There are things about growing up that are universal. It doesn’t matter what culture you come from, there’s always a phase where you feel awkward. You always wonder whether or how you’ll become your culture’s version of a real adult. Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street takes you on that journey through the lens of Esperanza Cordero, a Latina child growing up in Chicago.
Cisneros does not say how Esperanza and her family come to reside in Chicago, but she does note that her experience prior to arriving on Mango Street was one of uncertainty. Esperanza had moved from place to place with her family for years. Their surroundings were always modest, sometimes impoverished, without even common amenities like the ability to take a shower unannounced. Esperanza’s story is a familiar one, echoing that of generations of immigrant children who come to the United States each year.
The House on Mango Street offers a rare window into immigrant life from a child’s perspective. Interestingly, her experience does not revolve around schoolyard teasings and discrimination, perhaps because many of her peers are just like her. Perhaps they all speak a version of hybridized Spanish and English in school and at home. When everyone is just like you, what is there really to tease anyone about? In that sense, Esperanza was fortunate.
If there was any strife, money seemed to be most at the heart of it. There was sadness about not living in an ideal house, about eating rice sandwiches for lunch. But these were challenges that most of the neighborhood seemed to have, as many of her adult neighbors were painted fondly as respectable working class individuals.
Reading Cisneros today, it’s questionable whether Esperanza’s experience would have been the same had her parents immigrated to the United States in our time. The story we read might have been about growing up without her parents while confined in a detention center. So, in this sense, we see that The House on Mango Street can represent a new, historical perspective of immigration in the United States. There was once a time when immigrant families might expect to remain together. There was once a time when a young girl like Esperanza might not need to worry about whether she would ever be reunited with her parents.
Are simple experiences like those portrayed in the The House on Mango Street too much to ask for immigrant children today? Of course, it wasn’t perfect. Whose childhood is?
This classic tale is highly recommended for readers with an interest in young people’s literature and those ready to see what life once was like for young immigrants to the United States.