The House on Mango Street: An Illustration of Machismo

By Sandra Cisneros
By Sandra Cisneros

The concept of Machismo in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street is evident. There are so many instances in which Sandra Cisneros alludes to how women are constantly subjugated under the male domineering foot. The woman’s submission to the man—father, brother, lover and the like—is not always a choice. The choice of submitting these accounts into her story exemplifies the statement that Cisneros wanted to make about the female presence in low-income, urban neighborhoods. The women and girls in the various stories in The House on Mango Street show that they are not in control of the situations they are in, and once they try to take control they ultimately lose it at the hands of the dominant male figure in their lives.

There are many examples of differing and various types of Machismo exemplified in Cisneros’ book. The collection of related short stories offers a brief, yet very in depth view into Hispanic gender culture and social communication. Topics of such male dominant situations include distinctions between men and women, reproduction, manipulation, violence—via quasi-rape and physical abuse—male dependence, and intrafamilial relationships. Some of these topics overlap within each other and spill into one another, but the most evident concept portrayed within this Machismo in The House on Mango Street is the submissive female presence. This feminine presence constitutes about the whole book in which Cisneros obviously opted for a female protagonist and thus opted for a feminine social structure.

Selected chapters in The House on Mango Street portray these female interactions with one another and also with the male dominant figures in these women’s lives. The dialogues between these women and girls show their connections with one another, but also their separation. The separation occurs most evidently because of the male need for control. The female social spheres in this book are a sort-of venn diagram. In the case of The House on Mango Street, there are two women—each makes up a circle in the diagram—and when united, a male figure appears. This diagram does not suggest that the women have the same husband, father, or lover. The diagram suggests the separation between the two women in their social spheres. The men intrude in their social lives—women are more likely to have friends that are women (at least in Hispanic culture)—which allows them to control their basic social needs to communicate.

The intrusion of the male presence in the female social spheres allows the man to control the women’s need to communicate. Since the separation cuts off the ties between women, they are not allowed to share their thoughts with anyone other than the dominant male figure. They are confined to their personal social sphere in which they have to cope with their troubles by themselves. The male figures want dominance; consequently the women’s thoughts are dominated by the man.

Women in a male dominated society
Women in a male dominated society

“Boys and Girls”: Distinctions between the Sexes

Esperanza makes sure the distinction is made between female and male sexes. “The boys and the girls live in separate worlds (8)” starts off the chapter with the acknowledgement of being different. She says that they can say whatever they want to them in the house, but once the boys are outside of the home they need to keep up appearances. Talking to their sisters is not in their best interest as exemplified by “But outside they can’t be seen talking to girls” (8).

What are at stake are the boys’ reputations. They cannot be seen talking to the girls because then they lose their status with their friends and their social spheres are intruded. This cannot happen in a male dominated society—the woman should never interfere with male social spheres—but men can easily intrude into the female social sphere. This type of male privilege is clear in The House on Mango Street and it is made clearer with Esperanza’s distinction between boys and girls.

“There Was an Old Woman Who Had So Many Kids She Didn’t Know What to Do”: Reproduction and Responsibility

One of the earlier instances in which Cisneros alludes to the absence of a male figure still influencing the woman’s life is when she talks about the Vargas’s. Mother Vargas has so many children and Esperanza shares the sentiment that “It’s not her fault you know, except she is their mother and only one against so many” (29) which alludes to the absence of the father. The father did not bear the responsibility in the relationship. Mother Vargas “…cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come” (29) which shows just how much power the man has in a woman’s life.

The father left without any indication why he was so unhappy (probably from having some many children) and thus the mother had no choice but to stay with the children. Since she had so many children she could not keep full attention on each of them. “No wonder why everybody gave up” (30) are Esperanza’s later sentiments which tries to justify slightly Mother Vargas’s negligence—her inadvertent negligence. She has so many kids that after a while it is hard to keep track of them all and they will inevitably chip a buck tooth, get their heads stuck between two slats in the back gate, and drop out of the sky like a sugar donut.

“Sire”: Manipulation?

Sire at first glance seems like a very neutral character in terms of male dominance. But from the description given by Esperanza’s father “He is a punk” (73) it seems likely that he will slip into the male dominant category. Esperanza notes that she sometimes hears them laugh, sees them hold hands, and watches them as he stops to tie her shoes. This is not very typical from the male characters in The House on Mango Street.

One of the more ambiguous parts of the chapter involves Esperanza’s mother saying, “…those kinds of girls, those girls are the ones that go into alleys…Where does he take her?” (73). This references Sire’s character of which the reader is left to decide whether he is like the rest of the male characters in The House on Mango Street. Although he seems like he treats Lois decently is there some devious manipulation going on within this relationship? This is a very cynical view of Sire’s character, but considering most of the male figures in Cisneros’ book as being dominant this speculative perspective might serve as a model. The men that are sweet leave without a trace as to why and the women are left with heartbreak and children. The men in this book show the suffering of women at the hands of male actions and presence.

