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The Reading Quilt: ‘The House on Mango Street’

It’s a coming-of-age story about being Mexican American in Chicago.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

If you have a home where you can shelter in place during the quarantine, count your blessings. In January, there were more than 1,000 homeless or residentially challenged Philadelphians. Especially during the pandemic, they stood in stark contrast to people who are in “quarantine and chill” mode, with Netflix and TikTok as anchors in the storm.

During this virus outbreak, people have the opportunity to see their houses and neighbors in a whole new light. With some extra time on their hands, neighbors are connecting through socially distant experiences that celebrate fitness and the arts. Consider the many weeks of virtual Zumba classes, grab-and-go play bags, and Zoom wine tastings that have made bearable our work-from-home mandates.

In her novel The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros uses vivid imagery to share her cultural experiences. We experience the main character’s world through poignant and insightful vignettes that show the reader snippets of life as a Latina coming of age in the poorest part of Chicago.

Each month, “The Reading Quilt” provides a short review of a book or play that a teacher may use to spark conversations about culture and race, along with a learning activity that may help students understand human behavior. Using the acronym QUILT, we offer readers information about the Quality of writing, Universal theme, and Imaginative plot, as well as a mini Lesson plan, and Talking points that stem from the book’s premise.

This month’s selection is The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

Sandra Cisneros, whose first book, The House on Mango Street (1984), helped her gain acclaim as a gifted vignette writer, is considered a poet by many people. Born in Chicago on Dec. 20, 1954, Cisneros was the third of seven children. Her parents, Alfredo Cisneros de Moral and Elvira Cordero Anguiano, raised Sandra and her siblings in Chicago. When Cisneros was 11 years old, her family moved to Humboldt Park, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago that became the inspiration for Cisneros’ first book. While attending a Catholic girls’ high school, Cisneros met a teacher who inspired her to write poetry. Her love for poetry bloomed in college, where she began to explore her intersectionality of being a Mexican American woman.

Quality of writing: Cisneros offers a window into the life of Esperanza Cordero, a young girl living in impoverished Chicago. With stark honesty and colloquial language, Cisneros paints a collage of the people and circumstances that she encounters in her neighborhood. Using authentic descriptions, she makes the reader privy to her mixed bag of feelings. Cisneros offers shame, pride, and disdain in episodic notes that leave the reader thoughtful.

Universal theme: The coming-of-age theme is a popular one in young adult fiction. In Cisneros’ novel, Esperanza’s keen exploration of her life and culture is proof of her budding adulthood. Sometimes, with child-like eyes, Esperanza details adult encounters that leave the reader feeling sorry for her. This is true when an old Asian man kisses her full on the mouth without her consent.

Imaginative plot: Cisneros’ sketches of Esperanza Cordero describe a year of her life. In that year, Esperanza moved into a broken-down palace on Mango Street. It is her parents’ pride and the object of her disdain. While living on Mango Street, Esperanza meets her neighbors. Despite her mature view of people’s idiosyncratic behaviors, Esperanza is just 12 years old. In a poetic style, Cisneros reveals Esperanza’s encounters with poverty, sex, and sexual assault. In the end, Cisneros leaves her neighborhood, but carries Mango Street and “the ones who cannot out” in her psyche.

Lesson plan: As the child of a Mexican father and a Mexican American mother, Cisneros bounced back and forth between Mexico and the United States. Students can learn the history of Mexico’s relationship with the United States and something about what it means to be Mexican American.

Talking points:

  1. What terms are used in reference to Mexican people? Can you explain terms like Latino, Chicano, Hispanic, Mexican descent, and Mexican American?
  2. What is the history of the Mexico-United States border? Describe the controversies and disputes relating to this border.
  3. How are Mexican Americans and people of Mexican descent portrayed in the media? How do these images affect your feelings about Mexican Americans or their culture?

Dr. Rachel Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. Her new book, titled “Turning the Page: The Ultimate Guide for Teachers to Multicultural Literature” will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in 2020. To contact her, email literacyuniversity@gmail.com. For other multicultural book suggestions, visit literacyuniversity.org.