accurately described as a series of forty-four interconnected vignettes, written in a lyrical prose style that borders on prose poetry, that range in length from several paragraphs to several pages. Cisneros has said of these vignettes, “I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation.” Narrated by Esperanza, an adolescent girl living in el barrio, these vignettes describe the experiences of Chicana girls and women in a working-class Chicago neighborhood during the early 1960s. The House on Mango Street has been described as a coming-of-age novel, a rite-of-passage novel, and a Latina bildungsroman (a novel of formative education) or künstlerroman (novel of an artistic apprenticeship). Each vignette stands alone as a complete piece, while the vignettes together make up a composite story that traces the development of Esperanza's self-identity as a Chicana writer who resists the limitations of traditional roles imposed upon women in the Latin-American community. Cisneros draws on the house as a symbol for a variety of thematic concerns: the house symbolizes the “American Dream” of middle-class comfort that the people of Esperanza's community fantasize about but will likely never achieve, and also symbolizes the realm of literature, expressing Esperanza's desire to become a writer. At other times, the house functions as a symbol of female confinement within the traditional, prescribed gender roles as wife and mother. Esperanza's childhood home also represents a family history and cultural heritage which are both enriching and confining to an adolescent girl with high aspirations. Through this complex symbolism and the variety of characters and stories Esperanza reveals in her narrative, Cisneros explores themes of economic oppression, ethnic identity, female sexuality, and the power of storytelling to reconcile the past with the present and future. In the course of her development as a young writer, Esperanza struggles to negotiate conflicts between individual self-determination and community identity, between the private space of the home and the public sphere of the streets, between her Mexican heritage and her participation in American culture. Additionally, she experiences a battle between the comforts of the familiar neighborhood and the urge to break free from its limitations, as well as between traditional gender roles and her emergent feminist consciousness. Cisneros's feminist reclaiming of the Chicana experience is indicated by her dedication in The House on Mango Streeta las mujeres” (“to the women”). The vignettes that comprise this volume describe such female experiences as the hopelessness of wives confined to their homes, the struggle of a mother whose husband has abandoned her, the isolation of a young girl married to a jealous, controlling husband, a sexual assault upon the narrator at a carnival, the terrors of domestic violence, and the physical maturation of Esperanza's body as she grows into womanhood. The penultimate vignette, “A House of My Own,” echoes the essay A Room of One's Own, by early-twentieth-century feminist writer Virginia Woolf. In Cisneros's rendition of Woolf's assertion that a woman needs a room of her own in order to become a writer, Esperanza describes her fantasy of “a house all my own … a house as quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before a poem.” In the final vignette, “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” Esperanza tells her readers, “I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.” The conclusion of The House on Mango Street then ends with the same words that make up the opening of the book—in a paragraph that begins, “We didn't always live on Mango Street.” Cisneros brings ther story full circle, ending the work with the culmination of Esperanza's coming-of-age—the writing of the book itself.

Woman Hollering Creek (1991), Cisneros's next fiction volume, is a collection of twenty-two stories, narrated as interior monologues of a variety of Mexican-American women living in the area of San Antonio, Texas. In contrast to the adolescent narrator of The House on Mango Street, the stories in Woman Hollering Creek are narrated by mature adult women with a complex range of emotions and relationships. In these stories, Cisneros continues to explore themes of Chicana identity, particularly in terms of the conflicts between popular American culture and traditional Mexican culture, as well conflicts between traditional gender roles and individual freedom. The story “Woman Hollering Creek,” for example, concerns a woman whose fantasies about marriage are based on telenovelas—Spanish-language soap operas. The lives of the characters in the soap operas are contrasted against the protagonist's life and her marriage to an abusive man. In “Never Marry a Mexican,” a young woman becomes insecure about her Chicana identity because she does not know how to speak Spanish. Caramelo (2002) is an episodic novel narrated by fourteen-year-old Celaya Reyes, who is known as Lala. Lala's family travels by car from their home in Chicago to a family reunion at the house of Soledad, the “Awful Grandmother,” in Mexico City. Lala's narrative weaves back and forth between the past and the present as she struggles to reconcile her cultural heritage and family history with a desire to assert her own individual identity. Lala draws on the image of the “rebozo caramelo,” a traditional (caramel-colored) family shawl worn by her grandmother, as a metaphor for the interweaving of family legend, national history, multi-cultural fusion, and personal experience into a unified pattern that constitutes her complex self-identity. Cisneros relates a panoramic family saga that spans three generations against a backdrop of Mexico's turbulent history. She includes numerous extensive footnotes within the text of Caramelo, explaining a variety of cultural and historical facts that are relevant to Lala's story. While Cisneros is best known for her prose writings, her several books of poetry have been recognized as powerful works of lyrical writing that address similar themes to those within her stories and novels. Her poetry volumes include The Rodrigo Poems (1985), My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987), and Loose Woman (1994).

Critical Reception

Cisneros has received widespread critical acclaim for The House on Mango Street. Critics have applauded her innovative form of prose which transcends the boundaries of several genres while maintaining the lyricism of poetry and the impact of the short story. Diane Klein described the unique formal qualities of The House on Mango Street as “a series of almost epiphanic narrations mirrored in a structure that is neither linear nor traditional, a hybrid of fictive and poetic form, more like an impressionistic painting where the subject isn't clear until the viewer moves back a bit and views the whole.” Reviewers have noted her vivid, sensual, detailed descriptions of life in the Latin-American urban community, and praised her colorful characterizations and lively dialogue integrating English with Spanish words, phrases, and idioms. Cisneros has also been acknowledged for her use of personal voice and point-of-view in the narratives of Esperanza, whose perspective develops from that of a thoughtful child into that of a mature and insightful young woman. Many scholars have commented on Cisneros's construction of a complex Chicana identity which reconciles individual self-determination with a strong sense of responsibility and connection to family and community. As Maria Karafilis has observed, Esperanza “constitutes herself as a political agent capable of achieving and maintaining personal and political power and also demonstrates an effective means for others like her to claim a space for themselves in the world.”

Wendy K. Kolmar (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Kolmar, Wendy K. “‘Dialectics of Connectedness’: Supernatural Elements in Novels by Bambara, Cisneros, Grahn, and Erdrich.” In Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, pp. 236-49. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Kolmar examines novels by four authors who utilize supernatural elements in their writing. The works discussed are: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, The Salt Eaters, by Toni Cade Bambara, Tracks, by Louise Erdrich, and Mundane's World, by Judy Grahn.]

During the seven years I have worked with women's ghost stories, I have been troubled by what seems to be an epistemological problem—at least for those of us who want to talk about women's writing—inherent in the way we define the genre of supernatural literature or perhaps inherent in the worldview propounded by the literature itself. Supernatural literature, traditionally, describes a world of dualisms: rational/irrational; human/ghostly; known world/unknown; natural/supernatural. As readers we are vested in the natural, knowable, rational, and human. Whether the story ultimately affirms this worldview, banishing the unknowable thing, or challenges its stability, the affect of the classic supernatural story seems to be to make us cling more closely to the rational side of those dichotomies, to reinforce the readers' sense that the world is in fact dualistic, that the present is distinct from the past, the living from the dead, the natural from the supernatural.

What troubles me then is that so often this is not the epistemology of women's stories. As feminist critics have repeatedly observed for other genres, women's work in this genre does not seem to fit; many women's ghost stories—not all, of course, for many are written as formulaic popular stories and seek to replicate the expected structures of the genre—seem to challenge this dualistic view of the universe. These supernatural stories seem to be one more place where women writers and thinkers explore the doubled or multiple vision that their insider/outsider status forces upon them.1

Rachel Duplessis, in her 1979 essay “For the Etruscans,” suggests that this insider/outsider position is reflected in the literary forms women create. Duplessis writes:

Insider/outsider social status will also help dissolve an either-or dualism. For the woman finds she is irreconcilable things: an outsider by her gender position, by her relation to power; maybe an insider by her social position, her class. She can be both. Her ontological, her psychic, her class position all cause doubleness. Doubled consciousness. Doubled understandings. How then could she neglect to invent a form which produces this incessant, critical, splitting motion.


Women create, suggests Duplessis, forms which reflect a “both/and vision. This is the end of the either-or, dichotomized universe.” They propose forms and visions that are “in opposition to dualism, a dualism pernicious because it valorizes one side above another, and makes a hierarchy where there were simply twain” (276). Women, then, suggests Duplessis, “will produce art works that incorporate contradiction and nonlinear movement into the heart of the text” (278). In many women's supernatural stories we find, I think, just such texts.

To attempt to explore this idea briefly in relation to several particular texts, I have chosen four novels by contemporary American women: Toni Cade Bambara's The Salt Eaters, the story of the healing of Velma Henry after an attempted suicide and of the healing through her of the Black community she inhabits; Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, the story of Esperanza, a Chicana girl growing up in her community; Louise Erdrich's Tracks, the story of Fleur Pillager and the struggle of her Chippewa family to retain their beliefs and their land in the face of the encroachment of Christianity, the government and the logging companies; and Judy Grahn's Mundane's World, the story of the initiation into womanhood of five young women in a matriarchal, possibly prehistoric world.2 In each of these texts that sense of insider/outsider status, which Duplessis sees as inherent in being a woman, is compounded by the marginalizing effects of race and sexual preference, by the divided identity of living within and between two cultures or two identities. The novels all draw, in part, for their understanding of the supernatural on non-Western traditions: Erdrich draws on Native American traditions passed down to her through the stories of her grandfather; Bambara draws on the voodoo and Yoruba strands of African religion; Cisneros on the voodoo traditions in hispanic culture; and Grahn on both African and Native American mythology, which she examines in her research for Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds.3

These novels are not “ghost stories” in quite the same way as other stories discussed in this collection; an encounter between the story's protagonist and a ghost is not the central or even a central part of their plot. In fact, it is, in a way, the absence of such confrontations that I want to discuss. In each novel, the supernatural elements exist undifferentiated from the “present,” “the real,” “the natural.” Characters and readers do not confront them as other, they are simply part of the experience of life and of the text. As Gloria Hull suggests of the characters in The Salt Eaters: “Some are quietly dead; others are roaming spirits. In many ways, these distinctions are false and immaterial, for everyone we meet takes up essential space, and there is no meaningful difference between various states of corporeality/being/presence” (219). Each of these texts sets out to make “essential space” for creatures in “various states of corporeality/being/presence.” In doing so, these texts become multilayered narratives that challenge dualistic categories and condemn the drawing of rigid boundaries between states of being, between moments in time, or even between species.

So, for example, in The House on Mango Street, “los espiritus” (60) visit the kitchen of the wise woman Elenita. Holy candles burn on the top of her refrigerator; “a plaster saint and a dusty Palm Sunday cross” adorn the kitchen walls along with a “picture of a voodoo hand.” Elenita, the “witch woman” who “knows many thing” tells the protagonist's fortune with the tarot, while in the next room Elenita's children watch Bugs Bunny cartoons and drink Kool-Aid on the plastic slipcovered furniture. Esperanza sees her “whole life on that kitchen table: past, present, future” (60) and tries to feel on her hand the cold of the spirits, while a part of her mind is tuned to the favorite cartoon she hears from the other room. Waiting for the spirits at the kitchen table is made no stranger nor more unfamiliar here than sitting in the living room drinking Kool-Aid.

In Salt Eaters, a joke between two main characters, one human, one spirit, makes this same elision. In the midst of grappling with Velma Henry's illness and resistance to help, Minnie Ransom, the wise woman and healer who runs a clinic in Claybourne, Georgia's Black community, goes out to walk in her garden. There she seeks advice from her old friend and mentor, Old Wife, dead for several years, but no less present in Minnie's life. In the course of their conversation, Old Wife makes a joke about Oshun and Oye, sister spirits of the West African Yoruba tradition, that shows how little she differentiates the supposedly concrete world of the present from some other world of spirits. “Leastways, I know,” says Old Wife, the spirit guide, to Minnie Ransom: “the Oshun ain't studyin this problem, Min, cause I hear Oshun and Oye prettyin up to hop a bus to New Orleans. Carnival in this town ain't fancy enough for them. Town gettin too small for some other proud spirits I could name too” (43). Clearly, the pun of “proud spirits” conflates Oshun and Oye with uppity folks who think they are too good for their neighbors. When Minnie objects to this joke, Old Wife continues: “I'm talking about them haints [i.e., ghosts, spirits] that're always up to some trickified business. They ride buses just the same's they ride brooms, peoples, carnival floats, whatever. All the same to them. What they care about scarin' people with they ghostly selves?” (43). Old Wife's summary comment, “I strictly do not mess with haints, Min,” makes a double joke since she, not only imagines them on the bus to Mardi Gras, but is herself a spirit while she jokes. Minnie looks at her and makes “a full appraisal of this woman friend who'd been with her for most of her life, one way and then another. Nothing much had changed since she'd passed. Old Wife's complexion was still like mutton suet and brown gravy” (51). The powerful alliance of these two wise women and healers is unchanged by the death of the older one. They share and remember a history that connects them across the boundaries of time and death, and it is natural to them to see no distinction, to see spirits present throughout the ordinary experience of human life.

In Louise Erdrich's Tracks, too, the presence of ghosts and other nonrational elements is simply part of the experience and is also associated with history and memory. In this novel, the ghosts of members of the Pillager family roam the forest near Lake Matchimanito, the land that has always belonged to this Chippewa family: “The water was surrounded by the highest oaks and the woods inhabited by ghosts and by Pillagers who knew the secret ways to cure and kill, until their art deserted them” (2). When their art deserted them, the majority of the family perished in an epidemic, leaving only Fleur and her cousin Moses alive. Nanapush, the narrator of half the novel and an elder of the tribe, imagines the spirits of the dead: “They would sit in the snow outside the door, waiting until from longing we joined them. We would all be together on the journey then, our destination the village at the end of the road where people gamble day and night but never lose money, eat but never fill their stomachs, drink but never leave their minds” (5). Fleur and her family ghosts are believed to have so harassed the local government agent that he is now “living in the woods and eating roots, gambling with ghosts” (5). Fleur herself is believed to have some extraordinary powers; she is said to have drowned three times and to be desired by the monster lake spirit, Mishepeshu.

Though Nanapush speaks with them, and others gamble with them, in this novel—unlike the other three—the ghosts inhabiting Fleur's wood are viewed with some fear, in part because they are the unsatisfied spirits of the unburied dead. The presence of these spirits identifies the wood Fleur inhabits as a place of powers and strangeness, but mainly for those in the community who are of mixed blood or are not Indian at all.

In Mundane's World, all states of being are comparable; there is distinction between them but no difference in this community governed by four matriarchal clans. One state is not valorized over another, not the living over the dead, nor the spirit over the body, nor the human over the plant or animal. Early in the novel, the permeability of the boundaries between states of being becomes clear in the situation of Lillian, a dead woman of the Bee clan, who moves from living woman to dead flesh to buzzard meat and free spirit: “The problem of a dead woman is too much property encasing the spirit because a wise buzzard does not care for hard surfaces and difficult entanglements. … A dead woman and her useless flesh that laid so heavy now that it could not move of its own volition has no other volition but to release her spirit. … As a body strives to release its spirit from the stuff of its former existence, it becomes more placid and unfeeling on the outside, but more moving on the inside” (20). Lillian's “free life spirit,” freed from the burden of flesh by the buzzards, remains an essential being. In the description of this process, there are many perspectives—that of the buzzards, of Lillian, of her children, of her sister, Sophia—all perspectives given equal weight in the narrative. The human perspective is not valorized over that of spirit, tree, or animal. Later in the novel, Ernesta, one of the five girls initiated at the end of the novel is taken by her mother, Donna, to meet the “scheming weed,” a twisted plant on the mountainside outside of town, whose spirit is her “spirit mate.” This weed schemes for “a release from her confinement … for an animal who will take an interest in her berries” (68-69). The genius or spirit double of this plant “had for several years been reaching out to find the woman Donna's genius reaching back.” Ultimately, Donna's spirit joins with the spirit of the nightshade; and Ernesta nurtures the plant they become and names it/them “Belladonna.” From experiences such as this one, Ernesta learns to “see on two levels at once” (154), the mode of vision that is critical to a life in Mundane's world.

In part through the presence of the supernatural in these novels, the characters come to inhabit and to value liminal spaces, the spaces between, because they are the material of connection rather than separation; they, like the novels that describe them, are the spaces where many modes of experience meet. “Space ties everything altogether,” says Mother Mundane in Grahn's novel. She teaches the girls to make nets “because in a net the spaces are as important throughout as the cord” (158). Fleur's spirit-inhabited wood at the end of Tracks is such a space, for a moment before its destruction. The Monkey Garden of Mango Street is such a space, a space in which the community's children disappear, a space that they imagine “could hide things for a thousand years.” There Esperanza goes to hide herself from the ugliness of adult sexuality, where she tries to “will my blood to stop,” where she hopes to “turn into the rain, my eyes melt into the ground like two black snails” (90). In The Salt Eaters, the town itself, poised for its spring festival, becomes such a space/place by the end of the novel.

In these novels, separation, self-involvement, isolation are problematic denials of connection. They mean an abandonment of the double or multiple vision crucial to the novel, for a perspective that is monofocal, for a life that is locked into one plane of experience. It is symptomatic of Velma's illness in The Salt Eaters that she covets separateness; she wishes to be the sand sealed in the hour glass. She longs “to be that sealed—sound, taste, air, nothing seeping in. To be that unavailable at last, sealed in and the noise of the world, the garbage locked out” (19). In Mundane's World, too, a refusal of interconnection is the cause of disruption in the society. Part of the explanation of Lillian's death is to be found in her own failures, her daughter learns. Lillian has been “doing her living in one straight line” (180); “she is trapped in a singularity of partial time” (181); “she does not trust interconnection” (180). In Tracks, Pauline, a mixed-blood whose narrative is set up against that of the Chippewa elder Nanapush, also distrusts connection and becomes an isolate. She joins an order of nuns and subjects herself to inordinate physical abuse at the same time trying to disrupt the lives and beliefs of Fleur's family. Pauline's image in the book is of the solitary watcher at the bedsides of the dying. Her laying out of the dead, her seeing them out of the world through Christian offices, seems in direct opposition to Fleur's spirit-inhabited wood and Nanapush's spirit-inhabited narrative.

Their supernatural elements are crucial to establishing these novels, both in form and content, as narratives of multiplicity and connection. They might all be defined as what Gloria Hull in her essay on Salt Eaters calls “a dialectic of connectedness.” Each text proposes interconnection—between beings, between times—as the critical mode of organization—of human life and of narrative. Bambara herself, in an interview, describes The Salt Eaters as a novel that seeks “to bridge the gap, to merge … frames of reference, to fuse … camps” (Tate 16). In the same interview, she says that one basic perception offered by the novel is that “the universe is elegantly simple.” We “blind ourselves and bind ourselves,” she says, to avoid perceiving “the simple realities like the fact that everything is one in this place, on this planet. We and everything here are extensions of the same consciousness, and we are co-creators of that mind, will, thought” (24). This co-creation is clear in Minnie Ransom. Connections across space are the source of Minnie Ransom's and Old Wife's cooperative healing. Minnie heals by making mind and spirit contact with her patients; “she could dance their dance and match their beat and echo their pitch and know their frequency as if her own” (48). She “touch[es] mind to mind from across the room from cross town or the map linked by telephone cables” (48-49). Minnie is like a radio receiver, linked to a web of healing connection, “available to waves from the source” (54).

For Grahn, the basis for this web of connection is conversation and gossip. It is gossip that is the network of the community. “Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” says one of the wise Aunts in Mundane's World: “talk to them [other beings, plants, animals] all the time, everyday, don't take it for granted. Once they lose interest in speaking to us, they will no longer tell us their healing secrets, … and we will fall down a pit of stupidity and loneliness, we will lose our powers, and our intelligence, and rightly so” (179).

One might say, I think, that conversation, or “dialogue,” is not only a key metaphor for interconnectedness but it is also the structural principal of these narratives. Each is a narrative of many voices, of many perspectives. Through Velma's spirit, wandering from her body in time and space, many voices gain utterance in Salt Eaters—the voices of James Lee, her husband, Palma, her sister, and the other women of the Ida B. Wells Club, of Fred Holt the bus driver, and Porter, another bus driver who dies inexplicably, of the watchers in Minnie Ransom's clinic, and of many other inhabitants of the Black community of Claybourne, Georgia. Bambara describes her mode of narration here as “narrator as medium through whom the people unfold their stories, and the town telling as much of its story as can be told in the space of one book” (Tate 32).

In House on Mango Street, Esperanza herself is the narrative medium and the bridge. The narrative itself is a series of vignettes joined by the consciousness of Esperanza, whose role as medium and go-between is signaled by her doubled name: “In English it means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting” (12). The very titles of the vignettes suggest the conversation of voices the narrative represents: “Cathy Queen of Cats”; “Alicia Who Sees Mice”; “Edna's Ruthie”; “Elenita, Cards, Palms, Water”; “Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut and Papaya Juice on Tuesdays.” Esperanza becomes a writer who will tell these stories: “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much” (101). Esperanza can tell these stories because she is the one between, the one who has “gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (102).

In Tracks, Nanapush is the narrative medium. His story, rich with dreams and spirits, is a narrative of connection. Unlike Pauline, the novel's other narrator, he has a specific audience for his story—Fleur's daughter, Lulu, who has just been retrieved from the clutches of a government school and returned to her Chippewa community. The intention of Nanapush's narrative is connection, specifically to make a connection between Lulu and Fleur, her absent mother. Through his evocation of Fleur and her history, he recements the broken connection between mother and daughter, and returns to the daughter the power and multilayered experience of her Chippewa history. Without this story, Lulu would be stuck in the flat present that government bureaucracy has created for her tribe. With the story, the possibility of an alternate vision is at least opened for her.

Mundane's World, too, is a narrative dialogue of continually shifting perspectives, perhaps best epitomized by the final scenes of the five girls' initiation rite in which Mother Mundane cooks the “girls up into women” (169). The five girls dream in a large womblike pot. In dreaming, each enters the perspective of one participant in Lillian's death: one becomes the cliff, another the river, another the wind, another the buzzard, another the lion. “Perspective,” reads the title of one of these sections “is watching yourself from the sky” (180). Through these multiplied perspectives, the death of Lillian, a partial version of which opened the novel, is played over and over until the narrative is complete. But it is only through these several perspectives that the full story can be formed. The initiation rite and the novel end together as the girls, now women, know that “the five of them together would now be lifelong peers, ruling together. … They were woven together in the images and events of each others' dream minds” (190).

Each of these three novels, Grahn's, Bambara's and Cisneros's, ends with a vision of interconnectedness: the weaving together of the five girls at the end of Mundane's World; the healing of Velma's fragmented consciousness, the bursting of her cocoon at the end of The Salt Eaters; the bridging of separateness and the knitting together of the women of the community by Esperanza's writing at the end of Mango Street. These visions can only be achieved by the narrative's resistance of boundaries, separations, and dualisms, by its refusal to “live in a straight line,” by its multiple voices, by its erosion of distinctions like natural/supernatural. Each novel leaves us as readers in a liminal place like the park at the end of Salt Eaters: “Slate rained clean, a blessing. At least twenty-four hours delay, a respite. At least twenty-four hours to try and pull more closely together. … New possibilities in formation, a new configuration to move with” (295).

At the end of Erdrich's Tracks, however, we hover in such a place of possibility for a moment, but we are not allowed to remain. Through the doubled narrative of Erdrich's novel, the understanding represented in Nanapush's tale is set up against two other forces: the fanatical and isolating Christianity of Pauline, and the bureaucratic and dehumanizing encroachment of the government and the logging companies. The government forecloses on the Chippewa who cannot pay the taxes on their land allotments and then sells the allotments to logging companies, whose loggers, wagons, and equipment invade Fleur's land at the end of the novel. Just as Pauline sees in the Indian ways of the spirits, of healing, of dream, knowing only the monotonous darkness of sin, the loggers and the government see in Fleur's land, rich with spirits and family history, only the single possibility of profit.

As the loggers surround her woods, the last left standing, Fleur stages a final act of resistance. She has worked for weeks to saw through every tree so that, at a touch they fall, crushing loggers, wagons and equipment as they fall. But for one moment the “forest was suspended, lightly held. … The powerful throats, the columns of trunks and splayed twigs, all substance was illusion” (223). In this illusion of a forest, Nanapush realizes, all of the ghosts of the wood gather: “Not only the birds and small animals, but the spirits of the western stands had been forced together. The shadows of the trees were crowded with their forms. The twigs spun independently of the wind, vibrating like small voices. I stopped, stood among these trees whose flesh was so much older than ours, and it was then that my relatives and friends took final leave, abandoned me to the living” (221). Among these ghosts, Nanapush knows his wives and family, his dead child and Fleur's; he feels the snows of past winters and smells the ghost of its springs. The moment when the trees fall, marks the end of a worldview that has included all things, natural and supernatural, within the net of essential experience. Fleur leaves, and Nanapush, narrator of the tales of spirits and dreams, abandons his tale and becomes a bureaucrat to try to protect his tribe. And another kind of written narrative now takes over. “Once the bureaucrats sink their barbed pens into the lives of Indians,” says Nanapush at the end of the novel, “the paper starts flying, a blizzard of legal forms, a waste of ink by the gallon, a correspondence to which there is no reason” (225).

But in one essential way the possibilities of Nanapush's narrative are not lost. Since the story has been told to Lulu, Fleur's daughter, its possibilities, its ghosts, become hers. Fleur's history and the history that has persisted around her in the ghost-inhabited forest go on in Lulu. Then Lulu, like Ernesta in Mundane's World, like Esperanza in House on Mango Street, will “see on two levels at once.”

My final example from Tracks makes explicit what, for me, is one more critical function of supernatural elements in contemporary women's texts. Not only does the supernatural emphasize the importance of connection and of a multiple rather than a dualistic view, but it is also closely associated with the telling of stories. The use of the supernatural is one essential way in which these texts recover the past. Through the supernatural, Bambara, Erdrich, Cisneros, and Grahn create texts whose landscapes are rich with the presence of many stories; each ghost is a recovered story, and ghost seeing is story telling. These ghosts, these stories, are claimed and embraced. If we reject and fear these ghosts, which—to return to my original point—most traditional supernatural stories do, if we choose the natural, present, and knowable only, we choose to live in a flat plane, to “live in a straight line,” rather than to inhabit those liminal, ghost-filled spaces of possibility that are the worlds of these texts.


  1. This idea has been central to much feminist analysis from Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex to more recent works like bell hooks's Feminist Theory From Margin to Center and Audre Lorde's Sister/Outsider.

  2. Many other novels by contemporary women writers of color contain supernatural elements and might have been included in this essay. Among them, Toni Morrison's Beloved and Tar Baby; Gloria Naylor's Mama Day; Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow.

  3. In her acknowledgments Grahn mentions particularly both Audre Lorde for Black Unicorn, a volume of poetry permeated with Yoruba mythology, and Paula Gunn Allen for her research and thinking on Native American women in The Sacred Hoop. Another Mother Tongue is dedicated to, among others, “Paula Gunn Allen who gave me a place to stand on ‘the other side’ so I could have the mirror image necessary for true vision.”

Works Cited

Bambara, Toni Cade. The Salt Eaters. New York: Random House, 1980.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Houston: Arte Publico, 1984.

Duplessis, Rachel Blau. “For the Etruscans.” The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. London: Pantheon 1985.

Erdrich, Louise. Tracks. New York: Holt, 1988.

Grahn, Judy. Another Mother Tongue: Gay Words, Gay Worlds. Boston: Beacon, 1984.

———. Mundane's World. Trumansburg, NY: Crossings, 1988.

Tate, Claudia, ed. Black Women Writers at Work. New York: Continuum, 1984.

Principal Works

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Bad Boys (poetry) 1980

The House on Mango Street (novel) 1984

The Rodrigo Poems (poetry) 1985

My Wicked, Wicked Ways (poetry) 1987

Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (short stories) 1991

Hairs: Pelitos (juvenilia) 1994

Loose Woman: Poems (poetry) 1994

Caramelo (novel) 2002

Dianne Klein (essay date September 1992)

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SOURCE: Klein, Dianne. “Coming of Age in Novels by Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros.” English Journal 81, no. 5 (September 1992): 21-6.

[In the following essay, Klein examines two novels by Chicano/a writers that represent the Chicano/a coming-of-age experience and the search for personal identity: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, and Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.]

At birth, each person begins a search to know the world and others, to answer the age-old question, “Who am I?” This search for knowledge, for truth, and for personal identity is written about in autobiographies and in bildungsroman fiction. For years, though, the canon of United States literature has included predominantly the coming-of-age stories of white, heterosexual males. Where are the stories of the others—the women, the African Americans, the Asian Americans, the Hispanics, the gay males and lesbians? What differences and similarities would we find in their bildungsromans? Many writers, silenced before, are now finding the strengths, the voices, and the market for publication to tell their stories.

Chicano/a writers, like African Americans, Asian Americans, and others, are being heard; in autobiography and in fiction, they are telling their coming-of-age stories. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (1972) and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1989) are two such Chicano/a works of fiction. In these texts, Anaya and Cisneros show the forces—social and cultural—that shape and define their characters. These two novels, separated by about a generation, one about the male experience, one about the female; one rural, one urban; one mythopoetic and one dialectic, both show the struggle of the Chicano/a people to find identities that are true to themselves as individuals and artists but that do not betray their culture and their people.

This is no mean feat, considering that Anglos did not teach them to value their cultural heritage and experiences, that they were shown no Chicano/a role models, that, in fact, they were often discouraged from writing. The struggle to overcome these barriers may, of course, be different for different Chicano/a writers, but for these two, there are common threads. Both make similar comments about their roots. Anaya says that Chicano/a writers

came from poor families … but we were rich with love and culture and a sense of sharing and imagination. We had to face a school system that very often told us we couldn't write. It did not teach us our own works and we had nothing to emulate.

(Bruce-Novoa 1980, 198)

Cisneros says that as a writer growing up without models of Chicano/a literature, she felt impoverished with nothing of personal merit to say.

As a poor person growing up in a society where the class norm was superimposed on a tv screen, I couldn't understand why our home wasn't all green lawn and white wood. … I rejected what was at hand and emulated the voices of the poets … big, male voices … all wrong for me … it seems crazy, but … I had never felt my home, family, and neighborhood unique or worthy of writing about.

(1987a, 72)

Even though neither had Chicano/a literature to read as a child, both cite “reading voraciously” as a major factor in becoming writers. Anaya remembers Miss Pansy, the librarian who kept him supplied with books on Saturday afternoons which

disappeared as the time of day dissolved into the time of distant worlds. … I took the time to read. … [T]hose of you who have felt the same exhilaration … will know about what I'm speaking.

(1983, 306)

Anaya spent much time as well playing with friends, but Cisneros, being an only daughter in a family of six sons, was often lonely. She read, in part, to escape her loneliness. Cisneros reflects that her aloneness “was good for a would-be writer—it allowed … time to think … to imagine … to read and prepare” (1990, 256). Cisneros in “Notes to a Young(er) Writer” explains that her reading was an important “first step.” She says she left chores undone as she was “reading and reading, nurturing myself with books like vitamins” (1987b, 74). Perhaps these experiences by Anaya and Cisneros nurtured their creation of protagonists who, like themselves, had no models—but were possessed by destiny, by inclination, and by courage to be artists—writers who would spin Chicano/a stories.

Bless Me, Ultima and The House on Mango Street are strong coming-of-age stories containing many of the elements of the traditional bildungsroman as well as other features that place them firmly in the Chicano/a tradition. The protagonists come of age by going through painful rites of passage, by performing heroic feats or passing tests with the help of mentors, by surviving symbolic descents into hell, and finally by reaching a new level of consciousness—the protagonists have changed and have moved from initial innocence to knowledge, from childhood to adolescence. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima closely follows the traditional male bildungsroman. Its protagonist is the child, Antonio Márez; the novel begins when he says, “Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven” (1). Antonio, the first-person narrator, travels an almost classical mythic road, moving chronologically through his coming of age.

Cisneros' House on Mango Street is also narrated by a child protagonist. Esperanza, the protagonist, tells about her life on Mango Street; we see her family, friends, and community, their daily troubles and concerns. By the end of the story, she has gained understanding about both herself and her community/culture. But, unlike Anaya's chronological novel, The House on Mango Street is the story of growing awareness which comes in fits and starts, a series of almost epiphanic narrations mirrored in a structure that is neither linear nor traditional, a hybrid of fictive and poetic form, more like an impressionistic painting where the subject isn't clear until the viewer moves back a bit and views the whole. Esperanza tells her story in a series of forty-four, individually titled vignettes. Ellen McCracken believes that this bildungsroman, which she prefers to label a “collection” rather than a novel, “roots the individual self in the broader socio-political reality of the Chicano/a community” (1989, 64).

The settings of these two novels are very different—one essentially rural and the other urban—but each functions symbolically in the character's childhood and developing consciousness. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio lives on the edge of the llano, a wide open prairie, a place where his father's anarchic and noisy relatives and ancestors roamed as cowboys. The restlessness of his forebears is in Antonio's blood, and from the llano he learns about the wild forces of nature, herb lore, and the pagan awesomeness of the natural world. Through this landscape runs the river, heavily endowed with significance. Anaya has said that as a child in Santa Rosa, he spent much time by the river, his “numinous” place.

I was haunted by the soul of the river. … [T]hat presence … touched my primal memory and allowed me to discover the river gods and the other essential symbols which were to become so important to my writing.

(1977, 40)

But there are polarities even in the landscape in Bless Me, Ultima, for Antonio lives close to town, and he must try to learn the lessons of his schooling and the teachings of the Catholic Church. He must also try to understand the sometimes violent, sometimes despairing lives and compulsions of the people who live in the town. And there is yet a third place of importance to Antonio, El Puerto de Luna, the village of his mother, where the people are rooted, entrenched in agriculture and the land, moving quietly through life under the cycles of the moon. All these landscapes claim Antonio as a child, and he must decide upon their importance and allow or disallow their influences as he grows into adulthood.

For Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, the notion of “house”—or a space of her own—is critical to her coming of age as a mature person and artist. Ramón Saldívar says that this novel “emphasizes the crucial roles of racial and material as well as ideological conditions of oppression” (1990, 182). At the beginning of the novel, Esperanza explains how her parents talk about moving into a “real” house that “would have running water and pipes that worked” (Cisneros 1989, 4). Instead she lives in a run-down flat and is made to feel embarrassed and humiliated because of it. One day while she is playing outside, a nun from her school walks by and stops to talk to her.

Where do you live? she asked.

There, I said pointing to the third floor.

You live there?

There. I had to look where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed in the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing.


Later in the novel, in a similar occurrence, a nun assumes that Esperanza lives in an even worse poverty-stricken area than, in fact, is the case. Julián Olivares says thus the “house and narrator become identified as one, thereby revealing an ideological perspective of poverty and shame” (1988, 162-63). Esperanza desires a space of her own, a real home with warmth and comfort and security, a home she wouldn't be ashamed of. For Esperanza, the house is also a necessity; echoing Virginia Woolf, she needs “A House of My Own” in order to create, a “house quiet as snow … clean as paper before the poem” (Cisneros 1989, 108).

Other houses on Mango Street do not live up to Esperanza's desires either, for they are houses that “imprison” women. Many vignettes illustrate this. There is the story of Marin who always has to babysit for her aunt; when her aunt returns from work, she may stay out front but not go anywhere else. There is also the story of Rafaela whose husband locks her indoors when he goes off to play dominoes. He wishes to protect his woman, his “possession,” since Rafaela is “too beautiful to look at” (79). And there is Sally whose father “says to be this beautiful is trouble. … [H]e remembers his sisters and is sad. Then she can't go out” (81). Sally marries, even before eighth grade, in order to escape the confinement and abuse of her father's house, but in the vignette, “Linoleum Roses,” we see her dominated as well in the house of her husband.

She is happy. … except he won't let her talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window. …

She sits home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission.


Esperanza sees, as Olivares notes, that “the woman's place is one of domestic confinement, not one of liberation and choice” (163). And so, slowly, cumulatively, stroke by stroke, and story by story, Esperanza comes to realize that she must leave Mango Street so that she will not be entrapped by poverty and shame or imprisoned by patriarchy.

Another element of the bildungsroman is the appearance of a mentor who helps guide the protagonist. These coming-of-age novels both feature guides although they differ greatly in the two texts. In Bless Me, Ultima, we are introduced to Antonio's mentor, Ultima, in the very first line. Ultima, who comes to live with Antonio's family is a wise woman, called a curandera. She is also a midwife, knowledgeable in healing and herb lore, and she possesses other, seemingly magic, shaman-like qualities: an owl “familiar” and the power to deal with the evil of witches (brujas). Antonio takes to her from the beginning. He says,

I was happy with Ultima. … [S]he taught me the names of plants and flowers … of birds and animals; but most important, I learned from her that there was beauty. … [M]y soul grew under her careful guidance.


Beset by tensions and confusion in his world, Antonio turns increasingly to her.

In The House on Mango Street there is an ironic twist to the guidance of mentors, for often Esperanza is guided by examples of women she does not want to emulate, such as Sally and Rafaela. Esperanza's other mentors are very different from Ultima, but there are several role models who sometimes give her advice. They nurture her writing talent, show her ways to escape the bonds of patriarchy, and remind her of her cultural and communal responsibilities. Minerva is a young woman who, despite being married to an abusive husband, writes poems and lets Esperanza read them. She also reads Esperanza's writing. Aunt Lupe, dying of a wasting illness, urges Esperanza to keep writing and counsels her that this will be her freedom. Alicia, who appears in two stories, is, perhaps, the best role model. While she must keep house for her father, she still studies at the university so she won't be trapped. Alicia also reminds Esperanza that Esperanza is Mango Street and will one day return. McCracken says that Alicia fights “what patriarchy expects of her” and

at the same time represents a clear-sighted, non-mystified vision of the barrio. … [S]he embodies both the antipatriarchal themes and the social obligation to return to one's ethnic community.


The story, “Three Sisters,” is a kind of subversive fairytale. Esperanza attends the wake of her friends' baby sister and is suddenly confronted by three mysterious old women. These women examine Esperanza's hands, tell her to make a wish, and advise, “When you leave, you must remember always to come back. … [Y]ou can't forget who you are. … [C]ome back for the ones who cannot leave as easily as you” (Cisneros 1989, 105). They direct her to remember her responsibilities to her community. In this bildungsroman, Esperanza is reminded consistently that the search for self involves more than mere personal satisfaction. All of these women offer guidance to help Esperanza in her coming of age.

The protagonists must endure other rites of passage to reach full personhood and understanding. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is deeply mythic. Part of Antonio's understanding comes from a series of ten dreams that Vernon Lattin believes are “just as important as Antonio's waking life. … [These] Jungian dreams help Antonio across the thresholds of transformation” (1979, 631). Antonio's first dream, for example, helps him with the anxiety he feels about the conflicting expectations that his father's and mother's families have for him. The dream is about his birth, and in it both families are at odds, battling with one another for control of Antonio's future. When the battle becomes so furious that guns are drawn, Ultima steps in and cries that only she will know his destiny. Antonio learns from this dream that he must not be destroyed by guilt or by the expectations of either family, but with Ultima he must find his one way in the world.

Near the end of the novel, Antonio experiences a terrifying, apocalyptic dream after witnessing the violent murder of Narcisco, who was coming to warn Ultima of danger. In the dream, Antonio sees his own death, and the blasphemous deaths of Ultima and the golden carp, symbol of the naturalistic, pagan world. All die and everything is destroyed; yet at the end it is decided that people will survive in “new form. … [There is] a new sun to shine its good light upon a new earth” (168). David Carrasco, who believes that Bless Me, Ultima can be read as a “religious text,” says that the message Antonio learns is “the pattern of death and rebirth, decay and regeneration” and that Antonio is consciously aware that the “integration of his diverse and conflicting elements and the cultivation of sacred forces within a human being can lead to a life full of blessings” (1982, 218).

Antonio endures rites of passage in his waking life as well: he sees the brutality of his schoolmates towards those who are different; he watches two people, Lupito and Narcisco, shot to death; he is with Ultima when she dies. Perhaps his descent into darkness, a traditional rite of passage, occurs when he goes with Ultima to help cure his Uncle Lucas, who is desperately ill because of an evil spell cast by the witch-like Tenorio sisters. Ultima battles this spell, using Antonio as a kind of medium to expel the evil. He is very sick, but both he and his uncle vomit poisonous bile and recover. In the middle of the novel, he realizes what Ultima revealed earlier in a dream: “The waters are one, Antonio. … [Y]ou have been seeing only parts … and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (113). And so, Antonio comes of age, having gone beyond the dualities in his life.

Esperanza's rites of passage speak not through myth and dreams, but through the political realities of Mango Street. She faces pain and experiences violence in a very different way. Her major loss of innocence has to do with gender and with being sexually appropriated by men. In the vignette, “The Family of Little Feet,” Esperanza and her friends don high heels and strut confidently down the street. They are pleased at first with their long legs and grown-up demeanors, then frightened as they are leered at, yelled to, threatened, and solicited. McCracken says, “Cisneros proscribes a romantic or exotic reading of the dress-up episode, focusing instead on the girls' discovery of the threatening nature of male sexual power” (67).

Perhaps Esperanza's “descent into darkness” occurs in the story “Red Clowns.” Unlike the traditional bildungsroman, the knowledge with which she emerges is not that of regeneration, but of painful knowledge, the knowledge of betrayal and physical violation. In this story, she is waiting for Sally, who is off on a romantic liaison. Esperanza, all alone, is grabbed and raped. Afterward, she says, “Sally, make him stop. I couldn't make them go away. I couldn't do anything but cry. I don't remember. It was dark. … [P]lease don't make me tell it all” (Cisneros 1989, 100). In this story, Esperanza is also angry and calls Sally “a liar” because through books and magazines and the talk of women she has been led to believe the myth of romantic love. María Herrera-Sobek calls this story a “diatribe” that is directed not only at Sally,

but at the community of women in a conspiracy of silence … silence in not denouncing the “real” facts of life about sex and its negative aspects in violent sexual encounters, and complicity in romanticizing and idealizing unrealistic sexual relations.


Esperanza, triply marginalized by race, class, and gender, has lost her innocence. Yet, despite this pain and violation, she manages to tell her story. She has come of age, and she understands that in the future she must serve both herself and her community.

I will say goodbye to Mango. … Friends and neighbors will say, what happened to that Esperanza? … They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out.

(Cisneros 1989, 110)

And so, these two novels are every bit as strong, as literary, and as meaningful as the bildungsromans traditionally read in United States-literature classes. At the same time, they take different paths, preventing a single or stereotyped view of the Chicano/a coming-of-age experience. Bless Me, Ultima celebrates a rich cultural past and heritage, taking joy in myth and in the spiritual quest. The House on Mango Street, instead, celebrates the search for the real self and cultural responsibility in the face of different oppressions. Yet both texts show that Chicano/a literature has come of age; they announce “I am.” That announcement should not go unheard.

Works Cited

Anaya, Rudolfo A. 1983. “In Commemoration: One Million Volumes.” American Libraries 14.5 (May): 304-07.

———. 1977. “A Writer Discusses His Craft.” The CEA Critic 40 (Nov.): 39-43.

———. 1972. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley, CA: Tonatiuh Quinto Sol International Publishers.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. 1980. Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin: U of Texas P.

Carrasco, David. 1982. “A Perspective for a Study of Religious Dimensions in Chicano Experience: Bless Me, Ultima as a Religious Text.” Aztlan 13 (Spring/Fall): 195-221.

Cisneros, Sandra. 1990. “Only Daughter.” Glamour (Nov.): 256, 285.

———. 1989. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage.

———. 1987a. “From a Writer's Notebook: Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession.” The Americas Review 15.1 (Spring): 69-73.

———. 1987b. “Notes to a Young(er) Writer.” The Americas Review 15.1 (Spring): 74-76.

Herrera-Sobek, María. 1988. “The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction.” The Americas Review 15.3-4 (Fall-Winter): 17-82.

Lattin, Vernon E. 1979. “The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction.” American Literature 50.4 (Jan.): 625-40.

McCracken, Ellen. 1989. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence.” Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings. Ed. Asunción Horno-Delgado et al. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P. 62-71.

Olivares, Julián. 1988. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space.” Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes. Houston, TX: Arte Publico P. 160-69.

Saldívar, Ramón. 1990. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P.

Further Reading

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Cisneros, Sandra, Feroza Jussawalla, and Reed Way Dasenbrock. “Sandra Cisneros.” In Writing Women's Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by Twentieth-Century American Women Writers, edited by Susan Cahill, pp. 459-68. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

Cisneros discusses political, economic, and social concerns, racial issues, and her literary influences.


Cisneros, Sandra, and Gayle Elliot. “An Interview with Sandra Cisneros.” Missouri Review 25, no. 1 (2002): 95-109.

Cisneros explains her political and social motivations, her use of short story and full novel forms, and the importance and power of language.

Curiel, Barbara Brinson. “The General's Pants: A Chicana Feminist (re)Vision of the Mexican Revolution in Sandra Cisneros's ‘Eyes of Zapata’.” Western American Literature 35, no. 4 (winter 2001): 403-27.

Examines Cisneros's demythologizing of Emiliano Zapata by retelling history through the eyes of Ines, his lover. Through this retelling, Cisneros provides a voice to the many voiceless and almost anonymous women throughout history.

———. “Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.” In Reading U.S. Latina Writers: Remapping American Literature, edited by Alvina E. Quitana, pp. 51-60. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Discusses the major themes in the stories in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, and analyzes Cisneros's dual role as feminist writer and Latina/o culturist.

Doyle, Jacqueline. “Haunting the Borderlands: La Llorona in Sandra Cisneros's ‘Woman Hollering Creek’.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 16, no. 1 (15 May 1996): 53-70.

Chronicles the struggles of Cleófilas, the protagonist in the short story “Woman Hollering Creek.” Cleófilas attempts to control her destiny in a male-dominated society; she is haunted by and grateful to the women in history who shaped her life and have fought within and against the patriarchal system.

Ganz, Robin. “Sandra Cisneros: Border Crossings and Beyond.” MELUS 19, no. 1 (spring 1994): 19-29.

Provides biographical information about Cisneros and examines her body of work, noting its poetic prose, medley of narrative voices, and representation of marginalized and silenced people.

Gonzales, Maria. “Love and Conflict: Mexican American Women Writers as Daughters.” In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, pp. 153-69. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1996.

Asserts that Cisneros in The House on Mango Street transforms female archetypes from traditional Latin-American mythology to create more positive representations of the mother-daughter relationship.

González, Myrna-Yamil. “Female Voices in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.” In U.S. Latino Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and Teachers, edited by Harold Augenbraum and Margarite Fernández Olmos, pp. 101-11. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Provides discussion of Esperanza's feminist empowerment in The House on Mango Street, examining her taking control of language, home, and her body in the book.

Griffin, Susan E. “Resistance and Reinvention in Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 85-96. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.

Provides discussion of the steps that the female protagonists in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories must take in order to gain control over their lives and destinies.

Herrera-Sobek, Maria. “The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction.” Americas Review 15, no. 3-4 (fall-winter 1987): 171-81.

Details the use of rape scenes in contemporary Chicana literature as a theme that reinforces the lack of power women experience in a male-dominated society.

Karafilis, Maria. “Crossing the Borders of Genre: Revisions of the Bildungsroman in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street and Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John.Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 31, no. 2 (winter 1998): 63-78.

Examines The House on Mango Street and Annie John, by Jamaica Kincaid, as transformations of the traditional Bildungsroman from the perspective of women of color.

Madsen, Deborah L. “Sandra Cisneros.” In Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, pp. 105-34. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.

Exploration of Cisneros's dual marginality as a Latin female, examines her self-determination and control over the physical, sexual and social aspects of her life, and highlights the autobiographical elements in Cisneros's poetry and fiction.

McCracken, Ellen. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence.” In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, pp. 62-71. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

A study of the instances of physical, sexual, and mental abuse committed against women in the male-dominated society depicted in The House on Mango Street. McCracken probes the effects these abuses have on Esperanza, the protagonist, and questions the apparent dearth of positive role models for her.

Rangil, Viviana. “Pro-Claiming a Space: The Poetry of Sandra Cisneros and Judith Ortiz Cofer.” MultiCultural Review 9, no. 3 (September 2000): 48-51.

Analyzes the dual marginality of Latinas, and uses examples of poetry by Cisneros and Ortiz Cofer to highlight the difficulties faced by women who must fight for both cultural and sexual identity.

Rojas, Maythee G. “Cisneros's ‘Terrible’ Women: Recuperating the Erotic as a Feminist Source in “Never Marry a Mexican’ and ‘Eyes of Zapata’.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 20, no. 3 (1999): 135-57.

Studies Cisneros's female protagonists' physical and sexual journeys from male receptacles and possessed objects to self-directed, non-subordinate bodies, and explores the mental and spiritual changes that accompany these efforts.

Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. “Mujeres en Lucha/Mujeres de Fuerza: Women in Struggle/Women of Strength in Sandra Cisneros's Border Narratives.” In Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature, pp. 81-123. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Illuminates the many borders that appear in Cisneros's poems and short stories, such as physical boundaries, economical chasms, and gender-based demarcations—and her protagonists' attempts to not only cross, but erase these borders.

de Valdes, Maria Elena. “In Search of Identity in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.Canadian Review of American Studies 23, no. 1 (fall 1992): 55-72.

Examines the connecting themes that run throughout the stories in The House on Mango Street, demonstrates the poetic quality of Cisneros's writing, and chronicles the protagonist's development toward self-possession.

Wyatt, Jean. “On Not Being La Malinche: Border Negotiations of Gender in Sandra Cisneros's ‘Never Marry a Mexican’ and ‘Woman Hollering Creek’.” Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 14, no. 2 (fall 1995): 243-71.

Stresses Cisneros's protagonists' efforts to break away from the traditional stereotypical portraits of Mexican woman—typically either as mother/wife or manipulator/whore. Wyatt asserts that the characters attempt to claim sexuality, freedom, and personal space without being labeled or defined by men.

Yarbo-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective.” Americas Review 15, no. 3-4 (fall-winter 1987): 139-45.

Illustrates the importance of writing as an instrument for liberation for Chicanas, providing a voice for previously silenced and marginalized women.

Additional coverage of Cisneros's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 9; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 64; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 69, 118; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 122, 152; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 52; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 32; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1.

Maria Elena de Valdes (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: Valdes, Maria Elena de. “The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.” In Gender, Self, and Society: Proceedings of the IV International Conference on the Hispanic Cultures of the United States, edited by Renate von Bardeleben, pp. 287-95. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

[In the following essay, Valdes provides an overview of critical responses to The House on Mango Street, based on reviews published in three different sets of sources: mainstream newspapers, academic journals, and the ethnic-oriented periodicals. Valdes examines the intersection of the “symbolic reader” and the “implied reader” in Cisneros's text.]

In 1984 a young Chicana writer from Chicago published The House on Mango Street, a post-modern novel which weaves a tapestry of apparently isolated vignettes into a poetic unity. The public response from readers has been predictably of three kinds: 1) reviews in the daily press, especially in the Southwest, where Cisneros's publishers are located (Arte Público of Houston, Texas), 2) some academic commentators, especially those concerned with women's writing, and 3) the ethnic press. All three have clear ideological commitments which are the focal means of commentary. What was not predictable when the book appeared was that the public response was largely irrelevant to the success of the text. The success of this novel is based on a unique formal configuration that inserts the symbolic addressee—las mujeres—into the reading experience. Sandra Cisneros has written a novel with a symbolic reader who is her sister in oppression, but in order to address her she has had to develop an implied reading strategy for reader participation.

In this paper I plan to study the reader reception of The House on Mango Street in four parts: 1) a review of public response, 2) an analysis of Cisneros's symbolic reader, i.e. las mujeres, 3) the strategy of implied reading and reader participation, and 4) the intersection of symbolic reader and implied reading.

The published response to The House on Mango Street has followed traditional patterns. In the years 1984 and 1985 newspaper reviews appeared, for the most part brief impressions of the book, often hampered by the lack of literary context in which the writers were reporting. In 1986 and 1987 academic response began, stressing the significance of the generic innovation and, in general, introducing this new author through careful and measured description. In 1988 and 1989 there were interpretive essays probing into the feminist and cultural depth of the poetic discourse, and by 1990 the novel has been treated within the context of scholarly books on culture and literature. In the documentation to this essay I list all of the materials I am aware of, but for purposes of this presentation I shall only comment briefly on the trajectories of critical response. In total, I shall review thirty publications including nine by Sandra Cisneros herself.

In June 1984 Bonnie Britt writing in the Houston Chronicle comments that these are stories expressing the reality of voiceless women, that the narrator is the embodiment of female possibility, a metaphor for a woman who takes charge of her own life. Jewelle Gomez writes in Hurricane Alice in the summer of 1984 that Cisneros has produced a series of prose poems which explore the bifurcated world of Hispanic women today. Bryce Milligan writing in the San Antonio Express-News in October 1984 remarks that Mango Street must be read as a real place where real people grow up and not some ethereal place of the imagination. José David Saldívar reviews the book in MELUS and comments that above all the prose evokes an extraordinarily beautiful and moving sense of identity of Esperanza Cordero, the narrator, and at the same time expresses feminist concerns through a powerful socially symbolic imagination. By far the worst review written to date is Cecilia Cota-Robles Suarez's brief commentary in Lector which characterizes the novel as “a valuable, if not extraordinary, addition to Hispanic children's literature.” This novel reminds the reviewer of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; one cannot but ask whether the reviewer read the book.

The year 1985 added more reviews and of special significance two autobiographical essays by Cisneros in response to some of the questions about her novel and its purported autobiographical content. Roy Gomez writes in VíAztlán (San Antonio) that this novel brings home the emerging consciousness of the modern Chicana and sees as the core of the novel a struggle to redefine her existence. In general, this reviewer is sensitive to the richness of Cisneros's text, but there are some unfortunate statements that will become focal points of controversy. Roy Gomez writes: “Esperanza's dream of a spacious home is a metaphor for independence” (21). The emphasis on size brings in questions of affluence, the inner city/outer city, etc., all of which are not the material of the novel. Esperanza never stresses the size of her house, but rather her identity with it. Quite openly this is a metaphorical extension of Virginia Woolf's room of one's own. The other, even more unfortunate statement opens the next paragraph: “Men, for Esperanza, represent the freedom denied women” (21). The unequivocal feminist political statement of the novel is wholly lost in the inaccurate use of the word “represent.” Men have freedom, women do not, that is the point. If there is any representation of freedom in the novel, it is that of the three sisters, “las comadres,” who reveal to her that she can find freedom through her writing. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo write a brief comparison of Cisneros's novel and Tomás Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra. Noteworthy is their emphasis on what they consider Cisneros's use of myth in the development of her coming-of-age novel.

Of special significance for the public dialogue about this novel were two autobiographical essays presented and published by Sandra Cisneros. The first was published in 1985 by Wolfgang Binder in the book Partial Autobiographies. Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets, from which I quote the following passage where Sandra Cisneros states:

I have been rather reflective of late. I have been wondering how I fit into the schemata of things. I, and writers like Gary Soto and Lorna Dee Cervantes and Alberto Ríos, are all new products, new voices, technicians from that new school of Chicano poetry. And I wonder what we are inheriting and what we are losing. It frightens me at times. I know I do not want to become so anonymous that I am American. I want to retain my distinctiveness and yet we are inheritors of our new speech, products of our educations. I would hope that our experiments would not take us too far from that which makes us what we are.


The other essay is “My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writer's Struggle with Good and Evil or las hijas de la mala vida” and was delivered at the MLA Convention in Chicago in 1985.

1986 brought a new array of reviews. Some poor, some mediocre and at least two quite revealing of the social pressures of the Chicanos in the United States. David Medina quotes Kanellos, the publisher of the book, that The House on Mango Street is not a feminist protest, “it is a celebration of femininity and the maternal” (14). Juan Rodríguez reports in the Austin Chronicle that Cisneros's novel expresses the traditional ideology of the American Dream, a large house in the suburbs and being away from the dirt and dirty of the barrio is happiness. He hammers away that Esperanza seeks “to become more Anglicized,” to lose her ethnic identity. This review is a good example of a reviewer reading into the text, purportedly under review, the fears and anxieties that plague the reviewer at the expense of the text. The social conditions depicted in the novel are deplorable to all who live there but especially to the women; Esperanza would deny herself and Chicana women if she did not break out of the prison that patriarchy imposes. Kimberley Snow comments in the Santa Barbara News-Press that this is an extraordinary little work that reveals profound wisdom of the emerging consciousness of a young girl coming of age in the barrio. Finally, also in 1986, the only review published in Mexico was the commentary written by Elena Urrutia in the feminist journal fem.; it is an incisive descriptive review.

In 1987 Cisneros published five articles which added considerably to the discussion of the ideological context of a Chicana feminist poet and novelist. An interview given to Beatriz Badikian added some insight into Cisneros's attention to the development of her craft as a writer, her concern with the rhythms of speech transferred to the written text. This year the dean of Chicano critics, Luis Leal, wrote a review article which underscored the text's portrayal of Chicano life. Julián Olivares's interpretive essay of 1987 was published in the book Chicano Creativity and Criticism. This commentary draws extensively on Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space in examining Cisneros's text. Fundamentally, he sees the house as a metaphor for the house of fiction. This careful and insightful study, however, overlooks the essential factor that this is a woman's point of view written by a woman and dedicated to other women. This oversight is partially overcome by Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano's powerful if all too short study in what is a review of current trends in Chicana literature. The co-editor of the volume, María Herrera-Sobek adds a brief but deeply perceptive commentary on Esperanza's loss of innocence in “The Red Clowns.” Esperanza's pained and disillusioned protest is aimed “not only at Sally the silent interlocutor but at the community of women” (178); this is the narrative addressee or symbolic reader that hovers over the entire text.

Heiner Bus's essay of 1988 on Chicano literature of memory marks a turning point in Cisneros's criticism, moving as it does into the richer context of North American literature and out of the limited area of ethnic writing.

1989 and 1990 criticism on The House on Mango Street no longer has to explain the barrio or the author's relation to it or what it means to be a Chicana writer. The time of these preliminary concerns has passed and critics have now come to terms with the creative power of the text. Ellen McCracken's study, “The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence,” forcefully engages the ideological domination over the literary canon, gives a fine reading of the text and concludes with a careful point by point rebuttal of the macho-Chicano attitude of Gutiérrez-Revuelta (1986). Her feminist critical analysis of the scenes of sexual reification that Esperanza rejects, bring out the strength and power of Cisneros's Esperanza as a person who attains her identity and individuality because of and through her community. Also from 1989 is Renato Rosaldo's book, Culture and Truth. Chapter seven, “Changing Chicano Narratives,” dedicates five pages to The House. Here there is a clear recognition of the changes in Chicano narratives that novels like this one have produced: “In trying new narrative forms, Cisneros has developed a fresh vision of self and society; she has opened an alternative cultural space, a heterogeneous world, within which her protagonists no longer act as ‘unified subjects,’ yet remain confident of their identities” (165-66).

In 1990 Marcienne Rocard's “The House Theme in Chicana Literature: A New Sense of Place” includes Cisneros's novel in what this critic sees as the Chicana movement of liberation through self expression. Finally, the last critical work on The House that I have received is Ramón Saldívar's six-page commentary in his book Chicano Narrative. In this perceptive commentary Saldívar recognizes Esperanza's “A House of My Own” as a feminist plea for a site of poetic self-creation. He concludes: “Cisneros helps create an alternate space for the Chicana subject, one that is not subjected by the geometrical homogeneity of contemporary patriarchal culture” (186).

In all of this commentary some academic critics have begun to examine the discursive textual relation between symbolic reader and the implied reading. The articles by McCracken and Yarbro-Bejarano are notable in that they recognize the powerful use of social paradigm and symbolism.

Cisneros's novel is dedicated to las mujeres, its focalizer is a preadolescent girl who is intrigued by the life that awaits her as a Mexican-American woman in Chicago, a situation not unlike that of the author herself a short fifteen years before. The symbolic reader we shall construct is based on sociocultural factors which reflect the position of a reader who is outside the text, but is addressed by the text. Let us call this symbolic reader a vertical axis for the making of the text. This social entity brings together both the social structures and dialogical constructs of everyday life which come into the text as the sociohistorical conditions for the writing itself.

But Cisneros's novel is also an explicit composition. The author has designed, redesigned, written and rewritten the discursive system of the text. Names, places and situations have been organized into a specific structure. Emplotment has worked at every level of configuration as the writer has striven to give the right balance of determinate and indeterminate features. The pre-established paths of the symbolic reader resist the unique realization of the writer. Therefore the resistance to individuality has its own peculiar struggle on this horizontal axis of the implied reading plan. The writer seeks to convey a personal sense of truth to her readers; the more intimate, personal and singular the writing becomes, the more difficult it will be to achieve the desired level of communication. The implied reading plan is therefore a concept, primarily a strategy, to bring about a degree of communication of the author's personal vision. It is at the intersection between sociohistoric factors and the emplotment of the text that we find a transformation of observable reality into a metaphorical truth that each reader must make for herself. The complexity of the elements in play—sociohistoric, ideological codes, internal textual codes and the power of figurative realization in the reader—produce of necessity a polysemy of the fictional text.

