The House on Mango Street
The House on Mango StreetINTRODUCTION
American novelist, poet, and author of young adult short stories and picture books.
The following entry presents criticism on Cisneros's young adult short-story collection The House on Mango Street (1984) through 2006.
Cisneros is best known for her young adult prose volume The House on Mango Street (1984), a collection of vignettes based on her experiences growing up in a working-class Latin-American neighborhood in Chicago. Cisneros received the American Book Award and the Before Columbus Foundation Book Award in 1985, both for The House on Mango Street, which was a best-seller and has become a mainstay on grade school, high school, and college reading lists. Through the character of Esperanza, a twelve-year-old Chicana girl and the narrator of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros examines issues of Chicana identity in the bi-cultural context of the Latin-American community. The House on Mango Street is also considered a coming-of-age story, highlighting Esperanza's quest for self-definition and self-empowerment through the creative act of writing. Cisneros has been widely recognized for her groundbreaking work, which utilizes experimental forms of prose narrative and challenges traditional gender roles. As a result, Cisneros was awarded the McArthur Foundation "genius" award in 1995.
Cisneros was born on December 20, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois, to a Mexican father and a Chicana mother. The only girl in a family of seven children, she often felt dominated by her brothers and father. Her sense of cultural displacement as a Chicana was, in part, due to her family's frequent moves between Mexico and the United States. She spent the majority of her childhood living in apartment buildings in the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago's South Side. When she was a teenager, her parents bought a house, a goal they had always dreamed of achieving; but Cisneros regarded the house as ugly and shabby, and nothing like what she had imagined a house should be. As she was growing up, she spoke Spanish with her father and English with her mother, and most of her work is written in English but also contains many Spanish words and phrases. Cisneros earned a B.A. in English from Loyola University in 1976 and enrolled in the graduate program in creative writing at the renowned University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. While in Iowa, she developed the idea of the house as a metaphor for Chicana identity. Thinking back on her childhood, she felt that her experiences living in impoverished urban apartment-dwellings in the Latin-American community were unique in comparison to those of her fellow students and professors. As Cisneros later related, "the metaphor of a house—a house, a house, it hit me. What did I know except third-floor flats. Surely my classmates knew nothing about that. That's precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows." This idea formed the seed of what was to become The House on Mango Street. After earning an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1978, Cisneros returned to Chicago, where she taught at the Latino Youth Alternative High School. Her first poetry collection, a chapbook entitled Bad Boys, was published in 1980. In 1981 she began working as a college recruiter and counselor for minority students at Loyola. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1982, allowing her to serve for one year as artist-in-residence at the Michael Karolyi Institute in Vence, France. Upon returning to the United States, Cisneros worked as the literature director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. With the success of The House on Mango Street, she began a series of guest professorships at universities throughout the United States, including California State University at Chico (1987 to 1988), University of California at Berkeley (1988), University of California at Irvine (1990), University of Michigan (1990), and University of New Mexico at Albuquerque (1991). Cisneros has written three essays in which she discusses her development as a writer and her conceptualization of The House on Mango Street: "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," "Notes to a Young(er) Writer," and "Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street," all published in The Americas Review.
PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS
The House on Mango Street represents a unique work of prose that, in many ways, defies previously existing categories of literature. Although it is frequently referred to as a novel or a collection of short stories, The House on Mango Street has been more accurately described as a series of forty-four interconnected vignettes—written in a lyrical style that borders on prose poetry—which range in length from several paragraphs to several pages. Cisneros has said of these vignettes, "I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation." Narrated by Esperanza, an adolescent girl living in el barrio, these vignettes describe the experiences of Chicana girls and women in a working-class Chicago neighborhood during the early 1960s. The House on Mango Street has been described as a coming-of-age novel, a rite-of-passage novel, and a Latina bildungsroman (a novel of formative education) or künstlerroman (novel of an artistic apprenticeship). Each vignette stands alone as a complete piece, while the vignettes together make up a composite story that traces the development of Esperanza's self-identity as a Chicana writer who resists the limitations of the traditional roles imposed upon women in the Latin-American community. The vignettes that comprise this volume describe such female experiences as the hopelessness of wives confined to their homes, the struggle of a mother whose husband has abandoned her, the isolation of a young girl married to a jealous, controlling husband, a sexual assault upon the narrator at a carnival, the terrors of domestic violence, and the physical maturation of Esperanza's body as she grows into womanhood. Esperanza's precociousness and oftentimes playful oration of her story leads Thomas Matchie to cast her in the tradition of several renowned characters of children's literature, arguing that, "Cisneros's novel belongs to a female tradition in which culture and literary quality are important. But for her, far more significant as literary models are Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, primarily because they are adolescents growing up in culturally oppressive worlds. Cisneros's protagonist, like them, is innocent, sensitive, considerate of others, but extremely vulnerable. Like them, Esperanza speaks a child's language, though hers is peculiar to a girl and young budding poet. And like her predecessors, she grows mentally as time goes on." The penultimate vignette, "A House of My Own," echoes the essay A Room of One's Own by early-twentieth-century feminist writer Virginia Woolf. In Cisneros's rendition of Woolf's assertion that a woman needs a room of her own in order to become a writer, Esperanza describes her fantasy of "a house all my own … a house as quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before a poem." In the final vignette, "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes," Esperanza tells her readers, "I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong." The conclusion of The House on Mango Street then ends with the same words that make up the opening of the book—in a paragraph that begins, "We didn't always live on Mango Street." Cisneros brings her story full circle, ending the work with the culmination of Esperanza's coming-of-age—the writing of the book itself.
In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros draws upon the image of the house as a symbol for a variety of thematic concerns: the house symbolizes the "American Dream" of middle-class comfort that the people of Esperanza's community fantasize about but will likely never achieve, and also symbolizes the realm of literature, expressing Esperanza's desire to become a writer. At other times, the house functions as a symbol of female confinement within the traditional, prescribed gender roles as wife and mother. Esperanza's childhood home also represents a family history and cultural heritage which are both enriching and confining to an adolescent girl with high aspirations. Through this complex symbolism and the variety of characters and stories Esperanza reveals in her narrative, Cisneros explores themes of economic oppression, ethnic identity, female sexuality, and the power of storytelling to reconcile the past with the present and future. In the course of her development as a young writer, Esperanza struggles to negotiate conflicts between individual self-determination and community identity, between the private space of the home and the public sphere of the streets, between her Mexican heritage and her participation in American culture. Additionally, she experiences a battle between the comforts of the familiar neighborhood and the urge to break free from its limitations, as well as between traditional gender roles and her emergent feminist consciousness. Cisneros's feminist reclaiming of the Chicana experience is indicated by her dedication in The House on Mango Street "a las mujeres" ("to the women"). Witnessing the experiences of other women in her neighborhood, particularly Marin and Ruthie, Esperanza ultimately realizes that her femininity places her within a secondary role in the culture of the barrio, forced to pine for a man to rescue her. These gender roles, instilled by the masculine dominance of husbands, fathers, and brothers, prompt Esperanza to recognize that Mexican men "don't like their women strong." Even as they love their wives and daughters, they force them into submission. As Thomas Matchie has noted, "Esperanza comes to see that the pressure on women in Chicana families comes from a system she simply, though painfully, has to leave."
Cisneros has won international critical acclaim for The House on Mango Street, which has become one of the most widely recognized works of juvenile fiction by a Chicana artist. Felicia J. Cruz has suggested that The House on Mango Street "appear[s] to have acquired elite status as a 'representative' work of multicultural literatures in the curricula of high schools and colleges." Reviewers have applauded Cisneros's vivid, sensual, detailed descriptions of life in the Latin-American urban community and praised her colorful characterizations and lively dialogue integrating English with Spanish words, phrases, and idioms. Cisneros has also been acknowledged for her use of personal voice and point-of-view in the narratives of Esperanza, whose perspective develops from that of a thoughtful child into that of a mature and insightful young woman. Many scholars have commented on Cisneros's construction of a complex Chicana identity which reconciles individual self-determination with a strong sense of responsibility and connection to family and community. Elissa Gershowitz has asserted that The House on Mango Street "combines the structure of a novel with the language of poetry." Similarly, Marco Portales has commented on Esperanza's complicated, lyrical voice, stating that, "Esperanza's voice, in fact, is so beguilingly charming and so much more attractive linguistically than most of the voices found in other narratives that it innocently illuminates the violence against the other women in the novel while strangely glossing over Esperanza's own rape, her miseducation, and the inferiority complex that she has regarding her name and image."
Bad Boys (poetry) 1980
The House on Mango Street (young adult short stories) 1984
My Wicked, Wicked Ways (poetry) 1987
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (short stories) 1991
*Hairs/Pelitos [bilingual format; translated from the English by Liliana Valenzuela; illustrations by Terry Ybañez] (picture book) 1994
Loose Woman (poetry) 1994
Caramelo (novel) 2002
*Hairs/Pelitos was first published as a chapter in The House on Mango Street.
Reuben Sánchez (essay date 1995)
SOURCE: Sánchez, Reuben. "Remembering Always to Come Back: The Child's Wished-For Escape and the Adult's Self-Empowered Return in Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street." Children's Literature 23 (1995):221-41.
[In the following essay, Sánchez argues that Cisneros's protagonist in The House on Mango Street acts as a manifestation of Cisneros's own personal need to write about her childhood.]
In an essay on "home" and "homelessness" in children's literature, Virginia L. Wolf suggests that one distinction between literature for children and literature for adults may be that the former tends to embrace myth while the latter tends to embrace reality: "Whereas much adult literature laments our homelessness and reflects the fragmentation or loss of myth, most children's literature celebrates home and affirms belief in myth" (54). In doing so, however, children's literature might very well offer an unrealistic view of the world: "Even though I celebrate all those wonderful mythic houses in children's literature as an invaluable legacy of comfort, I worry that they deny too much of reality. Certainly, if children are to reach their potential and make their contribution to humanity, they must eventually move beyond a perception of the world as they desire it to be and accept it as it is—enormously destructive, turbulent, and chaotic as well as creative and peaceful" (66). Though children find myth attractive, they might nonetheless acquire a distorted "perception of reality" should the book emphasize myth—or if myth and reality are irreconcilable. Wolf's distinctions between myth and reality and between literature for children and literature for adults are crucial to scholars who wish to fashion a hermeneutics of discourse concerning children's literature. But as one might expect, the practice of literary interpretation could render such distinctions problematic in certain texts.
The foremost proponent of archetypal criticism, Northrop Frye, describes the structure of the mono-myth in historical terms as a movement in Western literature from primitive myth to modern irony, a schema that does much to subordinate myth to irony. Frye's rigorous schema has since been critiqued by historicists, structuralists, post-structuralists, and feminists, but there nonetheless remains a tendency in literary studies to view myth as the opposite of reality. Such a tendency might limit the appeal, perhaps the usefulness, of texts that are said to be mythic. For the purposes of this essay, however, I should like to consider myth in the sense that Joseph Campbell defines it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: "It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth" (3). Campbell's definition blurs the distinction between myth and irony, which allows us to recognize how and why myth moves us and is useful to us, adults and children alike. Through story telling the writer's perception of the world is manifested. We might think of myth, therefore, as cultural story telling, a way by which the writer who belongs to and identifies with a particular community explains why the world is the way it is, from the point of view of that particular community. The writer either validates a myth, or modifies a myth without rejecting it, or rejects a myth and creates a new myth based on his or her own experience. In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros participates in the third type of story telling by combining myth (home) and irony (homelessness) in her depiction of life in the barrio as seen through the eyes of a girl.
Cisneros addresses the theme of home versus homelessness in a series of forty-four vignettes—some as short as a few paragraphs, others as long as four or five pages—written in a language that is easily accessible and in a style that is sophisticated in its presentation of voice and theme. There is no single narrative strand, though the vignettes are loosely connected to each other in that they concern a brief period in which Esperanza, the book's protagonist, lives on Mango Street. We are never told her age, but she seems to be about ten or eleven years old. She wishes to find a house of her own:
Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.
Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.
This type of story telling incorporates both extremes—home contrasted with homelessness, the ideal house contrasted with the realistic, harsh surroundings—into a larger myth concerning the child's perception of her world and her rejection of the patriarchal myth that would prevent her from finding a house of her own. To free her protagonist of one myth, Cisneros must create another myth.
Esperanza recognizes the reality of her own homelessness, for she points out that until they move into the house on Mango Street her family has lived in several different houses; on Mango Street she continues to wish for her ideal house, a wish that initiates and concludes the narrative, the narrative thus ending with a type of return, a tradition in children's literature. There is closure to the narrative in the repetition of a specific passage at the end of The House on Mango Street. At the beginning Esperanza states, "We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot" (3). Near the end she reiterates, "We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to" (109-110). What Esperanza adds to the second passage evinces her discovery that although what she remembers initially is moving often, what she remembers finally is Mango Street. The addition to the second passage suggests that there has been a change in Esperanza from the beginning to the end of her story telling, where her concern is with a particular neighborhood and a particular house, to which she vows she will return.
The closure resulting from the narrative circling back on itself by means of repetition can also be described as an example of Freud's fort da idea, fort meaning "gone away" and da meaning "here."1 Once the reading process has been completed, the reader recognizes how and why the beginning and the end depend upon one another. As Terry Eagleton points out: "Fort has meaning only in relation to da" (186). Although repetition suggests closure, the narrative, in fact, is not self-enclosed; rather, it is open-ended and encourages the reader to consider what will become of Esperanza after the book has ended.
Margaret Higonnet has suggested that in "its ideological functions of social control" children's literature is an "imperialist form," but that the form is artistic as well as ideological (37-38). Because children's literature is often characterized by repetition and a firm sense of closure, even predictability in that closure, any deviation from that form results in a narrative fragment or rupture—an artistic deviation that involves the child reader in the process of giving meaning to the text. Higonnet describes two types of fragments: the mosaic is a gap within the story, which the child reader must fill in; the sherd is a gap at the end of the story, which compels the child reader to supply an ending for the (incomplete) story after the narrative itself has concluded. Higonnet argues, "A somewhat older audience permits an author to use the sherdlike fragment not only to evoke threatening subjects but to provoke the reader's conscious activity. The most interesting type of fragment, then, may be that which deliberately propels the reader into responsibility for the unwritten narrative conclusion" (49). The sherdlike fragment applies to the ending of The House on Mango Street. Although the book has closure, it is also open-ended in that it does not tell us whether Esperanza finds her ideal house. Essential to the didactic quality of the text, however, is the lesson that if Esperanza does indeed escape Mango Street, and we cannot help but believe she will, she must return "for the others." In her depiction of the reality of homelessness and the myth of home, Cisneros shows how and why dialectic—homelessness/home, irony/myth, escape/return—influences Esperanza's growing awareness of who she is and what her ideal house means to her. But the unique fort da quality of the narrative leaves the outcome of that search for the ideal house unresolved for the child/adult reader.
By the end of the narrative, Esperanza recognizes that she must someday "return" to Mango Street empowered as a writer. Cisneros was raised in Chicago and, like Esperanza, in her writing returns to the barrio. Although Cisneros is writing fiction, there are nonetheless parallels between Cisneros and Esperanza. In her autobiographical essay "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," Cisneros tells that hers was a large family (six brothers and her parents) living in small apartments, the family traveling often between Chicago and Mexico (69). Like her protagonist (who also comes from a large family—three brothers, a sister, and parents), Cisneros has learned to write about "the ones who cannot out" (110), which implies a tie not only between narrator Esperanza and the characters within the fictional narrative but also between writer Cisneros and the readers of the text. In writing about Esperanza's childhood, Cisneros, as Aidan Chambers would say, writes "on behalf of adolescence" (199). Chambers argues that writers who reject "the adult exploitation of youth" instead write "on behalf of a state of life that still lives inside you, even though you are past the age when it is the socially evident and psychologically pertinent expression of your existence" (199).
The return of the writer—Esperanza and Cisneros—to her childhood is symbolized by the mythic image of the circle, a symbol both of the circular journey she as a writer must take when remembering and writing about her childhood, and of the circle that binds "las Mujeres/the Women," to whom the book is dedicated, within and outside the narrative. The child's wished-for escape and the adult's self-empowered return comprise the fort da quality of a narrative that is, in its sherdlike conclusion, incomplete.
In the vignette "The Three Sisters," which comes near the end of the book, Esperanza is instructed about what leaving and returning means. At the wake of a child, "Lucy and Rachel's sister," Esperanza meets "las comadres," three old women whom she finds very mysterious. The Spanish word comadre is a term that mother and godmother use to refer to each other; it could also be the term women friends who are not related use to address each other. But the word possesses other connotations as well. In New Mexico, for example, La Comadre Sebastiana (or Doña Sebastiana, as she is also known) is the skeletal image of Death seated on la carreta de la Muerte (the death cart) in Penitente processions. Penitentes (penitents) are a lay brotherhood of Roman Catholics who observe rituals associated with the passion of Christ. Since the image of La Comadre Sebastiana seems exclusive to New Mexico, Cisneros may not have this specific image in mind in her presentation of las comadres. Yet, the aura of death surrounds these three women; one might say that, like La Comadre Sebastiana, the three sisters are intended to remind us of death:
They came with the wind that blows in August, thin as a spider web and barely noticed. Three who did not seem to be related to anything but the moon. One with laughter like tin and one with eyes of a cat and one with hands like porcelain. The aunts, the three sisters, las comadres, they said.
The baby died. Lucy and Rachel's sister. One night a dog cried, and the next day a yellow bird flew in through an open window. Before the week was over, the baby's fever was worse. Then Jesus came and took the baby with him far away. That's what their mother said.
The vignette is about death, but it is also about life. It concerns the beginning—or, in mythic terms, the birth—of Esperanza's recognition of what it will mean to return to her past.
The three sisters sense that Esperanza wants to leave Mango Street, wants to leave the barrio. "When you leave you must remember always to come back," one of las comadres tells her. But la comadre emphasizes that there is more to it than simply coming back:
When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are.
Then I didn't know what to say. It was as if she could read my mind, as if she knew what I had wished for, and I felt ashamed for having made such a selfish wish.
You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember? She asked as if she was telling me. Yes, yes, I said a little confused.
The thrice-repeated injunction to come back for the others emphasizes for the child the lesson to be learned, but it also focuses the reader's attention on the central issues in The House on Mango Street : why Esperanza must leave, and how and why she must return. Esperanza feels "ashamed for having made such a selfish wish," although the injunction does not imply that her wish to escape Mango Street is selfish. Rather, la comadre instructs Esperanza to "return," instructs her to "remember." The return will not necessarily be literal but rather symbolic, described as a circle. As of yet Esperanza is "a little confused," but the implications of this injunction will soon be clear to her.
In "Alicia & I Talking on Edna's Steps," the vignette following "The Three Sisters," Alicia repeats la comadre's injunction to Esperanza, though more emphatically: "Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you'll come back too" (107). Esperanza is identified with, is bound to, her neighborhood. Indeed, she is Mango Street, as the young woman (Alicia) and the old woman (la comadre) point out to her. Esperanza finds little if any comfort in the recognition that she is bound to Mango Street. Nor can she find comfort in the prospect of returning. She declares that she will not return, "Not until somebody makes it better." "Who's going to do it?" asks Alicia. "The mayor?" (107). The very thought of the mayor making it better seems funny to Esperanza. She must learn that she will have to make it better—by remembering her past and writing about it.
Esperanza learns that she must not leave simply to find a house on a hill in another part of town. She must "remember to come back for the others," and thereby come back for herself. The path she will take as writer is circular: Leaving to come back to leave again, and so on.
Lissa Paul suggests that the restriction of the child or the woman to the home is a common theme in literature, but that the significance of that restriction is only now being recognized: "Because women and children generally have to stay at home without the affairs of state to worry about, their stories tend to focus on the contents of their traps, the minute and mundane features of everyday life around which their lives revolve: household effects, food, clothes, sewing, interior decorating, and nuances of social relationships. These homely details have been redeemed by feminist critics … as having interest; as being as worthy for critical attention as descriptions of battles or card games or beer drinking" (151). By focusing on such details and recognizing their significance for the protagonist, feminist critics articulate the "physical, economic, and linguistic entrapment" in which the heroine finds herself. Paul argues that whereas the hero traditionally relies upon forza (violence) in his quest, the "survival tactic" the heroine traditionally relies upon to free herself is froda (fraud): "Though deceit is the traditional tactic of the heroine, it is most visible in the tactics of defenceless child protagonists in children's literature" (154). This survival tactic is one way that the "difference" or "otherness" can be seen between the male and the female, the adult and the child. That difference is also being recognized as relevant to all readers: "The quickening of academic interest in women's and children's literature testifies that something in their stories is in touch with the temper of our time. Trickster stories express a contemporary reality; powerlessness is no longer a condition experienced primarily by women, children and other oppressed people. It is a condition we all recognize" (153). Powerlessness is of course Esperanza's condition, and she is in danger of remaining powerless. Showing why the female is powerless enables Cisneros to offer a way by which her protagonist may empower herself. Esperanza learns that she can empower herself through "books and paper"—a form of "deceit" in that books and paper enable her to "subvert" the "physical, economic and linguistic traps in women's and children's literature" (Paul 155).
Why Esperanza wishes to escape Mango Street and how and why she must return are the issues Cisneros addresses by means of the home versus homelessness theme. In doing so, she has created a narrative account of "a condition we all recognize"—a narrative, further, accessible to both the adult reader and the child reader. Esperanza wants to escape Mango Street, wants a house of her own, but unlike her male counterparts in other works she does not escape to the pastoral world. Chicanas usually choose to write about female characters in urban settings, whereas Chicanos usually choose to write about male characters in pastoral settings or in either pastoral or urban settings (sometimes moving freely between both settings). Although the choice of setting may not strictly depend upon gender, there does seem to be a tendency among Chicanos to allow their male characters the freedom to move about in the city or in the country or both, whereas there seems to be a tendency among Chicanas to restrict their female characters to movement within the neighborhood, or the house.
The pastoral traditionally concerns the urban poet's praise of nature and the simple life of the shepherd, in contrast with the complicated life of the city dweller. Though seemingly unaffected by the problems typically found in the city, the pastoral is not always and simply utopian, for there are conflicts the protagonist must face. In American literature one might even consider why the writer uses a particular version of the pastoral as a setting: uncontrolled nature (forests, rivers, plains), or controlled nature (fields, pastures, gardens, orchards). These two versions of the pastoral are found in, for example, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, where the young protagonist Antonio is torn between the llano (the plain, representing his father's side of the family) and Las Pasturas (the pastures, representing his mother's side of the family). Although his family lives outside the small town, the town is nonetheless a significant factor in that it represents sources of conflict for Antonio.
Often, the male protagonist's movement from the urban to the pastoral may serve only as a momentary escape from the harshness of the urban, the protagonist eventually returning to face his troubles in the city. Or the pastoral itself may be threatening to the protagonist. In works by Chicanos, the pastoral is apropos as well to the search for the mythical Aztlan, the search for what Aztlan symbolizes.2
The Chicana's concern with "place"—a house, or a room of one's own—is a reaction against the patriarchal myth that denies the Chicana a place of her own. Whereas the Chicano is free to journey through the mountains or the cities, the Chicana's movement has often been restricted by the Chicana writers themselves.3 The reality the Chicana addresses, then, is the reality of her restriction to the urban setting—particularly the house or the room. That setting is Esperanza's past and her present in The House on Mango Street ; she recognizes that it might very well be her future as well.
Instead of wishing to escape to the pastoral, Esperanza wants her house to be in another part of town:
One day I'll own my own house, but I won't forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I'll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house.
Some days after dinner, guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble.
Rats? they'll ask.
Bums, I'll say, and I'll be happy.
Her vision of an escape is to a house on a hill, far away from Mango Street but still in the city. Some of the visitors she will receive will not be from the utopian world of the pastoral but from the realistic world of the barrio. The passage is a poignant and gently humorous reminder of the significance of the home versus homelessness theme in this book.
Yet, the passage has also drawn criticism. Ramon Saldivar states, for example: "Incapable of imagining a house without rats in the attic, and naively accepting the derogatory epithet 'bums' for all street people, the child innocently combines the features of a cognac advertisement with a scene from a shelter for the homeless" (184). Saldivar might be distinguishing between Esperanza's naivete and Cisneros's maturity, might not be criticizing Cisneros per se. Although a concern with the protagonist's naivete might be relevant to children's literature, Saldivar's concern seems more ideological than literary. In many children's books the young protagonist seems naive, but can also seem sophisticated for her years. Recall Alice, Dorothy, Bobbie (Roberta from The Railway Children), Jo March, Mary Lennox, Meg Murray, Lucy Pevensie, and a host of princesses from fairy tales.
Esperanza's use of the word bums is derogatory only from the adult reader's perspective—perhaps an example of "the adult exploitation of youth." The negative implication of the word is not indicative of Esperanza's attitude toward the homeless. That is, if she "naively" uses a derogatory term, she certainly does not have a derogatory attitude toward the homeless. (On the other hand, her use of the term "Bum man" in the vignette "The Family of Little Feet" is intended to be derogatory because of the sexual threat the man poses to Rachel and to the others.) Esperanza declares that she will give the homeless shelter and will care for them because she identifies with their plight: "I know how it is to be without a house." If they are homeless, she implies, then so is she. The word bums should perhaps be understood more properly in its specific context in the story and by means of criteria appropriate to the literary text.
A much harsher view of Esperanza—and, by extension, Cisneros—is expressed by Juan Rodriguez in his review of The House on Mango Street. Like Saldivar, Rodriguez faults Esperanza for wanting a particular type of house: "That Esperanza chooses to leave Mango St., chooses to move away from her social/cultural base to become more 'Anglicized,' more individualistic; that she chooses to move from the real to the fantasy plane of the world as the only means of accepting and surviving the limited and limiting social conditions of her barrio becomes problematic to the more serious reader" (quoted in Olivares 168). The literary value of The House on Mango Street is thus suspect for Rodriguez, but his conclusions seem based on whether Cisneros espouses a particular political ideology. Rodriguez does not recognize that Cisneros's text is political and serious in that she writes about oppression (political, economic, sexual) and the way her protagonist might free herself from that oppression. Her politics just do not happen to be his politics. Of the significant distinctions to be made between Chicano narrative and Chicana narrative, one might thus distinguish in terms of politics. The intention, however, should be to understand as fully and clearly as possible both the politics and the manner in which the politics is presented. Even Saldivar's critique of Esperanza's politically incorrect use of the word bums—Esperanza's politics, if you will—does little to clarify this distinction, since his overall treatment of Chicana narratives is rather brief (one twenty-eight-page chapter, six pages of which are devoted to Cisneros's book) in comparison to his overall treatment of Chicano narratives (six chapters).
Conclusions that the word bums is derogatory and indicative of Esperanza's naivete and that Esperanza's desire to escape her environment shows that she (with Cisneros) lacks political commitment serve as examples of what can happen when one does not evaluate a literary text on its own terms and on the terms appropriate to the genre, when one complains instead of analyzes. If we prefer complaint to analysis, we may miss the significant points made in the vignette "Bums in the Attic": Esperanza will not give up her dream; she will not forget "those who cannot out"; she will not forget who she is; she will find a house of her own.
The dangers critics like Saldivar and Rodriguez risk when they evaluate the work of a writer like Cisneros are similar to the dangers adults risk when they attempt to evaluate children's literature according to criteria they may bring with them from their work in other genres or other disciplines. The criteria by which one evaluates literature for children is often, and perhaps unavoidably, at least in part the same criteria by which one evaluates literature for adults. "Whatever the topic to be studied," Margaret Meek argues,
in literature, as elsewhere, we inherit the theories of our predecessors, willy nilly: and in making our own we are bound to represent not only their earlier methods of inquiry, but also the pattern of associated constructs already existent in our own minds. Thus, I cannot speculate about children's literature without incorporating the tissues of ideas that inform my everyday thinking about literature, children, reading, writing, language, lin-guistics, politics, ideology, sociology, history, education, sex, psychology, art, or a combination of some or all of these, to say nothing of joy or sadness, pleasure or pain. This is a lengthy way of saying that those who would theorize do so initially about themselves.
