The House of Mango Street, by Sandra Cisnero
Vintage, 110 pages, 1984, $6.22, ISBN 978-0679734772
In one of the very first reviews of the House on Mango Street, so many years ago, Chicana poet Lorna Dee Cervantes wrote:
Perhaps, with more respect for past Chicano literary production than she had exhibited or felt some years before, Cisneros raises issues which are crucial for the future consideration of this young and vital literature and her own place in it. Clearly, the issues at stake are especially acute in relation to women’s writing, where every move in opposition to the older cultural norm, whether in literary or sexual terms is seen by some as instances of sellout or “malinchista” behavior—instances of the “wicked, wicked ways” about which Cisneros has written (and apparently been obsessed with) since her years as a student in the Iowa Writers School.
Early in the game, even as she learned to draw on the sights, sounds and life-stories of the Chicago neighborhoods where she grew up, Cisneros also drew on what she learned from her training at the Iowa Writers School to develop her own trajectory from roots to the stars. So, long before she completed Mango Street she was already placing herself with the very writers she mentions in her essay of 1982 as “mainstreamers”: “I, and writers like Gary Soto and Lorna Dee Cervantes and Alberto Rios, are all new products, new voices, technicians from that new school of Chicano poetry,” she says, and then wonders:
… what we are inheriting and what we are losing. It frightens me at times. I know I do not want to become so anonymous that I am American. I want to retain my distinctiveness and yet we are inheritors of our new speech, products of our educations. I would hope that our experiments would not take us too far away from that which makes us what we are. I dont know where my new poetry is taking me. I would hope that in a few years I would be able to call myself poet. I would hope that the standards for Chicano poetry would not be lower than those for the mainstream, but require and recognize our dual inheritance, our dual legacy.
Here in this brief examination of Mango Street, our concern must be simply to examine her work in relation to the dual question of ethnic and Chicago/Illinois roots. For our purposes, the wonderful parable, “The Four Trees,” is the proper point of entry since it links her prose to her poetic discourse, her concern for roots with the ability to reach high, the relation of the Chicago neighborhood atmosphere with that of nature and the poets reaching in relation to keeping and being. Since trees are typically seen as phallic symbols, their function in the parable raises critical questions about Cisneros’ ambitions and orientations: does she want to take on masculine imagery even as she claims to project a feminized universe? Is she (or her surrogate Esperanza) simply using male imagery in an effort to overturn it and completely negate it? And what is saved in the negating process? Aspects of Chicano culture, or Anglo style?
In one sense this is the crux of the matter: the dualistic identity struggle between older, oral Chicano culture and literature and new Anglicized feminism and writing. Is it possible to hold onto Latino identity as you reject old male patterns? Is it possible to retain an Anglo stylistics if you properly portray the Latino ambience? Related to this, and central for us: what aspects of Chicago Latino identity are retained as they are transcended? In what way might Chicago Mexican, Mexican American or Chicano roots facilitate their own supersession in function of a pan-Latino identity? In what way might Chicago Latino identity persist so that it would negate the tendency toward mainstreaming and lead to a syncretic result different from either side of some fixed duality?
Early in the critical reception of her hugely successful text, some key Chicano critics complained, quite unfairly, I would argue, that there was really nothing Latino about Cisneros’ discourse or writing, that she just dealt with Latino themes as grist for an Anglicized style and value orientation, that she portrayed Latino realities just so she could attack and criticize them, that the majority of her Latino men are wife-beaters, womanizers, exploiters, that all the women are noble, sensitive souls with understandable dreams and ambitions that should be protected from male disillusion and destruction. Those who wished to push the argument would say that the basic story in Cisneros’ work and life is a Freudian version of Horatio Alger: a reliving of the “Latino trauma,” and then a triumphant if troubled sequence in which the young Latina gradually throws off cultural claptrap to win through to fame and fortune. Of course she goes “back to barrio” and “pays some dues.” Of course she thinks of those who couldn’t get out as she begins to plot her way out of the barrio and into the wider world. “The people” are always with her, as the price to pay for her liberation. But don’t ask her to really “get down” with the folks—that’s not where she’s at. The trees roots dig deeper and deeper into the Chicago subsoil so that they can hit pay dirt and then it’s off to the universe.”
