The House on Mango Street

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Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The House on Mango Street, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender and Sexuality Theme Icon

From the start of the book Esperanza realizes that men and women live in “separate worlds,” and that women are nearly powerless in her society. There is a constant conflict between being a sexual being and keeping one’s freedom, as most of the book’s female characters are trapped both by abusive husbands and needy children. Esperanza comes to recognize this dichotomy as she is caught between her own budding sexuality and her desire for freedom.

To try and reconcile the contradiction, Esperanza decides to become “beautiful and cruel” like a femme fatale of the movies – having both sexuality and autonomy – but she soon finds this impossible in the culture of Mango Street, as Sally is exploited by boys and Esperanza herself is assaulted and raped. Indeed, most of the men in the book are exploitative and violent, and the women rarely help each other, as Tito’s mother ignores Sally’s plight and Sally abandons Esperanza first in the Monkey Garden and then at the carnival. At the end of the book, when Esperanza imagines returning for “the ones left behind,” she is thinking of the powerless women of Mango Street.

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Gender and Sexuality Quotes in The House on Mango Street

Below you will find the important quotes in The House on Mango Street related to the theme of Gender and Sexuality.
Chapter 3 Quotes

The boys and the girls live in separate worlds. The boys in their universe and we in ours.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker)
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In the world of Esperanza's childhood, there is a stark division between boys and girls (and, accordingly, between men and women). Esperanza and the other children of the barrio learn the intricacies of their gender roles by watching neighbors treat each other in certain ways. The fact that these gender roles are already so clear to Esperanza and the other children is indicative of their prominence in their society; instead of a bunch of kids playing together, they are already boys and girls, divided into two separate worlds. 

As the book progresses, Esperanza witnesses the emerging sexuality of her peers and begins to encounter her own sexuality, too. This is a confusing state to be in, and Cisneros captures the confusion by blending these moments of sexual exploration with the brutality of gendered violence. Men beat their wives and daughters, and in most cases the sexual encounters in The House on Mango Street are unwanted. The boys and men of this book tend to take things, while the girls and women deal with the consequences. Esperanza knows all of this already, and it contributes greatly to her desire to escape Mango Street and the society it represents. 


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Chapter 4 Quotes

In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting… It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine. She was a horse woman too, born like me in the Chinese year of the horse – which is supposed to be bad luck if you’re born female – but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their women strong.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker)
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

Language is another of the most important themes in The House on Mango Street, and the constant tension between English- and Spanish-speaking reflects the precarious, perhaps temporary, presence these characters have along Mango Street. The Spanish language marks Esperanza and the others as "foreign" to other people but also ties them to their culture and their families.

Within the category of language, names are especially important to Esperanza, who almost always notes the names of her neighbors as important parts of their vignettes. In this passage, Esperanza reflects on her own name. It's a family name, her great-grandmother's, and in this reflection Esperanza reveals a deep understanding of her own name; clearly she has asked her family about the name and remembered all the details. Named after her great-grandmother because they were both born in the Chinese year of the horse, Esperanza's personal history crosses the boundary to yet another culture. But even there, where "the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong," she cannot escape the realities of her society's gender roles.

Chapter 11 Quotes

And since Marin’s skirts are shorter and since her eyes are pretty, and since Marin is already older than us in many ways, the boys who do pass by say stupid things like I am in love with those two green apples you call eyes… And Marin just looks at them without blinking and is not afraid.

Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker), Marin
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Esperanza spends much of her time observing the other people who live on Mango Street and either replicating or resenting their behavior. But it's hard to tell how she feels about Marin, other than mystified by her sexuality and the way boys seem to gravitate toward her. Esperanza's feelings are obviously complex, and she might simultaneously desire what Marin has and feel disturbed by the way boys and men approach her to flirt. This complexity Esperanza reconciles by deciding the boys are saying "stupid things," as if trying to convince herself that she shouldn't want this to happen to her some day. 

The second paragraph of this passage changes tone abruptly, as Esperanza reflects at the time of her writing on what Marin might be doing now. Because Marin is a fictional character described to us by another fictional character, and has no reality apart from her existence in Esperanza's story, this is also the only way the reader is able to imagine her. As a writer, Esperanza (like Cisneros) has the power to decide how her characters end up. And Marin, like so many women of Mango Street, is stuck forever waiting for something to happen, for someone to "change her life." 

