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On the "Simplicity" of Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2001
pp. 910-946 | 10.1353/mfs.2001.0078

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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 910-946

As I perused the back cover of a recent Vintage Books edition of The House on Mango Street a short while ago, I read that it has been translated worldwide and that it has become a "classic" work in the canon of coming-of-age novels. This prompted me to think about whether this edition of Mango Street--which appeared identical to my personal copy (an earlier, 1991 Vintage Books edition)--sought to interpellate similar, if not the same, groups of readers that contributed to the consolidation of the unwavering popularity of Cisneros's rite-of-passage book. Consequently, upon returning home, I retrieved my copy of Mango Street and saw that its back cover declares that the novel "signals the emergence of a major literary talent." The appeal of Mango Street clearly remains unabated in both the real and literary worlds. Yet, the fact that that this book, within six years after its publication in 1984 by the small, Hispanic publishing house Arte Público, had attracted enough attention to prompt its publication by a mainstream publisher warrants further consideration of the circumstances surrounding its seemingly meteoric rise within the US publishing industry.

According to Alvina Quintana, 1984 was a watershed year that "witnessed a revitalized interest in Chicana literature." Explains Quintana, "Although the National Association for Chicano Studies had organized annual conventions for eleven years, not until 1984 at the twelfth national conference in Austin, Texas were scholars sanctioned by the theme of the convention--Voces de la Mujer (women's voices)--to address issues related to an emergent Chicana feminist movement" (54). Quintana refers to the Chicana reading and book signing sessions sponsored by Arte Público as the highlight of the conference, identifying Cisneros in particular as the standout among a group of writers that included Pat Mora, Evangelina Vigil, and Ana Castillo: "Only [her] Mango Street defied the poetic form previously privileged by many Chicana writers. [. . .] Cisneros defined a distinct Chicana literary space [. . .], challenging, at the least, accepted literary form, gender inequities, and the cultural and economic subordination of minorities" (55). Further, Ramón Saldívar included Cisneros among the Chicana writers whose work, produced in the 1970s and 1980s, represented "the most vibrant new development in Chicano narrative" (171). These writers were impressive, according to Saldívar, because of their active engagement within "the ongoing disruption of the absolute fusion of hegemonic ideologies and the status quo" (199). Echoing Saldívar, Nicolás Kanellos, the founding publisher of Arte Público, identified Cisneros as one of the "new" generation of college-educated Chicano writers whose works were endorsed by prestigious foundations (two of which awarded fellowship grants to Cisneros: the NEA and the Macarthur Foundation) and were published by mainstream publishers:

[These writers] inscribed themselves on the published page precisely at the time when literary publishing was [. . .] opening up to women as writers and intellectuals [. . .]. It was this generation, very much aware of the business of writing, of the industry's networks, and of the norms of language, metaphor, and craft protected by the academy, that was able to break into commercial and intellectual circles and cause a stir. (xix)

Since its initial publication in 1984, the readership of Mango Street has expanded beyond the pale of Chicano and Latino communities to include families and students of all ages and ethnicities. According to María Elena de Valdés, a 1988 essay on Chicano criticism marked "a turning point in Cisneros's criticism, moving [. . .] into the richer context of North American literature and out of the limited area of ethnic writing." Valdés continues, "1989 and 1990 criticism no longer [had] to explain the barrio or the author's relation to it or what it means to be a Chicana writer" ("Critical Reception" 290). Another critic, Delia Poey, points out that Mango Street is not only frequently assigned in American literature courses, but is also regularly incorporated into courses on women's and multicultural literatures (216). The specific focus of Poey's study is the nature of the appropriation in multicultural classrooms and literary anthologies of Mango Street as a "representative" work of Chicano or...

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