The House on Mango Street traces Esperanza Cordero's coming-of-age through a series of vignettes about her family, neighborhood, and secret dreams. Although the novel does not follow a traditional chronological pattern, a story emerges, nevertheless, of Esperanza's self-empowerment and will to overcome obstacles of poverty, gender, and race. The novel begins when the Cordero family move into a new house, the first they have ever owned, on Mango Street in the Latino section of Chicago. Esperanza is disappointed by the red, ramshackle house. It is not at all the dream-house her parents had always talked about, nor is it the house high on a hill that Esperanza vows to one day own herself.
Esperanza is not only ashamed of her home, but she is also uncomfortable with her outside appearance, which she feels does not convey the true personality hidden insider her. She is very self-conscious about her name, whose mispronunciation by teachers and peers at school sounds very ugly to her ears. Esperanza was named after her great- grandmother, who was tricked into marriage and doomed to a life of sadness afterwards. Esperanza vows that she will not end up like the first Esperanza and so many women do- watching life pass by through the window. To break free from her name connotations, she longs to rename herself "Zeze the X," a choice she finds more reflective of her true self.
As the new girl on the block, Esperanza observes many of life's most joyous and harsh realities while meeting her Mango Street neighbors. Her first friend, Cathy, is a short-lived friendship because Cathy's father soon moves the family away because the neighborhood is getting bad, or in other words becoming more inhabited by lower-class Latinos like Esperanza's family. Two other young sisters, however, adopt Esperanza into their circle when she chips in money to help them buy a bicycle. Lucy and Rachel help Esperanza ponder the wonders of growing up by inventing rhymes about hips and parading around Mango Street in high-heeled shoes.
The older kids on Mango Street open Esperanza's eyes to the hardships faced by young people in rough neighborhoods. Louie's cousin's car-theft, the hit-and-run death of a boy Marin meets at the dance, and Marin's own desperate attempts to find a husband to take her away show Esperanza the limited possibilities she herself faces. Alicia, on the other hand, exemplifies self-betterment and strength in the face of stereotypes to Esperanza. Alicia, despite her father's macho views, attends a university and studies all night so she can one day be more than her father's housekeeper.
As the novel progresses, Esperanza starts to notice her budding sexuality. She is excited when boys on the street or at a dance look at her; however, two instances of sexual violence destroy Esperanza's illusions of true love and her first kiss. So too, her promiscuous friend Sally's behavior also contributes to Esperanza's cynicism and caution when dealing with the opposite sex. Nevertheless, Esperanza still dreams of sitting outside at night with her boyfriend, but she has set her standards higher than most of the women around her. She refuses to seek out a man to "escape," because she has seen too many neighbors unhappy in marriage. Ruthie, for example, has run away from her husband and has lost her senses; young Rafaela is so beautiful that her husband locks her indoors when he leaves. The tragedy which hits Esperanza the hardest though, is that of Sally. Her friend, who, like Esperanza only wanted to dream and share love, is first beaten by her father to prevent Sally ruining the family with her "dangerous" beauty. To escape, Sally, though underage, marries a traveling salesman and the cycle of abuse continues. Enraged and saddened by her friend's tragedy, Esperanza vows to leave Mango street, become a writer, and build her dream home.
Although Esperanza is constantly reaffirming that she wants to move away from Mango Street, we know by the end novel that she will one day return to help those who will not be so lucky as she. Indeed, in the closing pages Esperanza admits that she cannot escape Mango Street; that what friends like Alicia were telling her was true: Esperanza cannot cut ties with Mango Street. It has influenced her dreams and personality and she has learned valuable life lessons from its inhabitants. That is why, explains Esperanza, she tells stories about the house on Mango Street, finding the beauty amidst dirty streets is finding her true self.