Latina Revolution and Womanhood: Why The House on Mango Street Still Hits Home 37 Years Later
I have loved The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros’s debut novel from 1984, since I was an insecure but book-passionate sixth grader. Now in my last year of college, I own several editions with different cover art because I can’t help but collect iconic literature that I read over and over again. Because the novel, a story narrated through a series of forty-four vignettes, was the first of its kind to feature a protagonist who, from her personality to her life, was just like me—brown, Chicana, and an aspiring writer with an independent streak. Since its publication, the book has been taught everywhere from elementary schools to college campuses, read by the working class and scholars and all those in between, beloved by people of all creeds, colors, and countries. After thirty-seven years, why is it still so popular?
A large part of the book’s success is owed to its leading lady, Esperanza Cordero, a complex and relatable protagonist even for readers who do not hail from a Latinx background.
Throughout the novel, she longs for space from her overbearing family while still deeply loving them, dreams of a home of her own and a life not affected by poverty, and intricately writes about the people in her working-class Chicago neighborhood. She appeals to a universal sense of entrapment that, at one point or another, we all feel, especially now in a pandemic-afflicted world. Esperanza feels as though a real person, in a constant flux of pain and joy, suffering and success.
I most admire her boldness and rejection of traditional Mexican femininity. One vignette entitled “Beautiful & Cruel” finds Esperanza openly critical of the culture we share, which values quiet, submissive, God-fearing, husband-seeking women:
“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.”
Up until this point in the novel, the idea that women do not have to clean up after the messes of men or act with proper manners has gone unquestioned. That women exclusively assume the role of homemakers and caregivers is a notion born out of Catholicism—not coincidentally, the most followed religion in Mexico—which holds significance in many other Latin American cultures as well. But with only a few sentences, Esperanza transforms the tradition into mythos.
Women like us become not only normalized but necessary.
Because The House on Mango Street is for all lost women and those who wish to become found. All the female figures in Esperanza’s life—her mother, sisters, cousins, and neighbors—are all affected by toxic male behavior, from Esperanza’s father who cannot separate her independent personhood from her marriage prospects, to her friend Sally’s boyfriend who physically abuses her and leaves bruises deeper than what is visible on her skin.
Yet the novel never treats these women as though they are broken. Or like they are only victims of a culture that does not respect them as people first. But instead we view them as characters that are full of desire and passion for cooking, owning their own businesses, and, in Esperanza’s case, writing. Through her love for poetry, using her words as both a metaphorical and literal escapism, she compels the reader to question the stereotypical role of womanhood in Latinx culture and if it can be defined both inside and outside of wifehood, motherhood, and other ties to men.
Besides the brilliance of the story itself, Cisneros also pioneered a style of prose now common in Latinx literature—that is, blending English with Spanish and keeping the vocabulary in either language deceivingly simple and effortless. Even when dealing with themes of sexual assault, abusive relationships, and mental illness, she utilizes a short sentence structure and unique dialect that uses words no more complex than those a thirteen-year-old would use—all while still utilizing the rhythm of poetry.
Such techniques make the novel easily accessible to readers of any level. The vignettes are loosely connected, arguably stand-alone, so that you could begin reading at any point and understand what’s happening. As she writes in her memoir A House of My Own: Stories From My Life, Cisneros wanted The House on Mango Street to be a book that a working man like her father could read at the kitchen table and understand without needing a fancy degree. Her love for our people is evident from the first page that you read.
The House on Mango Street was ahead of its time. Cisneros has paved the way for all those who feel like their words don’t matter because they weren’t born white. Her influence can be found in the pages of many Latinx writers who have since followed in her footsteps—Pam Muñoz Ryan (Esperanza Rising), Erika Sánchez (I’m Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter), Elizabeth Acevedo (The Poet X, With the Fire on High), Anna-Marie McLemore (When the Moon Was Ours), Gabby Rivera (Juliet Takes a Breath), and me.
Both in the work that I write and read, I seek to be engaged in literary beauty defined by family, culture, and identity. In people who write not only for their communities but also for any reader who sees themselves represented within their stories.
Though Esperanza is young, her background unique and her world small, I love her as a girl who is more than her poverty or her obstacles or how ill she is treated by the male figures in her life. Instead, she is the passion that she carries for her family, her people, and her writing, the justice she seeks, the escape she promises for the dreamers living in neighborhoods just like hers and for, as she describes, “the ones who cannot out.”