Let us take up each of these axes of figuration in turn and then conclude with an assessment of the interaction which is the reading experience. The concept of Cisneros's symbolic reader is quite specifically Chicano women, their identity and their status in society. I want to emphasize that I am not dealing with the personal intentions of the woman Sandra Cisneros, but rather with her avowed symbolic reader and its sociohistorical context. This is a concept I have adopted from the semanalysis of Julia Kristeva. In this first category of the sociohistoric subject chosen by the author, I am dealing with ungrammaticalized enunciation, the saying, thought, word and gesture not yet formulated into a coherent structure, not yet a discourse, but that which is about to become a structure through the deliberate elaboration of discourse. When this happens we will be dealing with composition or the implied reading plan. But let me return to the symbolic reader. This is the signifying process that actualizes experience in an apparently incoherent and fragmented way. Both the author and all of her readers share in this chaotic jumble of thoughts, fears, joys and the memory of pain. The subject itself, Chicano women, plunges us into this storm of conflicting responses.

There are four semic categories which will help us establish the scope of the symbolic reader: space, time, others, and self (see table 1). Each of these has a number of specific words and phrases that are used to bring the specific context into play. All of these signs have both determinate and indeterminate meanings which lead the reader into generalized areas of thought.

The implied reading plan is another axis: altogether this is a strategy for reader response that is part craft and part inspiration. It is the age-old plan of every writer to reach her readers. This plan of action brings to bear devices, techniques, as well as ideas and symbols; it is the reign of intertextuality as writers use the discursive achievements of other writers.

These two states of enunciation, one social and not clearly articulated, the other literary and highly articulated, come together in the reading experience by which the signifying system is generated. The implied reading plan of this novel is a strategy of weaving rather than of telling a tale. The axis of the modeling system is a picture that must be woven, thread by thread, a tapestry of one year in the life of a young Chicana. The development is not that of the traditional plot which unfolds the action of the protagonist in her world. The symbolic codes that operate do so within each of the forty-four narrative reflections to create self-contained images of alienation, poverty, wife-beating and rejection. Most of the images are closed, only those of the narrator's introspection remain open. Each of the closed images adds another figure to the tapestry of the paradox of not belonging where you belong. They present the lives and impoverished existence of the narrator's mother, her sister Nenny, and Cathy, Blanca, Alicia, Lucy, Rachael, Marin, Edna, Rosa Vargas, Elenita, Ruthie, Lois, Mamacita, Rafaela, Sally and Minerva. The open-ended reflections are the narrator's search for an answer to the enigma: how can she be free of Mango Street and the house that is not hers and yet belong as she must to that house and that street. The open-ended entries come together only slowly as the tapestry takes shape, for each of the closed figures are also threads of the larger background figure which is the narrator herself. The final entry culminates the picture with the last colors “… but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to” (101).

The temporal shifts in the last paragraphs, are the essential last threads to the woven picture. We move from past remembrance in the present: “What I remember most of Mango Street” (101) to the present of writing: “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much” (101), to the future projection: “One day I will say goodbye to Mango” (101) and, finally, from that future time when neighbors will ask: “Why did she march so far away?” (102) we will move from the historical present that has characterized the entire novel to the narrative present which is the end that in fact is the beginning: “I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (102).

The implied reading plan weaves a portrait of Esperanza from the forty-four figures. The two streams of enunciation, one sociohistoric and the other a discursive strategy, come together in the reader's experience of making the text. The symbolic reader and the implied reading plan merge in our reading.

Another writer writing in near exhaustion in 1928 tried to sum up the intersection of the sociohistoric detail and the narrative unfolding of discourse: “[L]iterature alone expresses to others and discloses to us our own life, that life which cannot be observed and the visible manifestations need to be translated and often read backwards and deciphered with much effort” (Proust 226).

In this paper I have taken up the public response to Cisneros's novel as well as the dual intentionality of the text: first, the sociohistorical context which I have called the symbolic reader since these directions and ideologies are all quite deliberate choices of the author. And second, the implied reading plan, a term borrowed from Wolfgang Iser but enriched with Kristeva's theory to include not only the explicit design of the text but also the intertextual deployment of symbolic codes.

The reviews, with few exceptions, are an ideological response to the challenge of the creative power of the text. The critical studies of Cisneros's text that offer an interpretation of the reading experience without imposing closure on the text are few and far between, but they are growing in number and are most welcome as the dialogue on Esperanza Cordero grows. The most limited and useless responses are those that use the text in order to express the ideological posture of the commentator.

To conclude, the reader response that is most valuable is neither the public review process nor the private solitary reading, but the intersubjective, communal readings wherein individuals read, create and share this creation. The reading experience of Cisneros's novel is a disclosure of feminist clarity. The power of the feminist writer is not to be measured in negative terms of subversion, opposition or rejection of patriarchy, although it does all of these. The power of writing is the creation of women's space independent of the feminine categories of life women have been indoctrinated into accepting as duty for a millennium. The highest duty of any person and, especially of every woman, is self-realization.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Orion, 1964.

Britt, Bonnie. “In Literature, Writer Sandra Cisneros Sees Power.” Houston Chronicle 24 June 1984: Section 8, 5.

Bus, Heiner. “Chicano Literature of Memory: Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (1984) and Gary Soto, Living Up the Street. Narrative Recollections (1985).” Minority Literature in North America. Contemporary Perspective. Ed. Wolfgang Karrer and Hartmut Lutz. International Symposium at the University of Osnabrück, 1988. 159-72.

Cisneros, Sandra. “Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street.Americas Review 15.1 (Spring 1987): 77-79.

———. “From a Writer's Notebook. Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession.” Americas Review 15.1 (Spring 1987): 69-73.

———. The House on Mango Street. 1984. 2nd. rev. ed. Houston: Arte Público, 1988.

———. “Living as a Writer: Choice and Circumstance.” Feminist Writers Guild 10.1 (February 1987): 8-9.

———. “My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writer's Struggle With Good and Evil or las hijas de la mala vida.” Paper delivered at MLA Convention, Chicago 1985 and at Yale University, Spring 1986.

———. “Notes to a Young(er) Writer.” Americas Review 15.1 (Spring 1987): 74-76.

———. “Only Daughter.” Paper read at “Writing Lives: Women as Writers.” Third Latin American Book Fair. City College of New York 5 May 1989.

———. “Sandra Cisneros. Chicago, Illinois, January 28, 1982.” Partial Autobiographies. Interviews with Twenty Chicano Poets. Ed. Wolfgang Binder. Erlangen: Palm & Enke, 1985. 54-74.

———. “A Writer's Voyages.” Texas Observer 25 September 1987: 18-19.

———. “Writing out of Necessity.” Interview. With Beatriz Badikian. Feminist Writers Guild 10.1 (February 1987): 1, 6-8.

Cota-Robles Suárez, Cecilia. “The House on Mango Street.”Lector n. d.

Gómez, Jewelle. “Dream Merchants.” Hurricane Alice (Spring/Summer 1984): 7.

Gómez, Roy. “The Bitter Fruit of Mango Street.” VíAztlán (March 1985): 21.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda, and Tey Diana Rebolledo. “Growing up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros.” International Studies in Honor of Tomás Rivera. Ed. Julián Olivares. Houston: Arte Público, 1986. 109-19.

Gutiérrez-Revuelta, Pedro. “Género e ideología en el libro de Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street.Crítica 1.3 (1986): 48-54.

Herrera-Sobek, María. “The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction.” Herrera-Sobek and Viramontes 171-181.

———, and Helena María Viramontes, eds. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Houston: Arte Público, 1988.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language. Ed. L. S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.

Leal, Luis. “Growing Up on Mango Street.” Paper read at the National Association for Chicano Students, San Diego (February 1987).

McCracken, Ellen. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence.” Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Ed. Asunción Horno-Delgado et al. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P, 1989. 62-71.

Medina, David. “The Softly Insistent Voice of a Poet.” Austin American Statesman 11 March 1986: 14-15.

Milligan, Bryce. “The House on Mango Street: Gritty, Street-Wise.” Express-News (San Antonio) 14 October 1984.

Olivares, Julián. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space.” Herrera-Sobek and Viramontes 160-70.

Proust, Marcel. The Past Recaptured. Trans. Frederick A. Blossom. New York: Random, 1959.

Rocard, Marcienne. “The House Theme in Chicana Literature: A New Sense of Place.” Hispanorama. Chicanoliteratur (February 1990): 106-07; 146-47.

Rodríguez, Juan. “The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.” Austin Chronicle 10 August 1984.

Rosaldo, Renato. Culture & Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon, 1989. 160-67.

Saldívar, José David. “The House on Mango Street.”MELUS 1984.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990. 181-86.

Snow, Kimberly. “A Voice of Hope on Mango Street.” News-Press (Santa Barbara) 19 October 1986: 23, 27.

Urrutia, Elena. “La casa y la propia identidad.” fem. 10.48 (Oct-Nov 1986): 32-33.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “From a Chicana Feminist Perspective.” Herrera-Sobek and Viramontes 139-45.

Juanita Heredia (essay date fall-spring 1993-1994)

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SOURCE: Heredia, Juanita. “Down These City Streets: Exploring Urban Space in El Bronx Remembered and The House on Mango Street.Mester 22-23, nos. 1-2 (fall-spring 1993-1994): 93-105.

[In the following essay, Heredia examines two coming-of-age novels that represent urban life from a Latina feminist perspective: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, set in Chicago, and El Bronx Remembered, by Nicholasa Mohr, set in New York City. Heredia asserts that the protagonists in both novels develop a social consciousness and self-awareness of their roles within the public sphere that allows them to experience intellectual and psychological freedom from patriarchal domination.]

Nicholasa Mohr and Sandra Cisneros exemplify new voices in their respective Latino literary traditions by addressing the topic of urban space from a Latina feminist perspective. Mohr was among the first Nuyorican writers in the 1970s to examine the role of women of Puerto Rican background in their social environment in the United States, specifically New York City. Unlike her Nuyorican male counterpart, Piri Thomas, Mohr observes the space of the home to understand how that ambience influences young girls in public. She does not recover one-dimensional and stereotyped Latina female protagonists in a life of crimes, drugs, and prostitution the way many male writers portray them. Rather, she carefully penetrates the interior worlds of the women who lead ordinary as opposed to escapade lives. She traces how young Nuyorican girls move and cope with obstacles in their urban world in her El Bronx Remembered (1975). In a revealing essay “The Journey Towards a Common Ground,” Mohr discusses the value of her work in discovering new characters and voices in the representation of Puerto Rican women. She asks:

Where was my own mother and aunt? And all those valiant women who left Puerto Rico out of necessity, for the most part by themselves bringing small children to a cold and hostile city. They came with thousands of others, driven out by poverty, ill-equipped with little education and no knowledge of English. But they were determined to give their children a better life and the hope of a future. This is where I had come from, and it was these women who became my heroes. When I looked for role models that symbolized strength, when I looked for subjects to paint and stories to write, I had only to look at my own.


Sandra Cisneros, in turn, represents one of the first Chicana writers in the 1980s who speaks to the transitional situation of young Chicana/Latina women who cross the borders of the domestic sphere into the city streets. Unlike many Chicano male writers before her, Cisneros depicts female protagonists who struggle between the home and the desire to escape that domestic space. Like Mohr, she prefers to illustrate women as people who need to be heard and understood, subjects in their own right. Cisneros also understands a woman's need to realize that she has opportunities beyond those of her home such as a university education. In The House on Mango Street (1984), the character of Esperanza becomes aware of her abilities to move through urban spaces physically and symbolically, a new perspective in U.S. Latina literature. What is more important, this female protagonist is breaking boundaries with the patriarchal paradigm set up for young girls within traditional Latino culture. Cisneros pays homage to the woman who wishes to control and organize her own life as well as those who offer a community of emotional support. In a relevant essay “Unveiling Athena,” the feminist critic Erlinda Gonzales-Berry points out to the importance of Cisneros' portrait of Chicanas. She states:

She makes women the central focus of the narrative and presents a firmly centered female protagonist who acts, not as the Other of a male protagonist but, rather, as a subject who dares to confront lies and to deconstruct myths. Mothers and virgins are certainly still present, as are women content in their role of the Eternal Feminine, but these are viewed with a critical eye. Are they the only roles available to Chicanas? What price have women paid for protection and dependency?



In El Bronx Remembered, Nicholasa Mohr sets her narrative in the post-World War II period when waves of Puerto Rican immigrants began to form Nuyorican communities in the United States. At a crucial moment in Nuyorican history, these Latino migrants discover Anglo-American culture, predominantly European, with much conflict. During this time, most Nuyoricans come from a racially mixed, working-class background, a factor which makes them objects of racial, linguistic, and class discrimination. In addition to feeling unwelcome, Nuyoricans must live in limited housing situations, be they tenements in barrios, Latino neighborhoods, or other forms of cultural spatial boundaries. Segregation serves as a basis for all of Mohr's stories in El Bronx Remembered. She addresses a specific place, El Bronx, to recount her stories and show the effects that these living conditions have on Nuyorican people, particularly on women.1

While El Bronx Remembered is devoted to the different stories of people who form part of the Nuyorican community after World War II, in The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros organizes the voices of the Chicano/Latino community around a central character Esperanza in Chicago of the late 1960s. Like the Bronx context, the Latino characters in this neighborhood are bilingual, working-class, and primarily young girls at a transitory stage. Historically speaking, different Latino cultures—Chicano, Mexican, Puerto Rican—are coming into contact with each other in the urban space as they move around to find a home during this radical time of the 1960s.2 Interestingly enough, this cultural history also coincides with the world-wide feminist movements that empowered women. It is no wonder that Cisneros continues to explore this U.S. Latina feminist literary consciousness in an urban context in the 1960s that Mohr had already initiated in the 1940s. Despite the fact that these women authors come from different national backgrounds and histories, they share an interest in the way their female protagonists of Latin American heritage combat similar problems of racism, class conflict and patriarchy in an American city context. Cisneros' and Mohr's texts develop this urban Latina feminist awareness in the young Esperanza and Nuyorican protagonists.


New York City and Chicago are urban areas with large Latino populations. For Nuyoricans, New York City serves as their cultural capital: it provides a sense of home in the mainland. Chicago, on the other hand, represents a crossroads for the two largest Latino cultures, Chicano and Puerto Rican, a place where new cultures are born. In El Bronx Remembered and The House on Mango Street, the Latina protagonists develop a social consciousness of the urban space as they travel in their respective cities. In both contexts, urban space serves as a landscape for exploration where young girls traverse cultural boundaries from one social milieu to another. On a symbolic level, it also represents the recognition of the female body, a sexual awakening. This process of change alerts the mind (of both the city and the body) to an awareness of gender. In “The Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism,” feminist critic Norma Alarcón explains how women's knowledge and familiarity of the world surrounding them can be understood in conjunction with their race, class and gender identity as women of color. She says, “Through ‘consciousness-raising’ (from women's point of view) women are led to know the world in a different way. Women's experience of politics, of life as sex object, gives rise to its own methods of appropriating that reality: feminist method” (33-34). In El Bronx Remembered and The House on Mango Street, the effects of coming of age in the urban space can be captured through the process of moving and coming across new experiences in the public sphere. This movement symbolizes a journey through different social environments that will give young Latinas new visions of their capabilities to transcend social restrictions placed upon them by cultural values, educational authorities, and patriarchal domination. In the three examples, street playing amongst girlfriends, socializing in school, and transforming traditional gender roles, the Latina protagonist (Chicana/Nuyorican) forms a self-awareness of her social role in an attempt to find “a space of her own” in the modern metropolis. According to David Harvey, living quarters within an urban community can be so intense that people must control a particular space to give themselves a sense of belonging to that geographic area. He says:

Within the community space, used values get shared through some mix of mutual aid and mutual predation, creating tight but often conflictual interpersonal social bonding in both private and public spaces. The result is an often intense attachment to place and ‘turf’ and an exact sense of boundaries because it is only through active appropriation that control over space is assured.



In El Bronx Remembered, movement becomes an important issue to understand the pubescent experience of young Latina girls in city culture. In “A Very Special Pet,” family members face rapid cultural changes as they migrate from “their tiny village in the mountains” (2) in Puerto Rico to the cities in the United States. Mohr describes the transition: “City life was foreign to them, and they had to learn everything, even how to get on a subway and travel” (2). In the urban environment, a Puerto Rican woman encounters problems because she is not accustomed to living in this fast-paced city and culture that differs radically from her small hometown. Mohr offers the example, “Graciela Fernández [the mother] had been terribly frightened at first of the underground trains, traffic, and large crowds of people. Although the mother finally adjusted, she still confined herself to the apartment and seldom went out” (2). This self-imposed physical imprisonment affects her psychologically because she refuses to participate in the daily routine of city life. Yet, the children who gradually familiarize themselves with American culture through media and school will follow a different path from their mother because they will be raised in the Bronx. The young girls become especially aware of the need to explore urban space.

In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza, a young Latina in the city, experiences several changes by moving with her family from one apartment to another. In the vignette “The House on Mango Street,” Esperanza's formative years take place in a very mobile environment. Her parents are in search of the American Dream, to be able to own a house. Since her parents are Mexican immigrants, it is difficult for them to find a stable and adequate home. The protagonist says, “But what I remember most is moving a lot. Each time it seemed there'd be one more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street, we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me” (7, emphasis mine). Like the young girls in El Bronx Remembered, the immigrant experience of the parents will affect Esperanza's gender consciousness because she will be raised in an urban environment, a place where one has to know the rules of the game called survival. Consequently, Esperanza must also learn how to defend her own turf to show that she will redefine the cultural borders placed on her by ignorant outsiders who visit her barrio. She says: “Those who don't know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we're dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake” (29). In this example, Esperanza challenges the stereotypical prejudices that people may have about the living spaces of working-class Latinos. Instead of having these spatial boundaries imposed on her, the protagonist traverses them to know other neighborhoods in her city.

This experience to find a home serves as a metaphor for another kind of search which is that of her consciousness and her relationship to that space around her. In “A House of My Own,” Esperanza defines her space. She says, “Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's house. A house all my own … Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after. Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (100). She becomes aware of the necessity then to find “a space of her own.” The process of traveling through the world of the streets, the school system and the city will awaken Esperanza and other young Latinas to avenues of change and better understanding of their social and gender roles.


Mohr and Cisneros invent their Latina female protagonists so that when they establish relationships with their girlfriends in the streets, they develop an awareness of their capabilities to penetrate forbidden zones in the city. In the story “Once Upon a Time …”, Mohr explores the relationships among a group of three nameless girls who disobey their parents' orders by searching for an appropriate playing field, in other words “a space of their own.” Since these girlfriends cannot seem to find a suitable place in their neighborhood, the Bronx, because it is too crowded or they do not belong to a specific turf like the boys in the group The Puerto Rican Leopards, they must settle for a more elevated space, the rooftops of buildings. In traveling this aerial space, these girlfriends find a space of their own. Mohr elaborates: “They walked along the rooftops, going from building to building. Each building was separated from the next by a short wall of painted cement, … no higher than three and a half feet. When they reached each wall the girls climbed over, exploring another rooftop” (41). Although their parents, especially the mothers, may have warned these girls about crossing into dangerous areas such as rooftops, the girlfriends experience an exhilarating feeling of freedom, as if they are literally on top of the world. From this angle, they acquire a new perspective on life. The title of the story may remind us of a children's fairy tale being told to learn a moral. Mohr, nonetheless, expands the meaning beyond children's simple language. She emphasizes the adventure in the story, the daring experience that may only take place “once in a lifetime” in the case of these girls. Instead of learning from what older people may tell them, these youngsters prefer to take destiny into their own hands by evading the rules of the home. The awareness that they are willing to confront danger face to face assures us that these girls are not the homebodies we thought of them in the beginning of the story. Mohr also calls attention to the importance of female friendship when a young Latina decides to experience independence in the urban environment. This female bonding manifests itself in their street singing, part of an oral tradition, which is the “language of the streets” or “the language of working-class dialogue” (Flores 51). Because of the spatial, economic, and cultural limitations placed on them in the home, these girls must learn to create their own sense of space to survive within the public sphere of the city.

In “Our Good Day” in The House on Mango Street, Esperanza also develops relationships with girlfriends and crosses prohibited city streets with them. Like the three nameless girls in El Bronx Remembered, Esperanza and her new friends, Rachel and Lucy, form a social alliance and collectively purchase a bicycle to ride around their neighborhood. In this story, Esperanza also undergoes a social change because she breaks her relationship with Cathy, Queen of Cats, a girl from a more upwardly mobile social status in exchange for two working-class, Texan Latinas, Rachel and Lucy, who had just migrated north to Chicago.3 These girlfriends celebrate their freedom when they acquire a bicycle of their own, a mode of transportation that will take them places. This particular investment also makes Esperanza more independent and provides an avenue to travel into unknown spaces she would never have dreamed of otherwise as she enters the danger zone in rapid movement. She says: “We ride fast and faster. Past my house, sad and red and crumbly in places, past Mr. Benny's grocery on the corner, and down the avenue which is dangerous. Laundromat, junk store, drug store, windows and cars and more cars, and around the block back to Mango” (17). The rebellious Esperanza not only leaves her home but she also trespasses the limitations of her street and explores the other streets in her neighborhood. She takes the initiative in traveling to different places with her girlfriends even if it means crossing social restrictions placed upon her. By taking this step, Esperanza becomes an active agent of her life who wishes to become familiar with her social environment and beyond. Cisneros insinuates that young Latina girls should find appropriate wheels if they are going to discover new places in the urban space. Like boys who long to own a car, Esperanza learns to ride a bicycle to show that she too knows how to move around in this modern city. She dives into this transportation culture to avoid the pitfalls of a “sitting by the window” destiny. It is no wonder that for Esperanza and her new girlfriends this experience of owning a bicycle occurs on “our good day.” She has found other girls with whom she can identify who are also willing to take risks. This moment symbolizes a beginning in being able to go wherever they desire to venture. From here to eternity, these Latina protagonists have the ability and the means to travel anywhere down the city streets. This movement also signifies a new perspective of space and the ability to develop one's potential when everyone tells Esperanza that she should not bother to leave her home. A motivated figure, she proves that she too can set up her own definition and appropriation of space in the city.


Mohr and Cisneros also address the school system's role in the formation of young girls' social consciousness. In “The Wrong Lunch Line” in El Bronx Remembered, the young Nuyorican protagonist Yvette faces humiliation when a schoolteacher reprimands her for eating with her Jewish friend, Monica. The schoolteacher barks in an authoritative tone: “You have no right to take someone else's place … You have to learn, Yvette, right from wrong. Don't go where you don't belong” (74, emphasis mine). In this social context, Yvette becomes the victim of class and cultural segregation within the school environment because she free-willingly enters a cultural space different than her own Latino one by disobeying the school authorities. Evidently, Mohr plays with perspectivism in this story. What is “the wrong lunch line” for the school authority, turns out to be “the right lunch line” for Yvette who follows her instincts. This means that Yvette takes the initiative to think for herself and believes in loyalty to her friend Monica who bonds with her in “a space of their own” rather than a space set up by institutional boundaries. The educational authorities prevent these young girls from crossing cultural borders by repressing their natural desires to make friends with children of different cultural backgrounds. In this scene, Mohr vividly captures how the young girls contest the authority of the educational school system. A dehumanizing machine, this institution functions to divide young children into separate physical and cultural spaces, a microcosm of society at large. The cultural divisions that take place within the spatial boundaries of the city definitely influence the young Nuyorican girls' social formation leaving them with limited opportunities to transgress beyond their potentials within the educational system and their social peers. In spite of these setbacks, though, Yvette refuses to play the role of the quiet Latina student. She rejoices with Monica: “‘Boy, that Mrs. Ralston sure is dumb,’ Yvette said gigglingly. They looked at each other and began to laugh loudly” (75). Within this context, the girlfriends celebrate the last laugh and triumph.

Esperanza also wishes to challenge the school system's authority in “A Rice Sandwich” in The House on Mango Street. Reminiscent of Yvette in El Bronx Remembered, Esperanza wishes to cross into foreign territory by sitting in the section of the “canteen,” an eating place for “special kids” who are allowed to bring their lunch to school. Little does Esperanza realize that the spatial divisions of the school structure leave little room for personal freedom. She explains: “But lunch time came finally and I got to get in line with the stay-at-school kids. Everything is fine until the nun who knows all the canteen kids by heart looks at me and says: you, who sent you here? And since I am shy, I don't say anything, just hold out my hand with the letter. This is no good, she says, till Sister Superior gives the okay” (42, emphasis mine). Esperanza not only faces public degradation like Yvette, but she also becomes cognizant of the fact that she does not belong in the line with the canteen kids. The educational authorities, in this case the Catholic Church, do not even care to acknowledge her mother, a poor Latina woman, as an authority figure because they treat her as if she were invisible. Moreover, this “rice sandwich” represents a different economic element. Esperanza's mother does not prepare her a bologna or peanut butter and jelly sandwich. But instead, she makes use of what resources are available to her. Esperanza says: “Okay, okay, my mother says after three days of this. And the following morning I get to go to school with my mother's letter and a rice sandwich because we don't have lunch meat” (42). Since she comes from a working-class background, she should be treated accordingly. This class and culture conflict transfers into a deep sense of marginalization for a young Latina girl who learns about the injustices of spatial divisions in school, a mirror image of the problems of the urban city. Like Mohr's character in “The Wrong Lunch Line,” Esperanza becomes aware of the borders that can impede her from traveling to the other side, a place of restriction but one she must attempt to cross.


Transforming traditional gender roles by leaving the domestic space in the discovery of sexuality becomes a significant issue in both texts. Mohr's representation of sexuality in the novella “Herman and Alice” in El Bronx Remembered departs from the conventional male perspective because she defines new outlooks for young Latinas regarding choice and circumstance. In Sobre la literatura puertorriqueña de aquí y de allá: aproximaciones feministas, the feminist critic Margarita Fernández-Olmos explains:

Las novelas de … autoras chicanas y puertorriqueñas, como la mayor parte de las escritoras contemporáneas, incluyen una crítica cultural que no se encuentra normalmente en las obras de autores masculinos: la diferenciación sexual de las funciones sociales de hombres y mujeres, niñas y niños.


Likewise, Mohr shows the need to change the sexual roles of young Latina girls, in this case Alice, who redefine their positions within the family structure. Although the young Nuyorican Alice becomes a teen-age mother leaving her without many choices, she learns from her first sexual experience about the physical meaning of womanhood. Mohr offers an example, “Later that night they met on the stairway leading to the roof. It happened so quickly. She felt nothing except fear and pain. Stevie was drunk and held her tightly. For a moment she struggled to leave, but he covered her mouth with his hand, warning her not to cry or scream because someone may hear them. Alice now found herself crying as she remembered how Stevie forced his way into her” (139). Living under this kind of sexual terror then becomes part of her sexual formation and eventually leads her to be more aware of the physical dangers of being a woman in an urban environment. In this process, Alice not only discovers the trials and tribulations of being a mother, but she also learns about being a woman who needs to know how to protect her body, even from the intimate people such as her first boyfriend, Stevie. This problem of ignorance arises from cultural values as well. Alice's parents never allow her to be in control of her life. By living sheltered, she never has an opportunity to meet and deal with males personally. She also misses chances to socialize and discover new places to learn about survival in New York, a place that demands knowledge of its geographic space. As a result of this lack of knowledge and experience, she becomes pregnant unexpectedly. However, she marries a homosexual Puerto Rican friend, Herman, a socially marginal figure himself. Even though Alice may yield to the idea of marriage as an institution, she refuses to play the role of the dutiful wife. Her husband acts more like a friend than a domineering husband. Together, they redefine the idea of a traditional patriarchal Latino family where the man dominates. Hence, Alice dares to explore places outside of her neighborhood with Herman. In spiritual bonding, they travel from the Bronx to Manhattan. He says: “She had never been inside the Empire State Building, but she had heard about it from the kids in school” (135). In broadening her scope of New York City, Alice undergoes a social and gender awakening of her potentials to move through the urban space. Though she must deal with the hardships of motherhood at a young age, she discovers new ways to achieve self-fulfillment with Herman.

The characters Marin, Rafaela, and Sally also fall prey to patriarchal domination in The House on Mango Street. Like Alice's sheltered life in Mohr's text, they are never allowed to leave the father's home to learn about themselves and their social environment. When they do walk into the public sphere, men take advantage of their naiveté. This sexual exploitation of her girlfriends leads to the formation of a social and feminist consciousness in Esperanza. She later realizes that to be imprisoned at home can have traumatic consequences for young girls once they do step out into the public sphere. In “Red Clowns,” she claims: “Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn't you hear me when I called? Why didn't you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn't let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine” (93). While Esperanza is waiting for her friend Sally at a carnival by the “red clowns,” boys sexually attack her. This desperate cry for help, for a friend, or for consolation reflects a profound cultural and social critique on the violence of young girls' bodies in the streets. Esperanza realizes that even in a children's world like a carnival, young girls are not safe. Any kind of violation can occur. In this case, the laugh or shout of the red clown corresponds to the screaming and bleeding from rape. Like Mohr, Cisneros defends the education and protection of Latina women's bodies, especially if they have to deal with people who try to invade their private space in the public sphere.


In The House on Mango Street Cisneros carries the torch of hope, “Esperanza,” and liberation from Mohr in order to explore new possibilities for U.S. Latina women in a city environment. In the vignette “The First Job,” Esperanza moves beyond her neighborhood to become a young working girl, which is to say an urban explorer. She learns to take public transportation downtown, a different environment, to earn a living. Esperanza must work in order to support her educational costs. She becomes financially responsible at a young age in the real world. She is so insistent on earning her own money that she must lie about her age. She says: “Aunt Lala said she had found a job for me at the Peter Pan Photo Finishers on North Broadway where she worked and how old was I and to show up tomorrow saying I was one year older and that was that” (51). At this new workplace, though, Esperanza becomes aware that she can still be a victim of physical harassment. She speaks of a fellow male co-worker: “he grabs my face with both hands and kisses me hard on the mouth and doesn't let go” (52). When she finds herself in the workforce which tends to provide security, Esperanza must pay the price for being a young vulnerable woman. Even in the workplace, Latina women must be on their guard for any kind of physical harassment. This experience serves as another form of sexual awakening for Esperanza who becomes alert as she crosses new social spaces in the city.

Similarly in “Alicia Who Sees Mice” in The House on Mango Street, the young protagonist Alicia travels a distance in the city to receive an education. Esperanza describes her: “Alicia, who inherited her mama's rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university. Two trains and a bus, because she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin” (32). Alicia attempts to define her own space by developing her mind. Cisneros demonstrates this progression of Latina consciousness because now she explores the intellectual role of a Latina who has a right to think for herself and dictate the direction of her life. In fact, Alicia becomes a role model for Esperanza to leave the domestic space to acquire “a mind of her own.” Alicia's situation, however, remains a bit problematic because she continues to live at home and serves the males in her family almost like a self-sacrificing mother. She must fulfill the domestic duties as well as her academic ones. Cisneros then finds it necessary to create an imaginary as well as a real space for Esperanza by using the notion of the house as a metaphor for space and freedom. What is at stake here may not just be the physical sense of independence for Esperanza, but rather intellectual and psychological freedom from patriarchal domination. In effect, the materialistic independence becomes a symbol for an intellectual development in the conquest of the urban space and the development of her feminist consciousness. She says: “I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (82). These feelings of activity, rebellion, and movement have been present in her since she was a child in her home.


The experiences of living in urban space for the female protagonists in El Bronx Remembered and The House on Mango Street provide a new perspective on the representations of the conditions of Chicana/Nuyorican women who form part of a border culture, Latino culture, a special mix of Latin American and Anglo-American. It is important to understand the similar concerns of the Latina protagonists in the different social contexts of these narratives to grasp how they react to different urban factors. While many Latino male authors have concentrated on “the bigger issues” of the Latino immigrant experiences from Mexico and Puerto Rico to the United States, it is just as imperative to study the dynamic experiences of Latina women who migrate within the big cities, New York and Chicago, places that provide a haven for change and growth. The social and feminist approaches I have utilized in this essay serve to bridge the gap between the literary texts of two U.S Latina writers who unite in dealing with issues in the city like street life, school, and sexuality in the public sphere. The common grounds between the Chicana and Nuyorican writers who develop “their feminism on the border, or bridge feminism” (Saldívar-Hull 207) looks at cementing a U.S. Latina literary tradition in the exploration of the urban space. Mohr and Cisneros offer ground-breaking narratives as they develop new visions and possibilities for U.S. Latina women as never shown before in either of their respective literary traditions, a generation of Mujeres en marcha.4


  1. Juan Flores describes the historical context of El Bronx Remembered in a conversation with Nicholasa Mohr. He says: “The setting changes from Spanish Harlem during the war (1941-1945) in Nilda to the South Bronx of the decade following, from 1945-1956, the years when the migration of Puerto Ricans to New York reached tidal-wave proportions.” In an interview with Edna Acosta-Belén, Nicholasa Mohr explains her own personal background, a blend of cultures, in relationship to the historical context and urban space. She says, “My rich heritage as a Puerto Rican, stemming from the Caribbean, Europe and Africa, provides me with source material for a unique interpretation of life in urban America (emphasis mine).” Both of these examples demonstrate how dedicated Mohr is to the representation of the Puerto Rican experience in a city environment at a time of social mobilization in history.

  2. In the essay, “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession,” Sandra Cisneros discusses the importance of moving back and forth from Chicago to Mexico City as a youngster reflecting the bicultural experience of many immigrant people in the big cities in a moment in history of rapid modernization. She also stresses the impact that poverty had on her in discovering her unique voice. She poses the question, “What did I know except third floor flats … And this is when I discovered the voice I'd been suppressing all along without realizing it.” In another essay, “Notes to a Younger Writer,” Cisneros reveals the importance of writing about experiences in places that she knows personally. She says, “I can write of worlds (urban context) they (classmates at Iowa Writing Workshop) never dreamed of, of things they never could learn from a college textbook.” In both of these examples, Cisneros like Mohr stresses the value of combining personal with social experience in the construction of reality in literature. All these pieces are contained in a larger essay entitled, “From A Writer's Notebook.”

  3. The Chicano/Latino movement from the South, Texas, and the island of Puerto Rico to the cities in the North of the United States has roots in other cultural experiences as well. For instance, the African-American novelists Alice Walker and Toni Morrison represent feminist voices who portray the experiences of African-Americans who have migrated from rural to the Northern cities in the twentieth century. In a comparative perspective, Latinas and African-American women share many similar experiences in the urban space because they have also struggled with racism, class conflict, and patriarchy.

  4. Nicholasa Mohr and Sandra Cisneros reflect new and conscientious women's voices in U.S. Latina literature who examine the role of young women in a patriarchal society. It is interesting to note that they can almost be considered contemporaries with the leading feminine voices on the other side of the border in Latin American literature. The Mexican Rosario Castellanos in the 1970s and the Puerto Rican Rosario Ferré in the 1980s also emerge in response to a host of issues regarding the “woman question” within their own social contexts: they reconsidered the role of women in culture and society to free them from patriarchal rule.

Works Cited

Acosta-Belén, Edna. “Conversations with Nicholasa Mohr.” Revista Chicano-Riqueña.8 (1980): 35-41.

Alarcón, Norma. “The Subjects of This Bridge Called My Back and Anglo-American Feminism.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José D. Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1984.

———. “From a Writer's Notebook.” The Americas Review. 15 (1987):69-79.

Fernández-Olmos, Margarita. “Growing up Puertorriqueña: el Bildungsroman feminista en las novelas de Nicholasa Mohr y Magali García Ramis.” Sobre la literatura puertorriqueña de aquí y de allá: aproximaciones feministas. Santo Domingo, República Dominicana: Editora Alfa & Omega, 1989.

Flores, Juan. “Back Down These Mean Streets: Introducing Nicholasa Mohr and Louis Reyes Rivera.” Revista Chicano-Riqueña. 8 (1980): 51-56.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda. “Unveiling Athena: Women in the Chicano Novel.” Chicana Critical Issues. Ed. Norma Alarcón et al. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1993.

Harvey, David. The Urban Experience. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989.

Mohr, Nicholasa. El Bronx Remembered. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1973.

———. “The Journey Toward a Common Ground: Struggle and Identity of Hispanics in the U.S.A.” The Americas Review. 18 (1990): 81-85.

Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. “Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José D. Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Juan Daniel Busch (essay date fall-spring 1993-1994)

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SOURCE: Busch, Juan Daniel. “Self-Baptizing the Wicked Esperanza: Chicana Feminism and Cultural Contact in The House on Mango Street.Mester 22-23, nos. 1-2 (fall-spring 1993-1994): 123-34.

[In the following essay, Busch contends that The House on Mango Street represents the protagonist's development of Chicana feminist empowerment and a fluid and progressive notion of Chicana identity.]

A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture's views and beliefs, and, for this, it is proudly defiant. All reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against. Because the counterstance stems from a problem with authority—outer as well as inner—it's a step towards liberation from cultural domination. But it is not a way of life. At some point, on our way to a new consciousness, we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once and, at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes … The possibilities are numerous once we decide to act and not react.

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands

Chicanas live on several of society's literal and metaphorical borders. Because of their location in the geopolitical and cultural “borderlands,” many critics try to “read” Chicanas as opposed to borders—in principle. Frequently, people do not recognize that the political stances of Chicanas are a consequence of their self affirmation, of situations in which they recognize and create “active” and “reactive” selves. Postmodern theorists of identity, for instance, incorrectly read Chicana identity as constantly in flux endlessly deconstructing the very notion of a unitary social and political location. Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street demonstrates an approach to identity which allows the main character, Esperanza Cordero, to name herself with the seemingly same name she was given during the process where she creates a progressive identity. Esperanza balances past and present where she negotiates history and culture; her relationship to both is a fluid and progressive notion of Chicana identity.

Cisneros' The House on Mango Street illustrates Chicana action and reaction through Esperanza's experiences, which allude to experiences the reader may have in common with the text. A close reading of Esperanza's stories reveals that the references are not as important as the speaker's relationship with the references. Cisneros uses intertextuality to recognize “worlds,” construct her “world's” community and to resist other “worlds.” Moments in The House on Mango Street where a reader recognizes an allusion is a moment of cultural contact where one of the reader's “worlds” has overlapped with one of the text's “worlds.” When a reader recognizes an allusion she or he can identify the borders of her or his “world” and the text's character's “world.” The House on Mango Street describes the story of a young Chicana named Esperanza who grows up in a Chicana/o working-class neighborhood of Chicago. Within the vignettes Esperanza describes her experiences and observations. Those experiences intertextually refer to other aspects of her life and community. Several of Esperanza's experiences are commonly recognized as allusions, for example, the vignette “A House of My Own” with Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own. Esperanza's name can be recognized as an allusion to an overt process of negotiating various components of one's life through languages that cross geopolitical borders. Cisneros uses her experiences for culturally specific purposes of self-identification and empowerment, and out of Esperanza's personal experiences come a Chicana feminism and a theoretical blueprint for cross cultural analysis. Both a Chicana feminism and cultural contact are illustrated in Esperanza's self-labeling. To self-label articulates one's recognized social location and developed interests.

Cisneros' The House on Mango Street demonstrates Chicana identity through Esperanza's self-labeling process, one that implicitly resists postmodern notions of identities. In his essay “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition,” Satya P. Mohanty not only provides a critique of postmodern theories of identity but provides an alternate account of identity he calls “realist-cognitivist.” Mohanty's account engages “the relationship among personal experience, social meanings, and cultural identities” (42); ultimately, he claims that the speaker's “new [or newly articulated] feminist cultural and political identity is ‘real’ in the following sense: it refers accurately to her social location and interests” (70). As Esperanza explores her “worlds” and the “worlds” around her she can recognize her social position and develop her interests. Mohanty articulates a process where identity is both constructed and “real,” this theory better recognizes, and discursively allows for, Chicana agency. The endless postmodern “flux” is not inherent in Chicana identity; rather, it is ingrained in the relationship between a reader and a text where the reader cannot define the text by his or her specific terms. This parallels the difference between a person identifying herself and when she is identified by others.

Mohanty directly critiques postmodern notions of identity that would label Chicanas as political oppositions in a constant revolutionary flux. Since Mohanty develops a more accurate way to discuss identity than essentialist and postmodernist accounts, he provides a framework that allows one to theoretically understand María Lugones' essay and Esperanza's process of identity. Esperanza does not try to escape Chicana culture, nor is she willing to remain within static cultural frameworks. While Mohanty describes the recognition of one's social location and development of her interests he utilizes the language “her world” (49). This language of “worlds” is the crux of María Lugones' ideas in her essay “Playfulness, ‘World’-Travelling and Loving Perception.” Unlike Mohanty's direct critique of postmodern notions of identity, Lugones discusses identity from her own perspective, a traditionally marginalized Chicana. Lugones “[comes] to consciousness as a daughter and … as a woman of color” (390). As she works with the complexities of pluralistic feminism she states and demonstrates the process of self-affirmation and the interaction of various cultures, or “worlds.” The House on Mango Street depicts this process. Mohanty navigates through accepted theories of identity that pre-label marginalized “worlds” as creating a revolutionary flux. Lugones implicitly utilizes Mohanty's theory in her method of self-labeling and consciousness raising. Mohanty's and Lugones' analyses create a more accurate account of identity and provide a better way to read Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.

María Lugones' essay allows us to speak of “redefinitions” as moments of cultural, or “world,” contact and illuminates the active aspect of these Chicana feminists' projects. Not only does María Lugones' essay implicitly demand a feminist reading of The House on Mango Street, but her concept of “‘world’-traveling” provides a way to express what appear to be “allusions” as moments of cultural (or “world”) contact. She conceptualizes “worlds” as a metaphor that illustrates Latinas' social position as consisting of multiple components or influences. Rather than a postmodern description which only allows Chicana voices to serve political and theoretical purposes as part of a “flux” in the status quo, Lugones creates a framework in which she can locate Chicana feminist theories in personal relationships. Lugones uses her relationship with her mother to initially articulate “world” differences. She then defines or describes these differences when she establishes her “worlds” metaphor. Lugones states:

I do not want the fixity of a definition because I think the term is suggestive and I do not want to lose this. A “world” has to be presently inhabited by flesh and blood people. That is why it cannot be a utopia. It may also be inhabited by some imaginary people. It may be inhabited by people who are dead or people that the inhabitants of the “world” met in some other “world” and now have in this “world” in imagination.


Lugones uses her concept of “worlds” to develop “‘world’” in order to see how she and others simultaneously occupy a multiplicity of “worlds” while they simultaneously maintain their central “world.” In addition, “‘world’” is a skill where one can act within “worlds” that may not be hers. A Chicana is the intersection of her “worlds,” a “world” of intersections. Some “worlds” are Chicana, woman, New Mexico, all of which are experienced simultaneously, not exclusively. When Lugones describes to her mother's “worlds” she must try to “see” reality through the eyes of a woman from Argentina. She properly “‘world’-travels” when she is “at ease” in another “world.” There are four ways Lugones says one can be “at ease in a ‘world’”: to be a fluent speaker in that “world,” to be normatively happy in the “world,” to be humanly bonded in that “world,” and to have a shared history with other people in that “world.” In her narrative, Esperanza tries to feel “at ease” with certain components of her identity. When she recognizes her “world” she senses that her “emotions” are legitimate. In Cisneros text, for her to feel “at ease” implies that young Esperanza must identify her own “worlds,” at times by first identifying other dominant “worlds.” Only then can Esperanza construct herself and recognize her “real” identity.

In order to recognize Esperanza's identity, a reader should first recognize her or his own “worlds.” We can recognize a “world” by identifying its border. Our selection of what qualifies as an “allusion” (as opposed to that which we have not experienced or recognized in Cisneros' text) helps illustrate our own “world.” What appears to be an “allusion” is merely where one of the reader's experiences intersects with the speaker's. In Cisneros' text, self-labeling illustrates Esperanza's process of empowerment. Within each of these components of the process are what readers from “worlds” other than Esperanza's may refer to as “allusions.” By first understanding the process of empowerment, we can then see how those experiences, would-be “allusions,” function. Rather than allusions, which trivialize the component in Esperanza's identity and process of empowerment. In Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, Esperanza Cordero not only illustrates how naming herself with her grandmother's name is progressive, but that in the (Chicana feminist) process Esperanza gains agency as she better understands her personal relationships to social and cultural meanings.


While I advocate putting Chicana, tejana, working-class, dyke-feminist poet, writer-theorist in front of my name, I do so for reasons different than those of the dominant culture. Their reasons are to marginalize, confine and contain. My labeling of myself is so that the Chicana and lesbian and all the other persons in me don't get erased, omitted or killed. Naming is how I make my presence known, how I assert who and what I am and want to be known as. Naming myself is a survival tactic.

Gloria Anzaldúa, “To(o) Queer the Writer”

The distinction made in Anzaldúa's epigraph above between being labeled and self-labeling is the same distinction between one's marginalization and the survival of each component of one's self. Anzaldúa later summarizes this distinction as, “La persona está situada dentro de la idea en vez del reves” (InVersions 252, her italics). In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza counters the fragmenting effects of osmotic labels and split subjectivities. The section “My Name” may seem like an allusion to the history of Esperanza's family, but it represents a label imposed from one “world,” not necessarily by the matrilineal past, onto another where two “worlds,” the family's past and present, overlap and inform each other. Names not only remind you who you are in your family context, but when your name originates from a seemingly “foreign” language it also reminds you of your “foreign” status. Her great-grandmother's name has various connotations which Esperanza receives mostly through osmosis. As a first or second generation Chicana in Chicago, Esperanza is part of at least two “worlds” to which her grandmother does not belong. Because these connotations do not encompass all of Esperanza's selves, they split her “real” subjectivity. Esperanza does not want to deny the name, she wants to “baptize myself” (11). At baptism the Catholic child receives a saint's name in addition to her other names. That saint becomes her patron saint. In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza becomes her own patron saint. After Esperanza recognizes her Chicana experiences, her self-label(s) add components to her name to solidify her subjectivities, not reducing any one to another. Esperanza recognizes how imposed labels reveal other “worlds” constructions of her; then she labels herself and transforms “Esperanza.” By analyzing the initial “Esperanza” and the transformed “Esperanza” we can better understand how the initial discussion of the family's past matrilineal “world” is a moment when two “worlds,” Esperanza's and her great-grandmother's, intersect.

In “My Name,” Esperanza discusses how she inherits her great-grandmother's name. Esperanza says, “I am Esperanza” instead of, “my name is Esperanza.” The former signifies Esperanza's internalization of other people's labels, the latter would allow Esperanza to maintain a distance, or gap, with which she can defend and free herself. This “gap” arises because of contradictions between her actual experiences and labels imposed on her. This same “gap” can exist between different “worlds.” In English, Esperanza's name sounds to her like “tin” and “painful” (11), whereas in Spanish her name is “too many letters,” “sadness,” and “waiting” (10). As an individual born in the United States with a Spanish name, “Esperanza” has multiple connotations. In English “Esperanza” literally translates as “hope” and in Spanish the name carries with it family stories and traditions of her Mexican great-grandmother's life. When she observes her contemporary friends' domestic entrapment, Esperanza openly refuses the place by the window that her name may traditionally mean: “I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window” (11).

In the vignette “The House on Mango Street,” we immediately see Esperanza labeled, euphemistically, by the nun:

Where do you live? she asked.
There, I said pointing up to the third floor.
You live there?
There. I had to look to where she pointed—the third floor, the
paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we
wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me
feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.


Later, Sister Superior mistakes a run-down house as Esperanza's, who does not correct her. When the nuns mislabel Esperanza's home as poor, they simultaneously mislabel her. Esperanza feels like “nothing”; in those nuns' eyes Esperanza is what they construct her as: a working-class Chicana. Later, in “Geraldo,” a person without a home and a name, in effect an individual not labeled by the dominant culture through “legal” immigration documentation, is cut off from all “world” ties. Geraldo's life intersects with Esperanza's through Marin's story of her dance with Geraldo. As quickly as Esperanza encounters Geraldo's story, he leaves. Just as the nun's incorrect label excludes some of Esperanza's components, Geraldo's “no name” isolates and marginalizes the entire individual. Esperanza tells us that she feels like nothing; she implicitly recognizes split subjectivities and senses that people in positions of power (miss)label others.

For women of color, race and gender is split and labeled separately by outside communities. Esperanza encounters gendered “worlds” and forced separation with the ability of men of color to define women within their respective culture when she describes her grandmother's Mexican culture, “Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong” (10). The men of color label women's strength as “bad.” Esperanza reveals her recognition of Cathy's different ethnic “world” when Lucy and Rachel, two Chicanas, react to her name, “but when I tell them my name they don't laugh” (14). The “but” distinguishes the girls' reaction from the one to which Esperanza is accustomed. Esperanza recognizes two “worlds,” Cathy's “world” and Lucy and Rachel's “world,” that she decides that she feels more “at ease” in the young Chicana working-class “world” that she shares with Lucy and Rachel.

Esperanza investigates nicknames. Meme Ortiz's name, according to Esperanza, is “Juan.” Esperanza calls him “Meme,” what he labels himself. Meme's dog has two names, one in Spanish and one in English. Esperanza emphasizes the dog's ability to have two names over the actual names, which she never states. The characters refer to the dog as “the dog with two names.” The stories resonate with the same bilingualism which creates the gaps Esperanza explores in her own name. Not only does Esperanza's grandmother's name come from a past generation, but it is also from México, the same differences between Meme and his mother. Esperanza recognizes her friends' multitude of names and nicknames only to be frustrated with her own labeled self, “I am always Esperanza” as opposed to “Magdalena who at least can come home and become Nenny” (11). Esperanza wants to baptize herself to give herself more names. Just as her friends have different names depending on whether or not they are in school, at home, or playing with friends, Esperanza also wants all her various components to be recognized. Esperanza either wants to create more names or add more liberating components to her name, a name like “Zeze the X.” Esperanza wants to baptize herself and place the sacred ability, and its power, within herself. The sign of Esperanza's baptism will be her self-labeled name.

In order to baptize herself under a new name, Esperanza must first understand the labeling process. Esperanza recognizes early in the text that she feels uncomfortable when the nuns position her; she later recognizes that “worlds” label according to their respective experiences. In “Those Who Don't,” Esperanza sees the scared strangers in her neighborhood. These “strangers” in her community fear the faceless, unnamable, threats that Esperanza's neighbors represent. Esperanza simply discusses these fears as ridiculous when she names and describes the people in order to contextualize the fears born out of skeleton stereotypes:

But we aren't afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby's brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that's Rosa's Eddie V. and the big one that looks like a dumb grown man, he's Fat Boy, though he's not fat anymore nor a boy.


Esperanza effectively counters the way the strangers construct her neighbors as she connects them to each other and personal experiences. However, she then describes how she constructs other “worlds.” This transition illustrates Esperanza's recognition that she perceives others the same way others perceive and construct her. She recognizes herself as a labeler and not just the labeled. Esperanza then begins to label several objects.

In “Darius & the Clouds,” Esperanza associates the sky and clouds to her name, “You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad” (33). The sky is a sense of hope, or esperanza. Esperanza then admires Darius who points to the sky full of clouds and he says, “You all see that cloud … That one next to the one that look like popcorn. That one there. See that. That's God, … God, he said, and made it simple” (34). In this section Darius names the sky sacred, God. Esperanza associates her name with the sky, and approves Darius' declaration of holiness for the sky; she begins to baptize herself by giving her name new meanings. Immediately following, Esperanza begins to label the clouds. She labels the sky as hope and holy. Since her name is Esperanza, “hope,” she equates herself to the power of the sacred through the labels.

In “And Some More,” the children discuss how Eskimos have thirty names for snow. As the Chicanas realize that they only have two, clean and dirty snow, we see how Esperanza and her friends name objects on the basis of their personal experiences. “Shaving cream” cloud, “pig-eye” cloud, and “like you combed its hair” cloud are all reminiscent of the way in which experiences inform Esperanza's “reading” of the children in her neighborhood that scare the strangers. In both vignettes, Esperanza reveals how people's experiences, ignorance included, determine labels. The children then move from merely naming clouds to concurrently naming themselves, simultaneously positioning themselves as sacred and as self-labelers: “Names for clouds? Nenny asks, names just like you and me” (36). For the remainder of the vignette, children's names intersect the discussion of the clouds until the end of Lucy and Esperanza's bickering and name (label) calling when Esperanza asks, “Who's stupid?” and the vignette finishes with “Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza, and Nenny” (38). They are stupid for trying to define, name or label each other and limit each other's imaginations. As Anzaldúa indicates in the epigraph, to place labels on another marginalizes her, unlike self-labels which empower each component of one's self.

Another component in the process of self-labeling is Esperanza's recognition of the word “bad” and how people construct her as “bad.” Throughout the text people, the nuns, her friends and herself, label Esperanza “bad,” evil. She subverts the word in order to resist being “bad.” Esperanza reflects on her father's opinion of “bad,” “Papa said nobody went to public school unless you wanted to turn out bad” (53). One vignette later, in “Born Bad,” she tells us she and her friends mimicked her Aunt Lupe. Esperanza says that she “was born on an evil day … because of what we did to Aunt Lupe” (58). However, as Esperanza acknowledges her condemnation and construction by other “worlds” as “bad,” she also begins to make the word mean more and people's ability to label someone as “bad” mean less. Esperanza discusses her Aunt Lupe: “I don't know who decides who deserves to go bad. There was no evil in her birth. No wicked curse. One day I believe she was swimming, and the next day she was sick” (59). The question of who deserves to be “bad” is twofold. Up until this point, “bad” refers to Esperanza's break from static and oppressive traditions. She successfully questions others' authority to label her and subverts the word by using its other meaning, poor health. After reading the word one recognizes that Esperanza does not speak of evil but of her aunt's illness. Even though Esperanza says she is bad, she is following her Aunt Lupe's advice and writing—like a “good” girl who listens to the elder women. Esperanza removes the connotation of evil from “bad,” implicitly removing evil from her sacred self. The same shift in meaning occurs in “Beautiful & Cruel.” Esperanza has been labeled as ugly by most of society, yet she speaks confidently, like the “pretty” Nenny, without having to cater to the whims of society. She refuses the labels. Cisneros titles the vignette “Beautiful & Cruel” instead of “Ugly & Timid;” Esperanza's “cruelty” is that which makes her beautiful to herself. She reverses the genders of a common idiom, “I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain” (88; emphasis mine). The man restrains, weighs down, Esperanza, a woman, from moving to be free.

Finally, in “Three Sisters,” one of the comadres asks Esperanza, “What's your name, … Esperanza, I said” (104). For the first time Esperanza makes no apologies for her name nor does she express desire for another. She identifies her name as “Esperanza.” At this point she has begun to recognize the complexity of herself and the possible connotations in her name. We, as readers, can know that Esperanza finally approves of her own name because she is constantly amazed that the comadres can know how Esperanza feels. “Esperanza … a good good name” (104). As Gloria Anzaldúa asserts, adjectives are used to “marginalize, confine and constrain” (InVersions 250). These imposed limits reveal how those “worlds” construct individuals. In contrast, Anzaldúa labels herself for survival, “so that all the other persons in me don't get erased, omitted or killed” (251). Finally, Anzaldúa suggests that many scholars misread aspects of Chicana literatures as upholding stereotypes, “[f]requently people fail to see the radicalness of presenting traditional scenarios” (254). At the end of the text, Esperanza labels herself “Esperanza.” She uses the name given to her so she can maintain her ties with her matrilineal past “worlds” and include present “worlds'” meanings which were previously excluded: a radical, non-individualistic gesture.

I do not use Esperanza's name as a suggestion that everyone is familiar with her great-grandmother's “world” or that this is a traditional allusion by any definition. Rather that precisely because it is not an allusion, but a moment of cultural contact where the characters' and reader's “worlds” intersect, we can better understand how Cisneros' text reveals what appear to be obvious “allusions” as moments of contact. Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is not only an “allusion”; it is another component of Esperanza's experiences and her process of empowerment. As reader, I cannot define the moment as an “allusion” according to my relationship to the depicted experience. Not only does the reader's “world” touch Esperanza's, but Esperanza's interacts and negotiates with her great-grandmother's “world.” Sonia Saldívar-Hull gives us two ways of reading the latter moments of cultural contact:

Are we to read the great-grandmother's historia as a cautionary tale that the women of her family pass on, warning succeeding generations of the consequences for women who passively accept men's rules? Or is the story instead a master narrative that the women take up as their own and thereby unwittingly reproduce their own oppression and exploitation by their men?


As Saldívar-Hull says, “Esperanza resolves not to duplicate her great-grandmother's history.” This is the same radicalness of which Anzaldúa speaks. The process, which includes these moments, allows one to self-consciously label that which she experiences. Esperanza is bad and hope, esperanza. Since Esperanza begins to actively self-label and explore her “badness,” she is considered wicked, unwilling to assimilate to other “worlds'” definitions.


Sandra Cisneros distinguishes writing or telling stories for herself and writing them to teach an audience. In Rodríguez Aranda's “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros,” Cisneros discusses her teaching methods. When she tries to develop the students' storytelling abilities, Cisneros uses references to stories she and the students have in common:

If I said, “Now, do you remember when Rumple … ?” They'd say: “Who?”, or they more or less would know the story. Or if I'd make an allusion to the “Little Mermaid” or the “Snow Queen,” which are very important fairytales to me, and an integral part of my childhood and my storytelling ability today! … ¡No hombre! They didn't know what I was talking about. But if I made an allusion to Fred Flintstone, everyone knew who Fred Flintstone was.


In The House on Mango Street Cisneros uses her stories, not stories she has in common with her students. The fairytales are experiences which help Cisneros, and Esperanza in the book, develop her storytelling abilities. The so-called “allusions” are experiences that she uses in order to empower herself. Although Cisneros uses them in her class, in order to make “world” contact, the primary objective is to make whole her Chicana subjectivity and unite her community. But, the references used must be understood in the context of The House on Mango Street's process of empowerment, not a literary tool or political opposition. Recognition of an allusion simply means that the speaker's “world” and the reader's “world” have overlapped and both recognize the same reference which indicates brief moments of cultural contact. A Chicana reader, who presumably shares many of Cisneros' “worlds,” understands Esperanza's experiences and the references color those experiences empower their lives. A non-Chicana(o) may use the references in order to better understand the text because s/he shares some “worlds” and not others. However, s/he must realize that Esperanza does not “allude to” her great-grandmother's name, Euroamerican fairytales, or Virginia Woolf for the reader of non-Chicana “worlds”; she identifies her “worlds” and experiences with those other “worlds.” For a non-Chicana to traditionally define Cisneros' Chicana feminist process of empowerment is an attempt to understand Esperanza by pre-labeling, and mislabeling, her as a postmodern individual. This would ignore Chicana identity.

Consequently, Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street should be read as a proactive Chicana feminist text. Esperanza's experiences with her names are interwoven with her motifs of empowerment: self-baptism. In order to construct her house in which she can proactively write her own story, Esperanza identifies, resists, and constructs “worlds.” As she does, young Esperanza, like many Chicanas, realizes that in many “worlds” she is constructed as “bad” because she wants to be active, vocally and sexually. In her essay “My Wicked Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writer's Struggle With Good and Evil or Las Hijas de la Malavida,” Cisneros says: “In contrast [to being bad], sometimes the wicked stance can be an attractive one, a way to reverse the negative stereotype … There is strength in exchanging shame for pride, in redefining oneself” (18). By recognizing her social location and controlling how she constructs herself, Esperanza can then construct her house as “clean as paper before the poem” (108), loose from static and oppressive cultural ties. Depending on your “world,” the references, moments of cultural contact, are simultaneously a Chicana's experience or a reference that makes the text accessible for a foreign reader. The same way, depending on how your “world” constructs Sandra Cisneros and Esperanza Cordero, the Chicanas are simultaneously bad and wicked, esperanza.

In their essays, Mohanty and Lugones both, although differently, discuss the relationships between personal experiences, social meanings and cultural identities. Because of these abundant combinations, to identify other people is a complex attempt to negotiate one's own interpretations with those of another. Lugones says those in marginalized cultures “are known only to the extent that they are known in several ‘worlds’ and as ‘world’-travelers” (401). It would be a mistake to confuse these multiple “worlds” as the person's identity; even though, as Lugones also states, without knowing the other's “worlds” one does not know the other. Several “worlds” influence Esperanza, but she never ceases to be in the young-Chicana-in-Chicago “world.” Her recognition of this “world” and her self-affirmation create her confidence to declare “Esperanza” as the new, radical name. Esperanza's identity, after the process of the text, accurately recognizes her social location and allows her to develop her personal interests.

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: spinsters/aunt lute, 1987.

———. “To(o) Queer the Writer-Loca, escritora y chicana.” InVersions. Ed, Betsy Warland. Vancouver: Press Gang Pub., 1991.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books. 1989.