We cannot, therefore, help but evaluate children's literature according to what we have learned from our predecessors and according to our personal tastes. Yet as Meek reminds us: "In the past 20 years, we have outgrown the need to establish children's books as a legitimate area of study, but we are still looking through the lorgnettes of critical models now outworn in adult literature" (167). Theorizing of course enables us to articulate the value of children's literature or of Chicana literature; but as we have seen, theorizing that is not based on close literary analysis or that is not based on an appreciation of genre can lead to the subordination of these literatures for political reasons.
Cisneros addresses the home versus homelessness theme in an urban rather than pastoral setting. In the vignette "The Monkey Garden," she shows why the pastoral must be rejected—a rejection, certainly, of the pastoral image of Eden, perhaps a postlapsarian vision of Eden, for this garden is overgrown and decaying. The urban world has overtaken the pastoral world in that the garden becomes a junk yard where "Dead cars appeared overnight like mushrooms" (95).4 In the garden, too, Esperanza, brick in hand, realizes that Sally does not want to be "saved" from "Tito's buddies." This realization results in a form of self-expulsion in that Esperanza now feels she no longer belongs in the garden: "I looked at my feet in their white socks and ugly round shoes. They seemed far away. They didn't seem to be my feet anymore. And the garden that had been such a good place to play didn't seem mine either" (98). It is time, she senses, for her to leave the garden and what it represents. She is changing, outgrowing that which kept her in the garden until now, and she expresses that awareness through a reference to her feet and shoes—one of many references to feet and shoes in Cisneros's book. Others may be found, for example, in "The Family of Little Feet" and "Chanclas" (a chancla is a type of slipper or old shoe), vignettes concerned with the confusion involved in the transition from childhood to adolescence.
Cisneros presents the image of the garden in order to reject it. Any attempt to return to an edenic past would be ironic for the female who seeks freedom from the patriarchal Genesis myth. Though Esperanza may not fully understand why, she nonetheless feels that she no longer belongs in the garden: "Who was it that said I was getting too old to play the games?" (96). Nor does she require a deity to evict her. The theme of exile from the garden—the recognition and rejection of what the garden represents—is specifically related to the home versus homelessness theme: the home Cisneros rejects is the patriarchal, edenic home.
The rejection of the patriarchal home has become an important theme in Chicana literature. For example, Estela Portillo Trambley also critiques the patriarchal myth in her short story "The Trees." Nina, "a confident city girl," marries the youngest of four sons of Don Teofilo Ayala, the head of a family that owns a large and very productive apple orchard. When the old patriarch dies, Nina worries about how the orchard will be divided among the brothers. She wishes to acquire the inheritance for herself and for her husband, Ismael (a name reminiscent of exile). By turning the brothers against each other, Nina eventually brings about the destruction of that garden—because she is greedy, to be sure, but also because she is opposed to the patriarchal world of which she is a victim. She was raped when she was a child; and as an adult she is expected to play the role of submissive housewife: "The family, with its elementary tie to the earth, had established a working patriarchal order. The father and sons lived for a fraternal cause, the apple orchards. Their women followed in silent steps, fulfilled in their women ways. If ambition or a sense of power touched the feminine heart, it was a silent touch. The lives were well patterned like the rows of apple trees and the trenches that fed them. Men and women had a separate given image until Nina came" (13). Although Portillo Trambley does not justify Nina's destructive behavior or encourage the reader to sympathize with Nina, she nonetheless shows how the patriarchal order can, through its obsessive adherence to a "fraternal cause," bring about its own destruction. After all, Nina is "an avenging angel come to the Garden of Eden" (16). In her critique of the Eden myth Portillo Trambley makes her protagonist, as Hamlet would say, both "scourge and minister." Like Cisneros, Portillo Trambley presents the patriarchal image of the garden to show why it must not only be rejected but also destroyed. This metaphorical significance of rejection/destruction is fundamental to Cisneros's handling of the home versus homelessness theme: Esperanza understands that she must assert her independence if she is to find "A house all my own" (108).
In the vignette "Beautiful & Cruel," Esperanza declares that she will rebel against the traditional role expected of her by acting like a man: "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" (89). Yet, only three vignettes later in "Red Clowns," which immediately follows "The Monkey Garden," Esperanza becomes a victim. She goes with Sally to the carnival, where Sally goes off with a boy and leaves Esperanza alone. What happens next is not clear, but it appears that Esperanza is raped, or if she is not, the experience is just as traumatic:
Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn't you hear me when I called? Why didn't you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn't let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine.
Sally, make him stop. I couldn't make them go away. I couldn't do anything but cry. I don't remember. It was dark. I don't remember. I don't remember. Please don't make me tell it all.
The pattern seems similar to what happens to Nina; however, Esperanza will diverge from that pattern, we assume, for only two vignettes after "Red Clowns" Esperanza meets las comadres in the vignette "The Three Sisters." Esperanza will destroy the male myth, not by literally destroying the garden as Nina does, but by becoming a writer and writing about her past.
Cisneros's critique of patriarchal society—the forms of power through which it protects its "fraternal cause"—and her reaction against that society are evident through much of the book. The critique and the reaction are examples of what Gloria Anzaldúa refers to as "writing" that is "dangerous": "Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals: the fears, the angers, the strengths of a woman under a triple or quadruple oppression. Yet in that very act lies our survival because a woman who writes has power. And a woman with power is feared" (171). Esperanza seeks to possess this kind of power. In the vignette "My Name" she declares that "the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong" (10). Although she has inherited her grandmother's name, Esperanza will not "inherit her place by the window" (11). Instead, she will "baptize" herself "something like Zeze the X," a name whose very sound conjures resistance, a cacophonous name that she feels will help her assert her power to avoid her grandmother's fate. Esperanza decides "not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain" ("Beautiful & Cruel" 88). Vowing to break away from what confines her makes Esperanza "dangerous" (a word Cisneros uses often in the book): "Them are dangerous," Mr. Benny points out to Esperanza and her friends. "You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that. Take them shoes off before I call the cops, but we just run" ("The Family of Little Feet" 41). Sally, too, is considered dangerous because of the type of clothes and shoes she wears, as Esperanza says to her: "I like your black coat and those shoes you wear, where did you get them? My mother says to wear black so young is dangerous, but I want to buy shoes just like yours, like your black ones made out of suede, just like those" ("Sally" 82). Esperanza is fascinated by what is deemed dangerous.
Throughout The House on Mango Street, the many references to children's literature are evidence of that genre's impact on Cisneros. In "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," Cisneros tells of books and fairy tales that were especially significant to her as a child. One such book was Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House, which "was my own dream. And I was to dream myself over again in several books, to reinvent my world according to my own vision" (71). She mentions such favorite fairy tales as "Six Swans" and "Ugly Duckling," as well as the Doctor Dolittle series, The Island of Blue Dolphins series, the Alice books, and Hitty: Her First 100 Years, this last book being "a century account of a wooden doll who is whisked through different homes and owners but perseveres" (71). One can easily see, then, how the adult writer indeed writes "on behalf of adolescence."
In certain instances in The House on Mango Street, the references to children's literature also serve as metonyms through which Cisneros develops the home versus homelessness theme and the rejection of the patriarchal myth theme. For example, in the vignette "Edna's Ruthie," Esperanza tells how she had memorized "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass, and one day recited it to Ruthie, a friend, "because I wanted Ruthie to hear me" (69). In Tweedledee's poem the unsuspecting oysters are tricked and then eaten by the walrus and the carpenter. Esperanza's selection of this story is not accidental, as it bears special relevance to her vow not to be overpowered by the society in which she lives—her vow, that is, "not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain" (88).
Besides the Alice books, there is another text that Cisneros uses in her characterization of Ruthie. Esperanza describes Ruthie's whistling as "beautiful like the Emperor's nightingale" (68). This fairy tale serves as a metonym of the world in which Ruthie and Esperanza live. In Andersen's "The Nightingale," the emperor, one of the last people in his realm to know about the nightingale, finally recognizes and appreciates the beauty of its song. He cages the nightingale, however, so that it can sing only for the court. An artificial nightingale is later manufactured and brought to the court, which results in the loss of interest in the live nightingale; no one notices when the nightingale escapes back to the forest. But when the artificial nightingale breaks and the music is gone, the emperor begins to grow weak. With Death sitting on his chest and the demons of his past surrounding the emperor, the nightingale returns from the forest and rescues him through the beauty of its song. The nightingale then agrees to come and sing for him from time to time, though the emperor must promise not to tell anyone.
According to Esperanza—who perhaps got it from Ruthie herself—Ruthie was married and left Mango Street only to be forced to return and live with her mother: "She had lots of job offers when she was young, but she never took them. She got married instead and moved away to a pretty house outside the city. Only thing I can't understand is why Ruthie is living on Mango Street if she doesn't have to, why is she sleeping on a couch in her mother's living room when she has a real house all her own, but she says she's just visiting and next weekend her husband's going to take her home. But the weekends come and go and Ruthie stays" (69). Of course, Ruthie does not have "a real house all her own," and that is Cisneros's point. Like Andersen's nightingale, Ruthie is caged and ignored. For example, if she was indeed married, then she is ignored by her husband. Nor does her mother seem to show much affection for her: "Once some friends of Edna's came to visit and asked Ruthie if she wanted to go with them to play bingo. The car motor was running, and Ruthie stood on the steps wondering whether to go. Should I go, Ma? she asked the grey shadow behind the second-floor screen. I don't care, says the screen, go if you want. Ruthie looked at the ground. What do you think, Ma? Do what you want, how should I know? Ruthie looked at the ground some more. The car with the motor running waited fifteen minutes and then they left" (68). The image of Ruthie is of a female literally trapped and unable to escape Mango Street, to escape "her mother's living room," for that matter. Ruthie is only one of many symbols in The House on Mango Street of the trapped female.
For Esperanza, there is something at once sad and beautiful about Ruthie. Like Andersen's nightingale, Ruth is much admired and loved because she is undemanding and unselfish. She "sees" beauty and, for Esperanza, she possesses beauty: "Ruthie sees lovely things everywhere…. When we brought out the deck of cards that night, we let Ruthie deal…. We are glad because she is our friend" (68-69). Interpreting the allusions to stories by Dodgson and Andersen enables us to understand the themes Cisneros addresses through the characterization of Ruthie: the homelessness and the victimization of the female.
Ruthie loves books and says she "used to write children's books once," although now she seems unable to read (69), which suggests the possibility of losing the empowerment that comes through reading and writing. Books and paper give Esperanza the power to be dangerous and (possibly) to avoid Ruthie's fate.5 She recognizes that through the power of books and paper she will make the prophecies of the old woman (la comadre) and of the young woman (Alicia) come true:
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. 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?
They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.
She says that she will leave and that she will come back. But these actions are beyond the confines of the narrative—a narrative fragment, that is, to be resolved by the reader.
Perhaps most important, the power Esperanza acquires through books and paper will give her the strength to return. This is the world of myth, but it is also the world of irony. Wolf makes a compelling argument for the distinction between children's literature and adult literature in terms of the myth/home-irony/homelessness dichotomies. But she also argues that in five books—Jarrell's The Animal Family, Norton's The Borrowers, Lively's The House in Norham Gardens, Fox's One-Eyed Cat, and Schlee's Ask Me No Questions—we can trace the movement from myth to irony. The five books "range in their portraits of houses from the romantic to the ironic" (Wolf 56). I suggest that this range may be seen specifically in The House on Mango Street.
Mango Street is a place where Esperanza may have at times felt joy and a sense of belonging, but it is also a place where she realizes that women are locked in their rooms by jealous and insecure husbands, a world in which there is violence, incest, and rape. She describes a harsh world from which she seeks escape, but a world to which she must return empowered as writer.
At the end of The House on Mango Street Esperanza recognizes, and Cisneros validates, the empowerment that comes through writing and remembering. Hence, the writer can find her freedom, can find her voice as writer, though she can only find that freedom and voice by honoring an injunction: You will come back, she is told. She may or may not go far away, but she will come back for herself and "for the others." Here, then, is yet another circle in the book that includes those outside the fictional narrative, those to whom the book is dedicated, and those who will read the book, thereby perpetuating the circular journey of the child/adult each time the text is read. There is indeed a circle that binds, that extends beyond the confines of the narrative to bind las mujeres. Dedicating her book "A las Mujeres / To the Women," Cisneros has come back "For the ones who cannot out." The book's dedication and the very last line of the book form a circle symbolic of remembering always to come back.
1. For a discussion of Freud's fort da theory, see Terry Eagleton (185-186).
2. For example, though urban settings are significant in Rudolfo Anaya's Heart of Aztlan and in Miguel Mendez's Peregrinos De Aztlan, the pastoral remains the symbolic goal. That is, the pastoral image of Aztlan symbolizes the spiritual or psychological return to the place of origin, a paradise lost.
Though some works may not refer specifically to Aztlan, they nonetheless participate in a literary tradition concerning the protagonist's quest through the world of nature as symbolic of the struggle to find the self. Oscar Zeta Acosta's Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo involves Zeta's movement away from a city in California to the mountains of Idaho, to a city in Mexico, and finally back to a city in California (one finds a similar movement in Acosta's The Revolt of the Cockroach People, in the movement from Los Angeles to Acapulco and the mountains of Guerrero then back to Los Angeles). Ron Arias's The Road to Tamazunchale involves Fausto's fantasy of a movement away from Los Angeles to the mountains of Peru. Tomas Rivera's Y No Se Lo Trago La Tierra involves a year in the life of a young boy in the world of the migrant workers, a setting that occurs as well in Raymond Barrio's The Plum Plum Pickers. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima involves Antonio's movement through the sometimes dangerous and destructive pastoral of northern New Mexico. By no means exhaustive, this list is intended to suggest the tendency Chicano writers have of giving their male protagonists freedom of movement.
There are of course exceptions to the emphasis on the protagonist's journey through the pastoral. For example, Nash Candelaria's Memories of the Alhambra is set mainly in Los Angeles. Alejandro Morales' The Brick People and Casas viejas y vino nuevo are set in the barrios of large cities. Rolando Hinojosa's Klail City books are set in a small town along the Mexico-Texas border. Gary Soto's Living up the Street and Danny Santiago's/Daniel James's Famous all over Town are narratives set in cities, although some of Soto's stories have rural settings, and Santiago's/James's story involves Chato's journey from Los Angeles to rural/pastoral Mexico then back to Los Angeles.
3. One need only think of Denise Chavez's The Last of the Menu Girls, Lucha Corpi's Delia's Song, Mary Helen Ponce's Taking Control, Helen Viramontes' The Moth and Other Stories, and Estela Portillo Trambley's Trini, a work that traces the protagonist's movement from rural/pastoral to urban. These and other examples are narratives that in one way or another place the protagonists in realistic urban environments. Anna Castillo's epistolary novel, The Mixquiahuala Letters, does present protagonists who venture away from the city, though usually to other cities—from New York to San Francisco, or to the pyramids in Mexico, for example.
This concern with the urban experience is expressed not only in prose narratives but in Chi-cana poetry: For example, Lorna Dee Cervantes' Emplumada, Evangelina Vigil's Thirty an' Seen a Lot, Alma Villanueva's Bloodroot and Mother, May I?, Pat Mora's Borders and Chants, and the poetry of Corpi (Palabras de mediodia/Noon Words), Castillo (Women Are Not Roses), and Cisneros (My Wicked, Wicked Ways). Of course, the setting is not always as significant in poetry as it is in prose narratives, but when it is significant to a particular poem, it is often (though not always) an urban setting. For example, perhaps one of the most significant Chicana poems in recent years is Lorna Dee Cervantes' "Beneath the Shadow of the Freeway," a poem about three women—the grandmother, mother, and granddaughter—who live in a house next to a California freeway.
4. Elements of the pastoral might be seen as well in the vignette "Four Skinny Trees"—trees surrounded by concrete, trees that cling to the soil, trees that symbolize Esperanza's struggle to survive.
5. For two insightful discussions concerning Esperanza's empowerment as writer, see Yvonne Yarbro-Bejarano, "Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective," and Julian Olivares, "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space."
Acosta, Oscar Zeta. The Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo. San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books, 1972.
―――――――. The Revolt of the Cockroach People. New York: Bantam Books, 1974.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International, 1972.
―――――――. Heart of Aztlan. Berkeley: Editorial Justa, Publications, 1976.
Andersen, Hans Christian. Tales. "The Emperor's Nightingale." Ed. Charles W. Eliot. Danbury, CT: Grolier, 1980.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. "Speaking in Tongues: A Letter to Third World Women Writers." In This Bridge Called My Back. Ed. Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. New York: Kitchen Table/Women of Color Press, 1981, pp. 165-174.
Arias, Ron. The Road to Tamazunchale. Albuquerque: Pajarito Publications, 1978.
Barrio, Raymond. The Plum Plum Pickers. Sunnyvale, CA: Ventura Press, 1969.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949.
Candelaria, Nash. Memories of the Alhambra. Palo Alto, CA: Cibola Press, 1977.
Castillo, Ana. The Mixquiahuala Letters. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1986.
―――――――. Women Are Not Roses. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1984.
Cervantes, Lorna Dee. Emplumada. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1981.
Chambers, Aidan. "All of a Tremble to See His Danger." Signal: Approaches to Children's Books, 51 (September 1986), 193-212.
Chavez, Denise. The Last of the Menu Girls. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1986.
Cisneros, Sandra. "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession." The Americas Review, 15, no. 1 (Spring 1987), 69-73.
―――――――. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
―――――――. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Berkeley: Third Woman Press, 1987.
Corpi, Lucha. Delia's Song. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988.
―――――――. Palabras de mediodia / Noon Words. Berkeley: El Fuego de Aztlan Publications, 1980.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983.
Fox, Paula. One-Eyed Cat. Scarsdale, NY: Bradbury, 1984.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1957.
Higonnet, Margaret R. "Narrative Fractures and Fragments." Children's Literature, 15 (1987), 37-54.
Hinojosa, Rolando. Kail City. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1987.
―――――――. This Migrant Earth. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1987.
―――――――. Dear Rafe. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1990.
Jarrell, Randall. The Animal Family. New York: Pantheon, 1965.
Lively, Penelope. The House in Norham Gardens. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1974.
Meek, Margaret. "What Counts as Evidence in Theories of Children's Literature?" In Children's Literature: The Development of Criticism. Ed. Peter Hunt. New York: Routledge, 1990, pp. 166-182.
Mora, Pat. Borders. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1984.
―――――――. Chants. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1984.
Morales, Alejandro. The Brick People. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1992.
―――――――. Casas viejas y vino nuevo. San Diego: Maize Press, 1981.
Norton, Mary. The Borrowers. New York: Harcourt, 1953.
Olivares, Julian. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space." In Chicana Creativity and Criticism. Ed. Maria Hererra-Sobek and Helena Maria Viramontes. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988, pp. 160-170.
Ponce, Mary Helen. Taking Control. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1987.
Portillo Trambley, Estela. Rain of Scorpions. Berkeley: Tonatiuh International, 1975.
―――――――. Trini. Binghamton, NY: Bilingual Press, 1986.
Rivera, Tomas. Y No Se lo Trago La Tierra. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1987.
Rodriguez, Juan. "The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros." Austin Chronicle (10 August 1984). Cited in Olivares, "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space." In Chicana Creativity and Criticism. Ed. Maria Hererra-Sobek and Helena Maria Viramontes. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988, pp. 160-171.
Saldivar, Ramon. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990.
Santiago, Danny. Famous all over Town. New York: New American Library, 1983.
Schlee, Ann. Ask Me No Questions. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976.
Soto, Gary. Living up the Street. San Francisco: Strawberry Hill Press, 1985.
Vigil, Evangelina. Thirty an' Seen a Lot. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1982.
Villanueva, Alma Luz. Bloodroot. Austin: Place of Herons Press, 1982.
―――――――. Mother, May I? Pittsburgh: Motheroot, 1978.
Viramontes, Helena Maria. The Moths and Other Stories. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1985.
Wolf, Virginia L. "From the Myth to the Wake of Home: Literary Houses." Children's Literature, 18 (1990), 53-67.
Yarbo-Bejarano, Yvonne. "Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective." In Chicana Creativity and Criticism. Ed. Maria Hererra-Sobek and Helena Maria Viramontes. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1988, pp. 139-145.
Thomas Matchie (essay date autumn 1995)
SOURCE: Matchie, Thomas. "Literary Continuity in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Midwest Quarterly 37, no. 1 (autumn 1995): 67-79.
[In the following essay, Matchie contrasts Esperanza, the lead character in The House on Mango Street, with other well-known young adult literary protagonists, such as Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield.]
In 1963 in a collection of articles entitled Salinger, Edgar Branch has a piece in which he explores the "literary continuity" between Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Branch claims that, though these two books represent different times in American history, the characters, the narrative patterns and styles, and the language are strikingly similar, so that what Salinger picks up, according to Branch, is an archetypal continuity which is cultural as well as literary (239). I would like to suggest a third link in this chain that belongs to our own time, and that is Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. Published in 1989, this novella is about an adolescent, though this time a girl who uses, not the Mississippi or Manhattan Island, but a house in Chicago, to examine her society and the cultural shibboleths that weigh on her as a young Chicana woman.
Though not commonly accepted by critics as "canonical" (McCracken, 62), The House on Mango Street belongs to the entire tradition of the bildungsroman (novel of growth) or the kunstlerroman (novel inimical to growth), especially as these patterns apply to women. One can go back to 19th-century novels like Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), where a black woman working in the house of a white family in Boston is treated as though she were a slave. Later, Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1889) depicts a woman who goes crazy when she is confined to a room in a country house by her husband, a doctor who knows little about feminine psychology. Finally, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), the protagonist literally moves out of the house to escape her Creole husband, but cannot find a male with whom to relate in this patriarchal culture.
In Mango Street, a hundred years later, Esperanza is actually part of a six-member family of her own race, but that does not prevent an enslavement parallel to Nig's. Though not limited to a single room as in Yellow Wallpaper, Esperanza's house is a symbol of sexual as well as cultural harassment, and she, like the narrator in Gilman's story, is a writer whose colorful images help her create a path to freedom. And as in The Awakening, Esperanza dreams of leaving her house, an action that like Edna's is related to all kinds of men who make up the power structure in her Chicana world.
So in a general way Cisneros's novel belongs to a female tradition in which culture and literary quality are important. But for her, far more significant as literary models are Huck Finn and Holden Caulfield, primarily because they are adolescents growing up in culturally oppressive worlds. Cisneros's protagonist, like them, is innocent, sensitive, considerate of others, but extremely vulnerable. Like them, Esperanza speaks a child's language, though hers is peculiar to a girl and young budding poet. And like her predecessors, she grows mentally as time goes on; she knows how she feels, and learns from the inside out what in Holden's terms is "phony," and what with Huck she is willing to "go to hell" for. There are, of course, other Chicano novels that are bildungsromans, such as Tomás Rivera's … y no se lo Tragó la Tierra, but none presents a better parallel to Huck and Holden than Cisneros's Esperanza.
It may seem that the two boy's books are really journeys, while Mango Street is limited to a house, and therefore set—the opposite of a geographical quest. But when one looks at the patterns of the novels, what the boys go out to see simply comes past Esperanza, so that the effect is the same. She is simply a girl, and does not have the cultural opportunity to leave as they do. What is more important is that Mango Street continues a paradigm of growth where a young person encounters an outside world, evaluates it in relationship to herself, and then forges an identity, something that includes her sexuality and the prominence of writing in her life. McCracken says that this character breaks new boundaries with her outward movement into "socio-political reality" (63-64).
Huckleberry Finn begins with young Huck leaving a father who has abused him, the Widow Douglas who has tried unsuccessfully to educate him, and nigger Jim's owner, Miss Watson, who perpetuates the system of slavery which Huck will undercut on his journey down the river. Catcher in the Rye, as we learn in the end, is really a story Holden Caulfield tells. Recovering from a mental breakdown, he begins by saying he's leaving school, Pency Prep, where in his view the teachers, alumni, and students are all phony. Mr. Spencer, his history teacher, talks to him just before leaving, but is more interested in justifying his test, which Holden failed, than understanding what is actually happening to the boy. Holden then goes to New York City to visit, not his parents, but his little sister. His father is a wealthy corporate lawyer and investor who is apparently too busy for Holden. Neither Huck nor Holden, however, is an arrogant individual, or sees himself as a rebel. They simply move out because, bored and lonesome, they object to the conditions they live under, and instinctively seek more comfortable worlds. The reader, however, cannot help but evaluate what is askew in the systems that fail these boys.
Esperanza actually loves her father, though as with Holden's he is virtually absent from the narrative. As Marcienne Rocard points out, Chicanas concentrate intensely on "human relationships between generations" (57)—something not stressed in Twain and Salinger. Esperanza thinks her father is brave; he cries after the death of a grandmother, and his daughter wants to "hold and hold and hold him" (57). But this same father perpetuates a structure that traps women. The girl's mother, for instance, has talent and brains, but lacks practical knowledge about society because, says Esperanza, Mexican men "don't like their women strong" (10). Her insight into an abusive father comes through her best friend Sally, whose father "just forgot he was her father between the buckle and the belt" (93). So Sally leaves home for an early unhappy marriage. Another friend, Alicia, goes to the university to break the pattern of her dead mother's "rolling pin and sleepiness" (31), but in studying all night and cooking, too, she begins to imagine that she sees mice, whereupon her father belittles her. Esperanza says Alicia is afraid of nothing, "except four-legged fur. And fathers" (32). Gradually, Esperanza comes to see that the pressure on women in Chicana families comes from a system she simply, though painfully, has to leave. This act reflects the life of Cisneros herself, who says she had to leave home in order to "write about those ghosts inside that haunt me" ("Notebook," 72-73).
Truly, all three books are wrought with violence, which the protagonists seem to forgive. Huck is abused by his father. On the river he watches whole families kill each other off, including his friend Buck, whose senseless death he mourns. Ultimately he witnesses the tar and feathering of the King and Duke, conmen for whom he feels "sorry" (216). Holden is also beaten several times—once by his roommate Stradlater, whom he thinks is handsome and sexy, but who knocks Holden bloody for calling him on the way he treated Jane Gallagher (Holden's old girlfriend) in the back of his car. Holden feels "sorry" for most girls, including the prostitute, Sunny, with whom he would rather talk than have sex, whereupon her pimp Maurice socks him in the stomach to get his five bucks. Holden is also concerned about the suicide of a Pency student, James Castle, who after being humiliated by other boys for not taking something back, jumped out a window. Holden was touched when Mr. Antonelli, his English teacher, went down and picked him up, blood and all. This violent death is crucial for Holden, probably because he sees himself in Castle, and needs someone older to understand.
Esperanza also feels for the victims of violence. What is interesting is that she sometimes interprets violence in a broad sense as injustice, or something in society that keeps people homeless, or in shabby housing. In the attic of her new house she'll have, not "Rats," but "Bums" (87) because they need shelter. She has visions of the violence done to Geraldo, "another wetback," who rented "two-room flats and sleeping rooms" (66) while he sent money back to Mexico; killed one night by a hit-and-run driver, he (in the minds of his people) simply disappeared. That violence becomes worse when individuals are confined to their homes. Mamacita, the big woman across the street, is beautiful but cannot get out because she "No speak English" (78)—a phenomenon doubly tragic because her baby sings Pepsi commercials. But mostly Esperanza identifies with wives mistreated by men who confine them to their homes. Raphaela is locked in because she is too beautiful for her jealous husband. Earl, a jukebox repairman, and Sire, who drinks beer, hold their wives tight lest they relate to anybody else. Things like this make Esperanza's "blood freeze" (73). She dreams of being held too hard. Once, after letting a man kiss her because he was "so old," she says he "grabs me by the face with both hands and kisses me on the mouth and doesn't let go" (55). So, like Holden and Huck, this girl cares for others because of the violence done to them (and herself) in all kinds of contexts.
