Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Don't expect a linear narrative that moves from one scene to the next in this story. Don't expect much dialogue. Instead, revel in a series of short episodes, intensely lyrical and metaphorical, that read like prose poetry more than a novel. Like a chain link fence, Esperanza's voice is what binds the vignettes as she searches for her identity describing how people in her community and family have effected her outlook on life. Her coming-of-age story is a quest for finding a home, a symbol of a place where she can write freely and pursue artistic creativity.

Esperanza describes her parents buying a house in a poor Chicago neighborhood when she is 8 years old. The story follows her growing into an adult before moving away. She's ashamed of the house and insists it will never be her home.  Not only does the house represent a poor neighborhood where society as a whole oppresses Latin Americans, but it is a place where women are oppressed by patriarchal Latino men. She is aware that others think her neighborhood is dangerous. She observes many women who are trapped in the home by men who fear them socializing with others. One women she calls Rapunzel because she tosses her and her friends dollar bills to go buy her drinks from the grocery store. Her husband has her locked in their apartment where she can't come and go of her own free will.

The women all have stories and most are not happy with their oppressive lives. They dream of more. Some think they can find happiness with a husband. Esperanza's friend, Sally, married as a 7th grader an older man who won't let her leave the house or talk on the phone. Sally is okay with it. Of course, her father used to beat her and her husband doesn't. Choose your poison. The traditional role of females in Esperanza's Latino neighborhood is examined over and over in the people around her and she finds it unsatisfying. Yet, the women are also tough and supportive of one another and Esperanza describes the closeness of community as well.

Esperanza observes the suppression of artistic creativity in other women. Her mom thinks she could have done more with her life if she had stayed in school.  She used to like to draw.She borrows opera records from the public library and "sings with velvety lungs powerful as morning glories." Her dreams are unfulfilled and she talks to Esperanza about it while making oatmeal. When Esperanza describes Minerva, a girl who is a few years older than her with two kids and a husband who beats her, she says that the two exchange poems, but that Minerva's life is hopeless. She is "always sad like a house on fire." Esperanza resolves to not have the same fate as women like Minerva and her mom and a home symbolizes this goal.

A sub theme of shame pervades Esperanza's observations. She notes that shame holds a person down. She says that she's ashamed when her family goes driving to look at houses that they wished they owned. She's tired of looking at things she can't have. A house would give her an identity. A house would rid her of her shame. A house would be a place to write. A house would mean freedom from a fate where self-expression is limited and men rule. A fascinating look at multiculturalism, feminism, violence, creativity, and self-identity.

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