———. “Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street.The Americas Review XV (Spring, 1987): 77-79.

———. “Ghosts and Voices: Writing From Obsession.” The Americas Review XV (Spring, 1987): 69-73.

———. “My Wicked Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writer's Struggle With Good and Evil or Las Hijas de la Malavida.” Unpublished manuscript.

———. “Notes to a Young(er) Writer.” The Americas Review XV (Spring, 1987): 74-76.

Lugones, María. “Playfulness, ‘World’ and Loving Perception.” Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras. Ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Foundation, 1990. 390-402.

Mercer, Kobena. “‘1968’: Periodizing Politics and Identity.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992. 424-449.

Mohanty, Satya P. “The Epistemic Status of Cultural Identity: On Beloved and the Postcolonial Condition.” Cultural Critique. Oxford University Press: 1993. Spring number 24: 41-80.

Rodríguez Aranda, Pilar E. “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” The Americas Review. USA: 1990. Spring V18(1) p. 64-80.

Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. “Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics.” Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Ed. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991. 203-220.

———. Feminism on the border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics. University of Texas at Austin PhD Dissertation. Michigan: UMI, 1990.

Sarris, Greg. Keeping Slug Woman Alive: A Holistic Approach to American Indian Texts. California: University of California Press, 1993.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. San Diego, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.

Jacqueline Doyle (essay date winter 1994)

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SOURCE: Doyle, Jacqueline. “More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.MELUS 19, no. 4 (winter 1994): 5-35.

[In the following essay, Doyle discusses the ways The House on Mango Street broadens the white middle-class feminist perspective expressed in Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own to include a working-class Chicana feminist perspective.]

“Books continue each other,” Virginia Woolf told an audience of young women some sixty years ago, “in spite of our habit of judging them separately” (Room [A Room of One's Own] 84). Books such as Ellen Moers's Literary Women, Elaine Showalter's A Literature of Their Own, Patricia Meyer Spacks's The Female Imagination, Tillie Olsen's Silences, and Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens continue Virginia Woolf's own book, A Room of One's Own, extending her fertile meditations on the effects of economic deprivation on women's literature, and her pioneering efforts to reconstruct a female literary tradition. Tillie Olsen has uncovered a rich vein of writing by American working class women, and has offered poignant personal testimony to the obstacles to writing posed by gender and class. Alice Walker has explored the silences created by gender and race in America: “What did it mean for a black woman to be an artist in our grandmothers' time? In our great-grandmothers' day? It is a question with an answer cruel enough to stop the blood” (233).

While feminists following Woolf's advice to “think back through our mothers” have expanded the literary canon in the past two decades, too many have ignored the questions of race, ethnicity, and class in women's literature. Adrienne Rich laments the “white solipsism” of white feminists—“not the consciously held belief that one race is inherently superior to all others, but a tunnel-vision which simply does not see nonwhite experience or existence as precious or significant” (“Disloyal” 306). Barbara Smith, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison have angrily denounced the canon implicit in early studies of women's literature such as Moers's and Spacks's.1 To Spacks's tepid defense that she preferred to dwell on authors depicting “familiar experience” and a “familiar cultural setting” (5), Walker counters: “Why only these? Because they are white, and middle class, and because to Spacks, female imagination is only that—a limitation that even white women must find restrictive” (372).

Confined by what Rich criticizes as the “faceless, raceless, classless category of ‘all women’”2 (“Notes” 13) women of color in the United States have all too often felt themselves compelled to choose between ethnicity and womanhood. Mitsuye Yamada speaks for many when she observes: “I have thought of myself as a feminist first, but my ethnicity cannot be separated from my feminism” (73). Sonia Saldívar-Hull writes of the damaging “color blindness” and “ideological erasure” of contemporary white feminist “sisterhood” (204). Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano points out that while a Chicana feminist perspective shares “with the feminist perspective an analysis of questions of gender and sexuality, there are important differences between a Chicana perspective and the mainstream feminist one with regard to issues of race, culture and class” (140). Many women of color reject the monolithic notion of a “woman's voice.” If Woolf in A Room of One's Own brought Shakespeare's silenced sister to life, María C. Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman point to new silences within contemporary feminist discourse itself: “Indeed, many Hispanas, Black women, Jewish women—to name a few groups—have felt it an invitation to silence rather than speech to be requested—if they are requested at all—to speak about being ‘women’ (with the plain wrapper—as if there were one) in distinction from speaking about being Hispana, Black, Jewish, working-class, etc., women” (574). Sandra Cisneros recalls sitting in a University of Iowa seminar at the age of twenty-two and suddenly realizing that she was “different from everybody” there:

It wasn't as if I didn't know who I was. I knew I was a Mexican woman. But, I didn't think it had anything to do with why I felt so much imbalance in my life, whereas it had everything to do with it! My race, my gender, and my class! And it didn't make sense until that moment, sitting in that seminar. That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about.

(Aranda 65)

Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, dedicated in two languages “A las Mujeres/To the Women,” both continues Woolf's meditations and alters the legacy of A Room of One's Own in important ways. Her series of vignettes is about the maturing of a young Chicana and the development of a writer; it is about the women she grows up with; it is also about a sense of community, culture, and place. Esperanza, the young protagonist, yearns for “a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem,” and for a house of her own:

Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.

(House 108)

Instead she shares a bedroom with her sister Nenny, in a house marked by constriction and absence: “windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath,” a front door “so swollen you have to push hard to get in,” “no front yard,” and a small garage out back “for the car we don't own yet” (4).

The dilapidated series of apartments and houses Esperanza inhabits with her mother, father, sister, and two brothers—particularly their dwelling on Mango Street—represents her poverty, but also the richness of her subject matter. “Like it or not you are Mango Street,” her friend Alicia tells her, “and one day you'll come back too” (107). “You must remember to come back,” the three aged sisters tell her, “for the ones who cannot leave as easily as you” (105). A Room of One's Own would seem to allow Esperanza this subject, even to encourage it. “All these infinitely obscure lives remain to be recorded,” as Woolf told her young female audience. Pondering the shopgirl behind the counter, she commented, “I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon” (Room 93-94). But Woolf's class and ethnic biases might also deter Esperanza from achieving her own literary voice.

Cisneros's The House on Mango Street covertly transforms the terms of Woolf's vision, making room in the female literary tradition for a young working-class Chicana who “like[s] to tell stories”: “I make a story for my life,” Esperanza tells us, “for each step my brown shoe takes. I say, ‘And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked’” (109). If Esperanza's name means “too many letters,” means “sadness” in the life she knows in Spanish, it translates as “hope” in English (10). Thinking back through her mothers and their comadres and across through her sisters, she builds her house from the unfulfilled hopes and dreams around her. “I could've been somebody, you know?” sighs her mother (90). Edna's Ruthie next door “could have been [many things] if she wanted to,” muses Esperanza, but instead she got married to a husband nobody ever sees (68). Esperanza inherited her name from her great-grandmother, a “wild horse of a [young] woman” who, tamed by marriage, spent her days confined in her husband's house. “She looked out the window all her life,” says Esperanza: “I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn't be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window” (11). As Esperanza revises and lays claim to her matrilineal inheritance, so Cisneros in Mango Street offers a rich reconsideration of the contemporary feminist inheritance as well.


No one has yet written A Room of One's Own for writers, other than women, still marginal in literature. Nor do any bibliographies exist for writers whose origins and circumstances are marginal. Class remains the greatest unexamined factor.

(Tillie Olsen Silences 146)

Woolf famously concluded A Room of One's Own with her hopes for the resurrection of Shakespeare's voiceless sister. “She lives in you and in me,” Woolf told her young female listeners, “and in many other women who are not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed” (117).3 Woolf's all-inclusive vision of sisterhood, however, barely admits the possibility of actual artistic expression among those women “not here tonight”—particularly those marginalized by race, ethnicity, and class. The five hundred pounds a year that afford her first-person narrator the freedom and independence to write are a legacy from her aunt (37-38). While Woolf expresses the hope that young women of the future will actually be “capable of earning over five hundred a year,” and suggests that they limit child-bearing to “twos and threes” rather than “tens and twelves” (117), she seems to overlook the obstacles to creative freedom that a job and motherhood might pose even for the woman privileged with an income and a room of her own. She sees little future for women without those privileges.

Arguing the necessity of economic security for artistic production, Woolf asserts that “genius like Shakespeare's is not born among laboring, uneducated, servile people. … It is not born today among the working classes” (50). When she numbers among the advantages of “being a woman” the fact that “one can pass even a very fine negress without wishing to make an Englishwoman of her,” she excludes women of color both from her audience and from her implicit definition of “being a woman” (52).4 Similarly, when she observes that “genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes” (50), she implicitly addresses a community of women in the middle and upper classes, and thereby excludes working-class women. Tillie Olsen's wry footnote to this passage some years later reads: “Half of the working classes are women” (Silences 11n). And Alice Walker invites us to recast Woolf's sentence to read: “Yet genius of a sort must have existed among slaves as it must have existed among the wives and daughters of sharecroppers” (239).

In Silences, Olsen supplements Woolf's well-known comments on the “Angel in the House” in “Professions for Women” with her working-class equivalent: “another angel … the essential angel, with whom Virginia Woolf (and most women writers, still in the privileged class) did not have to contend—the angel who must assume the physical responsibilities for daily living, for the maintenance of life” (34). So “lowly as to be invisible,” the essential angel makes no appearance in A Room of One's Own. If Woolf nods to those women “not here tonight, for they are washing up the dishes and putting the children to bed” (117), Adrienne Rich draws our attention to “women whom she left out of the picture altogether—women who are washing other people's dishes and caring for other people's children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children” (“When We Dead” 38).

In a tribute to the “essential angel” of her own childhood, Cisneros has acknowledged the importance of Woolf's belief that a room of one's own is a necessary precondition for writing. Allowing her room of her own, Cisneros's mother enabled her daughter to create: “I'm here,” Cisneros explained to an audience of young writers, “because my mother let me stay in my room reading and studying, perhaps because she didn't want me to inherit her sadness and her rolling pin” (“Notes” 75). In “Living as a Writer,” Cisneros again stresses that she has “always had a room of [her] own”: “As Virginia Woolf has said, a woman writer needs money, leisure, and a room of her own” (71). Elsewhere Cisneros indirectly questions the class bias of Woolf's perspective, however, when she discusses her early “dream of becoming a writer” and the inspiration of Emily Dickinson as a female literary precedent for her poetry. “What I didn't realize about Emily Dickinson,” Cisneros told a junior high audience, “was that she had a few essentials going for her”:5

1) an education, 2) a room of her own in a house of her own that she shared with her sister Lavinia, and 3) money inherited along with the house after her father died. She even had a maid, an Irish housekeeper who did, I suspect, most of the household chores. … I wonder if Emily Dickinson's Irish housekeeper wrote poetry or if she ever had the secret desire to study and be anything besides a housekeeper.

(“Notes” 75)

As Woolf speculated on Shakespeare's hypothetical, silenced sister, Cisneros speculates on Dickinson's housekeeper, comparing her to her own mother, “who could sing a Puccini opera, cook a dinner for nine with only five dollars, who could draw and tell stories and who probably would've enjoyed a college education” if she could have managed one (“Notes” 75). In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza's mother tells her that she herself should never have quit school (91). “Study hard,” she tells her daughter, stirring the oatmeal, “Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head” (91).

Woolf stressed the importance of a female tradition for the woman writer: “we think back through our mothers if we are women” (A Room 79). For both Alice Walker and Sandra Cisneros, these mothers include women outside the “tradition” as it is conventionally understood, women who, perhaps anonymously, “handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see; or … a sealed letter they could not plainly read” (Walker 240). Esperanza's mother—her encouragement, but also what she has not written, not expressed—is central to the community of female relationships informing her daughter's development as an artist. Esperanza's tribute to her mother, “A Smart Cookie,” opens: “I could've been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs.” Her list of talents—“She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She knows how to fix a T.V.”—is framed by her confinement in a city whose subway system she has never mastered, and extended in a list of unfulfilled desires: “Someday she would like to go to the ballet. Someday she would like to see a play” (House 90). The House on Mango Street strikingly enacts what Rachel Blau DuPlessis sees as a “specific biographical drama that has entered and shaped Künstlerromane by women”: “Such a narrative is engaged with a maternal figure and … is often compensatory for her losses. … The daughter becomes an artist to extend, reveal, and elaborate her mother's often thwarted talents” (93). Esperanza's mother points to the girl's godmothers (her own comadres, or, literally translated, “comothers,” powerful family figures in Chicano culture) as examples of the necessity “to take care all your own” (91). In the extended filiations of her ethnic community Esperanza finds a network of maternal figures. She writes to celebrate all of their unfulfilled talents and dreams and to compensate for their losses.

Cisneros loosely structures her series of prose pieces as a Künstlerroman, whereby the final piece circles back to the opening.6 Esperanza's closing statement, “I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong,” is followed by a repetition of the opening lines of the book that she is now able to write (109, 3). The paired sections opening and closing the book strongly evoke Esperanza's maternal muse. While the opening chapter describes their ramshackle series of third-floor flats and the unsatisfactory house on Mango Street where Esperanza has no room of her own, her mother's body in the second chapter provides all of the security and warmth and “room” that the small girl desires:

But my mother's hair, my mother's hair, … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes a little room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama's hair that smells like bread.


The two closing sketches, “A House of My Own” and “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” describe the grown Esperanza's ideal house of her own where she can create, “a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (100), and also her new relation to Mango Street and her origins. The house on Mango Street becomes an overtly maternal figure who collaborates in her freedom and creativity: “I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free” (110).

DuPlessis sees the circular structure of the twentieth-century woman's Künstlerroman as a way of writing “beyond” the traditional endings available to women, what Woolf in A Room of One's Own called “breaking the sequence” of conventional plot (A Room 85, 95). “In these works,” DuPlessis writes, “the female artist is given a way of looping back and reenacting childhood ties, to achieve not the culturally approved ending in heterosexual romance, but rather the reparenting necessary to her second birth as an artist” (94). The “maternal muse” and “reparenting motifs,” DuPlessis suggests, are among the “strategies that erode, transpose, and reject narratives of heterosexual love and romantic thralldom” (94). Esperanza contrasts fairy tale romances with the lives of the women around her as she develops a new narrative form to tell their stories and give shape to her own vocation. “You must keep writing,” her aunt tells her, “It will keep you free” (61).


There will be narratives of female lives only when women no longer live their lives isolated in the houses and the stories of men.

(Carolyn G. Heilbrun Writing a Woman's Life 47)

In A Room of One's Own, Woolf looked ahead to the woman in the future who would write a different sort of “novel,” “some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her” (80). She anticipated that women writers would need to break the sentence and to break the sequence, “the expected order,” in order to develop forms “adapted to the [woman's] body” and expressive of women's lives (85, 95, 81). Women's books, she suggested, would possibly “be shorter, more concentrated, than those of men” (81), and would undoubtedly deal with new subjects (86-96). The House on Mango Street fulfills many of Woolf's prophecies, most obviously in its brevity and generic instability. Cisneros herself has called her stories “a cross between poetry and fiction,”7 which she wanted her readers to be able to read both in and out of sequence: “I wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after. Or, that could be read in a series to tell one big story. I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation” (“Do You Know Me?” 78).

Woolf specified gender and class as the two subject areas yet to be explored. The female writer of the future need no longer depict women exclusively in relation to men; she would be free to explore “relationships between women,” particularly friendships, “those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are alone, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex” (A Room 86, 88). Further, Woolf wrote, “she will not need to limit herself any longer to the respectable houses of the upper middle classes” (92). In lectures Cisneros has explained that her subject emerged in a “defensive and rebellious” reaction to her white middle-class fellow graduate students at the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop: “My intent was simply to chronicle, to write about something my classmates couldn't” (“Do You Know Me?” 78).

Poverty was the “ghost” she attempted to escape before she found her subject, Cisneros told an audience of young writers (“Ghosts” 72). “As a poor person growing up in a society where the class norm was superimposed on a t.v. screen, I couldn't understand why our home wasn't all green lawn and white wood like the ones in ‘Leave It To Beaver’ or ‘Father Knows Best’” (72). The metaphor of the house emerged, Cisneros said, in a heated graduate seminar discussion of Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space: “What did I know except third-floor flats. Surely my classmates knew nothing about that. That's precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible” (73).

Julián Olivares argues that Bachelard's book delineates a “poetics of space” that is particularly the provenance of the privileged upper-class white male, “probably never having to do ‘female’ housework and probably never having been confined to the house for reason of his sex.” Bachelard's reveries of “felicitous space,” he contends, evoke “images of a house that a woman might not have, especially an impoverished woman raised in a ghetto” (160). Olivares overlooks a number of feminist writers, however, who have explored the special relation of women to houses and rooms, the traditional realm of their “separate sphere.”8 In A Room of One's Own Woolf described the creative power exerted by women in the drawing-room or nursery, “the centre of some different order and system of life” (90):

One goes into a room—but the resources of the English language would be much put to the stretch, and whole flights of words would need to wing their way illegitimately into existence before a woman could say what happens when she goes into a room. … One has only to go into any room in any street for the whole of that extremely complex force of femininity to fly in one's face. How should it be otherwise? For women have sat indoors all these millions of years, so that by this time the very walls are permeated by their creative force, which has, indeed, so overcharged the capacity of bricks and mortar that it must needs harness itself to pens and brushes and business and politics. But this creative power differs greatly from the creative power of men.


While it might be argued that Woolf's privileged experience of domestic space more closely approximates an upper-class white Englishman's than a contemporary woman of color's in the United States, Toni Morrison has also commented on the peculiar “intimacy” of a woman's sense of place, “a woman's strong sense of being in a room, a place, or in a house.” “Sometimes my relationship to things in a house would be a little different from, say my brother's or my father's or my sons',” she told Robert Stepto in an interview, “I clean them and I move them and I do very intimate things ‘in place’: I am sort of rooted in it, so that writing about being in a room looking out, or being in a world looking out, or living in a small definite place, is probably very common among most women anyway” (Stepto 213).9

The domestic realm arouses a variety of responses in contemporary women writers. Tillie Olsen has most vividly described the difficulty of making space in a woman's daily life for writing: “habits of years—response to others, distractibility, responsibility for daily matters—stay with you, mark you, become you” (39). Esperanza boldly proclaims her intention to break these habits early: “I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (House 89).10 Gender roles, as well as class, condition Esperanza's response to women's confinement to the household. Olivares is largely correct in his central premise that “Cisneros … inverts Bachelard's pronouncement on the poetics of space; for Cisneros the inside, the here, can be confinement and a source of anguish and alienation” (161). In story after story of the women in her community, Esperanza recognizes that a room—if not of one's own—can be stifling.

Her own grandmother, unhappily married, “looked out the window all her life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (11). Because Rafaela is beautiful, her husband locks her indoors on Tuesday nights while he plays dominoes; Rafaela is “still young,” Esperanza explains, “but getting old from leaning out the window so much” (79). Louie's cousin Marin “can't come out—gotta baby-sit with Louie's sisters—but she stands in the doorway a lot” (23-24). “We never see Marin until her aunt comes home from work,” Esperanza tells us, “and even then she can only stay out front” (27). Across the street on the third floor, Mamacita, who speaks no English, “sits all day by the window and plays the Spanish radio shows and sings all the homesick songs about her country” (77). Sally's father keeps her inside and beats her when he thinks of his sisters who ran away. Later Sally's husband won't let her talk on the phone or even look out the window:

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.


“There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn't Know What to Do” suggests the Mother Goose character who lived in a shoe; “Rosa Vargas' kids are too many and too much” and even the neighborhood has given up trying to help (29). Throughout Esperanza's narrative shoes intersect with the theme of dwellings as images of constricting femininity.11 The enormously fat Mamacita with her tiny feet arrives in the United States with “a dozen boxes of satin high heels” and then never leaves her room again, perhaps because she's fat, perhaps because she doesn't speak English, perhaps because she can't climb the three flights of stairs” (77). Sire ties his girlfriend Lois's shoes as Esperanza concludes that Lois doesn't know how. “Mama says those kind of girls, those girls are the ones that go into alleys. Lois who can't tie her shoes. Where does he take her?” (73). In “The Family of Little Feet,” Esperanza and her girlfriends Lucy and Rachel spend a day teetering on high heels, sampling adult femininity. “It's Rachel who learns to walk the best all strutted in those magic high heels. She teaches us to cross and uncross our legs, and to run like a double-dutch rope, and how to walk down to the corner so that the shoes talk back to you with every step.” The men on the corner “can't take their eyes off” them. The grocer tells them they're “too young to be wearing shoes like that,” the shoes are “dangerous” and he's going to “call the cops.” A bum accosts Rachel and offers her a dollar for a kiss. “Tired of being beautiful,” the girls abandon the shoes and never wear them again (40-42).

Gender identity in “The Family of Little Feet” becomes an arbitrary cultural construct assumed like a pair of shoes.12 “The boys and girls live in separate worlds,” as Esperanza explains to us (11), yet it is possible to act like a male by refusing household chores, or to act like a female by wobbling helplessly on high heels. Even “scientific facts” marking gender difference, such as women's hips, become part of the cultural production of gender identity as the girls speculate on their functions:

They're good for holding a baby when you're cooking, Rachel says turning the jump rope a little quicker. She has no imagination.

You need them to dance, says Lucy.

If you don't get them you may turn into a man. Nenny says this and she believes it. She is this way because of her age.

That's right, I add before Lucy or Rachel can make fun of her. She is stupid alright, but she is my sister.

But most important, hips are scientific, I say repeating what Alicia already told me. It's the bones that let you know which skeleton was a man's when it was a man and which a woman's.


Like the high heels, hips require practice. “You gotta know how to walk with hips,” Esperanza explains, “practice you know—like if half of you wanted to go one way and the other half the other” (50). As their jump rope game progresses, what separates Nenny from the three older girls is not the immaturity of her hips, but her inability to improvise new rhymes on hips as they swing the rope. “Not that old song, I say. You gotta use your own song. Make it up, you know? But she doesn't get it or won't. It's hard to say which. The rope turning, turning, turning” (50).

By improvising their own songs, Esperanza and her friends “write beyond the ending” of the cultural scripts confining the women around them,13 rejecting “that old song” that Nenny repeats, or the “same story” that Minerva tells, every time she takes her husband back (50, 85). Esperanza observes that the “stories the boys tell in the coatroom” about her friend Sally are “not true,” and also that Sally herself has perpetuated lies from the “storybooks and movies”: “Sally, you lied. It wasn't what you said at all. … The way they said it, the way it's supposed to be, all the storybooks and movies, why did you lie to me?” (99). Just as the relationship between the two girls is more central to Cisneros's loosely structured plot than any heterosexual bonds, so Esperanza seems to feel Sally's betrayal more keenly than the rape she suffers while she waits for Sally at the carnival. “Sally Sally a hundred times,” she says, hoping her friend will “make him stop” (100). And later she repeats over and over, “You're a liar. They all lied. All the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong. Only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his sour smell again. The moon that watched” (100). When she cries, “I waited my whole life” (100), Esperanza bitterly evokes the “romance” of deflowering as well as the eternity she waited for Sally to rescue her.

Woolf suggested that twentieth-century women writers would be free to explore relationships between women, who in the past had “not only [been] seen by the other sex, but seen only in relation to the other sex” (A Room 86). The friendship between Esperanza and Sally in Mango Street recalls Clarissa's bond with another Sally in Woolf's experimental novel Mrs. Dalloway. Esperanza's Sally, like Clarissa's bohemian friend, represents danger and adventure: “Sally is the girl with eyes like Egypt and nylons the color of smoke” (House 81). While Clarissa's Sally is undone by the relatively benign institutions of bourgeois marriage and motherhood, Esperanza's Sally endures physical abuse from her father, the cruel gossip of the boys in the coatroom, and an unhappy marriage before she reaches eighth grade. When Sally ignores Esperanza's attempt to “save” her from Tito and his friends, who significantly will return her keys only if she kisses each of them, the grief-stricken Esperanza loses the Edenic innocence of her girlhood: “I looked at my feet in their white socks and ugly round shoes. They seemed far away. They didn't seem to be my feet anymore. And the garden that had been such a good place to play didn't seem mine either” (98).14 Esperanza's “monkey garden,” choked with weeds and abandoned cars, would seem “far away” from the flower-filled British terrace of Woolf's novel, where Clarissa and Sally's kiss was rudely interrupted by Clarissa's suitor Peter and the intrusive cultural expectations of adult heterosexuality (Mrs. Dalloway 52-53).15 Yet within their disparate socioeconomic settings, both narratives self-consciously resist the closure of the conventional romance or marriage plot, which DuPlessis defines as “the use of conjugal love as a telos and of the developing heterosexual love relation as a major … element in organizing the narrative action” (200n22).

Tensions between Esperanza's new narratives and “all the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong” are most evident in her use of fairy tales as counterpoints to women's lives in the barrio. Locked in her room, Rafaela “dreams her hair is like Rapunzel's” and yearns to be rescued (79). Marin moons in the doorway under the streetlamp, hoping the boys will see her: “Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life” (27). When they receive the gift of the discarded shoes, Esperanza and her friends shout, “Hurray! Today we are Cinderella because our feet fit exactly” (40). Their encounters with men as they strut in their glass slippers escalate in danger until they flee from the drunken “bum man,” a leering Prince Charming whose kiss they refuse.16

Princes are conspicuously absent or threatening in almost all of Esperanza's stories. Rosa Vargas's husband “left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come” (29). Minerva's “mother raised her kids alone and it looks like her daughters will go that way too” (84). Edna's daughter Ruthie sleeps on a couch in her living room and “says she's just visiting and next weekend her husband's gonna come back to take her home. But the weekends come and go and Ruthie stays” (69). Esperanza's godmothers's husbands left or died (91). Minerva's husband, who “left and keeps leaving,” throws a rock through the window when she “finally” puts him out. “Then he is sorry and she opens the door again. Same story. Next week she comes over black and blue and asks what can she do? Minerva. I don't know which way she'll go. There is nothing I can do” (85). When Sally marries a marshmallow salesman out of state, she tells Esperanza she is in love, but Esperanza thinks “she did it to escape” her father's beatings. Trapped in her room with its linoleum roses and “ceiling smooth as wedding cake,” Sally is imprisoned by the very prince who was to rescue her (102).

Most of the women yearn for different endings. Minerva secretly writes poems on “little pieces of paper that she folds over and over and holds in her hands a long time, little pieces of paper that smell like a dime” (84). On Tuesday nights Rafaela lowers a shopping bag on a clothesline from her locked room so that the children can send up coconut and papaya juice, “and wishes there were sweeter drinks, not bitter like an empty room, but sweet sweet like the island, like the dance hall down the street where women much older than her throw green eyes easily like dice and open homes with keys” (80). Yet if Rafaela desires her own key, she continues to dream of what DuPlessis terms “romantic thralldom” (66-67), the same stories that locked her in her room: “And always there is someone offering sweeter drinks, someone promising to keep them on a silver string” (80). Marin also yearns for the silver string—a job downtown, where you “get to wear nice clothes and can meet someone in the subway who might marry you and take you to live in a big house far away” (26). Esperanza's little sister Nenny insists “she won't wait her whole life for a husband to come and get her,” nor does she want to leave the house like Minerva's sister by having a baby: “She wants things all her own,” Esperanza says, “to pick and choose. Nenny has pretty eyes and it's easy to talk that way if you are pretty” (88). Esperanza, whose hair “never obeys barrettes or bands” (6), tells us that she is the “ugly daughter,” “the one nobody comes for” (82). She dreams of being a movie screen femme fatale, “beautiful and cruel”: “Her power is her own. She will not give it away” (89). She has decided, she tells us, “not to grow up tame like the others” (88).

Indifferent to the prince's glass slipper, Esperanza seeks to develop an autonomous identity. She and Lucy and Rachel decisively abandon their high heels after a day of playing grownup princesses at the ball. In a related episode, Esperanza, dressed in new clothes for her cousin's baptism, is ashamed to dance because of her old and scuffed brown and white saddle shoes. Her feet “grow bigger and bigger” as she declines invitations to dance until her uncle pulls her onto the dance floor:

My feet swell big and heavy like plungers, but I drag them across the linoleum floor straight center where Uncle wants to show off the new dance we learned. And Uncle spins me and my skinny arms bend the way he taught me and my mother watches and my little cousins watch and the boy who is my cousin by first communion watches and everyone says, wow, who are those two who dance like in the movies, until I forget that I am wearing only ordinary shoes, brown and white, the kind my mother buys each year for school.


Esperanza reconciles herself to “ordinary shoes” as she will later reconcile herself to Mango Street. In both cases this reconciliation entails a new freedom, to dance, to imagine a house of her own with her “two shoes waiting beside the bed,” a house “quiet as snow,” “clean as paper before the poem” (108). The blank page allows her the freedom to imagine new scripts for women's lives. “You can never have too much sky,” she tells us (33).

Woolf's Mary Beton in A Room of One's Own explained that her aunt's legacy of five hundred pounds a year “unveiled the sky” to her, “substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman, which Milton recommended for my perpetual adoration, a view of the open sky” (39). Esperanza's first vision of a house with a room of one's own is inspired by her passionate sorrow for Sally, her wish that Sally could escape the life she leads on Mango Street:

Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn't have to go home? Do you wish your feet would one day keep walking and take you far away from Mango Street, far away and maybe your feet would stop in front of a house, a nice one with flowers and big windows and steps for you to climb up two by two upstairs where a room is waiting for you. And if you opened the little window latch and gave it a shove, the windows would swing open, all the sky would come in.


In an environment where “there is too much sadness and not enough sky” (33), Esperanza's dream is collective and redemptive: to liberate the women around her from the tyrannies of male houses and male plots.


One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.

(Sandra Cisneros The House on Mango Street 110)

Pondering the doors shut by the male custodian of the library, Woolf in 1928 “thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and … how it is worse perhaps to be locked in” (A Room 24). To be confined within male structures might be as great a disadvantage to the female artist as to be outside them. To achieve the “freedom and fullness of expression” Woolf considered necessary to art, women must design new spaces appropriate to their dreams and needs. “A book is not made of sentences laid end to end,” wrote Woolf, “but of sentences built … into arcades or domes. And this shape too has been made by men out of their own needs for their own uses” (80).

As Esperanza shapes her narrative, images of constricting, infelicitous space are balanced by powerful feminine images of what Bachelard terms “felicitous space.” Their third-floor flat on Loomis above the boarded-up laundromat, which they had to leave “quick” when the water pipes broke, is an early source of shame to Esperanza, when the nun from her school says “‘You live there?’ … You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing” (5). The series of third-floor flats, on Loomis, and before that on Keeler, and before that on Paulina, more flats than Esperanza can remember, would not seem to exemplify Bachelard's intuition that “life begins well, it begins enclosed, protected, all warm in the bosom of the house” (7). What Esperanza “remember[s] most is moving a lot” (3). “I never had a house,” she complains to Alicia on Mango Street, “… only one I dream of” (107). Yet the “maternal features of the house” that Bachelard describes are literally exemplified in the felicitous peace of Esperanza's mother's body, “when she makes a little room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her,” “when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe” (6). Within this shelter, the small girl can begin to dream.

The overcrowded house on Mango Street, with its “swollen” door, “crumbling” bricks, and “windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath,” is “not the house we'd thought we'd get,” Esperanza complains, “not the way they told it at all” (3-4). Yet Mango Street becomes an integral part of herself, the source of her art and her freedom. Las comadres, the three magical sisters, tell Esperanza: “When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know: You can't forget who you are” (105). If Mango Street is “not the way they told it at all,” then Esperanza's developing resolve is to re-member herself through a new telling that will not erase realities, and to begin by circling back to “what I remember most … Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to” (110). Bachelard suggests that circular structures “help us to collect ourselves, permit us to confer an initial constitution on ourselves,” and advises that “by remembering ‘houses’ and ‘rooms,’ we learn to ‘abide’ within ourselves” (234, xxxiii). Esperanza's negotiation with her origins is more ambivalent and less nostalgic than Bachelard's, but remembering Mango Street is nevertheless intimately connected to the formation of her identity as a woman, an adult member of her community, and a writer.

Through Mango Street, Esperanza is able to explore the tensions between belonging and not belonging. Hers is a story, she tells us, “about a girl who didn't want to belong” (109). In “My Name” she confides her rebellious desire 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. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do” (11). Her successive baptisms, like the names for the shape-shifting clouds in “And Some More,” keep Esperanza's identity fluid. Yet she also acknowledges that the name Esperanza belongs to her, a legacy from her great-grandmother, a “wild horse of a woman.” “I have inherited her name,” Esperanza tells us, “but I don't want to inherit her place by the window” (11). When Alicia tells her that “like it or not” she is Mango Street and will come back, she replies:

Not me. Not until somebody makes it better.

Who's going to do it? The mayor?

And the thought of the mayor coming to Mango Street makes me laugh out loud.

Who's going to do it? Not the mayor.


Through naming herself and her community, Esperanza returns both to accept and to alter her inheritance. Her most conspicuous alliances when she constitutes herself as speaking subject are ethnic and local. The “we” she speaks is Hispanic, herself and her barrio neighbors.17 “Those who don't know any better come into our neighborhood scared,” she says of outsiders:

But we aren't afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby's brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that's Rosa's Eddie V. and the big one that looks like a dumb grown man, he's Fat Boy, though he's not fat anymore nor a boy.


Names and stories create an intimate realm of safety in Esperanza's early stories. “All brown all around we are safe” (29). In “And Some More,” a litany of names punctuates the girls' conversation: Rachel's cousin who's “got three last names and, let me see, two first names. One in English and one in Spanish. … Phyllis, Ted, Alfredo and Julie. … Jose and Dagoberto, Alicia, Raul, Edna, Alma and Rickey. …” (35-36). Musing on the Eskimos's thirty names for snow, Esperanza and her friends supply over fifty-two names of the people around them, drawing their magic circle to a close with the communal declaration of their own names: “Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza, and Nenny” (38).

Yet as Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza, and Nenny grow, this sense of community shifts. The dangers that threaten them come from without but also within their own neighborhood, even within their own households. Men's names appear far less frequently in the latter part of Esperanza's narrative, where women's names and the bonds between women predominate. Alicia is “young and smart and studies for the first time at the university,” but her father defines her reality and her “place” when he insists that she is “just imagining” the mice in the kitchen and that “anyway, a woman's place is sleeping so she can wake up early with the tortilla star” (31). Rafaela's husband locks her in. Sally becomes a “different Sally” when she hurries “straight home after school,” where her father beats her “just because [she's] a daughter” (82, 92). Minerva's husband leaves her “black and blue” (85), and though she “cries” and “prays” and “writes poems on little pieces of paper” she remains trapped in the “same story,” the same cycle of violence. Esperanza and her girlfriends successfully flee the bum who wants to kiss them, but already Rachel, “young and dizzy,” is tempted by the “sweet things” he says and the dollar in his pocket, and “who can blame her” (41). Later Esperanza endures the unwanted kiss of the “older Oriental man” at her first job, and the brutal sexual assault at the fair where she waits in vain by the grotesque red clowns for Sally.18 “Why did you leave me all alone?” (100). Sally's escape from the violence of her father's household leads to a new form of confinement and a husband who sometimes “gets angry and once he broke the door where his foot went through, though most days he is okay” (101). Impatient with writers who “make our barrios look like Sesame Street,” Cisneros told an interviewer that “poor neighborhoods lose their charm after dark. … I was writing about it in the most real sense that I know, as a person walking those neighborhoods with a vagina” (Aranda 69).

Esperanza's dream of a house of her own—“Not a man's house. Not a daddy's.” (108)—is both solitary and communal, a refuge for herself and for others. In Felicitous Space, Judith Fryer dwells on the spaces women inhabit, as well as those they imagine:

It is not only, then, as Virginia Woolf suggested, that women have had no space to themselves, not only that they have been forbidden spaces reserved for men. Trapped, as she has been at home, a home that in America has been “not her retreat, but her battleground … her arena, her boundary, her sphere … [with] no other for her activities,” woman has been unable to move. She has been denied, in our culture, the possibility of dialectical movement between private spaces and open spaces. But let us not forget the room of one's own. …


In Cisneros's reconstruction of Woolf's “room of one's own,” Esperanza's “house of my own” simultaneously represents an escape from the barrio, a rejection of the domestic drudgery of “home” (“Nobody's garbage to pick up after” [108]), a solitary space for her creativity, and a communal expression of women's lives. Like her name, her dream of a house is a legacy from her family. “Our house would be white with trees around it,” Esperanza explains in the opening chapter, “a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. This was the house Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket and this was the house Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed” (4). The older Esperanza stops listening to her mother's stories of the house when she begins to develop her own (86). As she gazes longingly at the houses on the hill, “the ones with the gardens where Papa works,” she vows that she'll allow space for bums in the attic when she owns her own house (86). The house becomes as well an imaginary dwelling—the “home in the heart,” “house made of heart” prophesied by the witch woman Elenita (64)—as Esperanza's sympathy for Sally animates her vision of a house “with plenty of blue sky,” providing shelter for laughter and imagination: “And you could laugh, Sally. You could go to sleep and wake up and never have to think who likes and doesn't like you. You could close your eyes and you wouldn't have to worry what people said because you never belonged here anyway and nobody could make you sad and nobody would think you're strange because you like to dream and dream” (83). Finally the house for Esperanza becomes a creative refuge, “quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (108). Many women in the community help her to arrive there: Edna's Ruthie, who listens when she recites “The Walrus and the Carpenter”; Elenita, who tells her fortune; her Aunt Lupe, who listens to her read library books and her first poems; Minerva, who trades poems with her; the three sisters, who offer her prophecies; and her mother, who encourages her to study.

Esperanza dreams of release and of reunion. She will leave Mango Street, “the house I belong but do not belong to” (110), but, she tells us, “I won't forget who I am or where I came from” (87). Traditionally the Künstlerroman closes with a departure. Joyce's Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man leaves the poverty and numbing provinciality of Dublin behind him, ready to “fly” the “nets” of “nationality, language, religion” in order to devote himself to art (203). But Esperanza will go away “to come back”: “For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (102). Her book, dedicated “A las Mujeres/To the Women,” will tell not only the story of her own artistic development but the stories of the many women around her. “You must remember to come back,” Lucy and Rachel's mysterious aunt tells her, “for the ones who cannot leave as easily as you” (98).


First world feminist criticism is struggling to avoid repeating the same imperializing moves that we claim to protest. We must leave home, as it were, since our homes are often sites of racism, sexism, and other damaging social practices. Where we come to locate ourselves in terms of our specific histories and differences must be a place with room for what can be salvaged from the past and what can be made new.

(Caren Kaplan “Deterritorializations: The Rewriting of Home and Exile in Western Feminist Discourse” 194-95)

In A Room of One's Own Woolf suggested that the female writer is always “an inheritor as well as an originator” (113). Her own legacy has crossed color and class lines in the feminist community. Michèle Barrett, writing from a Marxist-feminist perspective, applauds Woolf's fruitful and still largely unexplored insight in A Room of One's Own that “the conditions under which men and women produce literature are materially different” (103). Tillie Olsen uses A Room to meditate on the silences of women more marginal than Shakespeare's sister, exploring not only gender as one of the “traditional silencers of humanity,” but also “class—economic circumstances—and color” (24).19A Room of One's Own serves explicitly as the foundation for Alice Walker's reconstruction of her African American mothers' and grandmothers' creative achievements in “In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens.”20 Elsewhere Walker numbers Tillie Olsen and Virginia Woolf among the artistic models indispensable to her development (14). Amy Ling stresses “how much we share as a community of women and how often our commonalities cross cultural and racial barriers”: “Reading Barolini, like reading Alice Walker's ‘In Search of our Mothers' Gardens’ and The Color Purple, Audre Lorde's poems and essays, and Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own is like finding sisters I didn't know I had” (154).

While some women of color have expressed radical alienation from the privileged position of “our reputed foresister Virginia Woolf,” others read Woolf through Olsen's class perspective.21 “Ideally,” the Chicana writer Helena María Viramontes comments, “it would be bliss to manipulate the economic conditions of our lives and thus free our minds, our hands, to write. But there is no denying that this is a privilege limited to a certain sex, race, and class. The only bad thing about privilege, Virginia Woolf wrote (I'm paraphrasing from Tillie Olsen) was that not every one could have it” (34). Viramontes and Cherríe Moraga have acknowledged the inspiration of contemporary African American women writers for their own writing.22 Cisneros's “house of my own”—“Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias” (100)—may have been inspired not only by Woolf's “room of one's own” but also by a similarly complex crossing of Emily Dickinson's dwelling “in Possibility— / A fairer House than Prose—,” Alice Walker's maternal gardens and “Revolutionary Petunias,” and Audre Lorde's landmark statement “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.”23

Jane Marcus has designated Virginia Woolf “the mother of us all” (Meese 91), who invited her feminist successors to become “co-conspirators against culture,” and who envisioned “untying the mother tongue, freeing language from bondage to the fathers and returning it to women and the working classes” (“Thinking Back” 83, 73). Yet Woolf's relation to women of the working classes is frequently problematic. In 1930, when she was invited to write an introduction to a collection of papers by working women, Woolf found much of interest in “these voices … beginning only now to emerge from silence into half-articulate speech.” But she also asserted emphatically, “It is not from the ranks of working-class women that the next great poet or novelist will be drawn” (“Memories” 148, 147). Woolf and many of her contemporary defenders seem all too often to imagine speaking from a privileged position for the obscure, the silenced, and the oppressed. In “Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet,” Marcus elaborates her well-known metaphor of Woolf as the swallow Procne voicing the tongueless Philomel's text:

The voice of the nightingale, the voice of the shuttle weaving its story of oppression, is the voice which cries for freedom; an appropriate voice for women of color and lesbians, it speaks from the place of imprisonment as political resistance. The voice of the swallow, however, Procne's voice, is the voice of the reader, the translator, the middle-class feminist speaking for her sisters: in a sense, the voice which demands justice. The socialist feminist critic's voice is a voice of revenge, collaboration, defiance, and solidarity with her oppressed sister's struggle. She chooses to attend to her sister's story or even to explicate its absence, as Virginia Woolf told the story of Shakespeare's sister.


While Procne may support and even empower her sister, Marcus neglects to address the possibility that Procne may fail to attend to her sister's story, may even herself silence Philomel in the process of explicating her story's “absence.”

Certainly much of the anger and frustration voiced by the women of color in collections such as This Bridge Called My Back and Making Face, Making Soul derives from the easy assumption of power among white middle-class feminists, who seem either to ignore their presence or to usurp their voices. “What I mind is the pseudo-liberal ones who suffer from the white women's burden,” Gloria Anzaldúa writes: “She attempts to talk for us—what a presumption! This act is a rape of our tongue and our acquiescence is a complicity to that rape. We women of color have to stop being modern medusas—throats cut, silenced into a mere hissing” (“La Prieta” 206). Chandra Mohanty firmly concludes her discussion of the position of “third world women” within Western feminist discourses with the directive: “It is time to move beyond the Marx who found it possible to say: They cannot represent themselves; they must be represented” (354). Countless Philomels have not lost their tongues. If she is truly to achieve “collaboration” and “solidarity” through her song, Procne needs to imagine more harmonious alternatives to her solo performance. Adrienne Rich and Audre Lorde are among the growing number of feminists voicing the urgent necessity for dialogue between groups divided by race, ethnicity, class, and sexual preference within the feminist movement.24 While the editors of This Bridge Called My Back uncovered radical “separation” in their effort to forge a “connection” with white women, the aim of their anthology was nevertheless to “create a definition that expands what ‘feminist’ means to us” (This Bridge 61, xxiii).

By engaging A Room of One's Own in The House on Mango Street, Cisneros opens a dialogue. Preserving Woolf's feminist architecture, she enlarges and even reconstructs Woolf's room to make space for her own voice and concerns. “I like to tell stories,” her protagonist announces simply. “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much” (101). Woolf predicted that the female writer would remain conscious of “the experience of the mass … behind the single voice” and of “the common life which is the real life and not … the little separate lives which we live as individuals” (69, 117). The female writer would enjoy a greater anonymity than the male writer, who was unhappily prone to erect an “I” that overshadowed his subject (A Room 52, 115, 103-105). Esperanza, who often speaks as “we,” and sometimes is not present at all in her stories, achieves a collective as well as an individual voice. In vignettes such as “What Sally Said” and “A Smart Cookie,” she is primarily a listener, aware, as Woolf was, of the “accumulation of unrecorded life” on Mango Street (A Room 93). In “Geraldo No Last Name” we hear “what he told” Marin, the “story” that Marin told “again and again. Once to the hospital and twice to the police.” And the story that no one told: “Only Marin can't explain why it mattered, the hours and hours, for somebody she didn't even know. The hospital emergency room” (65-66). Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano has suggested that an impulse toward a “collective subject” is characteristic of the Chicana writer, who finds “the power, the permission, the authority to tell stories about herself and other Chicanas … from her cultural, racial/ethnic and linguistic community” (141).

Free to tell stories, Esperanza—hope—will speak for herself and her people, in her own voice, from a vividly imagined house of her own. “One day I'll own my own house,” she assures us, “but I won't forget who I am or where I came from” (81). She will speak in two tongues, English and Spanish, from inside and outside the barrio. She will speak for the nameless: for “Geraldo No Last Name”—“just another wetback” who died in the emergency room before anyone could identify him.

His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away. They will wonder. Shrug. Remember. Geraldo. He went north … we never heard from him again.


She will speak for the speechless: for Mamacita, who “doesn't come out because she is afraid to speak English” (74), and whose son grows away from her in America.

And then to break her heart forever, the baby boy who has begun to talk, starts to sing the Pepsi commercial he heard on T.V.

No speak English, she says to the child who is singing in the language that sounds like tin. No speak English, no speak English, and bubbles into tears. No, no, no as if she can't believe her ears.


She will speak for all the women shut in their rooms: for Rafaela, “who is still young but getting old from leaning out the window so much” (76), for Sally, who “sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without [her husband's] permission” (95), for her great-grandmother Esperanza, who “looked out the window all her life” (12). She will speak for the banished: for Louie's other cousin, who gave all the kids a ride in his yellow Cadillac before the cops took him off in handcuffs (25-26), for Marin, whose employers will send her back to Puerto Rico.

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.


She will speak for the dead: for her Aunt Lupe (54-57), for Geraldo, for her great-grandmother, for Lucy and Rachel's baby sister (96), for Angel Vargas, “who learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an ‘Oh’” (31).

She will speak for herself: “I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain” (82). Instead, like the four trees “who grew despite concrete,” “four who reach and do not forget to reach” (71), Esperanza survives to reach for her own freedom and to release the stories of those around her. “There are so few of us writing about the powerless,” Cisneros said in a lecture, “and that world, the world of thousands of silent women, women like my mama and Emily Dickinson's housekeeper, needs to be, must be recorded so that their stories can finally be heard” (“Notes” 76).


  1. See Smith 160-62, Walker 371-79, and Tate interview with Morrison 121. Lillian Robinson also professes herself “disheartened” by the “increasingly hegemonic, essentialist tendencies in feminist scholarship and criticism,” arguing forcefully for the total reevaluation of women's literature that an open canon would entail: “… the difference of gender is not the only one that subsists among writers or the people they write about. It may not always be the major one. Women differ from one another by race, by ethnicity, by sexual orientation, and by class. Each of these contributes its historic specificity to social conditions and to the destiny and consciousness of individual women. Moreover, these differences are not simply or even primarily individual attributes. They are social definitions, based on the existence and the interaction of groups of people and of historical forces. As scholarship—itself primarily or secondarily feminist—reveals the existence of a black female tradition or a working-class women's literature, it is insufficient simply to tack these works onto the existing canon, even the emerging women's canon. Once again, every generalization about women's writing that was derived from surveying only relatively privileged white writers is called into question by looking at writers who are not middle class and white” (“Feminist Criticism” 148, 146). See also Robinson, “Canon Fathers and Myth Universe”; Judith Kegan Gardiner, Elly Bulkin, Rena Grasso Patterson, and Annette Kolodny, “An Interchange on Feminist Criticism”; the writings by women of color collected in This Bridge Called My Back, edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa, and Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras, edited by Gloria Anzaldúa; and Audre Lorde's collection of essays Sister Outsider, particularly “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House” (also included in This Bridge Called My Back), “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference,” “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism,” and “Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger.”

  2. See also essays by María C. Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman, Caren Kaplan, Cora Kaplan, and Chandra Mohanty. Mohanty writes: “What is problematical, then, about this kind of use of ‘women’ as a group, as a stable category of analysis, is that it assumes an ahistorical, universal unity between women based on a generalized notion of their subordination. Instead of analytically demonstrating the production of women as socio-economic political groups within particular local contexts, this move limits the definition of the female subject to gender identity, completely bypassing social class and ethnic identities. What characterizes women as a group is their gender (sociologically not necessarily biologically defined) over and above everything else, indicating a monolithic notion of sexual difference. Because women are thus constituted as a coherent group, sexual difference becomes coterminous with female subordination, and power is automatically defined in binary terms: people who have it (read: men), and people who do not (read: women). Men exploit, women are exploited. As suggested above, such simplistic formulations are both reductive and ineffectual in designing strategies to combat oppressions. All they do is reinforce binary divisions between men and women” (344).

  3. Jane Marcus leans heavily on this line in her defense of Woolf as a “socialist feminist”; see particularly “Still Practice, A/Wrested Alphabet” (235-36), and her discussion of the “romantic socialist vision of the charwoman” in “Daughters of Anger” (298-99). See also Lillian S. Robinson's “Who's Afraid of a Room of One's Own?” for a class-based critique of A Room and specifically of Woolf's stirring peroration (146).

  4. I am indebted to Mary Lou Emery's discussion of this passage in her unpublished conference paper. “The sentence quoted above,” Emery writes, “not only makes use of the no longer acceptable term ‘negress,’ but it constitutes its subject—‘woman’ and ‘one’—as exclusively white. The subject of the sentence excludes black women from the category ‘woman’ and presumes to judge them as ‘very fine’ in the same breath that it criticizes masculine imperialist habits of thought. My point here is not to smash the idol (feminism's ‘great mother and sister’) Virginia Woolf but, borrowing a term from Julia Kristeva, to demassify it in an exploration of the ways ‘western feminist’ writings constitute colonized and working-class women as outside of the subject ‘woman.’” See also Mary Eagleton's discussion of this passage in “Women and Literary Production” (42) and Michèle Barrett's thoughtful deconstruction of a similar passage in her own earlier work “Ethnocentrism” (35).

  5. Tillie Olsen makes similar observations on Emily Dickinson's privileges in her essay “Silences” (Silences 17).

  6. This form evolved gradually. Cisneros describes piecing the book together like a patchwork quilt (“Do You Know Me?” 79). In an interview, she explained that originally she did not even conceive of Esperanza as a writer: “When I started the series she was not going to be a writer. The book started out as simply memories. Later on—it took me seven years—as I was gaining my class, gender and racial consciousness, the book changed, the direction changed. I didn't intend for her to be a writer, but I had gotten her into this dilemma, and I didn't know how to get her out. … So the only way that I could make her escape the trap of the barrio was to make her an artist” (Aranda 69).

  7. Cisneros, who published two volumes of poetry before The House on Mango Street, in fact sees many of these sketches as unrealized poems: “If several of the stories read like poems it's because some of them originally had been poems. Either poems redone as a story (‘The Three Sisters’) or a story constructed from the debris of an unfinished or unsuccessful poem (‘Beautiful and Cruel’ and ‘A House of My Own’)” (“Do You Know Me?” 79). Elsewhere she has referred to these prose pieces as “vignettes” (“The softly insistent voice of a poet,” Austin American Statesman, March 11, 1986, qtd. in Olivares 161).

  8. See Judith Fryer's Felicitous Space for a particularly rich and imaginative meditation on women's interconnections with “the spaces they inhabit, break free from, transform” (xiii). In Nancy Mairs's memoir Remembering the Bone House—directly inspired by Catherine Clément, Hélène Cixous, and Bachelard's Poetics of Space—female embodiment unfolds in a series of domestic and erotic spaces (7).

  9. Bachelard himself dwells on the phenomenology of “women's construction of the house through daily polishing,” though he is perhaps more excited about the sacramental potential of housework than most housewives might be: “Through housewifely care a house recovers not so much its originality as its origin. And what a great life it would be if, every morning, every object in the house could be made anew by our hands, could ‘issue’ from our hands” (69).

  10. In My Wicked Wicked Ways, Cisneros prefaces her title section with a line chosen from Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior: “Isn't a bad girl almost like a boy?” The narrator in The Woman Warrior also flouts the female roles prescribed for her by deliberately spilling soup, breaking dishes, neglecting her grooming, and affecting an unattractive limp.

  11. “Perhaps women were once so dangerous that they had to have their feet bound,” Maxine Hong Kingston writes in The Woman Warrior (23). Cisneros uses a line from The Woman Warrior as an epigraph to a section in My Wicked Wicked Ways; in The House on Mango Street Esperanza explains that “the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong” (12).

  12. See Sandra Gilbert (“Costumes of the Mind”) for an illuminating discussion of costumes and the creation of sexual identity in female modernist texts such as Woolf's Orlando.

  13. The term “writing beyond the ending” is from Rachel Blau DuPlessis, who writes: “When women as a social group question, and have the economic, political and legal power to sustain and return to questions of marriage law, divorce, the ‘couverte’ status, and their access to vocation, then the relation of narrative middles to resolutions will destabilize culturally, and novelists will begin to ‘write beyond’ the romantic ending” (4). DuPlessis explores a variety of strategies that undermine the romance plot, itself “a trope for the sex gender system as a whole”: “Writing beyond the ending means the transgressive invention of narrative strategies, strategies that express critical dissent from dominant narrative. These tactics, among them reparenting, woman-to-woman and brother-to-sister bonds, and forms of the communal protagonist, take issue with the mainstays of the social and ideological organization of gender, as these appear in fiction” (5).

  14. The Biblical resonance of Esperanza's loss of innocence in the monkey garden is underlined when the children spread the rumor “that the monkey garden had been there before anything” (96). Though Esperanza is the one who wants to “save” Sally from kissing the older boys, she is left feeling “ashamed” and displaced from her former Edenic child's play. The substitution of two young women—Esperanza and Sally—for Adam and Eve parallels the shift in narrative focus from the heterosexual romance plot to a female-centered Künstlerroman. Elizabeth Ordóñez has suggested three modes of discourse common to recent works by ethnic women writers that all seem clearly relevant to Mango Street: 1. “disruption of genre”; 2. “the power to displace ‘the central patriarchal text,’ that is, the Bible”; and 3. “the invention—either through inversion or compensation—of alternate mythical and even historical accounts of women” (“Narrative Texts” 19).

  15. Possibly Cisneros also acknowledges Woolf's feminist agenda in Mrs. Dalloway when she adds solitude to a “room of one's own” as necessary for the creation of art: “And I'm here because I didn't marry my first boyfriend, that pest who never gave me any time alone, something crucial to every writer—‘aloneness’ breeds art” (“Notes” 75). Clarissa Dalloway rejects Peter's marriage suit on similar premises.

  16. Erlinda González-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo also see echoes of “Little Red Riding Hood” in this scene, as the bum, like the wolf, asks the girls to come closer and closer (116). González-Berry and Rebolledo argue persuasively that Cisneros plays these fairy tales against a new model of the female Bildungsroman whereby the heroine is allowed the mythic quest and achievement of the traditional male hero.

  17. María C. Lugones and Elizabeth V. Spelman explore “the differences among women and how these differences are silenced” through a dialogue. The Hispana in the dialogue reflects on the different contexts in which she uses the word “we.” In the paper, “when I say ‘we,’ I am referring to Hispanas,” she writes; ‘you’ refers to “the white/Anglo women that I address.” However, she adds, “‘we’ and ‘you’ do not capture my relation to other non-white women,” and in a footnote she meditates on her general use of “we” outside of the paper: “I must note that when I think this ‘we,’ I think it in Spanish—and in Spanish this ‘we’ is gendered, ‘nosotras.’ I also use ‘nosotros’ lovingly and with ease and in it I include all members of ‘La raza cosmica’ (Spanish-speaking people of the Americas, la gente de colores: people of many colors). In the US, I use ‘we’ contextually with varying degrees of discomfort: ‘we’ in the house, ‘we’ in the department, ‘we’ in the classroom, ‘we’ in the meeting. The discomfort springs from the sense of community in the ‘we’ and the varying degrees of lack of community in the context in which the ‘we’ is used” (“Have We Got a Theory” 575). Although The House on Mango Street is clearly a feminist text, Esperanza does not use “we” to refer to women; instead “we” refers to herself and her family, herself and her childhood girlfriends, and herself and her neighborhood ethnic community (“brown all around”).

  18. Esperanza's “first job” is at the Peter Pan Photofinishers, where she paradoxically must appear grown up by pretending to be older than she is, and where the older man's kiss “on the mouth” damages her innocence. Both her violations come from men outside of her culture. For useful discussions of the rape in “Red Clowns” and violence against women in Mango Street, see María Herrera Sobek, Ellen McCracken, and Ramón Saldívar.

  19. See Elizabeth Meese's discussion of Olsen's reshaping of Woolf's vision. Meese documents “almost forty appearances by Virginia Woolf” in Olsen's Silences (110).

  20. Walker quotes repeatedly from A Room of One's Own in this landmark essay. Her bracketed substitutions in Woolf's prose revise Woolf's perspective to incorporate black women's experiences in often startling ways; however, she is clearly inspired by Woolf's essay. Elsewhere she mentions that she has taught Woolf and Kate Chopin in her course on black women writers, “because they were women and wrote, as the black women did, on the condition of humankind from the perspective of women” (“From an Interview” 260).

  21. The phrase is from Trinh T. Minh-ha (246). See also Gloria Anzaldúa (“Speaking in Tongues” 170), and Nellie Wong, who writes: “You are angered by the arrogance of some articles that would tell you that Virginia Woolf is your spiritual mother, your possible role model, for the work you have to do: to write. And why are you angered except for the fact that she was white and privileged, yet so ill that she walked into the sea” (178). Toril Moi offers a somewhat useful discussion of Woolf's controversial position in contemporary white feminist theory in “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” though she is conspicuously uninterested in women writers of color.

  22. “Once I discovered the Black women writers—Walker, Morrison, Brooks, Shange, again to name a few,” Viramontes writes, “womanism as a subject matter seemed sanctioned, illuminating, innovative, honest, the best in recent fiction that I've seen in a long time” (“‘Nopalitos’” 37). In an interview, Moraga remarked, “I feel that I am a part of a movement of women of color writers. I feel that I have gotten a lot of inspiration from Black women writers in this country” (Umpierre 66).

  23. See Walker's discussion of the title poem in Revolutionary Petunias in “From an Interview” (266-69). Lorde's influential essay appears in both Sister Outsider and This Bridge Called My Back. Cisneros credits Emily Dickinson, her “favorite American poet,” with giving her “inspiration and hope all the years in high school and the first two in college when I was too busy being in love to write” (“Notes” 74, 75). She prefaces the four sections of My Wicked Wicked Ways with epigraphs from Emily Dickinson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Maxine Hong Kingston, and the Portuguese feminist text The Three Marias. These choices seem deliberately to suggest the national, international, class, and ethnic range of her feminist alliances.

  24. See particularly Rich's “Disloyal to Civilization,” the essays in Lorde's Sister Outsider, which also includes an “interview” dialogue between Lorde and Rich, and the essays in Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras, ed. Gloria Anzaldúa. Richard Ohmann has recently written of the challenges involved in all “alliance politics.” Reflecting on his role as a white male who “work[s] in women's studies,” he points out, “What we do there [‘in feminism’] with our experience, our competence, and our gender and class confidence, is a matter to be negotiated through caution, flexibility, improvisation, listening, and often doubtless through a strategic fade into the wallpaper. But I don't see drawing back from the knowledge that feminism is our fight, too. So is racial equality, so is gay liberation, so is antiimperialism. I see the difficulties of our participation in these struggles as parallel to those of our joining in women's liberation, and in consequence I see alliance politics as our challenge and aim” (“In, With” 187).

I am grateful to Professor C. Lok Chua for his encouragement, to Professors Stephen D. Gutierrez, Reuben M. Sanchez, and Lynda Koolish for their helpful readings of earlier versions of this essay, and to too many of my students at CSU, Fresno to list here—most particularly Josephine Vasquez, who launched my rethinking of A Room of One's Own. Thanks are also due to CSU, Fresno for providing generous support in the form of an Affirmative Action Faculty Development Award and a Summer Research Award. A shorter version of this paper was presented in May 1993 at the University of California, Berkeley, at the Seventh Annual Conference of MELUS.

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Nancy Corson Carter (essay date summer 1994)

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SOURCE: Carter, Nancy Corson. “Claiming the Bittersweet Matrix: Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Adrienne Rich.” Critique 35, no. 4 (summer 1994): 195-204.