Male Social Sphere

“Minerva Writes Poems”: Feedback Loop—Machista Vengeance

The point of focus in this chapter is after Esperanza recounts how miserable Minerva’s life is after getting married and having children at such a young age. The point of focus is on Minerva’s act to change her situation where “she is through and lets him know enough is enough” (85). She attempts to better her situation by removing one of the problems in her life: her fleeting and fleeing husband.

The point of departure here is whether the women in The House on Mango Street are willing to fully change their circumstances. In this case, some women do attempt to change their lives by eliminating the male figures in their lives that oppress them. This tactic though is not successful since the women depend on the men and the men sometimes comeback with a vengeance—disrespect equals disrespect—disrespect equals disrespect, an eye for an eye. In Minerva’s case it is noted, “Then he is sorry and she opens the door again. Same story…Next week she comes over black and blue and asks what can she do?” (73) and she is back in the same state (more bruised) she was in before. She reconciles with her husband for only a quick second until he disrespects her—her attempts to rid herself of negativity in her life caused her more negativity. This sort of loop is caused by the Machista pride in which men take vengeance on those who defy their masculinity. Minerva evicted her husband, they claimed peace, and then Minerva is beaten.

“A smart Cookie”: Male Dependence

Esperanza’s accounts of her mother in this chapter show how much potential her mother had if she followed her passions. The realization “I could have been somebody, you know? My mother says and sighs” (90) indicates that the mother did not have plans to become dependent upon her husband. Esperanza’s mother says “That Madame Butterfly was a fool…Look at my comadres. She mean Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead” (91) to show how depending on a man is about the most foolish thing a woman can do when she has potential—when she is a smart cookie.

The mention of these women shows that in The House on Mango Street the women are very dependent on their husbands to survive. Once the male figure leaves, dies, is incarcerated, or in general absent, the woman suffers because she was not the one providing for her family. The man is the one who goes to work and the woman stays in the house and looks after the children and cooks dinner and runs errands. Cisneros notes that they submit to the gender roles that society perceives as the norm—male dependence is the norm.

“What Sally Said”: Intrafamilial Relationships

Sally’s relationship with her father is the classic model for intrafamilial abuse caused by Machista ideology. Sally says, “He never hits me hard” (92) which is her denial to suppress feelings and denial of anything being wrong. The pressure of saying that something is wrong disables her from talking about the truth of the situation. In this case the situation in which “her skin is always scarred” and why she “doesn’t tell about the time he hit her with his hands just like a dog, like if I was an animal” (92) is one of extreme intrafamilial abuse. A period in which he abusive relationship with her father is heightened is when “…he just forgot he was her father between the buckle and the belt” (93) and thus exemplifies his dominance over her body.

This father-daughter relationship in The House on Mango Street further shows the Machista ideology that is practiced within the neighborhood (with Esperanza’s father as an exception because he is not domineering and has a rather detached presence in the family since he works so much). The female presence in Sally’s intrafamilial relationship is submissive and resorts to denying the fact that there is something wrong so that she can ameliorate her condition—she would further worsen her condition with her father if she reported a problem. The male dominant figure in this situation sees women as a property and not as people. The fact that Sally’s father hit her as if she were a dog, an animal, shows that he thinks of her as less than a person. He views her as property, a possession. Her father does not want another male presence to interfere with his possession, and in the end he takes out his frustrations of this male intrusion on his daughter. Male dominance includes male dominance of female bodies.

“Red Clowns”: Quasi-Rape—Taking Advantage

Esperanza is disturbed by an event where she is almost rapped—a circumstance of quasi-rape. Her insistent anger and frustration towards Sally who said she would be waiting by the red clowns and never showed up are frustrations towards the boys who forced themselves into her social sphere. The intrusion of a female sphere into multiple male spheres gives rise to the situation of rape. “What he did. Where he touched me. I didn’t want it Sally” (99) are Esperanza’s words to Sally to clearly state that there was no consent to what the boys did to her. Whether or not she was raped is not clear, but a case can be made for quasi-rape considering that they left in a hurry and she never explicitly stated what happened to her.

This idea of a female social sphere intruding (unintended) multiple male social spheres is one in which rape, quasi-rape, and abuse take place. Since there are more men than women the men take advantage of an opportunity in which they can easily overpower the female presence. There is hardly any struggle since the male dominance is so apparent in numbers. In The House on Mango Street this is the only clear instance that something happened to Esperanza where the male figures forced themselves into her female social sphere (metaphorical, not literal). This concept of men taking advantage—a clear male dominance—shows the evident Machismo in Cisneros text.

“Linoleum Roses”: Marital Relationships

Lastly, Sally finally gets married and is at least somewhat complacent in her new situation “…because now she gets to buy her own things when her husband gives her money” (101). The downside, though, is that she is basically placed under house arrest by her new husband. “She sits at home because she is too afraid to go outside without his permission” (102) exemplifies how the male dominance is so strong that she is restricted in what she can and cannot do.

