At one point or another, we've all read Sandra Cisneros' novella The House on Mango Street. The book is narrated by a Latina teenager, Esperanza Cordero, and tells the story of one year of her life on Mango Street, in a Chicago barrio. Sometimes funny, and often deeply profound, The House on Mango Street is a story about growing up, finding out where you come from, where you belong, and who you want to be.
When most of us picked up the novel, we were still learning about things like metaphor, personification, and imagery in our English classes. You may even remember your teacher talking about the novel's use of vignettes, or the short scenes that are used to tell Esperanza's story.
But like so many books you enjoyed as a kid, The House of Mango Street deals with some pretty tough themes under the surface. And when you were reading it the first time around, you probably weren't equipped to recognize a lot of the deeply disturbing events that unfold throughout the book. Since its publication in 1984, The House on Mango Street has become required reading in schools and universities across the country. But if you haven't picked it up since your awkward teen years, here's what you may have missed from The House on Mango Street:
Esperanza's great-grandfather kidnapped her great-grandmother
Early in the novel, Esperanza introduces the reader to her namesake—her great-grandmother. It turns out though, that Esperanza's great-grandmother was actually kidnapped by Esperanza's great-grandfather, who apparently threw a sack over her head and carried her off "as if she were a fancy chandelier." Um, WHAT?! Well, that's kind of problematic.
The kidnapping ends up shaping much of Esperanza's identity, since she often compares herself to her great-grandmother. She also describes her great-grandmother as being a very sad woman, who could never forgive her husband/kidnapper for what he did. But then again, who would?
Almost all of the female characters on Mango Street are trapped
Beginning with Esperanza's memory of her great-grandmother, there's a repeated image of women being trapped in their own houses. Across Mango Street, women are stuck looking out at the world through their windows, but not actually venturing out. Esperanza's neighbor Rafaela is locked up in her apartment and has to ask the neighborhood kids to bring her coconut and papaya juice since she can't leave. Another character named Mamacita is not only physically trapped in her house, but also can't speak English, and becomes linguistically trapped since she can't communicate with those around her. Esperanza's friend Sally eventually ends up trapped in a marriage with a man who won't allow her to talk on the phone or meet her friends, much less leave the house.
Almost all of the male characters on Mango Street are creeps
An absurd number of the men and boys that Esperanza meets in her neighborhood are creepy as hell. There's a man in a nearby building, named Joe the baby-grabber, who Esperanza is told to keep away from since he's dangerous (kind of obvious, given his name). Then there's the neighborhood's Bum man who, upon seeing Esperanza, her sister, and their friends out on the sidewalk wearing high heels, tries to convince them to give him a kiss in exchange for one dollar. And there's Tito and his friends, who steal Esperanza's friend Sally's keys, and forces her to go behind a pickup truck and give each of the boys a kiss to get her keys back.
And the husbands and fathers (except for Esperanza's) are abusive
Esperanza's friend Sally's father beats her black and blue, often with a belt buckle. Another one of her friends, Alicia, never explicitly says how her father abuses her, but does state that she is afraid of him. Yet another friend, Minerva, is married to a man who keeps leaving her only to return again. And each time that he comes back home, he hits his wife again.
Esperanza is sexually assaulted — twice
Esperanza's first assault occurs at her first job as an assistant at a photo finishing company that her aunt helps get. During her first day there, she meets a man who seems friendly and invites her to sit with him during their lunch break. At one point, he tells Esperanza that it is his birthday, and that he would like her to give him a birthday kiss. Just as Esperanza is about to hesitantly agree, he grabs her face and forces himself on her.
The second assault is more vague, and ostensibly far more sexual in nature. While waiting for her friend Sally at the carnival, a man approaches Esperanza saying, "I love you, Spanish girl," over and over before he kisses her and touches her.
Two of Esperanza's friends are teen brides
Esperanza's friend Minerva is said to be only a bit older than Esperanza (who herself is estimated to be about 13-years-old). Even so, Minerva is not only married to an abusive husband who keeps leaving her, but already has two kids with him, too. Esperanza's friend Sally ends up getting married to an older man with a bad temper.
The language seems poetic because Sandra Cisneros started off as a poet
Sandra Cisneros started writing Esperanza's character while getting her MFA in poetry at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. But even though she had been focusing on poetry, she thought that fiction was the best way to tell a story. Cisneros has stated that she mixed both fiction and poetry during the course of writing The House on Mango Street, which is why the language seems to be a blend of the two styles.
The book is unspeakably sad
The plot of this novel is riddled with violence and suffering. Esperanza observes the poverty around her, the racism that surrounds her, and the inequality that envelops those around her. She sees a neighborhood suicide, one friend's assault, and another's abusive marriage. Even for a young teen living in a tough neighborhood, Esperanza sees more than her fair share of pain in the world.
And yet, despite it all, Esperanza remains optimistic
Even though the novel ends with Esperanza still living on Mango Street (and perhaps no where closer to getting out of it), she still has an unabashed optimism about her. She still maintains that one day, she will have her dream house, a house of her very own. And despite all of the things she has seen and experienced on Mango Street, she accepts that it is a part of her, and that she will always belong there. In the end, she realizes that it will be her duty to come back for the others — the ones who can't get out.
Image: Wikimedia Commons