Much of this kind of critique may well be beside the point, because none of it can detract from Cisneros’ obvious gifts and the disciplined and dedicated way she continues to cultivate her garden. Whatever her motives, she has already told one of the key Latino stories of growing up and done so in an unforgettable way; in poetry as well as poetic prose, she has succeeded more than most Latino or Latina writers in portraying ever so carefully, the transition from child to adult. The quality of her work and the inspiration I have personally seen it give scores of Latino students who have read Mango Street or certain of Cisneros’ poems as the first experience in Latino literature, lead one to wanting to affirm its Latinidad (how could it be otherwise if it speaks so to so many of my students over the years?) and to see her work as one possible model for a progressive, positive Latino literature that doesn’t begin to sell out its roots and that yet projects valuable dimensions of Latino culture through time and change, from now on into the future.
How can we define the qualities we seek to verify? Let us turn to the narrative we may find in her life and her work. Cisneros’ article, “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsessions” probably provides the best portrayal of the forces that went into her early relation to Chicago, her Latino roots and her dream of a house and “room of her own.” Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954, the only daughter in a family of six sons. The parents were not strictly working class, since Cisneros’ father had attended college in Mexico and ended up establishing his own business in the city. Cisneros’ childhood was not one of wealth, however, and, as we find out in her novel, Caramelo, it was disrupted and, yes enriched, as Esmeralda’s life was not, by constant movements back and forth between Chicago and Mexico. She was a child, it would seem, torn between two languages, between two cultures and two loci. The places she lived in Chicago were cramped and ugly, the external environments inhospitable. Esperanza’s obsessive dream of a beautiful home was her own. And this dream was only attenuated when, after changing from place to place in Chicago, the family finally moved into a more permanent dwelling, one like the house on Mango Street. Not having a home (a house, a place, a fixed identity) such as the one she dreamed of, feeling alien in her grandmother’s Mexican house as well as her Chicago dwellings, she turned inward, toward introspection and toward books. In her house, she tells us, there were no books, but her mother got her a library card, and she entered a world many Latinas never experience. The negative aspects of her situation became positive to the degree that the bookish Chicana, cut off in part from her culture, was able to reach beyond her immediate environment, understand that environment and yet also relate to a larger world.
It was through books that Cisneros was able to make the move from the barrio to Loyola University, where she was one of few attending Latinas. Afterward, she moved on to the Iowa Writers school, where, after she felt her deep estrangement as a Latina, she eventually found her road back to her childhood atmosphere and voice as the basis of her writing. Interestingly, it was by drawing on models from one of the few Latin American writers she read, the Puerto Rican vanguardista poet, Luis Palés Matos, that Cisneros began to “focus on language and speech rhythms, especially language considered unpoetic and ugly,” to move away from the models of her classmates and “smash poetic pedestals” by writing of “rats in the basement” and creating a “rag-tag music from the broken-glass and tin-can speech of my childhood.”
It was in this situation that she wrote her poem, “Roosevelt Road,” which became the starting point for several other poems and the poetic fictions that would become Mango Street. “I can’t remember whether the poem grew from the fiction or the fiction from the poem,” she says; but “it was all the same voice, and such a wealth of information. I am sure I will never run out of stories.” Cisneros saw her poem as contrasting the physical poverty and spiritual wealth of the Chicago barrio world. In this poem and two others, she reveled in her newfound voice, her simple language and colloquial speech. “Drawing from Chicago as center,” she read Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks, and developed a “common man poetics” (Wolfgang Binder: 64-65). Upon completing the M.F.A. program, she came back to Chicago where she worked as an alternative school teacher in the Pilsen barrio, and then as a Loyola Latino student advisor, while leading a writing workshop at the Ruíz Belvis Center in Wicker Park, when it was still one of Chicago’s key Puerto Rican neighborhoods. Of this period in her life, Cisneros notes:
In Chicago I discovered a city I did not know. I met many Chicago artists through MARCH [the Movimiento Artístico Chicano] ... I did not always agree with what they were doing. At first I found their lack of technical self-discipline unprofessional. The [Iowa] workshop had narrowed my vision as to what art is, but little by little I became less narrow in my definition of poetics. Now I am in agreement with the school of one hundred flowers, although I have my own set ideas about what Id like my poetry to be. (Binder, 67)
Even if she was critical of such grassroots barrio arts groups such as MARCH, she was at least in tune with their concern for the sounds and sights of the barrio. Through MARCH she had her Latino Youth job and won “a sense of direction and roots.”
