There is a universal quality to Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and also something very specific.
This is the story of Esperanza Cordero, and, at its heart, it is the story of every child who has gone through the very difficult transformation into becoming a teenager with all its excitement, fear, challenge and risk. No wonder it’s read in so many high school classes.
At the same time, the book’s strength as literature is that it tells the story of a unique girl in a unique place — a Mexican-American girl in the neighborhoods of Chicago whose life is focused not only on the changes in her body but also on her need to figure out how to maneuver in the broader world.
Esperanza lives in a community that is made up of newly arrived immigrants from Mexico and first-generation Americans, but also includes black and white people from such places as Texas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Puerto Rico.
There’s even Ruthie, an emotionally fragile woman, who wears a babushka, the colorful traditional Russian headscarf that, in mid-twentieth century Chicago, was ubiquitous as a means of protecting the hair of women of many backgrounds from the wind.
Ruthie, tall skinny lady with red lipstick and blue babushka, one blue sock and one green because she forgot, is the only grown-up we know who likes to play…She is Edna’s daughter, the lady who owns the big building next door, three apartments front and back.
Another neighbor whom Esperanza meets shortly after arriving at the family’s new house on Mango Street is Cathy, Queen of Cats, who lives with her father in a home he built.
You want a friend, she says. Okay, I’ll be your friend. But only till next Tuesday. That’s when we move away. Got to. Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad…. [They’ll] move a little farther north from Mango Street, a little farther away every time people like us keep moving in.
“Holding their breath”
The House on Mango Street is a novel comprising 46 vignettes of one to seven pages each. It opens with Esperanza explaining:
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 is moving a lot.
Esperanza’s age is never given, but, from the text, it appears she’s about 12 or 13 at the start of the novel which covers the family’s first year in their house. She is the oldest child with two brothers and a sister, and, after living in so many apartments — she uses the popular Chicago term “flats” — the family has dreamed of a house that “would be white with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence.”
Alas, the family has to move quickly from their flat on Loomis, and what they can afford doesn’t fit their dreams.
It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb.
“Neighborhood of roofs”
Cisneros is cagy about the location of the house, keeping it vague. Late in the novel, Esperanza gives its address as 4006 Mango. The descriptions in the vignettes of the growing Hispanic presence in the neighborhood would seem to suggest that the house is on the Near Southwest Side — 4006 S. Mango St. if there were such a place.
There is a Mango Avenue in Chicago, but no Mango Street. Chicago’s Mango Avenue runs on through much of the Northwest Side, from North Avenue to Elston Avenue, three blocks west of Central Avenue. Any house at 4006 N. Mango Ave. would be in the Portage Park neighborhood which, in the mid-1980s when this novel was published, was only about five percent Latino.
If, like many Chicago streets, Mango Avenue continued further south, a house at 4006 S. Mango Avenue would be in the southwest suburb of Stickney.
It’s tempting to imagine that Cisneros was thinking about the area of Chicago where her family bought its first house — at 1525 N. Campbell Ave. — and where she lived in her adolescence. Although Cisneros has acknowledged that she plumbed her own life experience for her novel, the West Town community area where her family’s home was situated was solidly Hispanic (about 60 percent) during the 1980s. (Over the last quarter century, of course, it has been heavily gentrified.)
The novel’s setting also seems to fit the Brighton Park neighborhood which is just south of the overwhelmingly Mexican community of Little Village. During the 1980s, the Latino population in Brighton Park more than doubled — rising from 15 percent in 1980 to 37 percent in 1990. In addition, it contains eight streets (along 40th Street) that could have a 4006 address.
The bottom line, though, is that we don’t really know where Esperanza’s home is located, and that’s a good thing.
The neighborhood she lives in represents every Chicago neighborhood. It is, Esperanza says, a “neighborhood of roofs, black-tarred and A-framed and in their gutters, the balls that never came back down to earth.”
Any child who grew up in Chicago lived in that neighborhood.
“Just another wetback”
As a Chicagoan, Esperanza is not just a resident of her neighborhood but also of the wider city. For instance, she gets her a first job at a photo finishing business on Broadway on the North Side. And Marin, an older girl she knows from Puerto Rico, is already moving out into the city as something of a trailblazer for her younger friend.
Marin has been making money by selling Avon Products, but she wants 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.
