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May 5, 2018

The House on Mango Street

by Anne Paddock

People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on earth.

In 1984, Sandra Cisneros – a woman who “dreamed about having a silent home, just to herself, the way other women dreamed of their weddings” – was a 30-year-old Mexican American writer (having earned a BA in English from Loyola University and a Masters of Fine Arts from Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa) published her first book, The House on Mango Street:  the story of a young Hispanic girl named Esperanza Cordero growing up on the west side of Chicago.

Narrated by the teen voice of Esperanza, The House on Mango Street is organized around 44 short chapters that detail Latino life while growing up in a lower-income neighborhood in Chicago.  The brevity of the chapters is what a reader would expect from a young narrator and yet, the keen observations are brutally honest and often heartbreaking as Esperanza writes about friendships, discrimination, sexual attraction, neighbors, parental expectations and the difficulties of straddling life in the midwest when you are both American and Mexican.

Esperanza may not have fully understood feminism and class but she understood that boys and girls “live in separate worlds.” Her sense of shame is visible throughout the book as Esperanza experiences judgement by those who should have known better including a nun who didn’t hesitate to point out that she lived “there” in reference to a home that showed misunderstood neglect with peeling paint and boarded windows (to protect children from falling out). And yet, Esperanza’s inner strength and confidence is front and center and no more so than in the short chapter “Four Skinny Trees” which serves as a metaphor for herself: trees that don’t belong but possess strong roots and continue to grow despite the concrete that surrounds them.

34 years have passed since the publication of The House on Mango Street and yet the book is as relevant today as it was in the mid 1980’s when young people who came from one world to live in another struggled to find their way in a place that is far from just, even from a middle schooler’s perspective.

One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from.

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