Thursday, September 19, 2013

Read THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET For Hispanic Heritage Month

Mexican-American author-poet Sandra Cisneros raises this simple question in her timeless classic The House on Mango Street. This book of vignettes is one that can be opened to any page without having to know what came in the story before, or what comes after, and that invites the reader to reflect on the meaning of its passages that at moments come across as bocadillos de amor, tiny morsels of love, and at others, sadness. It’s a book about gender, tradition, family, neighbors, single parents, latch-key kids, obligation, shame … denial. No topic is ignored in this book, that in all its simplicity and poetry, canvasses life in the barrio in so few pages.

Esperanza, whose name means hope, is a young Latina growing up in a poor Chicago neighborhood, in a dilapidated house, who aspires to a life better than the one she sees the women around her living.

She says about her great-grandmother whose name she inherited:

"She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was sorry because she couldn't be all the things she wanted to be. I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window."

The passage that’s stuck with me is from one of the last vignettes, The Three Sisters. In it three comadres come to visit when a young baby dies. During the wake, one of the women takes Esperanza’s hands in hers, and foretells that she will “go very far.” The old woman then asks her to make a wish, after which she says,

"When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't erase what you are ... You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember?"

Esperanza feels shame because her aunt sees into her soul; it’s obvious what the young girl has wished for. Even though Esperanza does not understand the meaning of her aunt’s words, the day will come when she will.

I’m glad I finally read this book. It is one that I think should be required reading for all freshman in high school for the universality of its themes. It’s one I’ve carried around, rereading, pondering the last few weeks, making me happy, and sad with the wisdom of its words. It raises questions and depicts situations that not only apply to our Latino youth and the challenges they face as they seek to improve their lives, but also to any community that has been forgotten by not only its law-makers, but also those who have left. It begs the bigger question, “What can we do to help?”

Other questions raised by The House on Mango Street:
  • How do we ensure that positive role models/mentors are available to youth when their home and/or immediate environment have none to offer?
  • What does it mean to have a sense of duty to our “community?” Does it matter how we define “community?”
  • How do our sense of obligation, culture, traditions and gender expectations influence our choices? Can we ever be wrong?
  • If you have a moment, watch this short video clip in which Sandra Cisneros discusses what inspired her to write The House on Mango Street, where the lines of truth and fiction blurred for her and why she thinks it has resonated so much with today’s youth.
If you're looking for something to read for Hispanic Heritage Month, this is one book I'm certain you'd enjoy as much as I did.

(This post is an edited version of one previously posted on Multicultural Familia in 2011.)