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Cisnero’s acclaimed work The House on Mango Street explores a variety of themes in her photographic stories which capture everything from the seemingly banal triumphs of a small child to the tragedies suffered at the hands of cultural and social prescripts and finally to the mature introspections of a confused but wildly talented young woman. The short novel is essentially a coming-of-age story, one that depicts landmark events of Esperanza’s life in the heavily stylistic vignettes that form the novel all while retaining a regular chronology that divides her juvenile and mature life into sections.
The tale begins with a snapshot of Esperanza’s home on Mango Street; the home which is viewed under the critical gaze of the perceptive child who struggles with the home as a representation of several failures. First is the failure of her parents to provide the idyllic future that they promised, the future that was to unfold in the white-picket-fence suburban dream-house they described as they moved from apartment to apartment.
However, the house is more frequently seen as symbolic of the potential failure of never escaping Mango Street and not being able to realize the dream through her own agency. If her parent’s incapacity to fulfill the fantasy was disappointing, Esperanza understands the degree of disappointment that awaits her if she is to take responsibility for her own happiness and fall short. Thus begins the narrator’s battle to define herself and align her sense of self with the socially dictated identity appropriated to her. Cisnero’s choice to open with this piece effectively impresses the moment of Esperanza’s disillusionment and sets into motion the story of her understanding the issues and eventually resolving them.
Esperanza’s identity crisis is multi-faceted, making it even more difficult for her to settle both her internal and external conflicts. One of the many faces of the crisis is her confusion surrounding her cultural role as a female. She paints the picture of the stereotypical Mexican woman as physically submissive yet psychic powerhouses of patience and more importantly, resilience. For example, she recounts the story of her grandparent’s union in which her grandmother was literally dragged off into marriage and punished her husband by never conforming to be happy in a matrimony that was never based on egalitarian standards or even a reciprocated affection. Esperanza learns of the subtlety of a woman’s strength and resolves not to repeat her grandmother’s mistakes.
Another episode that deals with this role is in her memories of Sally coming to school with the faded purple and blue evidence of her father’s physical abuse. The girl’s beatings are explained away by her father’s supposed concern and desire to protect the girl from danger and dishonor; however, they are the exact representation of the patriarchal realities that are prevalent in Esperanza’s culture. Nevertheless, the tale is punctuated with an undertone of hope, albeit completely symbolic-Sally’s enduring beauty that is not hidden behind the marks of abuse.
The role of the female is further complicated as Esperanza becomes increasingly aware of female sexuality in her culture and the power dynamic that is embodied and perpetuated in sexual interactions. Again, Sally’s character depicts this notion best-for instance, in the chapter where Esperanza describes the old lot that was her childhood playground and the locus of inspiration for her fantastical ruminations. The afternoon that Sally is pressured into kissing all the boys in order to regain her possessions (without any real resistance from Sally or objection to the undoubtedly sexual game on the part of the mothers of the boys) Esperanza experiences the crucial moment in coming-of-age-novels: the loss of innocence. The playground is no longer seen as a magical escape; rather, it becomes another place from which she must battle to escape. From this point on she sees sex as a punishable act for the women around her, one that entraps them in bad relationships and unplanned pregnancies. Take the case of Sally, who uses her sexual agency to achieve a temporary relief from her troubles at home. She moves away from her abusive father and into the arms of an abusive husband, one who is just as jealous and preoccupied the danger of the woman’s beauty.
Lastly, her assumed role as a woman is that of a domestic goddess, circumscribing education, especially one that will teach her to question and dismiss the norms that define her quotidian life. Esperanza is first exposed to an educated woman (and the reactions to an educated woman) through her encounters with Alicia. Esperanza initially describes Alicia as conceited because of her university experience, but later views Alicia as a source of advice and encouragement for her own collegiate aspirations. The menace of an intelligent woman to the patriarchal society is perfectly encompassed in Esperanza’s commentary, “The Chinese, like the Mexicans, do not like their women strong,” because the intellectual female is empowered, aware and able without the support of the male.
Her divergence from the culture of Mango Street is a result of several factors and as she grows older, the sentiment of exclusion becomes more pronounced. However, what was in her youth an unfortunate and painful truth of being the “other” later becomes the realization that her niche is to be an outsider, a perennially external personality to the reality of her peers and neighbors. She does not use this position, however, as an excuse to escape Mango Street, but as a vehicle for providing perspective for those around her. Therefore, she finds function in “fault” and takes from her experiences the tools needed to improve herself (and henceforth to improve the lives of people like her.)
Esperanza’s primary conflict is that of identity, an intricate network of clashes between her perceptions of what she would like to be and that which is expected from her because of her sex and ethnic background. Throughout the story, she learns about female strength and weakness and finds that her home is exactly where the curandera said it was: in her heart. Furthermore, at the end of the novel, the house on Mango Street is no longer a representation of failure but of Esperanza (Hope).
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