The House on Mango Street is a bildungsroman (coming-of-age story) of a young Chicana (Mexican-American) girl named Esperanza Cordero. The book is told in small vignettes which act as both chapters of a novel and independent short stories or prose poems. The story encompasses a year in Esperanza’s life, as she moves to a house on Mango Street in a barrio (Latino neighborhood) of Chicago, Illinois. The house on Mango Street is an improvement over Esperanza’s previous residences, but it is still not the house she or her family dreams of, and throughout the book Esperanza feels that she doesn’t belong there.
Over the course of the year Esperanza grows emotionally, artistically, and sexually, and the novel meanders through her experiences with her neighbors and classmates. Esperanza makes friends with two other Chicana girls of Mango Street, Rachel and Lucy. These three, along with Esperanza’s little sister Nenny, have many small adventures in the first part of the book, including searching through a labyrinthine junk store and learning from an older girl named Marin. While exploring her world, Esperanza experiences the shame of poverty, the unfairness of racism, and the beauty of poetry and music.
Along with chronicling Esperanza’s growth, the book’s vignettes also move through brief descriptions of her neighbors. While some of these portraits involve eccentric or memorable men (Meme Ortiz, Geraldo, or Earl), most of them involve women who are trapped in some way. There is Mamacita, who does not leave her apartment because she is afraid of the English language, and Rafaela, whose husband keeps her locked up because she is beautiful. Alicia must stay up all night studying so she can graduate from college and get a good job someday, but her father makes her wake up early to make tortillas and do the chores. Rosa Vargas is imprisoned by the impossible task of taking care of her many unruly children. There is also Minerva, who writes poems like Esperanza, but is already married with two children and a husband who beats her.
Esperanza goes through puberty and matures sexually during the book, beginning with an adventure walking around in high-heeled shoes with the other neighborhood girls. Most of Esperanza’s female neighbors are abused or oppressed by their fathers and husbands, so Esperanza knows she wants to escape such a male-dominated society, but at the same time she must deal with her own emerging sexuality and her desire to be loved by men. She decides that she wants to be “beautiful and cruel” like a woman in the movies, one who is attractive to men but also retains all her own power. Esperanza befriends a girl named Sally, who is beautiful and more sexually mature than the other girls, but has an abusive father. Esperanza experiences a “loss of innocence” moment in the neighborhood “monkey garden” when a group of boys steals Sally’s keys and makes her kiss all of them to get the keys back. Esperanza’s friendship with Sally also leads to her most traumatic experience of the novel, as Sally leaves her alone at a carnival and Esperanza is raped.
These experiences of male oppression, Esperanza’s growing creativity and desire to write, and her dream of a house of her own all cause Esperanza to want to escape Mango Street. At a neighbor’s funeral, three old sisters seem to read Esperanza’s mind and predict that she will leave Mango Street someday, but that she must not forget where she came from or the women still stuck there. By the end of the book, Esperanza is still in the same house, but she has matured and is confident that she is too strong to be trapped there forever. Her writing and story-telling lets her escape Mango Street emotionally, but it will also let her escape physically later through education and financial independence. And when she does leave, Esperanza vows to return for those who are not strong enough to escape on their own.