The core fiction text for this unit is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. This section of study will begin by having students explore some biographical information about Sandra Cisneros, a truly inspirational figure in literature. Some sections from Cisneros’ memoir, A House of My Own, can also be used before and/or after reading the novel. In her autobiographical stories, Cisneros describes the writing of her novel, as well as her own struggles to break loose of both gender and cultural stereotypes of Latina women. While teaching high school herself before writing the book she noted the dearth of literature that addressed her own needs, “Then it occurred to me that none of the books in this class, in any of my classes, in all the years of my education had ever discussed a house like mine. Not in books or magazines or film.” (127) Little did she know that her novel would become a seminal work that paved the way for women of many cultures to write in the future.
It would be a mistake to plow into the gender stereotypes in The House on Mango Street without first addressing cultural identity, especially because these are inter-related in the text. Cisneros’s protagonist Esperanza, like her author, is ethnically Mexican but culturally Mexican American, and struggles to establish her identity without any appropriate role models. “She is a young girl surrounded by examples of abused, defeated, worn out women, but the woman she wants to be must be free.”9 The novel is, in fact, a fictionalized autobiography of this adolescent female who’s desire to write in against the patriarchal Mexican American tradition. When describing her grandmother, Esperanza notes “Mexicans don’t like their women strong,”10 however, Cisneros has also said that the stereotypes she writes about are not completely true and has described her Mexican female ancestors as fierce and brave. It seems important to remember and teach that stereotypes by nature are simplistic generalizations that never describe the complexity of a human individual. However, it is clear that the women of Mango Street are triply oppressed because of their sex, Chicana culture, and poverty.11 And Jaqueline Doyle noted, in her analysis, “Most of the women yearn for different endings.”12 An additional related area of interest is the theory that third culture kids who grow up in a different culture than both their parents and the mainstream society where they live, end up with a certain resilience and unique contribution to make.
Gender Identity and Sexuality
As mentioned above, Esperanza’s emerging sexuality is an important subtext of this novel. “Her biological transformation marks a crucial point in Esperanza’s self-development, as it is them that she begins to note not only her own sexual difference but also its implications for her as a woman.”13 In fact, a study of the various women in the story shows the danger of this sexuality in a Mexican patriarchal world. Cisneros rejects the fairy tale notions that beauty, or marriage can save you from the horrible fate of being shackled and suffocated in this subculture. The women go from being imprisoned by fathers to by husbands, and even, in one case, a son. They are abandoned by the husbands, who were supposed to rescue them, left with children to care for in poverty. This is not the life that Esperanza will choose for herself.
According to Cisneros, Mexican culture has two types of female archetypes which have influenced literature, and which Leslie Petty has thoroughly analyzed.14 Every culture seems to have their manifestations of “good girl” and “bad girl” archetypes, but it is worthwhile to examine these Mexican versions as they appear both subtly and obviously in The House on Mango Street. More familiar is la Virgen de Guadalupe, the Mexican version of the Christian Holy Mother. She is the Christian transformation of Aztec pagan Goddess of Tonantzin, just as images of Mary around the world absorbed and encompassed indigenous goddesses. La Virgen de Guadalupe represents feminine purity, nurturing, and self-sacrifice. She also takes on a political significance as she is considered to be a protector of the native people and was used on banners during the Mexican revolution and is now considered queen of Hispanidad. On the other hand, we have La Malinche, the violated woman whom the Spanish refer to as Marina. La Malinche was an actual person who was “Cortes’s interpreter and mistress during the conquest of Mexico.”15 She was from an indigenous tribe, was sold or kidnapped and then enslaved by another tribe, where she learned the Mayan language. When given to Cortes, she became invaluable for her knowledge of languages. She betrayed her people by helping Cortes defeat Montezuma and the Mexican people have not forgiven her betrayal. Though she gave birth to Cortes’s son she was given by him in marriage to one of his officers. As the bad girl in this duality, la Malinche, though intelligent and invaluable to the patriarchy and conquerors, both betrayed her people and was betrayed by her parents and her lover.
Virtually every female character in The House on Mango Street has a close alliance with one of these two archetypes, which makes it impossible for Esperanza to find a suitable role model.16 The adult women who mirror la Virgen are her own mother and her aunt, both of whom encourage Esperanza to break free from the limitations of her culture and gender. Her mother is a protector to Esperanza, she is nurturing and self-sacrificing, but her own life was incomplete since she could not fulfill her academic potential due to cultural barriers. Her aunt Lupe, named for la Virgen de Guadalupe, is a passive, ill woman who lives in a filthy shrine but encourages Esperanza to write poetry and follow her dreams. The adolescent women who mirror la Malinche are for the most part violated and imprisoned by the men in their lives. Rosa Vargas is abandoned by a man and left with too many children to care for. Rafaela is locked away by her husband because her sexuality is threatening. Minerva is also abandoned by her husband with two children and is always sad. Marin, namesake of la Malinche, betrays her family and culture by aspiring to a more Western life, but her success too is tied to dependence on a man. As Petty notes, Marin “represents the darker, more sexual side of Chicana femininity.”17 Even Sally, who initially is kind to Esperanza but betrays her, embodies both images, and is stigmatized at school and locked away by her father. Like in a fairy tale, she perceives marriage as an escape. But Esperanza has seen for herself that this is not a true story. She rejects the passivity associated with both la Virgen and la Malinche. Esperanza sees that the houses of all these women, belonging to men, serve as places of imprisonment. Her plan to leave Mango Street to fulfill her potential as a writer and then return to help save the others fuses both these archetypes, and parallels Cisneros’s own struggles.