All three protagonists have a favorite place to escape oppression. For Huck, it's the raft, where he gets to know Jim—who becomes both friend and "father." Twain catches the harmony of their relationship in a natural setting through the poetic (melodic and imagistic) voice of Huck:
We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could 'a' laid them.
Holden finds his main refuge in Central Park where he watches the ducks in the lagoon, once naively asking a cab driver where they go in winter. At another time walking through the park he sees a boy with his family singing and humming "If a body catch a body, comin' through the rye." Here Holden, like Huck, voices in a poetic way his unconscious longing for community—and the setting is again in nature. Later, he tells us that he would like to be that "catcher" (173), as though one could save the innocent ones lost in the world of adults.
Ironically, Esperanza already has a family whom she loves, but that does not free her, for her father is gone and her mother stuck. She too longs for friends, talking first about a temporary friend Cathy who then moves away. Later, she takes some of her sister's money to buy a share in a bike with her neighbors Rachel and Lucy so she can play with them, but that is fleeting. As she matures and sees what is happening to people, she picks four trees, which like her have "skinny necks and pointy elbows" (74). Others, like Nenny, do not appreciate those trees, but for Esperanza, they "teach" (75), helping her to realize that like them she is here and yet does not belong. And like the trees Esperanza, who thinks in images, must continue to reach. Her goal, like that of Huck and Holden, is not to forget her "reason for being" and to grow "despite concrete" (75) so as to achieve a freedom that's not separate from togetherness.
All three protagonists have friends who fail them, usually in some kind of romantic context. Huck rejects his friend Tom Sawyer because of Tom's "Arabs" and "elephants" (13), and in the end Huck gets impatient with Tom's excessive charades to free Jim. "What I want is my nigger" (230), says Huck. Holden's critique of romanticism has to do with girls. He gets disgusted with the abusive way his friends treat them. Ackley, for instance, is a "terrible personality," always raving about "giving it" (37) to some girl, but Ackley is just a talker. It is Stradlater who actually takes out Holden's friend Jane Gallagher and abuses her in the back of his car and then brags about it. Later, Holden recalls some beautiful moments with Jane, with whom he always felt "happy" (79), and of whom he never took advantage.
Esperanza's best friend Sally is also a kind of romantic. She paints her eyes like Cleopatra and likes to dream. In an autobiographical note, Cisneros says she "glamorized living" in shabby neighborhoods where "the best friend I was always waiting for never materialized" ("Notebook," 70). Tragically, it is Sally who betrays her friend and admirer in the monkey garden (an animal pen turned old car lot) where she trades the boys' kisses for her lost keys, while all concerned laugh at Esperanza for trying to defend her friend with a brick. Later, Sally leaves Esperanza alone at the fair next to the "red clowns" (at once comical and tragic figures) where she is molested because her romantic friend "lied" (100). Actually, the whole experience is a lie, given what she had been led to expect.
Still, all three have a moral center, a person they can count on, or should be able to. Huck, of course, comes to appreciate Jim, who has "an uncommon level head for a nigger" (71). Ultimately he will literally "go to hell" (200) for this man he has come to trust and love. Holden puts his trust in his English teacher, Mr. Antonelli, who invites the boy to his house overnight, listens and gives him sound advice. He tells Holden his father is really concerned, and that he's heading for a special kind of fall (187). In the end, however, Antonelli makes sexual advances toward Holden, so the boy leaves and consequently does have a breakdown. The one person Holden loves and trusts, of course, is his sister Phoebe, and his memories of the innocent fun they had together are touching. But she is too little to be a source of emotional help, and when she follows him out of the house, he puts her on a carousel at the zoo where she can play. It's that wonderful image of childhood that Holden cannot get beyond because of his acute sensitivity toward a world he sees as phony, but in which he feels he is going "down, down, down" (197).
Esperanza also has a little sister, Nenny, for whom she feels responsible. Nenny, however, is again too little. Esperanza often refers to her as "stupid" and in the chapter on "Hips," where Esperanza is becoming more aware of the sexual role of a woman's body, she says Nenny just "doesn't get it" (52). Her real hope comes in Aunt Lupe who is dying—"diseases have no eyes," says the young poet. In a game the girls invent, they make fun of Lupe, and for this Esperanza, like Huck, feels she will "go to hell" (59). Actually, it is Lupe who listens to the girl's poems and tells her to "keep writing" (61). That counsel becomes the basis of Esperanza's future apart from Mango Street.
It is important to recognize that the three novels contain religious language that at once seems to undercut traditional religion, and in the mouths of the young seems to say more than they realize. Huck, for instance, is supposedly an uneducated soul, and when Miss Watson talks about going to "the good place," he replies that if she's going there he "doesn't think he'll try for it" (2). This is not only humorous, but unknown to Huck juxtaposes for the reader the fact that Miss Watson does not seem to connect her practice of religion with ownership of slaves. Christianity has to do with compassion, and that Huck will put into practice in his friendship with Jim. Likewise, Holden might see religions and ministers as phony, and himself as an atheist, but in arguing with one of his school mates, he says that he has an attraction to Jesus, and does not like the Disciples because they let Jesus down. And he can't imagine Jesus sending even Judas to hell. For the reader, Jesus' compassion only parallels Holden's own life, where he feels so deeply for others, though so many fail him.
For Esperanza, religion is a cultural thing; in her Catholic world, God the father and Virgin Mother are household terms. But for this young poet, religion takes on mythic or poetic dimensions. She sees herself, for instance, as a red "balloon tied to an anchor" (9), as if to say she needs to transcend present conditions where mothers are trapped and fathers abusive. She even sees herself molested in a monkey garden (a modern Eden) among red clowns (bloodthirsty males). She appeals to Aunt Lupe (Guadalupe, after the Mexican Virgin Mother), who tells her to write, to create. In the end, when Esperanza meets three aunts, or sisters (her trinity), she in effect has a spiritual vision, one which she describes in concrete language. One is cat-eyed, another's hands are like marble, a third smells like Kleenex. The girl uses these sights, smells, and touches to envision poetically her future house. As with Huck and Holden, there is something she does not fully understand. What she knows is that through these comadres (comothers) she will give birth to something very new. Like the two male protagonists, she longs for a respect and compassion absent in her experiences on Mango Street, and these women are her spiritual inspiration.
The ending of Mango Street is also very significant in terms of literary continuity. Just prior to the end Esperanza meets the three aunts at the funeral of a sister of her friends Lucy and Rachel; they tell her she cannot forget who she is and that if she leaves she must come back. In the end the girl recognizes that she both belongs and does not belong to Mango street. Then she vows to return to the house because of the "ones who cannot" leave. One reason for this is her writing, which has made her strong. She plans to "put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much" (110). What this means relative to other women's novels is that she reverses a trend. In Our Nig, Nig is dissipated in the end. The protagonist of Yellow Wallpaper goes crazy before literally crawling over her dominating husband's body. Edna in The Awakening swims to her death rather than face a culture that will not recognize her identity. Not so with Esperanza. She is strong (something Mexican women should not be), perfectly aware of the problems with a patriarchal culture, and because of her love for her people, albeit abused and dehumanized, vows to return, and it is the writing which gives her the strength.
Here is where Cisneros returns to Huck and Holden for her cue. Consciously or not, Huck has challenged the very basis of a pre-Civil War culture. In the last fifth of the novel, however, it's not clear whether he returns to the ways of Tom Sawyer in staging Jim's escape or whether he's come to a new level of consciousness where he confronts Tom in the name of Jim. In the end he lights out into the territory so, in his words, they won't "civilize me" (274). In this way he seems to reject the culture of slavery, even though in Tom Sawyer among the Indians, written afterwards, Huck returns to that culture by adopting with Tom old romantic ways. In any case, the notion of going back, even to join an abusive culture, or not going back, is a key issue in Twain's handling of Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Holden is slightly different. In the end he is recovering from the shock he received from living in a post-World War II world. It has devastated him. But in telling his story he seems to come back to normal, so that the very telling has the effect of giving him strength. Indeed, he says,
I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice.
It's not clear how Holden will relate to his phony world again, any more than it is with Huck, except that he consciously chooses it, perhaps because he needs people, no matter what they are like. But the fact is he's going back. Esperanza's choice has a different twist. Thoroughly aware of the abusive nature of her culture, she comes to the decision that though she does not want to come from Mango Street, and does not want to go back till somebody "makes it better" (107), she nevertheless chooses to return for the sake of the others. She is "strong" (110) and, in contrast to Huck, feels drawn back, not just because she needs people, like Holden, but because they need her.
There is one other way in which Cisneros seems to look to her predecessors for literary and cultural continuity, and that is the way she as an author comes into the text. Mark Twain, of course, creates in Huck the authentic voice of an illiterate river boy. At times, however, it is not clear whether it is Huck speaking, or Twain the satirist. When Huck tears up his letter to Miss Watson, for instance, he may think he's going to hell, but we know he's acted morally, indeed courageously. And sometimes Twain uses a tone and style quite different from Huck's, as in Col. Sher-burn's lecture to the mob on cowardice after the killing of Boggs. Here Twain seems to be talking directly to his reader, and if we can connect the two incidents, the author may be directly lecturing us all on how cowardly we are compared to the growing, thinking, choosing Huck. In Catcher Holden speaks in the language of an immature adolescent, often using words like "sonofabitch" and "goddam," while in his own mind he's becoming a "madman" (134). Still, we sympathize with him as sensitive, perceptive, and highly moral. At times, however, Salinger seems to break through the text, as in the person of Antonelli, who tells Holden "you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior." Then he continues, "You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you" (171-72). It is as if Salinger is telling his audience to read Holden's story if you really want to know what is wrong with this age.
In Mango Street Cisneros has created the voice of a child, who is also a poet, a writer. For the most part that voice is consistent, but sometimes not. Once when Esperanza is playing an outside voice puts her friends and herself in perspective:
Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza and Nenny.
In this case it is the author who seems to be speaking. And when Lupe is dying, and Esperanza helps lift her head, suddenly we are inside Lupe: "The water was warm and tasted like metal" (61). Here the author's presence is unmistakable. Perhaps Cisneros's most significant intrusion comes when Esperanza says that Mexican men do not "like their women strong" (10)—a comment that belongs more to an adult than a child, and it seems to underpin the whole novel. Shannon Sikes claims that Esperanza as writer plays with the narratorial voice throughout the book, so that it's difficult to distinguish between the younger and a later, older person who is both character and author (12-13).
So Cisneros, like Twain and Salinger, seems to enter the narrative to help define its ultimate meaning. Unlike the boys' quests, however, this novel is a collection of genres—essays, short stories, poems—put together in one way to show Esperanza's growth, but in another to imitate the part-by-part building of an edifice. Indeed, the house on Mango Street does not just refer to the place Esperanza is trying to leave, but to the novel itself as "a house" which Esperanza as character and Cisneros as author have built together. Huck may go out to the territory, rejecting civilization, and Holden may tell his story to gain the strength to return, but Esperanza through her writing has in fact redesigned society itself through a mythical house of her own.
In this regard, Lupe once told Esperanza to "keep writing," it will "keep you free" (61). At that time the girl did not know what she meant, but in the end Esperanza says "she sets me free" (110), so in a sense the house is already built—a monument to her people and her sex. Andrea O'Reilly Herrera says that Esperanza's house is an imaginative version of Mango Street "resurrected, reconstructed, and rendered through language" (4). Indeed, Esperanza is very different from the other women in the text. She has learned from them and not made their mistakes. So she is not trapped like her mother, Alicia, or Sally, or the others. Like Huck and Holden, she is the example for other Chicana women whom Cisneros would have us take to heart. Indeed, as the witch woman Elenita predicted earlier, Esperanza elects to build a "new house, a house made of heart" (64). And in the tradition of, but distinct from Huck and Holden, that is just what she has accomplished.
Branch, Edgar. "Mark Twain and J. D. Salinger: A Study in Literary Continuity." Salinger: A Critical and Personal Portrait. Ed. Henry Anatole Grunwald. New York: Harper and Row, 1962. 226-40.
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. New York: W. W. Norton, 1976. Originally published in 1899.
Cisneros, Sandra. "From a Writer's Notebook." America's Review 15: 1 (1987), 69-73.
―――――――. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1989. Originally published by Arte Publico Press in a somewhat different form in 1984.
Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. The Yellow Wallpaper. New York: Feminist Press, 1973. Originally published in 1889.
González-Berry, Erlinda, and Tey Diana Rebolledo. "Growing up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros." Revista Chicano-Riqueña, 13:3-4 (1985), 109-19.
Herrera, Andrea O'Reilly. "Sandra Cisneros & The Big House on Mango Street: The Development of Self." Unpublished essay.
McCracken, Ellen. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence." Breaking Borders. Ed. Asuncion Horno-Delgado, et al. Amherst: University of Massachusetts, 1989. 62-71.
Rivera, Tomás…. y no se lo Tragó la Tierra. Huston: Arte Público Press, 1987.
Rocard, Marcienne. "The Remembering Voice in Chicana Literature." America's Review, 14:3-4 (1986), 150-59.
Salinger, J. D. Catcher in the Rye. Boston: Little, Brown, 1945.
Sikes, Shannon. "Narratorial Slippages and Authorial Self-Construction in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." Unpublished essay.
Twain, Mark. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1948. Originally published in 1885.
―――――――. Tom Sawyer among the Indians. Berkeley: University of California, 1989.
Wilson, Harriet E. Our Nig; or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. New York: Vintage, 1983. Originally published in 1859.
Alvina E. Quintana (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: Quintana, Alvina E. "The House on Mango Street: An Appropriation of Word, Space, and Sign." In Home Girls: Chicana Literary Voices, pp. 54-74. Philadelphia, Penn.: Temple University Press, 1996.
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Nicholas Sloboda (essay date fall 1997)
SOURCE: Sloboda, Nicholas. "A Home in the Heart: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Aztlan 22, no. 2 (fall 1997): 89-106.
[In the following essay, Sloboda portrays Esperanza in The House on Mango Street as a character who maintains her hope and self-worth despite the nature of her environment.]
In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros presents Esperanza Cordero and her remembered experiences after her family moves to their new "sad red house" on Mango Street. She assembles, in forty-five short chapters, a collage of recollections by the young female protagonist. Esperanza, in her introspective narrative, looks back and remembers (and, in a sense, re-creates) her childhood in a depressed Mexican-American neighborhood. While this character has become an important figure in the development and expression of female subjectivity in recent Mexican-American fiction, all too often she is read exclusively as a voice of opposition to dominant-culture practices of oppression and hegemony. Ellen McCracken announces that "Cisneros links both the process of artistic creation and the dream of a house" to "enable" or promote "social rather than individualistic issues" (1989, 66). McCracken proceeds to describe Esperanza as a "positive objectification" (65) that critiques "bourgeois individualism" (64). Barbara Harlow similarly asserts that Cisneros's text is "premised on the alienation between the young girl's emergent sense of a socially conditioned self and the new neighborhood" (1991, 160). Harlow also contends that "the Mango Street house has failed to actualize the child's aspirations of status and comfort raised by the promise of 'moving'" (160). While such interpretations correctly point to Esperanza's desire to "redress humiliation and establish a dignified sense of her own personhood" (McCracken 1989, 65), they tend to overlook the value of Esperanza's distinctly playful nature and its effect on both her individual character and communal consciousness. I intend to show that Esperanza develops a self-resilience and acceptance that retains no "aspirations of status." Cultivating these attributes in conjunction with her playfulness, the young protagonist gains a self-understanding that extends well beyond any desire for mere "comfort." Her character, accordingly, is not merely confined to and contained by her often oppressive environment.
Beyond Oppositional Readings
Oppositional readings often typify the novel's protagonist. Terry DeHay uses such an approach to interpret Esperanza's experiences predominantly in the context of her growing awareness of her cultural, economic, and social objectification. DeHay restricts Esperanza's insights to "understanding … what it means to be both a member of a minority and a woman in a white patriarchal culture" (1994, 40). By claiming that Esperanza's memories and stories "all focus on the social, cultural, and sexual alienation she experiences as a child" (40, italics mine), DeHay, like McCracken, neglects Esperanza's positive experiences. DeHay, in fact, perceives Esperanza's conscience as focused exclusively on surviving, as exercising a "commitment to saving herself" (40). Cisneros, however, does not limit her central character to a static agent of counter-discourse. Depicting Esperanza's active negotiation of her identity in light of both constricting social conditions and, significantly, liberating personal aspirations, she presents the young protagonist as a vital and dynamic individual. In the process, Cisneros demonstrates how a subject can be defined but, at the same time, not totally restricted by its material (representative) and psychological (cognitive) space. Not focusing on the superficial, exotic qualities of her young protagonist's otherness, Cisneros, instead, shows how Esperanza "waits" to gain her appropriate voice in light of the prevalent hegemonic forces, patriarchal oppression, and ethnic marginalization in urban America. In particular, she juxtaposes Esperanza's burgeoning awareness of the harsh socioeconomic realities around her with her personal dreams and playful spirit. The different aspects of the protagonist's character are hinted at in her name itself. Esperanza explains that, "In English my name means hope. In Spanish it … means sadness, it means waiting" (Cisneros 1984, 10). Through her minimalist narrative voice, Esperanza enters into a "dialogue" with her new home environment and learns to apply her hopefulness in the fashioning of her dream for a home of her own.
Cisneros opens The House on Mango Street by demonstrating how a home space plays a major role in shaping life and world experiences. She establishes the prominence of setting through a series of images that depict life in a predominantly Chicano urban American slum. Through these images, she exemplifies what Edward Soja, in his theoretical analysis of "postmodern geographies," terms a "social hieroglyphic" (Soja 1989, 7). The short novel begins with an all too typical scene for new or recent immigrants in America: a large family on the move. Esperanza, a member of such a family, is already accustomed to the migratory nature of lower-class life. Through Esperanza's differentiating between a "house" and "home," Cisneros specifically addresses the issue of transiency and shows how the local neighborhood can temper dreams and aspirations. In her "materialist interpretation of spatiality" (Soja 1989, 120), to draw from Soja's interpretive framework, Cisneros exposes a connection between spatiality and being. Soja contends that this type of "ontological spatiality situates the human subject in a formative geography" (8). Through her initial focus on the nature of Mango Street, Cisneros draws attention to the "formative," but not deterministic, role of the protagonist's new home space.
From the outset of the novel, Cisneros captures both the protagonist's individual plight and the general struggles of a lower-class family. Esperanza recalls her life as a young girl in a Mexican-American family: "But what I remember most is moving a lot" (3). Here, Cisneros implicitly distinguishes the perspective (and life) of her protagonist from the middle-class child (who would likely remember and describe other things). Esperanza then summarizes her life before Mango Street by listing the different streets where she has already lived: "We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can't remember" (3, italics mine). The repetitive and cyclic quality of the moving experience reveals that the constant shifting to different locales does not lead to a dramatic improvement in living conditions. With Esperanza explaining that her family's relocations are out of economic necessity, Cisneros exposes the limitations of living as members of a minority and the lower class in America. She also points to the difficulty in breaking from a life of poverty.
In this opening section of the short novel, Cisneros establishes the house on Mango Street as a sign—at once real and symbolic—of the rift between the reality and dreams of Esperanza and others living in this ghetto. From this perspective, The House on Mango Street, as Harlow generalizes, "radically critiques the inherently political ideology of the 'American dream'" (1991, 160). Cisneros continues to unveil the harsh living conditions in Esperanza's new neighborhood by establishing a contrast between the ideal and the real. Although Esperanza recognizes the value of her family living in their own house and appreciates the lack of "a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom" (3), she nonetheless realizes that "it's not the house we'd thought we'd get" (3). While listing what she perceives to be the general advantages of ownership—not paying rent or sharing the yard—Esperanza also reiterates that the house is "not the way they told it at all" (4, italics mine). Her use of the indefinite pronoun "they" refers to those in mass communication and the media that propagate the myth of the "better life." With this comment, the protagonist reveals that she is aware of her family's position outside of the comforts and serenities typically associated with the American dream. Later, in fact, she further acknowledges her neighborhood's separation from mainstream America by noting that "the thought of the mayor coming to Mango Street makes me laugh out loud" (107). Upon moving to Mango Street, Esperanza also alludes to her own already long-standing disappointment with her living conditions by sadly conceding that their new house is still not a "real" house that she could "point to" (5). Even though her mother describes their move as "for the time being," and her father calls it "temporary," Esperanza now understands, "But I know how those things go" (5). Although the young protagonist dreams of a "real house" and, implicitly, a better life, Cisneros shows that, even at this early stage of her life, Esperanza is already less idealistic and has learned to condition or temper her dreams.
Cisneros, however, also shows that, in spite of finding herself in another depressed neighborhood, her young protagonist does not abandon her hope and ideals. Almost immediately after moving to Mango Street, Esperanza contrasts her new house with her dream "home" environment. First she describes her ideal, "real house": "[O]ur house would have running water and pipes that worked. And inside it would have real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V." She also imagines the external features: "Our house would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence" (4). At this early point in the short novel, Cisneros reveals that her protagonist maintains her vitality and hopefulness. Through her awareness of the less than ideal nature of her new home and, at the same time, her determination not to abandon her dream, Esperanza begins to fashion her consciousness—at once socially informed and individually hopeful. Shortly thereafter, Cisneros again draws attention to Esperanza's playful and creative spirit by immediately contrasting the protagonist's bleak depiction of her new house on Mango Street with a scene in which she playfully describes the "different hair" (6) in her family. By consistently including the positive aspects of Esperanza's perspective, Cisneros reveals another significant dimension of her protagonist's character.
In her new neighborhood, Esperanza learns that the issue of a respectable house and neighborhood is linked not only to people's economic plight, but also to their cultural identity. By drawing attention to the interconnection of these different facets of life on Mango Street, Cisneros addresses what Alberto Sandoval theorizes as the struggle of the "Latin American" woman to survive the "dialectics of a bi-cultural identity" (1989, 203). Esperanza gains an understanding of the nature of the cultural tensions in the neighborhood through her observations of Mamacita, a new immigrant who struggles with her sense of loneliness and isolation. She describes how a man worked two jobs to bring Mamacita, his "big mama," and her baby boy to the country. After arriving in their neighborhood, the new immigrant does not learn English; instead, she "sits all day by the window and plays the Spanish radio show and sings all the homesick songs about her country" (77). Mamacita not only longs for her homeland, but also faces an impoverished life in her new home. Cisneros actualizes Eliana Ortega and Nancy Saporta Sternbach's theories about crosscultural contact by describing how Mamacita longs for "Home … a house in a photograph, a pink house, pink as hollyhocks with lots of startled light" (77). This poignant image illustrates that a home space, as a physical and psychological site of familiarity and comfort, plays a vital role in the (re)settling of the subject on both an individual and communal level.
Cisneros continues to highlight conflicts arising on Mango Street from differences between many of the residents' "home" culture and their new homes in America. Mamacita tries to preserve her sense of identity in her new country by speaking only in her mother tongue and not in English, the language "that sounds like tin" (78). She is aghast upon hearing her baby singing a Pepsi commercial in English. "No speak English, no speak English," she chants, "and bubbles into tears" (78). Presenting Mamacita's disquietude as a typical part of life on Mango Street, Cisneros exposes how the "Latina," according to Ortega and Sternbach, is "inscribed into two symbolic orders: English, the language of the hegemonic culture, and Spanish, the mothertongue" (1989, 14). This "bicultural" subject, Ortega and Sternbach explain further, engages in a process of "constantly … negotiating her alliances with one or both of these orders" (14). The man, frustrated at Mamacita's sadness and constant longing for "home," exclaims: "We are home. This is home. Here I am and here I stay" (78). Refusing to even consider the possibility of this locale becoming her new home, Mamacita responds to her "man" and predicament by occasionally letting out a "cry, hysterical, high, as if he had torn the only skinny thread that kept her alive, the only road out to that country" (78). By watching how Mamacita struggles to adapt to her new homeland, Esperanza begins to appreciate the immigrant woman's feeling (and knowledge) that she does not "belong" (78).
Within this backdrop of transiency and strife on Mango Street, Cisneros shows how Esperanza must struggle to experience what other children in middle-class America take for granted. While looking for new friends, Esperanza confronts the negative stereotype of her otherness. She describes how Cathy, the "Queen of Cats," agrees to be her friend, "But only til next Tuesday" (12). Cathy then reveals, "That's when we move away" (13). Cathy's comment reminds Esperanza of the transient nature of life in her type of neighborhood. It also verifies for her that other families do not want to live near to or be associated with her class and people. In response to Cathy's remark, Esperanza states: "Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad" (13, italics mine). Her use of the conditional tense alludes to her melancholic awareness of the way in which she is perceived by those around her. Cathy proceeds to explain to Esperanza that her family will be inheriting the family house in France. Even though Esperanza most likely realizes that Cathy's story is a fantasy, she still becomes sad, as she seems to realize that she cannot even dream the same dreams as her friend. She gloomily concludes that Cathy's family will "just … move a little farther north from Mango Street, a little farther away every time people like us keep moving in" (13). Through her experience of having to keep looking for new friends, Esperanza soon discovers that friendships can be tempered or even lost due to factors quite apart from personal compatibility and from her control. Cisneros also uses this exchange between the two young girls to expose the alienating effect of social stratification on a community, especially its children.
Cisneros further confirms how the difference in living conditions between the slum areas, with its rundown houses, and mainstream America, with its picket fences, leads to divisiveness. One day, Esperanza thinks about a neighborhood far away from Mango Street: "I want a house on a hill like the ones with the gardens where Papa works" (86). She, however, decides that she no longer wants to go with the rest of her family on Sundays to visit these gardens, as she now finds herself "ashamed" at "all of us staring out the window like the hungry" (86). Emphatic about her decision, Esperanza directly states: "I am tired of looking at what we can't have" (86). She then describes the attitudes of the rich over the poor: "People who live on the hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on earth" (86). Cisneros uses Esperanza's reaction against her family's weekly drive to show how hope, when constantly set in the reality of impoverishment, wears thin.
Throughout her childhood, Esperanza faces people from the middle who, intentionally or not, differentiate and relegate her to a disempowered space. Once, at school, Esperanza had to stand at the window and point to where she lived. She remembers the Sister Superior's response: "That one? she said, pointing to a row of ugly three-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into" (45). Even though these houses are worse than those in her neighborhood, Esperanza finds herself unable to do anything but nod her head and cry. Earlier, when Esperanza lived on Loomis, Esperanza experiences a similar scene of degrading objectification. One day, a nun from her school passes by. Spotting Esperanza, she stops and asks her whether she lived "there," pointing to the third floor of a decrepit house. Her feeling of embarrassment is still vivid in her memory: "There. I had to look where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn't fall out" (5). Now understanding the nun's tone, Esperanza reflects on her experience and forced resignation: "The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded" (5). Through these seemingly innocent exchanges, Cisneros not only highlights the carelessness with which entire communities are negatively typified, but she exposes an irony, as Esperanza is repeatedly treated insensitively by someone who is supposed to be aware of the plight of the lower class and oppressed.
The House on Mango Street, however, is not merely a critical social commentary that articulates the anger and frustration of the victimized. In her narratives, Esperanza also establishes a hopeful voice that playfully "dialogues" with those in the local community. Notwithstanding the aforementioned hardships of life on Mango Street, Esperanza formulates a positive, personal vision. By accentuating the vibrancy of her protagonist, Cisneros develops, to apply Renato Rosaldo's terms, "a fresh vision of self and society" (1991, 85). While describing Cisneros's innovative narrative technique as exemplifying "the experimentation and achievement of recent Chicana narrative," Rosaldo explains that such Chicana writers in general have "opened" a "heterogeneous world within which their protagonists no longer act as 'unified subjects,' yet remain confident of their identities" (85). Esperanza, Rosaldo specifies, "acts assertive and playful … moving through a world laced with poverty, violence, and danger" and, in the process, "subverts oppressive patriarchal points of cultural coherence and fixity" (85). Scenes that expose Esperanza's playful and creative side include her experiences with Rachel, Nenny, and Lucy, such as their sharing a bicycle (14-16), naming clouds (33-38), trying on pairs of fancy shoes (38-42), playing jump rope (49-52), and spending time in what they call "the monkey garden" (94-98). Cisneros, accordingly, does not restrict Esperanza to a socially typified agent who merely exposes the disempowerment of ghettoized peoples in the United States. Instead, she shows how her protagonist uses her dynamic, individual attributes to maintain a positive perspective and, later, to begin to effect change in her life and in the community around her.