[In the following excerpt, Carter examines three autobiographical texts by female authors: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, by Alice Walker, and Your Native Land, Your Life, by Adrienne Rich. Carter asserts that in each tale, the protagonist draws from a “bittersweet” past in a transformative process of self-empowerment to develop a newly emergent sense of personal identity.]

This writing begins simply, in gratitude. I have found three wise women artists whose works of great beauty and insight have helped me on my way. Each one shares a story of a difficult journey back to her past to fully claim her creative powers. In so doing, each one befriends all of us who dare (or wish to dare) to undertake such journeys. Each one encourages us, in spite of the mixture of despair and triumph that we are likely to experience as we face the deep-rooted sources of our own oppression. Reading their works, we feel that although reencountering our matrices may be bittersweet, the claiming of them is necessary and potentially empowering.

The first model for this journey is Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, a collection of reviews and essays that chronicle a Black woman artist's quest for context that can nourish and challenge her in her life's work. The second is Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, a lyric prose-poetry collection of short vignettes, fragments, or cuentos del corazón describing a young girl's growing up in an urban Hispanic neighborhood. And the third, Adrienne Rich's Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems, and particularly “Sources,” the longer work within it, which portrays a Jewish woman's return, after sixteen years' absence, to a place in New England that had been her home.

As an Anglo-Christian scholar, I embark humbly on this study of the work of three sister artists. I listen to Audre Lorde's warning in Sister Outsider not to pretend to “a homogeneity of experience covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (116). Instead, I intend to respond as fully as I can to her injunction to “recognize differences among women who are our equals, neither inferior nor superior, and devise ways to use each others' difference to enrich our visions and our joint struggles” (122).

As an academician, I choose these texts for my teaching and writing as part of my own effort in canon re-vision, in engaging in the “difficult dialogues” Johnnella Butler speaks of when she asks us to consider “How does the world really look—and what is there, that was and is that can help us live better in it?” (16). I join her in the search for “A non-hierarchical methodology [that] would refuse primacy to either race, class, gender, or ethnicity, demanding instead a recognition of their matrix-like interaction” (Butler 16). Because I chose these three texts mostly by synchronicity and intuition, I have assembled, without directly intending to, a broadly varied set of works.

As an artist/writer I find each of these stories is like a lost piece of my own. Each one explicitly speaks to, with, and from a specific communal matrix; still, each one has the potential to expand and enrich our sense of the larger matrix for all our stories, for all our woman/human selves. In a sense, they help us consciously to write a larger, more compassionate, and more diversely appreciative human biography, a composite of uniquely different autobiographies that are interwoven in the “matrix-like interaction” named by Butler.

The title images—house, native land, and mothers' gardens—epitomize the bittersweet matrices of these artists' stories. House, native land, and mothers' gardens can represent undeniable sources of power—if only the seeker can overcome their negating, isolating aspects and then claim the positive aspects that create nurturing channels within community. But that community must be carefully chosen, because it, too, can either enslave women or enable them to transform their pain into power.


Walker names a possible gift of the community in the dedication for In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: “TO MY DAUGHTER REBECCA / Who saw in me / what I considered / a scar / and redefined it / as / a world.” In the last essay of her book Walker recounts how at age eight, having enjoyed a childhood of adoration as the “cutest” child around, her right eye was blinded by a BB from one of her brothers' guns. She remembers six years of not raising her head because of the “glob of whitish scar tissue, a hideous cataract” on her eye. Only when she was fourteen, after a doctor removed the “ugly white stuff,” did she regain her previous self-confidence.

Of all the memories associated with her eye, the most significant stems from a time when she was 27 and her daughter was almost three. She remembers that every day Rebecca watched a television program called “Big Blue Marble”:

It begins with a picture of the earth as it appears from the moon. It is bluish, a little battered-looking, but full of light, with whitish clouds swirling around it. Every time I see it I weep with love, as if it is a picture of Grandma's house.


When she went to put Rebecca down for a nap one afternoon, the child took her mother's face between her dimpled hands and said seriously, “Mommy, there's a world in your eye.” Then “gently, but with great interest: ‘Mommy, where did you get that world in your eye?’” (393).

Walker ran crying and laughing to look into the bathroom mirror. “There was a world in my eye. And I saw that it was possible to love it: that in fact, for all it had taught me of shame and anger and inner vision, I did love it.” In a dream that night she danced in loving embrace with a dancer who was “beautiful, whole and free,” who was and is also herself (393).

As one who has felt both the advantages and the humiliations of “white skin privilege,” the story of the whitish scar tissue reminds me that from the context of a woman of color, it has a double meaning. When Gloria Anzaldúa, for example, writes about herself as “the new mestiza,” she urges Anglos to delve into the restorative “spiritual life and ceremonies of multicolored people” in order to “lose the white sterility they have in their kitchens, bathrooms, hospitals, mortuaries, and missile bases” (69). She reminds us that “Though in the conscious mind, black and dark may be associated with death, evil and destruction, in the subconscious mind and in our dreams, white is associated with disease, death and hopelessness” (69).

From the point of view of autobiographical writing, Walker's story also exemplifies the “self” of Black autobiography that manifests more as a member of an oppressed group seeking freedom than as a lone individual. Bernice Johnson Reagon writes of Black women's autobiographical writing as “cultural autobiography”: “We are, at the base of our identities, nationalists. We are people builders, carriers of cultural traditions, key to the formation and continuance of culture” (81, as quoted in Friedman 43). Thus Walker's eye/I comprehends a compelling image that links her with her daughter and her mother's house, her people and the home they have made in an alien land. “Home” also becomes fuller in its meaning as she connects it with the Earth itself. To be “beautiful, whole and free” as a Black woman within a dominant White culture requires such multiple disentanglements, such multiple layers of brave insight.

These three women artists seek a healing vision both personal/individual and communal/planetary in scope. Telling of this story of the beloved image of the world that she loves “as if it is a picture of Grandma's house” and of her daughter's seeing the world in her eye are Walker's gifts. They are the sweetness distilled from the bitter experience of the compounded oppressions of racism and sexism; they are the boon wrested from whoever or whatever wounds our eye/I.

This story bears a blessing for all of us: may this loving vision vouchsafe our daughters against the bitterness we have seen and suffered. May they keep this vision alive for us, their mothers, for themselves, and for their/our own daughters and granddaughters to come.


Sandra Cisneros dedicates The House on Mango Street “A las Mujeres/To the Women,” the women she loves but whose lives she cannot use as models for her own. Her protagonist is a young girl named Esperanza, whose name means hope and also sadness and waiting in Spanish. Esperanza also loves Mango Street and yearns to leave it. She describes her family's house as “small and red with tight little steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath” (8). She tells her friend Alicia that 4006 Mango is not the house she wants: “No, this isn't my house I say … I don't ever want to come from here” (99). She dreams, instead, of a house “with my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories (100).” And nobody to scold or pick up after: “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (100).

If Esperanza doesn't find this dream house for herself, she knows she may end up like the lady down the street who is homesick for her lost Puerto Rican “pink house, pink as hollyhocks,” or like Rosa Vargas and Minerva whose husbands left them alone with a house full of kids. Or she might become like her own namesake great-grandmother and other women like her beautiful friend Sally, lonely at windows, who “sit their sadness on an elbow” because their jealous husbands have locked them in. Esperanza says “I am an ugly daughter. I am the one nobody comes for” (82). But that is far safer than to be like Sally “the girl with eyes like Egypt and nylons the color of smoke” of whom her father says “to be this beautiful is trouble” (77).

The development of Esperanza's consciousness parallels that of her creator. Cisneros grew up in a working-class Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago. Like Esperanza, she told herself “I've gotta get out of here!”, yet she recognized also that the power of her voice as a writer would always be deeply connected with her heritage: “My stories are dedicated to women. They are stories from my mother and from other [working-class] women in the barrio. They are stories I lived and stories my students lived, the stories of voiceless women” (Britt 5). Knowing that she is writing stories never before put down on paper, Cisneros finds that “It's an amazing and wonderful time to be alive, and to be a Latina writer” (Fletcher 25).

She started The House on Mango Street at the University of Iowa, accidentally discovering her own voice in rebellion against the prevailing poetics of the prestigious Writers' Workshop. “I knew if I wrote about the flat where we lived on top of a Laundromat in Chicago, other writers couldn't touch it. They didn't know the language I grew up in” (Britt 5).

Cisneros seems to have taken the advice that her three aunts, las comadres (the voices of her necessary community!) give Esperanza: “When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street” (98).

Cisneros's work shows us how an artist may transform a Mango Street from a patriarchal, ethnic minority prison into a vehicle of success within a dominant culture. But no matter how delighted we are (I am!) with the prose/poetry product—the vivid laughter of sisters “all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking,” who live in a “house with its feet tucked under like a cat,” the stunningly poignant evocation of adolescence's dreams and dangers—the matrix is deeply bitter and sweet.

In an Afterword for The House on Mango Street, the editors of Arte Publico Press describe it as chronicling “the psychological and social development of a writer who struggles to derive emotional and creative sustenance where material and educational resources are absent. Her sensitive portrayal enchants us and reaffirms our belief that art and talent can survive, even under the most adverse conditions” (103). For those women who have in any way known the dangers of such a matrix and escaped it, the fact that they will “always be Esperanza” is an enduring gift/curse. In a general way, any woman who has been fortunate and persistent enough to gain a sense of her own personhood in a patriarchal society has a sense of the fragility and importance of her achievement for herself and for other women—and men. …


The epigraph for Alice Walker's book contains an extended definition of “Womanist” that in part seems to expand upon Rich's “edges that blur”: A women who is “Committed to survival and wholeness of entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically, for health. Traditionally universalist, as in: ‘Mama, why are we brown, pink, and yellow, and our cousins are white, beige, and black?’ Ans.: ‘Well, you know the colored race is just like a flower garden, with every color flower represented’” (xi).

For Walker and for other Blacks in the South especially, she traces the growth in empowerment that has come from choosing to leave, to stay, or to return. “Black writers had generally left the South as soon as possible. … But their departure impoverished those they left behind” (164). They knew that “to stay willingly in a beloved but brutal place is to risk losing the love and being forced to acknowledge only the brutality” (143). She says this changed after Martin Luther King “gave us back our heritage,” a “continuity of place, without which community is ephemeral. He gave us home” (145).

Walker lays solid claim to this heritage:

No one could wish for a more advantageous heritage than that bequeathed to the black writer in the South: a compassion for the earth, a trust in humanity beyond our knowledge of evil, and an abiding love of justice. We inherit a great responsibility as well, for we must give voice to centuries not only of silent bitterness and hate but also of neighborly kindness and sustaining love.


This declaration seems to sum up the message that Cisneros and Rich give in their works, perhaps not always so fully or directly (owing partly to differences in genre and length of the works compared). We can and must return to the bittersweet matrix, acknowledge it. It commands a responsibility from its artist progeny and offers particular sources of strength for them in carrying out their tasks. For Walker the central image of strength, of the “neighborly kindness and sustaining love” is “our mothers' gardens.” Of her own mother she writes: “Because of her creativity with her flowers, even my memories of poverty are seen through a screen of blooms …” (241).

Walker notices that “it is only when my mother is working in her flowers that she is radiant, almost to the point of being invisible—except as Creator: hand and eye. … Her face as she prepares the Art that is her gift, is a legacy of respect she leaves to me, for all that illuminates and cherishes life”. (241-42).

In an interview, Walker talks about a poem, “Revolutionary Petunias,” and its “incorrect” heroine, Sammy Lou: “she does not even know how ridiculous she is for loving to see flowers blooming around her unbearably ugly gray house” (267). Sammy Lou represents to her “all-around blooming people” who, like petunias, “bloom their heads off” in any kind of soil. The poem reminded her also of a lone lavender petunia bush her mother had told her husband to rescue from a deserted house yard they had driven by in their wagon. Thirty-seven years later she brings her daughter Alice a piece of that same bush when her granddaughter is born.

Walker claims this story (“almost a parable”) for her work: “In a way, the whole book [In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens] is a celebration of people who will not cram themselves into any ideological or racial mold. They are all shouting Stop! I want to go get that petunia!” (268).


I have been encouraged by the journeys that these three women have recorded in these three evocative works. They tell us that from our detested scars may come beloved worlds, from the sad houses of streets we want to leave forever may come the stories that give us life, and from the sources of dis-ease may come the healing gift of art. They tell us of bittersweet matrices that keep them awake, conscious, compassionate: they remind us that our sources, including our own bodies, may become in Rich's words “resource, rather than a destiny” (quoted in Spelman 126). The three varied forms of autobiographical story telling here show us the richness of the transformative modes available for this resource claiming. (In women's work, my own included, the boundaries between genres often are blurred, a freeing up of the restrictions of form.)

Audre Lorde's assertion that “poetry has been the major voice of poor, working class, and Colored women” (116) opens important awarenesses of the “effect of class and economic differences on the supplies available for producing art” (116). More questions in such vein are to be asked, as we might ask why even Hispanic writers must bend their ideas into English (though writers like Anzaldúa show us the rich intertexturing of English and Spanish in their writing). Still, our autobiographies—whether personal essay, transmuted prose/poetry fiction, poetry, or a mixture of these forms—may, in all their differences, enlighten us about “the edges that blur.”

We do not know from what deserted house yard we may gather up the living sign of strength and beauty that may sustain us and our beloved community—if we have the courage to return to our bittersweet matrices and claim it. But we must also caution ourselves that this is not a work without danger; there are those who return and do not reemerge—for a very long time, or ever. It is also a work of extraordinary complexity, demanding our sensitive patience as well as a vulnerability to transformation. Despite, or perhaps because of this danger and this complexity, however, this is a necessary work we do for ourselves and for each other. In it we risk what we must, in our deep desire to see us all “beautiful, whole and free.”

Works Cited

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters/aunt lute. 1987.

Britt, Bonnie. “In Literature, Writer Sandra Cisneros Sees Power,” Houston Chronicle, 24 June 1984: 8:5.

Butler, Johnnella. “Difficult Dialogues,” Women's Review of Books, VI.5 (February 1989): 16.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. 2nd revised ed. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988.

Fletcher, Melissa. “Sandra Cisneros,” San Antonio Light, 8 March 1987: 24-5.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. “Women's Autobiographical Selves,” The Private Self: Theory and Practice of Women's Autobiographical Writings, ed. Shari Benstock. Chapel Hill & London: U of North Carolina P, 1988: 34-62.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider. Freedom, CA: Crossing, 1984.

Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “My Black Mothers and Sisters or On Beginning a Cultural Autobiography.” Feminist Studies 8 (Spring 1982): 81-95.

Rich, Adrienne. Your Native Land, Your Life: Poems. New York: Norton, 1986.

Spelman, Elizabeth V. “Woman as Body: Ancient and Contemporary Views,” Feminist Studies 8.1 (Spring 1982): 109-131.

Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. San Diego: Harvest/Harcourt, 1984.

Andrea O'Reilly Herrera (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: Herrera, Andrea O'Reilly. “‘Chambers of Consciousness’: Sandra Cisneros and the Development of the Self in the BIG House on Mango Street.Bucknell Review 39, no. 1 (1995): 191-204.

[In the following essay, Herrera examines the idea of the house as a metaphor for personal identity in The House on Mango Street, asserting that Cisneros appropriates the traditional novelistic form of the bildungsroman in representing a young Chicana's struggle for female, communal, and literary identity.]

One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper.

—Alfred Kazin

Before we even open her book, the very first image that we encounter in Sandra Cisneros's novel The House on Mango Street (1984) is the house. With it, Cisneros enters a tradition, adding to a wide array of houses that throughout literary history have provided writers with rich, protean metaphors. As the phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard reminds us, the house “constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability. We are always re-imagining its reality.”1 From a post-Freudian vantage point, the architectural layout of the house, with its various levels, has been made to parallel the different layers of the psyche, and with its multiple openings and passageways and its interior and exterior design, to suggest the body. In both the East and the West mystics and philosophers have linked the human soul with the image of the house: frequently, the body is figured as the house of the soul. Teresa of Avila envisaged the “way of perfection” as a dynamic progression through the seven mansions of the soul. The English Romantic poet John Keats compared life to “a large Mansion of Many Apartments” and described the development of the human thought process as a journey through the “chambers” of consciousness. Writers have also used the metaphor of the house to represent (quite literally) “structures” of economic, political, and social power. In the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century “big house novel” the old manor house signified social and economic status; it was either bequeathed from generation to generation or acquired and maintained through venture capitalist enterprises. In the same vein, the image of the decaying house has been employed as a symbol of political or social instability and decline by writers as various as William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Emilia Pardo Bazán, and Isabel Allende. Women's experience has especially been linked to the home, the domestic sphere as it were, and within that sphere there are clear-cut spatial boundaries which are designated as male and female. For example, the kitchen has traditionally been regarded as woman's place, whereas the study is male preserve. For scores of women writers the house is simultaneously a symbol of female enslavement and male privilege or guardianship. Finally, the metaphor of the house has been implemented to represent both the literary canon and the art of fiction-writing itself.2 Referring, presumably, to Euro-(Anglo)American literature, in the preface to his Portrait of a Lady Henry James writes:

The house of fiction has in short not one window, but a million—a number of possible windows not to be reckoned, rather; every one of which has been pierced, or is still pierceable, in its vast front, by the need of the individual vision and by the pressure of the individual will.3

The image of the house looms large in American literature. As Marilyn R. Chandler observes, the “prominence” that houses have occupied in American novels is directly related to the fact that the United States is “a country whose history has been focused … on the business of settlement and ‘development.’ … ‘The American Dream’ still expresses itself in the hope of owning a freestanding … dwelling.”4 Traditionally, establishing, maintaining, or possessing houses has been, in fiction and in life, a male enterprise; the house, therefore, has often been a symbol of male success or failure. Rather than using the image of the house as a measure of “cultural enfranchisement,” many American women writers of the twentieth century have employed the image of the house as a symbol of cultural disenfranchisement.5 More specifically, they have used this architectural metaphor in order to define and articulate the (female) self in relation to the larger community. For Edith Wharton (The House of Mirth) houses symbolize the materialistic, patriarchal ideology that entraps both men and women and prescribes limited and repressive behavioral patterns to females, offering them few options outside the context of marriage. The house is the metaphor through which Paule Marshall (Brown Girl, Brownstones) explores the relationship of beauty, identity, and self-perception; but the house that the heroine seeks to possess reveals the “ugliness” of the culture which she wants to enter in light of its association with the ideas of power and appropriation, as well as self-creation and identity. And in Toni Morrison's work (Beloved) the house functions as a symbol of white supremacy; it is haunted by a past which all of the characters must confront and come to terms with before they can join as a community and, together, forge their future.

For Sandra Cisneros the house on Mango Street simultaneously represents all of the systems that oppose or challenge her as a woman, a minority, and a writer. In the last ten or fifteen years Chicana writing has been dedicated to examining the question of personal identity; frequently, not unlike African American and Native American literature, the process of private inquiry therein dilates into an exploration of self in terms of the community and in relation to the wider world. In their writing, Chicanas have attempted to pierce new windows into “the house of fiction.” The House on Mango Street has as its central subject the Chicana writer's struggle for female, communal, and literary identity; the house that Sandra Cisneros constructs stands as her attempt to better understand, define, and synthesize the (interior) self in terms of the (exterior) Chicano and Anglo-American community. Simply, Cisneros has reinscribed the age-old metaphor of the house in order to explore the themes of sexism, racism, and the struggle of the female minority writer to appropriate the word in the Anglo-American “house of fiction.”

Recent criticism has focused on the idea that Chicanas, like African American women, are caught in a kind of double bind. First and foremost, they are discriminated against and marginalized by both Anglo-American and Mexican culture, an idea subtly emphasized in Cisneros's novel by the fact that a house in Esperanza's and Nenny's neighborhood (in America) reminds them, for no particular reason, of houses they had seen as toddlers in Mexico.6 In Gloria Anzaldúa's words, Chicanos live “on the border,” the “fault line,” the “wound” between two cultures; although they share aspects of each, ultimately they are dispossessed from both. Further complicating the issue is the idea that Chicanos must come to terms with their fractured Mexican past before they can begin to negotiate their present.7 The struggle to synthesize this bifurcated sense of personal and communal identity is frequently depicted in Chicana literature by the blending and intertwining of the Spanish and English languages. This idea is illustrated in The House on Mango Street by the fact that many of the characters have two names: Nenny's real name is Magdalena (a name that also resounds with biblical connotations); Meme Ortiz's name is actually Juan, and his sheepdog has one name in Spanish and one name in English.

In attempting to establish self-identity in relation to the larger Chicano community, the Chicana's task is further complicated by the fact that she is subordinated, because of her gender, within her own culture. The skewed sexual politics within the movimiento Chicano during the sixties exposed the asymmetry of the male-female relationship in Chicano culture and prompted the development of a specifically Chicana aesthetic. In effect, the Chicana is a minority within a minority, for women are endowed with a secondary status in Chicano culture. The dual struggle against (external) racism and (internal) sexism, a subject which also informs the writing of female African American authors, surfaces again and again in Chicana literature; it is one of the central concerns of Cisneros's novel.

Aiming to create an aesthetic that addresses her particular needs and concerns, the Chicana writer is faced with other obstacles as well. In attempting to explore her identity through the written word, both as a Chicana and as a woman, she is faced with a difficulty that all female American writers (and readers) encounter when attempting to write with (or read) a language or a literary tradition that is essentially male. Moreover, the Chicana must battle with the fact that the American “house of fiction” has been “dedicated,” as Judith Fetterly observes, “to defining what is peculiarly American about experience”—in other words, white, male, Anglo-Saxon experience.8 Cisneros combats these problems in several ways.

Throughout The House on Mango Street Esperanza longs for a “real” house of her own, signifying, perhaps, Cisneros's desire for a “legitimate” literary formula or pattern with which she can adequately express herself.9 While Cisneros seeks Virginia Woolf's literary “room of one's own,” Esperanza finds her father's house on Mango Street neither fulfills her needs nor her expectations. The longed-for house that Esperanza describes at the close of the novel is much more than a single room:

Not a flat. Not an apartment in the back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up.

Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.10

Though it is altered and transformed, the house is an imaginative vision of Mango Street resurrected, reconstructed, and rendered through language: “Mango Street, sad red house I belong but do not belong to. I put it down on paper” (101). The vision expresses the desire on the author's part (Esperanza-Cisneros) to reconstruct the uncomfortable dimensions of her father's house in response to the desire its partial adequacy awakens.

Although Cisneros fashions a house from ordinary paper and ink—the materials most frequently used by writers—it is the scaffolding of her design that draws our attention. In a word, Cisneros invokes and implements traditional narrative patterns and motifs only to disrupt and reconstruct them. Simply, she uses “the master's tools” not to disassemble the master's house, as Audre Lorde suggests, but to remodel it according to her own aesthetic purpose. This idea is cleverly underscored by the fact that practically everything that Esperanza “inherits,” from a bag full of shoes to her great-grandmother's name, is second-hand.

The overarching narrative formula in The House on Mango Street is a conflation of the Bildungsroman (the novel of formation) and its correspondent variant the Kunstlerroman (a novel that “culminates in the artist's” literal or imaginative “withdrawal to the inner life which leads to a discovery of his or her vocation”).11 Yet The House on Mango Street is a transformed, expanded variant of the novel of development. Unlike traditional nineteenth-century patterns of female development and character formation, Cisneros's narrative takes into account variables such as language, history, gender, and particular cultural practices. In the same vein, unlike the traditional female Bildung, such as Maria Luisa Bombal's “The Tree” or Charlotte Lennox's The Female Quixote, which almost always concludes with the heroine's psychic or physical death or her “consolidation” with cultural expectations, The House on Mango Street comes to a close with the heroine's self-discovery and, moreover, social involvement. It is a cathartic process which is made possible through the act of writing. In Cisneros's re-visionary novel the heroine, Esperanza, synthesizes and harmonizes her public and private lives; in the process she is endowed with a significance that has traditionally been denied to female characters. Moreover, her inner development is transformed into a public, creative response to stultifying and seemingly untenable circumstances. Further defying the conventions of the female Bildung, Cisneros adopts a typically male picaresque formula in order to chart Esperanza's development, something which is evidenced in both the form and the setting of the novel. One need only glance at the table of contents to see that The House on Mango Street is a discursive, episodic novel which displays the peripatetic quality of the picaresque.12 Moreover, not unlike the picaro, Esperanza tests her self-image in the wider world: her adventures and education take place in the streets of her neighborhood. Her experience of the world is anything but vicarious, unlike the scores of women depicted in her novel, who gaze longingly outside their windows entrapped in their domestic roles. Finally, Cisneros avoids the flat circularity of the female Bildung by writing beyond traditional plot endings: marriage or death. Esperanza's projected mental return to Mango Street is spiral rather than circular. Derivative of the male Bildungsroman, her discovery and validation of an inner life, realized outside the context of marriage and motherhood, leads to a vision of social integration rather than death, madness, or isolation.

Cisneros's adaptation of the Bildungsroman charts the growing sexual and social consciousness of Esperanza as she grows up in her father's house; we learn at the conclusion of the book that she is a Chicana writer who has rejected the Chicano definition of woman's role and status. In her discussion of Chicana poetry, Elizabeth Ordoñez states, “the theme of sexuality consistently serves as a poetic vehicle whereby the Chicana comes to the authentic core of her being and creativity.”13 One could easily apply Ordoñez's statement to Cisneros's novel, for to borrow Barbara Christian's terminology, Esperanza's “trajectory of self-hood,” which culminates in artistic expression, is defined in sexual terms.14 Carefully choosing the experiences she wishes to represent, at the outset Esperanza depicts herself as an innocent child on the threshold of sexual awakening. In her own words, she is “a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor” (11). She is not totally unaware of the things which distinguish her from others, and in the opening chapter Esperanza discontentedly perceives both her own difference and lack. It is the house on Mango Street, the house that somehow falls short of her dreams—her “T.V.” image of a “real” house—that evokes her dissatisfaction and disappointment. As the novel progresses, Cisneros carefully traces Esperanza's increasing ability to differentiate between herself and others. At first her observations are somewhat simplistic. She notes, for example, that each of her family members “have different hair”; she is aware that “boys and … girls live in separate worlds” and that her name has a different meaning, a different sound, depending on where it is spoken. Yet she soon learns that there are distinctions between people, and thus her mother forbids her to play with the “bad” Vargas children, who were “without respect for all living things, including themselves” (30). Again she enunciates her consciousness of her own inferior social status: Cathy, a neighborhood “friend” whose family is just a rung above Esperanza's on the economic ladder, thoughtlessly tells her, “as if she forgot” Esperanza had just moved in, that they were moving “a little farther north from Mango Street” (emphasis added) because “the neighborhood [was] getting bad” (14-15).15

As Esperanza matures she becomes increasingly conscious of her changing body and her sexuality; it is at this time that she begins to grow apart from her younger sister, Nenny. In the chapter entitled “Hips,” Rachel, Lucy, and Esperanza discuss the possible functions of their widening hips. Nenny innocently points out that they distinguish men and women and “rock the baby asleep inside you,” an idea Esperanza ascertains and explains in scientific terms that Alicia, a young college student, has taught her (47-48). Yet Lucy quickly adds that “you need [hips] to dance”; in other words, you need hips to attract men. Indicating their transitional level of maturity, the three older girls conclude their discussion by weaving the sexual themes of their “adult” conversation with nonsensical, rhythmic verse which they chant while skipping rope:

Skip, skip,
snake in your hips.
Wiggle around
and break your lip.

Aside from obvious physical changes, the girls also discover the social significance of clothing. Reminiscent of Marguerite Duras's novel L'Amante, Cisneros uses shoes as a metonym for female power and sexuality. Gleefully receiving a bag full of old high heels, Esperanza and her girlfriends find that they are somehow transformed the moment that they put on the shoes; for the first time they become conscious of their legs, despite the fact that they are thin and covered with satiny scars. “Today we are like Cinderella,” Esperanza happily comments, yet in the next breath she acknowledges that “it is scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long long leg” (38). Strutting through the neighborhood wearing the “magic high heels”—outside of their fathers' houses—the three girls become immediately attuned to the fact that the shoes attract the male gaze (38). “The men cannot take their eyes off us,” Esperanza observes; the grocer, Mr. Benny, warns them that the shoes are “dangerous” and threatens to call the police; and a drunken bum on a stoop tells Rachel that she is “prettier than a yellow taxi cab” in her lemon-colored heels and offers her a dollar in return for a kiss (38-39).16 Yet Esperanza finds that she can be beautiful, she can attract attention, wearing “ordinary” shoes as well. She recalls that as she moved across the dance floor with her Uncle Nacho, “like in the movies,” “my mother watches and my little cousins watch and … all night the boy who is a man watches me dance. He watched me dance” (46).

Despite her growing consciousness, Esperanza remains largely innocent and naive. She skips rope in her high heels, moving her hips in steady rhythm to the “double dutch” (48).17 It isn't until Sally is led into the “monkey garden” with Tito's “grinning” buddies, on the pretense of retrieving her key, that she falls from innocence. It is a scene which reverberates with mingled Darwinian and biblical overtones.18 Of course the garden that her family “took over” is, on one level, a symbol of America as the new Eden; the disillusion and perhaps failure of the Chicano to domesticate or shape the garden—property (the house)—is signified by the fact that the garden soon grows unkempt. But it is also the locus of Esperanza's sexual awakening. Armed with three sticks and a brick she discovers, much to her consternation, that Sally does not want to be saved.19 Throwing herself on the grass in tears, she realizes all at once that the garden “isn't a place to play any more” (91).20 Esperanza longs for the androgynous state of childhood when she could run in the garden “fast as the boys” (89).21 Symbolically, she longs for her own (sexual) death and observes that when she got up her dress was stained green (an obvious symbol of growth) and her feet “in their white socks and ugly round shoes … seemed far away”: “They didn't seem to be my feet any more” (90). Her conscious awareness of the potentially perverse aspect of human sexuality commences in the episode in which she takes her first job at Peter Pan Photo Finishers; yet her sexual awakening brutally culminates in the scene at the amusement park in which she is (presumably) raped behind the tilt-a-whirl with the laughing red clowns.22

The House on Mango Street raises disturbing questions regarding both female nature and the realities and the fictions of development for women in general, and Chicanas in particular. Cisneros's novel reverberates with mythic allusions and fairy-tale motifs. Yet her reformulation of Christian models and fairy tales, reminiscent of writers such as Anne Sexton and Olga Broumas, not only underscores the developmental and psychological changes Esperanza undergoes in her passage from childhood to womanhood, but it forces us to recontextualize and revise her original sources. The self which Cisneros defines is, in effect, defined both in relation and resistance to conventional plot formulas. Cisneros refashions archetypal paradigms, such as the Fall, the Peter Pan syndrome, and the Cinderella cycle; in this way, she exposes the limited narrative strategies and “patterns for maturation and behavior,” to borrow Karen Rowe's terminology, available to female authors writing in, and against, a male tradition.23

Like the narrative formula of the Bildung, myths and fairy tales enable Cisneros to underscore and reiterate her major themes and investigate or bring to light the limited maturation and behavioral patterns that fiction has offered to women. Repeatedly, she emphasizes the fact that Esperanza wishes to belong, to fit in; the theme of friendship is woven throughout the novel. Yet as she grows older she not only becomes conscious of her own sexual identity, but she becomes aware of the fact that the romantic vision offered to Chicanas in “storybooks and movies” is a debilitating, self-diminishing myth that fails (93). In effect, Esperanza becomes conscious of the fact that her interior sense of self does not correspond with the accepted self that her culture has carved out for her; in fact it collides with the image offered to her by society. The House on Mango Street is a virtual portrait gallery of disillusioned, passive women who are victimized, or victimize themselves, because of their sexuality; Cisneros interweaves their narratives with mythic, fairy-tale motifs. Rosa Vargas is a single parent who, like the old woman in the shoe, has “too many” kids; Lois, who can't tie her own shoes and smells “pink like babies do,” laughs and drinks beer and follows her boyfriend Sire into dark alleys; Ruthie whistles “like the Emperor's nightingale,” recites poetry from Alice in Wonderland, used to write children's books, and sleeps on her mother's couch, despite the fact that she married a man who gave her a “real” house of her own; locked in her bedroom by a jealous husband, Rafaela leans out of her window “dream[ing] her hair is like Rapunzel's” and drinks coconut and papaya juice because she wishes there were sweeter drinks; and finally Sally, “the girl with eyes like Egypt” and paints her eyes “like Cleopatra,” marries at thirteen and sits at home alone staring at the “linoleum roses” on her kitchen floor in her “wedding cake” house (28, 30, 64, 76). Ironically, even the women within her own house bear a similar destiny; Esperanza is literally surrounded by women who “consolidate” their subservient nurturing role by exchanging “one domestic sphere for another”; in effect, they have fulfilled what Abel, Hirsch, and Langland call “the conventional expectations of marriage and motherhood.”24 Her great-grandmother, whose name she has “inherited,” was carried off like a “fancy chandelier” to her husband's house and spent her life looking out the window; her mother sings Madame Butterfly with “velvety lungs” and sadly tells her daughter that she “could've been somebody”; and her aunt, the swimmer-surviver, dies a blind invalid with only a photograph as a testimony to her strength (12, 83).25 Through their negative example, Esperanza learns that the institution of marriage—the big wedding cake “house”—is not all that it seems. Only Alicia, the girl who sees mice late at night because she sits up studying and refuses to “inherit her mother's rollingpin,” provides Esperanza with a female mentor (32).26 Unlike Marin, who dances on the street corner waiting for someone to “change her life,” Esperanza rejects the role models which her society offers her and consciously chooses to forge her own identity through writing; and in so doing, she symbolically chooses the American translation of her name (hope) over the Spanish (waiting).

In addition to being an exploration into the way in which the Chicano community deters the Chicana's exploration and discovery of selfhood, Cisneros's novel emphatically stresses the role of writing in the process of self-definition. In The House on Mango Street gender is inextricably linked to artistic development. Cisneros's novel is, in some sense, a work in process, a growing experience “recollected” in a kind of uneasy Wordsworthian “tranquility.” As readers, we are acutely aware that Esperanza (alias Cassandra, Alexis, Maritza, Lisandra, or Zeze the X) is constantly, and consciously, fashioning and refashioning her identity, her history, an idea underscored by the chapter in which Lucy, Rachel, Nenny, and Esperanza name and rename the clouds. As she matures, she learns the power of language and discovers that naming creates and dispels fear.27 Not only is she empowered by the scientific words that she gleans from her library books or learns from Alicia, but she is empowered by her fiction, unlike Minerva who writes visionary poetry on scraps of paper but “is always sad like a house on fire” (80). As an adult, she discovers the meaning of her dying aunt's words: “You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free” (56). The psychic freedom embodied in the written word is tantamount to freedom; yet it is a truth that Esperanza comes to understand only when she has managed to free herself, if only imaginatively, from Mango Street. Only then can she become an independent, self-determining agent. Yet independence does not imply isolation. For Esperanza the act of writing and recollecting (perhaps something akin to Toni Morrison's concept of “rememory”) enables her to synthesize, critique, and recuperate her own personal history and, by correlation, the history of her culture. Writing enables her to realize the redemptive vision of the mystical sister with marble hands:

When you leave you must remember always to come back … for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know: You can't forget who you are. … You must remember to come back.


Significantly, the old woman imparts her message at Rachel's and Lucy's baby sister's funeral; it perhaps foreshadows Esperanza's eventual rejection of marriage and motherhood. Only in retrospect does she realize her redemptive role, a role almost mystically signified by her name Esperanza (Hope) Cordero (sacrificial? Lamb).

Widely characteristic of contemporary American minority fiction, the final vision of The House on Mango Street is the individual defined within the context of the larger community; it is an idea that is evidenced by the fact that we gradually acquire a fuller understanding of Esperanza's identity as she acquaints us with the various members of her family and neighborhood. In effect, Esperanza's development is thrown into high relief against both her family's and her community's history. Simone de Beauvoir once commented, “The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle; it stands for permanence and separation from the world.”28 Unlike de Beauvoir's isolated, idealized house, the house that Cisneros built is a meeting place, hospitable and inviting. It is, to borrow Bachelard's vocabulary, “better built, lighter, and larger than all of the houses of the past”; and though it stands in “symmetrical relation” to the houses of the past, the house she was born in, it is living, and protean, and impermanent.29 Cisneros seemed to know that “it is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.”30

That Sandra Cisneros drew on an established tradition to accomplish her own ends is readily apparent in The House on Mango Street. Cisneros's adaptation and reinscription of established narrative patterns enabled her to explore the psychological, historical, and cultural forces which shape individual and collective identity. At the same time, her revisions reveal the way in which the writer can shape and reshape not only personal history, but cultural history as well. Ultimately, The House on Mango Street calls attention to the near impossibility of rendering, and thus harnessing, human experience and human nature with language, for in the process of refashioning, Cisneros points up the artificial, subjective, and often political nature of artistic creation. Nevertheless, rearranging the furniture in the house of fiction becomes for her both an act of defiance and, in Adrienne Rich's words, “an act of survival.”31 Unlike Mamacita “no speak English,” Esperanza refuses to preserve some fixed image, some photograph, of home. On the contrary, at the end of her narrative—her (his)story—she affirms the idea that home resides within the individual “heart.” Like the four skinny trees in her neighborhood, she “reaches” and does not forget, despite the bricks and concrete (71). As we close her book we are left with the feeling that Cisneros's “house” of paper and ink, her “house made of heart,” is extraordinarily resistant and durable.



  1. Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (New York: Orion Books, 1964), 17.

  2. It is impossible to overlook the fact that nowadays the word “canon” has virtually lost its currency. In effect, it has become a kind of a pregnant form, expanding and contracting according to the individual will.

  3. Henry James, The Art of the Novel (New York: Scribner's, 1962), 46.

  4. Marilyn R. Chandler, Dwelling in the Text: Houses in American Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 1.

  5. Ibid.

  6. This notion is later emphasized in the episode with “Geraldo no name,” the man who has no name or address in America and is never heard of again at home in Mexico.

  7. Gloria Anzaldúa, La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, Calif: Spinsters, 1987).

  8. Judith Fetterley, “Introduction: On the Politics of Literature,” in The Resisting Reader (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977).

  9. Of course the question of what is real or what is perceived to be real is thrown into high relief in Cisneros's novel.

  10. Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (Houston, Tex.: Arte Publico Press, 1985), 100. All subsequent quotations from the novel are taken from this edition and citations will appear parenthetically in the text by page number only.

  11. I am using Marianne Hirsch's definition of the Kunstlerroman; it appears in her essay “Spiritual Bildung: The Beautiful Soul as Paradigm,” in The Voyage In (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983), 46. I must also add that the essays in The Voyage In provided both the inspiration and the narrative framework for my own investigation of Cisneros's novel.

  12. One might also suggest that the narrative gaps in the fractured chronological plot not only challenge the conventions of the linear or “realistic” plot, but, in the tradition of écriture féminine, gaps signify women's absence or omission from cultural productions such as writing.

  13. Elizabeth Ordoñez, “Sexual Politics and the Theme of Sexuality in Chicana Poetry,” in Women in Hispanic Literature, ed. Beth Miller (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983), 318.

  14. Barbara Christian, “Trajectories of Self-Definition: Placing Contemporary Afro-American Women's Fiction,” Black Feminist Criticism. Perspectives on Black Women Writers (Elmsford, N.Y.: Pergamon Press, 1985).

  15. The chapter entitled “Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark” signals Esperanza's first encounter with death and her consequent realization that her father is vulnerable.

  16. Symbolically there are three pairs of high heels—three is a kind of mystical, quasi-religious number that recurs in folklore and fairy tales. The colors of the shoes are significant as well: red suggests female sexuality and passion (it also recalls the image of Dorothy's ruby slippers); yellow seems to signify fetishized, even prostituted, sexuality (as the bum points out, it is also the color of a taxi cab, a vehicle that can take you anywhere you want to go as long as you're willing to pay the price); and the pale blue shoes that used to be white symbolize lost innocence (the fact that it is lost in the dance, an obvious symbol of unrestrained sexuality in Cisneros's novel, is worthy of attention).

  17. Cisneros underscores this theme by including a number of parallel sequences in her novel which trace Esperanza's maturation process; for example, in the beginning of the novel she contributes five dollars toward the purchase of a used bicycle, and at the end she pays Elenita, a fortune-teller who, like Jean Rhys's character Christophine, mingles Christian superstition with voodoo-like practices to read her fortune.

  18. The Darwinian leitmotif resurfaces in the scene in which Esperanza reads Charles Kingsley's The Waterbabies (1863) to her dying aunt.

  19. The kiss that the boys demand from Sally recalls the episodes with Rachel and the “bum man” and Esperanza and the old Chinese man at the photo finishers.

  20. While playing in the garden Eddie Vargas falls asleep beneath a hibiscus tree “like a Rip Van Winkle,” the archetypally henpecked husband, a detail that reinforces the overall mythic atmosphere of the garden.

  21. The overtly phallic gesture of shaking the stick at Sally underscores this theme. This theme is also developed later in the novel when Esperanza “wages a quiet war” against pretty women who “wait on the threshold waiting for the ball and the chain”: she adopts chauvinistic male behavior such as “leaving the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (82).

  22. The scene in the “photo lab” parallels the episode with Rachel and the “bum man.”

  23. Karen E. Rowe, “‘Fairy-born and human-bred’: Jane Eyre's Education in Romance,” The Voyage In, 69.

  24. Abel, Hirsch, and Langland, The Voyage In, 7-8.

  25. Cisneros repeatedly uses the photograph in her novel. Esperanza, for example, works at a photo finishers and the photograph taken at her abuelito's tomb is a photograph of a pink house in Mexico. In Cisneros's work, photographs represent the attempt to preserve memory and, in Roland Barthes's terminology, make oneself historically significant.

  26. At this junction in the text Esperanza also becomes conscious both of her own “ugly” physical appearance and of her mother's “shame” (82-84).

  27. This notion is emphasized in the chapter entitled “Those Who Don't” in which she demonstrates that fear and danger are relative.

  28. Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1953; reprint, New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 501.

  29. Bachelard, Poetics of Space, 61.

  30. Ibid.

  31. Adrienne Rich, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Revision,” in On Lies, Secrets, and Silences (New York: Norton, 1975), 35.

Julian Olivares (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Olivares, Julian. “Entering The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros).” In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, pp. 209-35. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Olivares provides analysis of central themes within The House on Mango Street, and suggests some possible approaches to teaching the work.]


Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street1 is a book about Esperanza Cordero, a Chicana girl who lives in the barrio, or ghetto, of a large city.2 Through forty-four brief lyrical narratives, or vignettes, as Cisneros has called them (“Softly Insistent Voice,” 14-15), ranging from one-half to three pages, the girl recounts her growth from puberty to adolescence within the sociopolitical frame of poverty, racial discrimination, and gender subjugation. The book's action is propelled by three major themes: the girl's desire to find a suitable house (essentially a move away from the barrio), to find her identity, and to become a writer. Identity is crucial, for it not only means coming to terms with her Latino ethnicity, but also arriving at a gender consciousness not circumscribed by the gender determinants of her culture. Consequently, the narrator is “twice a minority”; she is doubly marginated because of her ethnicity and her patriarchal society (Melville). As we will ascertain, the themes are inextricably interrelated; the resolution of the themes of house and identity is to be achieved by her role as writer.

The House on Mango Street is a book about growing up, what critics call a bildungsroman. This genre is cultivated commonly in the United States by emerging writers, often first- or second-generation immigrants, and especially within literatures emerging around the periphery of a dominant society.3 It offers the advantage of a first-person narration that becomes the basis for the expression of subjectivity; the protagonist relates his or her experiences in the growth from childhood to maturity, the latter determined by the dialectic with culture and society. The often simplistic or naive narration proper to a child's perspective is conducive to an innocent but critical view of society and, in the case of Mango Street, to the formation of a counterdiscourse.

Before proceeding to our commentary on The House on Mango Street, it would be beneficial to briefly compare the work with its model and predecessor, Tomás Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra (And the Earth Did Not Devour Him), in order to appreciate their historical and critical contexts. Both works are the products of working-class authors and project a counter ideology; both were published by small minority presses; both are slender works—depending on the edition, about one hundred pages each; both are episodic and are about a child's search for identity; both employ the symbol of the house; and both portray the protagonist as writer. Published in 1971, twelve years before Mango Street, Rivera's work deals with the tribulations of migrant farmworkers as experienced through the eyes of a Chicano boy; Mango Street deals with the trials of barrio migrants as recounted by a Chicana girl.

Tierra [y no se lo tragó la tierra] consists of fourteen stories, twelve of which correspond symbolically to the months of the year, all interspersed with thirteen vignettes. The book deals with the struggle of an alienated boy to recover the events of the immediate past year and to encounter his identity.4 In the concluding story, we discover that the whole process of recollection has taken place under a house. As he emerges from under the house, we note that the encounter with his identity has resulted from a dialectic of the personal and the collective, and depends on a “dawning sense of solidarity with other members of [his] class and race” (J. Saldívar, 103). Throughout this book narrated by omniscient, first-person, and anonymous voices speaking as a collective “we,” the child protagonist functions as the central consciousness. It is through his eyes and memory that the actions of the stories achieve a novelistic unity, especially in the concluding story where allusions to these events take the form of a stream of consciousness in the boy's mind. Although the boy encounters his identity, his name is never revealed. This anonymity reinforces the collective identity of the migrant workers and their solidarity in the face of discrimination and exploitation by agribusiness.

The structural unity of the forty-four vignettes of Mango Street is achieved by the first-person narration of the protagonist Esperanza Cordero. Thematically, they are held together, as in Tierra, by plot and character development, and the protagonist's search for a house and her identity. The structural similarity of both works is due to each writer's desire to create a work whose stories could stand alone and simultaneously communicate a sense of novelistic unity. Each writer comments on the desire to create such a hybrid genre. Tomás Rivera confirms that

I had wanted to write a novel but I so liked the compacted dramatic elements of the short story that I finally decided to structure a work (novel) from which any element (chapter or short story) could be extracted and stand, out of context, on its own, with its own kernel of sensibility and meaning, albeit [with] its ambiguity. As I arranged the short stories and re-read for continuity, I would make changes in vocabulary, sentence structure, etc., to carry out a transitory sense.

(Complete Works, 27)

Sandra Cisneros states that in addition to desiring such a structure, she was influenced by Jorge Luis Borges and wanted an amalgam of poetry and fiction:

I recall I wanted to write stories that were a cross between poetry and fiction. I was greatly impressed by Jorge Luis Borges' Dream Tigers stories for their form. I liked how he could fit so much into one page and that the last line of each story was important to the whole in much the same way that the final lines in poems resonate. Except I wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after. Or, that could be read in a series to tell one big story. I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation.5

(“Do You Know Me?,” 78)

Cisneros's The House on Mango Street is an intertextual response to Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra. That is, it takes up the latter's structure, articulation with the tradition of the bildungsroman, and theme of alienation in order to respond to its model's ideological content and to address a different audience. Rivera's book was published at the height of the Chicano movement and was a literary protest of racial discrimination and socioeconomic and political injustice. The movement's goals, shared by the Chicanas, stirred in them, in turn, a desire for, first, cultural emancipation, then literary liberation. Chicanas perceived a parallel between their people's discrimination and exploitation by the dominant white society, and their own gender discrimination and subjugation by a traditional Hispanic patriarchic culture. Chicana literary protests against their condition found little sympathy among the small Latino presses that published the works of Chicano writers and were concerned with promoting la causa, the program of the Chicano movement. It was not until the 1980s that Chicanas began to be published,6 principally by small Latino presses founded toward the end of the preceding decade, such as Arte Público Press and Bilingual Press.

In order to appreciate Mango Street's response to Tierra, let us consider the ideology of the male discourse known as the bildungsroman. This genre includes any number of the following characteristics: (1) the hero leaves home or goes to school; (2) undergoes a trial by his peers; (3) is either accepted or learns to deal with his situation; (4) overcomes adversity; (5) performs an heroic act; (6) discovers who he is, as a man and as a person in society; and (7) at the end of the novel has integrated his consciousness, thereby achieving self-definition, and is prepared to deal with the world on his own terms.

As Erlinda Gonzales-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo have noted, traditional growing-up stories for females display a different process and outcome:

The female adolescent may or may not go off to school, but, in any case, in these stories the young woman also undergoes trials and tribulations which teach her how she must behave in society, what she must learn in order to assume her expected position. In contrast to the young male hero who at the end of the Bildungsroman comes into a complete sense of integration and freedom, the female adolescent is carefully schooled to function in society, to lose her freedom and her sense of individuality in order to become a loving wife and mother. She thus integrates her destiny with that of a man who will protect her, defend her and create a life for her. Whereas in their rites-of-passage, adolescent males encounter tests of strength and valor …, younger girls [are] given ‘tests in submission’ while their older sisters [are] provided with models of behavior appropriate for success in the marriage market. Thus, rather than achieving maturity, young women of the traditional coming-of-age novels are led down the path to a second infancy. Consequently, the female Bildungsroman has tended to culminate in images of imprisoned women. When escape is an option, it is most often found through death or insanity. While elements of this fare may have been typical of the writings of early Chicano writers, the contemporary female growing-up story focuses on a more general sense of loss, around the realization that innocence is gone, around awareness of death and mortality, of the inability to retreat back into childhood and, at times, of the necessity to conform to a life not necessarily chosen by them.


Tierra conforms in many respects to the paradigm of the male bildungsroman, confirming the general ideology of this discourse with regard to the male subject's assumption of a place in his society. However, it pronounces a counterdiscourse of the oppressed with regard to the discourse of the dominant society; yet, in doing so, Tierra also reveals the particular ideology of the obsessively male-centered Hispanic culture. In Tierra, women are submissive, silent, crazy; the sole but stereotypic exception is the “brazen floozy” Juanita, who, in the story “La noche que se apagaron las luces (“The Night the Lights Went Out”) slaps her ex-boyfriend Ramón on a dance floor; this disgrace and loss of machismo cause Ramón to commit suicide by throwing himself on an electric generator.

The male protagonist of Tierra is nameless in conformity to the collective experience of the society portrayed and to the collective identity of the hero. In Mango Street the protagonist gives her name as Esperanza Cordero, not only an ethnic marker but a gender-specific identity. Furthermore, Esperanza's surname, meaning “lamb,” operates symbolically in the text, but in an ironic manner. She refuses to sacrifice her gender to a patriarchic society. Manuel Martín Rodríguez perceives her surname as a sacrificial symbol by which the individual speaks and acts for the community (252). Through Esperanza, Cisneros gives voice to the passive and silent females of male-authored Chicano texts. Esperanza depicts the lonely and imprisoned, the physically and psychologically abused Latinas; and in this way she displays her collective identity with her sisters. But in the endeavor to establish her identity, to fit into her name, Esperanza also undertakes a personal quest to liberate herself from the gender constraints of her culture. It is by means of this defiant and political posture that Cisneros breaks the paradigm of the traditional female bildungsroman.

The image of the house is central to Tierra and Mango Street. In both, the image is socialized in order, as Ellen McCracken notes, to underscore a deprivation suffered by minorities under capitalism. McCracken affirms that “it is precisely the lack of housing stability that motivates the image's centrality in works by writers like Cisneros and Rivera. For the migrant worker who has moved continuously because of job exigencies and who, like many others in the Chicano community, has been deprived of an adequate place to live because of the inequities of income distribution in U.S. society, the desire for a house is not a sign of individualistic acquisitiveness but rather represents the satisfaction of a basic human need” (64).

On the symbolic level, the house image functions differently in these works. In Tierra, we note at the conclusion that the protagonist has undergone the process of the recollection and unification of the fragments of the lost year while lying in the dark under a house. The house symbolizes the collective consciousness of his people, which he comes to realize and express in the quest for his personal identity. This identification of the house and the collective consciousness is confirmed when the protagonist states that in order to remember more, he must return to the darkness under the house: “From now on, all I have to do is to come here, in the dark, and think about them [my people]. … I'll have to come here to recall all of the other years” (219).

The house on Mango Street is an extension of Esperanza Cordero's identity. While not as dilapidated as her previous house on Loomis Street, for her, its poor state is a sign of her poverty and shame. As her character develops in the work and she becomes more aware of her gender constraints, the wish for a pretty house becomes a desire for unfettered female space. At the conclusion, the house becomes a metaphor for the space of writing.

Esperanza Cordero is clearly conscious of self-exploration through writing. In the first half of the book, the reader has the impression of overhearing the protagonist “tell” stories. As the stories proceed, her growth and character development are signaled by her language development and her heightened poetic imagery. In the dialogue Esperanza relates with her aunt in “Bad Girl,” the twenty-third piece, the protagonist reveals that she writes poetry, and with the subsequent stories it becomes clear that these are the memoirs she has written of her first year's experience of living in the barrio, in the little red house on Mango Street: “You live right here, 4006 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of. No, this isn't my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I've lived here” (House on Mango Street, 106). It is through writing, as her aunt tells her, that Esperanza will achieve her social and gender liberation. Like Tierra, the structure of Mango Street is circular. The text ends where the writing begins (Valdés, 66), and the first written piece is the beginning of the text. Tierra ends where it began, in the mind of the boy who was struggling to recover the events of the past year. Yet its open-ended conclusion points to the protagonist not as a writer, but as a potential writer. His recollections are acts of composition by which he re-creates the experiences of his people and creates his identity. At the novel's conclusion, then, it remains for him to give literary expression to his experience.

The initial and title piece of the book finds Esperanza's family arriving at their house on Mango Street. Slowly moving up the economic ladder, they have been migrating from barrio to barrio, always renting an apartment. Now they have their own house, but Esperanza is dejected. Its dilapidated condition is a far cry from their dream house. Her parents attempt to overcome their disappointment by saying this house is only temporary:

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Pauline, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot. Each time it seemed there'd be one more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me.

The house on Mango Street is ours, and we don't have to pay rent to anybody … But even so, it's not the house we'd thought we'd get. …

They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn't have to move each year. … Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence. This was the house Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket and this was the house Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed.

But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It's small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb … and the house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.

Once when we were living on Loomis, a nun from my school passed by and saw me playing out front. The laundromat downstairs had been boarded up because it had been robbed two days before and the owner had painted on the wood YES WE'RE OPEN so as not to lose business.

Where do you live? she asked.

There, I said pointing up to the third floor.

You live there?

There. I had to look to where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.

I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn't it. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how these things go.


Mango Street is a street sign, a marker, that, because of “white flight” (13) now defines and circumscribes the Latino population of Puerto Ricans, Chicanos, and Mexicans within an impoverished barrio. The house on Mango Street is essentially the narrator's first universe. She starts here because it is the beginning of her conscious narrative reflection. Her description of the house is a metonymical description and presentation of her self. The house is much more than a place to live; it is an extension of her identity. By pointing to this dilapidated house, she points to herself, revealing her own poverty and shame. Consequently, she wants to point to another house and to point to another self.7

The initial piece is representative of Mango Street's form, voice, and style. The form is a prose poem; the narrating presence is a composite of a poetic enunciating voice and a narrative voice (Valdés, 57). The style is consistent with that of a young girl speaking idiomatic English, with colloquialisms and a few Spanish expressions—a deceptively simple but richly imagistic language. The personification of the house is typical of a child's way of seeing and inventing the world, but it also points to the influence of story books and initiates a series of allusions to fairy tales that will appear throughout the book. However, these tales will be subverted. In this case, the rural red house is moved to a large city ghetto; and it is red (only in children's stories are houses red) because it is made of red bricks, but these bricks are crumbling.8 The personification creating this defamiliarized fairy-book atmosphere functions, in turn, to underscore the shared identity of dilapidated house and dejected inhabitant.

The second piece, “Hairs,” briefly describes the family and reveals that although externally the house is a picture of poverty, inside there is warmth and communion. “Boys and Girls,” the third narrative, posits the theme of gender difference, the need to find a girlfriend to overcome her loneliness—“Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor” (9)—and begins the exposition of the narrator's world.

The desire to live in a beautiful house is concomitant to finding another identity. But the identity she seeks must be freed from the gender oppression of her culture. In “My Name,” the fourth piece, Esperanza says: “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting. … It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.” In this lyrical sketch, Esperanza traces the reason for the discomfiture with her name to cultural hegemony, the Mexican males' suppression of their women. Esperanza was named after her Mexican great-grandmother who was wild but tamed by her husband: “She looked out the window all her life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. … Esperanza, I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window.” A woman's place is one of domestic confinement, not one of liberation and choice. Thus, Esperanza would like to baptize herself “under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do” (10-11). She prefers a name not culturally embedded in a male-centered ideology. In the meantime she feels herself to be like an X, an indeterminate personality in search of an identity. As María Elena de Valdés notes, “The narrative situation is a familiar one: a sensitive young girl's reflections of her struggle between what she is and what she would like to be. The sense of alienation is compounded because ethnically she is a Mexican, although culturally a Mexican American; she is a young girl surrounded by examples of abused, defeated, worn-out women, but the woman she wants to be must be free” (57).

The stories Esperanza relates fall into five categories, many of which are interrelated:

  1. The family, children, and the barrio: “Hairs,”“Our Good Day,”“Laughter,”“Gil's Furniture Bought & Sold,”“Meme Ortiz,”“Louie, His Cousin & His Other Cousin,”“Those Who Don't,”“Darius and the Clouds,”“And Some More,”“A Rice Sandwich,”“Chanclas,”“Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark,”“Geraldo No Last Name,”“The Earl of Tennessee,”“A Smart Cookie.”
  2. Sexual awareness: “The Family of Little Feet,”“Hips,”“The First Job,”“Sire,”“Minerva Writes Poems,”“The Monkey Garden,”“Red Clowns.”
  3. Child and gender oppression, abuse, and abandonment: “Cathy, Queen of Cats,”“Marin,”“There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn't Know What to Do,”“Alicia Who Sees Mice,”“The First Job,”“Born Bad,”“No Speak English,”“Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut & Papaya Juice on Tuesdays,”“Sally,”“Minerva Writes Poems,”“A Smart Cookie,”“What Sally Said,”“The Monkey Garden,”“Linoleum Roses,”“Red Clowns.”
  4. Identity: “The House on Mango Street,”“My Name,”“Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water,”“Four Skinny Trees,”“Bums in the Attic,”“Beautiful and Cruel,”“The Monkey Garden,”“The Three Sisters,”“A House of My Own,”“Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.”
  5. Writing—pieces intrinsically related to the discovery of identity: “Born Bad,”“Edna's Ruthie,”“Minerva Writes Poems,”“The Three Sisters,”“A House of My Own,”“Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.”

The racial identity of the barrio is evident in “Those Who Don't,” in reference to those who get lost and wind up in the barrio fearing for their lives: “They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.” Conversely, while feeling safe in their own barrio, the Latinos fear to venture into other groups' neighborhoods: “All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes” (28).

“A Rice Sandwich” deals with latch-key children and poverty, and also articulates with the initial story. Esperanza shamefully identifies with a squalid flat; the nun assumes that because she is Mexican, that is where she lives: “Which one is your house? And then she made me stand up on a box of books and point. That one? she said pointing to a row of ugly three-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into. Yes, I nodded even though I knew that wasn't my house and started to cry” (45).

The physical changes that mark the transition from puberty to adolescence are signs confirming female identity, bringing with it an awareness of sexuality. However, Esperanza's exhilaration in arriving at this stage of physical development is offset not only by her encounters with the dangers that sexuality provoke, but also with her awareness of the gender proscription that is set in place once sexuality becomes manifest. Esperanza's first encounter with sexual danger is the consequence of a typical and innocent game played by young girls. In “The Family of Little Feet,” Esperanza and her friends put on cast-off high heels and take delight in pretending to be adult women. The corner grocer perceives the sexual danger that the high heels signal and tells the girls to take them off: “Them are dangerous, he says. You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that.”9 As they flee from the grocer, his admonishment is realized when, first, a boy, in typical male sexual banter, calls out to them, “Ladies, lead me to heaven”; and, second, in their encounter with male sexual aggression when a drunk asks one of the girls to come closer—“Your little lemon shoes are so beautiful. But come closer. I can't see very well”—and tells her he'll give her a dollar for a kiss. The girls run away in their high heels and take them off because they “are tired of being beautiful” (41-42). In this episode with allusions to “Little Red Riding Hood,” Cisneros, as she does with fairy tales, deflates a light-hearted reading of a typical child's dressing-up episode in order to focus on the girls' introduction to a sexual power structure that they only dimly perceive (R. Saldívar, 185).

The awareness of a biological coming-of-age is expressed in “Hips,” a piece that also touches on the formation of the writer:

One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?

They're good for holding a baby when you're cooking, Rachel says turning the jump rope a little quicker. She has no imagination. …

They bloom like roses, I continue because it's obvious I'm the only one who can speak with any authority; I have science on my side. The bones just one day open. Just like that.

Esperanza and her friends are talking about hips while jumping rope with little Nenny. At this point, the girls' game turns into a creative exercise as the now-older girls take turns improvising rhymes about hips as they jump to the rhythm of the jump rope. Esperanza sings:

Some are skinny like chicken lips.
Some are baggy like soggy band-aids
after you get out of the bathtub.
I don't care what kind I get.
Just as long as I get hips.

