'House On Mango Street' Celebrates 25 Years
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
A beloved book about adolescence has just turned 25. "The House On Mango Street" is more patchwork quilt than novel. It's a series of exquisitely observed vignettes stitched from the experiences of a Mexican-American girl and the characters swirling around her tumble-down Chicago neighborhood. The story of Esperanza Cordero has become required reading for students across the U.S. and is being celebrated with a special 25th anniversary edition. Here author Sandra Cisneros reads from the chapter called "My Name."
Ms. SANDRA CISNEROS (Author, "House On Mango Street"): 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, a muddy color. It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing. At school they say my name funny, as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver.
MONTAGNE: Sandra Cisneros, give us a little sense of what the world was like when you created Esperanza.
Ms. CISNEROS: Well, I was fresh out of graduate school. I had started Esperanza in Iowa at the University of Iowa, feeling very displaced and uncomfortable as a person of color, as a woman, as a person from working-class background. And in reaction to being there I started to have some Mango Street almost as a way of claiming this is who I am. It became my flag. And I realize now that I was creating something new. I was cross-pollinating fiction and poetry and writing something that was the child of both. I was crossing borders and I didn't know it.
MONTAGNE: Let's go back to Esperanza, because there's of course some overlap here, I think, with you. She loves her family, but the house they live in on Mango Street has come to represent the opposite of what she wants for herself, or would have even hoped for in a home. There's a little small description on page four of the house, if you wouldn't mind reading it.
Ms. CISNEROS: Okay.
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.
MONTAGNE: The house of Esperanza's dreams, as you write it, is white, wooden, with a big yard and lots of trees. So she has a life here, but always dreaming of something else. You grew up in Chicago, seven children. You're the only girl?
Ms. CISNEROS: I'm actually in the middle. I have two older brothers and four younger brothers. My family is much bigger than Esperanza's but when I was writing "House on Mango Street" I was new to the fiction form and I didn't know how to handle so many relatives. So I just thought I'd pare her family down to something easy.
MONTAGNE: So you actually made the family smaller than your own family.
Ms. CISNEROS: Yeah, I don't know any small families like that in the Latino neighborhood. Everybody - unless their father up and left, the families were big.
MONTAGNE: Well, let me back again, to Esperanza, the fictional character at the center of "The House On Mango Street." At the age that she's in, she's not quite a girl and not quite a full-fledged teenager, and there's a lovely moment that really captures a lot of what's awkward, exciting, and even scary about this time in a girl's life. It's when a neighbor gives Esperanza and her girlfriends a brown paper bag filled with - what?
Ms. CISNEROS: Shoes.
MONTAGNE: Not just shoes though.
Ms. CISNEROS: But high-heel shoes.
MONTAGNE: And do you mind reading just a moment from that?
Ms. CISNEROS: Sure, sure.
It's Rachel who learns to walk the best all strutted in those magic high heels. She teaches us to cross and uncross our legs and to run like a Double-Dutch rope and how to walk down to the corner so that the shoes talk back with every step. Lucy, Rachel, me, tea-tottering like so, down to the corner where the men can't take their eyes off us. We must be Christmas.
MONTAGNE: It's an exciting moment that turns into, not quite scary, but a little scared of growing up moment. Like it brings something into their lives they're not sure they can handle.
Ms. CISNEROS: And that's a little frightening, actually, 'cause you don't realize. You know, I remember when I was a young girl how much we wanted those high heels. But we didn't realize all the baggage it brought with it, all the attention, all the men on the corner sending kisses to us and saying things. It was very disturbing when you actually grew up and said, wow, I wish I could go back to being a kid. I was invisible and I could see everything but not be seen.
MONTAGNE: You actually write in this new introduction to the 25th Edition, you write that your own father didn't want you to become a writer at first. In fact, what did your father want you to be?
Ms. CISNEROS: My father never wanted me to be a writer. He didn't - he came to terms with it maybe two years before he died. He wanted me to be a weather girl because when I was growing up, there were very few Latinas on television, and in the early '70s when you first started seeing Latinas on TV, they would be the weather girls. That was the job given to them. So he would think, well, my daughter can do that.
MONTAGNE: Hmm. At the time, how important was it for you to give voice to Hispanic women, especially young women?
Ms. CISNEROS: Well, you know, when I wrote "House," when I started it, I didn't think I was giving voice to Latino women. I thought I was just finally speaking up. I had been silenced, made to feel that what I had to say wasn't important.
I wanted to write something in a voice that was unique to who I was. And I wanted something that was accessible to the person who works at Dunkin Donuts or who drives a bus, someone who comes home with their feet hurting like my father, someone who's busy and has too many children, like my mother. I wanted this to be lyrical enough so that it would pass muster with my finicky classmates, but also open to accept all of the people I loved in the neighborhood I came from.
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MONTAGNE: Sandra Cisneros. Her novel, "The House on Mango Street," is now out in a special 25th anniversary edition.