In formulating her own response to the neighborhood around her, Esperanza gains inspiration from the actions and the decisions made by her friend Minerva. Even though this young woman is about the same age as Esperanza, she already has two children whom she is raising herself, as her husband has left "and keeps leaving" (85). During the day, Minerva handles all her familial responsibilities. After her children are asleep, however, she writes poems "on little pieces of paper that she folds over and over and holds in her hands a long time" (84). Sharing creative interests, Esperanza and Minerva exchange poems. In the process, Esperanza realizes that her friend writes her hardships into her poetry; she describes Minerva's verses as "sad like a house on fire" (84). Through this striking image, Cisneros affirms the centrality of the house motif in the life of Esperanza and those around her. She also reiterates that local socioeconomic reality makes it difficult to break the cycle of poverty. Esperanza, in fact, soon discovers that Minerva is beaten regularly by her husband. In a tragic scene, Minerva arrives, "black and blue," at Esperanza's house and asks Esperanza what she can do. Through this scene, Cisneros illustrates that in neighborhoods like Mango Street oppression and even abuse often pervade the lives of the young women. Although Esperanza appreciates her friend and gains strength from her perseverance, she also sadly realizes that "There is nothing I can do" (85).
Esperanza learns to use her playful perspective and creative imagination to respond to the diverse forms of oppression around her on Mango Street. In particular, Cisneros develops Esperanza's alternative viewpoint through a highly poetic and stylistic writing. Along these lines, McCracken describes Cisneros's textual style as distinct from "the complex, hermetic language of many canonical works" (1989, 64). Esperanza employs a seemingly simple and direct language in expressing her creativity, as when she takes note of the differences in the hair of the members of her family. She describes Papa's hair as being "like a broom," her own as "lazy," Carlos's as "thick and straight," Nenny's as "slippery," and, Kiki's as being "like fir." Esperanza then concentrates on her mother's hair, focusing on its beauty:
But my mother's hair, my mother's hair, like little rosettes, like little candy circles all curly and pretty because she pinned it in pincurls all day, sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, 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, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and Mama's hair that smells like bread.
By switching to the second person point of view during the description, Cisneros brings readers closer to Esperanza's stream-of-consciousness and, in the process, enhances the scene's mood and tone. Her use of repetition, rhythmic language, and simple but effective figures of speech not only accurately portrays a child's point of view but also creates both striking and positive images.
Esperanza's playful and creative use of language extends beyond her personal moments of reflection to her social activities on Mango Street. One afternoon, Esperanza, her sister Nenny, and her friends Lucy and Rachel, talk about their "hips." Lucy then begins to dance, while Esperanza and Nenny twirl their skipping ropes. Esperanza describes the process: "It's gotta be just so, I say. Not too fast and not too slow. Not too fast and not too slow" (50). The repetitive and rhythmic language helps draw attention to both the motion of the skipping ropes and the girls' bodily movements, while the songs and choruses further establish the scene's playful atmosphere. Rachel is the first to introduce a refrain:
snake in your hips.
and break your lip.
By including other genres in this chapter, Cisneros not only playfully represents language but, in a sense, sets it in motion. This narrative strategy can be interpreted in light of Bakhtin's call for the deliberate incorporation of genres into moments of heteroglossia that "further intensify its speech diversity in fresh ways" (1981, 321). By refreshing the children's utterances, Cisneros creates a "dialogized heteroglossia" (272). In the process, she points to Esperanza's creative use of language and how this positively influences her character.
Cisneros's presentation of a variety of opposing and competing forces in Esperanza's world can be further understood in terms of Bakhtin's notions of "centrifuge" and "centripede." Bakhtin theorizes about this simultaneous inclusion of diverse, even competing socioideologic voices within the "environment," or "dialogized heteroglossia," of "every concrete utterance of a speaking subject." He explains that "processes of centralization and decentralization, of unification and disunification, intersect in the utterance" (272). "Centripetal" forces, accordingly, strive for a unified voice and a singular meaning, whereas "centrifugal" forces seek to fragment voices and enact a pluralistic discourse. Cisneros depicts Esperanza as a subject in the process of developing a voice of her own amidst these types of conflicting forces. She shows how Esperanza's creative means of "dialoguing" with her neighborhood helps her establish a space of her own. Watching four trees by her house, she notes that she is the "only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here" (74). Aware that "[f]rom our room we can hear them [the trees]" (74), Esperanza formulates a link between the trees and her home, between her inner and outer worlds. Appreciative of the trees, Esperanza explains how they survive in the city: "Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep" (74). With these four trees now a noticeable part of her world, Esperanza learns from them and gains inspiration from their strength.
Continuing to carve out a space for themselves in their neighborhood, Esperanza and her friends transform their living environment from a wasteland into a play-land. While describing some of Esperanza's experiences in this modified space, Cisneros also alludes to the dynamic interrelationship among individual consciousness, social expression, and spatiality. Soja, in his linking of "space" and "social ontology," theorizes about this type of spatial transformation in terms of a process of "incorporation": "Not only are the spaces of nature and cognition incorporated into the social production of spatiality, [but] they are [also] significantly transformed in the process" (1989, 120). Establishing their own particular "ideational space," to apply Soja's term, the neighborhood children on Mango Street take over a lot in which a man used to keep monkeys, but that now lies empty. The "garden" is filled with flowers, bees, spiders, thistles, weeds, rotting wood, and abandoned cars (95). The children play and find solace in their recycled space, this place where "[t]hings had a way of disappearing" (95). Esperanza remembers this lot as "[f]ar away from where our mothers could find us. We and a few old dogs who lived inside the empty cars" (95). She further recalls how, in no time at all, their play space acquired magical qualities: "Somebody started the lie that the monkey garden had been there before anything." Esperanza proceeds to describe the "garden" in almost mythical terms: "We liked to think the garden could hide things for a thousand years. There beneath the roots of soggy flowers were the bones of murdered pirates and dinosaurs, the eye of a unicorn turned to coal" (96). From what was essentially a dump, Esperanza and the neighborhood children transform the lot and create, for themselves, a sanctuary, a space very different from the depressed streets in their neighborhood. As part of the neighborhood's heteroglossic environment, the "monkey garden," however, is not totally separate from the reality of life on Mango Street. In this empty lot, Sally soon starts to spend time apart from Esperanza and, instead, with Tito and the local boys. At first, Esperanza tries to stop the boys from their game playing, but Sally tells her to go away. Esperanza wants to run away and hide "at the other end of the garden, in the jungle part, under a tree" (97). After watching Sally play with the boys, Esperanza feels angry. The lot that had been "such a good place to play" (98), now is beginning to lose its special attributes. In fact, after this event, Esperanza never returns to the "monkey garden."
In the midst of her varied experiences on Mango Street, Esperanza's long-standing dream for a house of her own begins to take shape. One day, Esperanza visits Elenita, the "witch woman" for a palm reading. Upon asking her specifically about the possibility of a house in her future, she is told, "Ah yes, a home in the heart. I see a home in the heart." Elenita then repeats this phrase, "I see a home in the heart" (64). Not satisfied with this answer, Esperanza asks, "Is that it?" (64). Recognizing Esperanza's sadness, the "witch woman" again rechecks the cards, Esperanza's palm, and her "special water" but, much to Esperanza's disappointment, reiterates: "A new house, a house made of heart" (64). Esperanza, at the time, does not understand that Elenita is offering an insight about the spiritual (and not material) nature of her character. Later, Esperanza comes to integrate Elenita's revelation into her dream of a house of her own. While affirming that "One day I'll own my own house," Esperanza does not ignore her social reality: "but I won't forget who I am or where I came from" (87). She then imagines how she'll offer "passing bums" a place to stay, in the attic, "because I know how it is to be without a house" (87). By detailing Esperanza's fantasy of "Bums in the Attic," Cisneros clarifies that Esperanza's aspiration for a home indeed includes "heart."
Cisneros contrasts Esperanza's burgeoning personal and social awareness with the changes in her friend, Sally. Esperanza wonders about Sally's decision to dress up like someone older and to change her lifestyle. She notices that her friend is now "different" and no longer laughs (82). Later, she discovers that Sally is beaten by her father (92). Esperanza then recounts how Sally met a marshmallow salesman at a school bazaar and quickly married in another state, where underage marriages are legal. By highlighting the results of Sally's actions, Cisneros unveils the consequences of a path followed by many young women in depressed neighborhoods. Upon seeing her friend in her new home and life, Esperanza observes that her friend is "young and not ready but married just the same" (101). Although Sally had hoped to "escape" (101), she now lives an even more confined life, as her husband does not let her talk on the phone or even look out the window. Her friends can visit only when he is at work. Esperanza summarizes the bitter-sweet quality of Sally's victory, by noting that her friend "sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own" (102). Esperanza recognizes that while Sally gains material wealth, she loses her autonomy, character, and, perhaps most important, her dignity.
In spite of her friends falling victim to various forces of economic and social oppression, Esperanza, nonetheless, does not abandon her idealism. Instead, she recognizes the need to broaden the scope of her dream to include the reality of her life on Mango Street. Esperanza, in fact, has a glimpse into her future, on visiting with her three aunts at the funeral of a baby cousin. One of the aunts takes Esperanza aside and, after looking at her for a long time, states: "When you leave you must remember always to come back" (105). The aunt then repeats that line and adds, "A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are" (105). The repetition of this simple sentence draws attention to Esperanza's increasing awareness of a bond between her individual identity and her home space. The aunt, then, for the third time, reiterates her call for Esperanza to remember to come back; this time, however, she clarifies the reason for returning: "For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you" (105). Esperanza's meeting with her aunt further verifies for her the importance of developing her individual talents and accepting the social consequences of her actions.
While gaining insights about her own be-longing, Esperanza benefits from her time with her friend Alicia. Realizing that her friend "doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin" (31-32), Esperanza understands and respects Alicia's commitment to studying hard at the university. Later, Esperanza recalls a conversation during which Alicia confirms the bond between Esperanza's sense of self and her life on Mango Street. Esperanza begins to tell Alicia about her "sadness" at not having a house: "You live right here, 4006 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of" (106). At the time, Esperanza passionately rejects Alicia's declaration: "No, this isn't my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I've lived here." Not wanting to associate herself with her neighborhood, she adds: "I don't belong. I don't ever want to come from here" (106). Alicia, however, verifies the intimate nature of the relation between Esperanza and the neighborhood: "Like it or not you are Mango Street" (107, italics mine). Through this exchange, Cisneros exposes the core of the young protagonist's conflict: on the one hand, Esperanza does not want to be associated with this type of neighborhood, with its oppression and poverty; on the other hand, however, she wants to accept her life, family, and friends, not in some fantasy or abstract space, but in the actual locale where she lives. Esperanza eventually resolves this seeming contradiction in her life by realizing that, first, she must affirm her presence in her own community and then try to improve it, to be a "somebody" who "makes it better" (107).
In light of her encounters and experiences with those around her on Mango Street, Esperanza begins to fashion her desire for a house of her own in a manner that includes both integrity and "heart." She realizes that in order for her own self to emerge to its fullest, her ideal house, in turn, must be her own and "Not a man's house. Not a daddy's" (108). Esperanza, accordingly, distinguishes herself from Sally by rejecting her friend's decision to attain material wealth and status at the expense of her personal character and integrity. Esperanza, instead, imagines that her dream house will be filled with "My books and my stories" (108). With Esperanza realizing that she cannot separate her living space from her creative perspective, Cisneros affirms the interconnection between an individual's physical and psychological reality. By adapting Virginia Woolf's famous novel title, A Room of One's Own, in describing Esperanza's dream for "A House of My Own" (108), Cisneros suggests a possible comparison between Woolf and Esperanza, particularly in terms of their shared strength of character, resolve, and rejection of imperial and patriarchal hegemony. Through this literary reference, Cisneros also echoes Woolf's promotion of communal (over colonial) dynamics, specifically, her recognition of the role and value of the individual in the context of a people.
The novel closes with Esperanza accepting the neighborhood as her own but, at the same time, refusing to become another of its victims. She announces her intention to tell stories about herself, "a girl who didn't want to belong" (109). Esperanza acknowledges that the "sad red house" is "the house I belong but do not belong to" (110). About her future, she remains hopeful. She talks about how, one day, she will leave "Mango" with her books and paper but, with a strong sense of purpose and direction in her life. She explains that her friends and neighbors "will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out" (110). By ending the short novel with this deliberate stylized expression that omits a word of action, Cisneros uses Esperanza's personalized and minimalist language to accentuate the despair of those left behind and their inability to enact change. Overall, through her encounters with a variety of people—young and old—in the neighborhood, Esperanza gains the strength and perspective to challenge the prevalent socioeconomic oppression that, as she has seen, all too often entraps individuals in a life without hope. By realizing that her personal aspirations to be a writer and to have a home of her own carry a social duty, Esperanza also understands that she will become her real and true self only by fulfilling both her personal and communal responsibilities.
In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros brings to the surface the tensions between individual aspirations and societal restrictions (economic, social, racial, gender) inscribed in and, in part, regulating a local community. The short novel's young protagonist quickly learns about the limitations of life in an urban slum and the nature of the struggle she faces to realize her dream of a house of her own. By observing her friends Minerva and Sally, Esperanza also begins to understand the particular difficulties facing young women in the neighborhood. She, in fact, has an encounter of her own that involves inappropriate sexual behavior. While at work at her first job at Peter Pan Photo Finishers, she is confronted by an older Oriental man who, Esperanza recalls, "grabs my face with both hands and kisses me hard on the mouth and doesn't let go" (55). Such vignettes expose Cisneros's double focus, prevalent throughout the novel. On the one hand, she draws attention to the difficulties facing minority populations in ethnic ghettos arising from their economic, gender, and social stratification. On the other hand, she demonstrates that, nonetheless, it is possible to develop and maintain a positive, but not automatically naive, perspective. During these moments, Cisneros shows how Esperanza comes to recognize that only by accepting who she is—deep in her heart—and where she came from will she truly achieve her dream for a "home." Esperanza later realizes that, through her own talents as a writer, she can use her artistry to effect change in her self and her neighborhood. That is, she gains an awareness that she can use her voice as a poet to not only affirm her own sense of self but also to convey this positive energy and life-spirit to others. Esperanza thus begins to learn about the power of the written word and to understand what her aunt had once said to her: "You must keep writing. It will keep you free" (61). She recognizes that her poetry is a means of actualizing her personal vitality and spirit. Through Esperanza's epiphany, Cisneros confirms the potential (albeit at times hidden) for, as Esperanza's name suggests, "hope."
While charting Esperanza's experiences and insights, Cisneros does not ignore the "subaltern, adjunct" (Bhabha 1994, 168) reality, to draw from Homi Bhabha's theoretical readings about the location of culture, of life on Mango Street. Bhabha explains that this type of space "doesn't aggrandize the presence of the West but redraws its frontiers in the menacing agonistic boundary of cultural difference" (168). Through her short novel's distinct narrative strategy, Cisneros opposes forces of hegemony and seeks to break free from boundaries within which minority peoples are often confined. Esperanza's awareness and exploration of different perspectives, then, can be seen as "postcolonial" in, to adapt Bhabha's explanation, its refusal to "give a hegemonic 'normality' to the uneven development and the differential, often disadvantaged histories of nations, races, communities, peoples" (171). Not restricting her perspective to a discourse about a victimized minority culture in America, however, Cisneros also addresses the dynamic interrelationship between spatiality and the formation of the individual and social subject. Specifically, she points to the transformative potential of socially responsible and individually creative thoughts and acts. With her protagonist exhibiting an enthusiasm and vigor for life, Cisneros shows how Esperanza learns to use this energy to build a will within herself. As she develops both a critical and creative awareness, she comes to accept her past and, at the same time, transform her present. By developing this strength of character, Esperanza finds herself able to move beyond assigned, contained, and disempowered mental and physical ghettoes, and live a meaningful and fulfilling life.
Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhailovich. 1981. "Discourse in the Novel." The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist, ed. Holquist, 259-422. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1994. The Location of Culture. New York: Routledge.
Cisneros, Sandra. 1984. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Contemporaries.
DeHay, Terry. 1994. "Narrating Memory." Memory, Narrative, and Identity: New Essays in Ethnic American Literatures, ed. Amritjit Singh, Joseph T. Skeriett Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, 26-44. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
Harlow, Barbara. 1991. "Sites of Struggle: Immigration, Deportation, Prison, and Exile." Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology, ed. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar, 149-163. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.
McCracken, Ellen. 1989. "Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence." In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Reading, ed. Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, 62-71. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Ortega, Eliana, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach. 1989. "At the Threshold of the Unnamed: Latina Literary Discourse in the Eighties." In Breaking Boundaries, 2-23.
Rosaldo, Renato. 1991. "Fables of the Fallen Guy." In Criticism in the Borderlands, 84-93.
Sandoval, Alberto. 1989. "Dolores Prida's Coser y cantar: Mapping the Dialectics of Ethnic Identity and Assimilation." In Breaking Boundaries, 201-220.
Soja, Edward W. 1989. Postmodern Geographies: The Reassertion of Space in Critical Social Theory. New York: Verso.
Michelle Scalise Sugiyama (essay date autumn 1999)
SOURCE: Sugiyama, Michelle Scalise. "Of Woman Bondage: The Eroticism of Feet in The House on Mango Street." Midwest Quarterly 41, no. 1 (autumn 1999): 9-20.
[In the following essay, Sugiyama discusses the thematic usage of feet and shoes, as it relates to the cultural practice of foot-binding, in The House on Mango Street.]
High heels must have been a man's idea—"Their asses will look good and they'll be crippled!"
—Rick Overton, Comic Strip Live, 1991
As a literary scholar, I am embarrassed to admit that I was well into my graduate career before I thought to ask, Why does Cinderella's fate hinge upon a shoe, of all things? Surely it is no accident that the foot (as opposed to some other body part) features so prominently in the tale. The question came to me when I was teaching Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, in which female feet and shoes are strangely and strikingly bound up with romance and sexuality. The answer began to take shape during a fortuitous study break spent on what turned out to be one of those rare, rich morsels of late-night television—namely, the observation by comedian Rick Overton cited above. What started as a little piece of mind-candy developed into an intellectual smorgasbord, with entrees from folklore, ethnography, Chicano studies, feminism, and human ethology. Although the following discussion addresses Cisneros's work in particular, its scope extends far beyond literature and even folklore: Cisneros's use of the foot/shoe motif sheds light on male manipulation of female sexuality and thus on the design and operations of the human mind.
In the chapter "The Family of Little Feet," Esperanza and her friends seem excessively excited by the experience of prancing around in the cast-off high heels which have been given to them: "Do you like these shoes? Rachel says yes and Lucy says yes and yes I say these are the best shoes. We will never go back to wearing the other kind again." (41)
Why all the excitement? The answer to this question lies in the girls' budding sexuality and its concomitant power. High heels accentuate the "female"—elongating the legs, elevating and making more prominent the buttocks, and causing the hips to sway pronouncedly. When the girls slip the shoes on, they suddenly discover, "We have legs"—legs that are "good to look at, and long" (40). Almost immediately after they put the shoes on, the girls begin acting in a sexually provocative manner: Rachel teaches Esperanza and Lucy how to "cross and uncross [their] legs" (40) and the three of them begin "strutting" (41) in their high heels. They are no doubt imitating the slightly older girls in the neighborhood who have already begun to attract sexual attention and of whom Esperanza speaks in admiring and envious tones. They have yet to realize, however, that like these older girls, they too possess sexual power—they seem surprised that their mocksexy posturing draws sexual attention: "On the avenue a boy on a home-made bicycle calls out: Ladies, lead me to heaven. But there is nobody around but us." (41)
Their resolution to "never go back to wearing the other kind" of shoe comes after they realize that the shoes make them sexually attractive to the men around them: Esperanza comments that they strut "[d]own to the corner where the men can't take their eyes off of us" (40). They also appear to sense that their strutting has an effect on women as well: "In front of the laundromat six girls with the same fat face pretend we are invisible. They are the cousins, Lucy says, and always jealous." (41)
This power to arouse men and to make women jealous initially exhilarates them—they "just keep strutting" (41), enjoying for the moment their position as the source rather than the object of power. This power begins to frighten them, however, when their bluff is called by a drunken bum who offers Rachel a dollar for a kiss.
A discussion of female power might seem out of place in a text which focuses primarily on the rigid control of women by men. However, even in a relentlessly patriarchal society, women have a power over men which only the aging process can take away: the power to sexually arouse. That the girls are at least subconsciously aware of the power the female physique has over the male libido is apparent in their deceptively innocent conversations: "You need them [hips] to dance" (49) says Lucy, to which Esperanza responds, "I don't care what kind I get. Just as long as I get hips" (51). And when Esperanza points out that you need hips to have children, Rachel cautions, "But don't have too many or your behind will spread" (50). The girls have observed this power in others and want it for themselves. In a reference to the precocious Sally, Esperanza's mother warns that "to wear black so young is dangerous" (82), but Esperanza wishes that she could wear shoes like Sally's "black ones made out of suede" (82) and wear "nylons the color of smoke" (81).
This power is ultimately a trap for the women of Mango Street, however, and this is illustrated through Cisneros's use of the shoe motif—most notably through the use of high heels. The effect that high heels have on the gait is not unlike the effect of foot-binding, a practice notorious as an expression of male subjugation of women. Anyone who has ever worn high heels knows that they are uncomfortable at best and painful at worst; they slow the gait and make it virtually impossible to run. Overton inadvertently makes the connection between these distinct cultural practices quite clear in the observation that sparked this rumination: "High heels must have been a man's idea—'Their asses will look good and they'll be crippled!'" The responses of men to an attractive woman in high heels and to an attractive woman with bound feet are quite similar; indeed, the erotic appeal of bound feet is well documented. In her essay "The Bride-Show Custom and the Fairy-Story of Cinderella," Photeine Bourboulis cites the Chinese tale of "Miss A-pao," which features a beautiful young woman surrounded by a ring of admirers at a spring festival. The admirers' excitement intensifies as she stands up to leave, after which, Bourboulis emphasizes, the men "criticized her face and discussed her feet" (105). H. A. Giles, in his book The Civilization of China, observes that "any Chinaman will bear witness as to the seductive effect of a gaily dressed girl picking her way on tiny feet some three inches in length, her swaying movements and delightful appearance of instability, conveying a general sense of delicate grace quite beyond expression in words" (106).
Part of the appeal of bound feet is that, as Giles mentions, their growth is retarded, which dramatically decreases their length. High heels, too, cause the foot to appear smaller. Significantly, along with shoes, small feet are a recurring motif in The House on Mango Street. The first thing that is mentioned of Mamacita's physical appearance is her "tiny pink shoe" (76). An entire chapter is devoted to a "Family of Little Feet." And Esperanza's shame and embarrassment at having to wear chanclas with her new party dress is expressed as a feeling of "My feet growing bigger and bigger" and "My feet swell[ing] big and heavy like plungers" (47). On Mango Street, as in old China, female beauty is associated with foot size: because they make her feet feel large and clumsy, Esperanza feels "ugly" (47) in the chanclas.
An appearance of airy gracefulness is another of the appeals of bound feet mentioned by Giles: foot-binding causes a woman to sway from side to side as she walks. High heels cause a similar swaying—"teetottering" (40) is the word Esperanza uses, which suggests the "appearance of instability" Giles refers to. No doubt the "delightful" effect this "appearance of instability" has on the male psyche is due to the actual instability caused. A crippled woman is easier to control than a woman with healthy limbs. Esperanza unconsciously senses the link between high heels and footbinding: in "My Name" she observes that she was born in "the Chinese year of the horse—which is supposed to be bad luck if you're born female—but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong" (10).
Footbinding was practiced, of course, for precisely this reason: to make women weak. By making women physically unstable, men were able to curtail their movement and thereby prevent their sisters, wives, and daughters from engaging in any pre-and/or extra-marital sexual activity. As Laura Betzig suggests, "sexual modesty among women, including such strict institutions as veiling, footbinding, and claustration, might function to raise the paternal confidence of their consorts" (8; see also Dickemann). "Girls are like gold, like gems," says a Chinese interviewee to Giles at the turn of the century. "They ought to stay in their own house. If their feet are not bound they go here and they go there with unfitting associates; they have no good name. They are like defective gems that are rejected" (79). A woman whose feet were bound could not walk very far or for a sustained period of time, and had to be transported from place to place via palanquin. "Chinese ladies not walk abroad like Americans," says a Chinese woman interviewed by an American journalist in 1914. "In streets they go in sedan chairs, always with chaperone." This same woman was able to walk alone only with the aid of tables and chairs (Headland, 288). Thus a foot-bound woman was virtually a home-bound woman; for all practical purposes, she was cloistered.
Interestingly, the women of Mango Street are cloistered as well. The neighborhood is populated by women leaning out of windows, women who can't come outside, women who are literally or figuratively made prisoners in their homes. Marin can't come out of her house because she has to babysit all day—"but she stands in the doorway a lot" (23-24). Rafaela, who is "getting old from leaning out the window so much, gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at" (79). Sally has to go straight home after school, to a "house [she] can't come out from" (82). Minerva "has many troubles, but the big one is her husband who left and keeps leaving" (85)—confining her to the home in effect by leaving her to raise two children all by herself. In short, the men in the story control women by controlling their feet—that is, by not letting them walk abroad. As Julián Olivares notes, for the women of Mango Street, the house represents "not the space of contentment but of sadness, and a dialectic of inside/outside. The woman's place is one of domestic confinement, not one of liberation and choice" (emphasis added, 163).
The subconscious logic behind such confinement is evident in one of the euphemisms for prostitute, streetwalker. A prostitute is an unchaste woman who roams the streets more or less freely. The confinement of a woman to the home can be seen as an attempt to keep her chaste. For it is not female movement per se but rather female sexuality that the men in the text are trying to control. In this way, shoes and feet ultimately come to symbolize female sexuality on Mango Street.
The association of shoes and/or feet with female sexuality is not without precedent. In an essay entitled "Psychoanalysis and Folklore," Ernest Jones discusses the obsolete custom of throwing an old shoe after departing newlyweds, which he claims is "a symbol for the (fruitful) female organ itself, an interpretation that may be supported by quoting the decidedly broad saying that used to accompany it—'May you fit her as well as my foot fits this ole shoe'" (96). In an essay on "Cinderella in China," R. D. Jameson observes that the "use of the shoe in wedding ceremonies, the sanctification of the shoe in parts of China when it is brought to the temple in a ceremony to obtain children, the worship of a shoe as a characteristic symbol of a dead bride by a mourning groom, the gift of shoes by a bride to her husband in signification of her subordination to him and the gift of shoes among Manchus by a bride to her husband's brothers who share her with the husband all lead to the suggestion that we are here dealing with a very intimate and potent symbol" (88).
