on Mango Street
pages; ISBN 0-679-73477-5
Preparing to read
For in-class discussion:
II. Language: image, metaphor and voice
III. The people on Mango Street
For further study
The House on Mango
Street is a deceptive work. It is a book of short storiesand
sometimes not even full stories, but character sketches and vignettesthat
add up, as Sandra Cisneros has written, "to tell one big story, each story
contributing to the wholelike beads in a necklace." That story is
told in language that seems simple but that possesses the associative
richness of poetry, and whose slang and breaks from grammatical correctness
contribute to its immediacy. It is narrated in the voice of a young girla
girl too young to know that no one may ever hear herbut whose voice
is completely convincing, because it is the creation of a mature and sophisticated
writer. For example, The House on Mango Street appears to wander
casually from subject to subjectfrom hair to hips, from clouds to
feet, from an invalid aunt to a girl named Sally, who has "eyes like Egypt"
and whose father sometimes beats her. But this apparent randomness disguises
an artful exploration of themes of individual identity and communal loyalty,
estrangement and loss, escape and return, the lure of romance and the
dead end of sexual inequality and oppression.
The House on
Mango Street is also a book about a culturethat of Chicanos,
or Mexican-Americansthat has long been veiled by demeaning stereotypes
and afflicted by internal ambivalence. In some ways it resembles the
immigrant cultures that your students may have encountered in books
like My Ántonia, The Jungle, and Call It Sleep.
But unlike Americans of Slavic or Jewish ancestry, Chicanos have been
systematically excluded from the American mainstream in ways that suggest
the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Although Cisneros uses
language as a recurring metaphor for the gulf between Mexican-Americans
and the majority culture, what keeps Esperanza Cordero and her family
and friends locked in their barrio is something more obdurate than language:
a confluence of racism, poverty, and shame. It may help your discussion
to remind students that the ancestors of many Chicanos did not come
to the United States by choice, but simply found themselves in alien
territory as a result of the U.S.'s expansionist policy into country
that had once been Mexican.
But although The
House on Mango Street will have a particularly strong appeal
to Latino students,
who may never have encountered a book that speaks so pointedly to their
own experience, it is a work that captures the universal pangs of othernesswhat
Cisneros, in her introduction to the tenth anniversary edition (published
by Knopf, $18.00), has called "the shame of being poor, of being female,
of being not-quite-good-enough." It suggests from where that otherness
comes and shows how it can become a cause for celebration rather than
shame. Few students, regardless of their ancestry or gender, will come
away from this book without a strong sensation of having glimpsed a
secret part of themselves. For, as Sandra Cisneros has written, "You,
the reader, are Esperanza.... You cannot forget who you are."
The questions, exercises,
and assignments that follow are designed to guide your students through
The House on Mango Street and to help them approach it as both
a work of literature and a window into their own lives. They are divided
into sections that test reading comprehension, invite in-class discussion,
and suggest avenues of independent study and writing. Students should
be encouraged to keep journals in which they record their responses to
the work, pose questions for the teacher, and take notes for their written
assignments. We feel that The House on Mango Street is especially
valuable as an occasion for students to think and write about their own
experience: their houses, their families, their neighborhoods, their dreams
and disappointments, about the way they relate to the other sex, about
the kinds of lives they want and the kinds they fear they may end up living.
It is a book that invites empathy, as well as critical intelligence. At
different points in your discussion you may want to ask your students
about the different feelings Esperanza's story calls forth, paying particular
attention to the different ways in which girls and boys respond to it.
For in-class discussion
Language: image, metaphor, and voice
- Where did the
narrator live before she moved to The House on Mango Street?
How were her previous homes different?
- In what kind
of house would she like to live? Does her new home live up to her
expectations? Why not?
- Who are the members
of Esperanza's family?
- After whom was
Esperanza named? What does her namesake's story tell you about the
status of women in Mexican society?
- Why is Cathy's
family about to move?
"Our Good Day"
- How does Esperanza
make friends with Lucy and Rachel? What makes them better friends
- Who is Marin?
Why is she unable to leave her house? How does she plan to change
her situation? Why do Esperanza and her friends admire her?
- How do outsiders
see Esperanza's neighborhood? How does Esperanza feel when she visits
an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn't Know What to Do"
- Why does Rosa
Vargas cry every day? Why do her children misbehave? What happens
to her son Angel?
- How does Alicia's
father treat her efforts to get an education?
of Little Feet"
- What happens
to Esperanza when she and her friends are given some cast-off shoes?
How do the shoes change them? What effect do they have on the men
in the neighborhood?
"A Rice Sandwich"
- Why does Esperanza
want to eat in the school canteen? How does she get her mother to
- What are the
girls doing as they talk about hips? What are hips good for? What
does their conversation tell you about their ages?
- Why does this
story have a misleading title? What happens to Esperanza on her first
day at work? What does this episode tell you about her family and
"Papa Who Wakes
Up Tired in the Dark"
- Why does Esperanza's
father cry? How does his crying make her feel?
- What happens
to Aunt Lupe? Why does Esperanza believe she deserves to go to hell?
