‘The House On Mango Street’ by Sandra Cisneros
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Sandra Cisneros has spent a lifetime trying to discover her own literary voice, only to be drowned out by the mostly white and mostly white voices that she imitated but never identified with. The only daughter in a family with six sons, Cisneros was often the “odd-woman-out-forever” early on in life. It was not until she was enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop that she finally discovered that her experience as a woman and a Chicana in a male dominated world was the voice that was uniquely hers. Cisneros was influenced by her family’s constant travels between Mexico and Chicago. Cisneros never had the opportunity to make friends since she was seldom in one place for very long, nor did she have any sisters to confide and identify with. When her family finally settled in a small red house in Chicago, Cisneros had a home and a sense of permanence that she had previously never known.
But it was not the house she had dreamed of nor been promised by her father. She had always thought of a house with a green lawn, white picket fence, and a bathroom for every person. Instead she got a decaying bungalow in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood. It was this house that inspired her first and most successful novel, The House on Mango Street. Cisneros’ writing has been shaped by her experiences, which have given her a perspective and voice very different from traditional American writers, such as Poe, Thoreau, and Emerson. These are the writers that have helped comprise the literary cannon of the United States for nearly two hundred years. She has something to say that they do not know about. The House on Mango Street is an elegant literary piece, somewhere between fiction and poetry, that explores issues that are important to her: feminism, love, oppression, and religion.
The House on Mango Street reads more as poetry than as a narrative. This is accomplished through the liberal use of color throughout the vignettes. Nearly every passage in this book contains reference to color. Specifically then, it is the symbolic use of color that defines this novel. Even the title of the book brings to mind the ripe color of a mango. It is interesting that she chose Mango Street for the setting. A mango tree is a tropical evergreen cultivated for its edible fruit, which has a smooth rind and sweet, juicy, yellow-orange flesh. In much the same way, Esperanza is the young tree, waiting to mature and be cultivated. She too will eventually get to show brighter colors. “They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here” (Cisneros).
Esperanza and Cisneros both identify themselves as young immature trees, that cannot be understood until they grow fruit. The use of color serves a dual symbolic purpose. The barrios that Cisneros and her title character, Esperanza, live in are usually gray and void of any other color. As children, they had very little in terms of material possessions, yet they were keenly aware of the beauty of color, which was free and could not be taken from them. Thus color is used to give life to the barrio. Just as Steven Speilberg used the little red dress as the only color in Shindler’s List, Cisneros paints her world in vivid colors to highlight small things that took on greater meaning for her. She remembers the yellow Cadillac, grandma’s pink feet dressed in velvety heels, her new dress, pink with white stripes, and, of course, her brown and white saddle shoes.
Esperanza constantly identifies with the color pink, which is often representative of femininity. In her own life, Cisneros was always trying to retain her female identity. Her father would constantly boast or complain that he had seven sons. She writes that he meant siete hijos, seven children, and that she is sure that he didn’t mean anything by that mistranslation. Cisneros could feel herself being erased and would tug her father’s sleeve and whisper: ‘not seven sons. Six! And one daughter’. Cisneros used the color pink often in the early stages of the novel, up until the carnival. She talks about The Family of Little Feet, where grandma’s feet were “lovely as pink pearls…because they were pretty” (Cisneros). Pink is even used to graphically show Esperanza’s ingenuousness in The Earl of Tennessee when Esperanza sees who she thinks is Earl’s wife, she is “a tall red-headed lady who wears tight pink pants” (Cisneros). In her innocence, Esperanza does not realize that this woman is not Earl’s wife, but a prostitute. After the carnival, where Esperanza loses her innocence, the color pink is never mentioned again. As Esperanza grows from innocence to maturity, the colors around her progress as well. From the innocence of pink, Esperanza notices the green in her life, which is still a time of learning and newness.
The only thing Esperanza can remember about the boy she danced with in The House on Mango Street after he is dead is his green pants. This is her first experience with death, but she does not remember black, the color of death. Instead she focuses on the color green, which is more symbolic of life, for this is just another step in her understanding of the trivial nature of life. Later, when recounting the Monkey Garden, she remembers the green apples, “hard as knees” (Cisneros). The garden is a major turning point in the learning process for Esperanza, a place where she slowly becomes aware of her innocence. The garden is a common symbol throughout literature. The garden is usually a religious symbol, representative of the Garden of Eden. Just as the Garden of Eden was a place for the loss of innocence, literary gardens are also the source of a heroine’s (Eve) loss of innocence and virtue. The Monkey Garden is Esperanza’s Garden of Eden. It is here that she becomes aware of the world of sexuality when her friend Sally goes with the boys to kiss them. “One of Tito’s friends said you can’t get the keys back unless you kiss us and Sally pretended to be mad at first but she said yes.
It was that simple” (Cisneros). Esperanza realizes that Sally is not as naïve as she once believed her to be. The big green apples that Esperanza remembers are clearly a reference to the apple in the Garden of Eden that led to Eve’s downfall and human mortality. Yet Esperanza’s apples are not red, like Eve’s apple. Eve’s red apple symbolizes the lust that accompanied the sin of eating the apple. Esperanza’s green apple shows growth and newness, which is what Esperanza will take away from the Monkey Garden. She is not the one to commit the sin, but she is privy to it. The monkey is significant also, as he is the serpent of the garden. Esperanza fears the monkey, just as Adam and Eve were initially cautious of the serpent. Yellow, which normally conjures images of cowardice, is used to represent bold and daring things for Esperanza. She notes the yellow Cadillac in her neighborhood, a shiny symbol of things she can only dream of. Similarly, when she puts on the yellow high heeled shoes, Esperanza feels like Cinderella, and it is “scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long leg” (Cisneros).
