By Alexander Pascual
From the Mass Communication Department’s 2016 Photojournalism Exhibit
The idea of “finding home” has been a common theme expressed in literature for as long as humans have been living—from the age of cavemen, to the times of colonization, and even now in our ever-migrating society. However, this very concept is also a theme often overlooked for the assumption that finding home is something simple and is a concept so easily understood. But is it really? In this world, there are two types of people: the homed and the homeless. The former speaks of people who are fortunate to have a place in which they can gravitate to for comfort at the end of the day. The latter speaks of the less fortunate, or those who are without luxury, without security, and without a place of solace. However, the term “homeless” may not only describe a person without a house or a physical construction to call home, for there are people who live in houses but still feel strange and displaced too. In Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, protagonist Esperanza Cordero is not homeless in the most technical sense as she lives in a house with her family in Chicago, but she is homeless in the sense that she feels a strong disconnect between herself and this place in question: “No, this isn’t my house…I don’t belong. I don’t ever want to come from here. You have a home…and one day you’ll go there, to a town you remember, but me I never had a house” (106-107).
In Cisneros’ novel, home is a prominent motif as Esperanza continuously points out how she “had to have a house…a real house” and that” the house on Mango Street isn’t it” (5). Her dissatisfaction of home is blatantly clear to the reader, but the reasons she has for disowning Mango Street as her home is more or less vague. This then prods the question: what exactly constitutes as a “real” home? Most people familiarize home with the four walls and a roof in which they were raised in as a child. Others describe home as a place in which they currently live or have lived for a good portion of their lives. By these descriptions, the concepts of this subject matter both suggest the context that a home should be a physical structure, or a place that is stationary and unchanging—something Esperanza already has with her house on Mango Street. Yet, she is still dissatisfied. The term “home” could also encapsulate a meaning much more beyond a physical location. The word “home” suggests a place of sanctuary, warmth, and belonging. Home is anywhere a person can return to. And ultimately, home is the critical foundation for establishing an identity—where one flourishes a personality and develops a self. For Esperanza, perhaps these latter aspects of a “real” home are the true things she feels is missing in Mango Street.
Cisneros’ novel also speaks to an issue that many people eventually face in life, and that is “feeling lost,” or in other words, losing a connection to a place, feeling a detached sense of belonging, and having the desire to step away from where one grew up. Throughout the novel, Esperanza often expresses the idea of moving out and finding her place in the world: “One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from…because I know how it is to be without a house” (87). The romantic notion of leaving home and traveling to someplace new in hopes of finding a place to belong to is a feeling not uncommon with many. Perhaps this notion of going away, coupled with the issue of feeling distant from the people of Mango, and the fear of being entrapped in such a neighborhood may be the three opposing forces that drive Esperanza to feel ultimately homeless.
Naturally, an ideal home is supposed to provide a person with support, refuge, and a sense of belonging, but Esperanza has had every reason to feel ostracized in her neighborhood from the start. For one, she lives in fear of ridicule from the kids at school who pronounce her name wrong, or “as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth” (11). This causes her to develop social insecurities and a more reticent personality, both of which deter her from having a normal social life. Also, Esperanza expresses the desire to create lasting friendships with children from her neighborhood: “someday I will have a best friend all my own” (9); however, she never truly does. She manages to make several friendships with the kids on Mango Street like Lucy and Rachel, who seem quite normal, but also with peculiar characters like Cathy, who would only be her friend “till next Tuesday” (13), which then further embeds the idea of a fleeting permanence in Esperanza, as if everyone in her life will be there for her only temporarily.
From here, we see that Esperanza becomes socially fragmented from her surroundings; there exists a disconnect between her and the people of Mango Street. Many times she describes herself as insignificant in her neighborhood like “a tiny thing against so many bricks,” or as a parallel to the trees outside her house “who do not belong here but are here” (74 – 75). In one of the chapters, Esperanza poses a string of questions in which she consciously intends to ask a girl named Sally:
Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn’t have to go home? Do you wish your feet would
one day keep walking and take you far away from Mango Street, far away and maybe
your feet would stop in front of a house, a nice one with flowers and big windows and
steps for you to climb…you wouldn’t have to worry what people said because you never
belonged here anyway and nobody could make you sad. (82-83)
This piece of monologue is clearly rhetorical as Sally never gets to hear these words from Esperanza’s head, and thus, the text is actually an indication of Esperanza’s subconscious thoughts. The projection of these thoughts speak more so of her own desires to leave the neighborhood than of Sally’s for reasons of feeling as if she does not fit in—evidence to the implication that Esperanza really does feel homeless because she cannot find home within the people closest to her.
Consequently, the severed connection to home and the people of Mango Street fuels Esperanza’s desire to leave the place altogether, which is yet another force that drives in the sense of homelessness. Leaving to find a better home is a recurring subject in the book, whether by conscious decision or not, as is the case of Esperanza telling her wishes to a fortune-teller: “what about a house…that’s what I came for…a house made of heart” (64). In speaking about her house, Esperanza always lends herself to making monotone descriptions like “sad and red and crumbly” (16), but tends to daydream about other houses in a more imaginative light: “like houses I had seen in Mexico…it seemed to feel right” (17 – 18). Esperanza incessantly dreams about finding these idealistic homes she imagines in her head to the point where she no longer cares for leaving her own family. In one chapter, Esperanza insists that her mother allow her to eat at school rather than at home like normal: “You would see me less and less and like me better. Every day at noon my chair would be empty…when I came home finally at three p.m. you would appreciate me” (44). This idea echoes the saying “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” Subconsciously, Esperanza indicates a deeply embedded longing for appreciation from her family, which then translates in her mind to leaving Mango Street to obtain said appreciation. Clearly, Esperanza does not mind being absent from home at all and is rather driven to be away from it.