WILLA Review Logo
The Women in Literature and Life Assembly
of
The National Council of Teachers of English
Editor:  Patricia Kelly kellyp@vt.edu
Volume 6
Fall 1997


DLA Ejournal Home | WILLA Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search WILLA and other ejournals

Reading the Neighborhood: Community as Text in The House on Mango Street

Nancy Zuercher

I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn't it. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go. (Cisneros 11)

Taking control of the reading experience means reading the text as it was not meant to be read, in fact, reading it against itself. (Schweickart 50)

To read Patrocinio Schweickart's "Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading" along with Sandra Cisnero's The House on Mango Street is to extend "text" to community. For example, Esperanza, the narrator, can "read" the neighborhood in a manner similar to Schweickart's reader reading a literary text. Esperanza and some other women in the book took control of their experience, while others were manipulated by traditional neighborhood values. This paper is an exploration of extending the notion of text to community, specifically the Mango Street neighborhood that Esperanza "reads" and interprets.

The House on Mango Street is the story of the coming-of-age of Esperanza, a girl "about ten or eleven years old" (Sanchez 222), in the Mango Street barrio. Its patriarchal society qualifies the neighborhood as Schweickart's "androcentric" text where "as readers ... women are taught to think as men, to identify with a male point of view, and to accept as normal and legitimate a male system of values, one of whose central principles is misogyny" (41-42).

Esperanza is Schweickart's ideal reader; she takes control of her reading. She is a patient reader; as her comprehension unfolds over time, she makes tentative responses, including "I don't understand." Esperanza is also Schweickart's "woman reader battling her way out of a maze of patriarchal constructs" (51). This paper will show how Esperanza's reading of the neighborhood shaped her own inner strength and dream, how she reads as an active participant with empathy for others without emulating their behavior, and how she researches and negotiates her own meaning in community -- all "without condemning herself to the position of other" (Schweickart 51).

Such a reading demands a strong and sustained sense of self. Esperanza's Mexican family traditions "don't like women strong" (10), and she reads many neighborhood women as passive and dependent, looking out of windows, as they have for generations. Her great-grandmother, initially a strong woman, became passive because of male subjugation. Esperanza notes, I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window" (10-11). Instead, Esperanza prefers "a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees" (11). Her choice, "Zeze the X' (11), suggests her self-determination, her desire to be her own person, and also her love of language. By naming herself, she creates a new and autonomous inner self, exemplifying Elaine Showalter's remark, "The act of unnaming and self-naming have long been fundamental to cultural identity and self-assertion" (7).

As part of her self-creating, Esperanza reads her mother as another woman by the window restrained by traditional values yet insightful.

I could've been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard.... Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn't have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. (91)

Esperanza also ponders her mother's advice about developing sexuality, attending to her warning that girls like Lois who can't tie her shoes "are the ones that go into alleys" (73) and that "to wear black so young is dangerous" (82). She reveres her mother, accepts her advice and acts on it, as we shall see.

As another part of her self-creating, Esperanza quits the Sunday walks with the family that helped to shape her dream, "a house on a hill like the ones with the gardens where Papa works" (86). Esperanza realizes that the family's words alone are not enough; she needs to act assertively on her own dream, even if it means breaking family tradition.

To nurture her dream and sustain her strength, Esperanza creates her own spirituality and vision from reading, identifying with, and reflecting on the four skinny trees outside her room.

When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees. When there is nothing left to look at on this street. Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be. (75)

In the concrete, brick, and steel neighborhood, Esperanza finds sustenance in the natural world. This spirituality is private; nothing in the book indicates that Esperanza shared her kinship with the trees with anyone.

