Before my high school self starts throwing haterade at The House on Mango Street, I’d like to give a brief shout-out to Sandra Cisneros, who turns 59 today. The author is best known for that collection of vignettes, written from the perspective of a young girl coming of age in the Latino section of Chicago. Since its release in 1984, The House on Mango Street has won many awards, sold numerous copies, and received heaps of critical acclaim. Now, all those things out of the way, I’m just going to say it: I used to hate the book. I kept it high on a list of books I found totally meh. I looked upon the main character, Esperanza, with ridiculous levels of disdain. I found her earnestness annoying. I found the whole book annoying.
The House on Mango Street was required reading in my school district; it was the first book listed on my syllabus freshmen year. I was resistant from the start, partly because it was a school book, but also because it was sold to me in an undeniably hokey way. In this case, wrapped up in the warm, comforting blanket of diversity [insert jazz hands here]. And style-wise, it wasn’t written in a “cool” way. It was earnest and pleading and meandering at times. Back then, I read for ego more than anything else. I wanted to be satisfied, rather than unsettled. I was hurt and cynical and 14 years old.
Four years later, when the book appeared on my writing seminar’s syllabus freshman year of college, I wasn’t just uneasy, I was resistant. Why was I reading a book in COLLEGE that I had read in HIGH SCHOOL? Especially a book like The House on Mango Street, which was such an “easy” read. Not to mention, it was a book that I already knew I didn’t like. I maintained my piss-poor attitude towards the book until, finally, I gave in. I still had to read the godforsaken thing. So I started rage-reading the first vignette, skimming without abandon, until I got to the very last paragraph of the opening scene, when Esperanza discusses the places she has lived, and the place she is living now:
I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn’t it. The house on Mango Street isn’t it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go.
I stopped and reread that passage. And I almost cried. I almost cried because I had spent most of my formative years with only vague, shadowy memories of living in a house I could call my own. I had lived in the back of my dad’s office; I had lived in my grandparents’ house an hour away from school; I had lived in an apartment complex where I was never listed as a tenant because there were rules about having five people in a four-person apartment. I had repetitively heard the rhythms of Cisneros’ words before, almost verbatim.
After that, The House on Mango Street clicked for me. I read each vignette like a piece of poetry, because it finally revealed itself as that to me. I parsed out phrases, read them at my own pace, let the words make me feel whatever instead of putting my energies towards making some B.S. analysis. I read the book all the way through, to the very end. (Perhaps if I had read the book straight through the first time, rather than in regimented two-chapter doses, I could have seen it as more than a random assemblage of parts.) I recognized in myself a girl who, like Esperanza, had dreams and hopes and plans wrapped up in the possibility of escape.
I can’t say that I’m much like Esperanza in many respects. I grew up in an affluent suburb, with all the privileges that come with good schools and safe streets, if oblivious-to-the-outside residents. But I believe in the power of writing and leaving and letting go when you need to, earnest and hokey as my 14-year-old self would find that. For me, it was a conscious decision to get as far away from home as I could for college. True to a promise I made myself at 15, I ended up 2,000 miles away, on the other side of the country. I filled all my belongings and then some — the Old Navy coat my brother had outgrown, the newly purchased winter boots, the thick woolen camping socks my mom said I’d need — into three suitcases. And with that, I left home. I cried the first week, wondering why I had gone so damn far.
I like to believe that you read the books you need to read when you need to read them. The House on Mango Street is the kind of book to read when you want reassurance that you’ve made the right choice in leaving some place, in choosing to live a life far away from everything you’ve ever known. I am grateful that I read the book a second time, because that’s when it meant something to me. The House on Mango Street isn’t a text to include in your curriculum for some easy, halfhearted stab at multiculturalism; it’s more than that, and educators undersell it when they deny its universal relevance. I especially take pleasure in the last chapter, because it’s filled with hope:
I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free.
I remember rereading that passage the first time, because all I could think was that I liked the possibility.