This is a consideration in the concept of the seclusion of the female sphere from the collective pool social spheres. The man operates the sphere’s range and confines it to an inaccessible location. This again represents the perception of the female body as territory—his territory is in his property so to speak—where the man claims all of his property, living and non-living alike. This is especially true via marriage because the man has claimed the female body as his own and thus aggregates it to his property: his home, his car, his dog, his wife. Like in intrafamilial circumstances, women in a male dominated family environment are prone to constant abuse and disrespect by them very men that live in the same home as them—the constant and unremitting perception of male dominance is evidently in the home more than anywhere else in The House on Mango Street.

The subjugation of the female is a concept heavily reiterated in The House on Mango Street via many of the concept’s avenues. The small gestures that nod to the disparities between the sexes are apparent and the larger examples portray this world in a Machista context. The man rules the female—her body, mind, will, and communication. The various different ways in which men do this in Cisneros’s text indicates that these are problems that are present even today, especially in low-income, urban neighborhoods. The constructs of female and male social spheres and the different contexts in which male dominance occur are just as problematic in The House on Mango Street as they are in reality.

The House on Mango Street is a model for reality because it takes up truths to the inequality of women in Machista constructed societies. This inequality thus perpetuates the stereotypes of women portrayed as domestic and as property. Equality of the sexes cannot stem from an environment such as Mango Street, and since it is a model for urban, low-income communities it needs to be addressed. The House on Mango Street addresses these issues without explicitly stating that there needs to be equality—the story is organic and the reader understands that these abuses against women are reviling. Cisneros offers up a model of reality to explain the current and past situations of social norms and why they are biased towards the male species. Other literature can give an audience both sides of the story, but predominantly male domination has occurred since the beginning. Women stayed at home while the men provided. Cisneros knew this and thus wanted to shed light on why it is still prevalent in today’s society so that the audience can understand what it is like to live in a male dominated world and how it affects the women living in it.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. In this book I found that it was very confusing and difficult to read. I did not understand what the author was trying to show to us by just giving us a bunch of events I the main character’s life. I found that the story was not very well put together but there were few vignettes that I found really interesting and wish the author had explained a little better. And also, I wish the author would’ve made the sections flow a little bit better.

  2. Great essay! This book is beautifully and creatively written.

  3. Jessica V

    I think this is a great book. It doesn’t follow the traditional structure of a novel, though. It’s more like a collection of very poetic vignettes. I think that’s why some people look upon it negatively.

  4. Ora Mckinney

    This book was a requirement to read for my English class at school. In my opinion, I didn’t like the book too much and it disappointed me thinking that it would be better. I didn’t like the book that much, but that doesn’t mean that other people don’t. I would recommend this book to people who want something short to read who like books about a little girls experiences living in this very run down town. It’s the type of book where you could grab it out of your bookshelf on a rainy day with nothing else to do. I would not recommend it to people who likes books that are exciting, who can’t wait to find out what happens, this book is not for that group of people.

  5. I read this book for one of my English classes. You present a deep and nuanced analysis of gender in this novel.

  6. Irvin Adams

    It took me two reads to appreciate this book. The book is very deep and very metaphorical. It has a lot of emotion and hidden meaning you need to uncover put into it.

  7. After reading Mango Street, which I read since it was a required reading for my son, writing does not have to be so complicated. I was intrigued with the style of each character was its own chapter and the chapters were only a page or two.

  8. Diana Chin

    Great article!

  9. Melissa Cerda

    I love the book and your interpretations! Amazing article.

  10. HP Class

    I liked it even though it was assigned as a mandatroy english class read. Cisneros didn’t mind pushing the limits and exploiting the raw thruths of life. I am proud of her. Otherwise, she made a beautiful effort of turning an intimate and relatable story into a great english read. Plus, she’s of a different nationality!!

  11. This essay is extremely well written. Well done!

  12. Emma Shockley

    Great essay. This is a great book and opens your eyes to other cultures.

  13. Liz Kellam

    I really enjoyed your article. I have always loved the way this book was written; there is such a great personal insight into the mind and feelings of
    Esperanza and what is it like in her culture.

  14. Nice article, Juaca. I really enjoyed Cisneros’ use of figurative language throughout The House on Mango Street. Her descriptions are soft and lyrical, but they convey the many imponderable feelings that must tear at children who grow up in such abuse.

  15. This is an awesome article with in-depth analytical thoughts about the book. If you haven’t read Eva Figes–Patriarchal Attitudes: Women in Society–you definitely should! Or Elaine Showalter’s–A Literature of their Own–. I think if you did some outside research, this essay would definitely be worth submitting for publication in an academic journal. Good job.

  16. Juliana

    I thought this was a wonderfully insightful in-depth examination of The House on Mango Street. I enjoyed the perspective, and parts of the book were given new light.

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