The House on Mango Street is an autobiographical account of Cisneros’s childhood. The characters are created from the neighbors of her youth. Cisneros creates what she calls a “deluge of voices”- they are the expressions of her immediate family, of the Chicano-Riqueno community she grew up in and the voices form her life both between and as a part of the two cultures in which she now dwells. She feels under pressure as the first Chicana to enter the mainstream of literary culture. Until the publication of The House on Mango Street, the Chicano literature that had crossed over into the mainstream remained a male domain- Gary Soto, Luis Valdez, Richard Rodriquez, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Alberto Rios and Rudolfo Anaya had all made the transition.
Women were unrepresented there until Cisneros’s recent successes. Cisneros is able to bring her characters to life with her rich use of symbolism. If these seem like colorful characters, it is because Cisneros has intentionally painted them with the colors of her imagination to create a world that stands in contrast to the otherwise bleakness of her surroundings. Cisneros has broken a silence that has run long and deep which previous decades of racism, poverty and gender marginilization had suppressed.
On the other hand Maya Angelou a poet, an author, a play-write, an actress, a mother, a civil-rights activists, historian and most important a survivor. Perhaps Maya Angelou, award-winning author of many books is one of the most influential African Americans in American history. Maya was born on, April 4th, 1928 as Marguerite Johnson, in St. Louis Missouri. She was raised in Stamps Arkansas by her Grandmother Annie Henderson and her Uncle Willie. Stamps was a rural segregated community. However, it was tight knit between the African Americans. Maya grew up during a very difficult time period in American history. They were just recovering from the Great Depression, and learning how to deal with different races of people.
Maya knew this and made it clear in her writing. “It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life. It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of each other. A pyramid of flesh with the white folks on the bottom, . . . and then the Negro’s.” (Angelou, Caged Bird) “If growing up was painful for the Southern Black Girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.” (Angelou, Caged Bird) Grandma Henderson was a very religious person and a key factor in Maya’s upbringing as with the rest of the people of Stamps. Maya and her brother Bailey were punished as necessary. She kept Bailey and Maya out of trouble and on the right track.
When Maya was about six, she and Bailey moved to St. Louis to live with her mother, and her boyfriend, Mr. Freeman. While staying in St. Louis, she was raped by Mr. Freeman. Afterwards, Mr. Freeman was killed. Maya was certain that her voice had the power to kill, after all, she was the one that told on him, so Maya became mute for the next two years. After returning to Stamps, a woman by the name of Bertha Flowers brought Maya out of her mute. “Mrs. Flowers she had the grace of control to appear warm in the coldest of weather… she acted just as refined as the white folks.” (Angelou, Caged Bird) Mrs. Flowers brought the works of Shakespeare, Hawthorne, and many others to Maya. Mrs. Flowers made her read and recite the verses. Maya was about eleven when Grandma Baxter moved her and Bailey to San Francisco, California to escape the racial fights in the south. Maya was just as mystified with her mother now as when she first meets her in St. Louis. Maya would go to see her father every so often, until one summer he asked Maya to live with him for the summer. Maya’s father often took trips to Mexico on the weekend. Maya went with him on one, just to find herself driving her drunken father home.
When Maya returned home, she got into an awful fight with her father’s girlfriend. Maya then ran away, became homeless, and lived in a junkyard. One year after Maya became homeless, she returned home with her mother. Maya attended secondary school, and found herself a job being the first black conductorette on the San Francisco streetcars. This was a great accomplishment in Maya’s mind, she had done something that no one else has ever done. Maya was now about sixteen years of age, and curious about sex. She thought that maybe she was lesbian, so to find out, she had sex with a friend, and ended up pregnant. Maya was only sixteen years old. She was now the Mother of Guy Johnson. Maya moved to West Africa, and took up the job as a professor at the University of Ghana where she enrolled Guy, now seventeen. Maya was now among her people, Blacks. Maya was brought up during a very difficult time in American history. The post depression era and the beginning of segregation greatly influenced young Maya.
She and her family had very few run-ins with whites, and rarely did they associate with them. There were many contemporaries that influenced Maya Angelou during her life such as Dr. Martin Luther King JR. They both had similar views in civil rights, during the time period that Maya started writing. At the request of Dr. King, Ms. Angelou became the north coordinator of the South Christian Leadership conference. President Gerald Ford also influenced Maya by appointing her to the Bicentennial commission. She also knew, and helped out Malcolm X. during the time period that Maya Angelou began to write, the television was just beginning to surface. This helped Maya and the rest of the world to see what was going on in a matter of hours, instead in a matter of days (sometimes even weeks). The automobile is also a very essential tool that was being perfected in Maya’s time. There is no doubt in my mind or anybody else’s mind that during the time period of the 1930’s to the 1990’s that racial issues were the biggest and most dangerous social issue.
The time in her life that race did not bother her was when she lived in Ghana, Africa. Here she felt that it didn’t matter if she was black, because everybody else was. I believe that this book is an important piece of Americana for one simple reason. That reason is that the book tells in detail how difficulty but interesting it was to grow up in the mid 1930’s. I feel that her message from the book is love what you have and know, not what you don’t have and don’t know. I truly learned a lesson from Maya and her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I have learned to be thankful for what I have and the time period that I am living in, to enjoy it.