Acclaimed by critics, beloved by readers of all ages, taught everywhere from inner-city grade schools to universities across the country, and translated all over the world, The House on Mango Street is the remarkable story of Esperanza Cordero.
Told in a series of vignettes – sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes deeply joyous – it is the story of a young Latina girl growing up in Chicago, inventing for herself who and what she will become. Few other books in our time have touched so many readers.
The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros is yet another diverse text that I have studied at university. (I mention this specifically because I’d like to bring up some of the topics we discussed. I think they link pretty well to some discussions I’ve seen on Twitter recently, and gives a little peek into my experience of an English literature degree.)
The first point we raised in my seminar is the series of vignettes that makes up the novel. They are extremely short (some not even a page long) and often non-linear. I personally found that this made me pay attention, which was a good thing, because the language itself was deceptively simple. Some people didn’t like this as much as I did, as they found that it stopped any narrative flow, and actually made the text feel more like a poem than a novel. I think this is a pretty fair point, but I quite enjoyed it.
We then went on to discuss the barrio (neighbourhood) and how it was presented. This was particularly interesting because The House on Mango Street is such a celebrated Latinx text, but all Esperanza wants is to leave her neighbourhood behind. It isn’t portrayed totally negatively, but I did get a bit of a feeling that it seemed a claustrophobic environment. This then led to a discussion of whether this portrayal can be thought of as ‘authentic’ piece of Latinx literature. I raised the point there is very little Spanish within the text. In fact, the only translation I can remember is that of the main character’s name. Esperanza means hope – but in the book she says that in Spanish, it means ‘too many letters’. However, even though the Latinx culture isn’t exactly celebrated, I think that this should still be considered authentic. After all, even if some parts of a culture aren’t necessarily the most positive, this doesn’t make them untrue.
Finally my seminar ended with a discussion of Chicana feminism. Unfortunately, this was a topic that we knew very little about. I’d read Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, but that was all. It was a real shame, but we ended up talking about how The House on Mango Street compares to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. This is a classic feminist text, and for good reason, but I wish that we could have explored Cisneros’ Latinx background, and her feminism as a woman of colour, more thoroughly. So, in writing this blog post, I thought I would do a little more research into Chicana feminism. I came across this interesting definition from Ana Castillo’s Massacre of the Dreamers:
By the beginning of the new decade, however, many Chicana/Latina activists, disenchanted, if not simply worn down, by male-dominated Chicano/Latino politics, began to develop our own theories of oppression. Compounding our social dilemmas related to class and race were gender and sexuality. For the brown woman the term feminism was and continues to be inseparably linked with white women of middle-and upper-class background. (This is also the case, by and large, in México.) Feminism, therefore, is perhaps not a term embraced by most women who might be inclined to define themselves as Chicanas and who, in practice, have goals and beliefs found in feminist politics. Therefore, I use the term conscientización as it has been applied among Spanish-speaking women activists.
I also read a little bit about Chicana feminism and combating the idea of machismo. I’d really love to read more about this, though. If anyone has any recommendations of fiction or non-fiction that talks more about this, please leave a comment!
The House on Mango Street is a great introduction to Chicana literature – at only 110 pages, it is very accessible, and leads to so many different avenues of discussion. Up next for me is Cisneros’ short story collection Woman Hollering Creek.
NB: this is my choice for the #ownvoices Latinx MC for Diversity Bingo 2017