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PLOT STRUCTURE ANALYSIS
"The House on Mango Street" is Esperanza’s story, and she tells it with humor, sadness, introspection and joy. It begins when she first arrives at the house, a dilapidated building in a Hispanic ghetto in 1960’s Chicago. She tells us about the many different times she has moved, and that she has always wanted a house--but not a house like this one, which is too small and sad. This wish for a house will follow Esperanza throughout the book.
When she arrives there she is lonely and shy, and so is very attuned to the people around her. She gives a touching description of each member of her family’s hair. She describes the way her two younger brothers avoid her and her younger sister Nenny (Magdalena) when they are outside, but are friendly when no one is watching. She reveals her insecurity when she tells us how much she hates her name, which means hope in English, and "too many letters" in Spanish. It is her grandmother’s name, a woman who refused to get married until she was carried away by Esperanza’s grandfather. Though she stayed with him, she was unhappy for the rest of her life, and Esperanza is afraid of ending up like her. This is the first inkling the reader gets of Esperanza’s independent nature.
Esperanza meets Cathy, who tells her her opinion about everyone in the neighborhood. Cathy promises Esperanza she will be her friend--until she moves away on Tuesday. Cathy is clearly pompous and judgmental, but Esperanza is desperate for companionship. Soon, though, she meets Lucy and Rachel, who remain her friends throughout the book, even though they are, according to Cathy, "raggedy as rats." Boisterous, bold sisters, Lucy and Rachel convince Esperanza to chip in for a bike, which all three of them ride around the neighborhood together. At first terrified that they will not like her and then thrilled when they do, Esperanza demonstrates in this scene the pure happiness she can sometimes feel. However, she still feels close to her family, especially Nenny, in comparison. She and Nenny have a unique understanding of the world (they see a house that they agree looks just like Mexico) that Esperanza values deeply. Sometimes, though, even Nenny falls short of Esperanza’s keen understanding of the world around her. While in a junk shop, the sisters discover a music box that plays a song so beautiful Esperanza begins to cry. Nenny, while appreciating the music, does not understand its value and naively tries to purchase the box, which the owner says is not for sale.
Esperanza is fascinated by the people in her neighborhood. Young enough to be awed easily but old enough to be curious about other people’s lives, she keenly observes everyone around her. Her neighbor’s cousin, for example, stole a car and got caught right in front of everybody, or Meme Ortiz, a neighbor, looks like the sheepdog he takes with him everywhere. Marin, an older girl with a boyfriend in Puerto Rico, gives Esperanza tips on how to talk to boys, which impresses Esperanza, who is very shy. Rosa Vargas has so many children that the neighborhood gives up trying to take care of them, even though they are always getting into trouble. Esperanza knowingly points out that people who have never been to the neighborhood are afraid of it, even though they shouldn’t be. She admits, however, that the same fear and ignorance exists in her own community.
After sketching out the neighborhood in general, Esperanza begins to detail those who deviate from the norm. Alicia, for example, is studying at the university, even though she has to take care of her family since her mother is dead and she fears her father. While Esperanza likes Alicia, there is a sense that something is wrong in Alicia’s life, since she seems to hallucinate: she sees frightening mice. This is the first time the book hints at the struggle of trying to be an independent woman in that neighborhood: Alicia is successful, but she appears to pay a high price.
Esperanza highlights the poetry of everyday life that sometimes appears unexpectedly. Darius, for example, a boy who is "sometimes stupid and mostly a fool," points out a cloud one day and tells the children it is God. This strikes Esperanza as wise. Soon after, Nenny, Rachel, Lucy and Esperanza are talking, and their discussion about the different names for clouds and snow leads to an inventive name-calling game. Another day, Esperanza and her friends are given several pairs of ladies’ shoes. With these beat-up old shoes and some imagination, the girls transform themselves into glamorous ladies, parading up and down the street, awed by the way their own legs look. However, when a "bum man" offers Rachel a dollar to kiss him, the other girls get worried and they all decide to go home. While they enjoy the excitement of pretending to be women, they cannot yet deal with the consequences.