What special relationship did Esperanza have with her aunt?
- Why does Geraldo
have no last name? From the information Cisneros provides, do you
believe that his death was inevitable?
- Why is Esperanza
afraid of Sire? What do her parents think of him? Why is she so curious
about what he does with Lois, and why does this curiosity make her
feel as though "everything is holding its breath inside me" ?
"No Speak English"
- What eight English
wordsor, really, phrasesdoes Mamacita know? What do they
tell you about the ways in which Mexican immigrants relate to the
"official," English-speaking culture outside their communities?
Drinks Coconut & Papaya Juice on Tuesdays"
- What is making
Rafaela grow old? Who was Rapunzel, and why would Rafaela dream of
having hair like hers?
- Describe the
relationship between Sally and her father. How do her schoolmates
see her? What transformation takes place when Sally comes home?
- Why does Minerva
write poems? Why is she black and blue when she comes to visit Esperanza?
"Bums in the
- What does Esperanza's
father do for a living? Why has Esperanza stopped joining her family
on their Sunday outings?
- What is the nature
of Esperanza's "quiet war" ? Against whomor whatis
"A Smart Cookie"
- How would you
categorize the things Esperanza's mother knows? What things might
she not know that Esperanza does? Why do you think she left school?
Garden"/"Red Clowns"/"Linoleum Roses"
- How does the
Monkey Garden change? What does Sally do that makes Esperanza so angry?
From whom is she trying to save her? What eventually happens to Sally?
How does Esperanza feel about her marriage?
- How does Esperanza
meet the three sisters? What kind of future do they predict for her?
What is the responsibility they place on her?
- How does the
ending of The House on Mango Street complete a circle?
- Throughout the
book Cisneros has Esperanza employ common idiomatic phrases that serve
as a kind of shorthand. Analyze some of the following phrases and
suggest what Esperanza means by themand what the author means
to tell us about Esperanza herself: a) "But I know how those things
go."  b) "people like us"  c) "We take what we can get and
make the most of it"  d) "Ain't it a shame"  e) "Same story"
- In the story
"Hairs," Esperanza describes her mother's hair as being "like little
candy circles all curly and pretty."  What does this metaphor,
and those in the next paragraph, suggest about Esperanza's feelings
for her mother? Where else in the book do metaphor and simile convey
information about the narrator as well as about the person or thing
- In "Gil's Furniture
Bought and Sold," Cisneros describes the sound of an old music box:
"It's like all of a sudden he let go a million moths all over the
dusty furniture and swan-neck shadows in our bones."  This technique,
in which a sound is described in terms of things seen and felt, is
called synesthesia. Where else in the book does Cisneros use synesthesia?
Write descriptions of: a) a place, using sounds; b) a piece of music,
using smells; c) a meal, using colors; d) a person, using taste and
- In "Boys & Girls,"
Esperanza describes herself as "a balloon tied to an anchor." 
What are the connotations of this metaphor, and what does it tell
you about Esperanza? Where else in the book does Cisneros use images
and metaphors associated with the sky? What ideas do these recurring
images evoke? Where else does Sandra Cisneros use related images to
suggest complicated themes?
- In "Chanclas,"
an embarrassed Esperanza declines her cousin's invitation to dance,
because her feet "are growing bigger and bigger." What Cisneros is
describing is not a literal reality but a feeling that in turn suggests
other feelings. In this case, the sensation in Esperanza's feet tells
us about her self-consciousness and embarrassment. Where else does
the author use this technique? Describe the following situations in
terms of the sensations they might evoke in different parts of your
body: a) entering a dark basement b) seeing a pet die c) learning
that someone you secretly care for also likes you d) making a speech
at your high school graduation e) seeing a baby brother or sister
for the first time.
- The last sentence
of the book is: "For the ones who cannot out."  Strictly speaking,
the sentence is ungrammatical, since "out" is not a verb. Why do you
think Cisneros has chosen to break perceived rules of grammar here?
Might there be any relation between "breaking" grammar and breaking
out of Mango Street?
The people on Mango Street
- Why do you think
Cisneros tells the reader about Esperanza's house before she writes
about her name? Why is where Esperanza lives more important than who
- How old do you
think Esperanza is? Where in the book does Cisneros suggest her age?
- Of what is Esperanza
- What makes her
- What makes her
- How does she
feel about the men in "The Family of Little Feet," "Chanclas," "The
First Job," "Sire," and "The Red Clowns"?
- Throughout The
House on Mango Street, Cisneros's narrator describes herself from
two points of view: as she sees herself and as she believes others
see her. We can find an example of this in "My Name": "At school they
say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt
the roof of your mouth." Where else in the book does Cisneros
convey this dual consciousness? How does Esperanza see herself? How
does she think other people perceive her?
- Although Esperanza
is clever and often very perceptive, she is still a child, and Cisneros
sometimes shows her failing to see the significance of things that
would be obvious to someone older. An example can be found on pages
24-5, when Esperanza and her friends take a ride in a flashy car driven
by Louie's cousin, who is promptly arrested by the police. An adult
might be suspicious about the new car and would probably not wave
so cheerfully when Louie was taken away. What is the effect of making
Esperanza what is sometimes called an "unreliable narrator"? Where
else in the story does Cisneros use this technique?
