Sandra Cisneros was born in 1954 in Chicago to a Spanish-speaking Mexican father and an English-speaking mother of Mexican descent. She was the third child and only daughter in a family of seven children. While she spent most of her childhood in one of Chicago’s Puerto Rican neighborhoods, she also traveled back and forth to Mexico with her family. Cisneros has published two books of poetry, My Wicked Wicked Ways and Loose Woman; a children’s book titled Hair/Pelitos; a collection of stories titled Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories; and, most recently, a second novel, Caramelo.
Cisneros is part of a group of Chicana and Latina writers who became prominent in the 1980s and 1990s, among them Gloria Anzaldua, Laura Esquivel, and Julia Alvarez. Chicana refers to a woman of Mexican descent who lives in the United States. Latina is a more encompassing word, referring to women from all the Latin American countries. These women were part of a larger group of American minority women, such as Amy Tan and Toni Morrison, who found success as writers at the end of the twentieth century. While many of them had been writing for some time, renewed interest in the issues of race and gender in the 1980s provided a milieu in which their work became a vital part of the dialogue taking place.
The House on Mango Street received mostly positive reviews when it was published in 1984, and it has sold more than two million copies worldwide. However, some male Mexican-American critics have attacked the novel, arguing that by writing about a character whose goal is to leave the barrio (a neighborhood or community where most of the residents are of Spanish-speaking origin), Cisneros has betrayed the barrio, which they see as an important part of Mexican tradition. Others have criticized the novel as encouraging assimilation, labeling Cisneros a vendida, or sellout. Such critics have condemned Cisneros for perpetuating what they see as negative stereotypes of Mexican-American men (the wife-beaters, the overbearing husbands), while at the same time contending that the feminism Cisneros embraces was created by white women. Cisneros’s defenders claim that a Mexican-American woman’s experiences are very different from the experiences of a Mexican-American man, and that it’s therefore unfair to expect Cisneros, a woman, to present a unified front with male Mexican-American writers. In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros focuses on the problems of being a woman in a largely patriarchal Hispanic society.
The House on Mango Street consists of what Cisneros calls “lazy poems,” vignettes that are not quite poems and not quite full stories. The vignettes are sometimes only two or three paragraphs long, and they often contain internal rhymes, as a poem might. This form also reflects a young girl’s short attention span, flitting from one topic to another, never placing too much importance on any one event. Within these very short pieces, Cisneros introduces dozens of characters, some only once or twice, and in this way, the structure of the novel imitates the geography of the barrio. No one person has very much space, either in the barrio or on the page, and the neighborhood is small enough that even a young girl can know everyone in it by name. The conflicts and problems in these little stories are never fully resolved, just as the fates of men, women, and children in the barrio are often uncertain. Finally, the novel’s structure suggests the variable fate of Chicana women, whose life stories often depend on men. Without a dominant, omniscient, masculine voice to tell the women’s stories, their narratives are left waiting and unresolved.
Critics have compared The House on Mango Street to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, a long essay in which Woolf asserts that women need a place and financial resources of their own in order to write successfully. The protagonist in The House on Mango Street, Esperanza, does long for a place of her own, but writing is a way for her to get that place, not the other way around. In this way, The House on Mango Street is more similar to A House for Mr. Biswas, by British colonial novelist V. S. Naipaul, in which an Indian in Trinidad struggles to balance his interactions with his wife’s extended family and his dream of possessing his own private space. In many ways, The House on Mango Street is a traditional bildungsroman—that is, a coming-of-age story. Only one year passes over the course of the novel, but Esperanza matures tremendously during this period. The novel resembles other artists’ coming-of-age stories, including James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Like the hero of that novel, Stephen Dedalus, Esperanza has a keen eye for observation and is gifted in her use of language.
Though Esperanza experiences two sexual assaults, this work should not be considered a sexual-abuse novel. For the young girls in The House on Mango Street, assault is only one aspect, and not a particularly shocking one, of growing up. The assault may change Esperanza’s view of sex and men, but it does not make her want to leave the barrio—that desire begins to grow well before the assaults happen. Some feminist critics blame Cisneros for not criticizing men more strongly in the novel. After Esperanza is raped, she does not blame the boys who did it, only the girl who was not there when Esperanza needed her and the women who have not debunked romantic myths about sex. In Esperanza’s world, male violence is so ordinary that blaming them for the rape would be unusual. The boys, as she says in an early section, live in their own worlds. By completely separating the men’s world from the women’s, Cisneros indicts both men and her culture. Her criticism is even more powerful because she veils her anger instead of making it explicit. In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros demonstrates her ability to critique her culture without openly or unfairly condemning it.