Tools of Characterization
Location (inside vs. outside)
In this novel, a character's location says a lot. For example, Aunt Lupe is holed up in a dark, stuffy, yellowing apartment. Her surroundings don't give us the impression that she's brimming with health. The Earl of Tennessee lives in a moldy basement. We get the feeling that he's kind of a cretin. And what about the Vargas kids? Their games of chicken on Mr. Benny's roof indicate to us that they're reckless.
But more significantly, a person's location in this book often indicates to the reader his or her place in society. This is particularly true for the female characters. Esperanza's Mama, for instance, occupies domestic spaces – she's portrayed either in the bedroom or the kitchen. For Esperanza, she's a comforting, homey presence, but she's also limited – "she doesn't know which subway train to take to get downtown" (36.1). She encourages Esperanza to study so she doesn't wind up with the same kind of life.
Consider the number of women in the book who sit by the window of their homes – Great-Grandma Esperanza, Rafaela who drinks papaya juice, and Mamacita. All of these women feel trapped in their own homes, and their position by the window indicates to us their longing to be free. Marin, too, can't leave the house of her aunt and uncle, so she sits at the very limit of her prescribed area – the front yard – and watches the boys go by, maybe hoping that one of them will take her away from there.
Some female characters do get to go outside. Little kids, for example, like Esperanza and Nenny, Lucy, and Rachel, can run around on the streets with impunity – they're not subject to the same sexist restrictions that make life so difficult for adult women on Mango Street. But what happens when these little girls put on high heels and pretend to be adults for a day? The streets suddenly become sort of threatening – men and boys on bicycles start to circle like buzzards, and lecherous old men try to kiss them.
A few women do manage to buck social expectations and remain free and independent, as evidenced by their occupation of spaces outside the home. Edna's daughter Ruthie, for example, displays a fear of confined spaces – she won't even go into Mr. Benny's candy store – and would rather stay on Mango Street with her mom than go back to her husband's house in the suburbs. Alicia, too, is portrayed outside, talking to Esperanza, or on the train on her way to school – education is her ticket to freedom.
Sex and Love
Because this is Esperanza's coming-of-age story, the depictions of sex and love that we see are influenced by Esperanza's growing interest in the birds and the bees. At first her discussions of sex are almost purely academic – she's figured out where babies come from, and that women need to develop hips in order to have a place to store them for nine months. But soon her hormones are raging, and she starts wondering about Sire and Lois' sex life. The fact that Sire, Lois, and Sally are all sexually active makes them seem more physically mature than Esperanza, and heightens her feelings of awkwardness.
Esperanza's naïve description of the Earl of Tennessee and the women that he brings back to his apartment also reveal more about Esperanza than they do about Earl. Earl does come off as being a little creepy, maybe, for bringing home women that we understand to be prostitutes, but it's Esperanza's confusion about the matter that interests us, and reveals her to be young and innocent in matters of sex.
The few times we see food in the book, we're clued in on an aspect of somebody's character. Ruthie's fondness for candy makes her seem childlike, for example, while Papa's consumption of "hamandeggs" for three months reveals his status as an immigrant who doesn't know English. The rice sandwich that Esperanza eats on the one day that she's permitted to stay at school for lunch is a poor girl's lunch – her Mama packs it because they don't have any lunch meat. It tells us that Esperanza's family doesn't have much money, and illustrates Esperanza's feelings of humiliation in front of her schoolmates.
Rafaela drinks papaya and coconut juice because they're sweet – the juice, and the methods she has to employ to get it, illustrate her confinement and her desire for consolation. Kind of like how a Starbucks Frappuccino can make you feel better about being stuck studying in the library.
A lot of the descriptions of physical appearances in this book have to do with feminine beauty. We know that Aunt Lupe was once beautiful, with swimmer's legs, but that now her disease has rendered her withered and weak. Marin has green eyes like apples that attract the neighborhood boys. And we know that Sally is gorgeous, with dark hair and eyes like Egypt. In contrast, Esperanza describes herself as "an ugly daughter" (35.1). Why this fixation on who's pretty and who's not? Well, Esperanza sees beauty as a source of power for women. Nenny's pretty eyes give her the ability to pick and choose – "it's easy to talk that way if you are pretty," Esperanza notes (35.2). Women without beauty have to find some other way of exercising power. Of course, beauty doesn't last, as we see in Aunt Lupe's case. Maybe physical appearance isn't everything, after all.