House on Mango Street
By Sandra Cisneros
Vintage Books, 1984
[25th Anniversary Edition, Vintage Books, 2009]
Reviewed by Dr. Thelma Reyna
Book Review #5 in the
PIONEER AMERICAN LATINA AUTHORS SERIES
“La Sandra,” as Sandra Cisneros has sometimes been called by her fans, is perhaps the most famous American Latina writer alive today and possibly of all time. Her books have been translated internationally and are taught in grade schools and universities across our nation. As a multiple award-winner in her long, distinguished career, Cisneros has had a tremendous influence on the contemporary renaissance and evolution of Chicano/Latino literature in the United States.
Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros created stories and poems since elementary school. She knew early on that she wanted to be a writer and, as a young graduate student in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970’s, already had a vision for her work: “to write stories that ignore borders between genres, between written and spoken, between highbrow literature and children’s nursery rhymes, between New York and the imaginary [Mexican] village of Macondo, between the U.S. and Mexico.”
This she wrote in her eloquent “Introduction” to the 25th anniversary edition of her break-out classic, “The House on Mango Street.” And this—all of this—she accomplished beautifully in her book.
A Book ‘Between Genres’
This book is difficult to categorize. It’s called a novel, but it’s a collection of tiny vignettes, many of them barely a page long, most of them a snapshot of someone who lives on Mango Street, someone whom the book’s narrator, young Esperanza Cordero, knows directly or indirectly. Mango Street is in a poor section of Chicago (modeled after Bucktown pre-gentrification, according to Cisneros). The houses are cramped and rundown, with peeling paint and little or no yards. The children play on porches and streets, amidst a motley crew of poignant, disgusting, endearing, and enigmatic neighbors and storekeepers who run the gamut from drunken bums to nuns.
Unlike a novel, the book does not have a plot in the traditional sense. The thread that holds this book together is the recurrence of various characters—most of them Esperanza’s peers and family—from section to section, though many characters appear only once. Cisneros calls this “story cycles” and purposely chose “little stories…connected to each other.” Each “chapter” (not traditional chapters either, but “a little story” instead) can be read as a stand-alone. The vignette may be as simple as a child’s description of clouds, or as complex as girls mocking a dying woman.
Cisneros states in her book’s Introduction that she wants to make her writing accessible to all, wants her readers to see themselves in her writing. “The House on Mango Street” is formatted to be read in one or two sittings and is something that Latinos/as can indeed relate to. It deals with issues at the heart of many adolescents’ evolution—gender roles, family dynamics, biculturalism, sexual identity, social responsibility, prejudice, domestic abuse, and poverty. The narrator, Esperanza, in the space of one year, learns about these issues either personally or through the suffering of friends and neighbors on Mango Street.
The Simple Complexity of People
Like a deft artist, Cisneros paints pictures of her characters in tight, economical brushstrokes. She says little about them in restrained, simple language, and picks unobtrusive details to show us their essence. Darius the fool chases girls with firecrackers and sees God in cloud formations. Marin sells Avon, wears tons of makeup, and dances alone under the streetlights when her family goes to bed.
There’s Aunt Lupe, crippled and bedridden from a diving accident or a fall (nobody knows), who lives an abysmal life lying limp, head tossed back, blind, waiting to die, yet nurturing Esperanza’s writing ambitions. Through Lupe, Esperanza learns about compassion and the frailty of life.
The many characters who appear only once are amazingly memorable. Often females young and old, they endure indignities and abuse at the hands of males who restrict and dominate them. Yet Cisneros describes these females as an unbiased journalist would, without judgment or anger.
We see Esperanza’s Mexican great-grandmother, her namesake, only long enough to know she was kidnapped as a young girl and forced into marriage, living out her life in bitterness toward her husband, who squelched her individuality and potential. She serves the young Esperanza as a symbol of what not to be.
Then there’s Esperanza’s incredibly beautiful classmate, Sally, who is beaten cruelly by a domineering father who fears she’ll run away like his sisters did long ago. After a while, Sally, stoic despite her bruises, defiantly engages in sex, knowing her father’s rage awaits her. She chooses a desolate path as an escape, teaching Esperanza the urgency of forging her own identity before it’s too late.
The Primacy of Poetry
Those who didn’t know that poetry was a first love of Cisneros would guess this from the book’s imagery. The simplest things are endowed with little grace notes that surprise us, for Cisneros’ language is not what we ourselves would have invoked. Thus, the house on Mango Street has “windows so small, you’d think they were holding their breath.” Neighbor girls have “popsicle lips” and laughter “like shy ice cream bells.” A neighbor woman’s feet are described as “plump and polite, descended like white pigeons from the sea of pillow.”
But the most poetic portion of the book, near its end, is the chapter titled “Four Skinny Trees,” which is a prose poem from start to finish that symbolizes what Esperanza is and plans to become. A young woman about to embark on her own future, Esperanza describes “the four raggedy excuses planted by the city” thus: “Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. 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.” The young girl’s final analysis of the trees is a description of her own resolve to follow her dreams and succeed: “Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach.”
Cisneros’ Place in Latina Literature
As this series about pioneering, modern-day American Latina authors has shown, Cisneros was not the first to be published. She was not the first to receive a coveted literary award. She was not the first to be acknowledged by non-Latinos as a writer whose work cut across cultural groups. Other Latinas whose books have been reviewed here—Nicholasa Mohr, Estela Portillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Cherrié Moraga—beat Cisneros to those accomplishments.
But Sandra Cisneros was the first modern American Latina to be published by a major mainstream publisher. She is thus often credited with opening the door to other Latina/o authors’ acceptance by the mainstream. So it is her name which oftentimes pops up first on the topic of Latina authors. It is Cisneros whose work is widely anthologized in multi-cultural books, whose work is selected for literature curricula across American schools. It is Cisneros who embodies the melding of two cultures, the Mexican and the American. With many prestigious awards for her talent, Cisneros has set a standard of excellence that awes. She is, after all, “La Sandra.”
Her other books include the novel “Caramelo” (2002); the short story collection “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991); the poetry books, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” (1987) and “Loose Woman” (1994); and the anthology of excerpts from her works, “Vintage Cisneros” (2004). Her website is www.sandracisneros.com .
Thelma T. Reyna, Ph.D. is author of The Heavens Weep for Us and Other Stories (2009, Outskirts Press), which has won four national awards. Her short stories, poems, essays, book reviews, and other non-fiction have been published in literary and academic journals, literature textbooks, anthologies, blogs, and regional media off and on since the 1970’s. Her first poetry chapbook, Breath & Bone (Finishing Line Press, 2011) was a semi-finalist in a national poetry chapbook competition. Dr. Reyna is an adjunct professor at California State University, Los Angeles. Her website is www.ThelmaReyna.com.