Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
It's been ten years since The House on Mango Street was first published. I began writing it in
graduate school, the spring of 1977, in Iowa City. I was twenty-two years old.
I'm thirty-eight now, far from that time and place, but the questions from readers remain, Are
these stories true? Are you Esperanza?
When I began The House on Mango Street, I thought I was writing a memoir. By the time I finished
it, my memoir was no longer memoir, no longer autobiographical. It had evolved into a collective story
peopled with several lives from my past and present, placed in one fictional time and neighborhood—Mango
A story is like a Giacometti sculpture. The farther away it is from you, the clearer you can see
it. In Iowa City, I was undergoing several changes of identity. For the first time I was living alone, in
a community very different in class and culture from the one where I was raised. This caused so much
unrest I could barely speak, let alone write about it. The story I was living at twenty-two would have to
2cm; margin-bottom: 0.1cm">wait, but I could take the story of an earlier place, an earlier voice, and record that on paper.
The voice of Mango Street and all my work was born at one moment, when I realized I was
different. This sounds absurd and simple, but until Iowa City, I assumed the world was like Chicago, made
up of people of many cultures all living together—albeit not happily at times but still coexisting. In
Iowa, I was suddenly aware of feeling odd when I spoke, as if I were a foreigner. But this was my land
too. This is not to say I hadn't felt this "otherness" before in Chicago, but I hadn't felt it quite as
keenly as I did in graduate school. I couldn't articulate what it was that was happening, except I knew I
felt ashamed when I spoke in class, so I chose not to speak.
I can say my political consciousness began the moment I recognized my otherness. I was in a
graduate seminar on memory and the imagination. The books required were Vladimir Nabokov's Speak Memory,
Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa, and Gaston Bachelard's Poetics of Space. I had enjoyed the first two, but
as usual I said nothing, just listened to the dialogue around me, too afraid to speak. The third book,
though, left me baffled. I assumed I just didn't get it because I wasn't as smart as everyone else, and
if I didn't say anything, maybe no one else would notice.
The conversation, I remember, was about the house of memory—the attic, the stairwells, the
cellar. Attic? My family lived in third-floor flats for the most part, because noise traveled down.
Stairwells reeked of Pine Sol from the Saturday scrubbing. We shared them with the people downstairs;
they were public zones no one except us thought to clean. We mopped them all right, but not without
resentment for cleaning up some other people's trash. And as for cellars, we had a basement, but who'd
want to hide in there? Basements were filled with urban fauna. Everyone was scared to go in there
including the meter reader and the landlord. What was this guy Bachelard talking about when he mentioned
the familiar and comforting house of memory? It was obvious he never had to clean one or pay the landlord
rent for one like ours.
Then it occurred to me that none of the books in this class or in any of my classes, in all the
years of my education, had ever discussed a house like mine. Not in books or magazines or films. My
classmates had come from real houses, real neighborhoods, ones they could point to, but what did I know?
When I went home that evening and realized my education had been a lie—had made presumptions
about what was "normal," what was American, what was valuable—I wanted to quit school right then and
there, but I didn't. Instead, I got angry, and anger when it is used to act, when it is used
nonviolently, has power. I asked myself what I could write about that my classmates could not. I didn't
know what I wanted exactly, but I did have enough sense to know what I didn't want.
Instead, I searched for the "ugliest" subjects I could find, the most un-"poetic"—slang,
monologues in which waitresses or kids talked their own lives. I was trying as best I could to write the
kind of book I had never seen in a library or in a school, the kind of book not even my professors could
write. Each week I ingested the class readings and then went off and did the opposite. It was a quiet
revolution, perhaps a reaction taken to extremes, but it was out of this negative experience that I found
something positive: my own voice.
The language in Mango Street is based on speech. It's very much an antiacademic voice—a child's
voice, a girl's voice, a poor girl's voice, a spoken voice, the voice of an American-Mexican. It's in
this rebellious realm of antipoetics that I tried to create a poetic text with the most unofficial
language I could find. I did it neither ingenuously nor naturally. It was as clear to me as if I were
tossing a Molotov.