This "suggestion" is underscored by the vehemence with which the men of Mango Street guard their women. Ellen McCracken argues that "the men in these stories control or appropriate female sexuality by adopting one or another form of violence as if it were their innate right" (67). The text offers numerous examples attesting to this pattern. Consider, for example, Sally. The boys at school think she is pretty, to which her father responds by telling her that "to be this beautiful is trouble" (81). He makes her come straight home from school because, according to Sally, he thinks she is "going to run away like his sisters who made the family ashamed" (92). He beats her so severely when he catches her talking to a boy that she can't go to school for several days. Rafaela, too, is a domestic prisoner, only her jailer is her husband, who locks her in the house because he is afraid she will run off with someone else. As it turns out, Sally's father is not altogether wrong about beauty being trouble: in "The Monkey Garden," Tito and his friends steal Sally's keys and tell her "you can't get the keys back unless you kiss us" (96). Poor Sally is damned if she does and damned if she doesn't: if she kisses the boys, she risks her father finding out about it, for which she will probably be beaten; if she doesn't kiss the boys, she will lose her keys, for which she may also be beaten. Regardless of which option she chooses (i.e., giving in to their blackmail or resisting it) one can easily imagine the situation escalating to rape. Indeed, Esperanza's greatgrandmother's marriage was a virtual rape; she was abducted by Esperanza's great-grandfather, who "threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier" (11). And Esperanza herself is raped in "Red Clowns." The shoe motif and the use of violence by males to control female sexuality come together in the person of Mr. Benny, whose reaction to the high-heeled girls is, to say the least, extreme: "Them are dangerous, he says. You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that. Take them shoes off before I call the cops" (41). Mr. Benny's threat to summon the police confirms that control is indeed the issue: the police are agents of patriarchal power who use force (or threatened force) to control refractory members of society.
The shoe motif enables the reader to see that the power struggle taking place in the world of Mango Street is intrasexual as well as intersexual. The attempts of the men in the story to control female sexuality can be divided into two categories: (1) those that seek to blockade female sexuality, and (2) those that seek to bombard it. In other words, the male quest to control female sexuality is rooted either in fear (that the woman will lose her chastity and thereby shame the family) or desire (to possess the woman sexually), depending on the man's relationship to the woman in question. In either case, the plight of these women is much like that of Sally in the monkey garden, where "[o]ne of the boys invented the rules" (96). Women are pawns in a male struggle for status which is defined and determined, in part, by the control of female sexuality. The link between male socioeconomic status and female sexuality is made quite explicit by Giles, who claims that the motivation behind footbinding was "the social idea that small feet are both a mark of beauty and gentility" (430). This status derives in part from the fact that the feet of slave girls were not bound:
The large-footed has to do rough work, does not sit in a sedan chair when she goes out, walks in the street barefooted, has no red clothes, does not eat the best food. She is wetted by the rain, tanned by the sun, blown upon by the wind. If unwilling to do all the rough work of the house she is called 'gourmandizing and lazy.' Perhaps she decides to go out as a servant. She has no fame and honour. To escape all this her parents bind her feet.
Thus, the foot-bound woman increased the socioeconomic status of those to whom she belonged—first her father and later her husband, which is revealed in the statement of one of Giles's interviewees that "One of a good family does not wish to marry a woman with long feet" (79).
The women of Mango Street are used in a similar way by their husbands. The men "bind" the feet of their wives and daughters by confining them to the home. This, in theory, renders the women chaste, which in turn makes the women "persons of respectability" (Giles, 79) and saves the family from being "ashamed" (Cisneros, 92). As Olivares notes, "A woman's place may be in the home but it is a patriarchic domain" (165).
It is not paradoxical that the home-bound girls of Mango Street yearn for houses. Prisoners in houses ruled by their fathers, they seek escape in the only way they know how: by acquiring their own household to rule over—a house in which they might rule themselves. Unfortunately, the only means of acquiring a house which their rigorously patriarchal culture makes available to them is a husband. Hence, the women of Mango Street are forced into a kind of prostitution, using their sexuality to get husbands, houses, pillowcases, and plates (Cisneros, 101). They think they are escaping the bondage of their fathers but, as they realize too late, they are only exchanging "one repressive patriarchal prison for another" (McCracken, 68), leaving a "[domineering] father for a domineering husband" (Olivares, 164). A case in point is Sally, who gets married "young and not ready" in a state "where it's legal to get married before eighth grade" (101)—an obvious attempt to escape her brutally puritanical father. Sally says she is happy, but it is evident she is no better off than she was before:
Sally says she likes being married because now she gets to buy her own things when her husband gives her money. She is happy except sometimes her husband gets angry and once he broke the door where his foot went through, though most days he is okay. Except he won't let her talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window. And he doesn't like her friends, so nobody gets to visit her unless he is working.
She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission.
Olivares beautifully illustrates how Cisneros deromanticizes the idea of "sex and marriage as escape" through the image of the "tortilla star," Venus, which does not suggest love or romance but instead "means having to get up early, a rolling pin, and tortillas" (164).
The male definition of female beauty which results in marriages that are de facto prostitution and slavery is what Esperanza and her friends are becoming aware of in "The Family of Little Feet." They feel pretty when they put on the high heels, but this attractiveness results in their being propositioned by a bum, who offers Rachel a dollar for a kiss. As McCracken notes, this chapter narrates "the girls' discovery of the threatening nature of male sexual power that is frequently disguised as desirable male attention and positive validation of women, though what is, in fact, sexual reification" (67). This can be seen in "Chanclas," in which Esperanza's self-esteem is dependent upon arousing male sexual interest: "All night the boy who is a man watches me dance. He watched me dance" (48). The male definition of beauty, exemplified by high heels, is psychologically as well as physically crippling in that it requires, ultimately, submission and dependence. Compliance with this beauty standard is one of the ways in which, as María Herrera-Sobek puts it, "women are socialized into being participants in their own oppression" (173). This is perhaps best illustrated in the relationship between the tellingly named Sire and his girlfriend, "tiny and pretty" Lois, who is compared to a baby three times in the same paragraph (73). We are told not that she and Sire hold hands when they go on walks, but that she holds his hand, and that they stop periodically for him to tie her shoes. Whether or not Lois is faking this inability to tie her own shoes, the submission and dependence it results in are quite real: Esperanza tells us that "Sire lets Lois ride his bike around the block [emphasis added]" (implying that Lois has to ask Sire's permission) and that she "see[s] her sometimes running to the store for him" (73). The bum's solicitation of Rachel points out what is expected of women on Mango Street: that they should exchange their sexual services for economic support, and that they should not seek to earn a living in any other way. The girls ultimately reject the high heels because they don't want to be attractive on such terms. "But the truth is it is scarey to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long long leg" (40) says Esperanza. "No longer yours" suggests the ugly truth of which they are becoming aware: their bodies are not their own, but belong to their fathers, brothers, boyfriends, and husbands in succession.
Thus female beauty, self-esteem, respectability, and subjugation are conflated in the image of the crippled foot. The similarities between high heels and foot-binding enable us to see, however, that it is not tiny feet per se but the control of female sexuality they symbolize that is the root of male pleasure here. Foot-binding and high heels function, in effect, as hobbles, making it easier for men to control the sexual activity of their sisters, wives, and daughters. As Martin Daly and Margo Wilson astutely observe, due to the age-old problem of paternity uncertainty, family (i.e., male) honor is to a large degree dependent upon the chastity of its women. What we see here, then, is the male psyche making, so to speak, a virtue of necessity: signs that a woman's chastity is well-guarded (e.g., foot-binding) are perceived as sexually titillating stimuli. This phenomenon is visible in a comment made by one of Giles's interviewees: "Girls are like flowers, like the willow. It is important that their feet should be short, so that they can walk beautifully, with mincing steps, swaying gracefully, thus showing that they are persons of respectability" (79). Ultimately, then, female beauty is equated with bondage. This is sadly evidenced in the character of Marin, who wants to get a job downtown not because she wants to be financially independent but because "you always get to look beautiful and get to wear nice clothes and meet someone in the subway who might marry and take you to live in a big house far away" (26).
The parallel that Cisneros draws between Cinderella and the women of Mango Street is obvious. Like Cinderella, the women of Mango Street are confined to a life of domestic drudgery. Like Cinderella, their suitability as wives is symbolically determined by their shoes and feet. Like Cinderella, they use their sexuality to acquire a husband who they think will take them far, far away where they will live happily ever after. And like Cinderella, the women of Mango Street do not see that this escape is a trap. Hence the blind, unbounded joy of Esperanza and her friends when they first put on the high heels: "Hurray! Today we are Cinderella because our feet fit!" (40). Cisneros's work does not simply re-contextualize what some might consider to be a tired myth, however. Rather, by revealing the common motive underlying cultural practices seemingly far removed from each other in both space and time, Cisneros exposes the logic beneath an otherwise puzzlingly universal symbol. In the process, she presents us with an opportunity to deepen our understanding of human nature (particularly male sexual psychology), arguably one of the highest goals a literary work can hope to achieve. I can't speak for others, of course, but I know that I will never read the Cinderella story, in any of its multifold variations, quite the same way again.
Betzig, Laura. "Mating and Parenting in Darwinian Perspective." Human Reproductive Behaviour. Eds. L. Betzig, M. Borgerhoff Mulder, and P. Turke. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. 3-20.
Bourboulis, Photeine P. "The Bride-Show Custom and the Fairy-Story of Cinderella." Cinderella: A Casebook. Ed. A. Dundes. New York: Wildman Press, 1983. 98-109.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage-Random House, 1989.
Daly, Martin, and Margo Wilson. Homicide. New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 1988.
Dickemann, M. "Paternal Confidence and Dowry Competition: A Biocultural Analysis of Purdah." Natural Selection and Social Behavior: Recent Research and New Theory. Eds. R. D. Alexander and D. W. Tinkle. New York: Chiron Press, 1981. 417-38.
Dundes, Alan. Cinderella: A Casebook. New York: Wildman Press, 1983.
Giles, H. A. Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio. Vol. 1. London, 1880.
Headland, I. T. Home Life in China. London, 1914.
Herrera-Sobek, María. "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction." Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Eds. M. Herrera-Sobek and H. M. Viramontes. Houston: Arte Publico, 1988. 171-81.
Jameson, R. D. "Cinderella in China." Cinderella: A Casebook. Ed. A. Dundes. New York: Wildman Press, 1983. 71-97.
Jones, Ernest. "Psychoanalysis and Folklore." The Study of Folklore. Ed. A. Dundes. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1965. 88-102.
McCracken, Ellen. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence." Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings. Eds. A. Horno-Delgado, E. Orgeta, N. M. Scott, and N. Saporta Sternback. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989. 62-71.
Olivares, Julián. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space." Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Eds. M. Herrera-Sobek and H. M. Viramontes. Houston: Arte Publico, 1988. 160-69.
Leslie Petty (essay date summer 2000)
SOURCE: Petty, Leslie. "Re-Envisioning Chicano Cultural Archetypes: The 'Dual'-ing Images of la Malinche and la Virgen de Guadalupe in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." MELUS 25, no. 2 (summer 2000): 119-32.
[In the following essay, Petty examines how, in The House on Mango Street, Esperanza transcends the traditional imagery of good and bad often associated with Chicana women and thereby acts as a new model of Chicana womanhood.]
In "And Some More," a story from Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, two young girls discuss the nature of snow:
There ain't thirty different kinds of snow, Lucy said. There are two kinds. The clean kind and the dirty kind, clean and dirty. Only two.
There are a million zillion kinds, says Nenny. No two exactly alike. Only how do you remember which one is which?
At first glance, the girls' conversation appears to be a bit of childish nonsense, and, on a surface level, it is. Read in a broader context, however, Nenny and Lucy's debate highlights a conflict that is at the heart of Cisneros's work: the insistence on culturally defining the world by a rigid set of black/white, good/bad, clean/dirty dualities, versus the reality of individuality, uniqueness, and infinite differentiation. Cisneros comments on the difficulties inherent in this clear-cut dichotomy, and she relates this binary specifically to the Mexican influences in her life and writing:
Certainly that black-white issue, good-bad, it's very prevalent in my work and in other Latinas. We're raised with a Mexican culture that has two role models: La Malinche y la Virgen de Guadalupe. And you know that's a hard route to go, one or the other, there's no in-betweens.
According to Cisneros, then, females, like the snow, are not seen in Latino culture as unique individuals but are labeled as either "good" women or "bad" women, as "clean" or "dirty," as "virgins" or "malinches."
Cisneros is not the first writer to acknowledge the difficulties in dealing with this duality nor the cultural archetypes upon which it is based. As Luis Leal observes, "the characterization of women throughout Mexican literature has been profoundly influenced by two archetypes present in the Mexican psyche: that of the woman who has kept her virginity and that of the one who has lost it" (227).1 These archetypes, embodied in the stories of la Malinche, the violated woman, and la Virgen de Guadalupe, the holy Mother, sharply define female roles in Mexican culture based on physical sexuality; however, as historical and mythical figures, these two archetypes take on both political and social significance that also influence perceptions of femininity in the Latin American world.
As the Mexican manifestation of the Virgin Mary, la Virgen de Guadalupe is the religious icon around which Mexican Catholicism centers. Consequently, versions of her historic origin are prevalent throughout the national literature. Although several variations of the story of the Virgin's initial apparitions exist, Stafford Poole identifies the version published in 1649 by the Vicar of Guadalupe, a priest named Luis Laso de la Vega, as the definitive source (26). According to Poole's translation of de la Vega,2 la Virgen de Guadalupe originally appeared to a converted Indian, Juan Diego, in 1531, on the hill of Tepeyac, identifying herself as "mother of the great true deity God" (27). The Virgin tells Juan Diego that she "ardently wish[es] and greatly desire[s] that they build my temple for me here, where I will reveal … all my love, my compassion, my aid, and my protection" (27). Diego immediately proceeds to the bishop in Mexico City, but he is greeted with disbelief. On his second visit, the bishop asks Diego for proof of the apparition. The Virgin sends Diego to the top of the hill, where he gathers "every kind of precious Spanish flower," despite the fact that these flowers are out of season and do not grow on that hill, and the Virgin places them in his cloak (27). When Diego visits the bishop, the bishop's servants try to take some of the blossoms, but they turn into painted flowers. Finally, when Diego sees the bishop and opens his cloak, the flowers fall out, and an imprint of the Virgin is left on the lining of the cloak. The bishop becomes a believer, begs for forgiveness, and erects the shrine to la Virgen de Guadalupe on the hill of Tepeyac.
Several elements of this story are important in the development of the cult of la Virgen de Guadalupe that spread rapidly in Mexico after this apparition. As Octavio Paz observes, "The Virgin is the consolation of the poor, the shield of the weak, the help of the oppressed. In sum, she is the Mother of orphans" (76). In addition to her religious importance, Paz and others recognize the political significance of this nurturing aspect of the Virgin in the formation of a Mexican national identity. First, in Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe, Jaques Lafaye makes the case that la Virgen de Guadalupe is a Christian transformation of Tonantzin, the pagan goddess who was originally worshipped on the hill of Tepeyac (216). This link with Aztec culture is important because it distinguishes the Mexican symbol from its Spanish counterpart, la Virgen de Guadalupe de Estremadura.3 Therefore, as Leal notes, la Virgen de Guadalupe de Tepeyac is "an Indian symbol," and she is "identified with what is truly Mexican as opposed to what is foreign" (229). She is the "protector of the indigenous" (Leal 229). Appropriately, the image of the Virgin was used on banners promoting independence during the Mexican Revolution, and today she is revered as the "Queen of Hispandidad" (Lafaye 230), giving la Virgen de Guadalupe a political designation in Latin American tradition in addition to her religious significance.
The shrine of La Virgen de Guadalupe is a haven for the indigenous population of Mexico. As the incarnation of the Virgin Mary, Guadalupe represents the passive, pure female force. According to Paz, "Guadalupe is pure receptivity, and the benefits she bestows are of the same order: she consoles, quiets, dries tears, calms passion" (76). As such, she represents the holy, chaste woman, the embodiment of feminine purity as well as the virtues of nurturing and self-sacrifice. Thus, she is venerated in Mexican culture as the proper symbol for womanhood.
The antithesis of the pure maternal image of la Virgen de Guadalupe in the Mexican "dual representation of the mother" (Paz 75) is la Malinche, Cortés's interpreter and mistress during the conquest of Mexico. Like the Virgin, the popular perception of La Malinche is based more on legend than historical accuracy, and is therefore often romanticized and contradictory. Even her name is a source of contention. While Spanish accounts refer to her as "Doña Marina" or "Marina," indigenous Mexicans refer to her as "la Malinche," a name that implies the mythical persona as much as the historical woman. In "Marina/Malinche: Masks and Shadows," Rachel Phillips tries to deflate this myth as much as possible by using the small amount of historical documentation available to reconstruct a more factual account of Marina's life.4 To begin with, while historians and contemporaries idealize Marina, identifying her as an "Indian Princess," Phillips shows that although she was from an indigenous Mexican tribe, she was far from royalty. Born in Painala, she grew up speaking Nahuatl and was either sold or given away as a child; therefore, she was enslaved by another tribe and moved to Tabasco where she learned to speak Mayan.
As a young woman, she was given to Cortés, along with nineteen other Indian slave women, as gifts from local Indian leaders. When Monteczuma's envoys came to Tabasco to find out information about Cortés, they spoke only Nahuatl while Cortés's Spanish translator spoke only Mayan. Marina was used to provide the missing link by translating the Nahuatl into Mayan. Marina soon learned Spanish and became Cortés's primary translator. Contemporary paintings and accounts show that Marina was near Cortés at all times and that her skill as a translator helped him defeat Monteczuma, furthering the cause of the Spanish conquest in Mexico. In addition to her role as translator, historical writings confirm that Cortés and Marina had a sexual relationship; she gave birth to his son, Martín. The last bit of information available about Marina is that some time after this birth, on an expedition to Honduras, Cortés gave her to one of his captains, Juan Jaramillo, to marry.
Although the historical facts about Marina are scant, the mythic implications of La Malinche in the Mexican psyche are just as complex and powerful as those of la Virgen de Guadalupe. Octavio Paz explains:
If the Chingada5 is a representation of the violated Mother, it is appropriate to associate her with the Conquest, which was also a violation, not only in the historical sense, but also in the very flesh of Indian women. The symbol of this violation is doña Malinche, the mistress of Cortés. It is true that she gave herself voluntarily to the conquistador, but he forgot her as soon as her usefulness was over.6 Doña Marina becomes a figure representing the Indian women who were fascinated, violated, or seduced by the Spaniards. And, as a small boy will not forgive his mother if she abandons him to search for his father, the Mexican people have not forgiven La Malinche for her betrayal.
Paz exposes the ambivalence that Mexicans feel for the la Malinche figure. While he equates her with the violated Mother at the beginning, he accuses her of betrayal at the end. The paradox is that Malinche embodies both the passivity and violation associated with the fallen woman while simultaneously representing the powerful act of treason as one who "betrays the homeland by aiding the enemy" (Leal 227). Both Malinche's betrayal and her violation threaten the Mexican concept of the Male; she either openly challenges his authority or is not saved by his protection. This dual threat makes her the symbol of the female sexuality that is both denigrated and controlled in Mexican society.
The work of a Chicana writer is threatened in a different way by the la Malinche archetype, a way that makes the role model of la Virgen de Guadalupe just as dangerous. For Cisneros, the dilemma is creating a role model for herself and other Chicanas that is neither limited by this good/bad duality ingrained in Mexican culture, nor too "Anglicized" (Rodríguez-Aranda 65) to adequately represent their experience. When interviewing Cisneros, Pilar E. Rodríguez-Aranda observes, "the in-between is not ours…. So if you want to get out of these two roles, you feel you're betraying you're [sic] people" (65). In response to this dilemma, Cisneros claims that she and other Chicana women must learn the art of "revising" themselves by learning to "accept [their] culture, but not without adapting [themselves] as women" (66).
The House on Mango Street is just such an adaptation. The author "revises" the significance of the Chicana archetypes of la Malinche and la Virgen de Guadalupe through her characterization of females in the book. By recasting these mythical stories from the female perspective, Cisneros shows how artificial and confining these cultural stereotypes are, and through her creation of Esperanza, imagines a protagonist who can embody both the violation associated with la Malinche and the nurturing associated with la Virgen de Guadalupe, all the while rejecting the feminine passivity that is promoted by both role models. Therefore, Esperanza transcends the good/bad dichotomy associated with these archetypes and becomes a new model for Chicana womanhood: an independent, autonomous artist whose house is of the heart, not of the worshiper, nor of the conqueror.
Maria Elena de Valdés observes that in The House on Mango Street, Esperanza is "drawn to the women and girls [in the story] as would-be role models" (59). Not surprisingly, Esperanza does not find many lives that she would like to emulate. Her rejection of these role models stems from each character's close alliance with one of the two Mexican archetypes. Cisneros shows how being culturally defined by either of these two roles makes for an incomplete, frustrated life. While the Virgin Mother is a venerated role model, Cisneros complicates this veneration through her characterization of other maternal figures, most notably, Esperanza's mother and her aunt, Lupe.
In "Hairs," Cisneros paints an intimate picture of Esperanza's relationship with her mother, whose hair holds "the smell when she makes room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her" (6). Like the Virgin, Esperanza's mother is a protector, a haven for her daughter during the rain. This idealized memory is marred somewhat in "A Smart Cookie," in which it is clear that Esperanza's mother is very talented, that she can "speak two languages" (90), and "can sing an opera" (90), but that she is not contented with her life. Mother says, "I could've been somebody, you know?" (91). Apparently, being the nurturing, self-sacrificing mother whose hair "smells like bread" is not sufficient to make Esperanza's mother's life complete. Instead of being a dependent female, Esperanza's mother tells her daughter that she has "[g]ot to take care all your own" (91), alluding to a culture that desires virgin-like women, but which does not reward the desired passivity with the care and adoration also reserved for the Virgin; instead, Mother mentions several friends who have fulfilled their roles as mothers but have consequently been left alone. Mother encourages her daughter to reject this self-sacrificing path that Mexican culture sees as noble, like the Virgin, and to choose instead to "study hard" (91) in school in order to prepare herself for independence.
A more forceful rejection of the Virgin archetype is evident in the characterization of Esperanza's aunt, Guadalupe. Like the mythic character for whom she is named, Aunt Lupe is a passive woman in a shrine, but in "Born Bad," this connection is corrupted with images of sickness, stagnation, and helplessness. Unlike Paz's assertion that "through suffering, our women become like our men: invulnerable, impassive and stoic" (30), there is nothing idyllic or positive about Cisneros's portrayal of a suffering woman. Instead of living in a resplendent holy place, Cisneros's Guadalupe lives in a cramped, filthy room with "dirty dishes in the sink" (60), and "ceilings dusty with flies" (60). The passivity of Lupe is the result of a debilitating illness that has caused her bones to go "limp as worms" (58). Guadalupe is chaste7 like the Virgin, but her lack of sexual activity is not a sign of her moral superiority; it is again caused by her illness and associated with the frustration and longing of "the husband who wanted a wife again" (61).
Aunt Lupe, like Esperanza's mother, does provide a haven of sorts for the young protagonist, even though Esperanza "hate[s] to go there alone" (60). Esperanza says that she likes her aunt because "she listen[s] to every book, every poem I ever read her" (60). Aunt Lupe's home gives Esperanza a safe place to explore her passion for writing and her aspirations as a poet, and this protection is the most positive connection that Cisneros makes between Aunt Lupe and the Virgin. Aunt Lupe encourages Esperanza to "keep writing" because "[i]t will keep [her] free" (61). Ironically, the life that Aunt Lupe encourages Esperanza to follow is not one of passivity and self-sacrifice associated with the Holy Mother; instead Lupe gives Esperanza a push towards independence much like the one that the adolescent girl receives from her own mother. After Aunt Lupe dies, Esperanza begins to "dream the dreams" (61) of pursuing her education and her artistic aspirations.
While the primary female characters associated with the Virgin in The House on Mango Street are adult figures, and therefore distant and revered, the females aligned with la Malinche are adolescents, making them more accessible to Esperanza in her search for role models. The images of la Malinche are more widespread in Cisneros's book than those of the Virgin; in fact, images of the violated, abandoned, or enslaved woman are scattered from beginning to end, indicating that the unfortunate reality of Malinche/Marina's life is a more likely scenario for women in the barrio than that of being worshipped as the ideal mother. Rosa Vargas, a woman with unruly children, "cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar" (29); the abandonment seems to be the reason she is such a distracted, ineffective mother. The husband of another character, Rafaela, locks her "indoors because [he] is afraid [she] will run away since she is too beautiful to look at" (79). In this story, Rafaela, like Malinche, is enslaved because she and her sexuality are viewed as threats that must be contained. Another character, Minerva, who "is only a little bit older than [Esperanza]" (84), has already been abandoned by her husband, who leaves her to raise two children alone. Like Esperanza, Minerva is a poet, but her fate as a "chingada" makes her always sad, and her potential as an artist is consumed by her unlucky fate. As a young, frustrated writer, Minerva's story represents the probable path of Esperanza's life if she were to become inscribed in one of the typical roles for Mexican-American women.
While all of these women represent aspects of the Malinche archetype, perhaps the most sustained exploration of that archetype in The House on Mango Street can be found in the character of Marin, who, like Aunt Lupe, shares the name of the mythical figure she represents. By reading Marin's story through the lens of the la Malinche archetype, one gains insight into the pitfalls of this culturally proscribed role. In "Louie, His Cousin & His Other Cousin," the description of Marin immediately aligns her with the darker, more sexual side of Chicana femininity; she wears "dark nylons all the time and lots of makeup" (23) and is more worldly than Esperanza and the other girls. Like Malinche, Marin is living with people who are not her family, and in a sense, she is enslaved; she "can't come out—gotta baby-sit with Louie's sisters" (23).
It is Marin's aspirations, however, that most closely align her with Malinche. Marin says that,
she's going to get a real job downtown, because that's where the best jobs are, since you always get to look beautiful and 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.
Like Malinche, Marin could be perceived as betraying her family and culture. By "getting a job downtown," she is leaving her neighborhood and her duty as babysitter to go where the "better jobs" are, in the more Anglo-oriented downtown area. However, Marin does not see her actions as an act of betrayal; she is hoping for self-improvement. Just as Malinche's position as translator for the powerful Cortés seems logically preferable to being a slave who "kneads bread"8 for those in her own country, Marin's desire to escape her circumstances are justifiable. But, for Marin, and Malinche, this escape is inextricably tied to dependence on a man. The dream of marriage and a "big house far away" are Marin's sustaining thoughts, but the reality of her focus on sexuality leads to a denigration much like that of Malinche. While Marin believes that "what matters … is for the boys to see us and for us to see them" (27), this contact only provides a space for lewd sexual invitations from young men, who "say stupid things like I am in love with those two green apples you call eyes, give them to me why don't you" (27). Finally, Marin, like Malinche, is sent away because "she's too much trouble" (27).
Through these connections, Cisneros's text appropriates the Malinche myth, showing that this type of dependence on men for one's importance and security is what leads to violation and abandonment. The danger of Marin's "waiting for … someone to change her life" (27) lies in the possible result of this passivity. Paz comments on this potential for down-fall: "This passivity, open to the outside world, causes her to lose her identity: she is the Chingada. She loses her name; she is no one; she disappears into nothingness; she is Nothingness. And yet she is the cruel incarnation of the feminine condition" (77). Cisneros seems to suggest that this "nothingness" is almost inevitable for women in the barrio.
Perhaps no one in The House on Mango Street more fully embodies the "cruel incarnation of the feminine condition" than Esperanza's friend, Sally. At different times in the book, Sally can be aligned with both la Malinche and la Virgen de Guadalupe, and her story reveals both the objectification and confinement associated with each archetype. In "Sally," her description, like Marin's, suggests a link with physical sexuality and desirability. She has "eyes like Egypt and nylons the color of smoke" (81), and her hair is "shiny black like raven feathers" (81). Unfortunately, Sally's attractiveness is the source of much unhappiness. Because her looks are perceived as a sign of promiscuity, she is stigmatized in her school; the boys tell stories about her in the coatroom, and she has very few female friends. More damaging, though, is the reaction of her father, who "says to be this beautiful is trouble" (81), and confines Sally to her room. Like la Malinche, Sally's sexuality is doubly threatening to her father's masculinity. Not only could she betray him by being promiscuous, but her beauty might also entice a man to violate her, which would threaten the father's role as protector. This perceived threat causes her father to erupt in horrific displays of violence, hitting his daughter until her "pretty face [is] beaten and black" (92) because "[h]e thinks [she's] going to run away like his sisters who made the family ashamed" (92). Sally's father uses force to deform her and to contain her threatening sexuality.
