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Esperanza is a little girl who moves with her family to a house on Mango Street. It's a small, crumbling red house in a poor urban neighborhood – not at all what Esperanza had been hoping for when her parents promised to move the family to a house.
Esperanza, who's often followed by her younger sister Nenny, meets the other residents of Mango Street and describes their often difficult lives in a series of vignettes, or short sketches. Most of the neighborhood's residents are Hispanic, including Esperanza, whose father is a Mexican immigrant and whose mother is Latina. (By the way, check out Sandra Cisneros's opinion on the terms "Hispanic" and "Latino" under "Trivia.") The beginning of this book introduces us to a collection of characters and explores their cultural backgrounds and how they are affected by poverty, exile, and the restrictions of prescribed gender roles.
Esperanza is ashamed of her family's poverty, and describes several instances in which she lies, or tries to hide the fact that she is poor, by saying she lives in a different house, or hiding her unattractive shoes under the table at a party. Puberty also provokes some feelings of shame for Esperanza, whose experience of adolescence is made even more painful than usual by two instances of sexual aggression – one in which an old man at work forces her to kiss him, and one in which some boys at a carnival rape her. Some of Esperanza's friends also suffer significant hardship: Alicia, whose mother is dead, is forced by her father to rise early every morning to make tortillas for her family; Sally, a beautiful girl at school, endures regular beatings by her father; Minerva, a teenaged mother of two, is constantly being abandoned or beaten by her husband.
Esperanza's mother encourages her not to let men hold her back, and not to "lay her [her neck] on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain" of marriage (35.3). Witnessing the fate of her female schoolmates who marry young to escape the abuse of their fathers, only to suffer at the hands of their new husbands, Esperanza resolves to leave Mango Street with her books and her papers. She dreams of having a house all her own, where she can write. An encounter with three spiritual sisters at a neighborhood wake suggests that she will be successful in escaping the neighborhood, but that she will never be able to deny her past. The three sisters convince Esperanza that, when she leaves, she must come back for those who cannot leave as easily, and work to make Mango Street a better place.