Then Nenny jumps inside, but can only sing the usual kids' rhymes: “Engine, engine, number nine.” Suddenly, the awareness of time passing and growing up is given a spatial dimension. Esperanza, on the outside, is looking at Nenny inside the arc of the swinging rope that now separates Nenny's childhood dimension from her present awareness of just having left behind that very same childhood: “Nenny, I say, but she doesn't hear me. She is too many light years away. She is in a world we don't belong to anymore. Nenny. Going. Going” (49-52).

In adolescence, Esperanza is attracted by what she perceives to be the romantic and liberating aspects of her sexuality, only to learn that it exposes her to peril and male domination. In “Sire,” she relates her burgeoning sexuality, her attraction to boys, and her desire to escape from a child's confinement and to sit outside at night like a “bad girl”: “Everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt. Not this way, every evening talking to the trees, leaning out the window, imagining what I can't see” (73). “Red Clowns,” however, brutally undermines her romantic notions of love and sex. Her physical coming-of-age is tragically confirmed by physical violation:

Sally, you lied. It wasn't what you said at all. What he did. Where he touched me. I didn't want it, Sally. The way they said it, the way it's supposed to be, all the story books and movies, why did you lie to me? … He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine. … You're a liar. They all lied. All the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong. Only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his sour smell again. The moon that watched. The tilt-a-whirl. The red clowns laughing their thick-tongue laugh.


As previously noted, in many of the pieces dealing with Esperanza's physical coming-of-age, Cisneros subverts their fairy-tale contexts and undermines romantic notions of love and sexuality. In “Red Clowns,” Esperanza, as Ramón Saldívar affirms, “sees that the ideologies of romantic love serve as the propaganda for the maintenance of the sexual economy that makes women like Sally and Esperanza victims merely because they are women” (186).

Valdés notes that “Esperanza Cordero observes, questions, and slowly finds herself determined through her relationship to the others who inhabit her world” (59). These include girls a bit older than her, whom she perceives as possible role models. But her descriptions of them dwell on their loneliness, confinement, and abuse. Again, in taut and lyrical language, Cisneros deromanticizes their dreams. Marin—in the story of the same name—who will be sent back to her mother in Puerto Rico because “she's too much trouble,” who wants to work downtown because “you … can meet someone in the subway who might marry and take you to live in a big house far away,” never comes out of the house “until her aunt comes home from work, and even then she can only stay out in front. She is there every night with the radio. … Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall. Someone to change her life. Anybody” (26-27). And then there is Rafaela, too beautiful for her own good:

On Tuesdays Rafaela's husband come home late because that's the night he plays dominoes. And then Rafaela, who is still young but getting old from leaning out the window so much, gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at.

Rafaela leans out the window and leans on her elbow and dreams her hair is like Rapunzel's. …

Rafaela who drinks and drinks coconut and papaya juice on Tuesdays and wishes there were sweeter drinks, not bitter like an empty room, but sweet sweet like the island, like the dance hall down the street …


In “Alicia Who Sees Mice,” the narrator describes the hard life of her friend. Alicia, who aspires to an education as a way out of the barrio, must arise early to make her father's lunchbox tortillas because her mother has died, so she has inherited her “mama's rolling pin and sleepiness”: “Close your eyes and they'll go away her father says, or You're just imagining. And anyway, a woman's place is sleeping so she can wake up early with the tortilla star, the one that appears early just in time to rise and catch the hindlegs hide behind the sink …” Here we note a barrio Latina's perception of life, a space of misery and subjugation, crystallized in the image of the “tortilla star.” To Alicia, Venus, the morning star, does not mean wishing upon or waiting for a star to fall down; instead, it means having to get up early, a rolling pin and tortillas. Here we do not see the tortilla as a symbol of cultural identity, but as a symbol of a subjugating ideology, of the imposition of a role that the young woman must assume. In much of the literature, especially poetry, written by Chicanos in the 1960s and 1970s, tortillas and frijoles serve as proud ethnic and cultural markers. Cisneros draws attention away from the cultural products in order to stress the producers, women, of this cultural economy. In “Alicia Who Sees Mice,” Venus—and the implication of sex and marriage as escape—is deromanticized, is eclipsed by a cultural reality that points to the drudgery of gender confinement. Alicia “is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university. Two trains and a bus, because she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin. … Is afraid of nothing except four-legged fur. And fathers” (31-32).

Most of the girls and young women in Mango Street, however, cannot aspire to an education; rather, they want to grow up fast and get married. But these, like Minerva, usually have to get married, and they leave a father for a domineering husband. Such is the fate of Sally in “Linoleum Roses”:

Sally got married like we knew she would, young and not ready but married just the same. She met a marshmallow salesman at a school bazaar, and she married him in another state where it's legal to get married before eighth grade. She has her husband and her house now, her pillowcases and her plates. She says she is in love, but I think she did it to escape. …

[Her husband] won't let her talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window. And he doesn't like her friends, so nobody gets to visit her unless he is working.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.


Like “tortilla star,” this vignette's title is a catachresis, an image whose incongruous and illogical terms bind the opposing ideas of confinement and freedom in a sign of considerable tension. “Linoleum roses” is a sign of household imprisonment and drudgery, in which the semes of rose—beauty, femininity, garden (the outside)—and rose as a traditional metaphor for woman are ironically treated. The roses decorate the linoleum floor that Sally must scrub. This is an image of her future. The simile of the last line, the “ceiling smooth as wedding cake,” reverberates in an ironical twist revealing a wedding picture of despair.

The imagery of The House on Mango Street has many functions. Besides expressing the ideological message of gender subjugation, and thereby forming an element of its counterdiscourse, it can function on the three levels of form, plot, and symbolic significance. These levels are articulated in “Four Skinny Trees,” an important piece in the narrative development of identity.10 In her personification of the trees, Esperanza expresses a similarity between them and her: “They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine.” The image's referentiality situates text and narrator in a constrictive urban setting. “Four who grew despite concrete” then proceeds to develop the identity of the enunciating voice mired in a place where she and the trees do not belong: “Four who do not belong here but are here.”

At the level of plot, the trees serve as an emblem of survival in a hostile environment:

Let one forget his reason for being, they'd all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other. Keep, keep, keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.

When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees. When there is nothing left to look at on this street. Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be.

The image of the trees acquires its fullest significance at the symbolic level, at which stage the text manifests its intertextuality in the incorporation of the universal significance of trees: “Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep” (74-75). The image of the four skinny trees serves to express Esperanza's character development and the will to assert her identity. Against the many odds of her harsh environment and dominating culture, she must struggle, like the trees, to grow and to survive. Like the trees, she must be tenacious in her aspiration to greatness.

The themes of house, identity, and writing are bound together; the last is the resolution of the other themes. It is through writing, through the aesthetic perception of her reality, that Esperanza discovers who she is, affirms her identity, and finds her house. That this house may not be the material reality that Esperanza desires is augured forth in “Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water.” Here, Esperanza visits a “witch woman,” that is, a curandera, a healer and medium, whom she pays five dollars to tell her fortune through her palm and tarot cards. When Esperanza asks about a house, “What about a house, I say, because that's what I came for,” the curandera replies:

Ah, yes, a home in the heart. I see a home in the heart.

Is that it?

That's what I see, she says, …

Baby, I'll look again if you want me to. …

A home in the heart, I was right.

Only I don't get it.


Esperanza is left puzzled by the oracle; what she seeks is not to be found as a material presence on a street, but as a spiritual reality within her heart. Not a house but a home.

Indications of Esperanza's formation as a writer and another prediction of her eventual move from Mango Street to a new “home” are given in “Born Bad” and “The Three Sisters.”11 In “Born Bad,” Esperanza reads her poetry to her aunt Guadalupe, who appears to be dying from polio. The aunt replies: “That's nice. That's very good, she said in her tired voice. You must remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will help keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn't know what she meant” (61). Puzzled once about where to find a house and thinking that freedom could only be encountered outside the physical and cultural space of her barrio, Esperanza is now astonished that freedom can be found in writing.

In “The Three Sisters,” three old women appear at the velorio (wake) of a neighbor's baby.12 To Esperanza, their presence is a mysterious one: “They came with the wind that blows in August, thin as a spider web and barely noticed. Three who did not seem to be related to anything but the moon.” Like the curandera and the aunt, these women appear at critical junctures to advance the narrative and to assist the heroine in her quest. Unlike the two previous stories, however, the sisters' intervention is related in the combination of the characteristic prose-poem form with an extended dialogue sequence. On the level of the plot, the elderly sisters, who appear like fairy godmothers, bring revelation and the gift of self to Esperanza (Valdés, 65). Esperanza begins to assume her name and her identity:

What's your name, the cat-eyed one asked.

Esperanza, I said.

Esperanza, the old blue-veined one repeated in a high thin voice. Esperanza … a good name. …

Look at her hands, cat-eyed said.

And they turned them over and over as if they were looking for something.

She's special.

Yes, she'll go very far. …

Make a wish.

A wish?

Yes, make a wish. What do you want?

Anything? I said.

Well, why not?

I closed my eyes.

Did you wish already?

Yes, I said.

Well, that's all there is to it. It'll come true.

How do you know? I asked.

We know, we know.

Esperanza. The one with marble hands called me aside. Esperanza. She held my face with her blue-veined hands and looked and looked at me. A long silence. When you leave you must remember always to come back, she said.


When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are.

Then I didn't know what to say. It was as if she could read my mind, as if she knew what I had wished for, and I felt ashamed for having made such a selfish wish.

You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember? She asked as if she was telling me. Yes, yes, I said a little confused. … I didn't understand everything they had told me. I turned around. They smiled and waved in their smoky way.

Then I didn't see them. Not once, or twice, or ever again.


The three sisters now appear on the symbolic level as the Three Fates who determine the heroine's destiny and leave her with the prophecy of self-knowledge (Valdés, 65). Esperanza has received her wish, but does not understand it. How can she leave and still be Mango Street? How can she come back for the others? What is the meaning of the circle? Esperanza thought that by leaving Mango Street and living in another house, one that she could point to with pride, she would leave behind forever an environment she believed to be only temporary. Three mysterious women embed in Esperanza's psyche a cultural and political determination that will find expression in her vocation as a writer. Esperanza eventually will move away from the confining space of house and barrio, but paradoxically, within them she has encountered the liberating space of writing.

Through her creativity, Esperanza comes to inhabit the house of storytelling. The material house of her own—“Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after”—lies in the future. What Esperanza can have now, however, is a magical house entered through the door of her creative imagination: “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (108). Consequently, the house is a book to be written, blank pages to be filled with her voice and with the voices of women trapped by their economic and cultural restrictions. The absence of punctuation and quotation marks often signal the fusion of these voices (Martín-Rodríguez, 251).

The attainment of identity and the realization of freedom through the space of writing are expressed in “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes”:

I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Pauline, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.

One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.13

(sic, 109-10)

Certainly, Esperanza longs for a new house where she can have her own female space, and one that she can point to with pride, but she arrives at the knowledge that this house is also in the heart and that its entrance is gained through writing. The house is a metaphor for the house of storytelling. Put another way, she lives in the book on Mango Street (Martín-Rodríguez). But neither in the sad red house nor in the house of writing does Esperanza indulge in escapism. She comes to terms with the ethnic consciousness that the house represents through the process of creative fiction (McCracken, 66). Consequently, although Esperanza liberates herself from her physical and cultural confinement through her fiction, she never leaves Mango Street because instead of romanticizing or fantasizing, she writes of her reality.

Erlinda Gonzales and Diana Rebolledo confirm that the house is symbolic of consciousness and collective memory, and is a nourishing structure so that “the narrator comes to understand that, despite her need for a space of her own, Mango Street is really a part of her—an essential creative part she will never be able to leave.” Thus she searches in (as narrator) and will return to (as author) her neighborhood “for the human and historical materials of which [her] stories will be made” (114-15). Through the aesthetic re-creation of her reality and her self, Esperanza transcends her condition, finding another house that is the space of literature. Yet what she writes about—“third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic [that is, fantasy] as possible”—reinforces her solidarity with the people, the women, on Mango Street.

Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, like Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra and other works by Chicano authors, pronounces the counterdiscourse of a minority people; yet, at the same time, it responds to these works' cultural ideology of Hispanic male supremacy. As Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano lucidly points out: “Esperanza is painfully aware of the racial and economic oppression her community suffers, but it is the fate of the women in her barrio that has the most profound impact on her, especially as she begins to develop sexually and learns that the same fate might be hers. Esperanza gathers strength from the experience of these women to reject the imposition of rigid gender roles predetermined by her culture” (142). As we have noted, Esperanza's escape from her physical and cultural confinement is achieved through education and writing. Determined not to wind up like the victimized women of her barrio, she does encounter a few positive role models who encourage her education and writing.

The rejection of her culture's gender proscription, achieved through writing, also entails moving away from the barrio to her own female space, a move that could be incorrectly perceived by some as a rejection of her class;14 but Esperanza concludes her text with the promise to return: “They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”15

Cisneros's slender but powerful fiction departs from the paradigm of the traditional female bildungsroman, which submits to the literary and ideological hegemony of masculine discourse. In her coming-of-age literary testimony, Esperanza refuses to accept her expected position in society. This determination is not only manifested by her actions—“I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (89)—but by the empowering act of writing: “She seeks self-empowerment through writing, while recognizing her commitment to a community of Chicanas. Writing has been essential in connecting her with the power of women and her promise to pass down that power to other women is fulfilled by the writing and publication of the text itself” (Yarbro-Bejarano, 143).16


One of the most important considerations in approaching The House on Mango Street is that it cannot be effectively taught and discussed if it is categorized under feminist literature per se. The discourses of “American” literary and critical feminism, that is, of Anglo women writers and critics, generally do not take into account the questions of class and color, and mistakenly pretend to speak monolithically for all American women. These Anglo women writers and critics do not seem to perceive that women of ethnic and racial minorities are involved in racial and class struggles that directly influence the expression of their own cultural conflict of gender liberation. At times these women respond to the urgencies of class struggle and at times, probably more often, they express the tension of their double marginality. With regard to Chicana literature, Yarbro-Bejarano observes:

Perhaps the most important principle of Chicana feminist criticism is the realization that the Chicana's experience as a woman is inextricable from her experience as a member of an oppressed working-class racial minority and a culture which is not the dominant culture. Her task is to show how in works by Chicanas, elements of gender, race, culture and class coalesce. The very term “Chicana” or “mestiza” communicates the multiple connotations of color and femaleness, as well as historical adumbrations of class and cultural membership within the economic structure and dominant culture of the United States. While this may seem painfully obvious, the assertion of this project in Chicana writing is crucial in combatting the tendency in both white feminist and Chicano discourse to see these elements as mutually exclusive. By asserting herself as Chicana or mestiza, the Chicana confronts the damaging fragmentation of her identity into component parts at war with each other.


Chicanas and other Latinas perceive themselves as “women of color,” a term that not only includes women of other racial minorities but one that identifies them with the working class. Thus, in order to discuss and analyze such a work as Mango Street, it is necessary to demonstrate how and under what circumstances the elements of gender, race, culture, and class coalesce and also vie with one another.

In taking the above factors into consideration, however, it is essential not to follow another tendency, that of viewing minority literatures as sociology or anthropology instead of reading them as literature. A book such as The House on Mango Street is fundamentally a work of art. It is not “art for art's sake,” however, but an aesthetic expression of the writer's personal and social concerns. The meaning of The House on Mango Street, for example, is what these concerns or ideas-in-this-form-do. Thus, the work should not be read and studied only with regard to its formal elements, but with an eye to seeing how these elements shape and give expression to its themes and ideologies.

Another factor that may impede accessibility to the text is one's unfamiliarity with the experiences related by minority writers. That is, the degree of one's response and sensitivity to these texts can be related to one's class, upbringing, education, exposure to other groups and ways of life, and so on. Consequently, the acquisition of such a sensitivity depends on one's own initiative in overcoming the limitations of ethnocentricity and the willingness to benefit from a liberal education and a curriculum with a multicultural component. Certainly, reading many of the works studied in this collection would be a big step toward the acquisition of such a sensitivity and of a liberal formation.

Perhaps one sensitivity exercise could be the assignment to write a brief narrative based on a specific experience, in the manner of the stories in Mango Street. These could be turned in without a name, then read by all the students. The aim would be to see if the students can assess (1) artistic merit, and (2) detect racial, ethnic, class, and gender differences as well as similarities.

A method of approaching, and by implication teaching, The House on Mango Street has been given in the first part of this study. In this section, I propose some topics that can amplify and complement my reading, and sharpen the students' critical skills.

  1. I deliberately excluded from my commentary “The Monkey Garden,” leaving it for the student to analyze with regard to the themes and formal elements discussed in my analysis. Some very important things happen to Esperanza in this story. What are they and how are they expressed? How does this experience and this story relate to the book as a whole?
  2. On the basis of the theme of rebirth, compare “The Monkey Garden” with the story “Moths,” from The Moths and Other Stories, by Helena María Viramontes.
  3. Valdés points out that Esperanza's affirmation of self-invention displaces men's stories about women and that her freedom depends on escaping from the trap of patriarchal narrativity (69). How does Esperanza achieve this? What is meant by “patriarchal narrativity” and how does she create a feminist narrativity?
  4. In Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra/And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, religion is an important theme. Rivera saw that religion had a negative influence on his people, the migrant workers. In their oppressed state, and with its promise of their reward in the hereafter, Catholicism promoted fatalism and resignation to a life of poverty and passivity, and consequently submission to the external elements of oppression. Inasmuch as Catholicism is an important component of Hispanic culture and promotes a passive and obedient role for women, do you believe its exclusion from the book is a serious omission? How could the author have treated this theme? Also, since education is important for Esperanza and she obviously attends a parochial school, why is her school experience omitted? If Cisneros were to rewrite the book, what suggestions would you give her?
  5. Compare Mango Street, as a bildungsroman, with either (1) Pocho, by José Antonio Villarreal, or (2) Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. With regard to (1), take into consideration the portrayal of women and the theme of assimilation; concerning (2), discuss also the use of myth, the rural/urban contrast, and the role of religion.
  6. Compare Mango Street with Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, considering the latter as an autobiographical bildungsroman. Pay attention to the themes of shame, class rejection, and assimilation.
  7. If you were to consider the poetics of women of color, what conclusions would you come to after reading, for example, Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, and Viramontes's The Moths and Other Stories?



Castillo, Ana. The Mixquiahuala Letters. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press, 1986. An epistolary novel and sociocultural document that encompasses both Mexican and United States Hispanic forms of love and gender conflict.

Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981. The first book by the best Chicana poet writing today. Her expression of womanhood is expansive enough to embrace a diversity of human experience. Her poetry is characterized by a utopian vision in conflict with the reality of social problems.

———. From the Cables of Genocide: Poems on Love and Hunger. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991. Poetry that stretches the resources of language, imagery, and the dialectics of love, hunger, and aesthetics to express a penetrating feminist and human vision of the poet's universe.

Chávez, Denise. The Last of the Menu Girls. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1986. Interrelated stories, humorous and serious, narrated by Rocío Esquibel about her identity crisis and her sister and mother, all of whom make do without a man. The adolescent protagonist examines available models of womanhood, tries out roles, comes to terms with the clutter of her past, and emerges as a writer.

Corpi, Lucha. Palabras de Mediodía/Noon Words, trans. Catherine Rodríguez-Nieto. Berkeley: University of California Press and El Fuego de Aztlán, 1980. Born and raised in Mexico, Corpi came to the United States after her divorce. She writes her poetry in Spanish, although her novels—Delia's Song (Arte Público Press, 1988) and Eulogy for a Brown Angel (Arte Público Press, 1992)—are in English. Her excellent poetry is about boundaries, those that are crossed from Mexican to American and Chicano cultures, and those that are surmounted in the flight from Mexican patriarchy.

Mohr, Nicholasa. Rituals of Survival: A Woman's Portfolio. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985. A collection of five short stories and a novella that offers indelible portraits of Puerto Rican women in New York City and the rituals of survival that shape their lives.

Ortiz Cofer, Judith. Terms of Survival. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1987. A cultural legacy and a woman's desire to be released from rituals are the terms that the poet confronts in her dialectic of survival. Cultural icons, customs, and rites of passage take root in an imagery that is lush, tropical, and piercing.

———. Silent Dancing: A Partial Remembrance of a Puerto Rican Childhood. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991. Personal recollections of the author's childhood, of growing up in Puerto Rico and New Jersey, the book treats the themes of female conditioning and feminine roles, culture shock and immigration.

Ríos, Isabella. Victuum. Los Angeles/Ventura: Diana-Etna, 1976. A psychological and experimental novel that eschews traditional narration in favor of a mimetic narrative where the characters speak for themselves without editorial intrusion or mediation. The novel traces the life of Valentina Ballesternos in Oxnard, California, from 1925, before she was born, to about 1965, and deals with a woman's perpetuation of patriarchy.

Vigil, Evangelina. Thirty an' Seen a Lot. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1982. Poems, many in a bilingual format, that reflect life in the Chicano barrio from a female perspective. The book's trajectory is from the community to the universal plight of Hispanics.

Viramontes, Helena María. The Moths and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985. With an introduction by Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, this collection of eight stories examines feminine roles and expectations, from childhood through old age, in a terse language and innovative narrative technique.


Cisneros, Sandra. “The softly insistent voice of a poet.” Austin American Statesman (March 11, 1986): 14-15.

———. “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession.” “Notes to a Young(er) Writer.” “Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street.” All in The Americas Review 15, no. 1 (1987): 69-79. These three essays by Cisneros and the above interview with her offer many insights into her background, her formation as a writer, and how The House on Mango Street was realized.

Gonzales-Berry, Erlinda, and Tey Diana Rebolledo. “Growing Up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros.” In International Studies in Honor of Tomás Rivera, ed. Julián Olivares, 109-19. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1986. A structural and thematic comparative approach that concentrates on the originality of a feminist work in opposition to a male-centered canonical text.

Gutiérrez-Revuelta, Pedro. “Género e ideología en el libro de Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street.Crítica 1, no. 3 (1986): 48-59. This article opposes the categorization of the work as “children's literature,” due principally to its ideology of the working-class minority and to the postmodernist construct of a hybrid genre.

Martín-Rodríguez, Manuel M. “The Book on Mango Street: Escritura y liberación en la obra de Sandra Cisneros.” In Mujer y Literatura Mexicana y Chicana: Culturas en Contacto, Vol. 2, ed. Aralia López González et al., 249-54. México: Colegio de México, 1990. The application of speech-act theory to the dialectic between the individual discourse and the collective discourse with the aim of creating a fictive space called Mango Street. In Spanish.

McCracken, Ellen. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence.” In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, ed. Asunción Horno-Delgado et al., 62-71. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. A Marxist approach that conceives the work in opposition to the “discourse of power,” conceived both as that emanating from the ideology of the dominant society and, particularly, that of male-centered texts.

Olivares, Julián. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space.” In Beyond Stereotypes: The Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature, ed. María Herrera-Sobek, 160-70. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press, 1985. A structural and thematic approach that demonstrates how the work opposes Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space (which Cisneros read prior to commencing Mango Street) and the masculine politics that informs his work.

Saldívar, Ramón. “The Dialectics of Subjectivity: Gender and Difference in Isabella Ríos, Sandra Cisneros, and Cherríe Moraga.” Chicano Narrative, The Dialectics of Difference, 171-99. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990. A poststructuralist and historically based approach influenced by the criticism of Fredric Jameson, which attempts to demonstrate how the dialectical form of narratives by Chicano men and women is a way of dealing with their cultural representation, expression of subjectivity, and resistance to symbolic structures of cultural oppression.

Valdés, María Elena de. “In Search of Identity in Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.Canadian Review of American Studies 23, no. 1 (1992): 55-72. A historical, structural approach that incorporates the social feminism of Naomi Black and Julia Kristeva, and examines the composite of the poetic enunciating voice and the narrative voice.


Bruce-Novoa, Juan. Retrospace: Collected Essays on Chicano Literature. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1990.

Cisneros, Sandra. Bad Boys. San José, Calif.: Mango Press, 1980.

———. The House on Mango Street. 1984. Rev. ed., New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

———. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Bloomington, Ind.: Third Woman Press, 1987.

———. Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1991.

Herrera-Sobek, María, ed. Beyond Stereotypes: The Critical Analysis of Chicana Literature. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press, 1985.

Herrera-Sobek, María, and Helena María Viramontes, eds. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Houston and Irvine: Arte Público Press and Mexico/Chicano Program, University of California, 1988.

Horno Delgado, Asunción, et al. Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.

Lomelí, Francisco, ed. The Handbook on Hispanic Cultures in the United States: Literature and Art. Houston: Arte Público and Instituto de Cooperación Iberoamericana, 1993.

Melville, Margarita, ed. Twice a Minority: Mexican American Women. St. Louis, Mo.: Mosby, 1980.

Olivares, Julián, ed. International Studies in Honor of Tomás Rivera. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1986.

Rivera, Tomás. Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works, ed. Julián Olivares. Houston: Arte Público Press, 1991.

Rodríguez, Juan. “The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.” Austin Chronicle (Aug. 10, 1984). Cited in Gutiérrez-Revuelta, “Género e ideología en el libro de Sandra Cisernos,” 52.

Saldívar, José D. “The Ideological and Utopian in Tomás Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra and Ron Arias' The Road to Tamazunchale.Crítica 1, no. 2 (1985): 100-114.

Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective.” In Herrera-Sobek and Viramontes, Chicana Creativity and Criticism, 139-46.


  1. Originally published in 1984 by Arte Público Press, The House on Mango Street, winner of the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award for 1985, enjoyed three printings and a second revised edition in 1988. I cite from the 1991 Vintage edition.

  2. Barrio means “neighborhood,” but in the context of Latino socioeconomic realities, “ghetto” is a better translation. The large city would be Chicago, where the author was born in 1954.

  3. Cisneros is the only daughter of a Mexican father and a Chicana mother; she has six brothers.

  4. For a study of … y no se lo tragó la tierra, as well as other works by Rivera, see the introduction to my edition of Tomás Rivera: The Complete Works (1991). Citations from Tierra are from Evangelina Vigil's translation, And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, which is included in The Complete Works.

  5. Another possible influence on the structure, even ideology, of Mango Street is hagiography. Cisneros relates that she read “the lives of saints” in her childhood (“Ghosts and Voices,” 70). Because of their martyrdom, which can be read in various ways, the lives of saints, especially the women, have appealed to female writers over the centuries. The various “pictures” of the suffering girls and women in Mango Street can be conceived as a type of martyrology. This is an approach that merits study.

  6. Ramón Saldívar affirms that The House on Mango Street represents “the enormously complex process of the construction of the gendered subject. Posing the question of sexual difference within the urban workingclass Chicano community, Cisneros' novel also emphasizes the crucial roles of racial and material as well as ideological conditions of oppression. It thus helps establish what over the course of the 1980s will become a virtual program for writings by Chicanas, namely a clear-sighted recognition of the unavoidably mutual overdetermination of the categories of race and class with that of gender in any attempted positioning of the Chicana subject” (181-82).

  7. On the dialectics of inside/outside, alienation/integration, confinement/freedom, and the poetics of space in The House on Mango Street, see Olivares, “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space.” The present study incorporates portions of my previous article.

  8. Cisneros has said: “One of the most important books in my childhood … was Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House, a picture book that tells the story of a house on a country hill whose owner promises never to sell her ‘for gold or silver.’ … Stable and secure in the country, the little house is happy witnessing the changes of seasons and generations, although curious about the distant lights of the big city. … Finally, the city that has been growing ever larger, catches up with the little house, until she finds she is no longer in the country but eventually surrounded by tall buildings and noisy traffic. The inhabitants move away, and the little house, no longer able to see the stars at night, grows sad; her roof sags and the doorstep droops; the windows that serve as eyes, one on either side of the door, are broken. Fortunately, the great, granddaughter of the man who built the house rescues her … Traffic is halted on the busy boulevard for the little house to be wheeled away to the country and settled on a hill just like the one it originally sat on, happy and once again loved” (“Ghosts and Voices,” 70).

  9. Women's shoes are a universal symbol of sexuality, marriage, and fertility.

  10. I follow Valdés's analysis of the imagery in “Four Skinny Trees”; see also her commentary on “The Three Sisters” (63-65).

  11. The context of death in these stories suggests perhaps that creativity is not only a means of escape from the confines of Mango Street, but also an affirmation of life and a rebirth. It merits noting that in “The Monkey Garden” Esperanza lies down, closes her eyes, and wills herself to die. When she awakens and stands up, she finds that she has left behind her childhood; in other words, she has been reborn.

  12. McCracken (70) notes that this story is an expansion of Cisneros's poem “Velorio” in her chapbook Bad Boys.

  13. The first edition has “For the ones who cannot get out.”

  14. As does Juan Rodríguez; for a rebuttal of this contention, see my 1988 study, 168-69.

  15. The same conviction is expressed in “Bums in the Attic”:

    One day I'll own my own house, but I won't forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I'll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house.

    Some days after dinner, guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble.

    Rats? they'll ask.

    Bums, I'll say, and I'll be happy. (87)

  16. Appositely, Cisneros remarks: “I am the first woman in my family to pick up a pen and record what I see around me, a woman who has the power to speak and is privileged enough to be heard. That is a responsibility” (“Notes to a Young(er) Writer,” 76). In another essay, she adds: “From [the] experience of listening to young Latinas whose problems were so great, I felt helpless; I was moved to do something to change their lives, ours, mine. I did the only thing I knew how. I wrote … (“Do You Know Me?,” 78).

Ellen C. Mayock (essay date September-December 1998)

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SOURCE: Mayock, Ellen C. “The Bicultural Construction of Self in Cisneros, Álvarez, and Santiago.” Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingue 23, no. 3 (September-December 1998): 223-29.

[In the following essay, Mayock examines three novels by Latina authors: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, by Julia Álvarez, and When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago. Mayock asserts that each of these novels constitutes a bi-cultural Latina transformation of the traditional bildungsroman.]

Virginia Woolf once said, “How queer to have so many selves” (Kakutani B2), a comment which immediately introduces the concept of the multiplicity of one's character. In the case of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street (1984), Julia Álvarez's How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1992), and Esmeralda Santiago's When I Was Puerto Rican (1993), multiple selves stem from manifold cultural locations. Each of the three protagonists is deeply affected by her geographical past and present, by the cultural implications of that geography, by the constantly evolving mosaic of the combination of two distinctly different cultures, and, to complicate matters, by the changing “locations” of her developing adolescent self (or selves).

Each of the three novels, or collections of stories (as The House on Mango Street and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents have also been called), is an innovative type of Latina bildungsroman, a display of the corporal, emotional, and cultural development of the protagonists, and by voyeuristic extension, of their communities. The form of the first-person narrative, although somewhat more complicated in Álvarez's constant play of individual and group perspectives in first and third persons, effectively links protagonist to narrator (and, in these cases, to author), and protagonist to reader. The highly personal and sensorial narrations invite the reader, even the reader who has no intimate connection with the Hispanic world, into the cultural locations of the barrios of Chicago (in Cisneros), the countryside of the Dominican Republic, the Bronx, and suburban New York (in Álvarez), and the countryside, “jíbaro” culture of Puerto Rico, urban living in and outside of San Juan, and cement-block city living in Brooklyn (in Santiago).

Each of the three authors provides a clue early in the narration that helps the reader to map not only the cultural implications of the novel, but also its principle themes. Cisneros dedicates her work in Spanish and in English “a las mujeres,” an action which immediately displays her concern for the angst of the developing protagonist, Esperanza, as well as for the other women in the narration. Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz states that “the strategic discursive consciousness emerges from a feminine tradition in Latin America that focuses on the formation of the woman's voice as a collective as well as an individual subject” (Jehenson xi). If we apply this concept to Latin American women on North American soil, we observe that the female role models in these novels also represent the cultural boundaries (in the sense of límites) that have served to lock in many real-life Latina women.

Álvarez grants us two important hints at the emphasis in her work. The format of the backwards timeline demonstrates the mature protagonist Yolanda's return to her past, implying perhaps a need to recover a distant self or cultural location through memory, nostalgia, and the power of the pen. The Dominican author also draws a family tree that serves to trace Yolanda and her sisters' roots back to the conquistadores. The presence of this dynamic past gives a sense of the García and de la Torre power and privilege on the Island. The material comfort on the Island contrasts sharply with the initial hardships upon the family's arrival in New York and even more acutely with the poverty depicted in The House on Mango Street and When I Was Puerto Rican, thus setting up another boundary, this time based on class and the gaps between the “haves” and “have nots.”

In her first novel, Santiago provides the reader with an extensive glossary that includes sophisticated words, Puerto Rican slang, typical Spanish sayings, and certain expletives. This combination represents the rich linguistic diversity of the narrator-protagonist's cultural and storytelling vocabulary. In addition, the glossary exposes Santiago's love of language and word play and thematic emphasis on writing as salvation.

The three works also have in common titles that immediately suggest past tense and biculturality, two factors that allow us to explore the travels of the protagonists and their friends and families from one time to another, from one country to another, and from one self to others. Cherry Clayton's quoting of Achebe is appropriate here: “Our future depends on our constant putting together of the past and the present through the story” (Clayton 129). Our three narrator-protagonists are unraveling the past in order to reconcile it with the present.

The three novels are replete with textual representations of the development of the female protagonists as women, as representatives of the nations and/or cultures in which they were born, as transplants, and, significantly, as artists. Intrinsic to the evolution of the bicultural female protagonist are her family relationships, the examples set for her by her female peers and older role models, her struggles to understand and liberate herself from gender-based norms, and her efforts to create a realm where imposed values can survive with well-earned identity. Myriam Yvonne Jehenson's citation concerning Latin American women writers applies equally well to these three Latina writers:

Their writing, in the words of Francine Masiello, constitutes a “double discourse,” a conscious recognition of the “structures of power at the same time that it offers an alternative.”

(Jehenson xiii)

The polarities just mentioned set up a framework of boundaries and limits that influences the protagonists' development from the start. The first set of boundaries contains the antithetic concept of nosotros versus los otros. Cisneros constructs these limits with an emphasis on the traditional Latino roles for boys and men in opposition with the dutiful (duty-full) realm imposed on girls and women. In his interview with Cisneros, Jim Sagel states that the author “relishes the opportunity to startle the jaded reader and poetically unravel stereotypes, especially those that relate to Latinas” (Sagel 74). Again, the term “unravel” transports us back to the text and its interwoven structure of past and present.

In The House on Mango Street Cisneros initiates the woman/man opposition with a selection entitled “Boys & Girls,” in which she states:

The boys and girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours. My brothers for example. They've got plenty to say to me and Nenny inside the house. But outside they can't be seen talking to girls. Carlos and Kiki are each other's best friend … not ours.

(Cisneros 8)

Cisneros uses a language of oppositions. Esperanza and Nenny's cultural location is the house, the only place it is considered licit for them to interact with boys, brothers who will not acknowledge them outside this familial environment. Cisneros is pointing to the fact that Esperanza and Nenny are potential “window sitters,” as are many of the women characterized in this novel. If they follow the cultural norms codified thus far in their lives, they too will adopt the house as their place of activity, thereby limiting their possibilities in life to that which comes to them and reducing their roles in their own lives to passive ones. Esperanza recognizes the danger of this stagnation when she discusses being her great grandmother's namesake:

Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window.

(Cisneros 11)

Esperanza's interest in her older friend Marin exposes her own voyeuristic nature and willingness to reject certain characteristics of negative female role models. She laments Marin's need to “look beautiful and to wear nice clothes and meet someone in the subway who might marry her [you] and take her [you] to live in a big house far away” (Cisneros 26). Instead of conforming to the numerous examples set by older women in the narration (her own mother included), Esperanza begins her own series of small revolutions which will help to shape her life and give definition to her independence:

My mother says when I grow older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean, but I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.

(Cisneros 88)

The protagonist is unconcerned about the supposed need for feminine wiles and makes a conscious decision to eschew the traditional values of her cultures (both Latina and North American). She adds, “I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (Cisneros 89). This rebellion is not an effort of a “sisterhood,” but rather an individualistic approach that allows for Esperanza's survival in a world not fashioned by or for women. Esperanza refuses to join the ranks of Mexican-American women who serve men.

In Álvarez's narration, the adult Yolanda García pursues the same solitary course of action, displaying, in fact, a further gap between herself and other women, as she faces her aunts and female cousins who do not believe she, a woman, should travel alone in the Dominican Republic: “She [Yolanda] has sat back quietly, hoping she has learned, at last, to let the mighty wave of tradition roll on through her life and break on some other female shore” (Álvarez 9). Both narrators use the word “quiet,” thus lending an oxymoronic flavor to their warring protests against the imbalance of male and female roles within their cultures.

In When I Was Puerto Rican, Negi arrives at a similar conclusion about the unpalatable nature of male/female roles as she has observed them in Puerto Rico. Her father has just used Negi as an excuse to abandon her mother and siblings in order to visit another woman in San Juan. Papi leaves Negi at his mother's house and fails to pick her up a week later, as he had promised. Finally, Negi's mother retrieves her, and Negi slowly comprehends her mother's disillusionment, hard work, and isolation at her father's hands. The narrator-protagonist is extremely disheartened by the pain she sees women accepting and suffering. As she strains to listen to her mother and paternal grandmother talk, she “wonders if men ever talked like this, if their sorrows ever spilled into these secret cadences” (Santiago 103). Her youthful consciousness continues on its path of awakening:

It seemed to me that remaining jamona could not possibly hurt this much. That a woman alone, even if ugly, could not suffer as much as my beautiful mother did. I hated Papi. I sat on the bed in his mother's house and wished he'd die, but as soon as the thought flashed, I slapped my face for thinking such a thing. I packed my bag and stepped into the room where Mami and Abuela sat. When they looked at me, it seemed as if we were all thinking the same thing. I would just as soon remain jamona than shed that many tears over a man.

(Santiago 104)

Negi's self-inflicted pain is a habit she has developed in order both to punish herself according to externally imposed morality and to avoid expression of possibly more dangerous emotions such as fear, loneliness, outrage at injustice, and powerlessness. The violence follows a pattern of patriarchal power: her father holds the power of freedom to sulk and stray over her mother, who, in turn, holds the threat of physical abuse over the children in an attempt to have some control over her large, unsolicited, single-parented brood. Negi liberates herself from her mother's abuse and feels the power that comes with her newfound freedom: “Mami and I didn't speak for days. But she never, ever, hit me again” (Santiago 252).

Similar patterns are depicted, but to a lesser extent, in How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, and to a greater extent in The House on Mango Street, in which the scenes of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse are pervasive. The patterns of abuse reinforce the paradigm of woman as object instead of as human being. The panoply of enclosed and abused women in The House on Mango Street begins with the neighbor Rosa Vargas, whose “kids are too many and too much” (Cisneros 29), and “who cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come” (Cisneros 29). Then we see Alicia, who fears her father, and Sally, another one of Esperanza's contemporaries, who has flashes of potential but fears the constant sexual abuse imposed by her father. Again, the narrator-protagonist learns a valuable lesson through observation:

And who do you always have to go straight home to after school? You become a different Sally. You pull your skirt straight, you rub the blue paint off your eyelids. You don't laugh, Sally. You look at your feet and walk fast to the house you can't come out from.

(Cisneros 82)

Again, the house has become the girl-woman's cultural location. Esperanza's feverish desire for her own, big, self-styled house is a significant indication of the need to break the cycle of female domesticity and to occupy space all her own, one defined by her own loneliness, creativity, and desires.

As the narrators attempt to disrupt these cultural norms through creative success, their sisters have a different modus operundi: both Esperanza's sister Nenny and Yolanda García's sister Sandi know they are pretty and see their good looks as an escape from the inferior place they must take within their fathers' households. Both narrator-protagonists comprehend, upon seeing how their sisters navigate their worlds, that “pretty speaks both languages” (Álvarez 182). As Sandi regards her image in the mirror and splits herself in two, she gets an outsider's view into the power of pretty:

Being pretty, she would not have to go back to where she came from. Pretty spoke both languages. Pretty belonged in this country to spite La Bruja. As she studied herself, the stall door behind her opened in the mirror. Sandi let her bangs fall and rushed out of the room.

(Álvarez 182)

Similarly, Esperanza narrates:

Nenny says she won't wait her whole life for a husband to come and get her, that Minerva's sister left her mother's house by having a baby, but she doesn't want to go that way either. She wants things all her own, to pick and choose. Nenny has pretty eyes and it's easy to talk that way if you are pretty.

(Cisneros 88)

It is not that our three narrator-protagonists do not consider their own physical appearances; they simply place more importance on their developing intellect as a means of day-to-day escape and eventual liberation. In When I Was Puerto Rican, Negi also tends towards the cerebral and is in some ways positively influenced by her poetic Papi. When Negi asks him what a soul does, he responds thoughtfully, “Well, it is the soul of a person that writes poetry” (Santiago 53), a revelation that leads Negi to the lovely conclusion, “Now I knew what happened to me when I walked beside myself. It was my soul wandering” (Santiago 54). Again, this ability to separate into two selves helps all three narrator-protagonists to be effective voyeurs, poets, and storytellers along their paths to self-discovery.

Yolanda's multiple selves (captured in the personae of Yolanda, Yo, Joe, one of the García girls, etc.) are validated as she garners her own literary voice in English: “She finally sounded like herself in English!” (Álvarez 143). Yolanda, like Negi, appreciates the poetic in an older role model and understands better her fragmented self when her teacher Sister Zoe says upon seeing snow fall, “Each flake was different, like a person, irreplaceable and beautiful” (Álvarez 167). Thus, the narrator-protagonists are learning to find beauty beyond the limitations of superficial, commercially imposed standards.

Just as the narrator-protagonists confront the boundaries of male/female behaviors and of external standards versus their internal perceptions, they also encounter boundaries between their Spanish and English-speaking worlds. Their unfolding ability to move with ease between the two realms is an indication of their comfort with their own beings and a reflection of their increased interaction with the outside world. The language confrontations are not only linguistically motivated, but are also affected by gaps in generations, in physical development, in religious beliefs, in country versus urban living, and in class standards. In short, the ever-evolving cultural norms of the narrator-protagonists influence their language use. These young women, however, never stop observing, reading, speaking, and writing from the border, for their languages are derived from the intersection of their two cultures. Fortunately, the linguistic blend gives rise not to silence, but instead to a rush of words whose flow will not be stemmed.

This emphasis on language is especially acute throughout Álvarez's novel. A prime example presents itself when Yolanda's mother wonders at Yolanda's most recent breakup, this time with monolingual John. Laura (the mother) asks, “What happened, Yo? We thought you and John were so happy.” Yo responds, “We just didn't speak the same language” (Álvarez 81). The protagonist is obviously not referring to basic communication problems in English, but to broader, deeper problems in their relationship. Yolanda later narrates: “… so many words. There is no end to what can be said about the world” (Álvarez 85). Through her writing, Yolanda is slowly coming to terms with difficulties of expression and style and how, despite “all that can be said about the world,” there are still always innumerable barriers to real comprehension between one's inner world and the outside world one confronts on a daily basis.

In Cisneros, linguistic confrontations are extended to concepts of physical turf and boundaries. Her vignette entitled “Those Who Don't” immediately sets up a contrast between los otros and nosotros:

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. That is how it goes and goes.

(Cisneros 28)

Esperanza soon learns that her only escape from that cycle of separation is her writing. She recognizes her way with words as opposed to her sister's lack of linguistic creativity when the two are playing jump rope with some neighborhood girls:

Not that old song, I say. You gotta use your own song. Make it up, you know? But she doesn't get it or won't. It's hard to say which. The rope turning, turning, turning.

(Cisneros 52)

Words and creation are also prime motivators in Negi's narration in When I Was Puerto Rican. As Negi and her community grapple with the “American invasion of Macún,” the protagonist also navigates the introduction of this gravelly-sounding new language. Negi discusses politics as she knows it with her Papi after an “American” presentation at school:

“I just want to know what it means. Are gringos the same as Americanos?

“You should never call an Americano a gringo. It's a very bad insult.”

(Santiago 72)

In this mini lesson, Papi adds, “Being American is not just a language, Negrita, it's a lot of other things. … Like the food you eat … the music you listen to … the things you believe in” (Santiago 73).

As we observe all three narrator-protagonists struggling with how best to interpret the words of others and how to incorporate new language into their evolving sense of expression, we also see them analyzing themselves and finding their own paths out of their bicultural confusion. The scene in which Negi learns to sew summarizes effectively how all three narrators feel as they learn to weave words:

Sounds dwindled into dull, distant murmurs, backgrounds receded into a blur, and sensations waned as I slid under the hypnotic rhythm of a hook pulling up thread, the finished work growing into my palm until its very weight forced me to stretch it out on my lap and look, and admire, and be amazed at what my hands had made.

(Santiago 95)

This desire to weave and create is a salubrious way for the narrator-protagonists to soothe the feelings of, as Yolanda García phrases it, “shifting from foot to foot” (Álvarez 107). Although writing does not eliminate the shifting, it does help the writer to define herself through the rich expression of her cultural memories. Esperanza is reassured in The House on Mango Street:

When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are.

(Cisneros 105)

Esperanza's friend reinforces this declaration by adding: “Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you'll come back too” (Cisneros 107).

Similarly, Chucha, the García girls' maid from the Dominican Republic, asserts as the family leaves for New York:

I feel their losses pile up like dirt thrown on a box after it has been lowered into the earth. I see their future, the troublesome life ahead. They will be haunted by what they do and don't remember. But they have spirit in them. They will invent what they need to survive.

(Álvarez 223)

Indeed, all three narrator-protagonists are survivors and inventors, a combination that helps them move with more ease between present and past, English and Spanish, desire and reality, and narration and action. The treasure of nostalgia and memory combines with the pleasure of word play in two languages to create a narration that reinforces the flow of biculturalism. Barbara Hoffert reports Álvarez as stating that “she would never have become a writer if she hadn't had to cope with being between two cultures,” and that she “made her home in words, not in the United States or the Dominican Republic” (Hoffert 22). Cisneros echoes Álvarez's thoughts when she states in an interview:

I knew I was a Mexican woman, but I didn't think it had anything to do with why I felt so much imbalance in my life, whereas it had everything to do with it! My race, my gender, my class! That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about.

(Sagel 75)

Cisneros, Álvarez, and Santiago create a life within their words, providing readers with a rich backdrop of stylistic techniques from which to glean the thematic sense of the bicultural bildungsroman. All three narrations demonstrate a call to the senses, an onomastic emphasis (i.e. who am I? how have I been named? and why?), an ironic sense of humor, a Spanish-style flow of prose in English, naturalistic descriptions of poverty and abuse, and a wonderful, ludic emphasis on the pleasure of the word. The authors' true jouissance in their writing allows for strong connections between themselves and their characters and themselves and their readers. Writing has become both the authors' existence in and travel to cultural locations defined by their own development.

Works Cited

Álvarez, Julia. How the García Girls Lost Their Accents. New York: Plume, 1992.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991.

Clayton, Cherry, review of Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock. Ariel (July 1993): 128-30.

Hoffert, Barbara. “Hot Right Now: U.S. Hispanic Lit.” Library Journal (July 1992): 20-22.

Jehenson, Myriam Yvonne. Latin-American Women Writers. Class, Race, and Gender. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995.

Kakutani, Michiko. “Virginia Woolf, Every Last Bit of Her.” New York Times, 18 April 1995, southern ed.: B2.

Sagel, Jim, interview with Sandra Cisneros. Publishers Weekly (29 March 1991): 74-75.

Santiago, Esmeralda. When I Was Puerto Rican. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Maria Szadziuk (essay date September 1999)

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SOURCE: Szadziuk, Maria. “Culture as Transition: Becoming a Woman in Bi-Ethnic Space.” Mosaic 32, no. 3 (September 1999): 109-29.

[In the following essay, Szadziuk examines the autobiographical novels of three women writers: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago, and Loving in the War Years, by Cherríe Moraga. Szadziuk asserts that all three novels explore the concept of culture-in-transition through the metaphor of culture-as-travel.]

Issues created by post-national, multicultural societies involve not only questions about peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups but also the variety of cultural influences to which members of these societies are exposed. What this means, in turn, is that culture can no longer be regarded as a static entity but must be viewed instead as something dynamic—“travelling cultures,” as James Clifford titles one of his discussions of the topic. In the case of North American societies, this need to regard culture as an on-going process may be seen especially in the emergence of studies concerned with the border between the United States and Mexico, such as those by Juan Flores and Nestor García-Canclini which focus on the cross-cultural indeterminacy of this meeting ground rather than on either of the two cultures in isolation.

This general perception of culture as a permeable space has its more intimate extension in the personal experience of those exposed to cross-cultural currents; if culture at the communal level involves the constant interaction of diverse elements, the same holds true of the microscopic mindscape. An individual in a multicultural society is also a site in which various cultures are rooted and transformed. Needless to say, a human psyche can also be a site of cultural conflict, as well as the place where individual mental “space” is invaded by incompatible cultural models and contradictory value systems. For the individual, moreover, the notion of culture-as-transition often includes actual movement from one location to another, just as for the person writing about such experiences there is also frequently the problem of choosing amongst various discursive modes, plus of course the decision concerning the language in which to express oneself.

My overall concern in the following essay is to explore how the concept of culture-in-transition is played out in the autobiographical narratives of three women of Hispanic descent: When I was Puerto Rican by Esmeralda Santiago, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and Loving in the War Years by Cherríe Moraga. Although all three women have been integrated into U.S. urban culture, they respectively represent first, second, and third generation immigrants and thus three stages of removal from their ethnic origins—i.e., full immersion in a Spanish-speaking community. My specific concern, therefore, is with how progressive removal from the heritage of a minority culture affects the degree of conformity with dominant cultural standards, and how this relationship is reflected internally in terms of both content and narrative technique—including the use of “ethnic” expressions and bilingual dialogue—and externally in terms of the re-publication of these texts in the language of the author's ethnic origins.

Although Santiago, Cisneros, and Moraga are all equally established writers, the reception of their autobiographical texts has been quite different. When I was Puerto Rican, Santiago's first book (her work had previously appeared in periodicals) was published in 1993 by Addison-Wesley and reprinted a year later in paperback by Vintage Books. A Spanish translation, by the author, also published by Vintage Books, appeared in October 1994. Cisneros's The House on Mango Street first appeared in 1984, thanks to a federal publication grant, and had six reprints by 1989. Its Spanish translation, by Elena Poniatowska, was published in 1994 by Vintage Books. Unlike Santiago and Cisneros, Moraga chose to remain on the margins as a radical feminist and a lesbian writer. Her Loving in the War Years was published in 1983, by South End Press, a small publisher targeting a niche market, and reached only selected audiences although the language of the original was English.

The varying degrees of commercial success of those texts seem to coincide with the degree to which the authors have complied with the majority culture's literary standards, as well as ideology and lifestyle. Santiago, who moved from Puerto Rico to New York as a teenager, consciously explores, and skillfully recreates, the exotic aspect of her childhood in Macún; Cisneros, born in Chicago, places her growing-up story against the background of a poor Hispanic neighborhood, where social issues are not overshadowed by guava trees. Whereas Santiago's autobiography takes the form of a sustained narrative of ambition, conquest and personal achievement, Cisneros's memoir consists of a series of vignettes and focuses on deprivation. Moraga, the daughter of a California-born Hispanic mother and Anglo father, turns the narrative of her life into a political manifesto, employing such modes as confessional self-exploration, a critique of the position of the Chicano woman in society, a poem and a short story. All of these modes are filled with explicit argumentation, making Moraga's ethnic protest a step beyond Cisneros's helpless longing for a different life and twice removed from Santiago's sincere eagerness to charm the reader. Rather than charm, Moraga's narrative aims at inflicting pain by pouring out and dissecting her own, as well as her people's, grievances.

As first/second/third generation immigrants, their writing respectively evidences an increasing movement toward non-conformity and protest. The tendency to take a radical stand against the mainstream culture becomes more pronounced with progressive abstraction from the individual's ethnic roots. Assimilation (Santiago), withdrawal (Cisneros), and active negation (Moraga) mark the general stance adopted by the three authors toward the dominant U.S. culture. Increasing distance from mainstream literature is also accompanied by increasing freedom of form, and is reflected in the degree of fragmentation in the various texts as well as in the greater variety of means of expression (e.g. the poems that Moraga includes).

In Santiago's When I was Puerto Rican, crossing culture involves travel in a literal, spatial sense, as well as travel in time. Featuring a protagonist/persona named Negi, the childhood narrative, which maintains the illusion of closely following the chronology of events, is bracketed by an opening fleeting glimpse of the narrator's adult life, where a detailed description of how guava fruit should be eaten both provokes a reflection on the tasteless predictability of the fruit staples in a New York supermarket and brings forward the entire childhood story, filled with long-forgotten smells and tastes. The other half of the narrative bracket, the final chapter, brings in another kind of flashback and a different cultural perspective: Negi, back from Harvard for a short visit, remembers old times with her former high school teacher, who reminds her how lucky she is to have escaped from her family's unglamorous existence and to have made her way into a higher social stratum. Here, the bright side of the American Dream comes to the fore and the reader gets a glimpse of the protagonist as a proud conqueror of the alien, privileged culture. “Do you ever think about how far you've come?” the teacher asks (269).

Santiago's view of the Puerto Rican element in Negi's life is thus ambivalent: on the one hand it represents a childhood paradise lost, but on the other a springboard for social advancement. This dual perspective reflects, obviously, a clash between “traditional” Puerto Rican values and those promoted by the American formula for success. Already incipient in her early life in Macún, the two cultural patterns between which young Negi is caught are personified by her parents, who struggle, reconcile, flee from and search for each other, causing suffering to those around them:

Mami and Papi's arguments became unbearable. They screamed at each other, ruptured the night with insults and hate-filled works that echoed in my head for days. I lay in bed crying, afraid to step into the room where I heard things breaking, but the next morning there were no mismatched pieces, no chips or fragments, nothing to sweep away. We had breakfast in silence after Papi left for work, Mami distant as another country, shrouded by something dark and grievous that we couldn't break through. She served us, helped us dress, sent us off to school, and left for her own job in a fog of pain that obliterated all hope, all romance. I tried to disappear within the hallways of Ramón Emeterio Betances School, where children from happy homes crowded in cheery groups. The school library became a refuge from would-be friends, and I sat for hours reading fairy tales, diving into them as into a warm pool that washed away the fear, the sadness, the horror of living in a home where there was no love.

(204, emphases mine)

The fact that even family struggles are conceived in terms of spatial demarcations suggests a curious continuity between material and metaphoric territories, boundaries, and distances. The fear of stepping into the room in which the parents are fighting is echoed by the fear of crossing the emotional boundary which the child perceives around her mother; the broken pieces which are not there and therefore cannot be removed suggest the same elusiveness and helpless feeling as “Mami distant as another country.” The insult-filled night, with things happening on the other side of the forbidden threshold, gives way to a stony silence which closes each family member in a separate, unbreakable, emotional bubble.

The final outcome of this struggle is the mother's, and the daughter's, move from Puerto Rico to New York, while Negi's father decides to stay behind. The mother's resentment against her easy-going, careless partner (who refuses to marry her and is erratic in supporting the family) is related to her rebellion against they traditional role of women in Hispanic culture. Thus even before they emigrate to New York, the mother's search for dignity and independence results in increasingly frequent changes of scene for the family. These earlier ventures out of Macún were traumatic for the daughter, and her first return becomes a ritual regaining of the familiar ground: “The truck creaked to a stop, and I jumped out and ran into our yard, looking from one thing to the next, not knowing if what I was seeing was the same or different from what was there before because it didn't matter; I didn't care. I was home. And I never wanted to leave home again. [I walked] the land from post to post, trying to place myself within its borders” (46). Still, this symbolic repossessing of the land does not save Negi from uprooting.

Not surprisingly, life in New York does not conform to the family's expectations; living in Brooklyn, Negi learns about the danger of being mixed up in ethnic conflicts and has to face the reality of violent crime next door. Geographic closeness to the American culture does not preclude cultural deprivation which begins with the family's insufficient command of English. Living closer to the center, moreover, tends to restrict freedom of movement; North American cultural space proves even less permeable than that of Puerto Rico. Space restrictions, with each minority jealously defending its own territory and more affluent neighborhoods inaccessible, contribute to the feeling of claustrophobia. Walking alone is considered dangerous and playing with the neighborhood children is forbidden. Crossing the street may be treading on somebody else's turf. For Negi, staying at home most of the time is the only option, and for the family, the possibility of even moving out of the neighborhood is very remote. When Negi herself is finally able to transfer from Brooklyn to Manhattan, she achieves a feat comparable to her mother's crossing the ocean between Puerto Rico and New York. Her access to elite education frees her from the Brooklyn “ghetto” and accounts for a dramatic change in her life, a change that is not shared by other members of the family.

Such change does not happen in Cisneros's Mango Street, except in dreams, making this memoir in some ways more “realistic.” Whereas Negi's cultural trajectory is far from typical for a first-generation immigrant, a second-generation immigrant could probably report an experience fairly similar to that of Esperanza, the narrator/protagonist of Cisneros's memoir. Born and educated in the United States, Esperanza is handicapped by her Hispanic background and the family's modest financial means. Having previously moved many times, when the family finally settles into the house on Mango Street, it seems their final dwelling as well as the limit of their mobility. The ghetto feeling in Cisneros's narrative is more pronounced than in Santiago's since Esperanza's entire life is spent on Mango Street. The neighborhood-as-prison becomes a well-founded obsession and an echo of Negi's mobility can be found only in the initial fragment, where Esperanza remembers her past life as a series of different dwellings:

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot. Each time it seemed there'd be more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me.

The house on Mango Street is ours and we don't have to pay rent to anybody or share the yard with the people downstairs or be careful not to make too much noise and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom.

But even so, it's not the house we'd thought we'd get.


Like Negi's disappointment with New York, the house on Mango Street is an ironic fulfillment of a dream, the family's long-expected permanent dwelling which by no means matches their expectations. As a child, Esperanza becomes painfully aware of the relationship between dwelling and social status, an awareness that initially stems from the shocked reaction of one of the nuns upon seeing the girl's house on Loomis Street. It is the outside world that sets a living standard and marginalizes those below it. Space available to a given ethnic group is restricted and determined by social status and income bracket. Mango Street's poor neighborhood, however, is both a ghetto and an ethnic haven. “All brown all around, we are safe,” states the narrator; “But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight” (29).

In Mango Street, the conception of space is clearly related to the house, which denotes both the disappointing place where one lives and the place to which one hopes to move some day, both confinement and the desire to fly away, both temporary roof over one's head and the mythical space associated with writing, dreaming, expanding, loving and any form of personal fulfilment that provides a way out. The house literally defines a person, as suggested by Esperanza's continual reference to people in terms of “she lives upstairs” (14) or “the lady who owns the big building next door, three apartments front and back” (64). Suggesting that each person is confined within a closed space, the house is a sign of oppression, often imposed on the Hispanic woman, but also symbolizes the American Dream of a better life which includes the notion of a better house. The house thus repeats the pattern set by the neighborhood, being both a safe haven and a prison.

The limits imposed by the actual space and by the oppressive dominant culture are reflected in the outcome of any attempts to transcend them. In one vignette we are told about the little boy who “learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth” (31). Another vignette tells of the girl who loved fun and boys only to end up “happily” in her own house, looking at the manicured ceiling all day and only occasionally beaten by her husband. In the case of Esperanza herself, the delights of a new position are soured because she is too shy to join the others during lunch breaks; despite her efforts to join the “special” schoolmates who are allowed to eat in “the canteen,” she is left eating her rice sandwich alone and crying. Lost chances and thwarted attempts to communicate are a recurrent motif in Mango Street. Esperanza is unable to make her blind aunt see the pictures in her book, or to share her favorite poem with the half-witted neighbor girl; she cannot keep her friend who prefers being with boys, and she is unable to be nice to an elderly co-worker without being sexually abused. On top of her rejection by the society at large or Mango Street itself, she is doomed to being alone with her dreams since they do not fit the local standards.

Whereas in Santiago's text, Negi's traveling through real spaces inhabited by varying blends of the Puerto Rican and North American cultures is echoed by her resolute upward mobility, in Cisneros's narrative any real movement is prohibited and escape is present only as a desire to escape. Thus while travel between two cultural poles—one related to childhood, home, mother, family, emotional ties, and the other to adult life, society, school, intellectual achievement—is the common element in both these narratives, the way it is realized varies considerably. Negi is determined to succeed whatever the culture in which she is immersed, and her curiosity and ambition seem to produce the right mixture of a willingness to conform and an “onward and upward” drive. Although her success has a price in terms of cultural identity, it is a success nevertheless. Esperanza, in contrast, tends to contemplate rather than argue and dream rather than move. Social mobility in Mango Street is more a desire than a fact, and in her essentially static world, it is only the protagonist's mind that travels.

