This lyric novel is a collection of vignettes describing life growing up in the Latino section of Chicago. It is narrated by Esperanza, who describes herself as “an ugly daughter”:
“I am an ugly daughter. I am the one nobody comes for….My mother says when I get older my dusty hair will settle and my blouse will learn to stay clean, but I have decided not to grow up like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain….I have begun my own quiet way. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.” (88-9).
The novel is dedicated to “A las Mujeres / To the Women,” and it primarily describes a world of women, from girls who vaguely realize the fire they’re playing with when they put on high heels to girls married before eighth grade whose husbands won’t let them leave the house. Each chapter builds on the ones which came before, creating a world in which these women are trapped by their names, their gender, and their families, despite Esperanza’s desire for a different name, a different home, and a different fate. She says, “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” (11); such a name might help her avoid the fate of women like namesake great-grandmother, who “looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (11). A new name might enable her to be of a place other than Mango Street, though by the end of the novel she has to some extent accepted the fact that she is not only of Mango Street, she is Mango Street. Nevertheless, she will still escape, but will have “gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out” (110).
Cisneros’s beautifully written novel evokes a world in which women are doomed but still struggle to survive. Her prose actually reminds me to some extent of Lynda Barry’s prose, which similarly describes worlds in which plain-spoken protagonists escape socio-economically fated traps. Cisneros’s world has the added dimension of Latin America, as her characters are not only poised to fall here, but also live under the threat of falling back to Puerto Rico or Mexico. As bad as the women in her neighborhood have it in Chicago, at least they haven’t been sent back to Puerto Rico. In this way, Cisneros troubles and complicates the idea of the American dream.