By D. R. Gayton
Growing up on the peripheries of Chicago I could do few things but dream of the day when I would leave my neighborhood along with all of its ancient A frame houses and cramped spaces, and never look back. Growing in the North West side of Chicago during the 60’s and early 70’s Sandra Cisneros might have felt the same when in her semi-autobiographical novel House on Mango Street she states:
“One day I will pack my books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango [St]. 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?”
That she should follow this internal dialogue by stating that she is leaving so she may return, should not be seen by Cisneros’ readers as a contradiction but rather as an affirmation of the connectivity between personal identity and place. To return to Mango St., the House on Mango Street postulates is to return in order to validate those that stayed behind, because in turn they validate the protagonist of the novel herself. Their stories, that is to say the stories of the people who lived on Mango St. inform the content of Cisneros’ novel as much as they inform the content of the protagonist’s own life. If fiction and life converge so closely in House on Mango Street it is simply because more than a coming of age novel, Cisneros’ novel is a novel about a time, a place, and an age.
Divided into 44 short chronological vignettes, the narrative of the House on Mango Street centers around Esperanza, a young prepubescent girl who as the story develops, is seen to mature both sexually and emotionally. Going from a young girl who longs for space, better shoes, and a “better” name, Esperanza develops into what can only described as an empowered woman who is determined to escape the social circumstances in which she feels herself trapped along with the other woman around her. It is these women, the women of Esperanza’s neighborhood that take center place in the narrative again and again. Amongst some of these women there are all those who have settled and resigned themselves to a listless life of waiting, working lousy jobs and serving hand and foot on their men children. Of this meek women one can speak of is Rosa Vargas who is silently being destroyed by disrespectful children, then there is Alicia who all she can do is dream. There is also Mamacita who immured in her apartment slowly becomes a prisoner to both her husband and her immigrant status. Finally and most decisively there is Sally who being raped by her own father begins sleeping around with almost all the men in her neighborhood and through her friendship with Esperanza facilitates her rape when she abandons her at a carnival with a bunch of guys whom she hardly even knew.
Amidst all these portraits of women, however, there are of course a series of portraits of the men. These men are economically disenfranchised and as much prisoners of their social condition as the women who they court. Of the men found in the narrative none stand out as “Geraldo, No Last Name.” Killed by hit and run, because of his precarious existence as an immigrant, at the time of his death nobody knew who his family was, or where exactly he came from. Of him Cisneros writes “The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, will shrug, remember. Geraldo—he went North…we never heard from him again”.
It is this sense of the great anonymity of Hispanics in the United States that prods Sandra Cisneros to retell her story and the story all those that made her who she is. Mango street is not her reality, says Esperanza over and over again. Ultimately, however, it was Mango Street the writer and woman was in a sense forged.
Alter, Peter. “Where is the House on Mango Street?”. Chicago History Museum. Chicagohistory.org. 2009. extracted 09 Jan. 2014