Thursday, November 1, 2012

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Source of book: Borrowed from the library

I read this book as part of my adopted hometown’s “One Book, One Bakersfield” event. Every year, there is a more or less official citywide reading of a particular book, followed by events related to that book.

I rarely participate, because most of the books chosen haven’t interested me. The last one was To Kill A Mockingbird, which included a viewing of the movie sponsored by our county bar association, with discussion of due process issues and the importance of criminal defense.

This year’s selection seemed interesting, so I went ahead and read it. My wife attended a series of one-man (or woman) dramas written by local literary sorts, including a good friend of ours. Later, Sandra Cisneros herself will be giving a lecture at the local university, which I may have a chance to attend. It is rather fun to have a single book to discuss with my local book loving friends.

The House on Mango Street isn’t a novel. It isn’t really a collection of short stories. Rather, I would characterize it as a series of vignettes drawn from the author’s childhood memories of growing up in poverty. They are not strictly autobiographical, as the author makes clear, but they are drawn from real people she knew - as are the characters in just about any book worth reading.

Cisneros grew up in both Chicago and Mexico, more or less at the same time. Her father kept moving back and forth, giving Cisneros little time to put down roots. In addition, she was the only daughter, with six brothers who tended to pair up in twos, leaving her to herself. Even her father referred to his children as “six sons and one daughter” rather than “seven children,” a fact that bother her greatly. Fortunately, her mother, at least, seemed to want better things for her, and worked to enable her to complete school and attend college.

I recognized a good bit of incident in the stories from my own experiences growing up in a predominantly hispanic neighborhood in Los Angeles. It wasn’t quite the hopeless poverty of the ghetto, but there were plenty of families that we knew that were always on the move from one rental house to another. The kids would often have no goals beyond finding a partner and having kids, or getting a basic job, perhaps. School was endured, not loved, and about half dropped out before graduating. 

One thing Cisneros brings out is the everyday nature of domestic violence. There is a definite misogyny present in recent immigrant communities (and perhaps in lower class communities in general) that accepted that a wife could be beaten, or confined to her home to keep her from being unfaithful. There are some achingly sad tales here, and they are true to life. We forget that much of the world still thinks of women as the property of men, inferior to them in intellect and judgment. Cisneros witnessed and experienced this, and never did end up marrying or having children.

Another fact of life in this book that was familiar was the many unsupervised hours that even young children spent. Throughout history, of course, both parents have had to work hard just to survive, and still do in poor communities or countries today. Even if the work wasn’t out of the house, it consumed time and energy, and the kids were and are expected to fend for themselves outside.
A final reflection on this book is the vignette entitled “Those who don’t.”

Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.
But we aren’t afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby’s brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that’s Rosa’s Eddie V., and the big one that looks like a dumb grown man, he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.
All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.
This one is uncannily accurate. We knew everyone on our block, and my siblings and I moved about freely from a young age, playing baseball in the street, riding our bikes to the store and back, and so on. And, I must say, I got to eat fresh Chicharrónes cooked in a rusty drum over an open fire - and had many other formative foodie experiences. I think that growing up that way gave me a better ability than most who grew up in white middle-class neighborhoods, to sense whether a situation is truly threatening. I still regularly volunteer to assist low income clients with legal issues at community events, and still find that, with few exceptions, most people are not dangerous. Particularly to a white man, it must be said. There is no doubt that I am safer to wander into East LA by mistake - even at night - than a black man would be. A sad fact, but it is true.

Cisneros nails it here, though. We are all afraid of what we do not know and cannot read. We fear the other until we meet him. And her, and them, and their grandparents, and so forth. I strongly believe that all of us should get out of our own little circles of acquaintance from time to time. In addition, we can read books like this to understand others in a way we haven’t yet.

Anyway, this book was worth the read, and I think it would be even more so for those who have never experienced poverty or lived with those who have.

Update June 25, 2018: I returned to this book six years later, with my kids. We listened to the audiobook - read by the author - for one of our trips. My eldest daughter ended up reading a few excerpts for 9th Grade English. She enjoyed what she read, and requested we listen to the rest of it. I think my older kids enjoyed it more than my littlest, but no complaints either.

It was kind of interesting to re-read it in a different era. This time through, our nation is in a paroxysm of resurgent White Nationalism and xenophobia, with Latino immigrants specifically targeted by a racist administration given to referring to immigrants as vicious snakes and the like. Books like this are a good antidote to that kind of thinking, putting a recognizable human face on people. It is a reminder that neither brown skin nor poverty makes one less human, and our commonalities are far more than we think. I certainly understood Esperanza as the sort of kid I knew...and was.

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