All of a sudden I was traveling through the alleys and back ways of ghetto and gutter, a tattered countryside of brick and broken glass and the rumbling el trains overhead. All the world shook with the city-soot and pigeon-dust. It was a strange re-awakening from the timid past. (Binder, 65)
It was during this return to Chicago (1978-82) that Cisneros generated the group of poems which Gary Soto published in Bad Boys and that she then completed the stories that won her an NEA grant and led to The House on Mango Street. That book almost complete, Cisneros left for a year in Europe, where she finished her novel and continued on the sequence of poems that would constitute My Wicked, Wicked Ways. On her return, she soon left the city for San Antonio, where took on a job as creative writing teacher and writer for the Guadalupe Fine Arts Center; then, with the publication of her novel, she won the fame, awards, contracts and accolades that have been part of her life ever since.
Bad Boys represents Cisneros’ first poetic grouping, and it is where we should look to find the basic perspectives that will project to her future work. Writing of that first collection, Marjorie Agosín notes that the poems are united by a common theme: the urban ambiance in a city where rats and children hide. For Agosín, these poems are neither nostalgic, nor anti-nostalgic, because the writer is not in search of a lost paradise, but of an irreparably lost childhood, which must be recreated through sight and especially sound as a means of moving toward the future.
Spoken rhythm . . . constitutes one of the central aspects of the collection. Unwritten language is a constant voice that is tied to the tradition of popular Hispanic poetry, and Cisneros integrates it magically, mixing the rhythm of spoken language in English and Spanish. Cisneros interrelates spoken language with the lyric, making herself into an authentic poet with her own voice. To enclose it within a tradition of Hispanic or rather Chicano poetry would be an error, because her art is born in a liberty very much hers.
This perspective on Cisneros’ early work is indicative of the kind of criticism that has followed her throughout her spectacular career. We start with her urban ambiance and a voice that is seen as very much part of a Hispanic or Chicano tradition and then is established as her own. We start with space and sound and end with questions of cultural and individual identity. It well may be that these are the basic antinomies of her work which are present in what she called her “Ur-poem,” “Roosevelt Road,” and her other Bad Boys poems, which emerge richly in The House on Mango Street, and which then register once again in her first full poetry collection My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Clearly the relation between Cisneros’ immediate Chicago childhood environment and the larger world is going to be crucial to her life and work. In this regard, we need to explore Cisneros’ orientation to space and voice as keys to her work as a new-wave Chicago Chicana writer.
Cisneros’ discursive writing on her own development oscillates back and forth in terms of questions of space and voice. Often, the two dimensions are linked; and her problem as a young writer, after the initial success of poems and a novel written through an adolescent’s voice, must be to find some way to transcend it by finding an adult register as she moves beyond the barrio to the larger world. The adult voice frees itself from its early hauntings, its parental influences, and begins to draw on a multiplicity of voices, the voices, say, of Mango Street, to constitute a new identity.
Theoretically this identity would range over the world; it would have no fixity in place nor would it be dependent on a given person or love; it would be truly liberated, truly free. This, it would seem, is the standard U.S. vision of freedom and what Cisneros attempts to constitute after her novel. But is this the case?