Cherríe Moraga's Loving in the War Years documents a later stage both in the immigrant experience and in the narration of ethnicity: the admission into dominant, privileged culture is offered, partly achieved, and rejected. Although the protagonist, also named Cherríe like the author, is a white-skinned Anglo-Chicana, who is encouraged by her parents to “act white,” she still feels alienated among her Anglo schoolmates and finally reaches out for her Hispanic roots as a result of her identification with the radical Latino movement. Unfortunately, for her the home-like cultural space is largely gone and needs, at best, redefining, rediscovering, or even recreating. On various levels, her attempts at cultural bonding seem to be systematically thwarted: she is too white-skinned to be tolerated by the Chicano radical groups, too independent to accept her woman's role in the sexist Chicano family pattern, too well-educated to feel at one with the working class. Her lesbianism is an additional dividing factor, which marginalizes her as a society member and, even more painfully, makes her an outcast from her mother's “brown” family, with which she tries desperately to identify.

Cherríe longs for her ethnic roots since they provide a way of self-definition, but in her case the roots are mostly gone. While for Santiago's Negi there is still a “real” Hispanic cultural space, a time and place that can be remembered, for Moraga's Cherríe there is no such thing. Santiago takes an explicit stand toward her origin in the introduction to the Spanish translation of her memoir: “Here I am considered a Latina or a Hispanic … I really don't know what it means. … But I do know what it means, for me, to be Puerto Rican. My being Puerto Rican includes my North-American life, my Spanglish. … Both cultures have enriched each other and they have enriched me” (xvii-xviii). For Santiago, being “Puerto Rican” is a matter of course and comes close to meaning simply “I,” complete with the relevant cultural adjustments, while “Latina” is a label arbitrarily imposed and devoid of all personal meaning. This perfect balance of two different cultures is evidently not accessible to Moraga's Cherríe. For her it is the term “Latina” that is important; an all-embracing administrative label, it provides an instant I.D., saves a marginalized individual from alienation, and is equivalent to taking a political stand.

“Latinas” who identify themselves as such are a group sharing radical views on top of their loosely defined ethnicity. It is therefore significant that “La Güera”—Moraga's autobiographical sketch in Loving in War—first appeared in This Bridge Called my Back, a volume of texts by radical women of color which amounts to a collective autobiography of sorts, combining political statements with personal ones. While a testimonial aspect and an attempt to identify oneself through writing are present in Santiago's and Cisneros's narrations as well, those elements come to the fore in Moraga's text—i.e., with a progressive removal from the ethnic roots. Santiago presents her double identity—North American and Puerto Rican—as naturally integrated into her life; Cisneros's Esperanza both struggles against her ethnic and social background and is conscious of her mission to record it. For Moraga and other contributors to This Bridge, the mission and identity become one and come close to being the very reason for their writing. In the case of Loving in War, however, the return is to the roots which are not really there but have to be laboriously re-created as a race/gender/class myth.

Most of Moraga's narration involves painful self-examination, only to discover conflicting internal forces, which are also reflected in various stands that the narrator had taken during her lifetime:

I think of how, even as a feminist lesbian, I have so wanted to ignore my own homophobia, my own hatred of myself for being queer. I have not wanted to admit that my deepest personal sense of myself has not quite “caught up” with my woman-identified politics. … I have sometimes taken society's fear and hatred of lesbians to bed with me. … For a lesbian trying to survive in a heterosexist society, there is no easy way around these emotions. Similarly, in a white-dominated world, there is little getting around racism and our own internalization of it. It's always there, embodied in someone we least expect to rub up against.

When we do rub up against this person, there then is the challenge. There then is the opportunity to look at the nightmare within us. But we usually shrink from such a challenge.


In this case, standards imposed by the white society are already part of a bicultural individual's mental makeup. Being a lesbian in Cherríe's case is only an additional complication; the pattern, according to her, is the same with her sexual orientation as with her race. Cultural barriers overcome by Santiago's Negi and felt painfully by Cisneros's Esperanza take the form of a divided mind in Moraga's text. The nature of oppression in the three texts moves from boundaries between cultural spaces (Santiago) through boundaries around the individual (Cisneros) to boundaries within the narrator's psyche (Moraga). The degree of oppression in Moraga's narrative is in some ways even greater than the others, since mobility seems to be confined to her own mind: “I know with my family that even as my writing functioned to separate me from them … it has freed me to love them from places in myself that had before been mired in unexpressed pain. Writing has ultimately brought me back to them” (v). Here, the concepts of movement and space acquire purely metaphorical meaning.

In Santiago's narrative, boundaries between cultures are still fluid. North American culture “reaches out” to transform Negi's life in Puerto Rico. Its presence is alternately incongruous (talks on proper nutrition without taking the local food staples into account); intrusive (the emblematic powdered milk which proves indigestible for the child); alluring (clothes sent by a grandmother from New York); and indispensable (effective treatment for Negi's little brother's foot). Various forms of “Americanism” are thus present in Negi's environment even before she is taken to live in New York. In Cisneros's Mango Street, cultures keep each other at bay, barricaded in their neighborhoods and wary of each other. In Moraga's Loving in War, the culture clash occurs inside the narrator's mind; having been pushed toward the Anglo culture by her family, she tries on her own accord to cling desperately to her mother's Hispanic roots. Increasing closeness to another culture seems to bring about first claustrophobia, then hostility and chaos.

In each of these three texts, family tends to be a privileged cultural space, a space which contributes decisively to the formation of a Hispanic child. Although in all three works families are presented as both closely knit and numerous, they are also divided by different cultural allegiances. Negi's black father is satisfied with the Puerto Rican way of life and refuses to move to New York, whereas her light-skinned mother is eager to embrace North American culture, which offers more independence and greater comfort. Whereas Negi, the only teenager in the family, has mixed feelings about their New York existence, her youngest brother and sister are instantly captivated by the new environment and their “American” grandmother who lets them spend entire days watching cartoons on TV and eating chocolate bars. The “middle” siblings, who arrive later, are wide-eyed and frightened by the new reality around them. Nevertheless, while differences in approaching culture run right through the family and divide it, the family tends to present a united front against the hardships of their Brooklyn life: “Mami was too proud to ask them for more than they volunteered, and we were all developing the same stubborn pride, behind which our frightened selves hid, pretending everything was all right” (254). The hostility which they encounter contributes to the family's forming a bond of solidarity against the outside world.

Cisneros's narrative similarly tends to stress family ties—Esperanza's instinctive communication with her sister (the house that “looks like Mexico” to both of them), the shared grief when her grandfather dies in Mexico. Still, the rift between Esperanza and her family is present and, even more obviously than in Santiago's text, is related to the traditional Hispanic family model in general and to the woman's role in it in particular. Esperanza is preoccupied with the way that her brothers ignore her in public even though at home they have a lot to say to both their sisters. The problem becomes even more acute in the case of other families that Cisneros describes, which add up to the collective “family portrait” of Mango Street. Women ill-treated by their fathers or partners are the norm rather than exception. Alicia, who studies at night, travels to college during the day and gets up with the “tortilla star” to prepare breakfast for her father, is considered deficient in her compliance with the culture's unwritten rules: a woman's sole duty is to prepare food, and staying up all night and going out during the day is suspicious. The social patterns here do not provide for a woman's education.

Negi's clear-eyed observation of her family members' attitudes and Esperanza's indirect comments on a Hispanic family situation are replaced in Moraga's text by a ruthless analysis of family patterns. In developing a theory of what is wrong with the family scene, Moraga attempts to show how woman's subjugation has to do with the Malinche stereotype—a woman considered a traitor to her own nation because of being a white man's lover—and the Chicano man's insecurity versus the white male. In Cherríe's own family, the mother's insistence on the women serving the men goes as far as requiring the daughter to serve drinks to her brother's teenage friends. The fact that next-door Anglo families do not enforce this sister-as-servant pattern is a factor in the girl's rebellion.

In all three narratives, the mother as a guardian and enforcer of cultural patterns figures prominently, but in each the mother is also the promoter of the daughter's ambitions. It is Cherríe's mother who encourages all her children to identify with the white culture and conform to its standards in order to achieve higher social status. Her own marrying an Anglo (she is the only one among her sisters who did) is also an attempt to break the “sacred circle” of her own culture even if she does enforce “decent” Chicano behavior in her family. Ironically, this act of miscegenation seems to turn against her, since the cherished white husband proves to be emotionally empty and sexually inadequate. As for her educated children, at least one of her daughters, Cherríe, declares herself unhappy with the education prescribed by her mother and with her own immersion in the dominant culture.

The mother's unfulfilled ambitions are also present in Cisneros's narrative. Esperanza's mother, who is a gifted singer and who left school only because she “didn't have nice clothes” even if she had brains, urges her daughter to study in order to become independent of men; she is unable to get over her own lost chance to be “somebody” (83-84). In Santiago's narrative, the mother's relationship with her children is more tumultuous; her unfulfilled aspirations make her turn against the children and vent her own frustrations on them. Negi's newly-won complicity with the dominant culture is a source of resentment, as when the mother shouts abuse at her for being late: “You think just because you speak a little English you can do anything you like!” (251). Nevertheless, the mother encourages the children to do well in school and her appreciation for the North American culture is a factor in shaping this attitude: “That's what you have to do in this country. … Anyone willing to work hard can get ahead” (246). Negi's command of English when she protests against being sent to a lower grade by the principal of her school in New York evokes the mother's surprise and admiration. Later, the prospect of Negi's winning admittance to the Performing Arts School seems to impress the mother more than the daughter: “‘You'll be exposed to a different class of people,’ she assured me, and I felt the force of her ambition” (263).

This ambiguous mother's role, encouraging as well as repressive, reflects a double standard: on the one hand, an attempt to become integrated in the dominant, North American culture, which provides access to economic and social privileges, and on the other, an effort to preserve one's own cultural identity by clinging to Hispanic traditions and stereotypes. Holding the family together, the traditional mother's role, also means resisting external cultural influences considered “bad,” which are only too quickly assimilated by ambitious and strong-minded girls. At this point, it is obligatory to remember that the authors of the texts are themselves by no means typical. They have distanced themselves from their families' Hispanic culture by having mastered not only the “correct” American English but also the discourses of power within the society. In Moraga's narration, Cherríe's marginalized position is mostly a matter of her own choice; she is well capable of speaking the master's “white, masculine” language.

The dominant culture acquired by the daughters pushes the mothers into a subordinate position. In Santiago's text, the mother's last attempt to strike Negi is motivated by her rage at being dependent on her daughter's command of English, just as Negi's physical resistance on this occasion is another manifestation of her, already apparent, ability to dominate. Esperanza's mother in Cisneros's narration has spent her whole life in the city but “still doesn't know which subway train to take to get downtown” (83) and has to hold fast to her daughter's hand while they wait on the platform. Such dependence takes perhaps the most intimate form in Moraga's narrative, when the mother asks Cherríe for mediation in her failing sexual relationship with her husband, convinced of her daughter's ability to make herself heard.

Moraga's narrator and her specific mission of talking to her father almost in man-to-man fashion is the extreme manifestation of the trend apparent, in varying degrees, in all three texts: women's aspiring to “masculine” roles and positions, which goes against the grain of the Hispanic cultural stereotypes. As Cisneros's narrator fleetingly remarks, the Mexicans “don't like their women strong” (12). The woman's dependent position in Hispanic culture is also an issue that Moraga addresses when she speculates on the reasons for Hispanic men's fear of women's independence and explains it as due to a subliminal colonial horror of cultural and sexual aggression, which assumes that the woman's freedom to choose will make her opt for the privileged white man. Without commenting on the validity of this vision, I would like to stress the connection between women's seeking independence and power on the one hand and their insertion in the “aggressive” North American culture on the other. On top of being both dominant and expansive, the U.S. culture expects, and rewards, various forms of aggressive behavior. The adult Negi's playful remark about the school admitting her because of her “chutzpah” and not her talent may be a joke, but as a girl her being “rude” to the principal had won her a real concession on his part, to her mother's uncomprehending awe: “In Puerto Rico if I'd been so pushy, I would have been called mal educada,” the daughter astutely observes (227). The fact that Negi happens to be right in her arguing on the basis of her intellectual ability is apparently of no consequence either in New York or in Puerto Rico.

By Hispanic standards, the women figures in these works step, in various ways, into their men's shoes, although in terms of self-identification they lean heavily toward feminine models. Cherríe's fervent embracing of her Chicana heritage is only one aspect of her passionate bonding with her mother who, ironically, reserves her unconditional love for the family's only son. While the link with the mother, which includes a fascination with the mother's body, is certainly to be expected in a memoir of childhood, Cisneros's Esperanza is particularly vivid when she evokes the smell of her mother's hair in describing sleeping with her parents as a child. In Santiago's narrative, not only are references to the mother's physical closeness innumerable, but Negi is also jealous of her mother and unhappy about having to share her with the other siblings. Cherríe's lesbian yearning to satisfy her mother sexually, that is to replace the father where he fails, can be regarded as an extension of this mother-centered attitude. Despite the fact that all of these young women are clearly superior to their mothers in terms of intellectual development and cultural assimilation, having acquired more of the state-regulated education, each daughter seems to long for the broken physical union with her mother.

Predictably, in each case the maturing young woman tends to relate herself to other female figures. Curious and critical, young Negi “tries on” the jamona (old maid) pattern and declares that she would rather become jamona than be burdened with the grief of her partner's infidelity. Cisneros dedicates Mango Street “to the women” and presents a collection of feminine portraits which reveal directly the neighborhood subculture and, indirectly, various aspects of her identity. Like a typical adolescent girl, Esperanza searches for models among women and considers various personalities as she puts on her first, cast-off, high-heeled shoes. As for Moraga, her whole creative enterprise could be summed up as talking to, about, and against women and directed at women's bonding together, ideologically, affectively and sexually.

Being a descendant of a family line of women is also an integral part of each narration. The feminine heritage emerges as the sphere of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions but also as an anchor, cherished and remembered. Cherríe's recurrent remembering of her abuela (grandmother), who is both the past personified and the past gone, evokes joy and family reunions as well as sickness and death. Santiago's Negi takes crochet lessons from her paternal grandmother and is struck by a sense of unfulfilled expressiveness: “when Abuela came out from her prayers, we sat by the door, working our needles in, around, up, and out, silently making patterns with thread that might have told a story had either one of us known how to transform our feelings into shape” (99). The crochet work that “might have told a story” is given voice in Mango Street in the form of recollections by a female descendant who, according to Cisneros's metaphor, refuses to inherit her great-grandmother's “place by the window” even if she can't help carrying her name. This earlier Esperanza was “a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn't marry until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off” (10). Esperanza, Hope, is an ironic name for a woman whose dreams of independence were never fulfilled.

Being a “woman” is, obviously, just a name, a word which means different things in different cultures. Unlike sex, which is considered by essentialist theories to be related to material, biological facts, gender is uniformly recognized as culture-based and discursively constructed, as Judith Butler amongst others has argued. This also means that the expectations attached to a female figure by various communities imply in fact much more than just patterns of dress and behavior and that the semantic fields of the term itself when employed by different cultures do overlap but do not necessarily coincide. Accordingly, a woman's transition from one culture to another may not only be expected to affect the way she conceives her gender role but may also interfere with gender identification. In the case of Moraga's narrative, Cherríe plainly states that her existence as a self-declared lesbian is possible only within the Anglo, as opposed to Chicano, culture. Determined to be both Chicana and a lesbian, she finds the two denominations incompatible since her original Hispanic culture does not accept lesbians as a group. The only viable way for Cherríe to exist in a society as a lesbian is, therefore, insertion in the Anglo culture, although she considers it alien and hostile for other reasons.

Although Cherríe's case is obviously the most clear-cut one in terms of multi-cultural identity crisis, the same latent incompatibility with cultural stereotypes seeps through the narratives by Santiago and Cisneros. The point at issue is self-definition through what Sylvia Molloy describes as “bonding illusions” (167) encoded in the discourse. Bonding through writing has to do with socially determined personality patterns evoked by the narrative voice, and as Molloy points out, this autobiographic bonding takes the form of reaching out toward the reader, either trying to lure the “real” audience into a vicarious sense of belonging or inscribing a “mirror figure” of the ideal reader into the text. In all three narratives, the bonding strategies are clearly directed toward women, and this feminine (as well as feminist) self-identification becomes more pronounced with progressive removal from ethnic roots. Although bonding with the mother has privileged status and is expressed in terms of affective and physical ties, this particular bond is also slightly condescending because of the daughter's complicity with the dominant culture and its discourses of power. The daughters' education sets them apart and marks them as different from the minority culture's feminine stereotypes.

Signs of this growing realization of being different are scattered throughout the memoirs of childhood in all three of these texts. Negi, for example, excels in school but her skills for domestic work are limited; her younger sister can do housework better and faster. In addition, her propensity for reading romances and daydreaming sets her apart. Cisneros's Esperanza is equally aware of her difference from other girls when she states: “I am an ugly daughter. I am the one nobody comes for” and concludes that she is not going to “grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain”; her “quiet war” consists of “leaving the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.” The awareness that she does not fit the culture's feminine standards is related to her conscious appropriation of the “masculine” models of behavior. Also, she is fascinated with the model of a “beautiful and cruel” woman: “She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away” (82). Santiago's Negi acts according to similar principles when she engages in a tug-of-war against an abusive exhibitionist who, although excited by the prospect of victimizing her, quickly loses interest when Negi subverts his position of power by acting unfrightened and seductive. Cherríe's confessions in Moraga's narrative include the fact that she had behaved like a man (i.e. aggressively or possessively) in her lesbian relationships, subconsciously dissociating herself from a woman-victim role.

It seems that in a multicultural society which provides, on the one hand, an unacceptable woman-victim/man-aggressor gender pattern and on the other a woman-vamp stereotype, to meander between the aggressive “masculine” behavior and the “beautiful and cruel” self-image is a predictable choice for a girl who refuses to be victimized. The feminine/masculine roles and models and fluid gender identifications in the three narratives add up to one more example of what Debra A. Castillo describes as the “Subjunctive Mood” in multicultural writing, which allows for tuning into the cultural context and for adapting one's expression of self to multiple, and often conflicting, value systems. As she explains, the Subjunctive Mood “responds and corresponds to the need of the bicultural-bilingual writer to encode, in a more than trivial, more than superficial manner, her shifting set of mutually exclusive, equally valid alternate roles” and results in a life “attentive to nuance and capable of taking a cue from context without losing its autonomy” (292). In fact, Castillo's “Subjunctive Mood” is a flexible critical tool which may help describe very different phenomena relevant to multicultural autobiography, ranging from evaluation to motivation and self-positioning.

Particularly applicable here is the culture-as-space model which presupposes viewing culture as permeable and thus open to an infinite variety of possible positions and multicultural combinations. Castillo's emphasis on multiple, shifting roles and attention to the message conveyed by the cultural context can be related to the discursive element which functions in the (multi) cultural space, and which extends through discourse to the text in its literal, linguistic sense. Language is an element of culture and its use reflects an individual's position versus cultures, both in terms of deliberate self-expression (languages, dialects, vocabulary for which an author opts) and in terms of revealing the narrator's culturally-conditioned subconscious.

Linguistic adjustments are an integral part of bicultural reality and contribute to the “Subjunctive Mood” effect. In her introduction to the Spanish translation of When I was Puerto Rican, Santiago explains: “The life presented in this book was lived in Spanish but was initially written in English” (xv). In the memoir itself, Negi's family speak Spanish as a matter of course and their command of English is only rudimentary, while Negi herself learns English mostly from books and is less comfortable with its spoken variety. The girl uses a mixture of Spanish and English to communicate with her Hispanic school friends:

Te preguntó Mr. Barone, you know, lo que querías hacer when you grow up?” I asked.

Sí, pero, I didn't know. ¿Y tú?

Yo tampoco. He said, que I like to help people.”


Cisneros's protagonist's immersion in the English-speaking community is much greater, although her family and most of her neighbors speak Spanish as well. The Mango Street neighborhood is in fact a linguistic shifting ground where the choice of language depends on the “context”: the place, the occasion, the people involved. Speaking English in school is normal and expected, Spanish is reserved for familiar, oral use. In Moraga's narration, the fact that Cherríe was not taught Spanish and learned it only by listening to her family's conversations results in a grudge against her mother. What motivates the Chicana mother to favor English is obviously related to its importance as a tool for social advancement. English is the official language and a cultural weapon of sorts, both for the individual and for the state. When young Negi first hears about her island being a U.S. “colony,” she immediately brings up the fact that English is an obligatory subject in Puerto Rican schools. Later, in New York, Negi's consistent effort to learn English is very much related to her ambition not to be pushed to a lower grade in school. Conversely, a protest against foreign culture can take the form of refusing to speak, and learn, its language. In Cisneros's narrative (in a vignette entitled “No Speak English”), a woman called Mamacita barricades herself against the English-speaking world only to be defeated within her own home: a TV commercial, learned and repeated by her baby son, is a reminder that even one's own home and family can't protect a person from intrusion. Ironically, the tune sung by the boy advertises Pepsi, one of North America's cultural symbols.

In these three narratives, while language is presented as an element of culture, and while its acquisition or refusal to acquire it is shown to mark a person's position within culture(s), the ways that varieties of English vs. Spanish are used by the three authors is also revealing. Like the mixture of Spanish and English that Negi uses to speak to her school friends, these three autobiographical works originally featured a bilingual hybrid form. Santiago's narrative is written in English but placed within an elaborate Spanish framework: an introductory poem, a proverb or a song fragment as a heading for each chapter, and frequent recourse to Spanish vocabulary when describing realities particular to the Puerto Rican culture. These untranslatable terms enhance both the impression of “authenticity” and a sense of the “exotic.” A glossary of Spanish expressions at the end of this narrative is another reminder that cultures do resist attempts at their adaptation. In Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, the dedication “to the women” is immediately repeated in Spanish. Moraga's Loving in the War Years is subtitled “lo que nunca pasó por sus labios” (things that never passed though the lips), turning the composite title itself into a bilingual hybrid. In each of these texts, the protagonists' references to their parents and grandparents are almost invariably made in Spanish, suggesting that the family context is of this culture. Cisneros's use of Spanish words tends to be sparing; Moraga throws Spanish expressions into her English text seemingly at random, although again her use of Spanish tends to refer to her family and home. A guess about the reason can easily be attempted: Cherríe's public life, to paraphrase Santiago's text, is “lived in English.” For Santiago, who is the author of the Spanish translation of her memoir, the memory of life in a Hispanic culture is still too vivid to be restricted to family life and thus Spanish expressions are pervasive even in the English text.

In the case of Santiago and Cisneros, a brief look at the respective translations is also instructive. Cisneros's Spanish text is preceded with standard acknowledgments, among them a word of recognition for the translator for helping to “llegar a un eficaz compromiso entre las variedades de español habladas por los dos lados” (arrive at an effective compromise between the varieties of Spanish spoken on either side [xii]). Santiago's introduction to her own translation is more explicit in addressing the problem of linguistic incompatibility; as she explains, Spanish spoken in the United States is not the same as Latin American Spanish, since day-to-day coexistence with English changes both the vocabulary and the syntax, and involves incorporating “adapted” English words to describe local realities (mapo, panfletos) and translating word-for-word English expressions (llamar pa' atrás). As her text suggests, this “pidinized” variety of Spanish is restricted to familiar, oral use. In view of this, the “effective compromise” for which Cisneros expresses her appreciation equals creating a non-existent variety of written Spanish.

Inventing a hybrid dialect which is in-between the Spanish spoken in Mexico or Puerto Rico (which are, of course, far from uniform in themselves) and “Spanglish,” the anglicized U.S. form of Spanish, in order to translate autobiographic writings by the individuals who are themselves in various stages of hybridization is a perfect example of matching goals and means; both the reality recalled and its expressive medium are very much “neither here nor there.” Bilingual autobiography seems to stress the unclaimed, uncharted spaces within the continuum of cultural transition, as opposed to well-defined landmarks along it. Santiago refers to frequently having the impression of being in a limbo as a part of her bilingual experience. This “tíniebla idiomática frustrante” (frustrating linguistic darkness [xv]) is also the mental space before the words are born. Yet putting things into words is also necessary and requires defining them as points or landmarks rather than assigning them to the fluid space in between. In order to express herself, the writer not only has to use language but also make a decision about what language she is to speak, and must in turn “confiar” (trust) both that her words have meaning and that the listener will understand them. For a bilingual, bicultural writer, between the idea and its spontaneous expression, there is a pause in the middle of nowhere.

Castillo's concept of Subjunctive Mood implies hovering between the choices, the ability to conform to whatever is required by the context, and hence the significance of the publication history of these works. Between the original and the translation, obviously, a cultural adjustment had been made. The appreciation of the original, English version, fed the translations, all the way from Cisneros's initial obscure, subsidized publication to a volume translated into Spanish by famous Elena Poniatowska and published by Vintage Books, a division of the market-oriented Random House. In Santiago's case, both the original and the translation resulted from a publisher's offer, being a clear case of the “context” asking for the book. The publication of both versions of Santiago's text, only a year apart, constitutes not only an instant fulfilment of the mainstream publisher's desire for a market success but also (or perhaps in fulfilment of this desire) a document of the author's coming to grips with her bicultural reality. Her memoir, first re-created and converted into an alien medium, English language, later translated into Spanish as the author speaks it today—and which she herself admits is different from the “real” Spanish of her childhood—required a reconstruction of linguistic, as well as factual, realities. Relating the story of a woman who wanted to be “jíbara” (a Puerto Rican country girl) as a child and who later wanted to be a North American teenager, only to end up being a “jíbara norteamericana” (xviii)—not only a hybrid but a “product” of all past transformations—Santiago's narrative mirrors her life in more ways than one.

The journey between the two cultural poles implies, in each case, an identity crisis and a series of translocations created by the conflicting forces of aspiration and rejection. In Santiago's story, although the narrative voice seems to have reached a certain kind of equilibrium, taking what she considers best for her from both cultures, there is still some bitterness and alienation. Cisneros's narrator ends up being an eyewitness to the reality which she feels tempted to discard and forget. The point of arrival of Moraga's Cherríe is a declared, if not factual, identification with the mother's ethnic heritage at the expense of her father's Anglo culture, which also amounts to rejecting her own efforts toward making a way for herself in the “white” world. The trajectories differ considerably but in the case of each of these three autobiographies the balance is precarious and the individual pays a high price for the adjustment—suggesting in turn that a multicultural environment, such as the one in which actually we all live, is a scene of internal, as well as external, conflict.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Castillo, Debra A. Talking Back: Toward a Latin American Feminist Literary Criticism. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1992.

Cisneros, Sandra. La casa en Mango Street. Trans. Elena Poniatowska. New York: Vintage, 1994.

———. The House on Mango Street. 1984. Houston: Arte Publico, 1985.

Clifford, James. “Traveling Cultures.” Cultural Studies. Ed. Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson and Paula Treichner. New York: Routledge, 1992. 96-116.

Flores, Juan. “Cortijo's Revenge: New Mappings of Puerto Rican Culture.” On Edge. The Crisis of Contemporary Latin American Culture. George Yudice, Jean Franco and Juan Flores. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 187-206.

García Canclini, Nestor, and Patricia Safa. Tijuana. La casa de toda la gente. INAHENAH/Programa Cultural de Las Fronteras/UAM-Iztapalapa/Conaculta, 1989.

Molloy, Sylvia. At Face Value. Autobiographical Writing in Spanish America. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

Moraga, Cherríe. Loving in the War Years. Lo que nunca pasó por sus labios. Boston: South End, 1983.

———, and Gloria Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called my Back. Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table, 1983.

Santiago, Esmeralda. Cuando era puertorriqueña. Trans. Esmeralda Santiago. New York: Vintage, 1994.

———. When I was Puerto Rican. 1993. New York: Vintage, 1994.

Felicia J. Cruz (essay date winter 2001)

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SOURCE: Cruz, Felicia J. “On the ‘Simplicity’ of Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street.Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 910-46.

[In the following essay, Cruz discusses the variety of reader responses to The House on Mango Street in terms of the textual ambiguity inherent in Cisneros's storytelling style.]

As I perused the back cover of a recent Vintage Books edition of The House on Mango Street a short while ago, I read that it has been translated worldwide and that it has become a “classic” work in the canon of coming-of-age novels. This prompted me to think about whether this edition of Mango Street—which appeared identical to my personal copy (an earlier, 1991 Vintage Books edition)—sought to interpellate similar, if not the same, groups of readers that contributed to the consolidation of the unwavering popularity of Cisneros's rite-of-passage book.1 Consequently, upon returning home, I retrieved my copy of Mango Street and saw that its back cover declares that the novel “signals the emergence of a major literary talent.” The appeal of Mango Street clearly remains unabated in both the real and literary worlds.2 Yet, the fact that this book, within six years after its publication in 1984 by the small, Hispanic publishing house Arte Público, had attracted enough attention to prompt its publication by a mainstream publisher warrants further consideration of the circumstances surrounding its seemingly meteoric rise within the US publishing industry.

According to Alvina Quintana, 1984 was a watershed year that “witnessed a revitalized interest in Chicana literature.” Explains Quintana, “Although the National Association for Chicano Studies had organized annual conventions for eleven years, not until 1984 at the twelfth national conference in Austin, Texas were scholars sanctioned by the theme of the convention—Voces de la Mujer (women's voices)—to address issues related to an emergent Chicana feminist movement” (54).3 Quintana refers to the Chicana reading and book signing sessions sponsored by Arte Público as the highlight of the conference, identifying Cisneros in particular as the standout among a group of writers that included Pat Mora, Evangelina Vigil, and Ana Castillo: “Only [her] Mango Street defied the poetic form previously privileged by many Chicana writers. […] Cisneros defined a distinct Chicana literary space […], challenging, at the least, accepted literary form, gender inequities, and the cultural and economic subordination of minorities” (55). Further, Ramón Saldívar included Cisneros among the Chicana writers whose work, produced in the 1970s and 1980s, represented “the most vibrant new development in Chicano narrative” (171). These writers were impressive, according to Saldívar, because of their active engagement within “the ongoing disruption of the absolute fusion of hegemonic ideologies and the status quo” (199). Echoing Saldívar, Nicolás Kanellos, the founding publisher of Arte Público, identified Cisneros as one of the “new” generation of college-educated Chicano writers whose works were endorsed by prestigious foundations (two of which awarded fellowship grants to Cisneros: the NEA and the Macarthur Foundation) and were published by mainstream publishers:

[These writers] inscribed themselves on the published page precisely at the time when literary publishing was […] opening up to women as writers and intellectuals […]. It was this generation, very much aware of the business of writing, of the industry's networks, and of the norms of language, metaphor, and craft protected by the academy, that was able to break into commercial and intellectual circles and cause a stir.


Since its initial publication in 1984, the readership of Mango Street has expanded beyond the pale of Chicano and Latino communities to include families and students of all ages and ethnicities.4 According to María Elena de Valdés, a 1988 essay on Chicano criticism marked “a turning point in Cisneros's criticism, moving […] into the richer context of North American literature and out of the limited area of ethnic writing.” Valdés continues, “1989 and 1990 criticism no longer [had] to explain the barrio or the author's relation to it or what it means to be a Chicana writer” (“Critical Reception” 290). Another critic, Delia Poey, points out that Mango Street is not only frequently assigned in American literature courses, but is also regularly incorporated into courses on women's and multicultural literatures (216). The specific focus of Poey's study is the nature of the appropriation in multicultural classrooms and literary anthologies of Mango Street as a “representative” work of Chicano or Latino writing.5 Post 1990 studies of Mango Street extrapolate from Saldívar's focus on the marginalized situation of enunciation of Chicano writing, to Maria Szadziuk's consideration of Cisneros's book through the lens of “postnational, multicultural” societies in the US (109).6 Speaking to feminist approaches to Cisneros's book, Andrea O'Reilly Herrera claims that Mango Street “raises disturbing questions regarding both female nature and the realities and fictions of development for women in general, and Chicanas in particular” (199). The drawing power of Mango Street indeed encompasses both “students of life” and literature.

In light of the reception trajectory of Mango Street, it is not surprising that during the summer of 1991 the college one of my sisters attended sent her a copy to read (before the start of classes); Cisneros's book appeared to have acquired elite status as a “representative” work of multicultural literatures in the curricula of high schools and colleges.7 When my sister arrived on campus in September, she participated in one of various small-group discussions on the novel. A couple of years later, I saw the book on one of her bedroom shelves and asked her if she'd liked it. Almost apologetically, she nodded her head in dissent and replied, “Not as much as I'd hoped to.” At the same time, however, she indicated that many of her peers and the faculty members who had led the campus-wide discussions had been quite taken by it. My sister's comments brought to mind the collective reaction of my own students to Cisneros's novel during the spring of 2000; students from both the English and Spanish departments at the university where I teach had lavished enthusiastic praise on the book: some admired its lyrical, albeit “simplistic” tone, while others related to the trials and tribulations of the novel's young female protagonist.8 Their positive appraisals of Mango Street, moreover, concurred with the positive assessment of various critics in the United States and beyond, in countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Hungary, and Denmark.9

Still, the widespread appeal of Mango Street raises the question of why. To put the question one way, if this novel, as Poey has suggested, has become a “representative” selection in anthologies of American and Multicultural Literatures, what, exactly, can be said about its range of “representativity” (202)? Can it be that my younger sister and my stepmother (who did not like the book either) did not come across anything in Mango Street that moved them enough to sustain their interest in it? Further, had one or both of them brought unrealistic expectations to a book that they had both known, prior to reading it, was famous?10 In light of the divergent opinions among not only my students but also among critics regarding Mango Street's content, and, ultimately, its meaning, one might ask whether the general process of reading this book adds up to a matter of different readers differentially ascribing meaning. If this is the case, perhaps it remains to be asked, does Mango Street mean whatever one wants it to?


Teaching Mango Street after a hiatus of six years dredged up questions and textual ambiguities that had not only surfaced the first time I had read it, but had also remained unresolved and/or unsatisfactorily addressed the first time I taught it in 1994. As I pondered both my students' reactions to and assessment of the novel and compared these to the opinions of various critics, it struck me that whereas both groups had consistently pinpointed the “simplicity” (Quintana 57; Saldívar 181), “accessibility” (Reuben Sánchez 222) and seeming directness of Cisneros's novel and had continually remarked on its poignancy and “poetic” force (Quintana 150), in reality, each group had actualized the book in different ways. In other words, each group of readers had engaged, had been thinking—and thinks—about different aspects of Mango Street, both textual and contextual. This in turn affects and effects varied opinions about what it “means.” Thus the overarching concern of the rest of this essay will be to look in greater detail at the nature of the book's ostensible simplicity. On the one hand, doing so will permit me to identify some of the aspects and areas of the novel through which readers differentially ascribe meanings to it. On the other hand, consideration of some of the referentially ascribed meanings of Mango Street avails the opportunity to underline that few of its numerous critical readings pay sufficient respect and/or attention to one of the book's preeminent themes, what Iser calls “fictionalizing acts” (“Representation” 218). Hopefully, the final portions of this essay will be able to account for or accommodate such varied reader responses as, “it is about growing up,” to “it's about a Chicana's growing up,” to “it is a critique of patriarchal structures and exclusionary practices.” Before proceeding, however, a few caveats are in order.

On a personal level, if not from a reception theory-based approach to the book (rezeptionstheorie), Mango Street has remained enigmatic for me from the standpoint of “aesthetic response theory” (wirkungstheorie). The latter, in my opinion, begs for closer scrutiny. Reception theory, as Wolfgang Iser reminds us, has to do with following and delineating the “history of judgments” of a literary work's readers. By contrast, aesthetic response theory has its “roots in the text,” and “focuse[s] on what happens to us through [the literary work]” (Iser, Act of Reading preface x). However, having to focus on the processes of what happens to individuals as they read Cisneros's book presents a challenge, given the “multivalent,” “incomplete” and “open” (Poey 205) nature not only of language, but of literary texts. Regarding the thorny question of intentionality and speech, for example, James Edie reminds us that “[u]ltimately, what one means to say will always remain incomplete and unsatisfactory” (148). Further, given the purported “conversational,” “dialogic” tone of Mango Street, the fact that it is not rendered through speech makes discussing its meaning(s) even more complex. Among other critics, Poey underlines the slippery quality of both spoken and written discourse, as she defers to the discipline of linguistics: “[A]ll units of language are necessarily incomplete or open. No utterance or written text is free of ambiguity. In the case of the written text, undecidability is further complicated in that body language or physical expressions are absent as contextual clues, and clarification on the part of the speaker is simply not an option” (205). Edie emphasizes, moreover, that finding meaning is neither tantamount to “the act of referring” nor to discerning “mental images” or “clear, distinct ideas open to introspective inspection” (141).

Overall, in light of the wide range of responses to Cisneros's book, it seems reasonable to assert that all readers appropriate aspects of Mango Street in differential, subjective ways. As Jody Norton sees it, Mango Street communicates in highly personal ways; it therefore evokes highly personal responses. “To use a text as literature is,” as Norton remarks, “to read it responsively—to read oneself through it, in a double sense, with a concentration, at once of empathy and self-reflexivity, that enables one to experience the text conjunctively from without and from within—that is, aesthetically” (590).


For various readers, the novel briefly recounts the straightforward story of Esperanza, a young girl who desires and embarks on a quest for the American dream. In the introduction to the Knopf edition of Mango Street, published a decade after the novel's initial publication, Cisneros draws attention to the reflexivity with which readers have viewed her novel—the neighborhood, plot, and life experiences portrayed therein—as a mirror of (their) reality: “I've witnessed families buying my book for themselves and for family members, families for whom spending money on a book can be a sacrifice. […] And there are letters from readers of all ages and colors who write to say that I have written their stories” (Introduction xix). These comments, in addition to others that Cisneros makes, underline the popularity, and personal, strong, emotional impact it has had on members of the general public, across ethnic-, gender-, and generational lines: “Often [families] bring a mother, father, sibling, or cousin along to my readings, or I am introduced to someone who says their son or daughter read my book in class and brought it home for them. […] The raggedy state of my books that some readers and educators hand me to sign is the best compliment of all” (Introduction xix).

Besides signifying the popular appeal of her book, Cisneros's comments proffer possible explanations for why Mango Street seems so accessible. Among the reasons she gives are its nonintellectual themes and its rebellious, colloquial, even antiliterary tone. Concerning the novel's themes Cisneros admits to “‘search[ing]’ for the ‘ugliest’ subjects [she] could find, the most un-‘poetic’—slang, monologues in which waitresses or kids talked their own lives.” Cisneros's iconoclasm is further confirmed in the admission that she “was trying the best [she] could to write the kind of book [she] had never seen in a library or in a school, the kind of book not even professors could write” (Introduction xv). Central to this task, indicates Cisneros, was language itself. “It's in this rebellious realm of antipoetics,” remarks Cisneros, “that I tried to create a poetic text with the most unofficial language I could find.” She adds that “[t]he language in Mango Street is based on speech,” and is “very much an antiacademic voice—a child's voice, a girl's voice, a poor girl's voice, a spoken voice, the voice of an American-Mexican” (Introduction xv). Hence, the colloquial tone and antiliterary inflection of her novel.

Cisneros's remarks additionally point out the novel's deliberate deployment of child-like speech, which presents readers the opportunity to eavesdrop on the innocent, earnest, youthful thoughts that the protagonist Esperanza draws out within and across the vignettes she depicts. For Quintana, the child-like naiveté and simplistic conversational tone of Mango Street serve as a counterpoise to the “somber realities” to which it speaks (such as rape, incest, and cultural, racial, sexual prejudice) (57). Notwithstanding the gravity of these realities, the childlike ingenuousness of Esperanza serves as a buffer to the real world. Moreover, Cisneros's use of first-person narrative seems to impart to Esperanza's tales a sense of immediacy and intimacy between the book's characters and readers (implied and actual). Consequently, Mango Street might at first glance seem to be an “easy” read.

However, reflexive readings of Mango Street, such as relating to it as if it were live speech, may encourage “the naive notion that a literary text is a kind of transcript of the living voice of a real man or woman addressing us” (Eagleton 120). It is thus not surprising that correlative to the common tendency to view the content of Mango Street in mimetic fashion, as a direct reflection of reality, is the impulse to view Esperanza as Cisneros. Cisneros has considered the phenomenon of conflating the standpoint of Mango Street's narrator with her own views. Responding to the issue of whether or not her book is “about her,” she acknowledges the autobiographically-inclined beginnings of Mango Street: “When I began [it, in 1977, as a graduate student in Iowa City], I thought I was writing a memoir. By the time I finished it, [in 1982], my memoir was no longer memoir, no longer autobiographical” (Introduction xi-xii). Yet, in consideration of the perennial question concerning whether or not “she is Esperanza,” Cisneros evasively responds, “Yes. And no. And then again, perhaps maybe” (Introduction xix).11

Quintana further confirms Mango Street's “tendency to conflate the two perspectives [the point of view of the author and the standpoint of the narrator],” which, she indicates, “has led some critics to argue that Esperanza's narrative (and, by implication, Cisneros's politics) simply illustrates an individual's desire for a house outside the barrio” (58). Consequently, for some Chicanos, whose writing and criticism in large part begins from the premise of collective resistance to mainstream institutions, values, and behavior, Cisneros's novel sends out the transparent message that individualistic pursuits are tantamount to the betrayal of one's community. For example, in an early review of Mango Street, Juan Rodríguez took its protagonist and, by extension, its author, to task for her “assimilationist” stance (qtd. in Quintana 59). Rodríguez equated Esperanza's choice to leave Mango Street, “her social/cultural base,” with becoming more “Anglicized” and individualistic (qtd. in Quintana 150), and judged her desire to become a writer in terms of betrayal: “that she chooses to move from the real to the fantasy plane of the world as the only means of accepting and surviving the limited and limiting social conditions of her barrio becomes problematic to the more serious reader” (qtd. in Quintana 150-51).

Setting aside the thorny issue of defining “the more serious reader” and distinguishing her or him from other (less serious?) readers, Rodríguez's comments underline the tendency of certain, if not all, readers to conflate their own agenda, their personal horizons of experience, and their own expectations regarding Cisneros's book with their opinions about the politics and/or probable intentions of Cisneros herself. Among others, Reuben Sánchez warns that this type of criticism is limited, if not counterproductive. For him, Rodríguez's comments present an example “of what can happen when one does not evaluate a literary text on its own terms and on the terms appropriate to the genre, when one complains instead of analyzes” (231). He suggests, furthermore, that “[t]he literary value of [Cisneros's book] is […] suspect for Rodríguez,” and admonishes that “his conclusions seem based on whether [the author] espouses a particular ideology” (230). Valdés concurs with Sánchez, stating that such reviews are themselves an “ideological response to the challenge of the creative power of the text” (294). She adds that “[t]he most limited and useless responses are those that use the text in order to express the ideological posture of the commentator” (294). Turning back to Rodríguez's critique of Esperanza, and, by extension, of Cisneros, Sánchez suggests that he “does not recognize that [her] text is political and serious in that she writes about oppression (political, economic, sexual) and the way her protagonist might free herself from that oppression” (230-31). Like Valdés, Sánchez points to the source of Rodríguez's contention: “[Cisneros's] politics just do not happen to be his politics” (231).

Still, Cisneros herself has noted that even when Latina/o readers do not condemn Esperanza for wanting to be alone and/or leave, nevertheless, some, especially Latinas, are puzzled by her resolve to set herself apart from others. In an interview with Martha Satz fifteen years after the publication of Mango Street, Cisneros remarked, “According to their perspective, to be alone, to be exiled from the family, is so anti-Mexican” (“Return” 182). Cisneros alluded to her own feelings of guilt in terms of betrayal: “For a long time—and it's true for many writers and women like myself who have grown up in a patriarchal culture, like Mexican culture—I felt great guilt betraying that culture. Your culture tells you that if you step out of line, if you break […] norms, you are becoming anglicized […] (“Return” 170). It is interesting to note that in its allusion to the prospect of “becoming [a]nglicized,” Cisneros's voice appears to resonate with Rodríguez's, albeit not with the condemnatory tenor that his evinces. Cisneros seems to be speaking within the fold of her perception of the collective Chicano community, which commonly emphasizes group unity over individuality. The general stance of this community, and other disenfranchised groups, is resistance to and self-definition vis-à-vis mainstream institutions and values, not having had equal access to economic and educational opportunities, nor a political voice (which has been recognized by the powers that be) or equal participation in mainstream-controlled institutions and policymaking. As such, from within this group, which so intensely focuses on collectivity, one would likely have difficulties conceiving of, much less making, the decision to break away from the community, in order to tend to individual concerns and/or pursue individual goals. Nonetheless, Cisneros's protagonist does draw attention to and underscores the heterogeneity within her perception of the Chicano community, constantly pointing to, for example, inequity between the two sexes (“Boys and Girls”), between different generations within the same family (“My Name,” “Alicia Who Sees Mice,” “A Smart Cookie”), and between different ethnic communities presiding in the same general vicinity (“Cathy, Queen of Cats,” “Those Who Don't”).

At this point, in order to underline Cisneros's and some other Chicana/o writers' simultaneous inclusion and exclusion in both mainstream and ethnic (for lack of a better term) cultures, it might be useful to emphasize what Gloria Anzaldúa referred to in 1987 as the “bordered” condition or “interstitial” (20) situation of enunciation that Chicanas, women of color, and other groups embody and occupy. As Rosaura Sánchez points out, “[various] ethnic groups in this country […] suffer both inclusion and exclusion. Ideologically, thanks to the media and to our educational system, [Chicanos] will probably all have swallowed the same myths and yet, materially, be excluded from the lifestyle, goods and services that characterize the life of middle classes in the US” (81). From an autobiographical standpoint, Cisneros's experience in the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop underlines the extent to which even the apparent attainment of the myth does not result in the happily-ever-after. On one hand, she alludes to the privileged position in which she found herself: “[U]nlike many young writers I've met in the barrio […], I was born at a time when there were government grants that allowed me to pursue higher education. I was able to attend an undergraduate program that had a writer in residence, and he […] took a great interest in my work and recommended me to the University of Iowa. […] I entered rather naïvely […]” (“Return” 169). At the same time, Cisneros acknowledges her discomfiture, her feelings of being neither-here-nor-there within academia. She reveals that while she was physically present in class, emotionally she felt totally out of it: “Coming from a working class background, an ethnic community, an urban community, a family that did not have books in the house, I just didn't have the same frames of reference as my classmates. It wasn't until [I] realized and accepted that fact that [I] came upon the subjects [I] wanted to write about.” Her voice, “a street child's voice,” would, in reality, emerge at the antipodes of the “very distilled writing” of her middle-class classmates, once she had rebelled. “[A]s an attempt to move far away from their style,” she concedes, “I stumbled upon the voice that predominates in the House on Mango Street […]” (“Return” 169).12

Cisneros's comments, spoken at a far chronological and geographical remove from the origins of the writing of her novel, seem to epitomize the experience of the displaced individual or displaced ethnic community that, being rooted in or tied to a larger culture (the US), to a large extent has been indoctrinated with (and has appropriated) mainstream Western values. Cisneros's protagonist, Esperanza, gives voice to this very issue. Initially, she acknowledges that her ideal house consists of a private dwelling with “real” stairs, “like the houses on T.V.,” a house like “the [one] Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket,” and “the [one] Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed” (4). Mango Street, however, bears no resemblance to Esperanza's dream house: “The House on Mango Street is ours, and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we thought we'd get” (3). Even before her family manages to procure a house of their own, Esperanza, as Cisneros in graduate school, is made painfully aware of her difference, and exclusion from “others”:

Once when we were living on Loomis, a nun from my school passed by and saw me playing out front. […]

Where do you live? she asked.

There, I said pointing up to the third floor.

You live there?

There. I had to look to where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded. I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to.


Esperanza, as Rosaura Sánchez and Quintana stress, actually experiences concurrent inclusion in and exclusion from mainstream society. “On an ideological level, [she] dreams the American dream; [but] on a material level, like all in her community she remains systematically excluded from it” (Quintana 57).13 Extrapolating from the theme of practices of exclusion in mainstream culture, Reuben Sánchez points out the significance of the gender of Mango Street's protagonist for the Chicano community as a whole. Sanchez remarks:

The Chicana's concern with ‘place’—a house, or room of one's own is a reaction against the patriarchal myth that denies the Chicana a place of her own. […] The reality the Chicana addresses, […] is the reality of her restriction to the urban setting—particularly the house or the room. That setting is Esperanza's past and her present in [the novel]; she recognizes that it might very well be her future as well.”


Whereas Esperanza's resolve to distance herself from her family and community has struck and strikes readers in some communities as puzzling, if not reprehensible, for other individuals, solitude, striking it out on one's own, and breaking away from one's family constitute the very steps needed for growing up, even for becoming part of the “real world.” My undergraduate seminar students, for example, viewed Esperanza's desire to acquire a house and her vow to become independent and self-sufficient as universal ideals that somehow correspond to a natural right which—in the liberal democratic spirit of the Founding Fathers—is, or should be available to all American citizens. These readers, who uncritically, if not unconsciously, identify with mainstream views, inscribed Esperanza's dream in a foundational democratic rhetoric and declaration (that the pursuit of freedom, liberty, and happiness is the right of all American citizens); they did so reflexively, in the naïve, albeit earnest belief that an iron will and individual hard work (that is, the Protestant work ethic) would eventually lead her to her dream. What, then, can we make of the diametrically opposed perceptions of some working-class Chicanos and those of my middle-class Caucasian students regarding the textual phenomenon of Esperanza's desire for self-sufficiency and individualism?

If, on the one hand, the uncritical transcription of Esperanza as the “voice” of Cisneros is carried out by both students and scholars in both Latino/a and non-Latino/a communities, there may be on the other hand a marked difference among each group's perception of what the novel's prevalent themes and/or issues are. For example, the majority of my undergraduate students overlooked the regional specificity of the novel, sidestepping its pointed focus on the relation between issues of ethnicity and class and the novelistic representation of ideologies of exclusion based on the protagonist's Chicana background and working-class roots.14 The students focused instead on feelings of alienation, discomfiture, and solitude that they themselves had experienced as children.15 Speaking to the issue of the indelible nature of childhood trauma, Norton asserts, “Because most of us have our own memories of a moment when our preadolescent reality seemed suddenly to have shifted to one side without telling us […,] it is easy to engage Cisneros's poignant (because simple and frank) account, and to make literary experience through the intertextual relation of Cisneros's fiction and our own emotional past” (595).

Even after they were asked to identify and analyze specific vignettes that treated particularly harsh incidents and issues, the students by and large spoke to instances in the book that are gender- and family-centered; not a single student drew attention to any of the vignettes centered on class and ethnicity. Perhaps because they have either never experienced or witnessed the sorts of discrimination reflected in the novel, or because they genuinely believe or would like to believe that all Americans are equal American citizens with equally strong chances and opportunities to garner “success,” it was very difficult for my students to apprehend, much less feel, the extent to which Esperanza—and, by extension, her community—exists at a far remove from white, middle-class standards and styles of living. These students, not unlike readers who are unable and/or unwilling to accommodate a Chicana's (Esperanza's) individualism, were even less likely to come to the realization that their reality, and, by extension, the world is not homogeneous (that is, it is not the same for all).

The selective vision of my students mirrors a general tendency among formalist critics to overlook the very contextual lenses—ethnicity, race, gender, and class—through which other scholars, namely resistance-inclined critics (including Chicanas and Latinas) routinely focus their writing. How can the respective foci of these groups of readers be so diverse, now universal-inflected, now barrio-bent?16 Perhaps in reference to universalist critics, Quintana partially attributes the wide-ranging appeal of Mango Street to its capacity to speak to non-ethnic and/or mainstream readers in a “dispassionate” tone (72). For Quintana, Cisneros's novel—in contrast to other, more openly aggressive, angry works by other female writers of color—extends textual accessibility to readers, men and women alike, in a “non-threatening” way (73). Poey, moreover, discerns in Mango Street a high level of language- and content-based “intelligibility,” which she defines as “the degree to which a given text is accessible to a given community of readers based on that community's prior knowledge and expectations deployed in making meaning and assigning value.” As Cisneros's own comments suggest, one need not be Chicano or Latino to find meaning in Mango Street. Why? As Poey states, “The negotiation of [the] meaning [of a literary work] is removed from the speaking or writing subject and transferred to the text, so that the interaction is contextualized through the reader's prior experience […]” (205). As such, the process of making meaning is tied to a dialectic involving the contextualization of aspects/themes of a literary work according to one's personal views and experiences. It might appear, then, that to a certain extent, the literary work can “mean” what and how readers want it to.

Yet, there are some common themes and aspects of Mango Street that numerous readers recognize, if even briefly. Reuben Sánchez focuses on the book's treatment of the common need/desire to escape or have some other place to go: “Why Esperanza wishes to escape Mango Street and why she must return are issues Cisneros addresses by means of the home versus homeless theme. In doing so, she has created a narrative account of ‘a condition we all recognize’—a narrative, further, accessible to both the adult reader and the child reader” (228). O'Reilly Herrera (195-96) and Poey both draw attention to the ease with which various readers (in my opinion, including students, scholars, and mainstream publishing houses) relate to and classify Cisneros's book as a bildungsroman or “novel of youth or apprenticeship” (Poey 206).17 Additionally, Norton identifies “the trauma of exclusion” experienced during childhood as an especially poignant “specific paradigm of structurally significant experience” (593), since youth “is the location of personality formation.” As such, continues Norton, any narrative “that explores this existential chronotope speaks to us about the single most structurally significant portion of our lives” (594). Further, given that Mango Street's protagonist, by contrast to those of classical bildungsroman narratives, is a young girl, various critics also extrapolate from the book's criticism of patriarchal structures and ideology. These studies work with what they see as Mango Street's feminist resonance with Virginia Woolf's concept, “a room of one's own.”18 From a yet more contextually specific perspective, however, I continue pondering how students like the ones I have had can persist in apparently not seeing what seem to be for me obvious markers of racial, ethnic, class, and cultural conflict in Cisneros's novel.

If we turn to Iser's claim that most, if not all people try to establish consistency while reading, or, in other words, if we agree that sense-making—ordering, harmonizing, and movement toward closure—is “essential to all comprehension” (Act of Reading 16), then answering this question seems less daunting.19 Iser stresses that the search for meaning, in contrast to the common notion that it seems “natural” or “unconditional” (3), is, in actuality, “considerably influenced by historical norms,” namely classical norms of interpretive criticism, such as harmony, order, symmetry, unity, coherence, and completeness. Endeavors to find symmetry and make connections are, to Iser's thinking, tantamount to “grappling with the unknown”: “Symmetry relieves one from the pressure of the unfamiliar by controlling it within a closed and balanced [and familiar] system.” In his opinion, the “debt” owed by New Criticism (through which several of my students were taught) to the “classical norm of interpretation” is none other than “[t]he harmonization and eventual removal of ambiguities,” which is frequently accompanied by an exclusive focus on aesthetic technique or concern for interpreting the “intrinsic elements” of a literary work (Act of Reading 15). (The result is an abundance of decontextually-centered assessments of Mango Street's poetic, lyrical, although childlike, style). Conceivably, as Rosario Ferré has suggested in an article on translation between Spanish and English language and culture, the particular issues, instances, and themes to which my students did not speak proved to be “lacunae” evinced by “missing cultural connations” (162). As such, it is possible that these New Critically inclined students simply overlooked issues that other (Latino) reader-critics emphasize, choosing instead to trace and connect threads and stories that had safe and/or immediate relevance in, or significance to, their own lives. Poey implies, for instance, that unless readers come to a literary work already believing that it is “significant,” they “will work toward making meaning in a more limited way since [they are] more uncertain about the potential payoff of [their] effort[s]” (208).

To be fair, I do not mean to give the impression that my students were wholly oblivious to the racial and ethnic strains in Cisneros's book. Several of them had, after all, demonstrated or professed that they believed in multiculturalism per se and felt they were more culturally and politically liberal than conservative. Perhaps this particular group of students could be counted as proponents or constituents of what Goldberg conceives as “weak multiculturalism,” which “consists of a strong set of common, universally endorsed, centrist values to which everyone—every reasonable person irrespective of the divisions of race, class, and gender—can agree.” Weak multiculturalism, in Goldberg's opinion, admits and “[is] combined with a pluralism of ethnic insight and self-determination provided no particularistically promoted claim is inconsistent with the core values” (qtd. in Poey 209). In light of this, perhaps my students, after all, found no need to harp on the cultural, regional specificity of Mango Street, given that its heroine ultimately seemed to want what they do: a space of her own, and the freedom to go there. Unfortunately, the cost of decontextualized, generalized readings of Cisneros's novel, might be, as Poey intimates, the blunting of its revisionary edge. “It is not the text [… itself that is] problematic,” she states, insisting that the book does “engage in layered critiques and proposes [its] own aesthetics. Rather, it is [its] acceptance as representative that is troubling, given that [this provides] opportunities for easy incorporation which erases [the book's] transformative possibilities” (215).

Aspects of weak multiculturalism are, not surprisingly, also applicable to the discursive text on the back cover of my edition of Mango Street (1991 Vintage Books). On the one hand, the textual blurb generalizes that the book is about the story of “a young girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago.” It is not acknowledged that there may be more than one “Hispanic” community in the Windy City. Additionally, the back cover betrays bildungsroman-like obstacles, such as “a desolate landscape of concrete and run-down tenements” in which Esperanza brushes against the hard knocks of the life that her kind typically encounters: “the fetters of class and gender, the specter of racial enmity, the mysteries of sexuality, and more.” (One cannot help but think of previews for movies and television programs, both of which try to appeal to mass audiences by offering sensationalistic somethings-for-everyone.) Finally, though, the back cover alludes to the American dream, namely, an implied happy ending in which the protagonist “is able to rise above hopelessness,” to create a “‘room all her own,’” in spite of “her oppressive surroundings.” In short, conveyed in a politically correct multicultural framework, this lead-in to Mango Street, while handwaving to racial-, class-, and gender-related strife, ultimately distills into the barest of generalized (generic?) plots: Hispanic girl heroically strives for and thrives because of the American dream. Is this not, after all, one of the basic premises for Jessica Alba's new television series, Dark Angel? Is it not true that she, the epitome of stereotypic Latin sexiness, persists in learning to become more of an individual, thereby continually deferring chances to return home with her part-automaton brethren?20

Despite the fact that students and critics relate easily to the book, in my opinion, most of the readers that I have considered have essentially rendered Cisneros's book transparent. They have read Mango Street primarily in mimetic fashion, ordering and simplifying in order to make Esperanza's story cohere. On the whole, no single group seems inclined to focus on the book's “simple,” “direct” language and messages as part of Cisneros's complex arsenal of sophisticated literary devices and nuanced rhetorical strategies. In their persistent view of Mango Street as a “mirror of life,” the groups I have pointed out have generally failed to take into account the book's ideological and narrative intricacies. The remainder of this essay thus hinges on my argument that as the Mango Street narrative coils back to the question of the act of narration, readers may or may not, if they choose to throw on blinders, come away unsettled, since the book's final vignette self-consciously heralds the fictional character of Esperanza's story. What remains for consideration, then, is the book's status as a literary work, which, “in the act of apparently describing some external reality, is secretly casting a sideways glance at its own processes of construction” (Eagleton 105).

Mango Streetdoes to, as much as it recounts for, readers. As alluded to throughout this essay, Mango Street cannot speak directly, in unmediated fashion, to the reader. “A work,” states Eagleton, “is not actually a ‘living’ dialogue or monologue,” but “a piece of language which has been detached from any specific ‘living’ relationship […]” (119). Further, as Iser asserts, “the text represents a potential effect realized in the reading process” (Act of Reading ix). Hence, while it may be tempting for readers to presume that literature describes “reality,” Eagleton warns that “its real function is ‘performative’: it uses language within certain conventions in order to bring about certain effects in a reader,” and “achieves something in the saying: it is language as a kind of material practice in itself […]” (118).21 As a case in point, consider the first and last vignettes of Mango Street, where the reader apparently sees the beginning in the end, and the end in the beginning. Since this juncture will be closely read further on, suffice it to point out that the repetition of “We didn't always live on Mango Street” in both the initial and final chapters of the book does not suggest closure. As Reuben Sánchez remarks, “The narrative, in fact, is not self-enclosed; rather, it is open-ended and encourages the reader to consider what will become of [the protagonist] after the book has ended” (223).

Given that the reading process, as described by Norton (alluding to Iser, Jauss, and Bakhtin), is “a dialectic between the text and the idiosyncratic mind of the reader” (590), any meaning ascribed to the literary work will, of necessity, be proteic and personal because contingent on the experiences, beliefs, expectations, and will of individual readers. Sánchez's and Norton's statements thus underscore that determining what a literary work means pivots on the reciprocal, live interaction between individual readers and the literary work at hand. Turning back to Edie, for whom making meaning can neither be linked to mere acts of referring, nor to discerning clear and “distinct ideas open to introspective inspection” (141), and to Iser, for whom the literary work awaits “actualization” (Act of Reading 18) by readers, one can better apprehend the literary work as an elusive, ever in-process, and therefore incomplete entity and signifying system. How is this embodied in Cisneros's book? What, moreover, does Mango Streetdo as it recounts the story of Esperanza?

