The House on Mango Street | Study Guide

Sandra Cisneros

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The House on Mango Street | Chapters 17–20 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 17: The Family of Little Feet

A woman with small feet gives Esperanza, Lucy, and Rachel a bag containing three pairs of her old high heels. One pair is red, one is lemon, and the last is pale blue. Rachel teaches the older girls how to strut in the heels "so that the shoes talk back to you with every step," and they walk to the corner. All the men are looking at them, and Esperanza feels like she and her friends "must be Christmas." Mr. Benny at the corner grocery store tells the girls they're too young to wear shoes like that, and the girls run off.

A boy catcalls them on the avenue, and the girls agree they will "never go back to wearing the other kind [of shoes] again." A bum in front of the tavern coaxes Rachel to talk to him. He admires the shoes and tries to give her a dollar for a kiss. Lucy drags her sister away. The bum starts to yell, and the girls run home. They are "tired of being beautiful." Lucy hides the shoes under the back porch. Nobody minds when her mother throws them away.

Chapter 18: A Rice Sandwich

Most kids at Esperanza's school go home for lunch, but those who live too far away or have mothers who work stay to eat in the canteen. Esperanza wants to eat in the canteen, too. Her mother finally agrees and writes a note explaining Esperanza is allowed to stay for lunch. Sister Superior reads the note, which says Esperanza is weak and lives too far away to walk home. Sister Superior counters that Esperanza only lives four blocks away and points out the window to "a row of ugly three-flats" that even "raggedy men are ashamed to go into." Esperanza is too shy to contradict the nun, so she nods and starts to cry. Esperanza is allowed to return to the canteen, but only for today. Everyone watches as she cries and eats her sandwich made of rice and bread.

Chapter 19: Chanclas

Esperanza goes to the party following her cousin's baptism. She has a new dress to wear but no party shoes. She is forced to wear her chanclas, or old shoes, which are the brown and white saddle shoes she wears to school. Esperanza is embarrassed by her shoes, and she declines her older cousin's invitation to dance. Uncle Nacho finally coaxes her onto the dance floor so they can perform the dance they learned together. At first her feet "swell big and heavy like plungers," but soon she forgets about the shoes and ends up dancing the rest of the night. Her older cousin, "the boy who is a man," watches her the entire time.

Chapter 20: Hips

Esperanza, Nenny, Lucy, and Rachel are jumping rope. They begin talking about hips—why women have them and what they're good for. Rachel says "[t]hey're good for holding a baby when you're cooking," and Lucy says you need them to dance. Nenny thinks people without hips turn into men. Esperanza says "hips are scientific" because they distinguish male and female skeletons. "You gotta be able to know what to do with hips when you get them," she continues and then explains how a woman's hips should rock from side to side as she walks. The three older girls make up rhymes about hips as they jump, but Nenny resorts to a traditional jump rope rhyme. Esperanza tells her she has to make up her own song, but Nenny doesn't listen.

Analysis

Cisneros uses shoes to illustrate the differences between childhood and womanhood in this section of The House on Mango Street. In Chapter 19, "Chanclas," Esperanza is embarrassed by her childish saddle shoes, which make her feel clunky and unattractive. These are the shoes of a schoolgirl, not a desirable woman. At the beginning of the party, she thinks she would be a lot happier in different shoes. Yet she had an opportunity for more grown-up shoes in Chapter 17, "The Family of Little Feet." The hand-me-down high heels make Esperanza and her friends feel vibrant and sexy, but those new feelings come with a hefty price: fear. "[I]t is scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours," Esperanza says. It is as if she has put on someone else's body in addition to someone else's shoes, and the sensation is jarring. Though Esperanza and her friends are eager for the attention of others, they become frightened when that attention becomes aggressively sexual. They learn firsthand that female sexuality comes with an intoxicating power but also an element of danger. They aren't ready for the latter, so they abandon the shoes altogether. Too old to wear saddle shoes but too young to wear high heels, Esperanza's footwear dilemma mirrors her transition between girlhood and womanhood. For now, she feels more comfortable being a kid.

Esperanza, Lucy, and Rachel are preoccupied with growing up, and their focus on their changing bodies shows their desire to shed their pubescent shells and become fully grown women. The eventual curvature of their hips will announce their status as grown-ups of childbearing age. The older girls understand the correlation between hips and babies. If their hips don't spread, they won't be able to have children and rock them from side to side. Esperanza, Lucy, and Rachel, whose jump rope rhymes touch on the sexual allure of a woman's figure, eagerly await the moment their hips "bloom like roses." "I don't care what kind I get. / Just as long as I get hips," Esperanza chants. Her sister Nenny, however, doesn't fully grasp the gist of the conversation. The youngest of the group, she is lost "in a world [the other girls] don't belong to anymore," namely childhood. Insistent on singing the traditional jump rope songs instead of making up her own, she is still fully immersed in the innocence of the very young, which creates a gulf between her and the others. Esperanza still jumps to her sister's defense, but she can't really relate to her. This is one of the reasons why she insists Nenny is simply her sister, not her friend.

Esperanza yearns for the things she doesn't yet have, such as grown-up shoes and a grown-up body. She wants to be different than how she is now and different than everyone else in her life. That's why she's so determined to eat lunch in the school canteen with the few kids who don't go home every day. Eating lunch at school would be a sign of her adulthood and independence while making her stand out from her siblings and her friends. She doesn't understand that she, who has a mother at home at lunchtime, is luckier than the kids eating in the canteen, whose mothers have to work. She falls prey to the idea that others' lives are better than her own just because they are different. Yet her experience in the cafeteria demonstrates Esperanza isn't as different as she thinks, at least in the eyes of the nuns, who think she is like everyone else: a brown kid trying to break the rules. Sister Superior's assumption that Esperanza lives in the squalid apartments down the road is humiliating, and it indicates that racism is present even within Esperanza's neighborhood. Sister Superior, whose race isn't mentioned, knows nothing about the neighborhood nor anything about her students. Had she been familiar with the area and its culture, she would have understood what an insult it was to suggest Esperanza lived there. Instead, her ignorance makes Esperanza feel small and unimportant.

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