To get away from her father's abuse, Sally marries a marshmallow salesman, "young and not ready but married just the same" (101). Sally "says she's in love, but … she did it to escape" (101). Sally perceives marriage as the path for leaving behind the "bad girl" image that links her to la Malinche as well as the violence she associates with this connection. As a wife she gains respectability and a propriety of which her culture approves; her sexuality has been contained within the proper confines of marriage, and now she has the potential to recreate the Virgin's role as nurturer and worshipped love.
In "Linoleum Roses," Cisneros again juxtaposes the reality of the female situation with its mythic counterpart. Significantly, the image of the "linoleum roses on the floor" echoes the story of Juan Diego's flowers that heralded the need for a house of worship for the Virgin. Similarly, Sally's roses are proof of her status as a "good" female. Like the Virgin, Sally gets the home that she wants, but again the house functions more like a prison than a shrine. As Julian Olivares argues, the linoleum roses are a "trope for household confinement and drudgery, and an ironic treatment of the garden motif, which is associated with freedom and the outdoors" (165). Sally "sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without [her husband's] permission" (102). Her only consolation is looking at the roses and the other "things they own" (102). Sally has not gained much from her crossing from one extreme to the other of the good/bad dichotomy that classifies Chicana women. The house of her husband is just as limiting as the house of her father.
Diane Klein has observed that in the stories that Esperanza tells of women in her barrio, the house functions as a place of confinement (23), and this sense of imprisonment exists whether the female is associated with la Virgen de Guadalupe, whose "house" is supposed to be a shrine, or la Malinche, who is enslaved in the metaphorical "house" of Cortés and the Spanish conquerors; Aunt Lupe is just as imprisoned in her home as Marin is in hers. Only Esperanza has a different vision for the house that she wants to inhabit, one that she says is "not a man's house. Not a daddy's" (108), but a "house all my own" (108). Esperanza's quest for a house is crucial in understanding how her character transcends the Malinche/Virgen de Guadalupe duality that defines and confines the other females in The House on Mango Street. As Valdés states, "the house she seeks is in reality her own person" (58), one that is labeled neither "good" nor "bad" by her society. This radical characterization unfolds in a series of vignettes in which Esperanza is alternately aligned with la Virgen de Guadalupe and la Malinche, finally fusing elements of the two archetypes at the end of the text. While Esperanza retains a connection to these myths, her art becomes the key to her transcendence of them.
The most obvious connection made between Esperanza and either of these archetypes is the protagonist's desire for a house, which resonates with la Virgen de Guadalupe's charge to Juan Diego that "they build my temple for me here" (Poole 27). In "Bums in the Attic," Esperanza, like the Virgin, wants "a house on a hill like the ones with the gardens" (86). Esperanza's hill is connected to the hill of Tepeyac, the location of la Virgen de Guadalupe's shrine, and the reference to the garden is easily associated with the flowers on the hill that the Virgin made grow as a sign of her divinity. Perhaps a more significant connection between the Virgin and Esperanza is Esperanza's plan for her house:
One day I'll own my own house, but I won't forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I'll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house.
Esperanza's promise to take care of the bums is important for two reasons. First, it echoes the Virgin's promises to give "aid and … protection" to her followers, and to "hear their weeping … and heal all … their sufferings, and their sorrows" (Poole 27). Furthermore, Esperanza promises not to forget "where [she] came from," establishing a connection with her society that is reminiscent of the Virgin's position as the "truly Mexican" symbol. While some critics mistakenly interpret Esperanza's desire for a house as a betrayal of her heritage that is more in line with the negative aspects of the la Malinche myth,9 her attitude toward the "bums" shows that she is not blind to the needs of those in her community, nor will she neglect her responsibility to that community. Although Esperanza's desire for a house is prompted by her desire for security and autonomy, it also encompasses a degree of compassion and nurturing that represents the noblest qualities of the Virgin archetype.
Esperanza's alignment with the Virgin, however, is complicated in the next story, "Beautiful and Cruel." Esperanza says she has "decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain" (88). Instead, she wants to be like the "beautiful and cruel" female in the movies, whose "power is her own" (89). Accordingly, Esperanza has "begun [her] own private war…. [she is] the one who leaves the table like a man" (89). In this story, Esperanza rejects the passivity associated with all women in her culture, whether they emulate the Virgin or Malinche. Instead, she imagines herself as Paz's "mala mujer," the woman who "comes and goes,… looks for men and then leaves them," whose "power is her own" (31). Paz sees this woman as the female equivalent to the Mexican "macho": "hard, impious and independent" (31). Still, this power is based on the mysterious, threatening existence of female sexuality that links Esperanza with la Malinche. While applauding Esperanza's refusal to be passive, the reader senses that if Esperanza relies on being "beautiful and cruel" to achieve her independence, she will follow a self-destructive path that will inscribe her on the "bad" side of Chicana femininity.
Not until "Red Clowns" is the heroine linked with the violation and forced passivity that are at the root of the la Malinche myth. While Esperanza waits for Sally at the carnival, she is raped by a male with a "sour mouth" who keeps repeating "I love you, Spanish girl, I love you" (100). Overcome with emotion while relating the story, Esperanza begs, "Please don't make me tell it all" (100), and then accuses Sally, saying "You're a liar. They all lied" (100). Like Malinche, Esperanza has been violated by someone outside her own culture, indicated by the rapist calling her "Spanish girl," which perhaps suggests that he himself is not Hispanic. The sad irony is that, also like Malinche, Esperanza is not Spanish, but Mexican, and this taunt falsely identifies her with a culture that is not her own.
This story also connects Malinche and Esperanza through a reference to language: Esperanza's saying, "Please don't make me tell it all" demonstrates just how painful recounting the story of one's own violation can be. As Cortés's translator, Malinche, too, was forced to "tell all" of the words that led to the violation of her country, and her son Martín was a nonverbal admission of the personal violation that Malinche herself suffered. Esperanza, like Malinche, understands the harsh reality of being a chingada. Maria Herrera-Sobek claims that Esperanza's accusations at the end of the story refer to this harsh reality and are directed at "the community of women who keep the truth [about female sexuality] from the younger generation of women in a conspiracy of silence" (178). This truth, according to the female characterizations in The House on Mango Street, is that, whether a woman follows the example of the Virgin, or of la Malinche, being reduced to either side of the good/bad dichotomy entails confinement, sacrifice, and violation.
It is Esperanza's dream for a house, a dream inextricably linked with her poetry, that keeps her from succumbing to her culture's demand that she be identified with one of these archetypes. Olivares interprets Esperanza's house as a "metaphor for the house of storytelling" (168). In such a metaphorical space, Esperanza can create for herself an identity that reconciles the violation and pain that she associates with Mango Street as well as the responsibility she feels to nurture and aid her community, the place in which she "belong[s] but do[es] not belong to" (110). Esperanza imagines:
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. 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 papers? Why did she march so far away?
They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.
Elements of la Malinche and the Virgin are fused in Esperanza's plan. Like Malinche, Esperanza goes off into the world of the "conqueror," the more affluent, anglicized society outside the barrio, and also like Malinche, her motivations will be questioned. However, like the Virgin, Esperanza will return to support, protect, and aid those that need her within the barrio. Esperanza imagines herself as a bridge between these two worlds, and her writing is the tool that helps her create this connection: "I make a story for my life" (109). According to Wendy Kolmar, the "vision at the end of The House on Mango Street can only be achieved by the narrative's resistance of boundaries, separations, and dualisms" (246), and the most significant dualism that Esperanza rejects is the division of "good" versus "bad" females in her culture. Esperanza is neither "good" nor "bad"; she encompasses traits of both the Virgin and la Malinche, but she refuses passively to accept the label of either one. Instead, she sees her life, like her dream house, as a space "clean as paper before the poem" (108), with potential for creativity, autonomy, and most importantly, self-definition.
Not surprisingly, this self-definition is also a goal of Sandra Cisneros as a woman, as well as an author. In her essay, "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess: Unearthing the Racy Past of Mexico's Most Famous Virgin," Cisneros relates her own attempt to redefine what it means to be a Chicana artist by merging dichotomous images of the female: "To me, la Virgen de Guadalupe is also Coatlicue, the creative/destructive goddess…. Most days, I too feel like the creative/destructive goddess Coatlicue, especially the days I'm writing … I am the Coatlicue-Lupe whose square column of body I see in so many Indian women…. I am obsessed with becoming a woman comfortable in her own skin" (46).
1. Leal's article traces manifestations of the violated woman and the chaste woman in Mexican literature, dealing with some historical accounts from the 1660s, but focusing on works written between the 1860s and the 1960s. The author labels the various transformations of the stereotypes with terms such as "the available girlfriend" and the "pure sweetheart." Although Leal makes a convincing case for the existence of this duality, he does not develop a theory as to its significance, saying only that "Mexican literature, like all other literatures, reflects the prejudices of the ages and creates types that are remolded within the limits of these prejudices, most of them derived from the past" (241).
2. My summary of this apparition is based almost exclusively on Poole's translation because it corresponds with and elaborates on the details of the apparition that are found in other sources, such as those given by Leal and Lafaye.
3. Interestingly, Cortés and his troops venerated this Spanish icon (Lafaye 217); perhaps this explains the Mexican insistence on distinction between the two.
4. I use "Marina" consistently in this summary because that is the name Phillips uses.
5. Paz gives a detailed definition of the usage of this term (67-71).
6. Because of her status as a slave, it would seem that Paz's assertion that Marina acted voluntarily is a matter of conjecture.
7. While "chaste" is often used to designate virginity, The American Heritage College Dictionary lists "celibacy" as a third definition. While Lupe is obviously not virginal, all signs indicate that she is currently, and permanently, celibate.
8. Phillips's article includes an eyewitness account that claims this was Marina's original job as a slave (103).
9. In her synthesis of the critical reception of The House on Mango Street, Valdés criticizes Rodríguez's interpretation that "Cisneros's novel expresses the traditional ideology of the American Dream, a large house in the suburbs and being away from the dirt and dirty of the barrio is happiness," and that accuses Esperanza of losing her ethnic identity (289).
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991.
―――――――. "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess: Unearthing the Racy Past of Mexico's Most Famous Virgin." Ms. July-August 1996: 43-46.
Herrera-Sobek, Maria. "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction." The Americas Review 15. 3-4 (1987): 171-88.
Klein, Diane. "Coming of Age in Novels by Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros." English Journal 81.5 (1992): 21-26.
Kolmar, Wendy K. "'Dialectics of Connectedness': Supernatural Elements in Novels by Bambara, Cisneros, Grahn, and Erdrich." Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by Women. Ed. Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. 236-49.
Lafaye, Jacques. Quetzalcóatl and Guadalupe. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1976.
Leal, Luis. "Female Archetypes in Mexican Literature." Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols. Ed. Beth Miller. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. 227-42.
Olivares, Julian. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space." The Americas Review 15. 3-4 (1987): 160-70.
Paz, Octavio. The Labyrinth of Solitude. Trans. Lysander Kemp. 1961. London: Penguin, 1967.
Phillips, Rachel. "Marina/Malinche: Masks and Shadows." Women in Hispanic Literature: Icons and Fallen Idols. Ed. Beth Miller. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983. 97-114.
Poole, Stafford. Our Lady of Guadalupe. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1995.
Rodriguez, Juan. "The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros." Austin Chronicle (August 10, 1984). Cited in Maria Elena de Valdés. "The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Gender, Self and Society. Ed. Renate von Bardeleben. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993. 287-300.
Rodríguez-Aranda, Pilar E. "On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with the Writer Sandra Cisneros." The Americas Review 18.1 (1990): 64-80.
Valdés, Maria Elena de. "The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." Gender, Self, and Society. Ed. Renate von Bardeleben. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993. 287-300.
Marco Portales (essay date 2000)
SOURCE: Portales, Marco. "Rape and Barrio Education in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." In Crowding Out Latinos: Mexican Americans in the Public Consciousness, pp. 121-34. Philadelphia, Penn.: Temple University Press, 2000.
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Felicia J. Cruz (essay date winter 2001)
SOURCE: Cruz, Felicia J. "On the 'Simplicity' of Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street." Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 910-46.
[In the following essay, Cruz reflects on the cross-cultural popularity of The House on Mango Street, noting how varying aspects of the novel impact different audiences.]
As I perused the back cover of a recent Vintage Books edition of The House on Mango Street a short while ago, I read that it has been translated worldwide and that it has become a "classic" work in the canon of coming-of-age novels. This prompted me to think about whether this edition of Mango Street —which appeared identical to my personal copy (an earlier, 1991 Vintage Books edition)—sought to interpellate similar, if not the same, groups of readers that contributed to the consolidation of the unwavering popularity of Cisneros's rite-of-passage book.1 Consequently, upon returning home, I retrieved my copy of Mango Street and saw that its back cover declares that the novel "signals the emergence of a major literary talent." The appeal of Mango Street clearly remains unabated in both the real and literary worlds.2 Yet, the fact that that this book, within six years after its publication in 1984 by the small, Hispanic publishing house Arte Público, had attracted enough attention to prompt its publication by a mainstream publisher warrants further consideration of the circumstances surrounding its seemingly meteoric rise within the US publishing industry.
According to Alvina Quintana, 1984 was a watershed year that "witnessed a revitalized interest in Chicana literature." Explains Quintana, "Although the National Association for Chicano Studies had organized annual conventions for eleven years, not until 1984 at the twelfth national conference in Austin, Texas were scholars sanctioned by the theme of the convention—Voces de la Mujer (women's voices)—to address issues related to an emergent Chicana feminist movement" (54).3 Quintana refers to the Chicana reading and book signing sessions sponsored by Arte Público as the highlight of the conference, identifying Cisneros in particular as the standout among a group of writers that included Pat Mora, Evangelina Vigil, and Ana Castillo: "Only [her] Mango Street defied the poetic form previously privileged by many Chicana writers.[…] Cisneros defined a distinct Chicana literary space […], challenging, at the least, accepted literary form, gender inequities, and the cultural and economic subordination of minorities" (55). Further, Ramón Saldívar included Cisneros among the Chicana writers whose work, produced in the 1970s and 1980s, represented "the most vibrant new development in Chicano narrative" (171). These writers were impressive, according to Saldívar, because of their active engagement within "the ongoing disruption of the absolute fusion of hegemonic ideologies and the status quo" (199). Echoing Saldívar, Nicolás Kanellos, the founding publisher of Arte Público, identified Cisneros as one of the "new" generation of college-educated Chicano writers whose works were endorsed by prestigious foundations (two of which awarded fellowship grants to Cisneros: the NEA and the Macarthur Foundation) and were published by mainstream publishers:
[These writers] inscribed themselves on the published page precisely at the time when literary publishing was[…] opening up to women as writers and intellectuals […]. It was this generation, very much aware of the business of writing, of the industry's networks, and of the norms of language, metaphor, and craft protected by the academy, that was able to break into commercial and intellectual circles and cause a stir.
Since its initial publication in 1984, the readership of Mango Street has expanded beyond the pale of Chicano and Latino communities to include families and students of all ages and ethnicities.4 According to María Elena de Valdés, a 1988 essay on Chicano criticism marked "a turning point in Cisneros's criticism, moving […] into the richer context of North American literature and out of the limited area of ethnic writing." Valdés continues, "1989 and 1990 criticism no longer [had] to explain the barrio or the author's relation to it or what it means to be a Chicana writer" ("Critical Reception" 290). Another critic, Delia Poey, points out that Mango Street is not only frequently assigned in American literature courses, but is also regularly incorporated into courses on women's and multicultural literatures (216). The specific focus of Poey's study is the nature of the appropriation in multicultural classrooms and literary anthologies of Mango Street as a "representative" work of Chicano or Latino writing.5 Post 1990 studies of Mango Street extrapolate from Saldívar's focus on the marginalized situation of enunciation of Chicano writing, to Maria Szadziuk's consideration of Cisneros's book through the lens of "postnational, multicultural" societies in the US (109).6 Speaking to feminist approaches to Cisneros's book, Andrea O'Reilly Herrera claims that Mango Street "raises disturbing questions regarding both female nature and the realities and fictions of development for women in general, and Chicanas in particular" (199). The drawing power of Mango Street indeed encompasses both "students of life" and literature.
In light of the reception trajectory of Mango Street, it is not surprising that during the summer of 1991 the college one of my sisters attended sent her a copy to read (before the start of classes); Cisneros's book appeared to have acquired elite status as a "representative" work of multicultural literatures in the curricula of high schools and colleges.7 When my sister arrived on campus in September, she participated in one of various small-group discussions on the novel. A couple of years later, I saw the book on one of her bedroom shelves and asked her if she'd liked it. Almost apologetically, she nodded her head in dissent and replied, "Not as much as I'd hoped to." At the same time, however, she indicated that many of her peers and the faculty members who had led the campus-wide discussions had been quite taken by it. My sister's comments brought to mind the collective reaction of my own students to Cisneros's novel during the spring of 2000; students from both the English and Spanish departments at the university where I teach had lavished enthusiastic praise on the book: some admired its lyrical, albeit "simplistic" tone, while others related to the trials and tribulations of the novel's young female protagonist.8 Their positive appraisals of Mango Street, moreover, concurred with the positive assessment of various critics in the United States and beyond, in countries such as Spain, Italy, Germany, France, Hungary, and Denmark.9
Still, the widespread appeal of Mango Street raises the question of why. To put the question one way, if this novel, as Poey has suggested, has become a "representative" selection in anthologies of American and Multicultural Literatures, what, exactly, can be said about its range of "representativity" (202)? Can it be that my younger sister and my stepmother (who did not like the book either) did not come across anything in Mango Street that moved them enough to sustain their interest in it? Further, had one or both of them brought unrealistic expectations to a book that they had both known, prior to reading it, was famous?10 In light of the divergent opinions among not only my students but also among critics regarding Mango Street 's content, and, ultimately, its meaning, one might ask whether the general process of reading this book adds up to a matter of different readers differentially ascribing meaning. If this is the case, perhaps it remains to be asked, does Mango Street mean whatever one wants it to?
It's Not That Simple
Teaching Mango Street after a hiatus of six years dredged up questions and textual ambiguities that had not only surfaced the first time I had read it, but had also remained unresolved and/or unsatisfactorily addressed the first time I taught it in 1994. As I pondered both my students' reactions to and assessment of the novel and compared these to the opinions of various critics, it struck me that whereas both groups had consistently pinpointed the "simplicity" (Quintana 57; Saldívar 181), "accessibility" (Reuben Sánchez 222) and seeming directness of Cisneros's novel and had continually remarked on its poignancy and "poetic" force (Quintana 150), in reality, each group had actualized the book in different ways. In other words, each group of readers had engaged, had been thinking—and thinks—about different aspects of Mango Street, both textual and contextual. This in turn affects and effects varied opinions about what it "means." Thus the overarching concern of the rest of this essay will be to look in greater detail at the nature of the book's ostensible simplicity. On the one hand, doing so will permit me to identify some of the aspects and areas of the novel through which readers differentially ascribe meanings to it. On the other hand, consideration of some of the referentially ascribed meanings of Mango Street avails the opportunity to underline that few of its numerous critical readings pay sufficient respect and/or attention to one of the book's preeminent themes, what Iser calls "fictionalizing acts" ("Representation" 218). Hopefully, the final portions of this essay will be able to account for or accommodate such varied reader responses as, "it is about growing up," to "it's about a Chicana's growing up," to "it is a critique of patriarchal structures and exclusionary practices." Before proceeding, however, a few caveats are in order.
On a personal level, if not from a reception theorybased approach to the book (rezeptionstheorie), Mango Street has remained enigmatic for me from the standpoint of "aesthetic response theory" (wirkungstheorie). The latter, in my opinion, begs for closer scrutiny. Reception theory, as Wolfgang Iser reminds us, has to do with following and delineating the "history of judgments" of a literary work's readers. By contrast, aesthetic response theory has its "roots in the text," and "focuse[s] on what happens to us through [the literary work]" (Iser, Act of Reading preface x). However, having to focus on the processes of what happens to individuals as they read Cisneros's book presents a challenge, given the "multivalent," "incomplete" and "open" (Poey 205) nature not only of language, but of literary texts. Regarding the thorny question of intentionality and speech, for example, James Edie reminds us that "[u]ltimately, what one means to say will always remain incomplete and unsatisfactory" (148). Further, given the purported "conversational," "dialogic" tone of Mango Street, the fact that it is not rendered through speech makes discussing its meaning(s) even more complex. Among other critics, Poey underlines the slippery quality of both spoken and written discourse, as she defers to the discipline of linguistics: "[A]ll units of language are necessarily incomplete or open. No utterance or written text is free of ambiguity. In the case of the written text, undecidability is further complicated in that body language or physical expressions are absent as contextual clues, and clarification on the part of the speaker is simply not an option" (205). Edie emphasizes, moreover, that finding meaning is neither tantamount to "the act of referring" nor to discerning "mental images" or "clear, distinct ideas open to introspective inspection" (141).
Overall, in light of the wide range of responses to Cisneros's book, it seems reasonable to assert that all readers appropriate aspects of Mango Street in differential, subjective ways. As Jody Norton sees it, Mango Street communicates in highly personal ways; it therefore evokes highly personal responses. "To use a text as literature is," as Norton remarks, "to read it responsively—to read oneself through it, in a double sense, with a concentration, at once of empathy and self-reflexivity, that enables one to experience the text conjunctively from without and from within—that is, aesthetically" (590).
The Novel as Vox Populi
For various readers, the novel briefly recounts the straightforward story of Esperanza, a young girl who desires and embarks on a quest for the American dream. In the introduction to the Knopf edition of Mango Street, published a decade after the novel's initial publication, Cisneros draws attention to the re-flexivity with which readers have viewed her novel—the neighborhood, plot, and life experiences portrayed therein—as a mirror of (their) reality: "I've witnessed families buying my book for themselves and for family members, families for whom spending money on a book can be a sacrifice.[…] And there are letters from readers of all ages and colors who write to say that I have written their stories" (Introduction xix). These comments, in addition to others that Cisneros makes, underline the popularity, and personal, strong, emotional impact it has had on members of the general public, across ethnic-, gender-, and generational lines: "Often [families] bring a mother, father, sibling, or cousin along to my readings, or I am introduced to someone who says their son or daughter read my book in class and brought it home for them.[…] The raggedy state of my books that some readers and educators hand me to sign is the best compliment of all" (Introduction xix).
Besides signifying the popular appeal of her book, Cisneros's comments proffer possible explanations for why Mango Street seems so accessible. Among the reasons she gives are its nonintellectual themes and its rebellious, colloquial, even antiliterary tone. Concerning the novel's themes Cisneros admits to "'search[ing]' for the 'ugliest' subjects [she] could find, the most un-'poetic'—slang, monologues in which waitresses or kids talked their own lives." Cisneros's iconoclasm is further confirmed in the admission that she "was trying the best [she] could to write the kind of book [she] had never seen in a library or in a school, the kind of book not even professors could write" (Introduction xv). Central to this task, indicates Cisneros, was language itself. "It's in this rebellious realm of antipoetics," remarks Cisneros, "that I tried to create a poetic text with the most unofficial language I could find." She adds that "[t]he language in Mango Street is based on speech," and is "very much an antiacademic voice—a child's voice, a girl's voice, a poor girl's voice, a spoken voice, the voice of an American-Mexican" (Introduction xv). Hence, the colloquial tone and antiliterary inflection of her novel.
Cisneros's remarks additionally point out the novel's deliberate deployment of child-like speech, which presents readers the opportunity to eavesdrop on the innocent, earnest, youthful thoughts that the protagonist Esperanza draws out within and across the vignettes she depicts. For Quintana, the child-like naiveté and simplistic conversational tone of Mango Street serve as a counterpoise to the "somber realities" to which it speaks (such as rape, incest, and cultural, racial, sexual prejudice) (57). Notwithstanding the gravity of these realities, the childlike ingenuousness of Esperanza serves as a buffer to the real world. Moreover, Cisneros's use of first-person narrative seems to impart to Esperanza's tales a sense of immediacy and intimacy between the book's characters and readers (implied and actual). Consequently, Mango Street might at first glance seem to be an "easy" read.
However, reflexive readings of Mango Street, such as relating to it as if it were live speech, may encourage "the naive notion that a literary text is a kind of transcript of the living voice of a real man or woman addressing us" (Eagleton 120). It is thus not surprising that correlative to the common tendency to view the content of Mango Street in mimetic fashion, as a direct reflection of reality, is the impulse to view Esperanza as Cisneros. Cisneros has considered the phenomenon of conflating the standpoint of Mango Street 's narrator with her own views. Responding to the issue of whether or not her book is "about her," she acknowledges the autobiographically-inclined beginnings of Mango Street: "When I began [it, in 1977, as a graduate student in Iowa City], I thought I was writing a memoir. By the time I finished it, [in 1982], my memoir was no longer memoir, no longer autobiographical" (Introduction xi-xii). Yet, in consideration of the perennial question concerning whether or not "she is Esperanza," Cisneros evasively responds, "Yes. And no. And then again, perhaps maybe" (Introduction xix).11
Quintana further confirms Mango Street 's "tendency to conflate the two perspectives [the point of view of the author and the standpoint of the narrator]," which, she indicates, "has led some critics to argue that Esperanza's narrative (and, by implication, Cisneros's politics) simply illustrates an individual's desire for a house outside the barrio" (58). Consequently, for some Chicanos, whose writing and criticism in large part begins from the premise of collective resistance to mainstream institutions, values, and behavior, Cisneros's novel sends out the transparent message that individualistic pursuits are tantamount to the betrayal of one's community. For example, in an early review of Mango Street, Juan Rodríguez took its protagonist and, by extension, its author, to task for her "assimilationist" stance (qtd. in Quintana 59). Rodríguez equated Esperanza's choice to leave Mango Street, "her social/cultural base," with becoming more "Anglicized" and individualistic (qtd. in Quintana 150), and judged her desire to become a writer in terms of betrayal: "that she chooses to move from the real to the fantasy plane of the world as the only means of accepting and surviving the limited and limiting social conditions of her barrio becomes problematic to the more serious reader" (qtd. in Quintana 150-51).
Setting aside the thorny issue of defining "the more serious reader" and distinguishing her or him from other (less serious?) readers, Rodríguez's comments underline the tendency of certain, if not all, readers to conflate their own agenda, their personal horizons of experience, and their own expectations regarding Cisneros's book with their opinions about the politics and/or probable intentions of Cisneros herself. Among others, Reuben Sánchez warns that this type of criticism is limited, if not counterproductive. For him, Rodríguez's comments present an example "of what can happen when one does not evaluate a literary text on its own terms and on the terms appropriate to the genre, when one complains instead of analyzes" (231). He suggests, furthermore, that "[t]he literary value of [Cisneros's book] is […] suspect for Rodríguez," and admonishes that "his conclusions seem based on whether [the author] espouses a particular ideology" (230). Valdés concurs with Sánchez, stating that such reviews are themselves an "ideological response to the challenge of the creative power of the text" (294). She adds that "[t]he most limited and useless responses are those that use the text in order to express the ideological posture of the commentator" (294). Turning back to Rodríguez's critique of Esperanza, and, by extension, of Cisneros, Sánchez suggests that he "does not recognize that [her] text is political and serious in that she writes about oppression (political, economic, sexual) and the way her protagonist might free herself from that oppression" (230-31). Like Valdés, Sánchez points to the source of Rodríquez's contention: "[Cisneros's] politics just do not happen to be his politics" (231).
