Esperanza and I met in 1992 in the campus bookstore at the University of California at Santa Cruz. We got along, I think, because I’ve kept her close all these years. But now’s the test. I’ve pulled Esperanza from her spot on the dusty bookshelf to indulge in my do-it-yourself study of the linked short story form.
But is The House on Mango Street a collection of linked short stories? It’s usually sold as a novel. Some would like to read The House on Mango Street as autobiography. The author Sandra Cisneros calls The House on Mango Street a “jar of buttons”, a group of mismatched stories. Told in a series of 44 vignettes, The House on Mango Street is Esperanza’s coming-of-age.
At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as sister’s name—Magdalena—which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least can come home and become Nenny. But I am always Esperanza.Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (Vintage 1989)
There is a joy to life on Mango Street that has little to do with the state of the houses or the potholed streets. It is the pure joy of being a child. When The House on Mango Street opens, Esperanza is 12 and living on the South Side of Chicago. The street is filled with children like Esperanza.
Nenny and I don’t look like sisters . . . not right away. Not the way you can tell with Rachel and Lucy who have the same fat popsicle-lips like everybody else in their family. But me and Nenny, we are more alike than you would know. Our laughter for example. Not the shy ice cream bells giggle of Rachel and Lucy’s family, but all of a sudden and surprised like a pile of dishes breaking.
Cisneros started writing The House on Mango Street while studying for her Master of Fine Arts at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She found Iowa to be alienating and the life experiences of her fellow students wildly divergent from her own. Geographically and socially isolated, Esperanza was a lifeline to the budding writer Cisneros.
Crossing the Border
As Esperanza ages, her world widens. A bag of cast-off high heel shoes is a portal into womanhood. An unfamiliar neighborhood means danger.
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 get lost and got here by mistake. […] But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up right and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.
Some of the vignettes Cisneros has created are half a page, long enough only to catch a glimpse of car sliding by. Other vignettes are tiny stories in and of themselves. We meet neighbors, girls and boys gone bad, abandoned wives, and long suffering mothers. One day, Esperanza wakes up to discover that she has hips “ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?” To hold a baby while you’re cooking, to dance, to become a woman.
By the time Esperanza turned 25 (in book years), The House on Mango Street had become required reading in middle and secondary schools across the United States. Cisneros is generally regarded as one of the few Chicana writers to have made it big.
Since then, Esperanza has achieved a new form of notoriety. Her experiences on Mango Street are deemed to be too explicit in their depiction of domestic and sexual violence. Bizarrely, The House on Mango Street is also seen in certain circles as “racist”, i.e. celebrating ethnicity rather than individuality. These twin sins have merited Esperanza a place on the American Library Association list of books most frequently censored and/or challenged in US libraries and schools.
I don’t remember what I thought of Esperanza when we first met but I have to say, she’s aged well. The issues that confront girls growing up on the South Side of Chicago are the same in East Los Angeles and New York City’s Chinatown. The weapons of choice may have become automated but the threat is the same.
Yet this is not a sad book. Cisneros is a poet, as well as a storyteller, and her linguistic flourishes brighten the page. A neighbor’s dogs don’t walk like the rest of their species. They “leap and somersault like an apostrophe and a comma.”
Esperanza grows up and wants to spread her wings. She does so despite all the obstacles presented by her circumstances and against the wishes of her own family. Good for her.
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.
18 Nov 2022 | Karen Kao