The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)

Posted: June 12, 2016 in fiction
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Sometimes there are books we meet unexpectedly, which we read though we never planned to or even wanted to. This week I’ve been substituting in a class reading this book, and I’d never even opened it. I’ve heard of it for years, of course, but somehow I never felt any internal motivation to go read it. Even at the height of my interest in Toni Morrison, I didn’t read Cisneros. And Morrison is a good comparison.

Cisneros’s book is a little circular, with short little chapters, many of four paragraphs or less. The first chapter is strongly echoed in the last, too. Characters keep coming back and back. She presents us with a community, and it can be easy to lose the threads since people can disappear for fifty pages in a book that’s only about 110 pages long. Angel Vargas is only briefly mentioned twice, poor boy, with no other connection between those two sections of the book. I read the whole thing in a couple of hours, and I dozed for twenty or thirty minutes in the middle.

Several of the reviewers remarked on the humor of the book, but I must confess I missed that part. There are jokes that bite, and I feel the teeth but miss the laugh. Having grown up poor, I don’t find jokes about poverty funny. Having a conscience, I don’t find jokes about the trials of women in a patriarchal society funny. I found the book to be absolutely fucking depressing. Women are raped, imprisoned, and married as children. The only protection is to hide in childhood for as long as possible, though that’s no guarantee. Rafaela may be compared to Rapunzel, locked in a tower, but no prince is going to rescue her.

The narrator is a girl named Esperanza, which usually translates to Hope, but also contains the ideas of expectation, waiting, and longing. It’s not a happy name, and she thinks it’s too long and full of consonants. She’s trying to navigate the odd world of preteen girls, where she’s perceived as a child right up until the time she puts on high heels, when she is suddenly treated to the lust-filled stares and catcalls that adult women have to put up with all the time. She and her friends “are tired of being beautiful” and get rid of the shoes. The cultural idea is that if a girl is old enough to be interested in men, she’s old enough to be married to one. So Esperanza hangs onto her girlishness so that she can be single long enough to finish junior high. People tell her to get an education, to get out of their insular community, and she is determined to hold onto her power.

Women do not have power in this book. They are controlled by their fathers until they get married, when they’re controlled by their husbands. Too afraid to leave the apartment, or just locked in. There’s a brief interval when they’re brave enough to defy their fathers’ rule before they marry, and that is the only time that a woman is free to do what she likes.

She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.

The book did show me how great life is outside of Christian education. We came to a section where Esperanza goes to visit an oddly normal fortune-teller, and I pulled my tarot cards out of my bag (like the poor, they’re with me always), and since the students were interested, we had tarot readings all round. I expected the quiet Afghan boy to refuse, but he went along with it. He seemed a little uncomfortable with how accurate the reading was, and he’s not the first person to feel that my reading was closer to the truth than is strictly necessary. As I tell people, there’s no magic in it, the querent provides the interpretation, but still. Take a concept like Temperance or Balance and tell people it’s important to them, and of course you’ll be right because those concepts are important in every life. Anyway, the students were cool with it, I told the story to the supervisor and she thought it was great – secular academics make me feel good about myself because they don’t criticize me for being gay or interested in alternative spiritualities.

Women are not safe. In one section, Cisneros doesn’t come right out and say it, but I’m pretty sure Esperanza gets raped at a carnival. She goes with a friend, and the friend ditches her, and there’s a white man who starts talking about how pretty she is, and suddenly she’s talking about how people have lied to her about how great The Unnamed It is. In that context, she’s right. Sex can be beautiful and special and fun and wonderful, but it can also be terrifying and invasive and traumatizing. It can be the best or the worst thing that ever happened to someone. Or neither, it’s possible to have completely mediocre sexual experiences. But either way, why would someone teach a book with such an upsetting section to children? The first time I read the Red Clowns part I got so agitated that I felt physically ill. And then I had to teach it; I didn’t realize how emotional I get on the topic of rape. But I made it through, and the students were respectful, so our experience could have been much worse. I don’t know how Esperanza’s could have been. Some women have said that they’d rather have been killed, and some kill themselves to get away from the memory. Rape is an awful, evil thing. No one chooses it, and no one should have to experience it.

I suppose I should say something about the fact that this is a Latina community. But honestly, gender seems significantly more important than ethnicity in determining the lives of the characters. And poverty is poverty, no matter what your skin color is. I don’t belong to a recently immigrated community, but I know that my first name refers to a geographical term, a narrow strip of land between two bodies of water. I’ve even seen some on maps. Names having meaning is not specific to Spanish speakers. Religion as a tool of social control is not specific to Catholicism. Their community is insular, but she doesn’t present the uniquenesses of being Latina. Being a woman who’s poor is description enough, I guess.

As mentioned, I didn’t go looking for this book. I read it as a duty, so that I could do my job to the best of my ability. I found it horridly depressing, but I think it’s going to stay with me. The starkness of the writing lends a magical realism effect when she uses metaphors, but . . .

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody even looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”

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