By E.A. Barrera
"Our attitude toward immigration reflects our faith in the American ideal. We have always believed it possible for men and women who start at the bottom to rise as far as their talent and energy allow. Neither race nor creed nor place of birth affect their chances.”
-Robert F. Kennedy, 1964
The dreams people live with as they move through life - they will either set us free or crush us in disappointment. Sandra Cisneros speaks of the dreams a young girl and the people around her employ to get them through the day. It is the dream of the immigrant idealized by the Statue of Liberty. It is the reality of the life spent hoping for a better tomorrow because the nightmare of today can butcher us if we forget that dream.
Sandra Cisneros’ 1984 novel The House on Mango Street is both the dream and the nightmare for a nation of immigrants who can’t accept their condition - or their history. Throughout the novel (an integrated collection of short tales and memories), there is a tone of despair which is thick and unavoidable. History connects poverty and the immigrant as surely as it does wealth and the establishment. This has always been the underside of the American notion of the melting pot. Cisneros’ canvas is loaded with the colors and strokes of an artist recreating a surreal, oxymoronic experience.
Like gripping photographs which materialize during and after a war, we look into the world Cisneros creates and are disgusted by the content, yet mesmerized by the description. Beautiful-Ugliness. Esperanza’s eyes see the degradation and abuse in her world, but with the child’s innocence that can’t understand its depth.
A child growing-up in a world where women are beaten daily by the husbands who are supposed to protect them. A child who hears the ridicule of others when she tells them which house is her home. A young girl who is being pulled into a sexuality she is not ready to shoulder, because the world she lives in doesn’t believe in her right to maintain her innocence. This is that freedom the huddled masses yearn for, flipped on it’s stomach and sodimized. Yes, we are most assuredly a nation comprised of immigrants. But the passage these immigrants must take before entering into the great melting pot where freedom and dreams supposedly reside, can only be called hell on Earth.
In one story entitled “Bums in the Attic”, Esperanza dreams of a day when she will own a home on top of a hill and can house bums in her attic.
“I won’t forget who I am or where I come from...because I know how it is to be without a house,” says Esperanza.
Cisneros plays with the readers concepts in using the term “bums.” It is a combination of anger at the rich who have forgotten where they started, mixed with a child’s sweet willingness to see redemption in people who may or may not be “bums”. In “Bums in the Attic” they are the huddled masses needing help from one of their own who has done well.
Yet earlier in another story called “The Family of Little Feet,” Cisneros uses the term “bum” to describe the type of man who will attempt to corrupt a young girl.
“If I give you a dollar, will you kiss me?” says the “bum man” to the young girl.
Implicit in this question is the obvious next step, which would be the “bum man” paying the young girl for sex. This implication raises many questions later within “Bums in the Attic.” During Esperanza’s fantasy about housing the indigent, she concludes with an imaginary exchange:
“Some days after dinner, guests and I will sit in front of a fire,” says Esperanza. “Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble. Rats? they’ll ask. Bums, I’ll say, and I’ll be happy.”
Is Cisneros making a comment on the freedom a woman has when she owns her own home controls her own life and therefore becomes sexually liberated? Or is she making observations on the varying degrees of “bum men” in this world? Which ever the case (and in all likelihood it is a combination of both) Cisneros is determined to confuse our perceptions and question our concepts.
In the story “The Monkey Garden,” a playground that once was a place of innocent fantasy for children, is turned into a junk yard where a girl will “kiss” a group of boys so as to be popular. Cisneros is determined to portray every moment of innocence ultimately sullied by life. The symbols of childhood joy are remade into nightmares. There is the old man who acts like a grandfather to Esperanza in “The First Job,” tricking her into a sexual kiss. There is the innocence of first love in “Chanclas” or sexual awakening in “Sire.” This becomes the terror of “Red Clowns” - the rape of Esperanza at a carnival she only attended so as to be with her friend - the same friend who told her to go away in the “Monkey Garden.”
The beautiful sights a young girl notices are turned into the ugly reality a young woman must confront. Innocence is not a part of life the immigrant is allowed to keep. It is ripped away once childhood is gone. This may be a universal condition all people face, but for the immigrant in America, it is a condition faced much sooner and with dreadful insensitivity.
In Cisneros’ novel, there are echoes of Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty. Johnson began his career as a teacher in the “Mexican” School at Cotulla, Texas. In 1965, during his speech to a joint session of Congress where he introduced the landmark Voting Rights Act, Johnson observed that he could see in his students “…who knew in their youth the pain of prejudice....I saw it in their eyes.”
“It never occurred to me in my fondest dreams that I might have the chance to help the sons and daughters of those students and to help people like them all over this country. But now I do have that chance - and I’ll let you in on a secret - I mean to use it,” said the President.
Much of that sentiment can be found in The House on Mango Street. Sandra Cisneros is a woman who came from the types of people and streets that Esperanza Cordero and her friends are from. By illustrating the trials these characters face as new generation immigrants in America, she is determined to make us feel their despair. But in that despair, there is always the hope that tomorrow will bring about a reward for the suffering of today. As with LBJ, Cisneros has made it her mission to do something about the plight of the people she grew-up around. Underneath all the hope-turned-to-horror is still the dream. We are a nation of immigrants yearning to breathe free. We are a people yearning to live up to our ideals. We are a country intertwined in a beautiful-ugliness that one day hopes to simply be beautiful.