The House on Mango Street

In this story, a young teen, Esperanza, finds herself in the middle of the Latino part of Chicago. She deals with the realities of her neighborhood and life and makes decisions about her life to come, knowing she wants more for herself than the status quo. Written as diary-like vignettes, this book shows what determination can do for Esperanza as she struggles through life in an inner city neighborhood.

The House on Mango Street is better than the other places they have lived. The flat on Loomis was so old, the landlord decided it wasn't worth fixing the pipes when they broke. So Esperanza moved with her parents, her brothers Kiki and Carlos, and her sister Nenny to a house that they own instead of renting--a big, new step for them. But the house is extremely small for their family, not the house Esperanza had pictured.

Esperanza doesn't want to belong to her rundown neighborhood or the low expectations everyone seems to have for her. Her story is one of struggle and reinvention in the face of hardship. She learns about community and the importance of understanding and appreciating your heritage. The House on Mango Street becomes a symbol of what is possible for Esperanza and her family.

Back cover: "Cisneros draws on her rich [Latino] heritage...and seduces with precise, spare prose, creat[ing] unforgettable characters we want to lift off the page She is not only a gifted writer, but an absolutely essential one."

Challenge: Keeping Students Engaged in an Unfamiliar Vignette Style

The vignette structure of this novel may create difficulties for high school readers. I have had the privilege of reading this book first as a high school student, then from the perspective of a teacher. Both times I was struck by the fragmented structure and use of the vignettes. In high school, I disliked the book for this reason. I found it difficult to enter imaginatively into the work. Since chapters begin and end without an explanation of their interconnection, I felt like I was missing something. Students may lack experience with this genre to appreciate the book fully. Since much of the meaning is found in the structure of the book, it is vital to deal with this issue to promote student comprehension. [Kyle]

This is not a plot-driven book; it is primarily focused on description of relationships in the family and the community. Cisneros also tends to jump around in time and location. This may be especially difficult for male students who may desire a more action oriented read. Female readers, who usually are more appreciative of description, may have a hard time staying engaged when the vignettes seem to be unconnected. For example, the first "chapter" is about the house on Mango Street, the second is about how everyone in the family has different hair, a way to get to know the physical and emotional elements of members of Esperanza's family. The third is about gender differences. How can we explain how these are all important and interconnected?

Possible Solution: Familiarity

To address this issue, there are a number of things that can be done. One approach to this challenge would be to help the students become more comfortable with vignettes. By showing students how a vignette is almost like a snapshot of specific moment, they may be able to better understand the effect Cisneros is trying to achieve. Vignettes are also known in theater, so students may be able to better place the quick actions or events of a vignette into a small reader's theater, acting out the vignette to show the subtleties that may otherwise be overlooked. Another method for overcoming this challenge is to have students write their own vignettes or diary entries for class spanning a length of several days or weeks. Students can then compare their vignettes to those in the novel. This will help them to understand the speed of vignettes and how an author makes decisions about what goes into writing a piece in this genre. All of these activities with help familiarize students with this style of writing.

Other ideas:
  • Create a character chart: Have students list each of the characters as they appear in the novel and then add to the descriptions and relationships as they learn more. This will help students keep track as new information about each character is included.
  • Create a graphic organizer to show conflict: Even though this is not a plot-driven book, there is plenty of conflict. Include the character involved, setting, problem, and solution. Assign specific characters, or ask the students to choose their favorite characters.
  • Writing assignment: Choose one vignette to read together. Discuss the techniques the author uses. An example might be the section in which Esperanza describes the hair of each family member. What do we learn about each family member through physical description? Ask students to emulate this type of writing in a short piece about their own family.
  • Group activity to understand how parts make up the whole: Put students in groups and assign each a vignette to present to the class, either through acting it out, a story board, or some other visual representation. When all groups have presented, ask the students how each presentation worked together to tell the story of Esperanza's family and community.

Challenge: Knowledge of Culture
Many students will have little knowledge of the culture of a Latino section of Chicago, leaving a gap in their understanding of the book. There are important differences in family culture, Latino culture, and socio-economic status for many students, which can affect how well they understand some of this issues Esperanza faces. One such issue is when Esperanza wants to eat lunch (a rice sandwich packed by her mother) at school because students from her neighborhood are required to walk home for lunch. Though some students may relate well to this experience, others will not. Students will need to understand the culture and living situations to fully understand the book.

The vignette entitled "No Speak English" is another example of a cultural issue that may be difficult for your students to understand. Those who have grown up in the United States, whose parents have also grown up here, may not understand the challenges of communication and prejudice immigrants face. Even children who were born in the U.S. may have parents who speak little or no English, and they may be extremely embarrassed about that.

Possible Solution: Explore and Discuss
Since culture and class are incredibly difficult things to understand if one is not a part of said culture, it is imperative that students learn and observe that culture. One way to do this is to expose students into the culture being discussed in the book. Two main things can be done to help students understand the culture of the book. The first is having a speaker come into the class to discuss experiences that parallel those in the book. This may also include a trip to experience Chicano culture, such as an authentic restaurant that immerses students in rich culture. The second is using a text set that is focused on socio-economic problems of Chicanos, allowing to students to explore, according to their own interest.

If time permits, this book would fit well into a unit that allows students time to research their own culture. That could include:
  • Names: The reason their parents gave them their name; what it means, it's linguistic origin
  • Family Tree: Have students gather as much information about names and relationships in their family. Give a prize for the student who can fill in the most names on the tree.
  • Family traditions: What does each student do for holidays, birthdays, religious traditions, food, and other traditions. Have each student choose one favorite tradition and give a brief oral presentation of that tradition.
  • Family story: Where did your ancestors come from? Why did they come to the United States? How many generations ago? After answering these questions, ask students to choose one person in their family with an interesting story and write it down in narrative form.

Here is a unit plan for a class that implemented a similar project: http://www.sdcoe.k12.ca.us/score/Patch/patchtg.html

Other resources that could help with cultural challenges:

Interview with Sandra Cisneros about language and culture: http://acunix.wheatonma.edu/rpearce/MultiC_Web/Authors/Sandra_Cisneros/sandra_cisneros.html

Site that presents a unit plan with Chicano cultural information as well as excellent resources:

General Resources:

Woman Hollering Creek by Sandra Cisneros

Crossing Over by Ruben Martinez

Excellent discussion questions about the book from Random House:

Collection of notes about the book and questions to ask your students about each section of the book

Short biography of Sandra Cisneros with an excellent bibliography

Essay and possible lesson plan for teaching The House on Mango Street

Web English Teacher

Thomas Trevenen

Teacher Vision

Novel Links

By Kyle Krol
and Christy Yingling