Cisneros's novel dissembles, bringing together multiple voices and life experiences in the character of Esperanza. For Renato Rosaldo, Esperanza “inhabits a border zone peopled with multiple subjectivities and a plurality of languages and cultures” (85).22 Her name alone is multivalent: “Moving between English and Spanish, [Esperanza's] name shifts in length […], in meaning (from hope to sadness and waiting), and in sound (from being as cutting as tin to being soft as silver)” (Rosaldo 85). Esperanza's naïvete and innocence can thus be viewed as part of the sophisticated, intricate narrative strategies deployed by Cisneros to “introduce a variety of political concerns that confront Chicano/a communities in the United States” (Quintana 57). In this sense, contrary to popular belief, Esperanza is not a monolith, but rather an “ideological foil” (Quintana 56). Cisneros confirms the macaronic character of her novel: “I arranged and diminished events on Mango Street to speak a message, to take from different parts of other people's lives and create a story like a collage” (Introduction xvii-xviii). She, in effect, places into relief the self-conscious performative nature of writing her book: “I merged characters from my twenties with characters from my teens and childhood. I edited, changed, shifted the past to fit the present. I asked questions I didn't know how to ask when I was an adolescent […]” (Introduction xvii-xviii). “Cisneros's novel is,” as Valdés succinctly puts it, “an explicit composition” (292). “The author,” she continues, “has designed, redesigned, written and rewritten the discursive system of the text. Names, places and situations have been organized into a specific structure. Emplotment has worked at every level of configuration as the writers strive to give the right balance of determinate and indeterminate features” (292). In short, Mango Street is anything but a passively ingestible mirror of life. On the contrary, it is a stage.

Of paramount importance in the consideration of performative representation (darstellung) is, as Iser indicates, accounting for the circumstances surrounding the “fictionality” of a literary work: “To conceive of representation not in terms of mimesis but in terms of performance makes it necessary to dig into the structures of the literary text, laying bare the levels and conditions out of which the performative quality arises” (“Representation” 218).23 Understanding that language retains its denotative function at the same time it speaks connotatively, is, moreover, pivotal in laying bare aspects or factors that bring about performative, “doubling” action in literature. “[T]he sentence [in literary works],” remarks Iser, “does not consist solely of a statement […] but aims at something beyond what it actually says” (“Reading Process” 78). Iser's comments extrapolate from Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of “dialogic” discourse (Problems 182-85), in which words are “double-voiced” (Problems 195) and possess a “sideward glance” (205): they are “directed both toward the referential object of speech … and toward another's discourse, toward someone else's speech” (Problems 205); that is, they are bound up with an awareness and consideration of another's words.24 In short, our own words, inflected with the voices of others, become meaningful in relation to other and others' words. For Bakhtin, novelistic discourse is made up of “heteroglossia,” which he defines as “the social diversity of speech types” (Dialogic 263). Novelistic discourse is, moreover, dialogic:

Heteroglossia, once incorporated into the novel […], is another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way. Such speech constitutes a special type of double-voiced discourse. […] In such discourse there are two voices, two meanings and two expressions. And all the while these two voices are dialogically interrelated, they—as it were—know about each other (just as two exchanges in a dialogue know each other and are structured in this mutual knowledge of each other); it is as if they actually hold a conversation with each other. Double-voiced discourse is always internally dialogized.

(Dialogic 324)25

In what sense, then, can heteroglossia be detected in Cisneros's Mango Street?


Heteroglossia and staging, which, according to Iser, is one of the ways in which doubling in fiction is achieved, play a central role in the last vignette of Cisneros's novel, “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.” This vignette, which alludes to Esperanza's departure from her community, is most likely the one responsible for bringing about the extrapolations of readers who “actualize” the implied realization of her dream. The beginning of Mango Street's final vignette “stages” the nature of storytelling as it discloses the fictionalized nature of Esperanza's story:

I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here's your mail. Here's your mail he said.

I make a story for my life, for each step my brown shoe takes. I say, “And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked.”

I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.


This vignette seems abrupt when compared to the one it follows, “A House of My Own,” which presents the last in a series of ideal homes that Esperanza has described throughout the book. Further, the narrative “I” of this portion of the last vignette alludes to aspects particular to the craft of storytelling in general. Third, when one juxtaposes the second paragraph in this section of the vignette with the last two paragraphs, the reader is suddenly drawn back into the story posited in the opening passage of the book. In other words, the end of Mango Street casts a “sideward glance” at its beginning, thereby reactivating one's familiarity with the story told by Esperanza. At first glance, it seems easy to process the conclusion of Cisneros's novel.

On further examination, however, the final vignette's selection and incorporation of details and a passage from earlier in the novel combine to raise questions about what the text is, after all, about. Ultimately, the familiar passage, which appears in the first vignette, and reappears in the last one, yields two different passages:

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot.

(3, emphasis added)

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.

(109, emphasis added)

Comparing the text (here not limited exclusively to written discourse) that precedes and follows the “we-didn't-always-live” sequence of the novel's last vignette with the text that follows the “we-didn't-always-live” sequence of Mango Street's opening chapter renders a gap in the narrator's story. Clearly, the content and possible message of Esperanza, who at the outset states, “What I remember most is moving a lot” (3), are different from the focus and possible message of Esperanza when she comments, “What I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to” (109). The latter remarks concurrently connote Esperanza's acknowledgement and self-distancing of herself as a part of the Mango Street community. The transmogrified focus of the narrator from start to finish may in turn alter the reader's perception of what Cisneros's book is about.26 In effect, subsequent retrieval and comparison of the first and penultimate vignettes of Mango Street, besides reminding us that “[t]he act[s] of selection [and combination] […] [are] integral to fictionality [and are forms] of doubling” (Iser, “Representation” 218), foregrounds the noncoincidence between, on one hand, Esperanza at the beginning of the novel, and on the other, Esperanza at the end of the book. Let us take a closer look into some possible ramifications of her transformation.

Notwithstanding the “immediacy” of the two passages from Mango Street cited in the paragraph above, Eagleton reminds us that literature is not a “living” dialogue or monologue but rather “a piece of language which has been detached from any specific ‘living’ relationship” (119). As such, books are “thus subject to the ‘reinscriptions’ […] of many different readers” (Eagleton 119). Hence, by the end of Mango Street, the “meaning(s)” of “Esperanza's” story will likely shift, since, in Iser's view: “Each text makes inroads into extratextual fields of reference and by disrupting them creates an eventful disorder, in consequence of which both structure and semantics of these fields are subject to certain deformations and their respective constituents are differently weighted according to the various deletions and supplementations” (Iser, “Representation” 218). To complicate matters further, the respective texts resulting from the combination and selection of the common passage (“We didn't—always—live on Mango Street”) do not blend harmoniously together; neither text stands in autonomous isolation:

[T]he doubling process becomes [… more] complex, for the texts alluded to and the segments quoted begin to unfold unforeseeably shifting relationships both in respect to their own contexts and to the new ones into which they have been transplanted. Whatever the relationships may be like, two different types of discourse are ever present, and their simultaneity triggers a mutual revealing and concealing of their respective contextual references. From this interplay emerges semantic instability, which is exacerbated by the fact that the two sets of discourse are also contexts for each other, so that each in turn is constantly switching from background to foreground. The one discourse becomes the theme viewed from the standpoint of the other, and vice versa.

(Iser, “Representation” 219)

Moreover, as Eagleton notes in reference to poetry, the repetition of a word or image contributes to semantic instability: “A particular meaning [derived initially] […] will cause us retrospectively to revise what we have learnt already,” since the reappearance of the word-image signifies something other than what it had previously connoted (116). Thus, with respect to Esperanza's recollection of Mango Street at the beginning and end of the book, one might do well to refrain from thinking that the image “means” what it did initially, since “[n]o event occurs twice” (Eagleton 116). In fact, it might be wise not to impose closure at all, that is, not to think in circular terms. Instead, perhaps one might mull over Iser's insistence that “the literary work is to be considered not as a documentary record of something that exists or has existed, but as a reformulation of an already formulated reality, which brings into the world something that did not exist before” (Act of Reading x).

Still, after noting Mango Street's title and opening the book, many readers have initially come away with the notion that the “sad red house” is its primary focus. On one hand, the first vignette, bearing the same title as the novel, raises the question of whether or not the narrator will acquire another house. However, the last four paragraphs of the final vignette insinuate that the primary focus of the book has been or is, actually, Esperanza:

I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.

One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.

Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all of those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?

They will not know that I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.


Because of this, the plot no longer appears to hinge solely on the question of whether or not she manages to acquire another house. Further, although memories of Mango Street are still present, it is made clear that it is she who ultimately has the upper hand; Esperanza controls Mango Street, contrary to the claim: “She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free” (110).

In fact, much about the final four paragraphs of the novel is ambiguous, in large part because of abrupt shifts in time and space, on the one hand, and, on the other, a marked change in the disposition of the last of three narrative “I”s present in “Mango Says Goodbye.”27 Shifts in verb tenses, from the present to the future to the simple past, mark the spatial, temporal, and psychological distance between the story-telling narrator at the beginning of the last vignette and the apprentice-writer narrator of the middle of it, and, finally, the more mature, community-oriented narrator projected in the last paragraph of the book. This last narrative “I” is situated at a far remove—ideologically, temporally, and geographically—not only from the child-like narrative “I” in the first vignette, but also from the child-like, albeit more confident, authoritative voice that begins the last one. Hence, despite the brevity and seemingly direct statements made in the last vignette, and despite its endeavors to relieve the tension between the ingenuousness of its young protagonist and narrator, this chapter nonetheless underscores the distinction between the act of narration, the storytelling that Esperanza has engaged from start to finish, and narrative: what has ultimately been recounted.28

Another reason for which the last chapter, “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” makes the implications and meaning(s) of the novel difficult for readers to pin down is that, with the exception of one of its sections, set off and marked by quotation marks (“And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked” [109]), this chapter, like virtually all of the other tersely rendered vignettes, lacks conventional markers that would guide readers and clarify the text(s). The “gap” between the last four paragraphs of the final vignette and the rest of the book's vignettes has the capacity to leave readers feeling addled, if not altogether ambivalent. If, for instance, one juxtaposes the last four paragraphs of the final vignette with all of the first vignette—which ends with the narrator's feelings of shame, longing, and general dissatisfaction with her house—the trajectory and outcome of Esperanza make logical sense: she disliked her house, she longed for another, and—we are to presume—she will surely leave. At the same time, the final paragraph of the last vignette (“They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.”) appears to transport Esperanza back to her origins, effecting her return and pulling her into the fold of her community.

Still, the projected reunion, or reconciliation of Esperanza with her community has not, in reality, proven to be all that convincing to certain readers. According to the way it is framed in “Mango Says Goodbye,” Esperanza's story appears to end and continue, which, as Iser might suggest, may cloud her tale: “Ending and continuing are basic forms of life, but when they are both present simultaneously in one [person's] consciousness, they begin to invalidate each other. Continuing robs the end of its uniqueness, which would otherwise be a consolation. But from the standpoint of a finite individual, endless continuation is both aimless and beyond [their] control” (Iser, “Representation” 230). The applicability of Iser's statement (made in reference to King Lear and Macbeth) to Mango Street concerns the following predicament in which Esperanza seems to be: No matter how hard the narrative strives through the opinions of other characters to “naturalize” how gifted she is, how clearly destined she is for writerdom, and how certain it appears that she will retain her ties to her community,29 ultimately, the last paragraph of the book does not manage to convey the impression that Esperanza's resolve to reintegrate or, as some readers might see it, finally integrate herself into the Mango Street community is rooted in selflessness, that is, in the philanthropic desire to mingle with and serve her community.

Consequently, actual readers, such as Rodríguez, may come away with the impression that even though Esperanza has “returned,” she has done so because, in accordance with messages imparted in such vignettes as “The Three Sisters,” and “Alicia and I,” she will have had to. That is to say, in the way of filial obligation to one's parents, as the “daughter” of her community, Esperanza is eternally indebted to Mango Street (her origins): she can no sooner “forget” Mango Street than she can “disown” her parents. Furthermore, what Esperanza writes and has written is based, parasitically, on memories of a formative reality. As such, no matter how displeasurable this has been, and/or unpalatable it still is, whether she likes it or not (to echo the attitude of her friend Alicia) Mango Street is Esperanza, and vice versa. More than this, Mango Street provides the fodder for both her books and her “writerly” persona.

If one traces Esperanza's wish to reinvent herself throughout chapters such as “My Name,” “A Rice Sandwich,” “Born Bad,” “Bums in the Attic,” “Beautiful and Cruel,” “A House of My Own,” alongside her desire for freedom, it is easier to view her story in terms of an odyssey directed at self-knowledge (and, presumably, self-acceptance). Whereas in “Beautiful and Cruel” Esperanza resolves to become more strong and independent—“I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up my plate” (89); whereas in “Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps,” she persists in strong denial of her ties to Mango Street; and whereas “A House of My Own” represents her ongoing, wistful longing for a “real” house, the abrupt appearance of the final vignette, which on the surface conveys Esperanza's deep concern for her community, seems all the more conspicuous, if not altogether incongruous.

In effect, by the end of Mango Street, it cannot with certainty be said that Esperanza knows, much less accepts, herself. This may be because the last vignette, as literature, “is not an explanation of origins; it is a staging of the constant deferment of explanation […]” (Iser, “Representation” 228, emphasis added). And staging, to reiterate, brings about the “suspension” of language's denotative function. Hence, “what [staging] designates is no longer meant to represent a something to which it refers, but serves as an analogue instead, through which a worldless desire may find expression or a response-inviting appeal may be signaled,” (Iser, “Representation” 229). Has the author, Cisneros, deployed the story Esperanza conveys in the last chapter as a persuasive device aimed at drawing the attention of Mango Street's initial implied readers—Chicanos/as—away from the original, basic rift in herself, a division which, on one hand, fueled her desire to be alone to write, and, on the other, triggered her claim to simultaneously desire to want to be in, and serve her community?30

Taking a closer look at the spread of statements made by “Esperanza” in the last vignette draws attention to and underlines its heteroglossic nature—“I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you the story about a girl who didn't want to belong” (109); “We didn't always live on Mango Street, […] but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to” (109-10); “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much” (110); “One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. […] One day I will go away”; “Friends and neighbors will say What happened to that Esperanza? […] Why did she march so far away?”; “They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (110). Heteroglossia, one may recall, “is another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way” (Dialogic 324). The “refracted way” in this case is a “loophole” in Esperanza's discourse on leaving. A loophole is defined by Bakhtin as “the retention for oneself of the possibility for altering the ultimate, final meaning of one's own words” (Problems 233). Hence, while on the one hand, the final vignette contains Esperanza's “confessional self-definition”—the “story” told about the “girl who didn't want to belong” turns out to be about herself—on the other hand, the last chapter also endeavors to record her resolve to return. Esperanza's last words—“They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out”—glance sideways, at her prospective critics (“friends and neighbors” of the community she will have left behind). Ultimately, however, Esperanza's words in this last vignette may not be all that convincing: “An anticipated and obligatory vindication by the other merges with self-condemnation, and both tones begin to sound simultaneously in that voice, resulting in abrupt interruptions and sudden transitions” (Problems 234).

In the end, Bakhtin's summary assessment about confessional self-definitions with loopholes might appear rather convincing: “the confessional self-definition with a loophole […] is […] an ultimate word about oneself, a final definition of oneself, but in fact it is forever taking account internally the responsive, contrary evaluation of oneself made by another. The [heroine] who repents and condemns [herself] actually wants to provoke praise and acceptance by another” (Bakhtin, Problems 233). Such a loophole, moreover, can make the heroine “ambiguous” and “elusive” not only to others, such as readers, but also to herself (Bakhtin, Problems 234). Curiously, Esperanza's self affirmation in the final vignette of Mango Street could go unvalidated, since “[her] affirmation of self” may strike some readers “like a continuous hidden polemic […] with some other person on the theme of [herself]” (Problems 207).

From Iser's perspective, it is during narrative moments like the Esperanza-centered polemic, when coherence begins to fray and meaning starts to collapse, that the “aesthetic dimension” of a work comes forth:

It is such transformations that give rise to the aesthetic dimension of the text, for what had seemed closed is now opened up again. The more one text incorporates other texts, the more intensified will be the process of doubling induced by the act of selection. The text itself becomes a kind of junction, where other texts, norms, and values meet and work upon each other; as a point of intersection its core is virtual, and only when actualized—by the potential recipient—does it explode into its plurivocity.

(“Representation” 219, emphasis added)

At this point, the evasive words of Cisneros regarding the autobiographic resonance in Mango Street begin to make more sense. “One thing I know for certain,” she states, “you, the reader, are Esperanza.” Such a revelation nudges the implied readers of her novel to actualize on their own its elusive messages and/or myriad meanings (Introduction xix).

Viewing the final vignette of the novel as an intertextual, intradiscursive “junction” which at once incorporates and alters others has, hopefully, allowed readers to see in clearer fashion that what at the beginning of the novel appeared to be the recollection of the narrator's neighborhood, ends up transforming itself into an ambiguous diary-like entry about Esperanza's “reality” and experience as a writer. More than this, “Mango Says Goodbye” suggests that the primary referent of Esperanza's collective tales might be the fictionalizing act itself. As such, readers may be left to mull over the implication of this. “In looking at ‘constative’ propositions, statements of truth or falsity,” states Eagleton, “we tend to suppress their reality and effectivity as actions in their own right; literature [therefore] restores us to this sense of linguistic performance in the most dramatic way, for whether what it asserts as existing actually exists or not is unimportant” (118-19).

Consequently, one could be left pondering whether the focus of critics should, as Iser has suggested, be more—rather than less—inclined toward the question of what narrative representation can tell us about ourselves.” After all, “[t]he work itself cannot ‘foresee’ its own future history of interpretations, cannot control and delimit these readings as we can do, or try to do […]” (Eagleton 119, emphasis added). What, then, are we, the readers, to do with and about the houses that are all Mango Street?


  1. Arte Público Press published the novel in 1984, 1985, and 1986. In 1989, Arte Público published a slightly altered edition of Mango Street. Subsequently, in 1991 Vintage Books, a division of Random House Publishers, published the revised 1989 edition of the book. Knopf followed suit in 1994. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from the novel are taken from the Vintage Books edition, 1991.

  2. The fact that Cisneros's book continues to attract the attention of scholars and critics in several disciplines can be seen in the number of articles that have been written on her and/or Mango Street from the mid 1980s through 2000. An online search of the MLA Bibliography in January 2001 returned more than 40 articles.

  3. Poey's comments point to long-standing marginalization of Chicana writers (females) within the larger collectivity of Chicano writers and the Chicano community (which consists of both males and females). Ramón Saldívar addresses the marginality of Chicano narrative, within mainstream US culture, stating that “it is to the margins [of American literature] that Chicano literature has been consigned […]” (10). Saldívar also underlines the more extreme marginalization of Chicana writers and women in general within circles of both Chicano and mainstream American culture:

    Contemporary Chicana writers challenge not only the ideologies of oppression of the Anglo-American culture that their Chicano brothers confront, but they also challenge the ideologies of patriarchal oppression evinced by Chicano writers and present within Chicano culture itself. […] [T]he literature produced by Chicana authors is counterhegemonic to the second power, serving as a critique of critiques of oppression that fail to take into account the full range of domination.


    Within my paper, the term “Chicano community” encompasses both Mexican-American men and women; “Chicano writers” refers to men only. At the same time, the use of “Chicana,” to designate writers and/or the community, refers to Mexican-American women.

  4. Whereas I have distinguished between Chicana writers and the Chicana community, on one hand, and, on the other, Chicano writers and the Chicano community, I intend a similar distinction between Latina writers and the Latina community, on one hand, and Latino writers (males) and the Latino community (males and females). Latina writers encompass women writers of Hispanic origin, including Mexicans, Cubans, Argentines, Chileans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and others. Latina writers, like Chicanas, have also been marginalized within both the larger collectivity of Latino writers and Latino culture, on one hand, and mainstream US culture, on the other. In addition to Saldívar, see Rosaura Sánchez and Gloria Anzaldúa.

  5. Poey views Mango Street together with Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, in an effort to gauge “how and to what extent [they] are incorporated as additives to the already established canonical tradition as well as the logic behind their promotion as documented, legal trespassers into the academic landscape” (202). Poey maintains that the term representative does not imply that they speak or stand for the “complete” representation of Chicano or Latino literary expression” (204); she further stresses that Anaya's and Cisneros's books have “become representative […] by often being the only Latina/o works assigned in a relatively broad spectrum of courses” (204).

  6. Szadziuk maintains that

    [C]ulture can no longer be regarded as a static entity but must be viewed instead as something dynamic […]. In the case of Western American societies, this need to regard culture as an on-going process may be seen especially in the emergence of studies concerned with the border between the United States and Mexico […] which focus on the crosscultural indeterminacy of this meeting ground rather than on either of the two cultures in isolation.


    See also Poey and Saldívar.

  7. Since 1994 students have periodically informed me that they had already read Mango Street in high school. See also Poey.

  8. Students in my spring undergraduate seminar (2000) were given the task of speaking from the perspective of Cisneros, in order to summarize what the book dealt with and ascertain which audiences it seemed to target. Several students underlined the independence of the female author who, they believed, spoke primarily to women; two students singled out the “independence” of Mango Street's “Mexican-American” author, who, in their opinion, seemed to be addressing a Chicana or Latina readership. Only one student abstained from positing an ideal community of readers exclusively comprised by women. Proclaiming his open admiration and extremely high regard for the book, this student refused to formulate any reductive, facile hypothesis concerning the latter. Neither group of students—neither those who planned to major or minor in English, nor those with plans to major or minor in Spanish—could arrive at a consensus regarding what they perceived as the primary themes and messages of the book.

  9. My remark on the crosscultural appeal of the novel is based on the numerous essays indexed in the MLA Bibliography and on the commentary of book covers and prefaces/afterwards of several printings of the book published by Arte Público, Random House, and Knopf.

  10. This paper obviously ascribes to particular aspects of reception theory, such as the concept of horizons of experience and expectation of both authors and readers. It thus presumes that “meanings” in and of a literary work are actively produced, at once internally derived and externally influenced. See for example, Jauss; Eco; Ingarden; Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response; Suleiman and Crosman.

  11. Although her response seems elusive, it is important to keep in mind that Mango Street was written over the span of more than five years, a period during which Cisneros not only attended graduate school but also taught in inner-city schools. Cisneros stresses that the story lines in Mango Street, if initially inclined toward autobiography, at a certain point metamorphosed into a collective—thus multidiscursive, multivalent—story not only about her life, but about the lives of others, over a range of time, and across different places (Introduction xi-xii).

  12. According to Bakhtin, “Language becomes ‘one's own’ only when the speaker populates it with his [sic] own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention” (Dialogic 293).

  13. See “The House on Mango Street,” “Cathy Queen of Cats,” “A Rice Sandwich,” “Bums in the Attic,” “Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps,” “A House of My Own.”

  14. In his essay, “Race under Representation,” David Lloyd identifies “exclusion” as one of the predominant terms that has been commonly deployed in anti-racist cultural politics and discourse in recent years. Among the other terms cited by Lloyd are “euro-” and “ethnocentrism,” “marginalization,” and the critical categories “orientalism” and the “West,” expressions which, in his view, share the common trait of being “spatial” terms (62).

  15. My students' sensitivity to and/or sympathy for gender- and family-related issues addressed in Mango Street might be related to the fact that the class consisted primarily of white, middle-class women, several of whom had identified themselves as liberal and feminist and/or had taken classes that had incorporated feminist approaches to literature. All students, including the lone male, expressed sympathy for the plight of Esperanza, primarily on the basis that they, as children, had experienced or encountered similar situations.

  16. For examples of, in my opinion, limited formalist approaches to Cisneros's writing, see Klein, Kolmar, and Thomson. For a sample of Chicano/a perspectives of Mango Street, see Olivares; Rosaldo, 84-93; Quintana, 54-74; Saldívar, 171-99; Valdés, 287-300; and “In Search of Identity in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street;” and Yarbro-Bejarano. Although this body of criticism does not suffer from decontextualized readings, some of these critics view the language in Mango Street as a transparent medium that mimetically renders reality.

  17. Poey states that she appropriates the term Bildungsroman as it has been seen and used in English literary studies, not as it is viewed and defined in Germanic studies (206).

  18. In addition to Norton, see, for example, Doyle.

  19. The need for establishing consistency stems from the fact that at any given moment, a reader's grasp of the story at hand is partial. The novel, according to Iser, “[c]annot be continually ‘present’ to the reader with an identical degree of intensity” (Act of Reading 16).

  20. Referring to over generalized readings of Mango Street, Poey comments: “By isolating [the text] from [its] discursive and historical contexts, [the literary work] can also function as [a mirror] of the hegemonic and [confirm …] stereotypic representations” (215).

  21. According to J. L. Austin, language is not merely descriptive: it can do something, even as it appears to make a statement (12), as in the case of a “performative sentence” (6). States Austin, “The name is derived […] from ‘perform,’ the usual verb with the noun ‘action’: it indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying something” (6-7). Austin focuses on instances “in which to say something is to do something; or in which by saying or in saying something we are doing something” (12). For him, it is “illocutionary” speech acts that do something in the saying, and “perlocutionary” acts that achieve an effect by saying. Illocutionary acts include “informing, ordering, undertaking […], i.e. utterances which have a certain (conventional) force” (108). Perlocutionary acts are “what we bring about by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even […] surprising or misleading” (108).

  22. Simon Dentith's discussion of Voloshinov's notion of the “multiaccentual” nature of the sign (and, by extension, language) elucidates Rosaldo's reference to the polyvalence of Esperanza's name in Spanish and English: “[T]he signs of language (words, above all), bear different accents, emphases, and therefore meanings with different inflections and in different contexts. Meanings emerge in society and society is not a homogeneous mass but is itself divided by such factors as social class; signs do not therefore have fixed meanings but are always inflected in different ways to carry different values and attitudes” (22-23). Regarding the question of translation from Spanish to English, for example, Rosario Ferré speaks to the impossibility of transcribing one cultural identity into another: “As I write in English, I am inevitably translating a Latin American identity, still rooted in preindustrial traditions and mores, with very definite philosophical convictions and beliefs, into a North American context” (157). Although Ferré's comments refer to Puerto Rican reality, her comments can be applied to Chicana/o writers like Cisneros, who created a protagonist whose name, Esperanza, connotes different things in the two languages and cultures in and through which she endeavors to define herself: North American and Mexican American.

  23. Speaking to the confusion that surrounds the term “representation” in the English language, Iser states that representation and mimesis have become “interchangeable notions in literary criticism,” the result of which is the concealment of “[…] the performative qualities through which the act of representation brings about something that hitherto did not exist”. He emphasizes, moreover, that darstellung is more “neutral and does not necessarily drag all the mimetic connotations in its wake,” and should therefore not be mistaken with mimesis, which does refer to a “given” object assumed to exist “prior to the act of representation” (“Representation” 217).

  24. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (“Discourse of Dostoevsky”) Bakhtin remarks, for example, that the “attitude” the hero has towards himself [sic] “is inseparably bound up with his attitude toward another, and with the attitude of another toward him. His consciousness of self is constantly perceived against the other's consciousness of him—‘I for myself’ against the background of ‘I for another.’ Thus the hero's words about himself are structured under the continuous influence of someone else's words about him” (207). See also pages 182-84.

  25. Regarding Bakhtin's notion of dialogism in language, Dentith states, “Language appears here as the site or space in which dialogic relationships are realized; it manifests itself in discourse, the words oriented towards another” (34). Of heteroglossia Dentith comments, “it is a word [Bakhtin] coins […] to allude to the multiplicity of actual ‘languages’ which are at any time spoken by the speakers of any ‘language.’ These are languages of social groups and classes, of professional groups, of generations, the different languages for different occasions that speakers adopt even within these broader distinctions” (35).

  26. According to Eagleton:

    [A] literary work can be seen as constructing what have been called ‘subject positions’ (119). […] To understand a [literary text] means grasping its language as being ‘oriented’ towards the reader from a certain range of positions: in reading, we build up a sense of what kind of effects this language is trying to achieve (‘intention’), what sorts of rhetoric it considers appropriate to use, what assumptions govern the kinds of poetic tactics it employs, what attitudes towards reality these imply.”


    Additionally, in “The Reading Process” Iser, referring to Roman Ingarden, remarks that

    Once we are immersed in the flow of Satzdenken (sentence-thought), we are ready, after completing the thought of one sentence, to think out the “continuation,” also in the form of a sentence—and that is, in the form of a sentence that connects up with the sentence we have just thought through. In this way the process of reading goes effortlessly forward. But if by chance the following sentence has no tangible connection whatever with the sentence we have just thought through, there then comes a blockage in the stream of thought. This hiatus is linked with a more or less active surprise, or with indignation […].


    Iser accounts for the prospective “exasperation” of the reader by drawing attention to Ingarden's assumption that all readers—in the spirit and shadow of classical aesthetics—expect and thus follow the seamless “flow” of a work, from beginning to end. In contrast to Ingarden, Iser maintains that “literary texts are full of unexpected twists and turns, and frustration of expectations,” and adds that gaps avail readers the chance to engage their own faculty for “establishing connections” whereby textual indeterminacies are filled in (79).

  27. See Valdés, “The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street,” for a nuanced analysis of the way that the narrative brings about the conjunction in the last vignette of the socio-historical context of Cisneros's novel, at the same time that it underlines the “narrative unfolding of discourse” (292-94).

  28. See for example, Genette.

  29. See the chapters “Born Bad,” “Edna's Ruthie,” “Bums in the Attic,” “A Smart Cookie,” “The Three Sisters,” “Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps,” “A House of My Own,” and “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.”

  30. According to Cisneros's recollection of the period between the time she started her book and published it, her encounters with and feelings of ineffectiveness at helping her students availed her the opportunity to mend a self-perceived rift in her character, one which she had hitherto believed was irreconcilable. She refers to the part of her that wanted to actively participate and make a difference in her community, and she alludes to the more individualistic part of her that longed for seclusion, in hopes of nurturing and pursuing her goal of becoming a writer (Introduction xi-xii; xvii-xviii).

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Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.

———. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. and Ed. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991.

———. Introduction. The House on Mango Street. New York: Knopf, 1994. xi-xx.

———. “Return to One's House: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros.” Interview with Martha Satz. Southwest Review 82.2 (1997): 166-85.

Dentith, Simon. “Voloshinov and Bakhtin on Language.” Bakhtinian Thought. Ed. Simon Dentith. London: Routledge, 1995. 22-40.

Doyle, Jaqueline. “More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.MELUS 19.4 (1994): 5-35.

Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.

Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.

Edie, James. Speaking and Meaning: The Phenomenology of Language. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1976.

Ferré, Rosario. “On Destiny, Language, and Translation.” The Youngest Doll. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991. 153-65.

Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse. Trans. Jane Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Ingarden, Roman. The Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.

Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

———. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach” (1974). Modern Literary Theory. Eds. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 2nd ed. London: Edward Arnold, 1993. 77-83.

———. “Representation: A Performative Act.” The Aims of Representation: Subject/Text/History. Ed. Murray Krieger. New York: Columbia UP, 1987. 217-32.

Jauss, Hans Robert. “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory.” Trans. Elizabeth Benzinger. New Literary History 2 (1970): 7-37.

Kanellos, Nicolás. Introduction. The Hispanic Literary Companion. Ed. Nicolás Kanellos. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1997.

Klein, Dianne. “Coming of Age in Novels by Rudolfo Anaya,” English Journal (September 1992): 21-26.

Kolmar, Wendy. “‘Dialectics of Connectedness’: Supernatural Elements in Novels by Bambara, Cisneros, Grahn, and Erdrich.” Haunting the House of Fiction. Eds. Lynnette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. 236-49.

Lloyd, David. “Race Under Representation.” Oxford Literary Review 13.1-2 (1991): 62-94.

Norton, Jody. “History, Rememory, and Transformation: Actualizing Literary Value.” The Centennial Review 38.3 (1994): 589-602.

Olivares, Julián “Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space.” Americas Review 15.3-4 (Fall 1987): 160-70.

O'Reilly Herrera, Andrea. “‘Chambers of Consciousness’: Sandra Cisneros and the Development of the Self and the BIG House on Mango Street.Bucknell Review 39.1 (1995): 191-204.

Poey, Delia. “Coming of Age in the Curriculum: The House on Mango Street and Bless Me, Ultima as Representative Texts.” Americas Review 24.3-4 (1996): 201-17.

Quintana, Alvina. Home Girls: Chicana Literary Voices. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1996.

Rodríguez, Juan. “The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.” Austin Chronicle 10 August 1984.

Rosaldo, Renato. “Fables of the Fallen Guy.” Criticism in the Borderlands. Eds. Calderón and José David Saldívar. Chapel Hill: Duke UP, 1994. 84-93.

Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.

Sánchez, Reuben. “Remembering to Always Come Back: The Child's Wished-For Escape and the Adult's Self-Empowered Return in Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street.Children's Literature 23 (1995): 221-41.

Sánchez, Rosaura. “Ethnicity, Ideology, and Academia.” Americas Review 15.1 (1987): 80-88.

Suleiman, Susan, and Inge Crosman, eds. The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience Interpretation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.

Szadziuk, Maria. “Cultures as Transition: Becoming a Woman in Bi-ethnic Space.” Mosaic 32.3 (1999): 109-29.

Thomson, Jeff. “‘What is Called Heaven’: Identity in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek.Studies in Fiction 31.3 (1994): 415-24.

Valdés, María Elena de. “The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.Gender, Self, and Society. Ed. Renate von Bardeleben. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993. 287-300.

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Beth L. Brunk (essay date September 2001)

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SOURCE: Brunk, Beth L. “En Otras Voces: Multiple Voices in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.Hispanofila 133 (September 2001): 137-50.

[In the following essay, Brunk asserts that Cisneros's construction of a multiple and shifting narrative point-of-view in The House on Mango Street works to reveal the social realities of the urban, poor, Latin-American community in which the protagonist grows up.]

In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros creates a narrator, twelve-year-old Mexican-American Esperanza Cordero, who is fluent in a variety of voices. In this series of vignettes, Cisneros creates variations between an adolescent and a mature voice, between limited points of view and omniscience, and between a speaking voice and a writing voice. The fluidity of the narrative and the relationships created between the opposing voices make The House on Mango Street successful in detailing the people, places, and activities of Mango Street and Esperanza's life while also relaying the social and cultural messages that Cisneros deems significant.


Linguist Roger Fowler identifies three facets of point of view: the psychological, ideological, and spacio-temporal perspectives. The psychological perspective examines the type and nature of the narrator. The ideological perspective reveals a set of values and beliefs communicated through the language of the text, in other words, the text's interpretation of the world. The spacio-temporal perspective includes the elements of space and time. To be more specific, the spatial perspective involves the distance from which the subject is viewed as well as its focus. Finally, the temporal perspective involves both the speed by which events progress and whether they proceed in a continuous chain or in isolated segments (Linguistic Criticism 127-30).

The psychological aspect of point of view leads Fowler to create four distinctions within narration. Types A and B narration are both internal narration where characters' states of mind, motives, and reactions, that which would be hidden from the common observer in reality, are revealed to the reader. In type A narration, the narrator is inside the events, is a character in the story. This point of view is limited to retrospective and present time. Any anterior narration, or the telling of what will happen, cannot be told with any certainty, but is pure speculation. Type B, however, involves an omniscient narrator, someone who is not a character in the story but has access to some or all characters' internal lives. Types C and D are both external narration where the narrator “constructs … the role of an unprivileged observer coming to a partial understanding of the fictional figures in a fragmentary way” (Linguistics and the Novel 89-90). In type C, the narrator accepts the privacy of other characters' experiences. Type D narration is an extreme of type C, stressing “the limitations of authorial knowledge, the inaccessibility of the characters' ideologies” (Linguistic Criticism 135).

Mieke Bal discriminates between narrator and focalizer, claiming that the terms “narrative situation” and “narrative viewpoint” do not create a clear distinction between “the vision through which the elements are being presented and … the identity of the voice that is verbalizing that vision” (100-101). In other words, these terms draw no lines between the point of view from which the story is told and the individual the readers assume to be the source and authority for the words used to tell the story. For various reasons, the focalizer may see, hear, or know some things that have not been witnessed by the narrator, thereby creating a distinction between the one who sees and the one who speaks. Many times, readers assume that the narrator is always the speaker, but Bal points out that this is not necessarily the case. She contends that it is quite important to determine which character focalizes which object or event, partly because focalization is the “most important, the most penetrating and most subtle means of manipulation” (116). The means by which the object or event is presented provides information about both it and the focalizer.

Gérard Genette proposes a three-pronged system for analyzing focalization: zero focalization, internal focalization, and external focalization. Zero focalization features an omniscient narrator who knows more than do the characters. Internal focalization can be further divided into fixed, where everything is relayed by the same person; varied, where there is predominantly one focalizer, but the focalization periodically shifts to other characters; and, multiple, where there are numerous focalizers who may relate the same event from different points of view, such as in epistolary novels. Finally, external focalization produces objective novels in which the reader can only observe actions, no thoughts or feelings are expressed. In this case, the characters know more than the focalizer tells (189-90).

An author will often utilize more than one focalizer or shift the angle of focalization by degrees. We will see that although The House on Mango Street is narrated by twelve-year-old Esperanza, or rather that it is her point of view from which the story is told, she is not always the focalizer. Neither are events and people always focalized in the same manner. The House on Mango Street is a mixture of Fowler's type A and type B narrative where the story is told through a narrator who reveals to us her own thoughts and feelings but is also occasionally able to express the thoughts and feelings of other characters. This utilizes both fixed internal focalization, where we get the thoughts and feelings of one character, and zero focalization, where we pay heed to an omniscient narrator. This creates an interesting case because zero focalization is not defined by Genette as being grounded in a character in the story; however, we could not argue that The House on Mango Street uses varied focalization because the others' internal thoughts are not revealed by the characters who hold them; they pass instead through Esperanza.



In The House on Mango Street, the status of the focalizer is never fixed. Although the focalizer is always Esperanza, her angle of seeing is dynamic. Sometimes it is clearly a twelve year old's innocent, juvenile perspective. Other times it is an adolescent's thoughts embedded in a complex adult vocabulary. Still, other times the focalizer is not a twelve year old, but a more mature Esperanza with the experience of Mango Street within but behind her.

There are stories where Esperanza's telling of the situation suits that of a twelve year old. One fitting example is the story “And Some More,” in which Esperanza, her sister Nenny, and her two friends, Lucy and Rachel, are discussing the thirty different names Eskimos have for snow and the various names for clouds. However, less than halfway through the story, they resort to name calling. “You know what you are, Esperanza? You are like the Cream of Wheat Cereal. You're like the lumps. Yeah, and you're foot fleas, that's you. Chicken lips. … Cockroach jelly. … Cold frijoles” (37). This name calling is indicative of their age. It is something that “children” do when they cannot think of anything else to argue but do not want to lose the linguistic war through silence. They believe that the name calling can hurt another as much as anything else they could say or do; and it does. However, at the end, one says that yelling “your ugly mama's toes” is “stupid.” Esperanza writes “Who's stupid? Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza and Nenny” (38). This episode reveals her in-between age. She is not beyond the name calling game, but in the end shows that she is breaking away from this age, possibly maturing more quickly than the others.

Bal claims that perception “is a psychological process, strongly dependent on the position of the perceiving body; a small child sees things in a totally different way from an adult” (100). The House on Mango Street would, quite obviously, be different if narrated strictly from a child's or an adult's point of view. If it had been told in a strictly mature voice, as if it happened in the past, the childlike qualities of innocence and confusion would be forfeited. If it was told strictly through a child's point of view, the major insights and driving force of the book would be lost. A special effect is created between the child's innocent report of a situation and the readers' knowing interpretation. In this case, the child does not fully understand what is happening, but the reader does. There are two specific places where Esperanza's innocence is purposely played against the readers' knowledge. The most obvious example is found in “The Earl of Tennessee.” Here, Esperanza claims that “the word is that Earl is married and has a wife somewhere.” A number of people have seen her, but no one can agree on what this woman looks like. Mama thinks she is a “skinny thing, blond and pale like salamanders that have never seen the sun.” The boys believe her to be a tall red-head who “wears tight pink pants and green glasses.” Esperanza says that they “can never agree on what she looks like” but they all know that Earl and this woman “walk fast into the apartment, lock the door behind them and never stay long” (71). Esperanza does not understand that the reason why no one can agree on what this wife looks like is because “she” is never the same woman. Her childhood innocence prevents her from understanding that Earl's “wives” are more than likely prostitutes, something that an adult reader can easily infer.

Another instance is not as focused on Esperanza's lack of “adult” knowledge, but her lack of linguistic knowledge to identify tarot cards by name. Instead, she uses what Fowler calls “circumlocutions” to designate that for which she has no name: “blond men on horses and crazy baseball bats with thorns. Golden goblets, sad-looking women dressed in old-fashioned dresses, and roses that cry” (63). “The implication is that [she] has command of only part of [her] society's classification of objects” (Linguistic Criticism 134). Esperanza can describe what the images on the cards look like but is not capable of naming them appropriately.

Although there are times when Esperanza's voice is clearly that of a twelve year old and occasionally one that shows the beginnings of maturity, there are other times when the voice is much more mature, the voice of an adult looking back on past experiences. This mature voice appears primarily through the topic or content of the story and through prose of which only an experienced author is capable.

One example of an adult voice is found in “Darius and the Clouds” where Esperanza reflects on her surroundings:

You can never have too much sky. You can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky, and sky can keep you safe when you are sad. Here there is too much sadness and not enough sky. Butterflies are few and so are flowers and most things that are beautiful. Still, we take what we can get and make the most of it.


Someone of Esperanza's young age would probably not notice that there is too little sky in the neighborhood and say that she just makes the best of what she has. This sounds like the voice of experience, someone who has been around awhile and knows how to cope pretty well. Another clue that this is a more mature voice is the use of the word “drunk” in “you can fall asleep and wake up drunk on sky.” A twelve year old from Esperanza's family is not going to know the feeling of being drunk, especially since Esperanza assumes her mother feels sick because of too many tamales at the baptism reception until “Uncle Nacho says too many this and tilts his thumb to his lips” (47). Even then it is not clear that Esperanza knows what Uncle Nacho means by this gesture.

Another passage in which this mature voice appears through content includes “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.” Esperanza says, “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free” (110). Again, this voice is much more mature than the twelve-year-old Esperanza who calls her friends “chicken lips.” This is an author who realizes the value of writing down her life, who realizes what her writing will do for the others still living on Mango Street.

Cisneros says in her essay “Do You Know Me?” that she “wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation” (78). The techniques used to achieve this poetic effect, such as creative similes and metaphors, repetition, intertextuality identified by motifs, and conversations between the stories reveal a more mature voice, the polished style of an experienced author. It is still the viewpoint of twelve-year-old Esperanza but a different focalizer putting the words onto the paper. Esperanza describes Earl's dogs as not walking “like ordinary dogs” but they “leap and somersault like an apostrophe and a comma” (71). In “The Three Sisters” she describes Lucy and Rachel's dead baby brother as a “little thumb of a human in a box like candy” (104). Her father tells her that her grandmother is dead and then “crumples like a coat and cries” (56). While Esperanza claims to have done some writing of her own, these similes are creative and fresh, a sign of an experienced writer. Additionally, Cisneros employs repetition at the end of stories for a poetic effect. “Those Who Don't” ends with “Yeah. That's how it goes and goes” (28). “Four Skinny Trees” ends with a series of repetitions for emphasis and a feeling of contemplation: “Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be” (75). With these techniques, Cisneros has created the poetic stories she desires and tells them through the eyes of Esperanza.

Cisneros also uses sentences too complex for a young writer. The best example is from “Sally” where Esperanza asks, “Sally, who taught you to paint your eyes like Cleopatra? And if I roll the little brush with my tongue and chew it to a point and dip it in the muddy cake, the one in the little red box, will you teach me?” Cisneros embeds her own author's voice into Esperanza's question. None of the words are beyond Esperanza, in fact, they are basic vocabulary. However, instead of Esperanza simply saying, “Will you show me how to put on eye liner?” the sentence is quite complex, not because Esperanza does not know how to ask a good question but because of Cisneros' stylistics seeping through Esperanza's voice.

Cisneros' use of intertextuality among the vignettes also signifies the work of an experienced author and not the “journal entries” of a twelve year old. In “Do You Know Me?” Cisneros claims that she intended for a reader to be able to pick up the collection and read any story without necessarily needing to know what came before or what comes after (78). While this kind of reading is entirely possible, the stories are tightly interwoven with motifs repeated throughout and a number of vignettes converse with each other, again, a sign of a skilled storyteller.

One recurring motif is that of a woman confined to the home but leaning out a window or standing in a doorway in a half-attempt to escape. Esperanza's great grandmother, for whom she was named, “looked out the window all her life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (11). Rafaela is locked up by her husband on his domino nights and “leans out the window and leans on her elbow and dreams her hair is like Rapunzel's” (79). Marin cannot come out of the house because she is babysitting her cousins, but still “stands in the doorway a lot, all the time singing, clicking her fingers” (23-24). Mamacita “sits all day by the window and plays the Spanish radio show and sings all the homesick songs about her country in a voice that sounds like a seagull” (77). These women are confined to their space, but leaning through an opening allows them some degree of freedom; it allows them to see and to be seen. (Or, in Mamacita's case, to be heard.) Rafaela's dream that she is Rapunzel clearly suggests that she is waiting for someone to rescue her. Sally's new husband sees the potential danger in this “leaning” and “doesn't let her [even] look out the window” (102). This recurring window motif reflects the dismal situation of many women in Esperanza's neighborhood and larger social environment. The time these women spend at the window reflects their dissatisfaction with their confinement and the inability to break free of it on their own.

Another motif is that of shoes. Mamacita appears with tiny feet and “a dozen boxes of satin high heels” (77). Sire ties his girlfriend's shoes because she is unable to do so herself. The mother of “The Family of Little Feet” gives Esperanza and her friends a bag of high-heeled shoes. Through the wearing of these shoes, the girls discover that they “have legs … all our own, good to look at, and long” (40). Esperanza even eludes to the nursery rhyme “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe” in the story “There Was an Old Woman Who Had So Many Children She Didn't Know What to Do.” However, this mother, Rosa Vargas, does not live in a shoe or “spank them all soundly and send them to bed.” Instead she cannot control them, and every one in the neighborhood gives up caring about the kids and stops trying to help their mother. Perhaps Esperanza notices others' shoes and feet because she is preoccupied with her own. In a story dedicated to shoes, “Chanclas,” Esperanza is mortified that she must go to her cousin's baptism in her new pink dress, new underclothes, new socks and the “old saddle shoes I wear to school. … My feet scuffed and round, the heels all crooked that look dumb with this dress” (47). In “The Monkey Garden” again she mentions looking at her “ugly round shoes” (98). The significance of all these shoes become evident in the last vignette. Here she says that she makes a story “for each step my brown shoe takes. I say, ‘And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked’” (109). Even though shoes typically symbolize walking and transportation, most of the observed shoes really get the owners nowhere. Rosa Vargas is confined to her “shoe” full of children and missing a father/husband. Mamacita never ventures down the stairs despite her collection, and the shoes the girls teeter in for one afternoon are thrown away. Esperanza is the only one who ends up using her shoes to walk away from Mango Street—and she hated them for so long.

Another means by which Cisneros employs intertextuality is through the conversations continued between the stories. Esperanza's dying aunt tells her, “You remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free” (61). Later, the three sisters tell her that when she leaves Mango Street she “must remember always to come back … for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are. … You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember?” (105). Finally, in “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes” Esperanza has realized that her writing is the way to reveal who she is, where she has come from, what she knows and that this is the way to “come back for the ones [she] left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (110). She then continues with the opening lines of the book, “We didn't always live on Mango Street.” The beginning and ending of the book echo each other. She declares at the end that she is going to tell us a story. She starts (or ends), “We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that it was Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina” (109). These words perfectly echo the beginning, but then the words then change with the year she has spent on Mango Street. In the opening, she states, “But what I remember most is moving a lot” (3). In the ending, she continues, “But what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to” (110). She tells us she is going to now begin the story, but has, in effect, just ended it. The circle the three sisters said she must understand is now complete.


As one would expect in a description of a neighborhood, Esperanza spends a large amount of time describing the people who live there. Her descriptions indicate that it is the people, their hardships, and their relationships to one another that make this neighborhood a community. Out of the forty-four vignettes included in The House on Mango Street, fifteen (only four of which feature men) are descriptions of the people. Plus, a large number of the events Esperanza recounts reveal important and interesting information about others in the neighborhood. In these profiles, Esperanza starts with a brief description of how she knows the characters, where they live, what they look like, some general background and then, very subtly, enters their minds. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan argues that “speaking/thinking and seeing need not come from the same agent. We need to allow for cases where the narrator undertakes to tell what another person sees or has seen” (72). Esperanza does this quite frequently with an assortment of her neighbors and friends on Mango Street. She easily sneaks in and out of Fowler's types A and B narrative, from a limited point of view where she can only report what she can see and hear to an omniscient point of view where the neighbors' own thoughts and feelings are expressed. This, incidentally, is done only with female characters; Esperanza appears less able to connect with the males in the neighborhood.

In “No Speak English,” Esperanza describes the arrival of Mamacita, who “sits all day by the window and plays the Spanish radio shows and sings all the homesick songs about her country in a voice that sounds like a seagull” (77). This description of Mamacita, as well as that of other characters up to this point, is external, that which anyone passing through could observe by looking up to discover from where the strange seagull sounds come. However, the narrative continues:

Home. Home. Home. Home is a house in a photograph, a pink house, pink as hollyhocks with lots of startled light. The man paints the walls of the apartment pink, but it's not the same you know. She still sighs for her pink house, and then I think she cries. I would.


From the first “Home” to “it's not the same you know,” Esperanza has entered into the feelings and thoughts of Mamacita; she has become privileged to know what she feels, what she misses, and what she is thinking. Esperanza also knows what goes on inside the apartment with no indication that she has actually been there. She knows that when Mamacita's baby boy starts to sing the Pepsi song from the commercial on TV—in English—that it “breaks [her] heart forever” (78).

This vignette clearly illustrates the division between Esperanza the character/narrator and Esperanza the focalizer. Esperanza the character has no means of obtaining this information. She says that after Mamacita arrived they “didn't see her” (77). The neighbors only catch a glance of her when she leans out the window and only hear her when she sings or fights with her husband. Esperanza the focalizer, however, is able to get into their apartment painted pink and into Mamacita's heart to know the deep longing she feels for her homeland.

Esperanza does the same in the next story, “Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut and Papaya Juice on Tuesdays.” She explains that Rafaela is locked up on Tuesdays because that is the night her husband plays dominoes, and he is afraid that she “will run away since she is too beautiful to look at” (79). Esperanza explains that sometimes Rafaela throws down a dollar so the children will buy her a can of coconut or papaya juice, which is then sent upward via a paper bag and a clothesline. Yet, Esperanza tells us much more than what she can actually see. She says that Rafaela “dreams her hair is Rapunzel's,” and she “wishes there were sweeter drinks, not bitter like an empty room, but sweet sweet like the island, like the dance hall down the street where women much older than her throw green eyes so easily like dice and open homes with keys” (80). The goings-on in this dance hall would not be familiar to Esperanza, especially the minute detail of women throwing eyes like dice. She also reveals Rafaela's feelings with no indication that Rafaela has ever shared them with her. Once again, she taps into this woman's mind and heart to reveal her pain and sorrow.

This technique of jumping into certain neighbors' minds creates a more complete characterization of the neighbors—interestingly—more complete than twelve-year-old Esperanza understands them to be. It gives the reader an added flavor; it deepens the sorrow that so many, particularly women, experience on Mango Street. The only instances when men are shown to express sorrow is when Sally's father has realized he beats her too badly and when Esperanza's paternal grandmother dies. Esperanza never enters the hearts or minds of men. The men of Mango Street are strictly described from a limited point of view as if they do not have feelings or as if these feelings are simply not accessible to Esperanza.

“The Earl of Tennessee,” which is filled with only those details that Esperanza can collect by looking and listening, perfectly illustrates the contrast. Any additional information is attributed to what she has been told by Earl. “Earl is a jukebox repairman. He learned his trade in the south he says. He speaks with a Southern accent, smokes cigars and wears a felt hat” (71). Even the rhythm of these choppy sentences, in comparison to the longer more poetic passages describing women, indicate her limited knowledge of the Mango Street men. In fact, she knows so little about him that she does not know that those women he escorts to his apartment are certainly not his wife.


In two vignettes, Esperanza directs her writing toward one specific person. It is here that the writing voice changes to a speaking voice, something that is intended to be said out loud. This makes readers feel as if we have overheard a very private conversation. These two vignettes are examples of uninterrupted free indirect discourse where all that is told is filtered through twelve-year-old Esperanza's interpretation. In both instances, this audience is her friend, Sally, who has “eyes like Egypt and nylons the color of smoke,” who also comes to school “with her pretty face all beaten and black” (81, 92). Esperanza is fascinated with Sally. According to Jacqueline Doyle, Sally “represents danger and adventure,” something that Esperanza knows little about (17). Esperanza tries to befriend Sally as best she knows how by inviting her to stay with her family when her father beats her too badly and by defending her against the boys who make her kiss them to get her house keys back.

In the first vignette to Sally, entitled “Sally,” Esperanza begins with some introductions about Sally's beauty that is beyond her age and her father's worry that “to be this beautiful is trouble” (81). The rest is directed toward Sally—a conversation that Esperanza wishes to have, replete with questions that Sally is only able to answer through her actions. She starts with something superficial, “I like your black coat and those shoes you wear, where did you get them?” (82). Then she becomes more personal, “What do you think about when you close your eyes like that? And why do you always have to go straight home after school?” What comes next is really the most important question: “Sally do you sometimes wish you didn't have to go home?” (82). As the “conversation” progresses, Esperanza comes closer and closer to the heart of Sally's pain, believing that she has somehow understood the world that Sally lives in when she says, “when all you wanted, all you wanted, Sally, was to love and to love and to love and to love, and no one could call that crazy” (83).

After zeroing in on Sally's pain, Esperanza attempts to save her. She wants to take care of her, to try to eliminate the loneliness, sadness, and abuse she believes Sally experiences. However, the saving always fails, though not by Esperanza's lack of trying. In “The Monkey Garden,” Esperanza does everything she can to save Sally from the abuse she is about to receive from the boys and is hurt to learn that Sally actually wants to go “behind the old blue pickup to kiss [them] and get her keys back.” Even Sally tells her to “go home” (97). When Sally is invited to stay with Esperanza's family to keep her away from her abusive father, he soon comes to beg forgiveness and takes her home only to beat her again just for talking to a boy. There is nothing that Esperanza can do to keep her friend safe.

Although Esperanza has in some way taken responsibility for Sally, Sally does not feel nor do the same for her. The second direct address to Sally in “Red Clowns” shows not the pain that Esperanza believes Sally feels but the pain that Esperanza endures because Sally is not there for her when she is the one who needs saving.

Sally you lied. It wasn't what you said at all … I like to be with you Sally. You're my friend. But that big boy, where did he take you? I waited such a long time. … but you never came, you never came for me. Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn't you hear me when I called? … Sally, make him stop. Why did you leave me all alone? You're a liar. … Sally, you lied, you lied.


As Esperanza tells the experience of her sexual assault, possibly even rape (although that word is never used), she balances the injustice done to her by the boy with the injustice she feels Sally has done to her by not saving her and for lying about sex. “It wasn't what you said at all” (99). She is physically hurt by the boy who whispers “I love you Spanish girl” but even more emotionally damaged by Sally (99).

Esperanza is no longer concerned with Sally's feelings, yet she appears to feel some connection to her. Sally is probably the only person alive with whom she could share this experience even though she cannot “tell it all” (100). Others might blame her, but Sally might understand. Sally knows how it feels to be abused. Sadly, though, the reader gets the impression that, again, Esperanza's questions go unanswered. Sally does not care.

In the following story, “Linoleum Roses,” we learn that Sally has married a marshmallow salesman “in another state where it's legal to get married before eighth grade” (101). Esperanza knows she likes being married because she gets to buy things, but sometimes her husband gets angry, will not let her talk on the phone, or go outside without permission. Esperanza no longer speaks to Sally directly, nor does she feel any need to save her. After Sally's cold dismissal in “Red Clowns,” this story about Sally seems cold and lacking emotion on Esperanza's part.

Another place where a “you” is addressed is the last vignette, “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes.” In the last story, Esperanza focuses on her writing which she has mentioned previously throughout the book. She says, “I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong” (109, emphasis mine). She directly addresses her audience—whether it be the mujeres, the women, to whom the book is dedicated, those who symbolically live on Mango Street, or anyone who has cared to read this account of Esperanza and her experience on Mango Street—who realizes that the story Esperanza believes she is about to tell is the one she has already told. This “you” gives the story direction, a recipient. Just as we realize the vignettes employing free indirect discourse have an intended audience, Esperanza realizes that she has an audience for the entire story she now has to tell/has already told. While it seems that many of the previous stories were told simply for the sake of telling, this direct address to the audience at the end blankets the entire book, gives the entire story meaning. It has been (or will be) told with the intention of someone hearing it.


What do these variations in ways of telling accomplish for Esperanza and her story? They both reflect and enhance the tensions that Cisneros hopes to express of being female, of being a child, of living in the barrio, of being something other than white. These tensions work with the plot and the social messages that Cisneros intends to send her audience. In an interview, Cisneros expresses her frustration with those writers who “make our barrios look like Sesame Street.” She continues that “poor neighborhoods lose their charm after dark. … I was writing about it in the most real sense that I know, as a person walking those neighborhoods with a vagina” (Aranda 69). So, Cisneros' goal is to tell the real story, to show the reality of an Esperanza's life. The shifts in the focalizer, the different ways of telling, help her do just that.

By telling the story through twelve-year-old Esperanza's point of view, Cisneros is empowering someone who is normally not seen as possessing authority in the world—a young, Hispanic female. Esperanza is given a voice. Her entire community is discriminated against both for being a minority (albeit a large one) and for being poor. In addition, we see through the stories Esperanza tells that she is at risk of being discriminated against within that community because she is soon to be a woman.

We learn in “My Name” that “in English [her] name means hope” (10). By giving Esperanza this voice, Cisneros is expressing optimism, optimism that the situation can change, that Esperanza and others like her will not have to spend their lives leaning out windows, that she will not have to be “sorry because she couldn't be all the things she wanted to be” like her great grandmother, that she will not succumb to the shame that kept her mother, “a smart cookie then,” from continuing with school (11, 91). At the age of twelve, Esperanza dares to rebel against her oppressive world. She “has begun [her] own quiet war.” She is the “one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (89). We are certain by the end of the text that through Esperanza's writing she will not inherit her mothers' sadness and shame, and she will help those who cannot physically move beyond their station to break free in their own private way; she will help them to move beyond the windows and doorways. Esperanza will give them all the key that Rafaela wishes she could possess.

The shifts in point of view, from Esperanza's adolescent voice to a mature one, from a limited point of view to omniscience, from writing to speaking help to reveal the social realities of Esperanza's world, where women are locked up by their husbands and confined by their sadness, where little girls are beaten by their fathers because they are too beautiful, where those who do not “belong” to this country are allowed to die without a last name, where twelve year olds are raped and fear that they will be the ones to be blamed. These shifts allow the reader to gaze into more lives than just one and thereby receive a more complete picture of the community of Mango Street. These allow us to see the impact of the realities twelve-year-old Esperanza may not fully realize at this time, but the more mature Esperanza who has been transported beyond Mango Street through her writing has. They show us that Esperanza has a voice she can use to speak out, and although she is taking small steps now, she will likely come to find her strong voice soon.

Interestingly, one voice Esperanza does not speak in, or perhaps is not capable of using, is Spanish, the language which ties the community together. For the most part, the only Spanish she uses is that from others' dialogue. Her father says, “Your abuelito is dead. … Está muerto” (56). Elinita, the witch woman, declares that “los espíritus” have joined them (63). Esperanza's mother tells her to “look at my comadres” (91). While Esperanza appears to understand what is meant by the Spanish words, she fails to speak the language with a couple exceptions. One is when she and her friends are creating jump rope rhymes. “I want to be Tahiti. Or merengue. Or electricity. Or tembleque!” (51). Here the words mean little but are simply a part of the rhyming game. Another instance is in regard to Geraldo, no last name, when she says that he was just another “brazer who didn't speak English. Just another wetback” (66). This seems to be not her own word, but one she heard others use to describe this man.