Analysis of Select Vignettes
This short vignette is the second in the book. It is perfect for students to identify with, as Esperanza describes all the different types of hair in her family using vivid similes, “My Papa’s hair is like a broom, all up in the air. And me, my hair is lazy. It never obeys barrettes or bands. Carlos’ hair is thick and straight. He does not need to comb it. Nenny’s hair is slippery - slides out of your hand. And Kiki, who is the youngest, has hair like fur.”18 Significantly, her mother’s hair has a whole paragraph to itself, signifying the important of Esperanza’s mother in her life, “like little rosettes, like little candy circles...is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her…”.19 With figurative language and vivid imagery, Cisneros has shown us the significance of Esperanza’s mother’s nurturing in her life.
“Boys & Girls”
In the next brief vignette, we are introduced to Esperanza’s entire frame of reference for her views on gender identity. “The boys and the girls live in separate worlds.”20 Esperanza has no option to have platonic male friends or companions while she is growing up. She never considers them as role models.
We are then introduced to the cultural conflict of Esperanza’s identity. She is named after her great grandmother, “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. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier.”21 In one sentence we see that there are consequences for being fierce if you are a Mexican woman. The beautiful simile provides opportunities for students to enrich their learning through art. Esperanza makes it clear this future is not an option for her, “I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.”22 The motif of women sitting by windows appears in several places throughout the novel. But she is not finished yet. “At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth.”23 With an artful turn of phrase, our protagonist has made it clear how painful it is to be a Mexican American.
In this character sketch, we meet Marin, the namesake of the negative archetype of la Malinche. Marin’s aspirations are that of la Malinche, “she’s going to get a real job downtown because that’s where the next jobs are, since you always get to look beautiful and 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.”24 Marin’s dreams of having a man be her ticket out of Mango Street do not work out, she is sent back to her family by her fiancé’s parents and held prisoner in her home by her aunt.
“The Family of Little Feet”
Here, Esperanza and her compatriots are given a bag of cast off high heel shoes which they make much of trying on, and the reader is introduced to the Cinderella allusion, while our heroine confronts her emerging and scary sexuality. “But the truth is it is scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long long leg.”25 High heels make your legs look longer and attractive to the men of their subculture. The local grocer warns the girls “Them are dangerous, he says. You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that. Take them shoes off before I call the cops…”26 That he threatens to call the police show us just how dangerous it is to be a young, beautiful woman in this barrio, perhaps even luring them to prostitution. “If I give you a dollar will you kiss me?”27 offers a less benign old man on the street to these young girls. Esperanza’s dangerous loss of innocence has begun.
Here is the biological evidence of emerging womanhood that will divide the early adolescents from the little girls. The girls share their meager physiological and sociocultural knowledge. “ “It’s the bones that let you know which skeleton was a man’s and which a woman’s...They bloom like roses...The bones one day open...you gotta be able to know what to do with hips when you get them.”28 At some level, the girls understand the danger of becoming a woman, and have also been transmitted the information that to be a woman is to be the temptress. In what seems like a harmless rope-jumping rhyme the girls chant, “Skip, skip, snake in your hips...the waitress with the big fat hips who pays the rent with taxi tips...says nobody in town will kiss her on the lips…”.29 They know that tips earned from waiting tables will not pay the rent. One can imagine what “taxi tips” are, even if you have never heard the phrase before.
“Four Skinny Trees”
Unable to find a suitable human role model, Esperanza has turned to the trees. “They are the only ones who understand me. I understand them...They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth...four who reach and do not forget to reach.” With amazing personification and prose poetry, Cisneros shows us that Esperanza is striving for something more, much, much more. And what may be the symbolism of the four? Mexican, American, a woman, and a writer. Four sides to Esperanza’s intersectional identity.
While Sally is the ultimate symbol of the beautiful, dangerous, sexually active teenager in the novel, it is important to see that Esperanza does wish for part of this identity as her own. “I like your black coat and those shoes that you wear, where did you get them?...I want to buy shoes just like yours...I’m going to ask to buy the nylons too.”30 However, Sally’s sexual activity has cost her not only her reputation at school but her girlfriends and the trust of her parents. It is through Esperanza’s identification with Sally that she expresses her true heart’s desire. “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...there'd be no nosy neighbors watching...You could go to sleep and never have to think about who likes you and doesn’t like you…”31 Perhaps at some level Esperanza realizes that we need a world where any woman can be safe to express herself freely and truly be her own person. She recognizes that women are entitled to express their sexuality any way they choose.
“Beautiful and Cruel”
Esperanza’s dreams and plans grow and develop as the novel progresses to its conclusion. “I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain.”32 Imprisonment is what she sees these women of Mango Street, one and all, are headed for. For her own self, Esperanza foresees “I am the one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”33 Now Esperanza realizes that in order to have what she wants she may have to break with a woman’s stereotyped gender role completely.
This is the vignette where Esperanza alludes indirectly to her own experience of sexual assault. She feels betrayed by her friend Sally and all the media and sociocultural images of romantic life she has encountered in her young life. “You’re a liar. They all lied. All the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong.”34 It will be important for the teacher to spend some time unpacking this, first by the teacher’s self in order to get comfortable leading the discussion, and only then with the students. It is too easy to skip over this because it is a difficult conversation. But it is a powerful warning to young teens, and a teachable moment for the propaganda of the media regarding sex role stereotypes and romantic love.
“The Three Sisters”
It is from this allusion to the Fates, the mythological pagan goddesses, that Esperanza receives an important prophecy. Perhaps they must bring it to her because it is something she knows in her soul without knowing how it came to be. “The one with marble hands called me aside. Esperanza...When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Mango Street. You can’t forget what you know. You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you.”35 One can see this as a projection of Cisneros’s own mission. She came back, not only literally to her own Chicago neighborhood, but for every young person who has a potential future greater than their past, through the timeless world of The House on Mango Street.