Becoming a recluse like Emily Dickinson didn't enter her mind, for Esperanza reads the neighborhood as an active self-creating person who values community and nurturing others. When her father travels alone to Mexico for his father's funeral, she takes responsibility for informing the other children of the death and for explaining why they must play quietly (56). Esperanza also protects and nurtures her younger sister Nenny: "She can't play with those Vargas kids or she'll turn out just like them" (8). These incorrigible kids "are without respect for all things living, including themselves" (29). In turn, Nenny supports Esperanza when she fights with the girls who call their mother names (37) and when she sees a neighborhood house that "looks like MexicJ and "Rachel and Lucy look at me like I'm crazy" (18).

In "Our Good Day" Esperanza refuses the judgment of the neighborhood malcontent, Cathy, about Lucy and Rachel as her new friends. Deciding to buy a bike for five dollars, they haggle over details of ownership and riding, ending with a community solution: "we agree to ride it together" (15). The girls' jump rope rhymes show both community and individuality. As they jump rope and discuss their developing hips, Lucy, Rachel, and Esperanza make up original rhymes, creating themselves through language, in contrast to Nenny's recitation of a traditional rhyme, perhaps because she is younger.

This neighborhood group also experiences some teasing and touching by lecherous men. Esperanza reads those experiences with mixed feelings. With fear, she and the other girls strutting in colored high heels flee from the bum who offers a dollar for a kiss (42). With shock, she experiences her miscue of a man's request for a birthday kiss. While she expects to peck him on the cheek, he "grabs my face with both hands and kisses me hard on the mouth and doesn't let go" (55). With anticipation, she exclaims, "everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt" (72). With empathy, she reads Marin, "What matters, Marin says, is for the boys to see us and for us to see them .... Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself ... is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life" (27). Esperanza does not completely accept this example. While she recognizes Marin's passivity, Esperanza still wants a boy friend.

Esperanza can read others with empathy without emulating their behavior, often a result of male subjugation, yet she learns important lessons.

Mamacita, sitting by the window, refuses to learn English and won't let her son speak it, though her husband insists. Esperanza empathizes when Marnacita cries "as if he had torn the only skinny thread that kept her alive, the only road out to that country [Mexico]" (78). Esperanza reads the importance of home and senses the notion that language and community exist beyond Mango Street.

At first, Esperanza reads Sally, whose father abuses her, as one to save from the window's fate. In Schweickart's words, "The feminist reader hopes that other women will recognize themselves in her story and join her in her struggle to transform the culture" (51). Esperanza reflects on Sally:

Do you wish your feet would one day keep walking and take you far away from Mango Street.... /You could close your eyes and you wouldn't have to worry what people said because you never belonged here anyway and nobody could make you sad and nobody would think you're strange because you like to dream and dream. (82-83)

Even with Esperanza's empathy, Sally can't break the cycle of abuse, because it is ingrained in the neighborhood culture. When boys force Sally to play kissing games in the Monkey Garden, Esperanza tries to rescue Sally. First she runs to the boy's mother who is uninterested in breaking up the game, and then she takes "three big sticks and a brick" (97) to beat the boy. Sally and the other boys make Esperanza feel so ashamed that she flees to another part of the garden, wanting to be dead. In "Red Clowns" Sally lures Esperanza to the carnival where she is raped. Betrayed, Esperanza cries, "Why did you leave me all alone? I waited my whole life. You're a liar. They all lied. All the books and magazines, everything that told it wrong" (100). The message of trusting oneself appears clear here. Sally marries a marshmallow salesman in a state where marriage is legal before the eighth grade and ends up by the window (101-2). Sally becomes Schweickart's "agent of her own immasculation" (49), despite Esperanza's intervention.

Esperanza actively researches, questions, and negotiates her own meaning in community. She reads other neighborhood women who have some insight and self-determined lives, despite some difficulties with men and with illness and lets their examples, encouragement, and prophecies enhance her original readings.

Alicia illustrates Esperanza's mother's advice about education in action. Afraid of her father, Alicia studies all night. Alicia values education enough to take two trains and a bus to the university "because she doesn't want to spend her / whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin" (31-32). As my colleague Joan England points out, Alicia also shows Esperanza the reality of leaving the neighborhood.

