Thursday, October 7, 2010

Looking Out Her Window: A reflection on Esperanza’s worldview

Sandra Cisnero’s book The House on Mango Street is a novel that is best described as poetry in prose. Each chapter, described as vignettes, or “short, impressionistic scenes,” contains a snapshot of the life of Esperanza, a young girl coming-of-age in a Chicano barrio in Chicago. The basic plot of the book is that Esperanza’s family has just moved to a house on Mango Street that they bought. It is the first house they have lived in that they did not rent, but it is not necessarily the house they always dreamed of. As Esperanza grows up, she learns lots of life lessons that could not have been learned anywhere else and gives us a unique perspective on life in this barrio. Each little vignette, while not always connected to the one before or after, gives a little picture of her life and some value or insight she learned.

I chose this book because I teach Spanish but am a nonnative speaker with limited exposure to Hispanic culture. This book gave me an intimate insight into this culture of Hispanics living in the US. I was moved by, and unfortunately could identify with, one passage titled, “Those Who Don’t.” Here is a short excerpt:

Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. The think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake…All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.

There is a lot written by and about Hispanic culture that explores this idea of “otherness” and how it affects the way we perceive each other. It is a bit chilling to see this through the eyes of a young girl and realize we are all being very silly and ignorant.

One of my favorite vignettes is called “A Smart Cookie” and is one in which Esperanza tells about her mom reminiscing that she “could’ve been somebody” but didn’t because she didn’t have nice clothes. This really reflects some of the cultural norms that some of us overlook. I come from a low socioeconomic background and my clothes were mostly secondhand growing up. I can remember being picked on school for not having name-brand clothing but I don’t think I would have ever thought of it as an impediment of that magnitude. I think that the culture norm engrained in me of not caring what others think, kept this from affecting me the way it did Esperanza’s mom.

My absolute favorite is the chapter called “My Name,” probably because it focuses on the way the language barrier effects how Esperanza thinks about herself and it is the language and the sounds it makes that most interests me. The majority of this passage is also quoted at the very beginning of the book.

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters…At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish is made out of softer something…But I am always Esperanza.

She identifies as just herself even though she recognizes that she isn’t seen the same way by different people.

There are so many cultural experiences that are totally foreign to me in this book, like visiting a fortune teller and playing Double Dutch, but there are some that ring very true as well, like reflections on being smart instead of pretty and the sometimes fickle nature of friendship. This book has helped me see that no matter how different we are, we all have something in common and we all have something to teach each other. Although she is a fictional character, by the end of the book I feel like I’ve made a new friend in little Esperanza and I’m glad to have gotten to see out her little window on the world.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to catch a new perspective on the world. Whether your interest is Hispanic culture in particular or not, the book is a wonderful insight on our neighbors here in the US. This would be a great text to use in the classroom in a variety of ways. The short length of each vignette makes it perfect for any assignment. You could have students read the entire book, which is only about 110 pages or only one or two short passages. The level of depth and research on any one piece could be adjusted based on your learners and the time you have. Another interesting aspect to this text is the multiple ways to approach it. It could be approached from most any discipline. There is the “coming-of-age” piece that might be relevant to young high school students. It could be used for reading comprehension or literature analysis. As I mentioned above, it takes a very insider look on the idea of “otherness” that could be explored from a literary, political, cultural, or historical perspective. There is so much depth in this little novel. I imagine it could be useful to most teachers in some way, even if it is only as a personal reading to expand your own perspective on a culture that, in all likelihood, some of your own students share. Take a look out of Esperanza’s window too and you will not be disappointed at the richness you find there.

Given as presentation for a course:

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