Summary of the Novel
The House on Mango Street is comprised of 44 short character sketches, or stories, called vignettes. They are narrated by Esperanza, who just moved with her family to Mango Street, in the barrio. Esperanza hates their house on Mango Street because it is not a “real” house, like the ones she’s seen on TV.
Esperanza, whose name means “hope,” soon meets Lucy and Rachel, who she likes because they, too, are poor. She also meets Marin, who is wise about “women things” but is always stuck inside babysitting her cousins. She discovers the fear that outsiders have of her neighborhood, the fear that keeps their neighborhood “brown.” She becomes friends with Alicia, who goes to college at night so she will not be stuck “behind a rolling pin” the rest of her life.
Lucy, Rachel, and Esperanza are given several pairs of old high-heeled shoes, which they put on and wear around the neighborhood. At first they feel beautiful and powerful, but soon they discover that the shoes are “dangerous.” At school, Esperanza is humiliated by the Sister Superior, who assumes Esperanza lives in the worst house in the neighborhood.
Esperanza’s Aunt Lala gets her a job at a photo store, where an old man gives her a lewd kiss. Esperanza feels bad because she and her friends, in a game, made fun of her invalid Aunt Lupe, who died shortly thereafter. Aunt Lupe had listened to Esperanza’s poems and encouraged Esperanza to write.
Later, Esperanza has her fortune told by Elenita, the “witch woman.” Elenita tells Esperanza that she will have “a home in the heart.” Esperanza, who wants a “real” house, is disappointed by this fortune. Meanwhile, Sire, a boy in the neighborhood, awakens Esperanza’s sexuality: She knows he is looking at her, and she dares to look back.
Esperanza, comparing herself to the elm trees in front of her house, says they are the only ones who understand her because they don’t belong on Mango Street either. Meanwhile, Mamacita, the woman who lives across the street, refuses to learn English, and so she never leaves her apartment. Rafaela, another neighbor, is also stuck in her apartment; her husband locks her up whenever he goes out.
Esperanza befriends Sally, who is sad because everyone seems to think that because she is beautiful, she is bad. Minerva, just a few years older than they, already has children and a husband who beats her. Minerva and Esperanza share their poems with each other.
Esperanza vows that someday she will have a beautiful house and offer the attic to passing bums because she knows “how it is to be without a house.” She also decides to wage a “quiet war” against traditional female roles, because she is not beautiful like Sally and Nenny.
Esperanza learns that her mother “could’ve been somebody,” but she didn’t finish school because she was ashamed of her clothes. Esperanza also learns that Sally’s father often beats her. When Esperanza tries to protect Sally from the boys who are making her kiss them, Sally and the boys tell Esperanza to go away. Esperanza wants to die because she can’t understand the game they’re playing. Later, while waiting for Sally, who had run off with a boy, Esperanza is raped. Soon after, Sally gets married.
Then Esperanza meets the Three Sisters, Rachel and Lucy’s aunts. They read Esperanza’s palm and tell her that life is a circle; that she does belong to Mango Street, forever; and that if she leaves, she must return. Later, Alicia also tells Esperanza that she belongs to Mango Street and that she must come back. Finally, Esperanza begins to tell a story “about a little girl who didn’t want to belong,” the story of Mango Street.
The Life and Work of Sandra Cisneros
“If I were asked what it is I write about,” says Sandra Cisneros, “I would have to say I write about those ghosts inside that haunt me.” These ghosts—of poverty, sexism, and racism—populate The House on Mango Street, the novel that won Cisneros the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1985 and also won the hearts of thousands of readers across America. Originally published in 1984, this brilliant collage of character sketches and stories is revolutionary in its simple, honest look at issues such as the discrimination, poverty, and domestic violence faced by Mexican-American women.
What is so enchanting about Cisneros’ novel, for both young and adult readers, is not only its patchwork-quilt structure, the honesty of the narrator’s voice, or the beauty and simplicity of the language. Rather, the triumph of Mango Street is the way it empowers its readers. Full of characters who lack power—socially, politically, economically, and sexually—the novel is not a story of despair, but of hope, which is what the narrator’s name, Esperanza, means in English.
Cisneros, who was born in Chicago in 1954, is the only daughter in a family of six sons. Though she spent her childhood cramped in apartments much too small for her large family, she often felt alone. Her brothers “paired themselves off,” she says, thus leaving her “the odd-woman-out forever.” In addition, the Cisneros family moved around a great deal, shuttling back and forth between Chicago and Mexico City, where her father’s family lived. Cisneros was never in one place long enough to develop true friendships with other children her age.