Wanting to know when they will return home, Mamacita cries to her husband, “¿Cuándo, Cuándo, Cuándo?” He replies, “¡Ay, Caray! … Speak English. Speak English. Christ.” (78). He cries out to her both in anger and frustration to speak English, to assimilate. In effect, that is what Esperanza and her friends have done; they have assimilated as best they can. Although her parents' and others' English is seasoned with Spanish, there is very little of that language in the children's speech. Perhaps this is indicative of passive bilingualism, where the children know and understand the language but do not speak it. However, this limited Spanish could also be a statement from Cisneros. She refuses to let Esperanza speak it. Esperanza's silence in this language is symbolic of her ability to break out of this neighborhood and the larger culture that have the power to oppress her. If she fails to speak the language, she cannot be confined by it.

Works Cited

Aranda, Pilar E. Rodriguez. “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-Three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” The Americas Review 18 (1990): 66-80.

Bal, Mieke. Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative. Trans. Christine van Boheemen. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1985.

Cisneros, Sandra. “Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street.The Americas Review 15 (1987): 77-79.

———. The House on Mango Street. 1984. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Doyle, Jacqueline. “More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.MELUS 19.4 (1994): 5-35.

Fowler, Robert. Linguistics and the Novel. London: Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1977.

———. Linguistic Criticism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1986.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Methuen, 1983.

Gail Caldwell (review date 22 September 2002)

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SOURCE: Caldwell, Gail. “El Norte, the Hard Way.” Boston Globe (22 September 2002): D6.

[In the following review, Caldwell asserts that Cisneros's Caramelo is lacking in narrative structure, cohesiveness, and momentum, and ultimately fails as a novel.]

The Mexico evoked in Sandra Cisneros's prose is scarcely the global hodgepodge of a modern Mexico-for-export—that place of late where norteamericanos queue up for burritos under hegemony's golden arches. Instead it's the cloistered country of a few decades ago, where the zocalo, or town square, still exudes the music and mayhem of an entire culture. Rendered with delicate precision in her 1991 story collection, Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros's is a province of the senses: the smells of tamale vendors, the brilliant colors of scarlet and turquoise houses, the waves of white crosses on a steep hillside's makeshift cemetery. It's a place lit with the flicker of Virgine de Guadalupe candles and darkened by poverty, its women huddled in church doors, one hand clutching their ubiquitous shawls and the other reaching out for coins.

And the churches, of course, are always open: On the worst days, the narrator of Caramelo tells us, Mexican women used to climb the church towers to leap to their deaths—a practice so widespread a century ago that the bishops passed an edict prohibiting suicide on church property. That's the kind of extraordinary detail lurking within the pages of this overabundant novel, though whether it's fact, exaggeration, or one of the Reyes family's “healthy lies” is another matter entirely. Replete with the atmospheric and emotional impressions of Celaya Reyes, Caramelo is also surfeited with family legends, gossip, tirades, song lyrics, footnotes, and a couple of film reviews. The metaphor allegedly holding the story together is the woven rebozo of the title—a caramel-colored cloth that has accompanied the Reyes women through three generations, its tangled fringe offering beauty and family history and a web of interior logic.

Somewhere in here is a novel, one assumes, and so one plunges in; after all, Cisneros has been lauded for a decade for her passionate and intimate portrayal of the Latina experience. But hundreds of pages later, the rebozo is more a pile of thread than a narrative infrastructure. “These stories are nothing but story,” Cisneros tells us in a prologue (or “disclaimer,” as she calls it), “bits of string, odds and ends found here and there, embroidered together to make something new.” Such a device is usually modest by intention, implying that a design will emerge that testifies to the powers of the imagination. But Cisneros's disclaimer is, in fact, a caveat—an honest description of the next 400-plus pages, which contain endless plots and day trips but precious little cohesion or narrative momentum.

The bare-bones plot of Caramelo, which accounts for about a third of the book, concerns the picaresque travels of Inocencio and Zoila Reyes, their passel of children (Celaya is the seventh, and the only daughter), and Inocencio's mother, Soledad, known to Celaya as the Awful Grandmother. Celaya serves as a kind of transparent witness to the Reyes family stories—to her own memories of their annual car trips from Chicago to Mexico City's Destiny Street, where her grandmother lives; then back in time to the lives of Soledad and her husband, Narciso, who nearly lost a lung for the Revolution and who fell in love with a wild woman wearing live iguanas on her head. Through the misadventures of several generations, today's truths emerge from yesterday's lies—Soledad, who can seem to her grandchildren a bitter, selfish woman, has built her makeshift heart from the ruins of a painful past. As a dark-eyed boy who was “never happy unless he was sad,” Inocencio has grown up to be a perfectionist and doting father, as proud of his sole daughter as he is of his upholstery business (he bills himself as “the king of plastic covers”). Celaya herself changes through the years of her narration, her perspective shifting from that of a child—vibrant, pistol-quick, unforgiving—to that of a young woman, poised to turn her anger into fiery creativity.

There are moments in the last half of Caramelo when the novel finds a path through its own forest of detail. The story of Inocencio and Zoila, brought together by need and circumstance, eventually opens into the poignant picture of a marriage. And Inocencio's impulsive move of his family to a shipwreck of a house in San Antonio—“homemade half-ass,” as Celaya calls it—is the beginning of the best part of this sprawling saga, taking us into the narrator's cliffwalk toward adulthood. Realizing that “this is my life, with its dragon arabesques of voices and lives intertwined, rushing like a Ganges,” Celaya has no choice but to embrace it—all of it, from the Awful Grandmother and her not-so-awful legacy to Inocencio's overprotective devotion.

Cisneros is described by her publishers as born in Chicago, the only daughter among seven children, and Caramelo often reads like a writer's undigested journal—where everything seems sacrosanct but is in fact arbitrary, with no plan in sight beyond the writer's ego. One should always hesitate to make autobiographical comparisons or accusations when it comes to fiction; if the work succeeds, its relation to fact is irrelevant. But this novel doesn't succeed. Instead it buries its occasional treasures within an acre of narrative indulgence. It manages to be Odyssean and minor at once, which is no easy feat.

I can remember every flat we've ever rented, especially the ones I want to forget. Their hallways and their hallway smell, dank and dusty or reeking of Pine-Sol. A heavy door blunted with kicks, carved initials, and the scars from changes of locks like appendectomies. Fingerprints on the glass. No yard, or if there is a yard, no grass. A darkness to the hallway, like a cave or an open mouth. Paint old and splintering off. A skinny lightbulb naked and giving off a sickly glow. A dirty cotton string hanging from the bulb. Dust in between the rails of the bannister. High ceilings. Walls oiled with hands. Voices behind the apartment doors. People downstairs who talk too loud, or people upstairs who walk too much. Neighbors who are a pain. Manolo and Cirilo, and their bad-mouth mama. Floorboards thumping to Mexican country music early in the morning, even on the weekends when you're trying to sleep, for crying out loud.

Margaret Randall (review date October 2002)

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SOURCE: Randall, Margaret. “Weaving a Spell.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 1 (October 2002): 1, 3.

[In the following review, Randall offers high praise for Cisneros's Caramelo, judging it to be an ambitious, captivating, and masterfully written novel.]

In 1984 Arte Publico Press in Houston published The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Neither press nor author were known beyond the circles of those who were beginning to enjoy a burgeoning Chicana literature. A few Chicano names were just then entering the mainstream. Cisneros was one of what would soon emerge as a brilliant and diverse group of women—from an array of Latina origins—whose books demanded attention. The House on Mango Street guaranteed Arte Publico Press a future; only four years after it first hit bookstores, the brief novel had won the prestigious Before Columbus American Book Award and gone into its fourth edition. It has been translated into a number of languages and remains a steady best seller.

For Cisneros, other literary successes followed. There was a defiant yet deeply tender volume of poems, My Wicked Wicked Ways, in 1987, the excellent Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories in 1991 and Loose Woman, a book of verse described by Ana Castillo as “a collection of love poems for the nonbeliever,” in 1994. Cisneros even published a delightful children's book, Hairs/Pelitos, in 1997. She was awarded two NEA grants for poetry and fiction and the coveted MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant. When, though, would her promised second novel appear?

The literary world waited. Cisneros' devoted readership waited. Is Sandra really working on that novel? people would ask, and the usual disgruntled commentary about “one-novel writers” began to be heard. Then it happened. Caramelo makes its appearance. Could this smart, visionary, linguistically innovative writer possibly fulfill our expectations? I wondered.

She has, many times over. And now it's up to reviewers to find the words with which to sing this novel's praises. Cisneros surely deserves more than superlatives, yet Caramelo is superb. There should be a brand-new language to describe the ways in which she has imbued the ancient art of story-telling with her trademark organization (at once spiral and complex), character development, evocation of time and place, portrayal of a particular culture (Mexican American/American Mexican) and visionary wisdom.

Many of us, lately, have asked the question: who owns the stories of our lives? Today's sociopolitical debacle, especially in the United States, reflects such a dramatic contradiction between the stories told by government officials, corporate leaders, the media and other “experts” and the stories that we live. How to make sense of this contradiction? How to fill the abysmal distance between news of a “healthy economy” and job loss for tens of thousands, between the criminal greed of corporations—whose CEOs, when caught, get a slap on the wrist—and the continued insistence that it's all about “consumer confidence”: if the ordinary citizen would only spend more money, everything would be all right? How to make sense of wars waged in the name of national security and the bombing of civilians that is described as “liberation”?

Our stories have been twisted inside out.

Can literature—a literature in which history, memory, invention, political astuteness, contradiction and tenderness combine to produce that fiction more real than truth—help us at a time like this? I think so. Barbara Kingsolver's work, Alice Walker's and a few others are examples that come to mind. Add Sandra Cisneros to the list.

Cuéntame algo, aunque sea una mentira. Tell me a story, even if it's a lie. In a disclaimer alternately titled “I don't want her, you can have her, she's too hocicona (big mouth) for me,” Cisneros warns the reader that her book is “nothing but story, bits of string, odds and ends found here and there, embroidered together to make something new.” She admits to having “invented what I do not know and exaggerated what I do to continue the family tradition of telling healthy lies.” It is Cisneros' unique use of language that lifts Caramelo from the category of a very fine novel and situates it among the great literature of our time.

Caramelo possesses the real unreality of Latin American magic realism: the stories within stories, their surprising imagery and unexpected twists bring to mind García Márquez, Juan Rulfo and the Isabel Allende of House of the Spirits. But Cisneros has moved beyond those authors and their novels. She weaves a new fabric of Spanish, English and Spanglish, and in so doing reflects the particular symbiosis of the Mexican American and American Mexican cultures that blossomed in this part of the world as the twentieth century unfolded.

One way she does this—though by no means the only way—is by translating certain Spanish terms or phrases into absolutely literal English, so that the meaning beneath the meaning rises up, grabs the reader and shakes her or him into awareness. We say this, exactly this, the book insists, and because we say this and say it in this way, we are a particular sort of people with a particular history, situated in a particular time and geography, acting out of a particular place of hobbled wisdom.

Eighty-six chapters bear titles such as Recuerdo de Acapulco, Qué elegante, Mexico Next Right, Tarzan, Aunty Light-Skin, Niños y borrachos, Fotonovelas, So Here My History Begins for Your Good Understanding and My Poor Telling, God Squeezes, Some Order Some Progress But Not Enough of Either, A poco—You're Kidding, Cuídate, and How Narciso Falls into Disrepute Due to Sins of the Dangler. These are not cute turns of phrase, but deeply meaningful index cards that point us where the writer wants us to go.

Celaya, the young girl protagonist and storyteller, traces her Mexican American family from before the time of the Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother, from Mexico City to Chicago, to San Antonio, back to Mexico and once again to Chicago. Celaya is the youngest child and only daughter in an immigrant working-class family whose father loves her madly but always says he has seven sons instead of six sons and a daughter (“los siete hijos” common to traditional gendered Spanish).

Caramelo does not depend on plot in the usual sense. It is a book about a family as it migrates from the old country to the new, and how its many members survive the cultural changes implicit in this migration. It is the story of Celaya, from before her birth to young adulthood, and of those who accompany her. At first her point of view is a child's, wise but limited to her own perceptions. As she and her story unfold, she comes to see things from others' perspectives as well.

In Caramelo race, the privilege bestowed by lighter skin, gender, sexuality, class and the love-hate relationship that characterizes Mexicans and US Americans are handled with a delicate touch but the most nuanced complexity. Even the book's title is many-layered. Celaya's great-great-grandmother was a skilled weaver of rebozos, those Mexican shawls that range from the common black and white flecked cotton in which poor women carry their babies to the most elegant silk, so fine that one can be pulled through a wedding band. Caramelo describes one of the latter variety, the word defining the golden tan flecked with black and white that brings to mind the sweet of the same name. But as the novel unfolds, caramelo takes on other meanings as well. It becomes a leitmotif for what is familiar and also for what shows us the way.

Cisneros' characters are magical as well as solidly believable: the Awful Grandmother (even this bitter and manipulative woman is eventually humanized as she moves beyond death to speak to Celaya, and Celaya comes to feel that they become one another), Uncle Old and Uncle Baby and their broods, her father Inocencio Reyes (the old world upholsterer who resists becoming “the king of plastic slipcovers”), her mother Zoila who fights resignation and late in life embraces Public Radio's Studs Terkel—“no intelligent life around here except my plants”—the mysterious servant girl Candelaria, Exaltación Henestrosa the fish goddess of Tehuantepec, the wise curandera María Sabina, brothers Memo Toto Lolo Rafa Ito and Tikis, cousins Elvis Aristotle and Byron, El Santo Niño de Atocha, Catholic high school bad girl and best friend Viva Osuna, father's friend Marcelino Ordóñez and his “Mars Tacos to Went” and all the dogs named after Woodrow Wilson. Celaya herself takes us back to when she “was dirt” (before she was born) and, spiraling through flashbacks and subsidiary stories, takes the reader with her as she comes of age in that fragile but sinewy place between eras and cultures, human exploration and “the way things are done.”

I have resisted transcribing phrases or paragraphs from Caramelo. While they would undoubtedly show Cisneros' imagination, expertise with language and perhaps even her vast intelligence, removing bits of her prose from the novel's context would be reductionist and ultimately not of much use. You must read this book for yourself, two or three times.

A chronology helps the reader situate the story within the separate and entwined histories of Mexico and the United States. Here we are reminded of and can relate to Cortés and Moctezuma's 1519 meeting in Mexico City, the first published mention of the rebozo (1572), the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), the Mexican Revolution (1911), General Pershing's unsuccessful foray into Mexico to get Pancho Villa (1916), the births and deaths of numerous popular figures on both sides of the border, periodic moments in the long sad history of migrations and immigration law, Elvis Presley's 1963 Fun in Acapulco, Zapata's 1994 rebirth in Chiapas and finally 2001, which witnessed both the Zapatistas' march into Mexico City to demand indigenous rights and the attack on New York's World Trade Center. These are the events that shaped the lives about which Cisneros writes.

Less successful, from my point of view, is the inclusion of long footnotes at the end of chapters often not much longer than the notes. I found myself flipping back and forth, engrossed in the information contained in the notes, but wondering if there might not have been a less distracting way to provide it.

The only other question I have is about the Spanish-language translation Knopf announces as simultaneous with publication of its English counterpart. I have read Elena Poniatowska's excellent translation of The House on Mango Street (La casa en Mango Street); that a writer of Poniatowska's stature would take on that translation attests to the quality of the original. Still, I wonder how Caramelo's Spanish-language version will deal with one of the novel's major innovations: the literal rendering of extremely idiomatic Spanish that provides not only much of the book's charm but also so much of its deeper meaning.

These are simply questions, marginal at best. Caramelo is a giant of a novel, ambitious and fulfilling, hard-hitting yet graceful, masterfully written yet never letting the prose overpower the story—truth or “healthy lie.” It's been a while since I've been so completely captivated by a book.

Alexandra Fitts (Essay date January 2002)

SOURCE: Fitts, Alexandra. “Sandra Cisneros's Modern Malinche: A Reconsideration of Feminine Archetypes in Woman Hollering Creek.International Fiction Review 29 (January 2002): 11-22.

[In the following essay, Fitts discusses the portrayal of Mexican American women in three stories from Woman Hollering Creek.]

Sandra Cisneros's collection of stories Woman Hollering Creek (1991) depicts the situation of the Mexican-American woman: typically caught between two cultures, she resides in a cultural borderland.1 The topics of the stories range from the confusions of a bicultural and bilingual childhood to the struggles of a dark-skinned woman to recognize her own beauty in the land of Barbie dolls and blond beauty queens. While Cisneros does not attempt to force easy resolutions on such complex subject matter, she does search for a “place” that will respect Spanish and Indian heritage along with Mexican tradition without resorting to a nostalgic longing for a distant motherland (a Mexico that, in some cases, the characters have never seen). Her characters engage in a continual process of cultural mediation, as they struggle to reconcile their Mexican past with their American present. Further complicating this struggle is the fact that most of her characters are young women who must sort through the competing stories that they hear about a woman's “place” until they find one where they can reside comfortably. Part of this negotiation is the incorporation of key feminine archetypes from the Mexican tradition and the reconsideration of these figures in a way that will reflect the realities of the modern Chicana experience. Cisneros reevaluates, and in a way revalues, the three most prevalent representations of Mexican womanhood: the passive virgin, the sinful seductress, and the traitorous mother, idolized in the figures of the Virgin of Guadalupe, La Malinche, and La Llorona. Along the lines of U.S. feminism, these female icons could be seen as promoting an image of women that is detrimental, but they may also serve as emblems of feminine power and pre-conquest Mexican beliefs. Sandra Cisneros tackles each of these feminine figures in Woman Hollering Creek: La Malinche in “Never Marry a Mexican,” the Virgin of Guadalupe in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” and La Llorona in “Woman Hollering Creek.” Rather than merely casting aside these figures, Cisneros searches for a transformation of them that will allow for the past while opening up the future. However, her goal does not seem to be as uncomplicated as merely redeeming these figures as powerful female icons. Instead, she modernizes and adds nuance to their legends and their legacies.

It could be said that the place of the Mexican-American woman is by force of immigration always in the borderlands. Of course, many Chicanas physically inhabit the borderlands between Mexico and the United States—that place that is neither entirely one country nor the other, but something else, a unique amalgamation of the two. The Mexican-American woman, however, is not marginalized by her physical location as much as she is by both her sex and her ethnicity. In the words of Chicana critic and activist Gloria Anzaldúa, “this is her home / this thin edge of / barbwire.”2 She must live on the fence because she can never occupy a full place in any of the cultures to which she nominally belongs. In the U.S., she is separated by her color, her language, and her history. In Mexican and Chicano societies, she is defined and limited by the traditions of machismo and the teachings of the Catholic Church. Anzaldúa writes, “Alienated from her mother culture, ‘alien’ in the dominant culture, the woman of color does not feel safe within the inner life of her Self. Petrified, she can't respond, her face caught between los intersticios (the cracks), the spaces between the different worlds she inhabits.”3 Much of this can be said for any person, male or female, who lives as a minority within a dominant culture. Anzaldúa makes a special case for the Chicana, however. Dominated in both cultures, she is even less at home in either than is a male, be he white, Mexican, or Chicano. Furthermore, the Mexican and Chicana woman has repeatedly served as mediator between the two cultures. She is too often the sexual property that links white men and Mexican men in a system of exchange.

The historical representative of this sexualized position as cultural mediator is La Malinche. Malinche, doña Marina, Malinalli—she has many names and many incarnations. What we know of her is that she was an Indian woman who served as interpreter and lover to Hernán Cortés while he conquered her land and massacred her people. Infamous as a traitor and a whore, her legacy has been to serve as a representative of the victimization of the native people of Mexico at the hands of the whites, and as the shameful reminder of a woman's complicity.

In his famous work The Labyrinth of Solitude, originally published in 1950, Octavio Paz reflects at great length on La Malinche's role in the formation of the Mexican consciousness. To him, she is la Chingada, the “violated Mother.” Paz spends quite a bit of time defining the word “chingada,” all the while avoiding its most common and vulgar usage. Most commonly, la chingada means “the screwed one.” Paz claims that this verb always implies unwillingness and victimization, but he also points out that La Malinche “gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador.”4 For Paz, the proof of her victimization lies in Cortés's abandonment of La Malinche once she had served his purposes. So, she is not only a traitor and a whore, but also a woman not cunning enough to hold on to her man or even to realize that he is abusing her. In fact, La Malinche's sin is one of omission rather than commission. According to Paz, “her passivity is abject: she does not resist violence, but is an inert heap of bones, blood and dust. Her taint is constitutional and resides … in her sex” (85). He traces the Mexican repudiation of the Mother (and thus of women) to their shame of origin, the shame that rests with La Malinche's collaboration and her sinful sexuality. La Malinche is the figurative mother of all post-Conquest Mexicans, and thus, of all Chicanos. Her sin, like Eve's, must be born by her sons and, more pointedly, by her daughters.

Cherríe Moraga describes the impact that La Malinche's story has had on Hispanic women's sexuality. She writes, “[c]hicanas' negative perceptions of ourselves as sexual persons and our consequential betrayal of each other finds its roots in a four-hundred year long Mexican history and mythology.”5 The weight of guilt imposed on women for La Malinche's betrayal of her people and for her sexual transgressions has led to a deeply conflicted self-image. In order to be “true” to her people, a Mexican or Chicana woman must deny her sexuality, for “the woman who defies her role as subservient to her husband, father, brother, or son by taking control of her own sexual destiny is purported to be a ‘traitor to her race’ by contributing to the ‘genocide’ of her people” (113).

Sandra Cisneros tackles the legacy of La Malinche in the story “Never Marry a Mexican.”6 In this story, a Chicana woman seeks revenge on the white lover who has rejected her by becoming the sexual tutor of his teenaged son. Though the first-person narrator does not say how the son will pay for the sins of the father, it is clear that he must pay, as she lulls him into false confidence waiting for the right moment or, as she puts it, the moment when she will snap her teeth. The reference to La Malinche and Cortés is made explicit from the start, as she recalls that her lover, Drew, used to call her his “Malinalli” (another name for Malinche) and that he looked like Cortés with his dark beard and white skin. Like the legendary Malinche, the narrator is an accomplice in her own domination and a traitor to the “sisterhood.”7 She admits, “I've been accomplice, committed premeditated crimes. I'm guilty of having caused deliberate pain to other women. I'm vindictive and cruel, and I'm capable of anything” (NM 68). She also says that, though a painter, she must support herself in other ways. Sometimes she acts as a translator, though she also relies on the generosity of her lovers, which, she says, “is a form of prostitution” (NM 71). She translates the language (although Spanish is now the “native” language), as did La Malinche, but also serves as a cultural intermediary, a sort of ambassador to the white world in which she moves but which she does not fully inhabit.

Cisneros's Malinche is a complex, modern figure. She is at once victim and victimizer, as she turns her hurt and anger on others. She is certainly not the “abjectly passive” victim that Paz described, but she does allow herself to fall into relationship after relationship with unavailable men—always married, and always white. For the narrator, whose real name is Clemencia, the issues of race and gender are at odds, as she feels forced to choose her primary allegiance. Clemencia's parents are both Mexican, her father born in Mexico, her mother in the U.S. The title of the story, “Never Marry a Mexican,” is her mother's often-repeated advice. Clemencia's mother felt inescapable discrimination from both cultures. As a lower-class Chicana, she was looked down on by her husband's upper-middle-class Mexican family, but she also suffered discrimination in mainstream U.S. society because of her dark skin. The answer, for her, was to marry out and supposedly up, and she instilled in her daughters the belief that the only appropriate future husbands for them were whites.

Clemencia buys into this prejudice against her own heritage to some extent, but her feelings about race are more complex than those expressed by her mother. She says that she never saw Mexican men, or Latin men of any sort, as potential lovers, yet she considers her mother to be the true traitor because she married a white man almost immediately after the death of Clemencia's father. Clemencia and her sister move from their suburban neighborhood to the Mexican part of town in a romanticized quest for a cultural connection. At first, they think the neighborhood is quaint and charming, but soon they realize that the realities of life in the barrio are anything but charming. Not fully at home in either culture, she ultimately decides that she must define and situate herself as a Chicana, though this decision is perhaps a moot point, as her lovers clearly have also been taught to “never marry a Mexican.” Though born in the U.S. to a mother who does not even speak Spanish, she is Mexican in the eyes of the world. To the white men with whom she has affairs, she is a sexual mystery, the exotic dark-skinned woman with whom they can have sex before going home to their pale, polished wives.

Though Clemencia struggles with the allegiance she feels, or is forced into, with others of her race, her lack of loyalty to other women is much clearer. Where La Malinche is considered primarily as a traitor to her race, we see in Clemencia the impact of a woman's betrayal of the “sisterhood” of other women. The problem is that Clemencia feels no such sisterhood with white women—already excluded from their society, she is well aware of the power differential between a white woman and a dark-skinned woman, and for her, this difference negates any kinship they might share. She says, thinking of her lover's son: “All I know is I was sleeping with your father the night you were born. In the same bed where you were conceived. I was sleeping with your father and didn't give a damn about that woman, your mother. If she was a brown woman like me, I might've had a harder time living with myself, but since she's not, I don't care” (NM 76).

Cisneros complicates La Malinche, as she is represented by Clemencia. She is neither entirely a victim, nor merely a self-serving woman who betrays her people for her own gain. Like La Malinche, she is defined by her race and her sex, and she struggles with these meanings that are imposed on her body. However, this story does not present an apology for La Malinche, nor an uncomplicated recuperation of the figure. While the reader may sympathize with Clemencia up to a point, she ultimately turns into a sort of obsessive stalker, who can find power only through sexuality and, perhaps, violence. The contradictions of her legacy remain intact, as Cisneros lends some justification (and perhaps sympathy) to her actions, but falls short of a whole-hearted vindication of La Malinche.

Unsurprisingly, a number of Chicana writers have taken up La Malinche's cause more fully than does Cisneros, seeing her as a victim not only of the conquistadors, but also of the pervasive sexism of Latin culture. In La Malinche in Mexican Literature, Sandra Messinger Cypess discusses Chicana writers' reconsideration of the legacy of La Malinche, saying that “they have incorporated the figure into their creative works as another way to make her their own, to transform her into their own image instead of accepting the image of La Malinche constructed by patriarchal cultural forces.”8

Gloria Anzaldúa traces the figure of Malinche back to the powerful goddesses of the Aztecs. She claims that the male-dominated culture, even before the time of the Conquest, sought to weaken the power of the primary creator goddess, Coatlicue, and divided her in two—the good mother, Tonantsin, and the sexual being, Tlatzoteotl. With the incorporation of the ancient pantheon into the Catholic religion, the two opposing female figures metamorphosed into La Virgen de Guadalupe (the pure mother) and La Malinche (the sexualized, evil temptress), though, ironically, it is La Malinche who is the figurative mother of the mestizo race. Anzaldúa sees both of these figures as working to oppress Mexican and Chicana women—the Virgin of Guadalupe by robbing them of their sexuality, and La Malinche by making them ashamed of both their gender and their Indian heritage. Anzaldúa calls not for a disavowal of these “mothers,” but rather a reconsideration of their legacy. To cast them aside would further deny the Indian and Mexican past; to embrace them unchanged would be an acceptance of gender roles that do not allow for sexual independence and self-expression.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is the patron saint of Mexico and its most powerful religious icon. She appeared in 1531 on the site of a former shrine to Tonantsin, the Aztec goddess who most resembled the Christian concept of the “Mother of God.” The Virgin of Guadalupe became an important symbol of criollo and mestizo identity, as she appeared both to an Indian and as an Indian herself. While the Virgin of Guadalupe is considered a saint of the people and is an enormously powerful popular icon, her image is still that of the Virgin, and connotes all the negative aspects about women's sexuality (or lack thereof) that the cult of virginity entails.9 In Our Lady of Guadalupe, Jeanette Rodríguez writes that “Our Lady of Guadalupe is often experienced as a Marian image to support and encourage passivity in women, and thus is viewed as an instrument of patriarchal oppression and control.”10

Nevertheless, even feminist critics such as Anzaldúa cannot fail to see the power of such an omnipresent female icon. In fact, she sees the figure of the Virgin of Guadalupe as “a synthesis of the old world and the new, of the religion and culture of the two races of our psyche, the conqueror and conquered.” Perhaps more importantly, she can serve as a Chicano emblem, because she “is the symbol of ethnic identity and of the tolerance for ambiguity that Chicanos-mexicanos, people of mixed race, people who have Indian blood, people who cross cultures, by necessity possess.”11 Jacqueline Doyle refers to her as “a threshold between human and divine, the living and the dead, and as a mediator between competing cultures.”12 This position as cultural mediator is important, as it provides a link between the Mexican past and the American present. The omnipresence and force of the figure in the Mexican and Chicano cultures is undisputed. However difficult it may be to accept a representation of female power and cultural complexity that is also a symbol of women's passivity and oppression, for Chicanas the Virgin of Guadalupe is also an ethnic symbol and tied to their Mexican heritage. Merely rejecting the Virgin on feminist grounds denies the validity of Chicanas' history and in some cases their faith.13 Cherríe Moraga contrasts her own repudiation of the image of the Virgin with the passionate faith of so many Mexican women. She writes, “I left the church in tears, knowing how for so many years I had closed my heart to the passionate pull of such faith that promised no end to the pain. I grew white.”14

Cisneros's book also reflects the importance of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the Chicano psyche and cultural practice, as numerous stories in Woman Hollering Creek make mention of her. The most interesting of these in its treatment of the Virgin is “Little Miracles, Kept Promises.”15 The story takes the form of a series of notes to the Virgin and other popular saints, left at a shrine somewhere in Texas. They ask for everything from overtime pay to a good man, and they give thanks for recovering a stolen truck or for graduating from high school. The authors of the notes reflect a wide variety of Chicano lifestyles—some write in Spanish, most in English, some display a traditional and unquestioning faith, others the petty complaints of disgruntled teenagers. The last note in the story is from a young woman, Chayo, who writes of the challenges of being a modern Chicana. She is nagged by her mother for cutting her hair, for spending too much time alone, for becoming a painter. She describes herself as “straddling both” worlds, but her mother accuses her of being a malinchista, a “white girl” who is betraying her Mexican heritage by attempting to break out of the role that it defines for women. This is not an uncommon epithet, and it is used to imply that a woman is a traitor for “consorting with Anglos or accepting Anglo cultural patterns.”16

Again, we see La Malinche as the betrayer of her culture, in this case because she is stepping outside the bounds of acceptable behavior for women and daring to express feminine power and sexuality. We learn that Chayo has left a note and a braid of her hair to give thanks to the Virgin because she has found out that she is not pregnant and she is not sure that she wants to be a mother.17 We also learn of Chayo's struggles with her race, her gender, and her religious beliefs. Her mother's Virgin is not one to whom Chayo can relate, just as she cannot imagine herself in her mother's abnegating role. She does not want a passionless Virgin who calmly forgives all, but rather: “I wanted you bare-breasted, snakes in your hands. I wanted you leaping and somersaulting the backs of bulls. I wanted you swallowing raw hearts and rattling volcanic ash. I wasn't going to be my mother or my grandma. All that self-sacrifice, all that silent suffering. Hell no. Not here. Not me” (LM [“Little Miracles, Kept Promises”] 127).

Now, however, Chayo has come to terms with the Virgin, and the way that she has done this is by accepting a version of her that is neither exactly Malinche nor Virgen. Chayo recognizes the power of both, and rather than deny either of them, she sees their ability to help her negotiate her position in each of her two cultures. She is able to accept both the Virgin's pacifism and Malinche's sexuality through knowledge of her own Indian heritage. She learns of the goddess's transition from the Aztec serpent goddess, to Tonantsin, to Guadalupe, and, seeing “all of her facets,” Chayo can recognize the strength of the image. She finds a goddess who has snakes in her hands, but who still allows for the beliefs of Catholicism: “that you could have the power to rally a people when a country was born, and again during civil war, and during a farmworkers' strike in California made me think that there is power in my mother's patience, strength in my grandmother's endurance” (LM 128). She ends the story saying, “I could love you, and finally learn to love me” (LM 128).

In an essay called “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess” in the collection Goddess of the Americas, Cisneros describes her own youthful discomfort with her body, and the reluctance to discuss sex or birth control: “What a culture of denial. Don't get pregnant! But no one tells you how not to. This is why I was angry for so many years every time I saw la Virgen de Guadalupe, my culture's role model for brown women like me. She was damn dangerous, an ideal so lofty and unrealistic it was laughable.”18 Like Chayo in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Cisneros writes that she came to her own acceptance of the Virgin through a knowledge of her pre-Colombian past. Most importantly, she states, “My Virgen de Guadalupe is not the mother of God. She is God. She is a face for a god without a face, an indígena for a god without ethnicity, a female deity for a god who is genderless” (50). This understanding of the Virgin, which seems to be the one at which Chayo eventually arrives, is a clear reflection of Anzaldúa's claims for the Virgin of Guadalupe as a mediator of not just culture, but also gender, race, and history.

While La Malinche and the Virgin of Guadalupe are figures that appear again and again in modern Chicana writing, there is a third female figure that has left a lasting impact on the construction of Mexican and Chicana womanhood. The title figure of Cisneros's book is the “hollering woman,” or La Llorona, of Mexican legend. According to Américo Paredes, La Llorona is “the wailing woman in white [seeking] her children who died in childbirth. Originally an Aztec goddess who sacrificed babies and disappeared shrieking into lakes or rivers, La Llorona usually appears near a well, stream, or washing place. The Hispanicized form has La Llorona murdering her own children born out of wedlock when her lover married a woman of his own station.”19

Again, we see an Aztec female goddess transformed into a guilty reminder of a woman's sin. Though there are various versions of the legend, La Llorona is guilty on a number of scores, all affronts to the accepted roles for women. She is a sexual transgressor, but even more importantly, she betrays all of the traditional notions of motherhood. When her children became a burden to her, she simply murdered them. Like La Malinche, La Llorona is a symbol of motherhood gone wrong. La Malinche's betrayal of her “children” was in her sinful collaboration with their oppressive “father,” but La Llorona's betrayal of motherhood is even more perverse. For this sin she is doomed to an eternity of repentance with her continual wailing as a reminder to all of her crime, and of the repercussions of transgression.

Cisneros's first transformation of La Llorona is one from the “wailing woman” of legend to the “hollering woman” of the title story.20 Woman Hollering Creek is a real place, situated in Texas near San Antonio. Cleófilas, the protagonist of the story, wonders about the origin of this appellation, thinking: “La Gritona. Such a funny name for such a lovely arroyo. But that's what they call the creek that ran behind the house. Though no one could say whether the woman had hollered from anger or pain. The natives only knew the arroyo one crossed on the way to San Antonio, and then once again on the way back, was called Woman Hollering, a name no one from these parts questioned, little less understood” (WHC [Woman Hollering Creek] 46).

Cleófilas wants to understand how the creek came to have this name, and why the woman was hollering. The only answer that she can find is that the name is a somewhat inaccurate translation of La Llorona, who could be said to wail or sob, but not exactly to holler. Cleófilas's desire to understand the hollering woman stems more from personal circumstances than from her interest in geography. She has come to Texas from Mexico as a new bride, spurred by hopes that are a mix of fairy tales, romance novels, and soap operas. Bored with life in her pueblo, she longs for passion, excitement, new clothes, and a pretty house. However, not long after her arrival in Seguín, Texas, Cleófilas begins to realize that in some ways her life is like a soap opera, “only now the episodes got sadder and sadder” (WHC 52). As she grows more and more desperate in her marriage, Cleófilas, like La Llorona, is drawn to the water. She sits by the creek that she had originally thought “so pretty and full of happily ever after” (WHC 47), and begins to understand the despair that could drive a woman to destruction. As she plays with her own child, she thinks that she hears La Llorona calling to her, and wonders about the quiet desperation that might have led to her violent actions. Cleófilas does not think of La Llorona simply as a woman who drowned her own children out of selfishness or evil. Instead, she contemplates the causes that would lead a woman to “the darkness under the trees.” Cleófilas, however, evidences some resources that La Llorona must not have possessed, and it is through Cleófilas's resolution of her desperate situation that Cisneros rewrites the story of La Llorona.

First, Cleófilas has a family in Mexico to whom she can turn. It is her father rather than her mother who is the source of protection and solace. Cleófilas's mother is not present in her life, though it is not explained if she has died or has merely left. It is Cleófilas's father who nurtures and reassures his daughter. Presciently, he sensed that her marriage would fail and, as she left home, assured her, “I am your father. I will never abandon you” (WHC 43). By casting the father in this role, Cisneros further complicates stereotypes of mothers and motherhood. Perhaps a “perfect,” Marian mother is not a necessity. Her neighbors wonder how Cleófilas will mature into a wife and mother herself without the example of her own mother, but clearly her father has provided the strength and support that she needs. Cleófilas is also to draw on unexpected reserves of inner strength. Initially concerned about the shame of returning to Mexico, she realizes that the price that she will pay if she stays is much higher. Pregnant with her second child, she tricks her husband, Juan Pedro, into driving her to town for a doctor's visit, and once she is left alone in the office, she begs the nurse to help her escape. The nurse, Graciela, and her friend, Felice, become Cleófilas's most important allies. In this case, as opposed to Clemencia's situation in “Never Marry a Mexican,” there is a bond of sisterhood, as two unknown women with whom she has little in common conspire to help her.

Felice agrees to drive Cleófilas and her son to the bus station in San Antonio. As Cleófilas is fleeing to safety with this stranger, Felice does something that shocks her: “when they drove across the arroyo, the driver opened her mouth and let out a yell as loud as any mariachi” (WHC 55). At Cleófilas's surprised response, Felice explains: “Every time I cross that bridge I do that. Because of the name, you know. Woman Hollering. Pues, I holler. She said this in a Spanish pocked with English and laughed. Did you ever notice, Felice continued, how nothing around here is named for a woman? Really. Unless she's the Virgin. I guess you're only famous if you're a virgin. She laughed again” (WHC 55). For the first time, Cleófilas is able to imagine a woman hollering for some reason other than pain or rage. Felice's yell is one of independence—a true grito.21 Also for the first time, Cleófilas is able to see her own strength and independence and laughs, rejoicing in her freedom.

It is Felice's more assimilated position in U.S. culture that enables her to envision a scream of joy rather than despair. She is presented as a modern, “American” woman, in contrast to Cleófilas's naive immigrant. Felice does not need to ask her husband to drive her anywhere; first, she does not have a husband, and second, she has her own truck. Cleófilas marvels at this level of independence: “when Cleófilas asked if it was her husband's, she said she didn't have a husband. The pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it” (WHC 55). Ironically, it may also be Felice's distance from the Spanish language that leads to her interpretation of the creek's name. Though she speaks Spanish to Cleófilas, she frequently reverts to English, and her conversation with her friend Graciela is the reverse—English sprinkled with a few Spanish phrases. Like the other natives of the area, Felice seems to be unaware of the Spanish origins of the “hollering woman” and does not translate the name back to La Llorona, as does Cleófilas. She is happily ignorant of the hollering woman's association with pain and betrayal.

The story “Woman Hollering Creek” acknowledges women's suffering, as Cleófilas sees her dreams shatter and her marriage crumble. However, she does not succumb to despair, or heed the keening siren's call of La Llorona. In fact, the only sobbing in the story is that of Juan Pedro each time that he beats her and begs forgiveness. Cleófilas neither drowns nor abandons her children. Instead, she saves them, and herself, by drawing on resources that come from both sides of the border. From Mexico, she has her protective father and extended family. From the U.S., she has women like Graciela and Felice, who are able to imagine a woman whose power does not have to come from either her virginity or the support of a man.

In Borderlands, Gloria Anzaldúa proposes a “conciencia mestiza” that accepts without assimilating, that draws strength from both sides of the border. Importantly, it is also a “conciencia de mujer.” Not just a hybrid of races, this mestiza consciousness would allow for a complicated understanding of gender. Rather than rejecting either white or Mexican culture, she says that “we will have to leave the opposite bank, the split between the two mortal combatants somehow healed so that we are on both shores at once, see through serpent and eagles eyes.”22 The mestiza “communicates that rupture, documents the struggle. She reinterprets history, and using new symbols, she shapes new myths.”23

This is precisely Sandra Cisneros's accomplishment in Woman Hollering Creek. In this collection of stories, Cisneros tackles a number of Mexican religious and cultural icons, particularly those female archetypes whose images often still define the role of Chicanas. While all of these symbols are shown to have power in the construction of Chicano identity, some are questioned more than others. La Malinche did not fare exceptionally well in Cisneros's retelling of her story. While she does modernize La Malinche and provide some shading to her villainy, ultimately, she is still a traitor. The reader can comprehend Clemencia's confusion and anger, but she is still an overtly sexualized figure who trades her body for power. In the end, Clemencia is not so terribly far from the La Malinche described by Paz.

However, the stories “Woman Hollering Creek” and “Little Miracles, Kept Promises” represent precisely the reconsideration of female archetypes that Anzaldúa calls for. Cleófilas learns from her time in the U.S. that life is not a telenovela and that being a wife and mother may not be the only possibilities open for women. While remaining true to her beliefs, she rejects the passive abnegation of the Virgin. In “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” Chayo does not cast aside the legacy of her mythical and actual fore-mothers, but manages to find strength in certain parts of their images. She does not need to either entirely reject or entirely accept their proscribed roles. Instead, she can recognize the strength of the Virgin without emulating her passivity and aspire to the sexual freedom of La Malinche without betraying her culture. We see in this story that through a reconnection to both her Indian and her Mexican past, a young Chicana can negotiate the unstable ground of her own cultural borderland.

A number of feminist scholars have searched for a recuperation of the “goddess” as a representation of feminine power, and many Chicanas have found this matriarchal figure in Guadalupe and La Malinche, and in their fore-mothers, Tonantsin and Coatlicue.24 The revaluation of the passive Virgin or of the reviled Malinche and Llorona can be more than a image-boosting exercise. As Margaret Randall writes in “Guadalupe, Subversive Virgin”: “A saint or secular being may be spawned by the orthodoxy, but claimed, or reclaimed by people in need. More impressive still is when groups of people gain self-knowledge and power enough to produce warriors of their own. Control of our history, of our stories, has traditionally been in the hands of those who hold power over our lives. Social change is largely about people retrieving their stories.”25

The fact that Cisneros does not offer an easy reconciliation with La Malinche does not weaken her reconsideration of these three figures. In fact, her refusal to valorize or validate all aspects of their legacies further elucidates the struggle to come to terms with such contradictory images. As Anzaldúa points out in Borderlands, “[l]iving in a state of psychic unrest, in a Borderland, is what makes poets write and artists create.”26 The borderland is not, and cannot be, a place of ease and security. It is precisely that unease, insecurity, and ambivalence that make the borderlands such a fertile zone.


  1. Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (New York: Random House, 1991).

  2. Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La frontera (San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987) 20.

  3. Anzaldúa 20.

  4. Octavio Paz, The Labyrinth of Solitude (New York: Grove Press, 1961) 86.

  5. Cherríe Moraga, Loving in the War Years (Boston: South End Press, 1983) 99.

  6. Subsequent references appear in the text in parentheses following the abbreviation NM.

  7. It is not clear whether the historical Malinche was a willing accomplice of Cortés. She was probably given to Cortés as a slave, and was about fourteen years old at the time of the Conquest.

  8. Sandra Messinger Cypess, La Malinche in Mexican Literature: From History to Myth (Austin: University of Texas Press) 142.

  9. It is interesting that, while passivity is celebrated as a feminine virtue in the Virgin of Guadalupe, it is precisely the “abject passivity” of La Malinche that Paz condemned. It would seem that passivity is a virtue only as long as a woman's passivity does not lead to her sexual victimization.

  10. Jeanette Rodríguez, Our Lady of Guadalupe: Faith and Empowerment among Mexican-American Women (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994) xviii.

  11. Anzaldúa 30.

  12. Jacqueline Doyle, “Assumptions of the Virgin in Recent Chicana Writing,” Women's Studies 26 (1997): 181.

  13. The acceptance or rejection of the Virgin of Guadalupe is much more than a political or moral issue for many Chicanas, who must attempt to reconcile their religious faith with the negative images that have so long been cast upon the Virgin. As Ana Castillo writes in the introduction to Goddess of the Americas, “we make no claim to represent the Catholic Church here, thank goodness. The only claim we make is our right to love her” (xxiii).

  14. Moraga ii.

  15. Subsequent references are cited in parentheses in the text following the abbreviation LM.

  16. Messinger Cypess 138.

  17. The image of Chayo cutting her hair is symbolic of a shedding of stereotypically feminine appearance and behavior. In her article “Assumptions of the Virgin in Recent Chicana Writing,” Jacqueline Doyle also points out that the braid can be seen as representative of Chayo's weaving of cultures (187).

  18. Sandra Cisneros, “Guadalupe the Sex Goddess,” Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, ed. Ana Castillo (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996) 48.

  19. Américo Paredes, Folktales of Mexico (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970) xvi.

  20. Subsequent references are cited in parentheses in the text following the abbreviation WHC.

  21. El grito de Dolores (The shout of Dolores) was the cry for Mexican independence sounded by Miguel Hidalgo on 15 September 1810 and celebrated as a national holiday in Mexico.

  22. Anzaldúa 78-79.

  23. Anzaldúa 82.

  24. Mary Daly studied the power of the goddess myths in the ground-breaking Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (Beacon Press: Boston, 1978). For a more recent compilation, see The Concept of the Goddess, eds. Sandra Billington and Miranda Green (London: Routledge, 1996). Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands provides an analysis of Aztec/Mexican goddesses.

  25. Margaret Randall, “Guadalupe, Subversive Virgin,” Goddess of the Americas 122.

  26. Anzaldúa 73.

Roz Kaveney (review date 6 December 2002)

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SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Where the Heart Is.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5201 (6 December 2002): 23.

[In the following review, Kaveney lauds Cisneros's skillful blending of autobiography and fiction in Caramelo, calling the novel an “achieved and enjoyable book.”]

The stories that Sandra Cisneros tells us about her Mexican American family [in Caramelo] are the ones we already know. A young hopeful bride turns into a bullying matriarch, then into a pathetic invalid who manages to ensure that her granddaughter at least no longer hates her. An ambitious young man finds his only real success is becoming a competent father. A smart, almost European metropolis degenerates into a slum; a hopeful revolution against corruption leads to disappointment and dependence on a more powerful neighbour; temporary exile to safety becomes an endless commute between the home where your heart is and the home where your life is. These are the commonplaces of post-colonial fiction because they are the commonplaces of actual lives.

Cisneros evokes nostalgia without idealizing the past; she has a sense of the trades and transactions that living through social change involves. Her central character, Soledad, is lucky that the young man who gets her pregnant has a code of honour—yet his commitment to the mother of his children does not extend to fidelity. When Soledad is hatefully moralistic to her descendants, it is not because she has forgotten the racketiness of her own younger days but because she remembers it all too well. She recalls the songs that formed its soundtrack, and the reader who does not know the songs will nevertheless come away from this book with a sense of the words which dominate them—heart, pain, weeping and sorrow.

Cisneros portrays the chance nature of life. One father ends up in the US Army as a result of a fight at a football match; he settles in Austin, Texas, because a man who lives there lends him money when his pocket is picked; the entire clan end up earning their livings as upholsterers because the first of them to go North to Chicago does, and you go to your relatives for help and work. Family feuds arise from questions of taste about chromium trim and plastic covers and they send relatives careering off to Texas and then back to Chicago.

The childhood and adolescence of Soledad's granddaughter Lala equip her to be a good listener, and a good narrator; the novel tells us little about her experiences and yet she dominates the book. She is the author of her own telenovela—Cisneros insists on the distinction between Anglo soap operas and the Hispanic version—and the pages about her unconsummated affair with the bespectacled prig Ernesto give this slightly lachrymose, bittersweet book some of its comedy. Caramelo is about mingled colours and cultures; it takes its colour from skin tone and sweetness and the shade of the shawl Soledad leaves to Lala. The shawl itself is a pervading symbol, a delicate network that connects the future with the past and helps give dignity and beauty to the present. In the end, it does not matter whether it is fiction or journalism; it is an achieved and enjoyable book.

Carol Cujec (essay date March 2003)

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SOURCE: Cujec, Carol. “Caramel-Coated Truths and Telenovela Lives: Sandra Cisneros Returns with an Ambitious Novel about the Latino Community.” World and I 18, no. 3 (March 2003): 228.

[In the following essay, Cujec discusses the dominant themes and influences of Caramelo.]

In her new novel Caramelo, Sandra Cisneros bathes our senses in Latino culture as we accompany her characters walking the scorched sands of Acapulco, buying shoes at Chicago's Maxwell Street flea market, listening to a grandmother complain about the mangoes, and eventually finding their destinies and their destinations. Caramelo loops and spirals among four generations, traveling from Mexico City to Chicago to Texas and back in eighty-six chapters. Cisneros admits that this is her most ambitious and challenging work, which is why it took her eight years to complete.

Cisneros was the first Chicana writer to emerge on the mainstream literary scene in the 1980s. Her first novel, The House on Mango Street, is now a staple of countless high school and college literature classes. Critical praise as well as several prestigious awards, including the Before Columbus American Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant, have established her literary prominence. No wonder she faced so much pressure to complete this long-awaited work. As Cisneros explained in a phone interview, “In the past, when I wrote other books, most of the time people had no idea what I was doing, nor did they care. What I felt this time was the pressure of the public waiting for this book. Even my family, this time they were waiting for this book as well.”


Caramelo, a fictionalized autobiography, is not heavily plot-driven but more a series of vignettes similar to Cisneros' other works of prose. The novel begins with a memento—a photograph taken in Acapulco during a tumultuous family vacation nearly ending in divorce. The Reyes family stands in the photo: Inocencio, his wife, Zoila, and his six sons, along with Inocencio's mother, called “the Awful Grandmother” by the narrator. The only one missing, curiously, is the narrator herself, Inocencio's youngest child and only daughter Celaya (called Lala), who was five at the time. “They've forgotten about me,” complains Lala, adding, “It's as if I'm the photographer walking along the beach with the tripod camera on my shoulder asking,—A Un recuerdo? A souvenir? A memory?”

In fact, by writing these memories Lala is the photographer, with her vivid words creating snapshots of everyday life and significant moments that make up a true family portrait. In the end, her words become the most enduring memento: “Remembering is the hand of God. I remember you, therefore I make you immortal.” Lala brings her images into sharp focus with sensory details that transform a collection of static photos into fragrant, sweaty, mouthwatering slices of life. She records a trip across the border into Mexico, for example, as an explosion of the senses: “Churches the color of flan, … the smell of diesel exhaust, the smell of somebody roasting coffee, the smell of hot corn tortillas along with the pat-pat of the women's hands making them, the sting of roasting chiles in your throat and in your eyes.”

Like the intricate caramel-colored shawl, the caramelo rebozo, given to the Awful Grandmother by her own mother, the story is an intricate and incomplete tapestry. The theme of weaving, with the caramelo rebozo as its symbol, is clearly feminine. The rebozo was used at every significant moment in a woman's life, explains Lala. It could be used as a dowry, a burial shroud, to carry or breast-feed a child, cover one's head in church, even communicate silent vows of love. The caramelo rebozo, coming from the mother, is specifically a maternal symbol; the characters find themselves suckling its fringe or draping it around themselves like arms in moments of despair.

The word caramelo, meaning caramel, also evokes a sweet, thick syrup running down the throat and the warm brown color of skin, Candelaria's skin. Candelaria, whom Lala calls Cande (candy), is the daughter of her grandmother's washerwoman. Immediately, young Lala is entranced by her color: “Smooth as peanut butter, deep as burnt-milk candy … A color so sweet, it hurts to even look at her.” Lala sees Candelaria as beautiful, although others look down on her for her indigenous roots and poverty. “How can you let that Indian play with you … she's dirty. She doesn't even wear underwear,” complains Aunty Light-Skin. At her young age, Lala isn't aware that dark skin is considered ugly. Through this snapshot and numerous other references to skin color, Cisneros shows the cruel and absurd racial and class discrimination that dark-skinned Latinos face from those with lighter skins. In the end, Lala learns that this girl she met in her youth was actually her half sister.


How the Awful Grandmother earned her nickname is no mystery. In the first part of the novel, when the family visits her in Mexico City, she treats everyone like dirt—except for her first son, Inocencio, her only passion. She makes life miserable for Zoila, a Chicana and therefore beneath her son. She considers her grandchildren barbarians who can't even speak proper Spanish. Her most vicious act: revealing Inocencio's illegitimate daughter Candelaria to his wife in an attempt to break up the marriage. “You're better off without her kind,” she tells her son. “Wives come and go, but mothers, you have only one!”

Though this portrait is as flat as an old photograph, Cisneros takes us back in time to tell the Awful Grandmother's girlhood story in part 2 of the novel, adding dimension and humanity to this woman. Before becoming powerful, she was powerless. Before becoming intolerable, she was invisible. Before becoming the Awful Grandmother, she was Soledad. Like Cinderella without the fairy godmother, Soledad lost her mother at an early age, and her father remarried a woman who cared little for her. Her only memento of her mother, famous for her intricate weaving of rebozo fringe, was the unfinished caramelo rebozo: “No soft hair across her cheek, only the soft fringe of the unfinished shawl.”

Soledad's father sent her away to live with his cousin, who couldn't even keep track of how many children she had, and an uncle who would try to lift Soledad's skirt while she slept. Soledad—her name means loneliness—toiled for several years in this filthy household that smelled of “the scorched-potato-skin scent of starched cloth,” “the sour circles of cottage cheese stains on the shoulder from burping babies,” “the foggy seaside tang of urine.”

With fairy-tale notions of being saved by love, at one decisive moment she declared that she would marry the next man who walked down the street. This person was Narcisco Reyes. Draped in her caramelo rebozo, Soledad sobbed out her story to him; taking pity, Narcisco asked his parents to hire her as a servant. Narcisco provided her a means of escape and even seemed to be a protective, fatherly figure. Yet naively, Soledad continued to romanticize this meeting as a romance of destiny, envisioning herself as a star-crossed character in a telenovela, a Mexican soap opera.

So starved was Soledad for affection that she welcomed Narcisco's lustful advances, even confusing them with parental love (“She had not felt this well loved except perhaps when she was still inside her mother's belly, or had sat on her father's lap”). In contrast, Narcisco selfishly regarded her compliance as just another household duty: “was it not part of her job to serve the young man of the house?” Even after becoming pregnant and marrying Narcisco, Soledad remained emotionally isolated, especially after his potent affair with the bewitching Exaltación Henestrosa, from which he would never recover. Soledad suffered from this discovery because she loved fiercely, “the way Mexicans love.” “We love like we hate,” describes Cisneros. Turning to a wisewoman selling tamales outside the church, Soledad asked for advice to end her pain. The only cure was to fall in love again, which is exactly what happened the day that Inocencio was born. This one satisfying bond of love, a mother's love, filled a great canyon in her heart. For the rest of her life, her love for Inocencio was strong enough to fill the void of lost parental and romantic love.


Before Lala becomes the insightful, impassioned narrator of her family story, she is a confused adolescent struggling to create an identity in the face of conflicting cultural and gender expectations. Cisneros herself, who has proudly stated that she is “nobody's wife, nobody's mother,” struggled with stepping out of the traditional roles expected of a Latina. “I think that growing up Mexican and feminist is almost a contradiction in terms,” she explained. “Your culture tells you that if you step out of line, if you break these norms, you are becoming anglicized, you're becoming the malinche,” she told one interviewer. Thus, much of her work deals with straddling two cultures in an attempt to redefine what it means to be Latina. This is Lala's struggle in the final part of the novel.

Lala finds herself depressed, yet unsure of what she wants: “A bathroom where I can soak in the tub and not have to come out when somebody's banging on the door. A lock on my door. A door. A room … Somebody to tell my troubles to … To be in love.” She contemplates both a liberated and traditional life for herself. She's not training for the traditional Latina role of housewife. At the same time, she faces cultural restrictions. “If you leave your father's house without a husband you are worse than a dog … If you leave alone you leave … como una prostituta,” warns her father. When her brother Toto enlists, her father boasts that it will make a man out of him. “But what's available to make a woman a woman?” wonders Lala.

Sharing the naive, fairy-tale notions held by Soledad, she dreams of being rescued by true love. When she finds her first boyfriend, Ernesto, she pushes him toward marriage, despite the warnings of the Awful Grandmother's spirit. “It's you, Celaya, who's haunting me,” the spirit insists. “Why do you insist on repeating my life? … There's no sin in falling in love with your heart and with your body, but wait till you're old enough to love yourself first.” Lala finally realizes that she can take charge of her destiny: “You're the author of the telenovela of your life. Comedy or tragedy? Choose.” Playing on the double meaning of destino, Lala declares, “Ernesto. He was my destiny, but not my destination.”

The spirit of the Awful Grandmother, trapped in limbo as penance for her unkindness, begs Lala to tell her story so that she may be understood and finally forgiven. Weaving stories and in the process healing old family wounds becomes Lala's new destiny: “Maybe it's my job to separate the strands and knot the words together for everyone who can't say them, and make it all right in the end.” Cisneros has also declared this her own mission as a writer—to be a voice to the voiceless.


Cisneros begins Caramelo with this disclaimer: “The truth, these stories are nothing but story. … I have invented what I do not know and exaggerated what I do to continue the family tradition of telling healthy lies.” Yet this is the most autobiographical work Cisneros has written. She began it when her father was ill, and it is dedicated to him. Caramelo chronicles the history of his family, describes her own struggles within the family, and portrays her father's unending devotion to her with the sentimentality of a daughter looking back fondly rather than a young girl struggling to be free from his overprotectiveness.

Cisneros begins with these kernels of truth, weaving them with fiction to create a work that is as authentic as it is fantastic. In this way, she is examining the very nature of storytelling. What is a storyteller? “Liar/Gossip/Troublemaker, Big-Mouth,” she writes in one chapter title. The fictional author Lala freely admits having to make up details to fill in gaps. Cisneros uses an inventive and humorous technique to elucidate the creative process; in part 2, the spirit of the Awful Grandmother repeatedly interrupts the narrator to interject or condemn her for exaggerating, lying, or (more likely) telling too much of the ugly truth. “I have to exaggerate,” insists Lala. “I need details. You never tell me anything.” At other times, Lala defends the truth of her story, reminding her listeners that life is more outrageous than any telenovela: “I know this sounds as if I am making it up, but the facts are so unbelievable they can only be true.” Cisneros even purposely tells different versions of the same stories to show the fluidity of memory and how the truth changes according to the storyteller.

Cisneros compares the art of storytelling to weaving. Like life, the novel is not neat and complete; it is complex and sometimes tangled, with many loose threads. “Because a life contains a multitude of stories and not a single strand explains precisely the who of who one is, we have to examine the complicated loops,” explains the narrator. The effect borders on overwhelming at times, as we are introduced to numerous minor characters in footnotes and even footnotes to footnotes. This gives a sense of the vastness of experience connected to one family. We are not told a complete story; rather, we are allowed to examine the various interlocking threads of a small patch: “Pull one string and the whole thing comes undone.” Cisneros admits that at first she did not know how all these stories would fit together: “As a reader, you will think that I planned all of the loops and the double backs and the repetition, but I didn't. It was something that just occurred and gave me a confirmation in the idea of divine providence because I really was writing this just by following my heart.”

Caramelo contains not only a personal, emotional tale but, as in her other works, a clear political message as well. “I was writing it on behalf of the immigrant community and hoping to get to people like President Bush, policy makers, citizens that might feel frightened of people unlike themselves, communities in Germany, Finland, Japan,” says Cisneros. “I really was thinking by the time the book ended that maybe this was something I was writing for the state that the globe is in right now.” Her goal: to create empathy for all those considered “other.” This goal is best accomplished through her vibrant, authentic characterization.

An element of nonfiction has been added to the novel by incorporating numerous footnotes and a chronology intended to educate readers on Latino history and culture. Cisneros explains that these notes are intended for everyone—even readers within the Latino community: “I feel as if so many children who are of Mexican descent don't know their own history. I'm especially talking about Mexicans on this side of the border. I saw those footnotes being for the sake of everyone.” The cultural footnotes are light: descriptions of music, movies, well-known Latino entertainers. The historical footnotes are more overtly political; for example, a biting list of U.S. anti-immigrant policies is contrasted with examples of the honorable role Latinos have played in American wars. Given the complexity of the story, these educational tidbits weigh down the text at times and give the impression that perhaps the author wants to accomplish too much.

All in all, this is a stunning, creative novel that shows sparks of genius in its use of language: poetic, authentic, and deliciously spiced with Spanish. Should you look for Caramelo at a theater near you anytime soon? Realizing its cinematic quality, Cisneros has thought about adapting it for the big screen; however, she worries about what would have to be eliminated from this complex family album by changing the medium. “I realized the book was huge with so many stories, and the idea of what would be left out bothered me,” she explained. Her solution—to turn it into a telenovela. “I finally realized that the form that could contain so many stories wouldn't be a two-hour film but something like a telenovela. That's what I think would be perfect for this book.”

As for her next project, Cisneros plans on writing vignettes, which she describes as “small and jewel-like and very beautiful.” The subject: erotica. The title: Infinito Let us hope that another eight years do not pass before she once again cloaks us in her colorful tapestry of words.


Cisneros, Sandra (Vol. 118)