The House on Mango Street is a book of forty-four vignettes, showing what life is like for a little girl growing up. Throughout the novel, Esperanza Cordero, the narrator and central character, learns to deal with the traditions and stereotypes of growing up Hispanic.
Esperanza first introduces us to the places in which she has lived, none of them up to her standards and all what her parents have considered “temporary”. When her family finally moves to a home (instead of just an apartment) that they can call their own, Esperanza is again disappointed; it isn’t the fancy house, with a nice yard and big windows that she’s always wanted.
She then introduces her family, which consists of her mother, father, two brothers, and her younger sister, Nenny (for whom she feels responsible). She talks about how she would like to have friends, but does not have any. She also goes into great detail about how little she likes her name, because she feels that it has set her up poorly for life. Though the name, Esperanza, means hope in English, in Spanish it connotes sadness and waiting. This explanation sets the reader up for what is to come through most of the book: the tale of a girl who is generally unhappy, and who always seems to be waiting for the better things to come.
Esperanza introduces her neighbors. They are people from all walks: crazy-cat-women, daydreaming teenagers, criminals, excitable little girls, and more. Esperanza, in between describing the people who surround her, relates her morals and beliefs. She thinks people who come into her neighborhood are usually scared (intimating that the residents seem ghetto, or dangerous because they are poor and not Caucasian) and that Hispanic girls are expected to take care of their families. She also implies that Hispanic fathers are heavy-handed and that kids (especially girls) are scared of them.
There is a vignette about shoes, in which Esperanza, her sister, and the two girls who have moved in next door get some fancy, high heeled shoes. They are very grown up shoes. We can catch a glimpse at how much Esperanza wants to grow up, but after they are approached by a vagrant offering a dollar to kiss them, she and the others aren’t upset when the shoes are thrown away. Here, the reader sees Esperanza’s disparate and complicated feelings about coming of age; she badly wants to grow up and get away from her life on Mango Street, but she is also scared by the thought of it.
In the vignette “Hips”, the reader gets a glimpse of the two sides very clearly. Esperanza is suddenly developing a womanly body, but she is still playing double-dutch with her friends, and reciting childish rhymes. Immediately following, is an explanation of how she gets her first job. She is forced into a kiss by an old man at work. She isn’t happy about it, and it isn’t the last time a male character will assault her. A recurring theme is how, in her view, boys and men are not respectful to girls and women.
She describes the death of a few family members. With them, we can see Esperanza’s sadness and guilt. She seems to deeply care about people, despite having a very “teenage”, superficial view of them. We also learn that she believes in fortune tellers. After her aunt Lupe dies, shortly after telling Esperanza she should keep writing, Esperanza goes to have her fortune told.
The reader is introduced to more characters, each painting a picture of Esperanza’s feelings through her reactions to their situations. Her mother is sad that she did not become a painter, and we see Esperanza’s inspiration to succeed. We meet a neighbor who is beaten by her husband, and Esperanza states she won’t sit back and wait to have a ball and chain put around her neck.
The end of the book brings Esperanza’s story full circle: she is back to thinking about herself as simply an ugly daughter who longs for more in her life. She does however, say “I have begun my own quiet war”, indicating that she plans to change the things she does not accept, like feeling inadequate, being considered “just an inferior girl”, and living the way men expect her to. She decides that she will have a home that is all her own, not her father’s, or anybody else’s. She will have something to call her own.