In high school she wrote poetry and was the literary magazine editor, but, according to Cisneros, she didn't really start writing until her first creative writing class in college in 1974. After that it took a while to find her own voice. She explains, "I rejected what was at hand and emulated the voices of the poets I admired in books: big male voices like James Wright and Richard Hugo and Theodore Roethke, all wrong for me.
Cisneros then realized that she needed to write what she knew, and adopted a writing style that was purposely opposite that of her classmates. Five years after receiving her MA from the writing program at the University of Iowa, she returned to Loyola University in Chicago, where she had previously earned a BA in English, to work as an administrative assistant. Prior to this job, she worked in the Chicano barrio in Chicago teaching to high school dropouts. Through these jobs, she gained more experience with the problems of young Latinos.
Among her honors are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation. She has taught many colleges and universities, including the University of California, University of Michigan, and the University of New Mexico. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.
The plot is about Esperanza Cordero and her struggles growing up on Mango Street in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.
The title is in reference to the house that Esperanza and her family move into at the beginning of the novella.
The set of vignettes charts her life as Esperanza matures during the year, both physically and emotionally. She begins to write as a way of expressing herself and as a way to escape the suffocating effect of the neighborhood. The novella also includes the stories of many of Esperanza’s neighbors, giving a full picture of the neighborhood and showing the many influences surrounding her. Esperanza quickly befriends Lucy and Rachel, two Chicana girls who live across the street. Lucy, Rachel, Esperanza, and Esperanza’s little sister, Nenny, have many adventures in the small space of their neighborhood.
Esperanza later slips into puberty and begins to like it when boys watch her dance. Esperanza's newfound views lead her to become friends with Sally, a girl her age who uses boys as an escape from her abusive father. Esperanza is not completely comfortable with Sally’s sexuality. Their friendship is compromised when Sally ditches Esperanza for a boy at a carnival. As a result Esperanza is sexually assaulted by a group of boys at the carnival. Earlier at her first job, an elderly Asian man orders her to kiss him. Esperanza’s traumatic experiences and observations of the women in her neighborhood cement her desire to escape Mango Street. She later realizes that she will never fully be able to leave Mango Street behind. She vows that after she leaves she will return to help the people she has left behind.
"Their arms were little, and their hands were little, and their height was not tall, and their feet very small" (39).
Each vignette can stand as an independent mini-story. The vignettes don't connect to one another, although they often mention characters introduced in earlier sections. The conflicts and problems in these short stories are never fully resolved, just as the futures of people in the neighborhood are often uncertain. The overall tone is earnest and intimate, with very little distance between the reader and the narrator. At times the tone also varies from pessimistic to hopeful, as Esperanza herself sometimes expresses her jaded views on life:
"I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go" (5).
Esperanza regards the house on Mango Street as simply a house she lives in and not her home. When she was younger and constantly on the move from apartment to apartment her parents promised her a real home with a green yard, real stairs, and running water with pipes that worked. She dislikes the house on Mango Street because its sad appearance and cramped quarters are completely contrary to the idealistic home she always pictured. She describes the house as:
"...small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in" (4).
Esperanza is ashamed to point out her house to strangers and retains the notion that one day she will have a real home.
Each vignette has a separate theme which is left for the reader to uncover.
1991, The United States, Vintage Contemporaries ISBN 0679734775, Pub date 3 April 1991, paperback