A useful way to approach the fundamental questions about Cisneros as Latina writer is through a critical adaptation of the structuralist paradigm centered on the concept of axis mundi, an extrapolation of the Aztlán trope so common in southwest Chicano literature, as set forth by the late Juan Bruce-Novoa in his book Chicano Poetry (1982), and then in another text, Retro-Space (1990). In Chicago writings, MARCH poet Carlos Cumpián consciously attempted to project the Chicano Aztlán vision into Chicago’s diverse Latino world. Here I would suggest that if a writer like Cisneros can be shown to partake of this structural view then we have gone a long way to establish her core ties to a vision which is very specifically rooted in the what might be called “Chicano/a imaginary.” According to this interpretation of Bruce-Novoa’s paradigm, each progressive historical transformation of the axis mundi of Chicanos implies what the critic describes as the “erasure” (or conservation even in negation) of what is formally cancelled. So in the universe of Sandra Cisneros, the negated axis mundi of a viable, imagined (as opposed to a real, historical) Mexico is replaced by a negative barrio world and its corresponding house to which she wishes to counter her own idealized house. But the barrio and its representative house, as negative as they may be at one level, conserve all they can of the original axis mundi; and without their conservation in the creative act of Cisneros the writer, the new house, or a new viable axis mundi will not be possible.
Let us return to our point of departure: “The Four Trees.” It should be noted that the trees can be seen as emanations of a mother spirit which has been overlaid, but still lies and lives below the concrete modernized and modern male world, and which becomes the basis for the growth of its children, male and female (remember that Esperanza, unlike Cisneros, has just two brothers and a sister). All the children have the possibility of growth into freedom, but only to the degree that they, in their Chicago-Mango Street world, maintain their relation to the earth mother, even as they grow up and away. In this sense, the trees teach that you can reach only to the degree that you can go in deep—then you can be free or fully be—an ultimate unbounded Zee. So goes Cisneros’ imaginary, sonoral as much as visual. And so it is that Cisneros has her ultimate forbidden mother image figures (her Shakespearean witches, but ones who somehow know the meaning of Esperanza’s name) tell the young girl, “When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.” (Mango Street, 99).
Paradoxically, it is the very literary, Shakespearean and yes Scottish witches (and not any Mexican spirits that in other works are crucial to her) who represent Cisneros’ most immediate entry into the world of the pre-literate, oral world, and who offer her a vision not of escaping but of sublating (conserving while negating) Mango Street into a world which is decidedly literate and bookish. It is also a transnational universe—a vision that is emerging in Mango Street, as José David Saldívar has recently observed (in his Trans-Americanity 2012), and, he notes, will reach its full expression in Caramelo. So, immediately after the witch’s scene, Esperanza says she is sad because she, unlike her friend Alicia, doesn’t have a house that she can remember and to which she can return. Alicia for her part insists Esperanza also has a home pointing to the house Esperanza is ashamed of; and Esperanza denies it’s really her home saying:
“I never had a house, not even a photograph ... only one I dream of.”
“No,” Alicia says. “Like it or not, you are Mango Street and one day you’ll come back too.”
“Not me. Not until somebody makes it better.”
“Who’s going to do it? The mayor?”
The reference here would seem to be to the most ubiquitous Mayor of Cisneros’ young life—not any minority and certainly not any Latino mayor but Richard J. Daley, the kingpin of Chicago’s Irish Church and civic hierarchy—the mediators between the Latinos and other predominantly Catholic immigrant workers (Poles, Italians, etc.). The children know it is ridiculous to think that the mayor and his patronage-bound lieutenants might do something to better their lives, and so they laugh at their own absurd idea. The point is of course that the Latinos must themselves change their world, because no one else will do it if they don’t. Must not this world be changed? Is Mango Street really the culture of Latinos? Is it close to Oscar Lewis’ notorious and ubiquitously self-repeating “culture of poverty?” It is certainly what the most destructive forces of Chicago have done to the culture; and those Latinos and Latinas who wish to change Mango Street must find ways to do so, at the risk of being called traitors to their culture in the act.
Of course this poignant scene with Alicia becomes stronger as we realize how Cisneros, who herself had clear memories of Mexico, has posed some essential problems of U.S. and Chicago Mexican identity: the sense of disorientation of those who know no home for themselves other than the barrio, who are cut off from their homeland roots, in comparison to those who have recollections and a sense of a homeland identity. Sadly, this marks an important difference between those who came to Chicago before the 1970s and many of those representing the more recent immigration waves of people who carried with them a much firmer sense of identity based on their more recent and direct, transnational contacts with the Mexican world. Ironically, it would sometimes seem that these more recent arrivals have had an easier time than those who were born, brought up and early slotted and stigmatized in the dog-eat-eat dog ethnically-inscribed universe generated and re-affirmed for years on Chicago turf.