- At the novel's
end, Esperanza declares that she is too strong for Mango Street to
keep her forever. What is the nature of her strength? How does Cisneros
establish this characteristic elsewhere in the book?
- What is the significance
of the information in so many of the chapter titles, i.e., "Alicia
Who Sees Mice," "Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark," "Minerva Writes
Poems"? How important is this information to your sense of who these
people are? What other details does Cisneros use to establish them?
How would your sense of these people change had the author employed
other detailshow they look, what they wear, what they do for
Themes: houses; boys and girls/men and women; belonging and not belonging;
going away and coming back
- After rereading
the chapters "The House on Mango Street," "Bums in the Attic," and
"A House of My Own," write a description of Esperanza's house. How
does she feel about it? How do you think her house might look to a
stranger? In what kind of house would she like to live?
- In "Boys and
Girls" [8-9], Cisneros writes, "The boys and the girls live in separate
worlds." In "Beautiful & Cruel," there is the declaration "I have
decided not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on
the threshold waiting for the ball and chain."  How would you
describe the respective worlds in which Cisneros's boys and girls
live? What kind of men and women are they likely to become when they
grow up? How would you sum up the book's depiction of relations between
the sexes? Use incidents and descriptions in such stories as "My Name,"
"Marin," "Alicia Who Sees Mice," "Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut and Papaya
Juice on Tuesdays," "Sally," "Minerva Writes Poems," "Beautiful &
Cruel," "Sally Says," and "The Monkey Garden."
- Esperanza describes
a number of women as possible role models: Marin [26-7], Alicia [31-2],
Sire's girlfriend Lois [72-3], Sally [81-3, 92-8]. What does she admire
about these women? What things can they teach her?
- In the stories
"My Name" and "No Speak English," Cisneros describes a gulf between
two languages, a gap of meaning and of feeling. In English, for example,
Esperanza means hope; in Spanish, says the narrator, it suggests sadness
and waiting . How does Esperanza feel about her two languagesand
by extension, about her two cultures? How does she feel about the
society outside her barrio? Look particularly at the chapters "Cathy
Queen of Cats," "Those Who Don't," "Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the
Dark," "Geraldo No Last Name," and "Bums In the Attic."
- When Esperanza
visits Elenita to have her fortune told, the witch tells her that
she sees "an anchor of arms" and "a home in the heart." What is the
possible significance of these visions? How do they tie in to themes
Cisneros develops elsewhere in the book?
- Nearly all the
characters in Cisneros's book dream of escaping. What do they want
to leave? Describe the ways in which different people try to escape,
as well as the result of their efforts. Do you think that Esperanza's
dreams of escaping are likely to be more successful? How does being
pooras most of these characters areaffect one's chances
of escaping a dead-end neighborhood or fulfilling other dreams?
- Aunt Lupe tells
Esperanza that writing "will keep you free." In what way can writing
be an avenue of freedom? What does freedom mean to you? What activity
gives you a sense of freedom?
- The three sisters
tell Esperanza, "When you leave you must remember to come back for
the others." What do they mean by this? In what way does Esperanza
reconcile her longings to escape Mango Street with her loyalty to
her origins? How might a writer like Cisneros come to terms with leaving
a place like Mango Street? How would you choose to remain faithful
to a place you needed to leave?
For Further Study
- Write a description
of your home, using language that tells the reader both how it looks
and how you feel about it. Then write a description of the kind of
house in which you'd like to live.
- Read "Hairs,"
"Laughter," "Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark," and "Born Bad,"
paying special attention to the language with which Esperanza describes
the members of her family. Then write a description of your own family,
using metaphors that not only tell the reader what your relatives
look like but that suggest how you feel about them.
- After rereading
the story "My Name," write about your own name. Who gave it to you?
What language does it come from? What does your name originally mean?
If you were named after someone in your family, tell a story about
that person. How well does your name "fit" you? If you were going
to rename yourself, what name would you choose and why?
- Esperanza describes
the "Four Skinny Trees" as "four who do not belong here but are here."
 How does this description reflect her own sense of herself? Where
else in the book does Cisneros explore her heroine's feelings of estrangement?
Write a description of an object in your neighborhood that reflects
your feelings about yourself.
- Cisneros offers
one view of Chicano culture in The House on Mango Streetthe
view her main character sees from her street in Chicago. How does
this view of Chicano culture fit into the larger social fabric of
the United States? What ceremonies and values set it apart? What value
does it ascribe to women? Drawing on independent research, present
a differentor a more detailedview of this culture.
- How might The
House on Mango Street be different if the narrator were a boy?
- How is the book
similar to or different from other books you may have read that feature
young narrators, for example, Catcher in the Rye, Ellen
Foster, or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
This teacher's guide
was written by Peter Trachtenberg. Peter Trachtenberg has taught writing
and literature at the New York University School of Continuing Education,
the Johns Hopkins University School of Continuing Education, and the School
of Visual Arts.
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