The House on Mango Street is Sandra Cisneros' first major work. Even though she periodically wrote poems and stories throughout her childhood and adolescence, it was not until she attended the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in the late 1970s that she realized her experiences as a Latina woman were unique and outside the realm of dominant American culture. In a discussion of archetypal memories about homes, Cisneros realized that her peers' ideas, imagination and experience were completely different from her own.
Thus it was that The House on Mango Street was born and Cisneros discovered what she terms her "first love," a fascination with speech and voices. Writing in the voice of the adolescent Esperanza, Cisneros created a series of interlocking stories, alternately classified as a novel and as a collection of prose poems because of the vivid and poignant nature of the language. Most of the characters in the novel are not made up, as Cisneros writes about real people that she encountered in her lifetime.
Cisneros incorporated her major concerns into the novel, as she wrote about conflicts directly related to her upbringing, including divided cultural loyalties, feelings of alienation, and degradation associated with poverty. Cisneros' work also explores other issues that are important to her: feminism, love, oppression, and religion.
The House on Mango Street started out without very high expectations, but over time it has become widely known. Since its first publication in 1984 by Arte Publico Press, Mango Street has sold some 30,000 copies (the book has just been reissued in a Vintage edition from Random House). It was awarded the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1985, and has been taught in a variety of academic disciplines including Women's Studies, Ethnic Studies, Psychology, English, Creative Writing, Sociology, and even Sex Education.
In The House On Mango Street Esperanza reveals personal experiences through which the reader is able to determine what kind of person she is; her views on life, how she views herself, as well as how her poverty affects her view of life, her view of her future, and how her poverty currently affects her place in the world. The vignettes show different aspects of Esperanza's identity as it evolves and changes progressively throughout The House On Mango Street.
Esperanza's identity, as divulged in the vignettes, is multifaceted. Her shyness is evident when she is around people who are unfamiliar to her. This is most likely due to the intimidation these people pose. For example, in the vignettes "The First Job" and "A Rice Sandwich" Esperanza is too shy to eat with her other co-workers and peers, as shown in the following quotation from "The First Job": "When lunch time came I was scared to eat alone in the company lunchroom".
Another dominant feature in Esperanza's personality is the trust she has in others. This is one of Esperanza's weaknesses as an individual because it allows her to be gullible and vulnerable. In 'Cathy Queen of Cats' Esperanza's gullibility is obvious when Cathy tells Esperanza that "...[her] father will have to fly to France one day and find her...cousin...and inherit the family house. How do I know this is so? She told me so.". Another error in trusting others is that Esperanza is susceptible to betrayal. In 'Red Clowns' Esperanza is betrayed by
Unbeknownst to Esperanza, her naiveté and inexperience is normal. For example, in 'Gil's Furniture Bought & Sold' Esperanza assumes that a music box is "...a pretty box with flowers painted on it, with a ballerina inside..." but when it's revealed to her that a music box is just "...a wood box that's old and got a big brass record in it with holes" she feels ashamed she did not know better. Despite her low self-esteem she still keeps hold of her dream of acquiring "A house all my own." Esperanza's poverty acts as a physical obstacle from leaving Mango Street, but it does not prevent her from creating dreams and desires. On Mango Street Esperanza lives in a dilapidated, tiny house; a house with "bricks ...crumbling in places..." "Everybody has to share a bedroom..." From this poverty was born Esperanza's dream. "I knew then I had to have a house. A real house." Although her dream is to live in a house "with trees around it, a great big yard, and grass growing without a fence," Esperanza does not plan to abandon those who cannot leave Mango Street. "They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind." Esperanza maintains a commitment to her roots on Mango Street.
At the outset of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza is presented as a shy girl with low self esteem. As the book progresses she appears to become increasingly strong, and clear about her destiny. Her optimism prevails.