In another effort to appear grown-up, Esperanza decides she wants to eat in the "canteen," where kids who live too far to go home for lunch eat. Her mother at first dislikes the idea, but then gives in. When Esperanza is confronted by a nun at school who knows she lives close enough to go home for lunch, she breaks down and cries, unable even to speak. Many of Esperanza’s attempts to be mature backfire in this way. She imagines herself to be something she isn’t (an independent child who doesn’t need to come home for lunch, for example) but cannot always succeed at the game. However, sometimes she exceeds even her own expectations. At a family party, she wears a nice dress but, since her mother forgot to buy her new shoes, she must wear her old shoes. Feeling self-conscious, she refuses to dance, until her uncle tells her she is beautiful and forces her out on the dance floor. Feeling safe and loved, she dances freely, and when everyone admires her she almost bursts with pride. The most significant admiration is from a male cousin about her age. She is made utterly giddy by the attention--though earlier when he himself asked her to dance, she said no, because she was still shy about her shoes. Again, she is not mature enough to feel relaxed with boys, but she is clearly interested in, at least, the theoretical idea of spending time with them. This aspect of Esperanza resurfaces in "Hips," where she, Rachel, Lucy and Nenny make up songs while jumping rope about what their womanly hips will be like when they get them. The songs are funny and exuberant ("Some are skinny like chicken lips") and mostly speculative: the girls wonder what they will use their hips for. They are all somewhat nervous about growing up, but their games make them more comfortable--and, for Esperanza, so does making fun of Nenny for being younger. In fact, she draws a greater and greater distinction between herself and her younger sister as the book progresses, which further reveals her interest in appearing adult.
Esperanza is pulled back into immaturity, however, when she begins work at her first job, at a photo finishing store. She tries to appear confident, but she is clearly intimidated by all the older people on the job, until a seemingly nice older man comes in for the afternoon shift and befriends her. She is grateful, until he asks her for a birthday kiss. As she leans in to kiss his cheek, he grabs both sides of her face and kisses her on the mouth, not letting her go. Though the chapter ends there, the reader understands the consequence of this: just when she is beginning to feel safe in a frightening place, she is, in a sense, betrayed by someone she trusted. One senses that, instead of feeling bold at her first job, she feels small and insignificant.
Esperanza reveals her tender side when she comforts her father after he tells her his own father has died. Though she depends on her father, she does not seem dismayed by his breakdown into grief. She simply holds him as he cries, thinking of how much she values him.
Esperanza, while still a child in many ways, is no longer able to childishly deny responsibility for her own actions. Thus, she feels tremendously guilty about a childish game she played with Lucy and Rachel. Esperanza’s Aunt Lupe was an invalid, a woman so stricken by disease she was blind and could not leave her bed. Nevertheless, she was kind to Esperanza. She listened to her read books, and encouraged her to continue to write her own poems and stories. Though Esperanza appreciates this, she and her friends one day decide it would be funny to imitate Lupe’s voice and gestures. Unfortunately, Lupe dies the same die, and Esperanza must deal with her guilt. This is an important way for Esperanza to realize that what she liked about her aunt was her interest in her writing--and, by extension, Esperanza realizes how important her writing is to herself.
Esperanza visits "Elenita, witch woman," at her apartment. Elenita is a neighbor who has many boisterous children and lots of tacky furniture. She is a fortune teller, and Esperanza pays her five dollars to read Tarot cards for her. With cartoons playing on the TV in the background, Elenita tells Esperanza that she sees a "home in the heart." This is disappointing to Esperanza, because she wants a real home, far away from Mango Street. The fortune is significant for the reader, however, because it confirms what we are already learning about Esperanza: she is too independent to be tied to any one place she lives. She herself does not realize this yet, and is still ashamed of living on Mango Street.
One night at a dance, Marin meets a boy named Geraldo, who has recently emigrated from Mexico. After the dance, he gets hit by a car and killed. He has no identification, so Marin goes with him to the hospital. Esperanza relates the story, impersonating non-Hispanics who hear the story: "Just another wetback. You know the kind. The ones who always look ashamed." Though these comments seem to be attributed to the police or hospital staff, because they are non-specific they implicate everyone who doesn’t understand "the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange." Esperanza feels bitter about the situation. This is one of the few points in the book where she comments about a general experience shared by many people she knows; usually, the power of her stories comes from their intimate, specific nature. Here, Geraldo’s story is meant to speak for many Mexican immigrants, highlighting the alienation they experience in the U.S. when their "home is in another country." This is also true of Mamacita, whose story is related a few chapters later. Her husband brought her and their child from Mexico, and now she is miserable, always wanting to go back there, never leaving her apartment and refusing to speak English. She fights with her husband about leaving constantly, and when her son begins to sing a song he heard on TV, she begins to cry. Although Mamacita is somewhat ridiculous, with her enormous body and tiny pink shoes, she is also tragic. She symbolizes the difference between Mexico and Chicago, and the pain, alienation and loneliness that difference can cause.