The need of a space of one’s own in “The house on Mango Street”

Felipe Ezekiel Santos, Nathalie de Souza Kappke

Dados da edição:

Mafuá, Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, Brasil, n. 27, 2017. ISSNe: 1806-2555.

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Sobre os autor(es):

Felipe Ezekiel Santos
Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (URGS)
Instituto de Letras (IL)
Departamento de Línguas Modernas
Porto Alegre – Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil

Nathalie de Souza Kappke
Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul (URGS)
Instituto de Letras (IL)
Departamento de Línguas Modernas
Porto Alegre – Rio Grande do Sul, Brasil

ABSTRACT: The core of this research is the analysis of having a space of one’s own in Sandra Cisnero’s “The House on Mango Street”, and to do so, we rely on literary support so as to give consistency to our perspectives on the subject. Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984) introduces us to the universe of Esperanza, the daughter of Mexican immigrants who lives in the United States. In short chapters, Esperanza narrates episodes which took place during her childhood and preadolescence. Throughout the novel, she proves to have well developed writing skills and also the desire to share her own story with the world. One of the most pertinent themes brought by the narrating character is the need of owning a space of her own, a place she can relate to and towards which she can develop a feeling of belonging. Such idea of a space of one’s own was previously raised by renowned English writer Virginia Woolf in “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), an essay we use as theoretical support for analysing the subject matter. To Woolf, having a room of one’s own and good financial conditions are two things that constitute the ideal situation for fiction composition. To Esperanza, attaining such status means creating a possibility for her to start a new life. After moving to her new, own home from her old neighborhood, she would be ready to develop her writing ability and share her story.

KEYWORDS: The House on Mango Street. Chicana Literature. Sandra Cisneros.

RESUMO: A obra The House on Mango Street (1984) de Sandra Cisneros nos apresenta ao universo de Esperanza, uma menina filha de imigrantes mexicanos, que vive nos Estados Unidos. Através de curtos capítulos, Esperanza narra episódios que ocorrem em sua infância e pré-adolescência. No decorrer da obra, Esperanza demonstra aptidão para escrita e desejo de contar ao mundo sua própria história. Um dos temas mais pertinentes trazidos pela personagem narradora é a vontade de ter um espaço próprio, um lugar com o qual ela se identifique e possa desenvolver o sentimento de pertencimento. Esse espaço próprio foi reivindicado anteriormente pela renomada escritora inglesa Virginia Woolf em “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), ensaio que utilizamos como suporte teórico para pensar a questão. Para Woolf, possuir um quarto próprio e uma boa condição financeira constituem a situação ideal para a produção de ficção. Atingir essa situação significa para Esperanza a possibilidade de construir uma vida nova. Ao deixar sua rua para se mudar para uma casa própria, ela estaria pronta para desenvolver sua habilidade com a escrita e compartilhar a sua história.

PALAVRAS-CHAVE: The House on Mango Street. Literatura Chicana. Sandra Cisneros.


The need of a space of one’s own

In the famous essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), Virginia Woolf reflects upon fiction produced by women. Woolf believes that if a woman really wants to write fiction, she would better have money and a room of her own. Why is this important? Woolf claims that historically men were given privileges such as goods and emancipation while women had to deal with housework and the lack of opportunity. While most intellectual men (writers, poets, philosophers) were given the necessary condition to develop their works, women had these conditions denied. Woolf reports that, in the past, women did not have resources such as money and a private room. If one wants to write fiction it is important to have your own space, in which you can concentrate and practice your skills. As pointed out by Woolf, in The Women Novelists (1918), women writers had to struggle with the lack of physical and social space. Jane Austen had to hide her manuscripts behind a book when some visitor came to the house in which she lived. The Brontë sisters had to stop their work to peel potatoes. All these interruptions influenced in their writing, High society intellectual men had their own offices inside their houses. Their space was respected by their family, they could lock themselves into their rooms and no one would bother them. In her essay “A Room of One’s Own” (1929), Woolf makes explicit that this is a condition to which women are subjected. Besides that, she highlights the relevance of money in one’s life. Money is one of the main resources that can help in one’s emancipation. Money allows you to do things, to maintain yourself and to buy whatever you want. By having their own money, women have become more independent and able to use their time to develop their fiction.

