Sandra Cisneros is the fourth and last author whose picture captivated me while visiting the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. The others, Louise Erdich, Chang-Rae Lee, and Jhumpa Lahiri have books recently reviewed here at The Storyside.
Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street (published 1984) is a coming-of-age story in which 12-year-old Esperanza matures into a young woman over the course of a year. In the beginning, the joy her family feels from moving into their very own house in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago is lost on Esperanza, who fumes over the house’s small size and her lack of privacy. They’ve barely settled in, and whining Esperanza already wants to get out.
The salient point to the story is Esperanza’s transformation. As winter gives way to spring, Esperanza and her new friends jump rope and buy a bike. Later, as the city sweats in the summer heat, Esperanza’s interest turns from girlish pursuits to high heels. Esperanza falls in love, and resists a kiss by an older man at her job. She dances with boys and dreams of them.
Esperanza’s story, and the stories of her neighbors, are told in a collection of vignettes that leave an indelible picture of poverty and strife in the over-populated Latino quarter. The vignettes have no particular plot, but together form a compelling impression. For example, Cisneros tells of an immigrant worker found dead. The neighbors have no one to contact about the man’s untimely end. Instead, they can only imagine his family in Mexico asking what happened to Geraldo and answering, “He went north . . . we never heard from him again.”
Like an impressionist painting, The House on Mango Street provides clarity through distance. In one vignette, Esperanza becomes uncomfortable with Sally’s flirtatious behavior at a party and leaves. The next day, Sally places the blame of last night’s sexual escapades squarely on Esperanza’s back and tells of her inability to resist the inevitable by asking the simple question, “Why didn’t you come for me?”
Up close, the steps Esperanza and the girls take seem like coming-of-age events. But from a distance, the paths these girls have before them lead to lives trapped in the barrio. In the end, Esperanza still yearns to escape Mango Street, but as other young women fall into the traps of poverty and pregnancy, she determines to stay and help them improve their lives.
With her sensual and strong voice, Cisneros brings us a compelling story that I highly recommend.
A retired engineer, Ursula Wong writes about strong women. Her award-winning debut novel, Purple Trees, and her second novel, Amber Wolf, portray strong women struggling against impossible odds to claim a better life.
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