Stories about teenagers sometimes fail to resonate later in life or to remain profound for years after they have been read, without subtleties that beg continued examining. Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, by contrast, is so subtle as to escape without tight examination of her vignette-driven prose. A story about a Hispanic teenage girl growing up in Chicago, it is at once ethnically transcendent and possessed by Hispanic women – it is both dramatically teenage and lasting. It is the story that first made me realize how similar I was to girls of different upbringings and ethnicities to my own, and at the same time, how radically divergent to their stories mine is. Esperanza is a young teenager in the story, who charts her growing up in vignettes about her friends, her street, and her desire to leave and find something better beyond.
Lacking resources, Esperanza is left to discover why her hips widened with age on her own, and when she is sexually pursued as a young teenager, she accepts it as “what happens.” Following her more experienced friend Sally at the fair, she is left on her own when Sally goes off with a boy, culminating in Esperanza’s rape. In my freshman year English class, this was unfathomable to me – this didn’t happen where I was from and it was a fiction novel anyway – and then, as I grew, I came to realize that from this disparity, I had a lot to learn.
I was wrong about a lot of things – it turned out that sexual violence happened where I was from, and that it was not at all fiction that a girl might not understand her own body or be relentlessly pursued and not be protected by the adults in her life adequately. What I was wrong about was assuming that my experiences would more or less be a mirror of accuracy, and that those that deviated from my experiences were likely to be more fact than fiction. I denied my privilege because I didn’t know enough of the world to know better. I do now.
Esperanza is a feminist by way of contrast – she doesn’t have the necessary role models to contest gender roles and accepts that she will have children someday as a simple matter of how the world turns. She doesn’t stand up in the face of sexual disparity and violence. She didn’t know differently but, by being a victim of her gender, ethnicity, and economic background in the most violent way, she challenges them all. The writing of the novel is intimate and first-person, and suggests that by committing the words to paper, Esperanza is rising above her circumstances and her past, challenging them and rejecting them in search of a brighter future. It took me years after I read the novel to understand this.
As a white feminist, and a young white feminist at that, I learned not to assume that my experience is representative of everyone else’s by reading this novel. My whiteness means that I am less likely to be a target of prejudiced violence and that I will not be regarded as “other.” My socioeconomic status means that I will have better access to education and supportive resources that can help elevate me. I have learned that being a feminist means understanding and appreciating the diverse experiences of others, and learning from them, and taking to heart the idea that as women, we are all worthy of more than Esperanza’s experiences, and that we all dream of the same things as her: the opportunity and courage to rise above.