At one time or another, we all have felt other. When I teach writing, I tell the story of the
moment of discovering and naming my otherness. It is not enough simply to sense it; it has to be named,
and then written about from there. Once I could name it, I ceased being ashamed and silent. I could speak
up and celebrate my otherness as a woman, as a working-class person, as an American of Mexican descent.
When I recognized the places where I departed from my neighbors, my classmates, my family, my town, my
brothers, when I discovered what I knew that no one else in the room knew, and then spoke it in a voice
that was my voice, the voice I used when I was sitting in the kitchen, dressed in my pajamas, talking
over a table littered with cups and dishes, when I could give myself permission to speak from that
intimate space, then I could talk and sound like myself, not like me trying to sound like someone I
wasn't. Then I could speak, shout, laugh from a place that was uniquely mine, that was no one else's in
the history of the universe, that would never be anyone else's, ever.
I wrote these stories that way, guided by my heart and by my ear. I was writing a novel and
didn't know I was writing a novel; if I had, I probably couldn't have done it. I knew I wanted to tell a
story made up of a series of stories that would make sense if read alone, or that could be read all
together to tell one big story, each story contributing to the whole—like beads in a necklace. I hadn't
seen a book like this before. After finishing my book, I would discover these novels later: Gwendolyn
Brooks' Maud Martha, Nellie Campobello's Cartucho, Ermilo Abreu Gomez's Canek, and Tomás Rivera's Y no se
lo tragó la tierra.
While I was writing Mango Street, I remember reading Nicanor Parra's Antipoems and delighting in
their irreverence to "Poetry," just as I had been delighted by Carl Sandburg's wise-guy, working-class
voice and Gwendolyn Brooks' Bronzeville poems. I remember I was trying to write something that was a
cross between fiction and poetry—like Jorge Luis Borges' Dream Tigers, a book whose stories read like
fables, but with the lyricism and succinctness of poetry.
I finished writing my book in November 1982, miles from the Iowa cornfields. I had traveled a
great distance both physically and mentally from the book's inception. And in the meantime, lots of
things happened to me. I taught Latino high-school dropouts and counseled Latina students. Because I
often felt helpless as a teacher and counselor to alter their lives, their stories began to surface in my
"memoir"; then Mango Street ceased to be my story. I arranged and diminished events on Mango Street to
speak a message, to take from different parts of other people's lives and create a story like a collage.
I merged characters from my twenties with characters from my teens and childhood. I edited, changed,
shifted the past to fit the present. I asked questions I didn't know to ask when I was an adolescent. But
best of all, writing in a younger voice allowed me to name that thing without a name, that shame of being
poor, of being female, of being not quite good enough, and examine where it had come from and why, so I
could exchange shame for celebration.
I had never been trained to think of poems or stories as something that could change someone's
life. I had been trained to think about where a line ended or how best to work a metaphor. It was always
the "how" and not the "what" we talked about in class. Even while I was teaching in the Chicago
community, the two halves of my life were at odds with each other—the half that wanted to roll up my
sleeves and do something for the community, and the half that wanted to retreat to my kitchen and write.
I still believed my writing couldn't save anyone's life but my own.
In the ten years since Mango Street has been published those two halves of my life have met and
merged. I believe this because I've witnessed families buying my book for themselves and for family
members, families for whom spending money on a book can be a sacrifice. Often they bring a mother,
father, sibling, or cousin along to my readings, or I am introduced to someone who says their son or
daughter read my book in a class and brought it home for them. And there are the letters from readers of
all ages and colors who write to say I have written their story. The raggedy state of my books that some
readers and educators hand me to sign is the best compliment of all. These are my affirmations and
Am I Esperanza? Yes. And no. And then again, perhaps maybe. One thing I know for certain, you,
the reader, are Esperanza. So I should ask, What happened to you? Did you stay in school? Did you go to
college? Did you have that baby? Were you a victim? Did you tell anyone about it or did you keep it
inside? Did you let it overpower and eat you? Did you wind up in jail? Did someone harm you? Did you hurt
someone? What happened to Margarita, Fat Boy, Gizmo, Angelica, Leticia, Maria, Ruben, Silvia, José,
Dagoberto, Refugia, Bobby? Will you go back to school, find somebody to take care of the baby while
you're finishing your diploma, go to college, work two jobs so you can do it, get help from the
substance-abuse people, walk out of a bad marriage, send paychecks to the woman who bore your child,
learn to be the human being you are not ashamed of? Did you run away from home? Did you join a gang? Did
you get fired? Did you give up? Did you get angry?
