In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting.
This quotation, from the section “My Name,” occurs before Esperanza says her name for the first time. Esperanza’s characterization of her name shows how she channels her dissatisfaction with her given name into creativity and word play. What Esperanza says here about the word esperanza is neither intuitive nor true. In Spanish, esperanza means “hope.” The word does not have a dictionary definition in English. When Esperanza says her name means “waiting,” she has taken the Spanish verb esperar, which means “to wait or expect,” and superimposed it on the noun hope. Similarly, sadness may come from the opposite of esperanza, desesperarse, or “despair.” Later in the chapter Esperanza says she would like to give herself a new name, but she has already given her old name new meaning, using a similar-looking word with a different definition. By refusing to accept the word’s conventional definitions, Esperanza shows that she possesses a writer’s gift for interpretation and storytelling.
On a more literal level, the words Esperanza has chosen to associate with the Spanish meaning of her name are very negative. She has taken a positive word, hope, and given it three negative descriptions. The first, “too many letters,” is a description of the word as it is written. As an American schoolgirl, Esperanza is frustrated by the physical difficulty of her name, which sets her apart from others. Even her siblings, Nenny, Carlos, and Kiki, have simpler, less foreign-sounding names. The next two negative descriptions are associations she has with herself. As her current self with her current name, Esperanza’s life is full of sadness and waiting. Esperanza says her inner self is described by the name “Zeze the X.” Zeze the X is the version of Esperanza who does not belong in the barrio.
Esperanza describes herself as a red balloon in “Boys and Girls” before she has made any friends in her new neighborhood. Until she has a best friend with whom she can share her secrets and who will understand her jokes, she believes she will be this red balloon. The image of the balloon suggests that she feels she is floating in anticipation of something and that she feels isolated. The color red suggests that she stands out in the neighborhood. Esperanza finds friends, Lucy and Rachel, soon after this section, but the feeling of being a balloon persists. She is still floating because she feels she does not fit in on Mango Street, and she is still isolated because she does not share her deepest secrets with her friends. In “Laughter” we learn that Esperanza’s sister Nenny, not her new friends, laughs at her jokes without her having to explain them.
Esperanza has chosen to think of herself as something floating, and in this way she is similar to some of the other children on Mango Street. Both Meme Ortiz and Angel Vargas fall from great heights in early vignettes. Meme breaks both his arms, while Angel dies. Both children are trying to fly in order to escape their lives on Mango Street. In this quote Esperanza describes herself as floating, but also as tethered to the earth. When she finally abandons her tether, she would like to fly away instead of falling, as the others have. She will either have to find a way to return to the ground without hurting herself, or to fly away without falling. By the end of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza discovers she is not unique in her neighborhood, but does, in fact, belong there. Only at that point can Esperanza let go of this particular metaphor and realize that she cannot float away from her community for good. She must leave it gradually and eventually return.
She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.
Esperanza says this of her great-grandmother and namesake, Esperanza. Her great-grandmother is the first of many women in The House on Mango Street who spend their lives looking out the window and longing for escape. Esperanza resolves not to end up like her great-grandmother even before she meets the other trapped women on Mango Street. These modern women, including Mamacita, Rafaela, Minerva (whose window is broken), and Sally (who has to look at the floor instead of out the window) give Esperanza an even more vivid picture of what it is like to be trapped, hardening her resolve not to be like the first Esperanza.
By repeatedly connecting the window image to the trapped women on Mango Street, Cisneros depicts a row of third-floor apartments as jail cells. Some of the women are stuck in these cells because of their husbands, but Esperanza implies that some of them could do more to change their situations. Esperanza wonders if her great-grandmother made the best of her situation, or if instead she turned her anger at her husband inward, and therefore hurt herself more than her husband could have. Esperanza asks this question only once, and she does not apply it to any of the other women she meets. Her capacity for both empathy and pity grows as she understands their particular stories better than the story of her great-grandmother, whom she never met.
Esperanza says this in “Red Clowns,” after a group of boys has sexually assaulted her at a carnival. She repeats the accusation that her friend lied, blaming Sally for the assault instead of the boys who have hurt and traumatized her. Esperanza blames Sally for not returning after she goes off with an older boy, but the accusation goes deeper than that. Esperanza is angry that girls perpetuate the myth that sex goes hand in hand with love. “I love you, Spanish girl” is a taunting, violent refrain that has no place in the picture of sex that popular culture presents to young girls. Esperanza understands that popular media may never change, but at the very least the women who have more experience, like Sally, should debunk the myth so reality would not be such a surprise to girls like Esperanza.
Esperanza’s accusation here is the culmination of a theme that is implicit in much of The House on Mango Street: men will not change, so women need to help each other. In “The Monkey Garden,” the section before “Red Clowns,” Esperanza sees Tito’s mother as complicit in Sally’s exploitation, since she refuses to see that her son is doing something wrong. Esperanza reacts by crying alone in a corner of the Monkey Garden. In “Red Clowns,” Esperanza’s pain is more acute. She screams out her accusation. Her experience with the disloyal Sally leads to Esperanza’s resolution to come back to help the other women on Mango Street once she leaves. She does not want to leave the women behind in a dangerous place the way Sally left her.
No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here.
This is Esperanza’s reply to Alicia in “Alicia & I Talking on Edna’s Steps” after Alicia insists that Esperanza does have a house, and that it is right there on Mango Street. This exchange occurs near the end of the novel, when Esperanza is realizing she does indeed belong on Mango Street. Instead of insisting that she does not belong, here she says she doesn’t want to belong, which suggests that Esperanza understands that she actually does. She has realized that she is not intrinsically different from the other women in her neighborhood. She has met other women in the neighborhood who write, women who share her desire to escape, women who are interested in boys, and women, like Alicia, who desire education. Her previous feelings of superiority and difference were only childish ways of obscuring the truth: Mango Street is part of Esperanza. No matter how far she goes, she will never truly escape it.
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