The House on Mango Street
Summary: “Bums in the Attic”
Esperanza wants a nice suburban house with a garden, like the ones where her father works. On the weekends, the family visits these houses and dreams about moving there. Esperanza has stopped going with her family. She, too, would like to live in one of those houses, but she is tired of looking at what she cannot have. She imagines that when she owns one of these houses in the future, she will not forget where she is from. When bums pass her house she will invite them in and give them a place to live in her attic, because she knows, she says, “how it is to be without a house.” When people think that the squeaking in the attic is rats, she will shake her head and say it is bums.
Summary: “Beautiful & Cruel”
Esperanza worries that she is unattractive and that her looks will leave her stuck at home. Her sister, who is more attractive, wants a husband to take her away, but she doesn’t want to leave by having a baby with just any man, as Minerva’s sister did. Esperanza’s mother comforts Esperanza by saying she will be more beautiful as she gets older, but Esperanza has decided not to wait around for a husband to take her away. Instead, she wants to be like the femme fatales in movies who drive the men crazy and then refuse them. These women do not give their power away. Esperanza’s way of beginning to be like this is to leave the dinner table like a man, without pushing in her chair or doing her dishes.
Summary: “A Smart Cookie”
Esperanza’s mother complains that she could have done something with her life. She has many skills—she can speak two languages, sing, draw, and fix a television—but she does not know how to use the subway. While making a family meal, Esperanza’s mother sings along to a Madame Butterfly record she has borrowed from the public library. She tells Esperanza that she needs to be able to take care of herself and not just rely on a man. She gives as examples two of her friends, one whose husband has left and the other who is a widow. Then she describes how when she was younger she dropped out of school, not because she lacked intelligence, but because she was ashamed about not having nice clothes. She seems disgusted with her young self and tells Esperanza not to be like she was.
Esperanza finally matures and realizes that she needs to change her strategy in trying to get what she wants. She separates herself from her family, refusing to go with them to visit houses in the suburbs because she no longer wants to dream about a house. Rather, she wants to go and get one. She resolves not to forget her origins. Until this point, Esperanza has expressed nothing but a desire to leave her neighborhood, never to return. Now she dreams of letting homeless bums from the neighborhood live with her in her imaginary home away from Mango Street. She has begun to understand that her perfect suburbs on the hill are flawed because they have no system for including people like her. Esperanza suspects that if she escapes the barrio, she will not be satisfied by a suburban world that ignores the existence of less privileged people.
Esperanza decides how she’ll approach her future in “Bums in the Attic,” while in “Beautiful & Cruel,” she decides how she will define herself sexually. Her new thoughts, however, introduce new problems. Tragic women like Minerva and Rafaela in the previous sections have reaffirmed Esperanza’s desire to be independent. As a femme fatale, Esperanza can be independent without ignoring her new sexual awareness. She understands that adult sexuality is tied up with independence, and that to accept men is to give up her autonomy. She also decides she will not spend her time doing petty tasks like washing the dishes, tasks she could spend time doing every day without ever really accomplishing anything. However, Esperanza’s solution presents a problem. By standing up and leaving her dishes on the table, she is creating more work for another woman. Yet there is no room in Esperanza’s imagination to make society fairer by asking that men and women share tedious tasks like doing the dishes.
In the opinion of Esperanza’s mother, to be a “smart cookie” is not a positive attribute. She gives the example of dropping out of school because her clothes were not nice as an example of being a “smart cookie.” If you think you are too smart for school or too smart to take your mother’s advice, her mother is saying, then you’ll end up with a husband when you’re too young and will have no way to escape. Esperanza has to realize that she is not smarter than the women around her. Surrounded by clever and creative women, Esperanza can view none of them, including her own mother, as role models because they are stuck on Mango Street. Her mother knows how to do everything except take the subway—that is, she knows how to do everything but leave. Esperanza finds her mother’s frankness about her regrets surprising, which suggests that their relationship is not usually so open and honest. Her mother compares her friends to Madame Butterfly, a character in an opera who spends her life waiting for her lover to return. This observation plays on Esperanza’s earlier thesis that the Chinese and the Mexicans do not like their women strong.