You are Esperanza. You cannot forget who you are.
November 16, 1993
San Antonio de Bexar, Texas
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
Someday I will have a best friend all my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will
understand my jokes without my having to explain them. Until then I am a red balloon, a balloon tied to
In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means
waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday
mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing.
It was my great-grandmother's name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in
the Chinese year of the horse—which is supposed to be bad luck if you're born female—but I think this
is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong.
My great-grandmother. I would've liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she
wouldn't marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like
that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That's the way he did it.
And the story goes she never forgave him. 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 she
sorry because she couldn't be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but
I don't want to inherit her place by the window.
At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of
your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver, not quite as thick as
sister's name—Magdalena—which is uglier than mine. Magdalena who at least can come home and become
Nenny. But I am always Esperanza.
I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody
sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do.
Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there. My mother says I was born on
an evil day and prays for me. Lucy and Rachel pray too. For ourselves and for each other . . . because of
what we did to Aunt Lupe.
You just remember to keep writing,
Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn't know
what she meant.
Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut & Papaya Juice on Tuesdays
On Tuesdays Rafaela's husband comes home late because that's the night he plays dominoes. And
then Rafaela, who is still young but getting old from leaning out the window so much, gets locked indoors
because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at.
Rafaela leans out the window and leans on her elbow and dreams her hair is like Rapunzel's. On
the corner there is music from the bar, and Rafaela wishes she could go there and dance before she gets
A long time passes and we forget she is up there watching until she says: Kids, if I give you a
dollar will you go to the store and buy me something? She throws a crumpled dollar down and always asks
for coconut or sometimes papaya juice, and we send it up to her in a paper shopping bag she lets down
Rafaela who drinks and drinks coconut and papaya juice on Tuesdays and wishes there were sweeter
drinks, not bitter like an empty room, but sweet sweet like the island, like the dance hall down the
street where women much older than her throw green eyes easily like dice and open homes with keys. And
always there is someone offering sweeter drinks, someone promising to keep them on a silver string.
Sally is the girl with eyes like Egypt and nylons the color of smoke. The boys at school think
she's beautiful because her hair is shiny black like raven feathers and when she laughs, she flicks her
hair back like a satin shawl over her shoulders and laughs.
Her father says to be this beautiful is trouble. They are very strict in his religion. They are
not supposed to dance. He remembers his sisters and is sad. Then she can't go out. Sally I mean.
Sally, who taught you to paint your eyes like Cleopatra? And if I roll the little brush with my
tongue and chew it to a point and dip it in the muddy cake, the one in the little red box, will you teach
I like your black coat and those shoes you wear, where did you get them? My mother says to wear
black so young is dangerous, but I want to buy shoes just like yours, like your black ones made out of
suede, just like those. And one day, when my mother's in a good mood, maybe after my next birthday, I'm
going to ask to buy the nylons too.
Cheryl, who is not your friend anymore, not since last Tuesday before Easter, not since the day
you made her ear bleed, not since she called you that name and bit a hole in your arm and you looked as
if you were going to cry and everyone was waiting and you didn't, you didn't, Sally, not since then, you
don't have a best friend to lean against the schoolyard fence with, to laugh behind your hands at what
the boys say. There is no one to lend you her hairbrush.
The stories the boys tell in the coatroom, they're not true. You lean against the schoolyard
fence alone with your eyes closed as if no one was watching, as if no one could see you standing there,
Sally. What do you think about when you close your eyes like that? And why do you always have to go
straight home after school? You become a different Sally. You pull your skirt straight, you rub the blue
paint off your eyelids. You don't laugh, Sally. You look at your feet and walk fast to the house you
can't come out from.
Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn't have to go home? Do you wish your feet would one day keep
walking and take you far away from Mango Street, far away and maybe your feet would stop in front of a
house, a nice one with flowers and big windows and steps for you to climb up two by two upstairs to where
a room is waiting for you. And if you opened the little window latch and gave it a shove, the windows
would swing open, all the sky would come in. There'd be no nosy neighbors watching, no motorcycles and
cars, no sheets and towels and laundry. Only trees and more trees and plenty of blue sky. And you could
laugh, Sally. You could go to sleep and wake up and never have to think who likes and doesn't like you.
You could close your eyes and you wouldn't have to worry what people said because you never belonged here
anyway and nobody could make you sad and nobody would think you're strange because you like to dream and
dream. And no one could yell at you if they saw you out in the dark leaning against a car, leaning
against somebody without someone thinking you are bad, without somebody saying it is wrong, without the
whole world waiting for you to make a mistake when all you wanted, all you wanted, Sally, was to love and
to love and to love and to love, and no one could call that crazy.
Bums in the Attic
I want a house on a hill like the ones with the gardens where Papa works. We go on Sundays,
Papa's day off. I used to go. I don't anymore. You don't like to go out with us, Papa says. Getting too
old? Getting too stuck-up, says Nenny. I don't tell them I am ashamed—all of us staring out the window
like the hungry. I am tired of looking at what we can't have. When we win the lottery . . . Mama begins,
and then I stop listening.
People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on
earth. They don't look down at all except to be content to live on hills. They have nothing to do with
last week's garbage or fear of rats. Night comes. Nothing wakes them but the wind.
One day I'll own my own house, but I won't forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums
will ask, Can I come in? I'll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be
without a house.
Some days after dinner, guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak
upstairs. The attic grumble.
Rats? they'll ask.
Bums, I'll say, and I'll be happy.
I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without
putting back the chair or picking up the plate.
Sally, you lied. It wasn't what you said at all. What he did. Where he touched me. I didn't want
it, Sally. The way they said it, the way it's supposed to be, all the storybooks and movies, why did you
lie to me?
I was waiting by the red clowns. I was standing by the tilt-a-whirl where you said. And anyway I
don't like carnivals. I went to be with you because you laugh on the tilt-a-whirl, you throw your head
back and laugh. I hold your change, wave, count how many times you go by. Those boys that look at you
because you're pretty. I like to be with you, Sally. You're my friend. But that big boy, where did he
take you? I waited such a long time. I waited by the red clowns, just like you said, but you never came,
you never came for me.
Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn't you hear me when I called? Why didn't you tell them to
leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn't let me go. He said I love you, Spanish
girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine.
Sally, make him stop. I couldn't make them go away. I couldn't do anything but cry. I don't
remember. It was dark. I don't remember. I don't remember. Please don't make me tell it all.
Why did you leave me all alone? I waited my whole life. You're a liar. They all lied. All the
books and magazines, everything that told it wrong. Only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his
sour smell again. The moon that watched. The tilt-a-whirl. The red clowns laughing their thick-tongue
Then the colors began to whirl. Sky tipped. Their high black gym shoes ran. Sally, you lied, you
lied. He wouldn't let me go. He said I love you, I love you, Spanish girl.
Sally got married like we knew she would, young and not ready but married just the same. She met
a marshmallow salesman at a school bazaar, and she married him in another state where it's legal to get
married before eighth grade. She has her husband and her house now, her pillowcases and her plates. She
says she is in love, but I think she did it to escape.
Sally says she likes being married because now she gets to buy her own things when her husband
gives her money. She is happy, except sometimes her husband gets angry and once he broke the door where
his foot went through, though most days he is okay. Except he won't let her talk on the telephone. And he
doesn't let her look out the window. And he doesn't like her friends, so nobody gets to visit her unless
he is working.
She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the
things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the
walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding
A House of My Own
Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With
my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside
the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.
Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.
Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes
I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head. I tell them after the mailman says, Here's
your mail. Here's your mail he said.
I make a story for my life, for each step my brown shoe takes. I say, "And so she trudged up the
wooden stairs, her sad brown shoes taking her to the house she never liked."
I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.
We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor, and
before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, but what I remember most is Mango Street,
sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.
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.
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too
strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.
Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those
books and paper? Why did she march so far away?
They will not know I have gone away