Sandra Cisneros has spent a lifetime trying to discover her own literary voice, only to be drowned out by the mostly white and mostly white voices that she imitated but never identified with. The only daughter in a family with six sons, Cisneros was often the "odd-woman-out-forever" (Ganz 21) early on in life. It was not until she was enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop that she finally discovered that her experience as a woman and a Chicana in a male dominated world was the voice that was uniquely hers.
Cisneros was influenced by her family's constant travels between Mexico and Chicago. Cisneros never had the opportunity to make friends since she was seldom in one place for very long, nor did she have any sisters to confide and identify with. When her family finally settled in a small red house in Chicago, Cisneros had a home and a sense of permanence that she had previously never known. But it was not the house she had dreamed of nor been promised by her father. She had always thought of a house with a green lawn, white picket fence, and a bathroom for every person. Instead she got a dilapidated bungalow in an impoverished inner-city neighborhood. Cisneros described the house as "an ugly little house, bright red as if holding its breath" (Ganz 22). It was this house that inspired her first and most successful novel, The House on Mango Street.
Cisneros' writing has been shaped by her experiences, which have given her a perspective and voice very different from traditional American writers, such as Poe, Thoreau, and Emerson. These are the writers that have helped comprise the literary cannon of the United States for nearly two hundred years. She has something to say that they do not know about. The House on Mango Street is an elegant literary piece, somewhere between fiction and poetry, that explores issues that are important to her: feminism, love, oppression, and religion (Mathias 4). In addition to addressing these issues, Cisneros is also propelling Chicana literature into the larger macrocosmic white male club that governs the United States (Lucero-Trujillo 621). One of the tools utilized by Cisneros to achieve these goals is the use of symbolism in her writing.
The House on Mango Street reads more as poetry than as a narrative. This is accomplished through the liberal use of color throughout the vignettes. Nearly every passage in this book contains reference to color. Specifically then, it is the symbolic use of color that defines this novel. Even the title of the book brings to mind the ripe color of a mango. It is interesting that she chose Mango Street for the setting. A mango tree is a tropical evergreen cultivated for its edible fruit, which has a smooth rind and sweet, juicy, yellow-orange flesh. In much the same way, Esperanza is the young tree, waiting to mature and be cultivated. She too will eventually get to show brighter colors. "They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them. Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine. Four who do not belong here but are here" (Cisneros 74). Esperanza and Cisneros both identify themselves as young immature trees, that cannot be understood until they grow fruit. The use of color serves a dual symbolic purpose. The barrios that Cisneros and her title character, Esperanza, live in are usually gray and void of any other color. As children, they had very little in terms of material possessions, yet they were keenly aware of the beauty of color, which was free and could not be taken from them. Thus color is used to give life to the barrio. Just as Steven Speilberg used the little red dress as the only color in Shindler's List, Cisneros paints her world in vivid colors to highlight small things that took on greater meaning for her. She remembers the yellow Cadillac, grandma's pink feet dressed in velvety heels, her new dress, pink with white stripes, and ,of course, her brown and white saddle shoes. Thus it is color itself, not the individual hues and shades, that is symbolic. In this way color is used as ironic symbolism to illustrate that the barrio,s, while poor, was still full of vibrant life.
These colors do more than liven up the drab barrios, however. They are also used as symbolic representations of their lives. Thus each color becomes symbolic in and of itself, not only as a whole spectrum . Esperanza constantly identifies with the color pink, which is often representative of femininity. In her own life, Cisneros was always trying to retain her female identity. Her father would constantly "boast or complain" that he had seven sons. She writes that he meant siete hijos, seven children, and that she is sure that he didn't mean anything by that mistranslation. Cisneros could feel herself being erased and would tug her father's sleeve and whisper: 'not seven sons. Six! And one daughter' (Ganz 20).
Pink is use in a dual yet collaborative manner. As noted, pink is often associated with femininity. It is also symbolic of innocence. These two meanings, when cast together, show the innocence and naiveté of Esperanza's childhood. Cisneros use the color pink often in the early stages of the novel, up until the carnival. She talks about The Family of Little Feet, where grandma's feet were "lovely as pink pearls...because they were pretty" (Cisneros 39). In Chanclas, Esperanza receives a new dress and a new slip "with a little rose on it and a pink-and-white striped dress" (46). Pink is even used to graphically show Esperanza's naiveté in The Earl of Tennessee. When Esperanza sees who she thinks is Earl's wife, she is "a tall red-headed lady who wears tight pink pants" (71). In her innocence, Esperanza does not realize that this woman is not Earl's wife, but a prostitute. After the carnival, where Esperanza loses her innocence, the color pink is never mentioned again.