Still, Cisneros herself has noted that even when Latina/o readers do not condemn Esperanza for wanting to be alone and/or leave, nevertheless, some, especially Latinas, are puzzled by her resolve to set herself apart from others. In an interview with Martha Satz fifteen years after the publication of Mango Street, Cisneros remarked, "According to their perspective, to be alone, to be exiled from the family, is so anti-Mexican" ("Return" 182). Cisneros alluded to her own feelings of guilt in terms of betrayal: "For a long time—and it's true for many writers and women like myself who have grown up in a patriarchal culture, like Mexican culture—I felt great guilt betraying that culture. Your culture tells you that if you step out of line, if you break […] norms, you are becoming anglicized […] ("Return" 170). It is interesting to note that in its allusion to the prospect of "becoming [a]nglicized," Cisneros's voice appears to resonate with Rodríguez's, albeit not with the condemnatory tenor that his evinces. Cisneros seems to be speaking within the fold of her perception of the collective Chicano community, which commonly emphasizes group unity over individuality. The general stance of this community, and other disenfranchised groups, is resistance to and self-definition vis-à-vis mainstream institutions and values, not having had equal access to economic and educational opportunities, nor a political voice (which has been recognized by the powers that be) or equal participation in mainstream-controlled institutions and policymaking. As such, from within this group, which so intensely focuses on collectivity, one would likely have difficulties conceiving of, much less making, the decision to break away from the community, in order to tend to individual concerns and/or pursue individual goals. Nonetheless, Cisneros's protagonist does draw attention to and underscores the heterogeneity within her perception of the Chicano community, constantly pointing to, for example, inequity between the two sexes ("Boys and Girls"), between different generations within the same family ("My Name," "Alicia Who Sees Mice," "A Smart Cookie"), and between different ethnic communities presiding in the same general vicinity ("Cathy, Queen of Cats," "Those Who Don't").
At this point, in order to underline Cisneros's and some other Chicana/o writers' simultaneous inclusion and exclusion in both mainstream and ethnic (for lack of a better term) cultures, it might be useful to emphasize what Gloria Anzaldúa referred to in 1987 as the "bordered" condition or "interstitial" (20) situation of enunciation that Chicanas, women of color, and other groups embody and occupy. As Rosaura Sánchez points out, "[various] ethnic groups in this country[…] suffer both inclusion and exclusion. Ideologically, thanks to the media and to our educational system, [Chicanos] will probably all have swallowed the same myths and yet, materially, be excluded from the lifestyle, goods and services that characterize the life of middle classes in the US" (81). From an autobiographical standpoint, Cisneros's experience in the prestigious Iowa Writer's Workshop underlines the extent to which even the apparent attainment of the myth does not result in the happily-ever-after. On one hand, she alludes to the privileged position in which she found herself: "[U]nlike many young writers I've met in the barrio […], I was born at a time when there were government grants that allowed me to pursue higher education. I was able to attend an undergraduate program that had a writer in residence, and he […] took a great interest in my work and recommended me to the University of Iowa.[…] I entered rather naívely […]" ("Return" 169). At the same time, Cisneros acknowledges her discomfiture, her feelings of being neither-here-nor-there within academia. She reveals that while she was physically present in class, emotionally she felt totally out of it: "Coming from a working class background, an ethnic community, an urban community, a family that did not have books in the house, I just didn't have the same frames of reference as my classmates. It wasn't until [I] realized and accepted that fact that [I] came upon the subjects [I] wanted to write about." Her voice, "a street child's voice," would, in reality, emerge at the antipodes of the "very distilled writing" of her middle-class classmates, once she had rebelled. "[A]s an attempt to move far away from their style," she concedes, "I stumbled upon the voice that predominates in the House on Mango Street […]" ("Return" 169).12
Cisneros's comments, spoken at a far chronological and geographical remove from the origins of the writ-ing of her novel, seem to epitomize the experience of the displaced individual or displaced ethnic community that, being rooted in or tied to a larger culture (the US), to a large extent has been indoctrinated with (and has appropriated) mainstream Western values. Cisneros's protagonist, Esperanza, gives voice to this very issue. Initially, she acknowledges that her ideal house consists of a private dwelling with "real" stairs, "like the houses on T.V.," a house like "the [one] Papa talked about when he held a lottery ticket," and "the [one] Mama dreamed up in the stories she told us before we went to bed" (4). Mango Street, however, bears no resemblance to Esperanza's dream house: "The House on Mango Street is ours, and we don't have to pay rent to anybody, or share the yard with the people downstairs, or be careful not to make too much noise, and there isn't a landlord banging on the ceiling with a broom. But even so, it's not the house we thought we'd get" (3). Even before her family manages to procure a house of their own, Esperanza, as Cisneros in graduate school, is made painfully aware of her difference, and exclusion from "others":
Once when we were living on Loomis, a nun from my school passed by and saw me playing out front.[…]
Where do you live? she asked.
There, I said pointing up to the third floor.
You live there?
There. I had to look to where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded. I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to.
Esperanza, as Rosaura Sánchez and Quintana stress, actually experiences concurrent inclusion in and exclusion from mainstream society. "On an ideological level, [she] dreams the American dream; [but] on a material level, like all in her community she remains systematically excluded from it" (Quintana 57).13 Extrapolating from the theme of practices of exclusion in mainstream culture, Reuben Sánchez points out the significance of the gender of Mango Street 's protagonist for the Chicano community as a whole. Sanchez remarks:
The Chicana's concern with 'place'—a house, or room of one's own is a reaction against the patriarchal myth that denies the Chicana a place of her own.[…] The reality the Chicana addresses,[…] is the reality of her restriction to the urban setting—particularly the house or the room. That setting is Esperanza's past and her present in [the novel]; she recognizes that it might very well be her future as well.
Whereas Esperanza's resolve to distance herself from her family and community has struck and strikes readers in some communities as puzzling, if not reprehensible, for other individuals, solitude, striking it out on one's own, and breaking away from one's family constitute the very steps needed for growing up, even for becoming part of the "real world." My undergraduate seminar students, for example, viewed Esperanza's desire to acquire a house and her vow to become independent and self-sufficient as universal ideals that somehow correspond to a natural right which—in the liberal democratic spirit of the Founding Fathers—is, or should be available to all American citizens. These readers, who uncritically, if not unconsciously, identify with mainstream views, inscribed Esperanza's dream in a foundational democratic rhetoric and declaration (that the pursuit of freedom, liberty, and happiness is the right of all American citizens); they did so reflexively, in the naíve, albeit earnest belief that an iron will and individual hard work (that is, the Protestant work ethic) would eventually lead her to her dream. What, then, can we make of the diametrically opposed perceptions of some working-class Chicanos and those of my middle-class Caucasian students regarding the textual phenomenon of Esperanza's desire for self-sufficiency and individualism?
If, on the one hand, the uncritical transcription of Esperanza as the "voice" of Cisneros is carried out by both students and scholars in both Latino/a and non-Latino/a communities, there may be on the other hand a marked difference among each group's perception of what the novel's prevalent themes and/or issues are. For example, the majority of my undergraduate students overlooked the regional specificity of the novel, sidestepping its pointed focus on the relation between issues of ethnicity and class and the novelistic representation of ideologies of exclusion based on the protagonist's Chicana background and working-class roots.14 The students focused instead on feelings of alienation, discomfiture, and solitude that they themselves had experienced as children.15 Speaking to the issue of the indelible nature of childhood trauma, Norton asserts, "Because most of us have our own memories of a moment when our preadolescent reality seemed suddenly to have shifted to one side without telling us[…,] it is easy to engage Cisneros's poignant (because simple and frank) account, and to make literary experience through the intertextual relation of Cisneros's fiction and our own emotional past" (595).
Even after they were asked to identify and analyze specific vignettes that treated particularly harsh incidents and issues, the students by and large spoke to instances in the book that are gender- and family-centered; not a single student drew attention to any of the vignettes centered on class and ethnicity. Perhaps because they have either never experienced or witnessed the sorts of discrimination reflected in the novel, or because they genuinely believe or would like to believe that all Americans are equal American citizens with equally strong chances and opportunities to garner "success," it was very difficult for my students to apprehend, much less feel, the extent to which Esperanza—and, by extension, her community—exists at a far remove from white, middle-class standards and styles of living. These students, not unlike readers who are unable and/or unwilling to accommodate a Chicana's (Esperanza's) individualism, were even less likely to come to the realization that their reality, and, by extension, the world is not homogeneous (that is, it is not the same for all).
The selective vision of my students mirrors a general tendency among formalist critics to overlook the very contextual lenses—ethnicity, race, gender, and class—through which other scholars, namely resistance-inclined critics (including Chicanas and Latinas) routinely focus their writing. How can the respective foci of these groups of readers be so diverse, now universal-inflected, now barrio-bent?16 Perhaps in reference to universalist critics, Quintana partially attributes the wide-ranging appeal of Mango Street to its capacity to speak to non-ethnic and/or mainstream readers in a "dispassionate" tone (72). For Quintana, Cisneros's novel—in contrast to other, more openly aggressive, angry works by other female writers of color—extends textual accessibility to readers, men and women alike, in a "nonthreatening" way (73). Poey, moreover, discerns in Mango Street a high level of language- and contentbased "intelligibility," which she defines as "the degree to which a given text is accessible to a given community of readers based on that community's prior knowledge and expectations deployed in making meaning and assigning value." As Cisneros's own comments suggest, one need not be Chicano or Latino to find meaning in Mango Street. Why? As Poey states, "The negotiation of [the] meaning [of a literary work] is removed from the speaking or writing subject and transferred to the text, so that the interaction is contextualized through the reader's prior experience […]" (205). As such, the process of making meaning is tied to a dialectic involving the contextualization of aspects/themes of a literary work according to one's personal views and experiences. It might appear, then, that to a certain extent, the literary work can "mean" what and how readers want it to.
Yet, there are some common themes and aspects of Mango Street that numerous readers recognize, if even briefly. Reuben Sánchez focuses on the book's treatment of the common need/desire to escape or have some other place to go: "Why Esperanza wishes to escape Mango Street and why she must return are issues Cisneros addresses by means of the home versus homeless theme. In doing so, she has created a narrative account of 'a condition we all recognize'—a narrative, further, accessible to both the adult reader and the child reader" (228). O'Reilly Herrera (195-96) and Poey both draw attention to the ease with which various readers (in my opinion, including students, scholars, and mainstream publishing houses) relate to and classify Cisneros's book as a bildungsroman or "novel of youth or apprenticeship" (Poey 206).17 Additionally, Norton identifies "the trauma of exclusion" experienced during childhood as an especially poignant "specific paradigm of structurally significant experience" (593), since youth "is the location of personality formation." As such, continues Norton, any narrative "that explores this existential chronotope speaks to us about the single most structurally significant portion of our lives" (594). Further, given that Mango Street 's protagonist, by contrast to those of classical bildungsroman narratives, is a young girl, various critics also extrapolate from the book's criticism of patriarchal structures and ideology. These studies work with what they see as Mango Street 's feminist resonance with Virginia Woolf's concept, "a room of one's own."18 From a yet more contextually specific perspective, however, I continue pondering how students like the ones I have had can persist in apparently not seeing what seem to be for me obvious markers of racial, ethnic, class, and cultural conflict in Cisneros's novel.
If we turn to Iser's claim that most, if not all people try to establish consistency while reading, or, in other words, if we agree that sensemaking—ordering, harmonizing, and movement toward closure—is "essential to all comprehension" (Act of Reading 16), then answering this question seems less daunting.19 Iser stresses that the search for meaning, in contrast to the common notion that it seems "natural" or "unconditional" (3), is, in actuality, "considerably influenced by historical norms," namely classical norms of interpretive criticism, such as harmony, order, symmetry, unity, coherence, and completeness. Endeavors to find symmetry and make connections are, to Iser's thinking, tantamount to "grappling with the unknown": "Symmetry relieves one from the pressure of the unfamiliar by controlling it within a closed and balanced [and familiar] system." In his opinion, the "debt" owed by New Criticism (through which several of my students were taught) to the "classical norm of interpretation" is none other than "[t]he harmonization and eventual removal of ambiguities," which is frequently accompanied by an exclusive focus on aesthetic technique or concern for interpreting the "intrinsic elements" of a literary work (Act of Reading 15). (The result is an abundance of decontextually-centered assessments of Mango Street 's poetic, lyrical, although childlike, style). Conceivably, as Rosario Ferré has suggested in an article on translation between Spanish and English language and culture, the particular issues, instances, and themes to which my students did not speak proved to be "lacunae" evinced by "missing cultural connotations" (162). As such, it is possible that these New Critically inclined students simply overlooked issues that other (Latino) reader-critics emphasize, choosing instead to trace and connect threads and stories that had safe and/or immediate relevance in, or significance to, their own lives. Poey implies, for instance, that unless readers come to a literary work already believing that it is "significant," they "will work toward making meaning in a more limited way since [they are] more uncertain about the potential payoff of [their] effort[s]" (208).
To be fair, I do not mean to give the impression that my students were wholly oblivious to the racial and ethnic strains in Cisneros's book. Several of them had, after all, demonstrated or professed that they believed in multiculturalism per se and felt they were more culturally and politically liberal than conservative. Perhaps this particular group of students could be counted as proponents or constituents of what Goldberg conceives as "weak multiculturalism," which "consists of a strong set of common, universally endorsed, centrist values to which everyone—every reasonable person irrespective of the divisions of race, class, and gender—can agree." Weak multiculturalism, in Goldberg's opinion, admits and "[is] combined with a pluralism of ethnic insight and self-determination provided no particularistically promoted claim is inconsistent with the core values" (qtd. in Poey 209). In light of this, perhaps my students, after all, found no need to harp on the cultural, regional specificity of Mango Street, given that its heroine ultimately seemed to want what they do: a space of her own, and the freedom to go there. Unfortunately, the cost of decontextualized, generalized readings of Cisneros's novel, might be, as Poey intimates, the blunting of its revisionary edge. "It is not the text [… itself that is] problematic," she states, insisting that the book does "engage in layered critiques and proposes [its] own aesthetics. Rather, it is [its] acceptance as representative that is troubling, given that [this provides] opportunities for easy incorporation which erases [the book's] transformative possibilities" (215).
Aspects of weak multiculturalism are, not surprisingly, also applicable to the discursive text on the back cover of my edition of Mango Street (1991 Vintage Books). On the one hand, the textual blurb generalizes that the book is about the story of "a young girl growing up in the Hispanic quarter of Chicago." It is not acknowledged that there may be more than one "Hispanic" community in the Windy City. Additionally, the back cover betrays bildungsroman-like obstacles, such as "a desolate landscape of concrete and run-down tenements" in which Esperanza brushes against the hard knocks of the life that her kind typically encounters: "the fetters of class and gender, the specter of racial enmity, the mysteries of sexuality, and more." (One cannot help but think of previews for movies and television programs, both of which try to appeal to mass audiences by offering sensationalistic somethings-for-everyone.) Finally, though, the back cover alludes to the American dream, namely, an implied happy ending in which the protagonist "is able to rise above hopelessness," to create a "'room all her own,'" in spite of "her oppressive surroundings." In short, conveyed in a politically correct multicultural framework, this lead-in to Mango Street, while handwaving to racial-, class-, and gender-related strife, ultimately distills into the barest of generalized (generic?) plots: Hispanic girl heroically strives for and thrives because of the American dream. Is this not, after all, one of the basic premises for Jessica Alba's new television series, Dark Angel? Is it not true that she, the epitome of stereotypic Latin sexiness, persists in learning to become more of an individual, thereby continually deferring chances to return home with her partautomaton brethren?20
Despite the fact that students and critics relate easily to the book, in my opinion, most of the readers that I have considered have essentially rendered Cisneros's book transparent. They have read Mango Street primarily in mimetic fashion, ordering and simplifying in order to make Esperanza's story cohere. On the whole, no single group seems inclined to focus on the book's "simple," "direct" language and messages as part of Cisneros's complex arsenal of sophisticated literary devices and nuanced rhetorical strategies. In their persistent view of Mango Street as a "mirror of life," the groups I have pointed out have generally failed to take into account the book's ideological and narrative intricacies. The remainder of this essay thus hinges on my argument that as the Mango Street narrative coils back to the question of the act of narration, readers may or may not, if they choose to throw on blinders, come away unsettled, since the book's final vignette self-consciously heralds the fictional character of Esperanza's story. What remains for consideration, then, is the book's status as a literary work, which, "in the act of apparently describing some external reality, is secretly casting a sideways glance at its own processes of construction" (Eagleton 105).
Mango Street does to, as much as it recounts for, readers. As alluded to throughout this essay, Mango Street cannot speak directly, in unmediated fashion, to the reader. "A work," states Eagleton, "is not actually a 'living' dialogue or monologue," but "a piece of language which has been detached from any specific 'living' relationship […]" (119). Further, as Iser asserts, "the text represents a potential effect realized in the reading process" (Act of Reading ix). Hence, while it may be tempting for readers to presume that literature describes "reality," Eagleton warns that "its real function is 'performative': it uses language within certain conventions in order to bring about certain effects in a reader," and "achieves something in the saying: it is language as a kind of material practice in itself […]" (118).21 As a case in point, consider the first and last vignettes of Mango Street, where the reader apparently sees the beginning in the end, and the end in the beginning. Since this juncture will be closely read further on, suffice it to point out that the repetition of "We didn't always live on Mango Street" in both the initial and final chapters of the book does not suggest closure. As Reuben Sánchez remarks, "The narrative, in fact, is not self-enclosed; rather, it is open-ended and encourages the reader to consider what will become of [the protagonist] after the book has ended" (223).
Given that the reading process, as described by Norton (alluding to Iser, Jauss, and Bakhtin), is "a dialectic between the text and the idiosyncratic mind of the reader" (590), any meaning ascribed to the literary work will, of necessity, be proteic and personal because contingent on the experiences, beliefs, expectations, and will of individual readers. Sánchez's and Norton's statements thus underscore that determining what a literary work means pivots on the reciprocal, live interaction between individual readers and the literary work at hand. Turning back to Edie, for whom making meaning can neither be linked to mere acts of referring, nor to discerning clear and "distinct ideas open to introspective inspection" (141), and to Iser, for whom the literary work awaits "actualization" (Act of Reading 18) by readers, one can better apprehend the literary work as an elusive, ever in-process, and therefore incomplete entity and signifying system. How is this embodied in Cisneros's book? What, moreover, does Mango Street do as it recounts the story of Esperanza?
Cisneros's novel dissembles, bringing together multiple voices and life experiences in the character of Esperanza. For Renato Rosaldo, Esperanza "inhabits a border zone peopled with multiple subjectivities and a plurality of languages and cultures" (85).22 Her name alone is multivalent: "Moving between English and Spanish, [Esperanza's] name shifts in length […], in meaning (from hope to sadness and waiting), and in sound (from being as cutting as tin to being soft as silver)" (Rosaldo 85). Esperanza's naívete and innocence can thus be viewed as part of the sophisticated, intricate narrative strategies deployed by Cisneros to "introduce a variety of political concerns that confront Chicano/a communities in the United States" (Quintana 57). In this sense, contrary to popular belief, Esperanza is not a monolith, but rather an "ideological foil" (Quintana 56). Cisneros confirms the macaronic character of her novel: "I arranged and diminished events on Mango Street to speak a message, to take from different parts of other people's lives and create a story like a collage" (Introduction xvii-xviii). She, in effect, places into relief the self-conscious performative nature of writing her book: "I merged characters from my twenties with characters from my teens and childhood. I edited, changed, shifted the past to fit the present. I asked questions I didn't know how to ask when I was an adolescent […]" (Introduction xvii-xviii). "Cisneros's novel is," as Valdés succinctly puts it, "an explicit composition" (292). "The author," she continues, "has designed, redesigned, written and rewritten the discursive system of the text. Names, places and situations have been organized into a specific structure. Emplotment has worked at every level of configuration as the writers strive to give the right balance of determinate and indeterminate features" (292). In short, Mango Street is anything but a passively ingestible mirror of life. On the contrary, it is a stage.
Of paramount importance in the consideration of performative representation (darstellung) is, as Iser indicates, accounting for the circumstances surrounding the "fictionality" of a literary work: "To conceive of representation not in terms of mimesis but in terms of performance makes it necessary to dig into the structures of the literary text, laying bare the levels and conditions out of which the performative quality arises" ("Representation" 218).23 Understanding that language retains its denotative function at the same time it speaks connotatively, is, moreover, pivotal in laying bare aspects or factors that bring about performative, "doubling" action in literature. "[T]he sentence [in literary works]," remarks Iser, "does not consist solely of a statement […] but aims at something beyond what it actually says" ("Reading Process" 78). Iser's comments extrapolate from Mikhail Bakhtin's notion of "dialogic" discourse (Problems 182-85), in which words are "double-voiced" (Problems 195) and possess a "sideward glance" (205): they are "directed both toward the referential object of speech … and toward another's discourse, toward someone else's speech" (Problems 205); that is, they are bound up with an awareness and consideration of another's words.24 In short, our own words, inflected with the voices of others, become meaningful in relation to other and others' words. For Bakhtin, novelistic discourse is made up of "heteroglossia," which he defines as "the social diversity of speech types" (Dialogic 263). Novelistic discourse is, moreover, dialogic:
Heteroglossia, once incorporated into the novel […], is another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way. Such speech constitutes a special type of double-voiced discourse.[…] In such discourse there are two voices, two meanings and two expressions. And all the while these two voices are dialogically interrelated, they—as it were—know about each other (just as two exchanges in a dialogue know each other and are structured in this mutual knowledge of each other); it is as if they actually hold a conversation with each other. Double-voiced discourse is always internally dialogized.
In what sense, then, can heteroglossia be detected in Cisneros's Mango Street ?
Re-thinking the Literary Text: In the End is the Beginning?
Heteroglossia and staging, which, according to Iser, is one of the ways in which doubling in fiction is achieved, play a central role in the last vignette of Cisneros's novel, "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes." This vignette, which alludes to Esperanza's departure from her community, is most likely the one responsible for bringing about the extrapolations of readers who "actualize" the implied realization of her dream. The beginning of Mango Street 's final vignette "stages" the nature of storytelling as it discloses the fictionalized nature of Esperanza's story:
I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here's your mail. Here's your mail he said.
I make a story for my life, for each step my brown shoe takes. I say, "And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked."
I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.
We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.
This vignette seems abrupt when compared to the one it follows, "A House of my Own," which presents the last in a series of ideal homes that Esperanza has described throughout the book. Further, the narrative "I" of this portion of the last vignette alludes to aspects particular to the craft of storytelling in general. Third, when one juxtaposes the second paragraph in this section of the vignette with the last two paragraphs, the reader is suddenly drawn back into the story posited in the opening passage of the book. In other words, the end of Mango Street casts a "sideward glance" at its beginning, thereby reactivating one's familiarity with the story told by Esperanza. At first glance, it seems easy to process the conclusion of Cisneros's novel.
On further examination, however, the final vignette's selection and incorporation of details and a passage from earlier in the novel combine to raise questions about what the text is, after all, about. Ultimately, the familiar passage, which appears in the first vignette, and reappears in the last one, yields two different passages:
We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot.
(3, emphasis added)
We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.
(109, emphasis added)
Comparing the text (here not limited exclusively to written discourse) that precedes and follows the "we-didn't-always-live" sequence of the novel's last vignette with the text that follows the "we-didn't-always-live" sequence of Mango Street 's opening chapter renders a gap in the narrator's story. Clearly, the content and possible message of Esperanza, who at the outset states, "What I remember most is moving a lot" (3), are different from the focus and possible message of Esperanza when she comments, "What I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to" (109). The latter remarks concurrently connote Esperanza's acknowledgement and self-distancing of herself as a part of the Mango Street community. The transmogrified focus of the narrator from start to finish may in turn alter the reader's perception of what Cisneros's book is about.26 In effect, subsequent retrieval and comparison of the first and penultimate vignettes of Mango Street, besides reminding us that "[t]he act[s] of selection [and combination] […] [are] integral to fictionality [and are forms] of doubling" (Iser, "Representation" 218), foregrounds the noncoincidence between, on one hand, Esperanza at the beginning of the novel, and on the other, Esperanza at the end of the book. Let us take a closer look into some possible ramifications of her transformation.
Notwithstanding the "immediacy" of the two passages from Mango Street cited in the paragraph above, Eagleton reminds us that literature is not a "living" dialogue or monologue but rather "a piece of language which has been detached from any specific 'living' relationship" (119). As such, books are "thus subject to the 'reinscriptions' […] of many different readers" (Eagleton 119). Hence, by the end of Mango Street, the "meaning(s)" of "Esperanza's" story will likely shift, since, in Iser's view: "Each text makes inroads into extratextual fields of reference and by disrupting them creates an eventful disorder, in consequence of which both structure and semantics of these fields are subject to certain deformations and their respective constituents are differently weighted according to the various deletions and supplementations" (Iser, "Representation" 218). To complicate matters further, the respective texts resulting from the combination and selection of the common passage ("We didn't—always—live on Mango Street") do not blend harmoniously together; neither text stands in autonomous isolation:
[T]he doubling process becomes [… more] complex, for the texts alluded to and the segments quoted begin to unfold unforeseeably shifting relationships both in respect to their own contexts and to the new ones into which they have been transplanted. Whatever the relationships may be like, two different types of discourse are ever present, and their simultaneity triggers a mutual revealing and concealing of their respective contextual references. From this interplay emerges semantic instability, which is exacerbated by the fact that the two sets of discourse are also contexts for each other, so that each in turn is constantly switching from background to foreground. The one discourse becomes the theme viewed from the standpoint of the other, and vice versa.
(Iser, "Representation" 219)
Moreover, as Eagleton notes in reference to poetry, the repetition of a word or image contributes to semantic instability: "A particular meaning [derived initially] […] will cause us retrospectively to revise what we have learnt already," since the reappearance of the word-image signifies something other than what it had previously connoted (116). Thus, with respect to Esperanza's recollection of Mango Street at the beginning and end of the book, one might do well to refrain from thinking that the image "means" what it did initially, since "[n]o event occurs twice" (Eagleton 116). In fact, it might be wise not to impose closure at all, that is, not to think in circular terms. Instead, perhaps one might mull over Iser's insistence that "the literary work is to be considered not as a documentary record of something that exists or has existed, but as a reformulation of an already formulated reality, which brings into the world something that did not exist before" (Act of Reading x).
Still, after noting Mango Street 's title and opening the book, many readers have initially come away with the notion that the "sad red house" is its primary focus. On one hand, the first vignette, bearing the same title as the novel, raises the question of whether or not the narrator will acquire another house. However, the last four paragraphs of the final vignette in-sinuate that the primary focus of the book has been or is, actually, Esperanza:
I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. 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 of those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?
They will not know that I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.
Because of this, the plot no longer appears to hinge solely on the question of whether or not she manages to acquire another house. Further, although memories of Mango Street are still present, it is made clear that it is she who ultimately has the upper hand; Esperanza controls Mango Street, contrary to the claim: "She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free" (110).
In fact, much about the final four paragraphs of the novel is ambiguous, in large part because of abrupt shifts in time and space, on the one hand, and, on the other, a marked change in the disposition of the last of three narrative "I"s present in "Mango Says Goodbye."27 Shifts in verb tenses, from the present to the future to the simple past, mark the spatial, temporal, and psychological distance between the storytelling narrator at the beginning of the last vignette and the apprentice-writer narrator of the middle of it, and, finally, the more mature, community-oriented narrator projected in the last paragraph of the book. This last narrative "I" is situated at a far remove—ideologically, temporally, and geographically—not only from the child-like narrative "I" in the first vignette, but also from the child-like, albeit more confident, authoritative voice that begins the last one. Hence, despite the brevity and seemingly direct statements made in the last vignette, and despite its endeavors to relieve the tension between the ingenuousness of its young protagonist and narrator, this chapter nonetheless underscores the distinction between the act of narration, the storytelling that Esperanza has engaged from start to finish, and narrative: what has ultimately been recounted.28
Another reason for which the last chapter, "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes," makes the implications and meaning(s) of the novel difficult for readers to pin down is that, with the exception of one of its sections, set off and marked by quotation marks ("And so she trudged up the wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked" ), this chapter, like virtually all of the other tersely rendered vignettes, lacks conventional markers that would guide readers and clarify the text(s). The "gap" between the last four paragraphs of the final vignette and the rest of the book's vignettes has the capacity to leave readers feeling addled, if not altogether ambivalent. If, for instance, one juxtaposes the last four paragraphs of the final vignette with all of the first vignette—which ends with the narrator's feelings of shame, longing, and general dissatisfaction with her house—the trajectory and outcome of Esperanza make logical sense: she disliked her house, she longed for another, and—we are to presume—she will surely leave. At the same time, the final paragraph of the last vignette ("They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.") appears to transport Esperanza back to her origins, effecting her return and pulling her into the fold of her community.
