The House on Mango Street | Study Guide

Sandra Cisneros

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The House on Mango Street | Context

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Mexican Americans in Chicago

Cisneros was born and raised primarily in Chicago, Illinois, and though she does not explicitly name her hometown as the setting for The House on Mango Street, many literary scholars take it as a given. Chicago has a thriving Latino community. In the 2010 United States Census, nearly 30 percent of the city's 2.7 million people self-identified as being of Hispanic descent. That's an enormous leap from just 100 years earlier, when only 1,000 Mexicans lived in a city of nearly 2.2 million.

Most of the Mexican natives fleeing their homeland before and during the Mexican Revolution (1910–20) for more stable lives in the United States ended up in the nearby Southwest. But Chicago was an easy trip by rail, and there were plenty of jobs available, particularly those involving manual labor, such as meat packing. The wages were low and the work was hard, which made many white Americans think twice about accepting those jobs. Realizing the skill and strong work ethic of the Mexican labor force, labor recruiters from Chicago began traveling to the southwestern United States and northern Mexico to find more employees. Women eventually followed the men who moved for these jobs, and Mexican communities sprang up throughout the city. Churches, festivals, and other cultural institutions and commercial ventures followed. Latinos of non-Mexican origin also began flocking to the city, and by 1960 the Latino population was steadily increasing. Today Chicago boasts the largest Mexican population outside the southwestern United States and the fifth largest combined Latino population in the country.

Latino Literature

As with many writers, Cisneros's background and experiences influence the subject matter of her writing. Cisneros is from a Mexican American working-class family, and she often writes about the experiences of the Mexican American working class. Therefore, many readers and critics identify her as a Chicana (American female of Mexican descent) writer, though Cisneros was largely unaware of Latino and Chicano literature when she began writing in middle school. It wasn't until after graduate school that she realized she was part of a larger movement of writers whose work specifically addressed what it means to be of Latin heritage in the United States.

Latino literature is the term broadly applied to the works of people living in the United States who have roots in Latin America, Mexico, South America, Spain, or Spanish-speaking Caribbean countries. It is a genre as old as the United States itself. In the 1800s, stories and poems by Latino authors were published in Spanish-language newspapers. It wasn't until the 1960s that English-language publication of works by Latino authors became more common. The language barrier is one of the reasons why Latino literature published prior to the 1960s often went unrecognized. Another reason was race. Nearly all literary critics were white males, and they often had very little interest in anything that fell outside of their cultural comfort zone.

The 1960s were a turning point for Latino literature. The Chicano and Puerto Rican social movements of that decade gave rise to new literary voices that addressed the Latino experience in the United States. Latino authors wrote about fictional characters' daily lives in their American homes, neighborhoods, and workplaces, calling attention to a variety of themes ranging from language to gender to cultural conflicts. Printing houses began publishing works by Latino authors: José Antonio Villarreal's Pocho (1959); Tomás Rivera's ... And the Earth Did Not Devour Him (1971); Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972). Cisneros cites Jorge Luis Borges's Dreamtigers, also from this period, as a major influence in her own work. The brief 1964 book uses poetry, parables, and familiar quotations to explore the ambiguous space between fantasy and reality.

Latina Feminism and Feminist Literature

Most of the Latino literature published in the 1960s and 1970s was the work of men, who often romanticized life in the barrio (Spanish for "neighborhood"). Cisneros and other Latina authors took umbrage with this. Cisneros in particular felt the barrio was a dangerous and oppressive place for women, a theme she explores in The House on Mango Street. Other Latina authors such as Cherríe Moraga, Ana Castillo, and Helena María Viramontes had similar responses, and the 1980s were marked by feminist takes on the Latino American experience.

Feminism wasn't an unfamiliar topic to Latinas, but their voices in the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s were often overlooked. In general, mainstream feminism in this era addressed the issues that concerned white women, ignoring the racism endured by women of color, which often led to economic and career discrimination even worse than their white counterparts. Latin American women, like African American women and women of other non-European backgrounds, therefore had two fronts on which to fight discrimination: race and gender. This gave rise to a separate Latina feminist movement that encompassed the goals of educational, political, and social equality often championed by Latino men as well as issues associated with the female experience, such as birth control and sexism. Cisneros and her peers, as well as younger Latinas, continue to address these themes in their writing.

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