Chapter 13 Quotes

No wonder everybody gave up. Just stopped looking out when little Efren chipped his buck tooth on a parking meter and didn’t even stop Refugia from getting her head stuck between two slats in the back gate and nobody looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth without even an “Oh.”

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker), Angel Vargas, Rosa Vargas
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

Like the gap Esperanza perceives between boys and girls on Mango Street, the gap between parents and children is often enormous. In a darkly comical way, Esperanza describes the way the Vargas children become so unruly that "everybody gave up" trying to keep them from getting themselves into trouble. This implies that people in the neighborhood usually look after one another's children, but that the Vargas family (who had too many children) became too much to handle. 

This passage also shows Esperanza using language to distance herself somewhat from what happens around her. A very disturbing event, Angel Vargas' failed flight, is sublimated through the fantastic images of the "sugar donut" and the "falling star." The reader is left to wonder what other things may have happened to this unfortunate family, whose mother is too busy and has too many children. 

Chapter 17 Quotes

They are dangerous, he says. You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that. Take them shoes off before I call the cops, but we just run.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker), Mr. Benny (speaker), Magdalena “Nenny” Cordero, Lucy, Rachel, Mr. Benny
Related Symbols: Shoes
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

In the culmination of an episode suggesting Esperanza's attempts to figure out how she might fit into the world sexually, a number of people comment on the women's shoes Esperanza, Lucy, and Rachel have just received. This marks a first public appearance for Esperanza in clothing--high heels--that tends to connote sexuality. And people react in many different ways to the sight of the girls in women's shoes. 

Here, the grocer Mr. Benny warns the girls that wearing these shoes could be "dangerous," and threatens to call the police if they don't remove them. It's unclear what his intentions are; at first he seems to want to protect them, but when he threatens to call the cops this motive comes into question. No matter what Mr. Benny intends, his assertion that the shoes could be dangerous reflects how deeply gendered and sexual violence is a part of their daily life. The clothes and shoes that Esperanza and the other children wear can become signals for aggressive behavior, but the girls shrug off the possibility and continue on their way--still relatively innocent, for now.

Chapter 21 Quotes

Then he asked if I knew what day it was, and when I said I didn’t, he said it was his birthday and would I please give him a birthday kiss. I thought I would because he was so old and just as I was about to put my lips on his cheek, he grabs my face with both hands and kisses me hard on the mouth and doesn’t let go.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker)
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

This is one of many instances in The House on Mango Street where a girl endures an unwanted sexual advance from a man. Usually the men have some way of convincing the girls to kiss them; in this case the man claims he wants a birthday kiss and forces Esperanza to kiss him on the lips instead. 

These advances make Esperanza's own sexual growth an even more confused affair. It seems like, the more these men take advantage of her and her friends, the less willing she is to explore her own sexuality in the way she wants to. Instead, Esperanza tries to shut off this aspect of her life, insisting that boys and girls inhabit different universes entirely, and daydreams of an escape from the oppressive, sometimes frightening world of Mango Street.

Chapter 28 Quotes

Everything is holding its breath inside me. Everything is waiting to explode like Christmas. I want to be all new and shiny. I want to sit out bad at night, a boy around my neck and the wind under my skirt. Not this way, every evening talking to the trees, leaning out my window, imagining what I can’t see.

A boy held me once so hard, I swear, I felt the grip and weight of his arms, but it was a dream.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker)
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

Esperanza is full of potential that is waiting to be realized, and this passage offers the most succinct depiction of this potential. She knows she has much more to do in her life, and puts it beautifully here: she is "waiting to explode like Christmas." On Christmas she gets "new and shiny" things, and she wants to achieve her own sort of rebirth as a "bad" girl, sitting with boys and alone no longer--but also in control of her own sexuality and fate. 

Esperanza's desire is to have these things, not simply to dream about them any longer ("imaging what I can't see"). She wants to cross over from the fiction she creates for herself into a real life closer to what she really wants. The desire to be "bad" might be a rebellion against the norms impressed upon her, but it also comes from a place of physical desire as we see when she remembers the dream of a boy holding her so tightly. 

