The Feminist Mantra I Learned from ‘The House on Mango Street’
Sandra Cisneros’ author biography forever changed how I think about myself
Novel Gazing is Electric Literature’s personal essay series about the way reading shapes our lives. This time, we asked: What book was your feminist awakening?
When I finished college, it was a cicada year, temperatures were in the high eighties, and a radio evangelist had predicted the world would end on the very day of my graduation. I was an English major graduating from a Methodist college, and the symbolism of the locusts, the heat, and the prophecy was too much for me to resist and almost too much for me to bear. Disappointed in my college experience and prone to existential crises, I found myself thinking, What a waste. What a waste of the last four years of my life.
Of course the world didn’t end that day. But my life as a student did, and my life as a student was the only life I knew. I’d never enjoyed school, but I’d understood it. School was something I could count on, something I knew I could do well. I had trouble choosing good friends and coping with my emotions and styling my hair, but I could take a test. I could write a research paper. I could read a book. And this faith in my abilities as a student got me through the roughest patch of my post-grad funk. In that first year after college, I became a better student than I’d ever been. I started journaling, trained to be a GED teacher, and read over 60 books, one of which was Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. For the next several years, I’d sleep with Mango Street on my bedside table.
Cisneros began writing this collection of vignettes as a graduate student in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and published it in 1984. It’s the story of Esperanza, a young Latina growing up in Chicago and dreaming of a life of creativity, independence, and self-defined femininity. If I concentrate, I can recite entire passages from Mango Street, but the phrase always at the tip of my tongue when I talk about this novel isn’t from the narrative at all. In the author biography at the end of the book, Cisneros describes herself as “nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife.” When I read those words, I was soaking in the bathtub at my mother’s house. I read and reread until the water got cold. Nobody’s mother, nobody’s wife. Goddamn.
Throughout the novel, Esperanza dreams about the woman she will be once she leaves Mango Street. She will wear red lipstick and be beautiful and cruel. She will live in a clean, simple house, all by herself. She will write poems and stories. She will have peace.
Peaceful solitude has been my dream for as long as I can remember. As a girl I, too, fantasized about clean, simple homes I lived in by myself. I dreamed of sparkling hardwood floors, billowing curtains, natural light, and beautiful aloneness the way other children dreamed of snow days in Georgia. When I was in first grade, we wrote stories about how we envisioned our lives. I wrote that I didn’t want to have any children, and my teacher showed my mother and they both laughed. I can’t blame them; it’s an odd thing for a 7-year-old to say. But some fifteen years later, Sandra Cisneros gave me permission to say it. All of a sudden, I’d found a kindred spirit.
Nobody’s mother, nobody’s wife. It’s an epilogue of sorts. The author biography is always at the end of a book. It’s usually light, objective, and for the most part, immaterial to the understanding of the novel. But in my reading of Mango Street, the author biography is something of a happily ever after. It was easy to identify with Esperanza. We were both artsy and melancholy and determined in our own way. We even shared a name — Esperanza means hope, and Hope is my middle name. What was more difficult to grasp, though, was the reality of the future. It’s always been easy for me to dream, but real-life examples of dreams come true were hard to come by. Along came Sandra Cisneros. A young brown woman from a working class family writing books and traveling the world and coming home only to herself. Not a fictional character, but a real person. Could it be? Yes. Yes.
For years, I could be found at the grocery store, on the street corner, in my bedroom, muttering, “nobody’s mother, nobody’s wife.” It was my mantra. It would deliver me, or so I thought. It would prevent me from being burdened by relationships when I could be reading and writing and eating and dancing and living. Since those post-grad years, I’m happy to say my feminism has evolved. I now think it could be quite nice to belong to someone, that it could enhance my life instead of taking away from it. That thought could change at any moment. It changes throughout the day. At 28, I’m still trying to figure out if I can be a mother and a wife and still be the person I feel called to be. I’m not sure I can. Being a daughter and a sister and a friend is overwhelming enough. I’m not sure I can do more.
But my feminism is a feminism of possibility. And Hope is my middle name.