This book is so powerful because Sandra Cisneros gives a first-hand account of the everyday magic and misery of young Esperanza, simultaneously applying themes of her desire for escape and love for the people and bittersweet childhood of Mango Street. In many other novels of this sort, the dialog comes across as an extended complaint, a long and tiresome negative report of how down-trodden and hopeless is a given situation, and how arrogantly nonchalant are those who benefit from or cause it. The beauty of this book is Cisneros’ deft mingling of Mango Street’s poverty and low social status with its inherently human beauty and magic when seen through the eyes of a young girl. Mango Street’s humanly rich qualities are what will bring Esperanza back. The mayor won’t help Mango Street, so who will? Clearly, at the end of the book, she will.
Her telling of their story in such a positive and invigorating light might change the mayor’s mind. Reading Cisneros’ brief biography on the last page says that she taught high school drop-outs, probably not from towns like Amherst or Acton, but from neighborhoods like Mango Street. Seldom can an author make a pointed social and political statement about poverty and social stratification without making it oppressive and depressing. Esperanza realizes her situation enough to want to escape it. She sympathizes with her father who wakes up in the dark every morning and is gone before the rest of the house is awake. But she is at the same time wonderfully innocent.
She and her friends believe that the Earl of Tennessee’s prostitutes are his wife, and no one can agree on what she looks like.
This book is like a photo album, there is no chronological story, but each snap-shot a whole story in itself. Interspersed throughout the Mango Street-specific bits, are pieces of timeless relevance, like “A Rice Sandwich.” This sketch tells the timeless truth that you always want what you don’t have, but once you get it, it’s not so great anymore. “Canteen! Even the word sounds important!” She doesn’t belong there, and the kids who do are probably wishing they could go home for lunch. In its larger truth, “A Rice Sandwich” reflects back into Esperanza’s Mango Street situation.
She wants a real house all to herself, “clean like paper before the poem.” But Esperanza would probably be very lonely in such a house, and suddenly it would not be quite what she thought. She wants to escape from Mango Street, but the last bit is about her coming back. Why? Because she cannot forget where she came from, and leaving is only coming back.