Still, the projected reunion, or reconciliation of Esperanza with her community has not, in reality, proven to be all that convincing to certain readers. According to the way it is framed in "Mango Says Goodbye," Esperanza's story appears to end and continue, which, as Iser might suggest, may cloud her tale: "Ending and continuing are basic forms of life, but when they are both present simultaneously in one [person's] consciousness, they begin to invalidate each other. Continuing robs the end of its uniqueness, which would otherwise be a consolation. But from the standpoint of a finite individual, endless continuation is both aimless and beyond [their] control" (Iser, "Representation" 230). The applicability of Iser's statement (made in reference to King Lear and Macbeth) to Mango Street concerns the following predicament in which Esperanza seems to be: No matter how hard the narrative strives through the opinions of other characters to "naturalize" how gifted she is, how clearly destined she is for writerdom, and how certain it appears that she will retain her ties to her community,29 ultimately, the last paragraph of the book does not manage to convey the impression that Esperanza's resolve to reintegrate or, as some readers might see it, finally integrate herself into the Mango Street community is rooted in selflessness, that is, in the philanthropic desire to mingle with and serve her community.
Consequently, actual readers, such as Rodríguez, may come away with the impression that even though Esperanza has "returned," she has done so because, in accordance with messages imparted in such vignettes as "The Three Sisters," and "Alicia and I," she will have had to. That is to say, in the way of filial obligation to one's parents, as the "daughter" of her community, Esperanza is eternally indebted to Mango Street (her origins): she can no sooner "forget" Mango Street than she can "disown" her parents. Furthermore, what Esperanza writes and has written is based, parasitically, on memories of a formative reality. As such, no matter how displeasurable this has been, and/or unpalatable it still is, whether she likes it or not (to echo the attitude of her friend Alicia) Mango Street is Esperanza, and vice versa. More than this, Mango Street provides the fodder for both her books and her "writerly" persona.
If one traces Esperanza's wish to reinvent herself throughout chapters such as "My Name," "A Rice Sandwich," "Born Bad," "Bums in the Attic," "Beautiful and Cruel," "A House of My Own," alongside her desire for freedom, it is easier to view her story in terms of an odyssey directed at self-knowledge (and, presumably, self-acceptance). Whereas in "Beautiful and Cruel" Esperanza resolves to become more strong and independent—"I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up my plate" (89); whereas in "Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps, "she persists in strong denial of her ties to Mango Street; and whereas "A House of My Own" represents her ongoing, wistful longing for a "real" house, the abrupt appearance of the final vignette, which on the surface conveys Esperanza's deep concern for her community, seems all the more conspicuous, if not altogether incongruous.
In effect, by the end of Mango Street, it cannot with certainty be said that Esperanza knows, much less accepts, herself. This may be because the last vignette, as literature, "is not an explanation of origins; it is a staging of the constant deferment of explanation […]" (Iser, "Representation" 228, emphasis added). And staging, to reiterate, brings about the "suspension" of language's denotative function. Hence, "what [staging] designates is no longer meant to represent a something to which it refers, but serves as an analogue instead, through which a wordless desire may find expression or a response-inviting appeal may be signaled," (Iser, "Representation" 229). Has the author, Cisneros, deployed the story Esperanza conveys in the last chapter as a persuasive device aimed at drawing the attention of Mango Street 's initial implied readers—Chicanos/as—away from the original, basic rift in herself, a division which, on one hand, fueled her desire to be alone to write, and, on the other, triggered her claim to simultaneously desire to want to be in, and serve her community?30
Taking a closer look at the spread of statements made by "Esperanza" in the last vignette draws attention to and underlines its heteroglossic nature—"I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you the story about a girl who didn't want to belong" (109); "We didn't always live on Mango Street,[…] but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to" (109-10); "I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much" (110); "One day I will pack my bags of books and paper.[…] One day I will go away"; "Friends and neighbors will say What happened to that Esperanza?[…] Why did she march so far away?"; "They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out" (110). Heteroglossia, one may recall, "is another's speech in another's language, serving to express authorial intentions but in a refracted way" (Dialogic 324). The "refracted way" in this case is a "loophole" in Esperanza's discourse on leaving. A loophole is defined by Bakhtin as "the retention for oneself of the possibility for altering the ultimate, final meaning of one's own words" (Problems 233). Hence, while on the one hand, the final vignette contains Esperanza's "confessional self-definition"—the "story" told about the "girl who didn't want to belong" turns out to be about herself—on the other hand, the last chapter also endeavors to record her resolve to return. Esperanza's last words—"They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out"—glance sideways, at her prospective critics ("friends and neighbors" of the community she will have left behind). Ultimately, however, Esperanza's words in this last vignette may not be all that convincing: "An anticipated and obligatory vindication by the other merges with self-condemnation, and both tones begin to sound simultaneously in that voice, resulting in abrupt interruptions and sudden transitions" (Problems 234).
In the end, Bakhtin's summary assessment about confessional self-definitions with loopholes might appear rather convincing: "the confessional self-definition with a loophole […] is […] an ultimate word about oneself, a final definition of oneself, but in fact it is forever taking account internally the responsive, contrary evaluation of oneself made by another. The [heroine] who repents and condemns [herself] actually wants to provoke praise and acceptance by another" (Bakhtin, Problems 233). Such a loophole, moreover, can make the heroine "ambiguous" and "elusive" not only to others, such as readers, but also to herself (Bakhtin, Problems 234). Curiously, Esperanza's self affirmation in the final vignette of Mango Street could go unvalidated, since "[her] affirmation of self" may strike some readers "like a continuous hidden polemic […] with some other person on the theme of [herself]" (Problems 207).
From Iser's perspective, it is during narrative moments like the Esperanza-centered polemic, when coherence begins to fray and meaning starts to collapse, that the "aesthetic dimension" of a work comes forth:
It is such transformations that give rise to the aesthetic dimension of the text, for what had seemed closed is now opened up again. The more one text incorporates other texts, the more intensified will be the process of doubling induced by the act of selection. The text itself becomes a kind of junction, where other texts, norms, and values meet and work upon each other; as a point of intersection its core is virtual, and only when actualized—by the potential recipient—does it explode into its plurivocity.
("Representation" 219, emphasis added)
At this point, the evasive words of Cisneros regarding the autobiographic resonance in Mango Street begin to make more sense. "One thing I know for certain," she states, "you, the reader, are Esperanza." Such a revelation nudges the implied readers of her novel to actualize on their own its elusive messages and/or myriad meanings (Introduction xix).
Viewing the final vignette of the novel as an intertextual, intradiscursive "junction" which at once incorporates and alters others has, hopefully, allowed readers to see in clearer fashion that what at the beginning of the novel appeared to be the recollection of the narrator's neighborhood, ends up transforming itself into an ambiguous diary-like entry about Esperanza's "reality" and experience as a writer. More than this, "Mango Says Goodbye" suggests that the primary referent of Esperanza's collective tales might be the fictionalizing act itself. As such, readers may be left to mull over the implication of this. "In looking at 'constative' propositions, statements of truth or falsity," states Eagleton, "we tend to suppress their reality and effectivity as actions in their own right; literature [therefore] restores us to this sense of linguistic performance in the most dramatic way, for whether what it asserts as existing actually exists or not is unimportant" (118-19).
Consequently, one could be left pondering whether the focus of critics should, as Iser has suggested, be more—rather than less—inclined toward the question of what narrative representation can tell us about ourselves." After all, "[t]he work itself cannot 'foresee' its own future history of interpretations, cannot control and delimit these readings as we can do, or try to do […]" (Eagleton 119, emphasis added). What, then, are we, the readers, to do with and about the houses that are all Mango Street?
1. Arte Público Press published the novel in 1984, 1985, and 1986. In 1989, Arte Público published a slightly altered edition of Mango Street. Subsequently, in 1991 Vintage Books, a division of Random House Publishers, published the revised 1989 edition of the book. Knopf followed suit in 1994. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from the novel are taken from the Vintage Books edition, 1991.
2. The fact that Cisneros's book continues to attract the attention of scholars and critics in several disciplines can be seen in the number of articles that have been written on her and/or Mango Street from the mid 1980s through 2000. An online search of the MLA Bibliography in January 2001 returned more than 40 articles.
3. Poey's comments point to long-standing marginalization of Chicana writers (females) within the larger collectivity of Chicano writers and the Chicano community (which consists of both males and females). Ramón Saldívar addresses the marginality of Chicano narrative, within mainstream US culture, stating that "it is to the margins [of American literature] that Chicano literature has been consigned […]" (10). Saldívar also underlines the more extreme marginalization of Chicana writers and women in general within circles of both Chicano and mainstream American culture:
Contemporary Chicana writers challenge not only the ideologies of oppression of the Anglo-American culture that their Chicano brothers confront, but they also challenge the ideologies of patriarchal oppression evinced by Chicano writers and present within Chicano culture itself.[…] [T]he literature produced by Chicana authors is counterhegemonic to the second power, serving as a critique of critiques of oppression that fail to take into account the full range of domination.
Within my paper, the term "Chicano community" encompasses both Mexican-American men and women; "Chicano writers" refers to men only. At the same time, the use of "Chicana," to designate writers and/or the community, refers to Mexican-American women.
4. Whereas I have distinguished between Chicana writers and the Chicana community, on one hand, and, on the other, Chicano writers and the Chicano community, I intend a similar distinction between Latina writers and the Latina community, on one hand, and Latino writers (males) and the Latino community (males and females). Latina writers encompass women writers of Hispanic origin, including Mexicans, Cubans, Argentines, Chileans, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and others. Latina writers, like Chicanas, have also been marginalized within both the larger collectivity of Latino writers and Latino culture, on one hand, and mainstream US culture, on the other. In addition to Saldívar, see Rosaura Sánchez and Gloria Anzaldúa.
5. Poey views Mango Street together with Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, in an effort to gauge "how and to what extent [they] are incorporated as additives to the already established canonical tradition as well as the logic behind their promotion as documented, legal trespassers into the academic landscape" (202). Poey maintains that the term representative does not imply that they speak or stand for the "complete" representation of Chicano or Latino literary expression" (204); she further stresses that Anaya's and Cisneros's books have "become representative […] by often being the only Latina/o works assigned in a relatively broad spectrum of courses" (204).
6. Szadziuk maintains that
[C]ulture can no longer be regarded as a static entity but must be viewed instead as something dynamic[…]. In the case of Western American societies, this need to regard culture as an ongoing process may be seen especially in the emergence of studies concerned with the border between the United States and Mexico […] which focus on the crosscultural indeterminacy of this meeting ground rather than on either of the two cultures in isolation.
See also Poey and Saldívar.
7. Since 1994 students have periodically informed me that they had already read Mango Street in high school. See also Poey.
8. Students in my spring undergraduate seminar (2000) were given the task of speaking from the perspective of Cisneros, in order to summarize what the book dealt with and ascertain which audiences it seemed to target. Several students underlined the independence of the female author who, they believed, spoke primarily to women; two students singled out the "independence" of Mango Street's "Mexican-American" author, who, in their opinion, seemed to be addressing a Chicana or Latina readership. Only one student abstained from positing an ideal community of readers exclusively comprised by women. Proclaiming his open admiration and extremely high regard for the book, this student refused to formulate any reductive, facile hypothesis concerning the latter. Neither group of students—neither those who planned to major or minor in English, nor those with plans to major or minor in Spanish—could arrive at a consensus regarding what they perceived as the primary themes and messages of the book.
9. My remark on the crosscultural appeal of the novel is based on the numerous essays indexed in the MLA Bibliography and on the commentary of book covers and prefaces/afterwards of several printings of the book published by Arte Público, Random House, and Knopf.
10. This paper obviously ascribes to particular aspects of reception theory, such as the concept of horizons of experience and expectation of both authors and readers. It thus presumes that "meanings" in and of a literary work are actively produced, at once internally derived and externally influenced. See for example, Jauss; Eco; Ingarden; Iser, The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response; Suleiman and Crosman.
11. Although her response seems elusive, it is important to keep in mind that Mango Street was written over the span of more than five years, a period during which Cisneros not only attended graduate school but also taught in inner-city schools. Cisneros stresses that the story lines in Mango Street, if initially inclined toward autobiography, at a certain point metamorphosed into a collective—thus multidiscursive, multivalent—story not only about her life, but about the lives of others, over a range of time, and across different places (Introduction xi-xii).
12. According to Bakhtin, "Language becomes 'one's own' only when the speaker populates it with his [sic] own intention, his own accent, when he appropriates the word, adapting it to his own semantic and expressive intention" (Dialogic 293).
13. See "The House on Mango Street," "Cathy Queen of Cats," "A Rice Sandwich," "Bums in the Attic," "Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps," "A House of My Own."
14. In his essay, "Race under Representation," David Lloyd identifies "exclusion" as one of the predominant terms that has been commonly deployed in anti-racist cultural politics and discourse in recent years. Among the other terms cited by Lloyd are "euro-" and "ethnocentrism," "marginalization," and the critical categories "orientalism" and the "West," expressions which, in his view, share the common trait of being "spatial" terms (62).
15. My students' sensitivity to and/or sympathy for gender- and family-related issues addressed in Mango Street might be related to the fact that the class consisted primarily of white, middle-class women, several of whom had identified themselves as liberal and feminist and/or had taken classes that had incorporated feminist approaches to literature. All students, including the lone male, expressed sympathy for the plight of Esperanza, primarily on the basis that they, as children, had experienced or encountered similar situations.
16. For examples of, in my opinion, limited formalist approaches to Cisneros's writing, see Klein, Kolmar, and Thomson. For a sample of Chicano/a perspectives of Mango Street, see Olivares; Rosaldo, 84-93; Quintana, 54-74; Saldívar, 171-99; Valdés, 287-300; and "In Search of Identity in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street"; and Yarbro-Bejarano. Although this body of criticism does not suffer from decontextualized readings, some of these critics view the language in Mango Street as a transparent medium that mimetically renders reality.
17. Poey states that she appropriates the term Bildungsroman as it has been seen and used in English literary studies, not as it is viewed and defined in Germanic studies (206).
18. In addition to Norton, see, for example, Doyle.
19. The need for establishing consistency stems from the fact that at any given moment, a reader's grasp of the story at hand is partial. The novel, according to Iser, "[c]annot be continually 'present' to the reader with an identical degree of intensity" (Act of Reading 16).
20. Referring to over generalized readings of Mango Street, Poey comments: "By isolating [the text] from [its] discursive and historical contexts, [the literary work] can also function as [a mirror] of the hegemonic and [confirm …] stereotypic representations" (215).
21. According to J. L. Austin, language is not merely descriptive: it can do something, even as it appears to make a statement (12), as in the case of a "performative sentence" (6). States Austin, "The name is derived […] from 'perform,' the usual verb with the noun 'action': it indicates that the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action—it is not normally thought of as just saying something" (6-7). Austin focuses on instances "in which to say something is to do something; or in which by saying or in saying something we are doing something" (12). For him, it is "illocutionary" speech acts that do something in the saying, and "perlocutionary" acts that achieve an effect by saying. Illocutionary acts include "informing, ordering, undertaking […], i.e. utterances which have a certain (conventional) force" (108). Perlocutionary acts are "what we bring about by saying something, such as convincing, persuading, deterring, and even […] surprising or misleading" (108).
22. Simon Dentith's discussion of Voloshinov's notion of the "multiaccentual" nature of the sign (and, by extension, language) elucidates Rosaldo's reference to the polyvalence of Esperanza's name in Spanish and English: "[T]he signs of language (words, above all), bear different accents, emphases, and therefore meanings with different inflections and in different contexts. Meanings emerge in society and society is not a homogeneous mass but is itself divided by such factors as social class; signs do not therefore have fixed meanings but are always inflected in different ways to carry different values and attitudes" (22-23). Regarding the question of translation from Spanish to English, for example, Rosario Ferré speaks to the impossibility of transcribing one cultural identity into another: "As I write in English, I am inevitably translating a Latin American identity, still rooted in pre-industrial traditions and mores, with very definite philosophical convictions and beliefs, into a North American context" (157). Although Ferré's comments refer to Puerto Rican reality, her comments can be applied to Chicana/o writers like Cisneros, who created a protagonist whose name, Esperanza, connotes different things in the two languages and cultures in and through which she endeavors to define herself: North American and Mexican American.
23. Speaking to the confusion that surrounds the term "representation" in the English language, Iser states that representation and mimesis have become "interchangeable notions in literary criticism," the result of which is the concealment of "[…] the performative qualities through which the act of representation brings about something that hitherto did not exist". He emphasizes, moreover, that darstellung is more "neutral and does not necessarily drag all the mimetic connotations in its wake," and should therefore not be mistaken with mimesis, which does refer to a "given" object assumed to exist "prior to the act of representation" ("Representation" 217).
24. In Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics ("Discourse of Dostoevsky") Bakhtin remarks, for example, that the "attitude" the hero has towards himself [sic] "is inseparably bound up with his attitude toward another, and with the attitude of another toward him. His consciousness of self is constantly perceived against the other's consciousness of him—'I for myself' against the background of 'I for another.' Thus the hero's words about himself are structured under the continuous influence of someone else's words about him" (207). See also pages 182-84.
25. Regarding Bakhtin's notion of dialogism in language, Dentith states, "Language appears here as the site or space in which dialogic relationships are realized; it manifests itself in discourse, the words oriented towards another" (34). Of heteroglossia Dentith comments, "it is a word [Bakhtin] coins […] to allude to the multiplicity of actual 'languages' which are at any time spoken by the speakers of any 'language.' These are languages of social groups and classes, of professional groups, of generations, the different languages for different occasions that speakers adopt even within these broader distinctions" (35).
26. According to Eagleton:
[A] literary work can be seen as constructing what have been called 'subject positions' (119).[…] To understand a [literary text] means grasping its language as being 'oriented' towards the reader from a certain range of positions: in reading, we build up a sense of what kind of effects this language is trying to achieve ('intention'), what sorts of rhetoric it considers appropriate to use, what assumptions govern the kinds of poetic tactics it employs, what attitudes towards reality these imply.
Additionally, in "The Reading Process" Iser, referring to Roman Ingarden, remarks that
Once we are immersed in the flow of Satzdenken (sentence-thought), we are ready, after completing the thought of one sentence, to think out the "continuation," also in the form of a sentence—and that is, in the form of a sentence that connects up with the sentence we have just thought through. In this way the process of reading goes effortlessly forward. But if by chance the following sentence has no tangible connection whatever with the sentence we have just thought through, there then comes a blockage in the stream of thought. This hiatus is linked with a more or less active surprise, or with indignation […].
Iser accounts for the prospective "exasperation" of the reader by drawing attention to Ingarden's assumption that all readers—in the spirit and shadow of classical aesthetics—expect and thus follow the seamless "flow" of a work, from beginning to end. In contrast to Ingarden, Iser maintains that "literary texts are full of unexpected twists and turns, and frustration of expectations," and adds that gaps avail readers the chance to engage their own faculty for "establishing connections" whereby textual indeterminacies are filled in (79).
27. See Valdés, "The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street," for a nuanced analysis of the way that the narrative brings about the conjunction in the last vignette of the socio-historical context of Cisneros's novel, at the same time that it underlines the "narrative unfolding of discourse" (292-94).
28. See for example, Genette.
29. See the chapters "Born Bad," "Edna's Ruthie," "Bums in the Attic," "A Smart Cookie," "The Three Sisters," "Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps," "A House of My Own," and "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes."
30. According to Cisneros's recollection of the period between the time she started her book and published it, her encounters with and feelings of ineffectiveness at helping her students availed her the opportunity to mend a self-perceived rift in her character, one which she had hitherto believed was irreconcilable. She refers to the part of her that wanted to actively participate and make a difference in her community, and she alludes to the more individualistic part of her that longed for seclusion, in hopes of nurturing and pursuing her goal of becoming a writer (Introduction xi-xii; xvii-xviii).
Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Spinsters, 1987.
Austin, J. L. How to Do Things with Words. Ed. J. O. Urmson. New York: Oxford UP, 1962.
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
―――――――. Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. and Ed. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1984.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991.
―――――――. Introduction. The House on Mango Street. New York: Knopf, 1994. xi-xx.
―――――――. "Return to One's House: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros." Interview with Martha Satz. Southwest Review 82.2 (1997): 166-85.
Dentith, Simon. "Voloshinov and Bakhtin on Language." Bakhtinian Thought. Ed. Simon Dentith. London: Routledge, 1995. 22-40.
Doyle, Jaqueline. "More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." MELUS 19.4 (1994): 5-35.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1983.
Eco, Umberto. The Role of the Reader. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1979.
Edie, James. Speaking and Meaning: The Phenomenology of Language. Bloomington: U of Indiana P, 1976.
Ferré, Rosario. "On Destiny, Language, and Translation." The Youngest Doll. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1991. 153-65.
Genette, Gerard. Narrative Discourse. Trans. Jane Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.
Ingarden, Roman. The Literary Work of Art. Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1973.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.
―――――――. "The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach" (1974). Modern Literary Theory. Eds. Philip Rice and Patricia Waugh. 2nd ed. London: Edward Arnold, 1993. 77-83.
―――――――. "Representation: A Performative Act." The Aims of Representation: Subject/Text/History. Ed. Murray Krieger. New York: Columbia UP, 1987. 217-32.
Jauss, Hans Robert. "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory." Trans. Elizabeth Benzinger. New Literary History 2 (1970): 7-37.
Kanellos, Nicolás. Introduction. The Hispanic Literary Companion. Ed. Nicolás Kanellos. Detroit: Visible Ink, 1997.
Klein, Dianne. "Coming of Age in Novels by Rudolfo Anaya," English Journal (September 1992): 21-26.
Kolmar, Wendy. "'Dialectics of Connectedness': Supernatural Elements in Novels by Bambara, Cisneros, Grahn, and Erdrich." Haunting the House of Fiction. Eds. Lynnette Carpenter and Wendy Kolmar. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1991. 236-49.
Lloyd, David. "Race under Representation." Oxford Literary Review 13.1-2 (1991): 62-94.
Norton, Jody. "History, Rememory, and Transformation: Actualizing Literary Value." The Centennial Review 38.3 (1994): 589-602.
Olivares, Julián "Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space." Americas Review 15.3-4 (Fall 1987): 160-70.
O'Reilly Herrera, Andrea. "'Chambers of Consciousness': Sandra Cisneros and the Development of the Self and the BIG House on Mango Street." Bucknell Review 39.1 (1995): 191-204.
Poey, Delia. "Coming of Age in the Curriculum: The House on Mango Street and Bless Me, Ultima as Representative Texts." Americas Review 24.3-4 (1996): 201-17.
Quintana, Alvina. Home Girls: Chicana Literary Voices. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1996.
Rodríguez, Juan. "The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros." Austin Chronicle 10 August 1984.
Rosaldo, Renato. "Fables of the Fallen Guy." Criticism in the Borderlands. Eds. Calderón and José David Saldívar. Chapel Hill: Duke UP, 1994. 84-93.
Saldívar, Ramón. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1990.
Sánchez, Reuben. "Remembering to Always Come Back: The Child's Wished-For Escape and the Adult's Self-Empowered Return in Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street." Children's Literature 23 (1995): 221-41.
Sánchez, Rosaura. "Ethnicity, Ideology, and Academia." Americas Review 15.1 (1987): 80-88.
Suleiman, Susan, and Inge Crosman, eds. The Reader in the Text: Essays on Audience Interpretation. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980.
Szadziuk, Maria. "Culture as Transition: Becoming a Woman in Bi-ethnic Space." Mosaic 32.3 (1999): 109-29.
Thomson, Jeff. "'What Is Called Heaven': Identity in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek." Studies in Fiction 31.3 (1994): 415-24.
Valdés, María Elena de. "The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Gender, Self, and Society. Ed. Renate von Bardeleben. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993. 287-300.
Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. "Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective." Chicana Creativity and Criticism. Ed. Maria Herrera-Sobek. Houston: Arte Público, 1988. 139-45
Darlene Pagán (essay date 2003)
SOURCE: Pagán, Darlene. "Girls and Women in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." In Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender, edited by Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber, pp. 141-43. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.
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Elissa Gershowitz (essay date 2006)
SOURCE: Gershowitz, Elissa. "Cisneros, Sandra." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, Volume One, edited by Jack Zipes, p. 305. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2006.
[In the following essay, Gershowitz notes how The House on Mango Street "has been embraced by young adults."]
Born in Chicago and educated at Loyola University and the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop (MFA, 1978), Cisneros is best known as a short-story author, novelist, and poet for adults, although her writing style defies conventional genre classification. The House on Mango Street (1984), a book that has been embraced by young adults, combines the structure of a novel with the language of poetry. The lyrical, forty-four-vignette snapshot of life in the barrio—at times humorous, more often poignant—is narrated by a young girl both naive and older than her years, whose strength and hope for the future belie the harsh realities of her surroundings. In 1994 the second chapter was published as the picture book Hair/Pelitos, whose themes of embracing heritage, culture, and individuality echo the author's beliefs expressed in her works for older audiences.
Chakravtee, Moutushi. "Shock Therapy: Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." Indian Journal of American Studies 24, no. 2 (summer 1994): 21-5.
Examines the roles gender and ethnicity play in casting The House on Mango Street's Esperanza as a victim of societal prejudice.
Gonzales, Maria. "Love and Conflict: Mexican American Women Writers as Daughters." In Women of Color: Mother-Daughter Relationships in Twentieth-Century Literature, edited by Elizabeth Brown-Guillory, pp. 153-69. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 1996.
Asserts that The House on Mango Street transforms female archetypes from traditional Latin-American mythology to create more positive representations of the mother-daughter relationship.
González, Myrna-Yamil. "Female Voices in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." In U.S. Latino Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and Teachers, edited by Harold Augenbraum and Margarite Fernández Olmos, pp. 101-11. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Reflects upon the thematic elements of The House on Mango Street, particularly the role of women in the narrative.
Gutiérrez-Jones, Leslie S. "Different Voices: The Re-Building of the Barrio in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." In Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singely and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, pp. 295-312. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Attempts to place The House on Mango Street among the larger genre of female-centric Bildungsroman.
Karafilis, Maria. "Crossing the Borders of Genre: Revisions of the Bildungsroman in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street and Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John." Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 31, no. 2 (winter 1998): 63-78.
Contrasts Jamaica Kincaid's Annie John with Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, classifying both as Bildungsroman.
McCracken, Ellen. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence." In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, pp. 62-71. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Studies the instances of physical, sexual, and mental abuse committed against women in the maledominated society depicted in The House on Mango Street.
de Valdes, Maria Elena. "In Search of Identity in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Canadian Review of American Studies 23, no. 1 (fall 1992): 55-72.
Examines the connecting themes that run throughout the stories in The House on Mango Street, demonstrates the poetic quality of Cisneros's writing, and chronicles the protagonist's development toward self-possession.
Additional coverage of Cisneros's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 9, 53; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 64, 118; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 69, 118, 193; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 122, 152; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminism in Literature: A Gale Critical Companion, Ed. 1:5; Feminist Writers; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latino and Latina Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1:2; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 52; Poetry for Students, Vol. 19; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vols. 32, 72; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 1.