On the weekends, Marin goes to dances all over the city, including the Aragon Ballroom, the Uptown Theater and the Embassy Ballroom, and it’s at one of those dances that she meets Geraldo, a guy in a shiny shirt and green pants who works at a restaurant. They dance together, and, then, he goes outside and — like that! — is killed by a car, a hit-and-run accident.
Marin is the last person to see him alive, and she is shaken by his death although, as she tells anyone who asks, he wasn’t anyone to her, really — “Just another brazer who didn’t speak English. Just another wetback. You know the kind. The ones who always look ashamed.”
There is no one to be found to take his body. No one who knows him. His is the story of generations of single immigrant men who have come to the United States and have tried to navigate a foreign culture. In one of the most poignant passages in The House on Mango Street, Cisneros writes about Geraldo,
They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange. How could they?
His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away, will wonder, shrug, remember Geraldo — he went north…we never heard from him again.
For more than a century, Chicago has trumpeted itself as a city of neighborhoods. Chicagoans often identify closely and deeply with their local community in a bond of geographic kinship. But there’s a flipside of this, as Esperanza explains:
Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.
The people of her neighborhood aren’t afraid of what outsiders think to be scary-looking dudes. They know them as family members and friends and just part of the landscape. “All brown all around, we are safe.”
It’s different, she notes, when her neighbors go elsewhere in the city.
But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. That is how it goes and goes.
Esperanza’s mother was born in Chicago. Her father is from Mexico. And, one early morning, her father wakes her up in the dark to tell her that her abuelito (Grandpa) has died. Sitting on the edge of her bed, he “crumples like a coat” and cries.
My Papa, his thick hands and thick shoes, who wakes up tried in the dark, who combs his hair with water, drinks his coffee, and is gone before we wake, today is sitting on my bed.
And I think if my own Papa died what would I do. I hold my Papa in my arms. I hold and hold and hold him.
Her father will have to go back home for the burial and will bring back a black-and-white photograph of the tomb. Meanwhile, Esperanza as the eldest will tell her brothers and sister the news and explain to them the need to be quiet and respectful.
She will be the bridge between her father’s generation and her own, and a bridge between Mexico and America, and, ultimately, a bridge between her family’s neighborhood and the wider world she will realize she wants to discover.
“His dirty fingernails”
Esperanza also finds herself traveling over the bridge between childhood and adulthood, a journey that fills her with confusion, excitement and trepidation.
An older boy named Sire is watching her as he rides his bike past her, and they exchange glances:
I looked because I wanted to be brave, straight into the dusty cat fur of his eyes and the bike stopped and he bumped into a parked car, bumped, and I walked fast. It made your blood freeze to have somebody look at you like that.
Her father tells her the boy is just a punk, but she can’t stop thinking about him:
Everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt.
Yet, the transition from child to adult is painful and harrowing for Esperanza.
At the photo finishing store, an Asian co-worker grabs her face and gives her an unwanted kiss on the lips.
Later, at a carnival, an older boy sexually assaults her — “only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his sour-smell again…He wouldn’t let me go. He said I love you, I love you, Spanish girl.”
“All my own”
Like generations of other children of immigrants, Esperanza yearns for her own life, one that is not circumscribed by the world of her parents or her neighborhood.
She wants to leave the house on Mango Street for a house of her own — “a house on a hill like the ones with the gardens where Papa works.” For a Sunday drive, the family goes to those richer neighborhoods with the richer houses and rubbernecks at the elegance, beauty and stateliness of the buildings.
But Esperanza doesn’t go any longer, “tired of looking at what we can’t have.” Instead, she imagines the future:
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.
Esperanza wants to escape the house on Mango Street, and the neighborhood, and the life she has led and that her parents and siblings will continue to lead. But, she is told by family and friends, she can never fully leave.
No, Alicia says. Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you’ll come back too.
Not me. Not until somebody makes it better.
Who’s going to do it? The mayor?
And the thought of the mayor coming to Mango Street makes me laugh out loud.
Who’s going to do it? Not the mayor.
And, so it is, at the end of the novel that Esperanza is picturing the future. She knows she will leave. She knows she will find her way in the outer world. She knows she will find a house of her own.
But she will remain who she is, even as her friends and family wonder about her life away from them.
They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.
Patrick T. Reardon