Chapter 31 Quotes

On Tuesdays Rafaela’s husband comes home late because that’s the night he plays dominoes. And then Rafaela, who is still young but getting old from leaning out the window so much, gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker), Rafaela
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

Rafaela is one of a few women in The House on Mango Street whose husbands control their behavior and lock them (in Rafaela's case, literally) into an almost entirely domestic existence. Leaning out the window, another common behavior for the women of this book, somehow makes Rafaela older; this might mean that her longing is wearing her out, as she looks out on the world from the house she's stuck inside. 

Her husband's great fear, that she is "too beautiful to look at," betrays either a mistrust of Rafaela (she'll be lured into infidelity) or of other men (they'll take advantage of her). Either way, Rafaela's husband clearly sees her as a possession that must be guarded, and fears that letting his wife have autonomy will result in some sort of catastrophe. And because this sort of controlling relationship is ignored, if not accepted, by other people, Rafaela is trapped inside her home. This reflects the nightmare flip-side of Esperanza's dream of a home for herself. A home can be a place of freedom and self-expression, or a domestic trap as it is for Rafaela and for the fairy-tale figure of Rapunzel, who is also mentioned in this vignette. 

Chapter 32 Quotes

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 up two by two upstairs to where a room is waiting for you.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker), Sally
Page Number: 82
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Esperanza projects some of her own fantasies onto Sally, a girl whom Esperanza latches onto as a symbol of things she might not see in herself (like beauty, sexuality, or boldness). Esperanza sees the way Sally's demeanor changes drastically when she has to go home from school, and wonders if Sally also wants to get far away from Mango Street. 

When Esperanza imagines her dream homes, there is never anyone else inside, especially not a husband. In her dreams, homes are safe, open, ready to fulfill her own needs. This must be what Sally wants too, Esperanza figures. Perhaps, by telling these stories and imagining what other people want, Esperanza begins to feel less strange and less alone in what she desires. 

Chapter 35 Quotes

In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away.

I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker)
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

Usually Esperanza gets her ideas of how to be one type of woman or another from the girls and women she sees in her neighborhood, but in this case she remembers "the movies" and their trope of the femme fatale. 

This is one model around which Esperanza can shape her strong desire for both sexuality and independence--she wants to be desired by men, but she also doesn't want to end up as another "trapped woman" of Mango Street. Like the trees with their "silent strength," Esperanza here decides to wage a "quiet war" against the expectations placed upon her, weighing her down every day. Although this "quiet war" rather humorously only manifests itself here in her leaving the dinner table without cleaning up, this shows that Esperanza already understands the many ways her independence is restricted or looked down upon as a woman--she knows there is even a way to leave the table "like a man."

Chapter 43 Quotes

Not a man’s house… A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed… Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker)
Related Symbols: Shoes
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

Though Esperanza dreams repeatedly of her future home, this is the most detailed image she conjures up. It won't be a "man's house," where she is forced to stay inside and do chores. A porch will mark her territory, and a pillow will offer her a permanent place to sleep. Other images from earlier in the book recur here: the flowers remind us of the Monkey Garden and the four trees outside her home on Mango Street, and the two shoes remind us of all the other shoes mentioned in her vignettes. In this way, her home will contain all the things that have been important to her throughout these stories; but they'll be hers, under her control, "clean as paper before the poem." The act of dreaming about her home is like writing for Esperanza; both are creative acts that give her a sense of her future and the freedom she can still attain. 

Chapter 44 Quotes

They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.

Related Characters: Esperanza Cordero (speaker)
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

In the closing moment of the book, Cisneros reflects through Esperanza's voice on the complexity of leaving one's community to become a writer. Esperanza imagines her friends and neighbors wondering where she went, and fears they will not know she "has gone away to come back." Having always dreamed of getting away, Esperanza is still aware of the way her departure might appear to her community-- as a desertion of the life she comes from. She plans to leave in order to better herself and return stronger to her community (whether literally or figuratively, through writing and memory), but cannot ensure that her neighbors on Mango Street understand this intention. 

The book closes with a sort of dedication from both Cisneros and her protagonist: "For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out." If getting away from Mango Street is always Esperanza's dream, she still cares for the people there; and she hopes that her writing will offer some sort of liberation and affirmation for the people, like her, who feel trapped in a place that isn't exactly home.