Sandra Cisneros was born in 1954 to a Mexican-American mother and Mexican father in Chicago, Illinois. When she was growing up, her family was constantly moving between Chicago and Mexico City because of her father’s job as an upholsterer
She has a bachelors degree from Loyola University in Chicago and an MFA from the University of Iowa. It was during her MFA studies that she was struck by the differences between her and her classmates, and realized that her social position gave her a unique writing voice.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was a Mexican woman. But I didn’t think it had anything to do with why I felt so much imbalance in my life, whereas it had everything to do with it! My race, my gender, and my class! And it didn’t make sense until that moment, sitting in that seminar. That’s when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn’t write about.
The House on Mango Street was a coming of age novel written by Cisneros in 1984. The book was critically acclaimed, made the New York Times Best seller list, and was turned into a stage play by Tanya Saracho. It is also included in The Skeptic’s Guide to the Great Books with Professor Grant Voth through the Learning Company that my husband and I have been slowly making our way through.
The House on Mango Street is the first literary selection provided on The Prentice Hall Anthology of Literature, which I am also intend to make my way through. There are discussion questions after the except, so here goes…
Esperanza, the main character of the book, was named for her great-grandmother. She says she doesn’t want to inherit her great-grandmother’s “place by the window” because she wants to have a life of her own. Her great-grandmother was essentially abducted by her great-grandfather as though she were “a fancy chandelier” and her great-grandmother never forgave him. She would “sit with her sadness on her elbow”, presumably by the window. Esperanza wonders if her great-grandmother was able to make the best of what she got, or was she sorry that she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be?
Not only has Esperanza been named for her great-grandmother, her name gets butchered at school. In Spanish, her name is very soft, like silver, but her classmates say her name as if the syllables “are tin and hurt the roof of your mouth”. Her sister’s name, Magdalena, is uglier than Esperanza, but there are nicknames that can be made out of Magdalena, like Nenny. There is no nickname for Esperanza. Esperanza wants to change her name to Zeze the X because she wants to baptize herself under a new name that better reflects who she truly is.
She also wants a house of her own. Not a flat. Not an apartment Not a man’s house. Not her daddy’s house. She doesn’t want someone else’s garbage to pick up after. She wants her own identity. Her own life.
As a female, I can relate to wanting a house of my own. But I imagine it must be a feeling that is even more exaggerated when you grow up within a culture that can’t even pronounce your name correctly.
Esperanza means hope. And Esperanza hopes to one day be free of Mango Street. Her friends and neighbors will not know that she went away to come back, but she will come back for the ones “who cannot out”. She won’t literally come back, but will come back through her writing.
Cisneros spent many years in San Antonio. She lived on Guenther Street, overlooking the Riverwalk, in a house she painted periwinkle. She said she moved to San Antonio because she wasn’t a minority there, but Guenther Street is in a neighborhood with code restrictions having to do with the history of the area. When she painted her house Tejano colors, she was asked to prove the colors had historical relevance. What she discovered was that Mexican-Americans don’t exist according to the architectural history records of San Antonio, despite having such a large population of Mexican-Americans…
…what I found is this: We don’t exist. My history is made up of a community whose homes were so poor and unimportant as to be considered unworthy of historic preservation. No famous architect designed the houses of the tejanos, and there are no books in the San Antonio Conservation Society library about houses of the working-class community, no photos romanticizing their poverty, no ladies’ auxiliary working toward preserving their presence. Their homes are gone; their history is invisible. The few historic homes that survived have access cut off by freeways because city planners did not judge them important.
Concessions were made and she was allowed to keep the house periwinkle with a few changes. She later painted it pink. She sold her lovely, colorful house on Guenther Street in 2015 and I think she moved to Mexico. (Wikipedia says she currently resides in San Antonio, but I think that’s incorrect. I think she is living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.) The house on Guenther St. is back on the market for a mere $1,150,000 if you are interested.
I wonder if you ever truly can have a home of your own? I suppose what is most important is to have the freedom and sense-of-self necessary to at least try.