Cisneros found refuge from her loneliness in reading. Books became her best friend, and she buried herself in them. It was not long before Cisneros began to compose stories in her head, forming narratives out of the daily events of her life. Fortunately for Cisneros, her mother, a Chicana (Mexican-American), supported her desire to read. To give her daughter the opportunities she herself was denied, Cisneros’ mother freed her from the traditional domestic duties of a Chicana female. She excused Cisneros from cooking, cleaning, and babysitting so Cisneros could study and read.
Growing up in a family full of men and in the barrios, Cisneros was well aware of the patriarchal structure of the Chicano society, which denied women equality at every level. As a teen she determined to fight this machismo (the Latin American term for male chauvinism) and to move from the ranks of the powerless to the powerful. Certainly her mother’s emphasis on education helped Cisneros in this quest. But it was through writing that she felt most able to help herself and other women.
In grade school Cisneros began recording her stories in a spiral notebook that she never showed to anyone. In high school, however, she was known among her classmates as a poet and was the editor of her school’s literary magazine. In her junior year at Loyola University of Chicago, where she received a B.A. in English, she took her first creative writing class.
It wasn’t until Cisneros attended the Writers Workshop in Iowa, however, that she found her true voice as a writer. There, she says, “for the first time in my life I felt ‘other’.” After thinking about what it was that made her different from her classmates, she realized that her impoverished childhood and the characters that populated her past were worthy of writing about because they were different from the mainstream, different from the “norm” that radiated from television sets across the nation.
After Iowa, Cisneros returned to the barrios to teach high-school dropouts. This didn’t leave her much time for writing, however, so she quit and took a job at Loyola, where she recruited and counseled minority and disadvantaged students. Both of these experiences were important in her development as a Chicana feminist and writer. The stories she heard from these students from the barrios were much like her own, and she realized there was a vast population of “the powerless” that she needed to address and whose stories needed to be told.
Cisneros began to incorporate these stories into the project she’d been working on since Iowa. The result was The House on Mango Street, a story whose protagonist discovers that power and peace come from recognizing one’s place in and one’s duty to the community.
Today, Cisneros is also the author of Woman Hollering Creek, a collection of short stories, and My Wicked Wicked Ways, a collection of poems. She has been awarded two NEA Fellowships for writing and a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship. Although she has not stopped writing, she has been teaching for the past several years as a guest writer at universities across the country.
Estimated Reading Time
Although a fast reader should be able to complete the novel in an hour, perhaps even less, The House on Mango Street deserves to be read at a somewhat slower pace. The brevity of the vignettes, the naturalness of the narrator’s voice, and the simplicity of the language make for easy and rapid reading. But this simplicity is deceptive. Though the vignettes are short, they are very rich, poetic, and full of meaning. This is a novel to be savored bite by bite, not swallowed whole. The reader would benefit from two or more short sittings of approximately 30 minutes each. If read in one sitting, the novel should be read slowly, with brief pauses between vignettes. The total reading time for the average reader should be approximately one and one-half to two and one-half hours.
Esperanza is a little girl who moves with her family to a house on Mango Street. It's a small, crumbling red house in a poor urban neighborhood – not at all what Esperanza had been hoping for when her parents promised to move the family to a house.
Esperanza, who's often followed by her younger sister Nenny, meets the other residents of Mango Street and describes their often difficult lives in a series of vignettes, or short sketches. Most of the neighborhood's residents are Hispanic, including Esperanza, whose father is a Mexican immigrant and whose mother is Latina. (By the way, check out Sandra Cisneros's opinion on the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" under "Trivia.") The beginning of this book introduces us to a collection of characters and explores their cultural backgrounds and how they are affected by poverty, exile, and the restrictions of prescribed gender roles.
Esperanza is ashamed of her family's poverty, and describes several instances in which she lies, or tries to hide the fact that she is poor, by saying she lives in a different house, or hiding her unattractive shoes under the table at a party. Puberty also provokes some feelings of shame for Esperanza, whose experience of adolescence is made even more painful than usual by two instances of sexual aggression – one in which an old man at work forces her to kiss him, and one in which some boys at a carnival rape her. Some of Esperanza's friends also suffer significant hardship: Alicia, whose mother is dead, is forced by her father to rise early every morning to make tortillas for her family; Sally, a beautiful girl at school, endures regular beatings by her father; Minerva, a teenaged mother of two, is constantly being abandoned or beaten by her husband.
Esperanza's mother encourages her not to let men hold her back, and not to "lay her [her neck] on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain" of marriage (35.3). Witnessing the fate of her female schoolmates who marry young to escape the abuse of their fathers, only to suffer at the hands of their new husbands, Esperanza resolves to leave Mango Street with her books and her papers. She dreams of having a house all her own, where she can write. An encounter with three spiritual sisters at a neighborhood wake suggests that she will be successful in escaping the neighborhood, but that she will never be able to deny her past. The three sisters convince Esperanza that, when she leaves, she must come back for those who cannot leave as easily, and work to make Mango Street a better place.