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Education is an integral part of the identity formation process; it helps shape individuals and it often directs their lives after the educational process is over. The level and quality of education can determine one’s socioeconomic status and prospects; however, not everyone has equal access to the same educational opportunities. In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros offers a glimpse into the difficulties that Mexican American women encounter when they express an aspiration for a higher level of education. The novel conveys the notion that education provides opportunities for a better life and leads to female emancipation and ultimately, independence.
The author provides the female perspective on education in this novel, nevertheless, to understand the female stances on this issue one needs to understand the underlying structures that segregate entire communities based primarily on their ethnicity, and secondarily, exclude women based on their gender. “Chicanas argued that they were even more oppressed than Mexican-American men, on account of both their status as race/ethnic minorities and their gender”.
The Latino population in the United States is “the largest racial and ethnic minority in the country”; however, “in terms of ethnicity, the largest Latino group by far is the Mexican or Mexican American population”, which is the ethnic group described in the novel, and it is often referred to as the Chicano population.
The level of education attained among people from the Latino population depends on many factors, such as socioeconomic background, the involvement of parents in the educational process, and the quality of primary education they received. According to statistics, “the school enrollment rates of Latino children do not diverge significantly from those of other racial and ethnic groups until they reach 15 years of age”, however, their enrolment in schools does not guarantee quality education, as Latino children are often discriminated by their peers, and on occasions, even by their teachers.
Discrimination on both institutional and individual levels deeply influences the children and affects their overall performance in schools. The institutional discrimination affects not only children in the education system but their parents as well, resulting in families and entire communities that live in seclusion from the rest of American society. On an individual level children may suffer “social exclusion, unfair grading, verbal insults from teachers and peers, and physical assault”. Such practices point out that the entire educational system must be re-oriented towards an approach that will not disadvantage and harm children from ethnic groups.
As Latino children grow older, the school dropout rates become higher, and “they are significantly less likely to complete high school than their White peers”. In terms of college and university education “Latinos tend to enroll in community colleges”, even so, the graduation rates are low, and in more prestigious educational institutions the presence of Latino students is almost non-existent as compared to other groups. Accordingly, “education is also a key determinant of labor market status. Latinos in the labor force tend to have higher unemployment rates as well as lower earning than average”, meaning that limited access to quality education and discrimination are determining factors in the lives of Latino people.
All children living in the barrio attend schools up to a certain age, although public schools located in Latino neighborhoods are believed to do more harm than good, while private schools are often expensive, and for the majority of the population, unaffordable. Esperanza Cordero’s family is one of the few exceptions in the barrio that emphasizes education and its quality, nevertheless, in order to afford a better-quality education Esperanza has to start working at a young age in order to pay the tuition for the private school she is supposed to attend or as she explains, “I needed money. The Catholic high school cost a lot, and Papa said nobody went to public school unless you wanted to turn out bad”.
Esperanza, the main protagonist in The House on Mango Street, attends a Catholic school where the student body consists of both Chicano and white students. On several occasions, Esperanza finds herself humiliated and embarrassed by her teachers, most of whom judge her based on the neighborhood she lives in and the condition of her family’s house. In school, Esperanza observes, “The special kids, the ones who wear keys around their necks, get to eat in the canteen. The canteen!”, thus excluding herself and the other children from her community from the “special kids”. Chicano students are not allowed to eat lunch in the canteen with the rest of the students, so they have to walk home during the lunch hour, a walk that might be lengthy and tiring for some students, which would then lower their levels of concentration and consequentially, lower their performance.
The important role education has in the life of a woman is depicted through the character of Esperanza’s mother, who is convinced that a better future awaits those who are educated. Esperanza’s mother contradicts the picture of the traditional Chicana mothers “who were at the same time participants and victims of the patriarchy, and encouraged their daughters to do the same”.
In the vignette, “A Smart Cookie” Esperanza describes her mother’s regrets for the missed opportunities that could guarantee her freedom and an alternative lifestyle. “Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard”, is the advice Esperanza receives from her mother. She encourages her to break the conventions of the patriarchal order and become an independent woman and to drift away from Mexican culture that places “women at the bottom of the ladder one rung above the deviants”.
The novel introduces various women and young girls, the majority of whom are bound to the domestic sphere and are not provided access to higher education. Although the majority of women live in similar circumstances, through the character of Alicia the author introduces an individual who is trying to emancipate herself by attending university while still living in the barrio. Alicia faces many difficulties while juggling her college and domestic life; during the day she serves as a primary caregiver for her family and at night she studies because that is the only part of the day when she has no other responsibilities. ‘Alicia is young and smart and studies for the first time at university. Two trains and a bus, because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin’. Through Alicia, the author introduces the only woman in the novel that possesses the agency and the courage to pursue her ambitions, as well as “the only character that does not invest her hopes in a man”.
For Esperanza, women such as Alicia and her mother serve as role models that encourage her to pursue further education. As the novel progresses, the reader becomes a witness of Esperanza’s maturation and determination to leave Mango Street to attain independence and success. She declares “One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango” because as a Chicana woman she is not presented with any opportunities within her own culture, because “culture is made by those in power – men”. Esperanza does not fall prey to the omnipresent male influence; she finds inspiration in the women who left Mango Street in pursuit of education while bearing witness to the fates of those who were never able to leave in pursuit.
The women in the Chicano community are expected “to show greater acceptance of, and commitment to, the value system than men”, which would then leave them bound to the domestic sphere, unable to gain access to the education system. The “cultural paradigm” indicates that Chicana women should remain in a position permanently inferior to men, and are forbidden to cross the boundaries that have been established for “women of their kind”. According to Gloria Anzaldúa, women in these communities can be assigned only one of three roles: a nun, a prostitute, and a mother; however, she assigns some women, including herself, to a fourth category, “some of us have a fourth choice: entering the world by way of education and career and becoming self-autonomous persons. A very few of us”.
As analyzed in the essay, The House on Mango Street offers a different perspective on Chicana women, conveying the message that there is an alternative way of life that can be attained only through education. The sole step of entering higher education presents an act of differentiation for those women who succeed in it, ensuing professional prospects that would eventually lead to their economic independence, and consequentially, emancipation from the barrio. Although the novel does not exemplify a change on an institutional level, it provides examples of individual women who pave the way for future generations of Chicana women, women who deserve an easier path to emancipation.
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