The questions of language and identity are very much tied to this matter of place. Esperanza is a young girl without an adequate sense of locus. Since she rejects the place she occupies in reality, she must dream, and the most effective way for her to dream is as a writer. What does she write? The House on Mango Street, of course. And thus she becomes through her writing; she lives out Esperanza, she recuperates the sense of place by probing Chicago’s Mango Streets down to the Mother Earth lying beneath the cement by the act of working through the imaginary and through her own poetics of space on paper, Cisneros recovers the house of her fantasy, the locus mundi or spirit of Aztlán she needs to live: “A house as quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.” (p. 100). In the final Chapter, “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” she talks about her resolve to leave the house “I belong to but do not belong to.” Naming other Chicago streets where she lives, Esperanza says she only remembers Mango. She writes about Mango Street on paper, and this act begins to free her.
“I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free. One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me forever. One day I will go away. She will go, with her books and paper, but she knows she has “gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out.” (pp. 101-2)
Ultimately, then, the final structure of transcendence for Cisneros is not social mobility but aesthetic achievement; her book is her house on Mango Street; it is also her alternative to that house, what Mango Street seemed to make impossible, but what could not happen without it. That final structure, as we shall see, is also embodied in her book of poems, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, but here we have the transposition brought about by the feminist perspective which while derived from the forces of chaos that threaten the axis mundi, are nevertheless essential to any victory over the forces of death that have penetrated the barrio world and made it a potential cemetery for all. Here we may find a shift between the Chicano “classics” (male works of the 1960s into the early 70s—we might think especially of perhaps the greatest Chicano text, which also has Midwest locus and is even more a series of fragmented vignettes, …y no se lo tragó la tierra) and the new works which were being written by the new generations of fiction writers that followed. For the sacred ground is also the ground of repression which must be violated if one is to forge a creative life.
The old order is no longer seen as feminine and matriarchal, but as a realm of patriarchy and repression. The series of erasures involved in creative living require an affirmation of culture that does not affirm its negative dimensions. The Malinche must be resurrected and transformed; so too la llorona and even la Virgin de Guadalupe and all the repressed and distorted female deities which (as in Octavio Paz’s influential if exaggerated formulation) have lived under the sign of la chingada. So it is the repressed deities, the witches, both of Mexican and Anglo (Shakespearean) mythology who lead Esperanza to freedom. She will not sit by a window, locked into a Latino barrio house, waiting passively to be picked up and then dropped by some male. She will not “grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the window sill; she will internalize but ultimately negate all the negative role models (Marin, her aunt, Ruthie, Rafaela and above all Sally) that she encounters; she will be like the cruel woman in the movies who will not give away her power, who has begun her “own quiet war” on her culture and the female identity inscribed therein. She will be the wicked daughter, the one “who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”
This is in effect where Cisneros fragment-novel leads and where her book of poems My Wicked, Wicked Ways, begins—a movement from barrio nightmares toward an entry into the wider world--or the world of chaos, where identity has lost its traditional fixity and its barrio determinacy--a realm of freedom, perhaps, a realm of creativity where one will be saved or lost. Here the reader will actually see how our poet-protagonist throws off her Latin name “Esperanza” and her Anglicized “Hope” and becomes the bad girl, that almost indefinable, freed spirit, “Zeeze the X” that she has imagined. So we embark on the voyage in which the poet seeks to leave the barrio and her child’s world behind in an effort to discover the words and worlds that will enable her to return if not to her own Chicago barrio home, then to the San Antonio barrio and then to other barrios throughout Texas, the U.S., Mexico, and (why not?) the world beyond.
Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.
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Author Sandra Cisneros will discuss her career and award-winning writings in the DePaul Student Center – 2250 N. Sheffield, at DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. Hosted by the School for New Learning, the event will begin with a reception 8:30 a.m., after which, Cisneros will give a talk and sign books. The event is free and open to the public to RSVP and stay up to date on event details please email email@example.com