As Esperanza grows from innocence to maturity, the colors around her progress as well. From the innocence of pink, Esperanza notices the green in her life, which is still a time of learning and newness. In Geraldo No Last Name, the thing that stands out in Esperanza's mind is his green pants. That is all she can remember about the boy she danced with who died the night she danced with him. This is her first experience with death, but she does not remember black, the color of death. Instead she focuses on the color green, which is more symbolic of life, for this is just another step in her understanding of the trivial nature of life. Later, when recounting the Monkey Garden, she remembers the green apples, "hard as knees" (Cisneros 95). The garden is a major turning point in the learning process for Esperanza, a place where she slowly becomes aware of her naiveté.
The garden is a common symbol throughout literature. The garden is usually a religious symbol, representative of the Garden of Eden. Just as the Garden of Eden was a place for the loss of innocence, literary gardens are also the source of a heroine's (Eve) loss of innocence and virtue. This holds true from biblical times to Hawthorne's Rappaccini's Daughter to The House on Mango Street. The Monkey Garden is Esperanza's Garden of Eden. It is here that she becomes aware of the world of sexuality when her friend Sally goes with the boys to kiss them. "One of Tito's friends said you can't get the keys back unless you kiss is and Sally pretended to be mad at first but she said yes. It was that simple" (96). Esperanza realizes that Sally is not as naïve as she once believed her to be. The big green apples that Esperanza remembers are clearly a reference to the apple in the Garden of Eden that led to Eve's downfall and human mortality. Yet Esperanza's apples are not red, like Eve's apple. Eve's red apple symbolizes the lust that accompanied the sin of eating the apple. Esperanza's green apple shows growth and newness, which is what Esperanza will take away from the Monkey Garden. She is not the one to commit the sin, but she is privy to it. The monkey is significant also, as he is the serpent of the garden. Esperanza fears the monkey, just as Adam and Eve were initially cautious of the serpent.
Yellow, which normally conjures images of cowardice, is used to represent bold and daring things for Esperanza. She notes the yellow Cadillac in her neighborhood, a shiny symbol of things she can only dream of. Similarly, when she puts on the yellow high heeled shoes, Esperanza feels like Cinderella, and it is "scary to look down at your foot that is no longer yours and see attached a long leg" (40). But the representation of cowardice is not completely disregarded. These yellow things are still things that hold the allure of fear and unknown for Esperanza. Yellow even plays a role in the names of the characters and settings in Cisneros' work. One of the reasons that Cisneros's stories resonate with such genuineness is that her indispensable source for names and other cultural information is the San Antonio Yellow pages (Ganz 26).
The color that holds the most significance in this story is red. Red can denote blood, fear, bravery, or lust. For Esperanza, it is at times all of these, but it takes on its greatest meaning at the carnival where she is raped and loses her innocence forever. " I was waiting by the red clowns" (99), and then after it's over "the red clowns laughing their thick-tongue laugh" (100). Throughout this tragic moment, the only color that she can remember is red, symbolic of the broken hymen and the loss of her innocence. Not surprisingly, it is at this point that all of the colors of her world begin to whirl. "Then the colors began to whirl. Sky tipped. Their high black gym shoes ran" (100). After this incident, Esperanza would probably know that the red-headed woman was not Earl's wife, just as all earlier representations of red would have changed for her.
The clowns are also important symbols in and of themselves. Most people think of clowns as happy and safe. But for some, clowns are merely masks of the true feelings of humanity. These clowns are not safe for Esperanza. Instead they are a reminder of her helplessness during the rape. They are symbolic of the mask of ignorance and indifference worn by the passersby who did not come to her aide.
The House on Mango Street is an autobiographical account of Cisneros's childhood. The characters are created from the neighbors of her youth. Cisneros creates what she calls a "deluge of voices"- they are the expressions of her immediate family, of the Chicano-Riqueno community she grew up in, and the voices form her life both between and as a part of the two cultures in which she now dwells (Ganz 25). She feels under pressure as the first Chicana to enter the mainstream of literary culture. Until the publication of The House on Mango Street, the Chicano literature that had crossed over into the mainstream remained a male domain- Gary Soto, Luis Valdez, Richard Rodriquez, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Alberto Rios and Rudolfo Anaya had all made the transition. Women were unrepresented there until Cisneros's recent successes (27). Cisneros is able to bring her characters to life with her rich use of symbolism. If these seem like colorful characters, it is because Cisneros has intentionally painted them with the colors of her imagination to create a world that stands in contrast to the otherwise bleakness of her surroundings. Cisneros has broken a silence that has run long and deep which previous decades of racism, poverty and gender marginilization had suppressed (24).
- Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Contemporaries, 1984.
- Ganz, Robin. "Border Crossings and Beyond." Melus. Amherst, MA. Vol 19. No. 4. Winter 1994. 19-28.
- Lucero-Trujillo, Marcela Christine. "The Dilemma of the Modern Chicana Artist and Critic." The Woman That I Am. Ed. D. Soyini Madison. New York: St. Martin's, 1994. 619-626.
- Mathias, Kelly. "Voices From the Gap." The University of Minnesota. 12 Dec 96. Http://english.cla.umn.edu/lkd/vfg/Authors/SandraCisneros