by Charmanique Goings
Sandra Cisneros highlights the patriarchal problems of Hispanic culture in The House on Mango Street, through the life and observational writing of her protagonist, Esperanza. Esperanza is an adolescent female who struggles to identify with the patriarchal values of the Hispanic community in which she lives. Cisneros chose to tell the story from an adolescent perspective because children are able to use experience to shape their identity. By finding her own identity, Esperanza is afforded the opportunity to free not only herself but other women as well from the constraints of a patriarchal culture, showing her resistance through her writing.
Esperanza observes and writes about the problems of oppression, abuse, and victimization that she witnesses throughout her life as a result of the patriarchal values present in her community. She uses these experiences to fuel her writing, which in turn helps her to find her own identity. Maria Karafilis, author of a scholarly article which analyzes The House on Mango Street, agrees with this idea by stating, “Esperanza, however, learns from these experiences, learns from the lives of her fellow Chicanas, and is able to avoid this fate in her own maturation” (66). Since Esperanza is an adolescent, she is unable to remove herself completely from the culture; she instead resists the patriarchal values and in turn resists victimization. She uses these experiences as a way to understand that she must resist the culture in order to free herself from patriarchal constraints when she becomes an adult. The text suggests that Esperanza vows to tell her story, the story of her life, her experiences, her search for identity and maturation. Esperanza says, “I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn’t want to belong” (Cisneros 109). Esperanza is a girl who does not want to belong, because she knows something is wrong.
Esperanza declares that she does not want to conform and as a result she struggles with finding her identity. Esperanza struggles with her identity in the text because of her inability to relate and her unwillingness to accept the problems of the Hispanic patriarchal community that she lives in. Esperanza cannot self-identity due to the fact that she does not resonate with the traditions of her culture. As a result of this, she is alienated. Maria Elena de Valdés agrees with this by stating, “The sense of alienation is compounded because ethnically she is a Mexican, although culturally a Mexican American; she is a young girl surrounded by examples of abused, defeated, worn-out women, but the woman she wants to be must be free” (Valdés). The multiple examples of defeated women and their abuse are the reason why Esperanza so desperately feels the need to be free. While feeling alone and alienated, she thinks about the fact that she does not have anyone in the text that she relates to, and Esperanza dreams of the day when she will meet someone that she can relate to. Esperanza expresses, “Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor” (Cisneros 9). She also dreams of changing her name, “a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees” (10). Esperanza feels alone, and this quote suggests that she wants the opportunity to be more like herself, the person that no one else sees because it is atypical of the culture to which she belongs. She knows she is different than the other females in the text, and she insists that because of this, no one understands her. It is important to note that the reason she does not have any friends is not because she does not want to make friends with anyone, but because she struggles to relate to them. Esperanza refuses to become a victim of oppression, abuse, and victimization like the women portrayed in the text.
Most of the men in the novel are portrayed as manipulative, oppressive, or abusive. The women are contrastingly portrayed as victims; they are physically and mentally abused. The abuse is not limited to physical abuse, but emotional abuse as well. Emotional abuse should not be taken lightly; there may be no physical signs of abuse, but the effects are equally devastating. The text highlights an instance of emotional abuse when Esperanza describes a woman named Minerva. Minerva “has many troubles, but the big one is her husband who left and keeps leaving” (84). Minverva’s mother also dealt with the same types of problems that she is currently dealing with. According to the text, “Her mother raised her kids alone, and it looks like her daughters will go that way too” (84). Minerva tries to end the emotional abuse by ridding herself of her husband, however she fails. “One day she lets him know enough is enough” (85), according to the text, but then he says sorry, so, “she opens the door again. Same story” (85). This illustrates the idea of the cycle of abuse. The abuse has shifted from not only emotional abuse, but extends to physical abuse as well. The text illustrates this by explaining, “The next week she comes over black and blue and asks what can she do” (85). Minerva wants to free herself, but she struggles. Feeling hopeless, she declares that there is nothing she can do.
Minerva is an abuse victim of patriarchal Hispanic culture. The text suggests that the abuse of women is not exclusive to wives, but little girls, daughters too. This idea is illustrated in the text when Esperanza observes the life of a girl by the name of Sally. Sally is a victim who makes up excuses regarding her abusive father because she is afraid to tell the truth. Esperanza writes that Sally says, “He never hits me hard” (92). In this quote, Sally admits to being hit by her father, but she defends him. The mothers in the text do not take the right course of action. Instead of stopping the abuse, the mothers attempt to ease the pain afterward and cover up the evidence. For instance, Sally’s mother: the text states, “her mama rubs lard on all the places where it hurts” (92). The women are afraid to stand up to men, they are afraid to stand up for themselves and their children. The text suggests that the abuse of women is a disconcerting problem within Hispanic culture. The women feel like hopeless victims because they are not valued or respected.
Cisneros allows Esperanza to write about her experiences; this is the first step to her declaration of her freedom. However, in response to the experiences she writes about, she does not respond in a negative way. Instead Esperanza uses those experiences to fuel her maturation. She will not allow herself to be subjected to those same experiences of abuse. Valdés agrees as she explains, “When she reflects on social hostility or the brutality of wife-beating, it is not with violence or rancor, but with a firm determination to describe and to escape the vicious circle of abused women” (Valdés). Esperanza’s response to the way women in the text are treated is evident in the way that she behaves, especially in response to attention she receives from boys.