The need of a room, more specifically a house, is the main issue of the novel The House on Mango Street (1984) by Sandra Cisneros. The narrator, a little girl named Esperanza, is often recalling how much she craves for a house of her own. In the first chapter, when she starts telling about her origins, she complains about the situation of the Mango Street’s house, that is the house she just moved in with her family:

But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It’s small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don’t own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they’re ordinary hallway stairs, and the house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bedroom—Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny. (CISNEROS, 1984, p. 4)

In this short excerpt, we have the word “small” (counting smaller) five times. The repetition of this word plus Esperanza’s description of the house give us a claustrophobic sensation. We can feel how cramped the house seems to her. Esperanza is profoundly disappointed with her parents’ broken promise. She does not have a space to be on her own, she shares her room with her sister. This lack of space appears throughout the whole story and Esperanza’s discontentment with her situation becomes some sort of a fuel to make her chase her dreams.

The struggles between the linguistic selves and the attempts of breaking free from the undesired linguistic self

Sandra Cisneros’s The House On Mango Street (1984) is built upon the consideration of social aspects of women, specifically the Chicana women. The term Chicana is used to refer to “a woman of Mexican ancestry who was born and/or raised in the United States and who possesses a radical political consciousness.” (MOYA, 2001, p. 47). Historically, the term Chicano was a pejorative word applied to working-class Mexican Americans. Since the Chicano movement between 1960’s and 1970’s, this has been revalued and it is also used to imply a political resistance to Anglo American Domination. Doyle (2015) states that by exploring the social situation of women, Cisneros refers back to everything that Virginia Woolf had previously addressed regarding that same matter in her essay A Room Of One’s Own. As Cisneros intends to go from where the modernist English author had gone up to, she now writes on behalf of a new group of women who only share with the women Woolf wrote about the very condition of being a female. Vague as it may sound, such remark is important for this paper, because the key point of the discussion is the fact that Cisneros brings forth more than the raw feminism that other writers such as Virginia Woolf had brought so far, meaning that she will shed light upon social conditions that are sometimes overlooked in the feminine life: not only being women, but now being low-class, Chicana and young women – nearly a child, in fact.

The so mentioned need of a room of one’s own in Cisneros’s work is given another face as it results from the urge of not only breaking free from the disempowerment that is to be a girl, but also the disempowerment that is to belong to a minority group and to a less economically favored social class. Esperanza, the Chicana protagonist, grows up in a multicultural Chicago and because of that she has a bicultural identity where she sways between her Spanish- and English-speaking selves. That is a struggle that goes beyond language and reaches the field of what is socially more prestigious and valuable and what is not, what can provide one with more social power as a writer and what cannot. Betz (2012) even makes use of an emblematic passage of the book to reinforce the idea that Esperanza places more positivity in the usage of English than the usage of Spanish: “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” (p. 10). Although she carries a Spanish name which in itself means ancestry and tradition, she deals with it via the English perspective because she seeks freedom and escape. English means what Spanish does not: everything that is not actually her current conditions, even though the novel is mostly written in English.

Betz (2012) points to the fact that she tries to reach for the outer world by saying that:

Although others may associate a Mexican-American girl as a monolingual, Spanish-speaking person, Esperanza uses her dominant English language to convey reliability to her audience as a competent narrator. The shift from her community’s Spanish to her English is an easy feat; as an impoverished child, she is eager to obtain a sense of belonging outside of her community. (BETZ, 2012 p. 20)

In a macro-analysis of the book in its form and how the narrative unfolds and is created language-wise, an attentive reader will easily notice that Esperanza hardly ever really does switch from English to Spanish while retelling everything. Cisneros seems to be well aware of how she has to overwhelmingly center English over Spanish, even though the depicted scenario has strong Mexican veins. The author knows that not because the people she writes for are literate in English, but because it is essential that Spanish be present in the novel alongside English. She does so by adding little enough of Spanish to the point it becomes simply a minor element when compared to the English language, which is supposed to be dominant.

That is, while the novel is all about searching for a new identity that is not the one given by the environment where the protagonist lives, it is in the very city that she is based in, Chicago, that she finds the necessary tools to attain her goals. Her neighborhood is predominantly of Latino origins, so she is, at the same time, locked into her roots and surrounded by a bigger scale environment that is the American setting. The struggle starts in the fact that she is just a girl, so she has to fight her frailness not only as a female, but as a child too. As a young girl, Esperanza faces several kinds of harassments, and one of them is sexual from adult men. In addition to that, she walks with other young girls who unveil to her a new world which is part of the adulthood: the sexual world. Her maturing is, therefore, very fast as she goes from naivety to experience over the span of a year.

