Reading Questions for Sandra Cisneros’
The House on Mango Street
Sandra Cisneros (born 1954) is arguably one of the premier Latina fiction writers living today. Born in Chicago the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she grew up poor, and her family migrated back and forth between Chicago and Mexico City. Her family eventually bought a house in a Hispanic neighborhood in Chicago, and she attended Catholic school. She took creative writing as a college student, and graduated from Loyola University in 1976, specializing in creative writing, but ignored her own life experience and tended to write about alien topics in the vein of famous poets. She earned a Master’s degree from the University of Iowa from 1976-1978, and during that time she rejected her previous fascination with the great (white, male) poets and began to embrace her cultural heritage and write about it.
She worked for a time teaching high school to poor barrio children, as an administrative assistant at the University of Iowa, and in her spare time, wrote a book about her childhood: The House on Mango Street. When it came out in 1984, it was a huge sensation, and on the strength of her literary success, she gained a series of visiting professor or “writer in residence” jobs at various American Universities. If you Google her, Wikipedia will tell you that she taught “creative writing at institutions such as the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Michigan.” It does not mention that in the 1987-1988 school year, she was a visiting professor at California State University, Chico, where she taught a young English major named Cheryl Cardoza, and where she encountered a young history major named Thomas Cardoza. I could tell you stories, but I will not. I’ll just say that her outspoken and uncompromising personality tended to upset and alienate many people, but on the plus side, she was a genuine and decent person in my experience.
She eventually left academic life and for years lived alone San Antonio, Texas, where she painted her house bright pink. This seriously annoyed her neighbors, but eventually they got used to it. (Hmmm...that might be a metaphor for all sorts of things in American history and life.) More recently, she moved to San Miguel de Allende in Guanajuato State in Central Mexico. She continues to write and to engage in various forms of political activism. Whether you like her or not, and whether you enjoy the book or not, it is one of the most important pieces of modern American culture, and perhaps the best literary expression of what it means to grow up as a Latina in American society.
Her website is:
For our class, use the 2009 Random House paperback: ISBN: 9780679734772. That will ensure that everyone is on the same page.
1. What is Esperanza like? How does she change over the course of the year and why? What does this tell us about growing up in a poor, minority neighborhood?
2. Why did Cisneros choose the unusual structure she did for the book? How does that structure influence the very nature of the story, and our perceptions of it? How would it’s meaning be different if it were a traditional novel?
3. What character names, place names, word choices, and events struck you as particularly important or symbolic? Why? What effect do they have on the story and our perceptions of it?
4. What is The House like? Why is it better than the family’s previous dwellings? What are its shortcomings? What does this tell us about life as a poor immigrant family in America?
5. What is the neighborhood like? Think about the details of people, buildings, businesses, moods, and events, and compare it to the neighborhood where you grew up. How similar is it? How different? Why?
6. How does the book portray gender? Specifically, what is it like to be a woman (or a girl) in this book, and how does it differ from being male? How do the men in the story treat women? How do women treat themselves and other women?
7. What is daily life in the barrio like? What are its defining characteristics?
8. How much prejudice or racism appears in the book? What forms (overt and subtle) does it take, and with what results?
9. As Esperanza grows up, what are her dreams and wishes? How do they reflect her experiences on Mango Street, and to what extent are they realistic? Are they largely positive or negative in your view?
10. Overall, how would you describe the tone of this book? Is it light, dark, comedic, tragic? Is it, all things considered, a positive or a negative story?
11. Which story from the book struck you as the most important to the book’s overall meaning and why? Which was your favorite?
12. Overall, what is the thesis of this book?