Esperanza shows very little interest in boys, unlike the other girls in the novel that she observes. Many of them are obsessed with how they look, and they yearn for the attention of boys. One of the young girls in the text says, “What matters is for the boys to see us and for us to see them” (Cisneros 27). It appears as if the aspirations of the women in the novel is limited to marriage, because to them marriage equates to security and stability; it means they will be taken care of. Esperanza describes the same girl from the previous quote: the text states she is dancing under the streetlight, “waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life” (27). This young girl is waiting around, hoping that a man will come sweep her up off of her feet. The girl behaves this way because this is how she has been taught to think of men through observing her patriarchal culture. Esperanza describes an older lady by the name of Ruthie, stating, “There were many things Ruthie could have been if she wanted to” (68). Ruthie gave up on her dreams for the sake of marriage, the text explains: “She got married instead and moved away to a pretty house outside the city” (69). This is one of the problems of Hispanic culture according to the text, one that Esperanza effectively resists. Esperanza effectively resists the patriarchal culture by behaving in a way that is atypical in comparison to the women in her community, especially in the way that she moves in a direction that suggests independence.
In a patriarchal society it is believed that the primary responsibility for women is take care of the home and raise children. This causes women to be financially dependent on men. In response to this, Esperanza recognizes the necessity in getting a job at a young age. Esperanza gets a job at a young age, she takes initiative and begins to take care of herself. The text suggests that it was not easy for her to find a job. She says, “It wasn’t as if I didn’t want to work. I did. I had even gone to the social security office the month before to get my social security number” (53). Esperanza displays the eagerness of wanting to get a job. Many of the women that she observes are largely dependent on men. The women in the text are at the mercy of men financially, but in getting a job Esperanza takes a large step in the direction of independence.
Esperanza’s steps toward independence are a direct result of her experiences. As she writes about what she observes in her community, she finds her identity. Her experiences allow her to grow. Christina Rose Dubb reinforces this idea by stating, “The novel seems to chronicle a few years of Esperanza’s life in her Chicano neighborhood, as she moves from the naivety of childhood to the shocking understanding of the injustices of sexual inequality, violence, and socioeconomic disparities” (220). Esperanza is no longer a lost and naïve little girl, instead she is maturing and realizing the seriousness of the problems she is surrounded by. As an adolescent, Esperanza is able to grow into her realization. She is able to use her writing as an escape. As an adolescent, this gives her the power to free herself and shape her own identity.
Cisneros chose to write her protagonist as an adolescent female because of the power and promise that comes from being a child. As a child, Esperanza is able to mature because of her observations and interactions within the Hispanic community that she belongs to. According to Karafilis, “Esperanza learns of herself and her culture in great part through her connections with other people” (66). Esperanza can resist the patriarchal community, and she can escape the victimization that is typical within the community that she writes about. Esperanza can experience freedom through her writing. Her personal freedom will allow her to free others. Her experiences through observation and writing will allow her to mature into an adult equipped with experience and knowledge that will allow her to create a change.
After observing the Hispanic community that she grows up in, Esperanza comes to the conclusion that she will not follow in the footsteps of the women in the community. Esperanza refuses to conform. She explains “I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate” (Cisneros 89). Esperanza will not confine herself to patriarchal values such as taking care of the home like many of the women portrayed in the text. Esperanza declares “I have decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain” (88). The most important word in that quote is wait; the text suggests that they wait “for the ball and chain.” They wait because that is what they believe they have to do. They believe that they need a man to take care of them. However, Esperanza through her observation and maturation knows that she does not have to wait for anyone. The reference to “ball and chain” further illustrates the seriousness of the situation; this imagery symbolizes that Hispanic women in the text are prisoners to men. They are victims of abuse and oppression; they are tamed by the patriarchal culture.
Towards the end of the novel Esperanza notices her strength. She knows that she now has the power to do anything she wants. She knows what her maturation through observation and writing has prepared her for. In the text she declares, “One day I will pack my bags of book and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever” (110). Esperanza knows that she is free, she knows what she must do with her books and paper. She knows that through writing she can free others, just as she has freed herself. The text states, “They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out” (110). Her community may not understand right away the reasons for which she leaves; however, it is important to note that Esperanza is fully mature and realizes the power she has. More importantly, Cisneros understood the power in creating an adolescent protagonist to tell her story.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.
Doyle, Jacqueline. “More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.” MELUS 19.4, Ethnic Women Writers VI (1994): 5-35. JSTOR. Web. 6 Dec. 2014.
Dubb, Christina Rose. “Adolescent Journeys: Finding Female Authority in The Rain Catchers and The House on Mango Street.” Children’s Literature in Education 38.3 (2007): 219-32. JSTOR. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.
Karafilis, Maria. “Crossing the Borders of Genre: Revisions of the Bildungsroman in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 31.2 (1998): 63-78. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2014.
Valdés, Maria Elena de. “In Search of Identity in Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.” Canadian Review of American Studies 23.1 (1992): 55-72. Web. 8 Dec. 2014.