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The House on Mango Street | Themes

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The House on Mango Street is written from the point of view of Esperanza, a young woman in early adolescence. Her narration illuminates life on Mango Street as well as her concerns about her place in the world. Exploring the themes she presents in the novel helps Esperanza (and the reader) understand what she wants out of her life.

Lives of Women

Esperanza makes note of everyone who lives on Mango Street, but she is especially interested in the women who live there. She studies their lives to figure out what she wants from her own. What she sees isn't exactly heartening. Women are second-class citizens on Mango Street. From childhood, they are taught to aspire to marriage and motherhood. Many, including Sally and Marin, think marriage is their ticket to a better way of life. They primp and preen to catch the eyes of men, and they are more focused on how men view them rather than on cultivating female friendships. It doesn't seem to matter which male notices them as long as they are noticed. Likewise it doesn't matter whom they marry as long as their husbands can provide them with a home of their own and material things to fill it.

Esperanza doesn't buy into the fairy tale of marriage because on Mango Street there is no evidence that it's a good thing. Nearly all the married women she knows are desperately unhappy. Minerva's husband beats her, Rafaela's husband locks her in their apartment, and Mamacita's husband harangues her for refusing to speak English. No matter their beauty or intelligence, women are always under the control of men, whether it be husbands or fathers. Men get to make their own choices and see the world, which is much more appealing to Esperanza than being confined to the home. She sees the effects of early marriage and motherhood firsthand in her own mother, whose skills and intelligence are left to languish as she raises her family. Mama's regrets are perhaps the strongest argument in favor of Esperanza's decision to stray from a conventional life in the barrio.

Home

Esperanza's dream of a "house of [her] own" brings up a larger question: What, exactly, is a home? Esperanza thinks home is a physical location, but it can't be just anyplace with four walls and a door. It has to have a certain feeling, one of comfort, peace, and just a little bit of luxury. For Esperanza that means real stairs, a basement, three bathrooms, and a white exterior surrounded by trees and grass. Her vision of home is the quintessential American abode, minus the white picket fence. Esperanza resents the house on Mango Street because it looks nothing like her dream house and because she knows it's the best her family can do. Her dream house will always be just that—a dream.

As the novel unfolds, however, Esperanza begins to realize home isn't a place but a feeling. Elenita tries to tell her this in Chapter 24, "Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water," when she says she sees "a home in the heart" for Esperanza. Home is in the feeling that accompanies the pursuit of one's dreams and the comfort of belonging in a particular place at a particular time. Esperanza confuses "house" and "home" and focuses on the former when she should be thinking about the latter. She eventually realizes her mistake in Chapter 41, "The Three Sisters." "You will always be Mango Street," the sister with porcelain hands tells her. Mango Street is her home because it is part of her, just like Guadalajara is Alicia's home because it is part of her. By the end of the novel, Esperanza hasn't changed her ideas about having a house of her own, but she now understands her home will follow her wherever she goes.

Identity

Many of the characters in The House on Mango Street struggle with their identities. In many cases they are trying to reconcile their American present with their Latino heritage. Meme Ortiz, for example, has two names: one in Spanish and one in English. His mother calls him Juan when he is at home, which most likely means he is more conscious of cultural traditions and norms there. When he is out in the neighborhood, however, he is Meme. Mamacita, a recent immigrant to the United States, refuses to accept her changing identity. She doesn't want to be an American, so she insists on using only her native language for communication and entertainment. But she cannot control the identity of her young son, who quickly picks up English by watching American television. His Americanization makes him different from her, and it breaks her heart.

Esperanza's struggles with her identity are focused more on her stage of life than her ethnicity. Though the text does not explicitly state her age, she is probably around 13. Adolescence is a tricky time, and Esperanza wavers between feeling like a child and feeling like an adult. On one hand, she enjoys the safety and simplicity of childhood. Older neighbors look out for her, and her biggest concerns are about whom to play with and where. But there's also a thrill in being perceived as a grown-up. She likes the way it feels to have men's eyes follow her down the street, and she's flattered by her older cousin's interest in her. Yet getting older comes with a lot of baggage—men assume they can touch her and kiss her, and the weight of her friends' sorrow hangs heavy around her shoulders.

Eventually Esperanza comes to realize her only way forward is to approach adulthood on her own terms, which means focusing on her dreams of leaving the barrio instead of on boys.

Sexual Awakening

Adolescence is a time of sexual discovery for most people, and Esperanza is no different. As her first year on Mango Street passes, she notices herself becoming more interested in boys her age and those who are a little older, such as Sire. Her interest in how he kisses and touches Lois is evidence of her own burgeoning desire to be treated the same way. "I want to sit out bad at night," she says, imagining what it's like to have the full attention of a boy, and she dreams of being held by strong arms. Esperanza is aware of how her changing body attracts attention in the neighborhood, especially when she sashays down the street in high heels. She anticipates the rounding of her hips as a symbol of her transformation into a sexual being.

Esperanza's newfound interest in sex and boys is exciting, but it's also scary. She is beginning to understand the dangers associated with female sexuality, particularly in how men view women. Men desire women who are attractive, and girls such as Sally who freely give of themselves appear to be the most admired. But once that woman is attached to another man, such as a father or a husband, her sexuality becomes a threat. Sally's father punishes her for being beautiful and tempting the neighborhood boys, and Rafaela's husband locks Rafaela in their apartment because he is "afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at." Beautiful women on Mango Street are simultaneously viewed as Madonnas and whores—idolized for their appearance but feared for the damage they could do to a man's reputation. Esperanza also learns that men assume they have a right to a woman's body even if they have just met her. Neither the bum in front of the tavern nor the Asian man at Peter Pan Photo Finishers hesitate to take advantage of younger girls, and the boys at the carnival claim Esperanza's body as if it did not belong to her at all. Esperanza's experiences (and those of her friends) teach her to guard herself against the men who wish to control her sexuality.

Questions for Themes

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