Esperanza reads her Aunt Guadalupe as transcending terminal illness and blindness and listening to "every book, every poem I read her. One day I read her one of my own

I want to be

like the waves on the sea,

like the clouds in the wind,

but I'm me.

One day I'll jump

out of my skin.

I'll shake the sky

like a hundred violins. (60-61)

For the first time Esperanza shares her dream with another person. Guadalupe responds, "You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free, and I said, yes, but at that time I didn't know what she meant." Esperanza and Minerva, whose husband beats her, also share their writing. Such sharing recalls Joyce Carol Oates' words" "All of us who write work out of a conviction that we are participating in some sort of communal activity.... By honoring one another's creation, we honor something that deeply connects us all and goes beyond us" (qtd. in Showalter 175).

Questioning her readings and feelings, Esperanza seeks insight from Elenita, the witch woman, who blends voodoo, Catholicism, and astrology. She tells Esperanza three times that she sees "a home in the heart" (64) and patiently responds to Esperanza's questions, yet Esperanza would rather watch Bugs Bunny cartoons with Elenita's children. Esperanza does not yet understand Elenita's prediction and continues her quest for comprehension.

When las comadres, Rachel and Luey's three mysterious aunts, reminiscent of the three witches in Macbeth, arrive for the wake of Rachel and Lucy's baby sister, Esperanza feels their power and names them the "cat-eyed one," "the blue-veined one," and the one with marble hands" (104). The aunts recognize Esperanza's "good good name" (104), predict that "she'll go very far" (104), and tell her three times that she must come back to Mango Street: "When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are" (105). However, Esperanza doesn't immediately understand.

Understanding takes sometime. A pointed discussion with Alicia is a starting place:

Like it or not you are Mango Street and one day you'll come back too.

[Esperanza] Not me, Not until somebody makes it better.

[Alicia] Who's going to do it? The mayor?

[Esperanza] And the thought of the mayor coming to Mango Street makes me laugh out loud.

[Alicia] Who's going to do it? Not the mayor. (107)

Through research and reflection Esperanza confirms and strengthens her original readings, empowering herself to move closer to her dream: "Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem" (108). Although she needs her own space to write, she realizes that her writing can have both individual and social benefits. She puts her constructed meaning into these words: "One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. Friends and neighbors ... will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out" (110). She has read the neighborhood "against itself," reflected on that reading, and responded proactively by creating her house, a "home in the heart" as Elenita foretold, in her writing and in community. She will come back, as Alicia and the three aunts emphasized, but how she returns, through her writing or in person, will be her own choice, a choice which appears to be in keeping with Schweickart's optimistic ending, "a means for building and maintaining connections among women" (56).

WORKS CITED

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1989.

England, Joan. Conversation with the author, August 7, 1997.

Sanchez, Rueben. "Remembering Always to Come Back: The Child's Wished-For Escape and the Adult's Self-Empowered Return in Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street." Children's Literature 23. Ed. Francelia Butler, R.H.W. Dillard, and Elizabeth Lennox Keyser. New Haven: Yale UP, 1995. 221241.

Schweickart, Patrocinio P. "Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading." In Gender and Reading. Ed. Elizabeth A. Flyrm and Patrocinio P. Schweickart. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1986. 31-62.

Showalter, Elaine. Sister's Choice: Tradition and Change in American Women's Writing. Oxford.. Oxford UP, 1991.


Nancy Zuercher is an Associate Professor of English at the University of South Dakota where she teaches courses in advanced composition using computers and English education. She is also State Director of the Dakota Writing Project.

 

Copyright 1997, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.

Reference Citation: Zuercher, Nancy. (1997). "Reading the Neighborhood: Community as Text in The House on Mango Street." WILLA, Volume VI, p. 29-32.


DLA Ejournal Home | WILLA Home | Table of Contents for this issue | Search WILLA and other ejournals