She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window.See Important Quotations Explained
Meme Ortiz’s family rents their basement apartment to a Puerto Rican family. The family’s son Louie is a friend of Esperanza’s brother. Louie’s cousin Marin also lives with the family in the basement. Marin is older than Esperanza and wears nylons and Avon makeup, which she also sells in her free time. She sings sassy songs about boyfriends while she baby-sits Louie’s little sisters. One day, another cousin of Louie’s drives up in a beautiful new Cadillac and takes the neighborhood kids for a ride. They go around the block again and again, until they hear sirens. Louie’s cousin orders everyone out and takes off in the car. He doesn’t quite make the turn at the end of the alley, though, and crashes into a streetlight. The cops arrest him.
Louie’s cousin Marin has a boyfriend in Puerto Rico whom she plans to marry when she goes back. At the same time, she hopes to stay in Chicago next year so she can get a job downtown. She hopes to meet a rich man on the subway who will marry her and take her to live outside the barrio. She tells Esperanza and her friends useful things like how girls get pregnant and how to remove unwanted facial hair, as well as girlish superstitions, such as how the number of calcium deposits on their fingernails corresponds with the number of boys who like them. She spends her days baby-sitting Louie’s sisters, and in the evening, she takes her radio outside and dances, smokes cigarettes, and waits for boys to come by. Esperanza notes that she does not seem afraid of the boys. The section ends with a description of Marin in the future somewhere else. She is still dancing under a streetlight, waiting for a man to swoop down and change her life.
Esperanza says that people “who don’t know any better” think her neighborhood is dangerous, and that if they find themselves in it at night, they fear they’ll get stabbed. Esperanza and her friends are never scared in the neighborhood, since they know the people outsiders might find frightening, including the man with the crooked eye, the tall intimidating man in the hat, and a large retarded man. However, Esperanza notes that when she enters a non-Chicano ethnic neighborhood, she herself gets scared.
Esperanza describes the Vargas kids, whom she described earlier as being bad. They have a single mother, Rosa Vargas, who is overwhelmed by and unable to control her many children, and who is still sad about the fact that their father left her without a note or any money to help. The children don’t care about themselves or anybody else. At first the people in the neighborhood feel bad for the children and try to make them stop misbehaving, but eventually the people become tired of trying and stop caring. They don’t care when the children hurt themselves, even when Angel Vargas falls from a great height and dies.
Esperanza manages to chronicle the passing of time in these and other sections, even though, on the surface, the stories seem to be independent, unconnected incidents. At the beginning of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza meets Cathy, who agrees to be her friend only until Tuesday, and then she meets Lucy and Rachel sometime within that week. The section about Meme takes place soon after Cathy’s family moves out, and then Louie’s family moves into the basement apartment in that house about a month later. Esperanza’s year in the house on Mango Street is already well underway, without her ever having explicitly noted that time has passed. Since these new characters—Meme, Louie, Louie’s other cousin, Marin, the Vargas kids—appear in only one or two sections, Esperanza must tell their stories in the past, present, and future. Meme probably doesn’t break his arms during his first week in the house, for example, and in the section about the Vargas kids, Esperanza shows an evolution of the neighborhood’s attitudes toward the kids, from caring and pity to apathy. The incidents Esperanza describes take place at any time during the year, and Marin’s section even moves into the future, beyond what Esperanza can really know.
These sections contain many images of people who try to fly and cannot quite make it. Angel Vargas and Meme both fall from great heights. Angel is trying to fly, and Meme is trying to be Tarzan, both with disastrous results. Similarly, Marin is waiting for a star to fall from the sky to change her life. The children’s efforts to fly suggest their efforts to escape their current situations in the world—Angel is trying to fly away while Meme is looking for a life of adventure. Marin hopes the star that will fall will be a man who will bring her back up with him. Esperanza has previously described herself as a red balloon on a tether. When she finally abandons her tether, she’d like to fly away, not fall to the ground, but her future is at this point uncertain.
In “Marin,” Esperanza does not mention herself when she describes Marin, just as she doesn’t mention herself when she profiles other women in other vignettes. In this way, Esperanza is only a silent observer, looking for role models to take from this group of slightly older women, and Marin indeed tries to be a role model. She teaches the girls the basics about relationships between men and women. As glamorous as Marin seems with her makeup and her confidence around boys, Esperanza knows Marin will eventually fail. Instead of working at a department store downtown as she imagines, her cousins will send her back to Puerto Rico after she baby-sits for a year. Esperanza can see that Marin is a dreamer and that she has neither a definite goal nor any control over her own destiny. On the one hand, Marin thinks it is romantic to have a secret fiancé back home, but in Chicago she looks for someone to sweep her off her feet. Esperanza knows Marin will always be looking for someone else to save her, “a falling star,” instead of trying to change herself. Esperanza differentiates herself from Marin by trying to be single-minded in her goal of leaving the neighborhood.
In “Those Who Don’t,” Esperanza explores racism more directly than in any other section. Esperanza understands that some people in her neighborhood would indeed frighten an outsider, such as the people with physical or mental handicaps who stand on the street. However, the neighborhood children know these strange people’s families and histories, so they are not afraid. Esperanza takes comfort in knowing these family connections, but she also mentions that they are “all brown all around,” which suggests that racial familiarity and similarity also keep her unafraid in her own neighborhood. She is afraid to be in black or Asian neighborhoods, but for her the problem is her lack of knowledge, not hardened prejudice. Esperanza’s neighborhood isn’t completely harmless, however. In “Louie, His Cousin & His Other Cousin,” Louie’s other cousin has either stolen the car he drives or has bought it with money from another crime. He shows a darker aspect of the barrio: sometimes men try to escape through a life of crime, which, as Louie’s other cousin shows, is not always successful.