Writing, in the novel, means creating a new world where Esperanza can run away to, and it needs to be just the opposite of what her life is like when her story is told. While the physical space that she wishes for so much is crucial for her to have a life of her own – out of which she can lock all of her past memories –, the literary atmosphere is where she finds some comfort. The house where Esperanza lives is too small for all of her family, which contributes to the presumably suffocating sensation that she feels throughout the course of the novel. She says:

They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn’t have to move each year. But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. (CISNEROS, 1984 p.4)

Compelled by the urging desire of breathing into a new space, Esperanza neatly displays that with the iconic passage that follows:

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. (CISNEROS, 1984 p.108)

Esperanza’s Relation to Writing

Cisnero’s novel is composed by a series of vignettes. In each of them, Esperanza tells us an episode related to her or her neighborhood. Besides daydreaming about a house of her own, Esperanza also starts developing an aptitude for writing. As she grows up, she becomes more and more involved with this activity: “I like to tell stories. I tell them inside my head. […] I make a story for my life, for each step my brown shoe takes. […] I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn’t want to belong.” (CISNEROS, 1984, p. 109) By writing, Esperanza recreates her story and identity. She creates a self and becomes more welcoming and understanding towards others. It is through writing that she reconnects to her sense of community and to her origins. She is the one destined to externalize the different stories in her community. She is the voice of the voiceless:

With her acute sensitivity to the limitations placed on the women around her and her relentless struggle to construct new possibilities for herself, Esperanza, as her name suggests, is indeed a figure of hope, a ‘‘fierce woman’’ on a complex pursuit for personal and community transformation. (WISSMAN, 2006, p. 18)

Esperanza reinforces her inner self by reestablishing her bounds to her community. Her character is related to hope and this is what she means to others. If she is capable of ascending and achieving her goals, others can do it too. She is making her own way and leaving a legacy for the ones around her. But she must not forget where she came from. She must follow her mission and show others all the variety of possibilities that the world offers. In the chapter “Three sisters”, three old women come to a funeral of a baby as visitors. These sisters are known in the neighborhood for having an extra sense. One of the sisters talks to Esperanza’s future about her future: “When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.” (CISNEROS, 1984, p. 105).

The writing plays a major role in her life, because it expands her horizons and perspectives of the future. As aunt Guadalupe tells her: “Keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free” (CISNEROS, 1984, p. 69). As pointed out by Doyle (2015), not only writing sets Esperanza free, but also her reconciliation to Mango Street. When she writes about her neighborhood, she enlarges her bounds to its people. Writing is also that tool that could allow her to be seen and heard out in neighborhood. She wants to have a house of her own, because she would have more freedom to dedicate herself to the activity and then enhance her writing skills. The constant need of space and freedom and the conflicting feelings about identity and belonging can be seen in her poem:

I want to be
Like the waves on the sea,
Like the clouds in the wind,
But I am me.
One day I’ll jump
Out of my skin
I’ll shake the sky
Like a hundred violins
(CISNEROS, 1984, p. 60-61)

In Esperanza’s poem, we perceive her necessity of expressing and recreating her self. It is possible to think that her wish to be “like the waves” or “like the clouds” means she wants to be part of something bigger such as the sea or the sky. She also wants to “jump out of her skin” and it can mean some kind of discontentment with her current life or identity and the need for changes. She deeply wants to change her situation and by doing it, she wants to have a big impact in the world (as it is understandable by “shaking the sky like a hundred violins”).

Final thoughts

The House On Mango Street points to the struggles anachronistic women in some non-white communities go through. It is not a mistake to expand such statement and stretch it up to all human communities where women try to voice their selves because writing is proven to be a prerogative of the male portion of the society in international scale. Cisneros’s work has been looked into under the light of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own by Doyle (2015) simply because it illustrates the women in her daily struggles, but one who fights more than just the oppression she suffers for being a woman. That is, Esperanza is not just a nearly voiceless girl: she is also almost muffled because of her impoverishment, having no real means to materialize her dreams outside the Latino neighborhood in Chicago; and also because of her fateful Chicana roots that restrain her from thriving towards the world that she regards as more promising and prestigious.

The house she longs for goes beyond the hope for privacy and comfort. In order for her to assign herself an identity of her own, Esperanza needs a space where she can let herself at ease, to the world that will welcome her as a voiced, independent woman whose strength and power do not depend on men.


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_________. Mulheres Romancistas. In:______. Profissões Para Mulheres e Outros Artigos Feministas. Tradução de Denise Bottmann. Porto Alegre: L&PM, 2012. p. 25-31.


Data de envio: 20 de março de 2017.