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Sure, we all know of pulp novels (some of us even write them), but true working-class literature is still all too rare. To be a working-class writer writing about working-class characters seems anathema to the publishing industry. Some suggest that this is due to the fact that editors and publishers are not likely to be working-class themselves, and so have little appreciation of characters whose lives hold little monetary value except their labor and earn wages without ever reaping the financial profits from that labor.
Even among the working-class literature that's available and accepted by mainstream audiences, Sandra Cisnero's "House on Mango Street" stands out. One reason is that it's told not from a worker's perspective, but by a child of first-generation immigrant workers.
In this way, it echoes another working-class classic, Pietro di Donato's "Christ in Concrete." However, where di Donato's Paul displays an adult understanding very quickly in "Christ in Concrete," Cisneros' Esperanza generally remains childlike until the end of this pseudo-memoir, when the adult narrator is now a homeowner reflecting on how her childhood Mango Street home formed much of her identity.
The tale is told in straightforward, simple anecdotes in which the narrator doesn't possess the sense of irony which the author demonstrates by her choice of scenes, plot, and characters.
Esperanza doesn't have the vocabulary to directly describe how class and race affect her, so she relies on simple imagery of everyday events to relate such things.
She describes herself as a "red balloon, a balloon tied to an anchor," an image that symbolizes her external circumstances holding her back from flying. She demonstrates some awareness of the class/race disconnect in an encounter with a neighbor who says she has to move because "the neighborhood is getting bad," ignoring the fact that she's just insulted Esperanza.
Another astute observation flowers when Esperanza notes how she is afraid in neighborhoods of other colors, just as strangers are afraid in her Latino neighborhood.
We also see other images of working-class Latino culture that tend to be portrayed more stereotypically than here: car thefts, full families subletting their basements to other full families, reliance on the Catholic Church, etc. However, none of the outsider judgment which could limit these stories to superficial stereotype is present. "House on Mango Street" is told from the perspective of an "insider," which allows Cisneros to round out her characters emotionally, e.g., her car thief takes the young girls for a ride around the neighborhood and is kind to them; the neighbors in their basement have dreams, steady work, and self-respect; a Baptism party in the Church demonstrates a rhythmic, percussive Latino culture, including dancing, delicious food, and family closeness.
Another interesting working class image occurs when Esperanza gets her first job--underage. She dresses up to look more adult and goes to work matter-of-factly, not because she necessarily wants to, but because it is expected of all members of the family. Indeed, the need is so great that her entrance into the workforce occurs sooner than legally allowed, marking Esperanza as a solidly working-class character.
Esperanza deals with some of the internal shame of being poor in a rich country that is reflected in other classics of working class literature, such as Meridel LeSueur's "Women On The Breadlines" to Tom Kromer's "Waiting for Nothing" to Mike LeFevre's "Who Built the Pyramids." She relates a conversation with her mother, who laments that her life might have been more. "Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You know why I quit school? Because I didn't have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains." Her mother's truth is undeniable; schoolchildren can be vicious, especially regarding appearance. Although Esperanza's Catholic school mitigates this with its uniforms. Between the uniforms and the academics, Esperanza's parents rely on the Catholic school to help their children turn out well.
Esperanza is determined to get out and own her own house, and she does. She works, goes to school, and becomes a writer, achieving both the psychic income from self-valued work AND monetary success. Getting out. Moving up to the middle class. Such a combination is rare in working-class life, but idealized in working-class literature.
A darker undercurrent runs through "House on Mango Street" regarding Esperanza's looks. She's repeatedly hit on from a young age, sexually harassed, and possibly raped. She doesn't show any signs of using her looks to her advantage, but a sad truth borne out in many sociological studies is that better jobs go to better-looking people.
"House on Mango Street" is gorgeously written; the language is so sharp it cuts through all the class politics and grounds the reader within the story. Cisneros does a masterful job of taking us for the ride as Esperanza grows up. This is destined to be a modern classic and a must-read for anyone in search of literature that reflects a life of struggle toward that elusive "American Dream."