Everyone has crazy neighbors. Esperanza Cordero, the protagonist of House on Mango Street knows that all too well. Esperanza is a young girl who lives in a barrio in Chicago with her family in a small, beat up house where the whole family shares one bedroom. This house is one of many in which she has lived. From her perspective, the reader is introduced to all of her interesting (and sometimes heartbreaking) neighbors. All of them have crazy stories to tell and greatly impact Esperanza.
In the novel, author Sandra Cisneros illustrates the idea that a person’s environment is extremely impactful whether it be their own experiences or purely the opinions of outsiders; this becomes clear to readers as Esperanza matures throughout the story. Early on, she is exposed to a life of poverty and hardship, and is a victim of racism and discrimination because of where she is from.
Esperanza’s firsthand experiences definitely speak volumes. In the beginning of the novel, she is young and naive and doesn’t view things the way that the reader does. As she gains more life experience, she begins to realize the things going on around her and is gradually stripped of her innocence. There is a sense of fear instilled in Esperanza when it comes to certain people in the neighborhood. At a very young age, she is exposed to extremely crude behavior from men. In one scene, she is playing with her friends in the neighbourhood with some high heels when they’re approached by a bum who harassses them – “ ‘You are prettier than a yellow taxicab. You know that?’ But we don’t like it. ‘We got to go.’ Lucy says. ‘If I give you a dollar will you kiss me? How about a dollar?’ “ In this scene, Esperanza and her friends are harassed by a man on the corner of their street. Cleary shaken by the incident, they all ran home and learned a valuable lesson that night, saying, “We are tired of being beautiful.” And they hide the shoes they once loved and never look back. This vignette is the perfect example of things that happen in Esperanza’s life that are more common in her neighborhood than most. Frequently, she mentions experiences with nonchalance that anyone else would find crazy, like when Louis’ cousin stole a car, took it for a joyride and then got arrested while they all just waved goodbye. Or when Geraldo is left to die because of his ethnic background. It is things like these that mold Esperanza into the strong, fiery, young woman that we see at the end of the novel. It’s an ongoing occurrence in the story that Esperanza is ashamed of Mango Street. She hates it and she feels as if she doesn’t belong there. In the beginning of the novel we are privy to a conversation that really affects her, one day she is playing outside and is asked, “You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there. I nodded.” She felt like nothing. Consistently in her daydreams, she floats far away from dreadful Mango Street and the house she doesn’t belong in. The shame she feels to live in her neighbourhood is a major part of her identity and is an essential aspect of the novel.
Esperanza is also very conscious of the way that outsiders view the environment she lives in. This is illustrated by the way she explains other people react to her neighborhood. She expresses that, ”Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.”In this, she says that the people who don’t know Mango Street judge them, and are afraid of her and the people who also live on her street. She knows that people discriminate against her for being Latino. She knows that her poverty-stricken neighbourhood scares people away.
In one of the last vignettes, Esperanza tells Alicia, “This isn’t my house. I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here.” and shakes her head as if shaking her head could undo the year she’d lived there. At this point in the novel, she no longer claims that she simply does not belong..but she doesn’t want to. She doesn’t want to always just be Esperanza from Mango Street. She wants to end this cycle of poverty and do bigger, better things. Influenced by all of the terrible things happening to and around her, Esperanza comes out of the other side stronger than ever. She took all of her negatives and turned them into reasons to fight for something better for herself and her family.
Growing up the way she did, she had a much more clear idea of what it feels like to live that way and she craves a way to make a change for herself and the other people who have it even harder than she does.
Where someone is from is something that cannot be changed yourself and can never truly be escaped. Environment is the most impactful part of a person’s life. House on Mango Street is the perfect illustration of this idea. Every single person on the planet has a unique path based on where they came from and who they were raised by.