The Analysis of the Theme of the Power of Language in “The House on Mango Street”

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This study offers a critical examination of Sandra Cisneros' book, The House on Mango Street. The reading focuses on the theme of language's influence as conveyed by the author by his characters. The paper examines language as a source of influence. Cisneros has articulated the theme of language's ability to symbolize identity. A variety of characters in the book have struggled simply because they lack a shared language with which to express themselves. Furthermore, the book discusses the influence of language in terms of plurality versus minority, and traditional versus non-standard language.

Theme of the Power of Language

Throughout the novel, The House on Mango Street, especially in “No Speak English” the author, Sandra Cisneros grounds that those who cannot communicate effectively are classified in the lower class of the society. Mamacita becomes a prisoner in their apartments when she moves to their country to stay with her husband just because she is not able to speak English. She misses home and often listens to Spanish radio station in order kill her boredom and solitude. She is further distraught when her little child begins to learn a few English words. Mamacita turns to her past and tries to stick to her native Spanish language in order to avoid English dominant world. Esperanza says that “she doesn’t come out” (Mamacita), and the girl is certain that the reason for such behaviors is because she is afraid of speaking English because she only knows eight English words.

Cisneros is expressing the extent at which one can feel isolated because of lack of a language. Mamacita refuse to assimilate because of her ignorance and fear. She becomes annoyed when her child whom she came along with from Mexico begins to learn English– an ugly language– according to her. She spends most of her time on the window because she does not have power of a language that can enable her to speak with her neighbors. While others think that Mamacita does not leave her room because she is fat, the truth is she does not have a common language that she is going to speak to them. It is only Esperanza who understands the state of Mamacita. Mamacita has to live her prison-like-life because she is not able to speak English. According to Esperanza, language brings freedom. However, if self-expression is not equal to freedom as Esperanza posits then becoming a writer is the best option to escape the neighborhood.

The power of language is further shown in the letter that Esperanza’s mother writes to the nuns. As much as she may be a native speaker of English, her letter is unconvincing because it is poorly written. Esperanza had to say this about her mother “I could have been somebody, you now? […] she can speak two languages” (Cisneros 90). The two languages that the mother can speak are Spanish and English. The two languages are part of Esperanza’s heritage which gives her identity of two cultures.

Esperanza observes how the people around behave and realizes that if not knowing or not mastering a language makes one so powerless, then she needs to do something to be able to manipulate language in order to have power. Mamacita appear to be in a house arrest because of her ignorance and not being able to speak English. This makes Esperanza to understand the power of controlling ones’ language.

Esperanza thinks that if she can change her name, the she will be able to have power over her personal life. She has only one name whereas most of the characters she meets have two names –Spanish name and an English name, or perhaps a nickname. Her Aunt Lupe advises her that she should keep writing because through that she will be free. “That’s very good, she said in her tired voice. You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn’t know what she meant.” (Cisneros 67)Esperanza eventually realizes the importance of what her Aunt Lupe tells her. Writing gives Esperanza power and freedom because she can put her experiences in writing. If she can employ beautiful language to express her bad experiences, then such experiences feel less awful. Her spiritual freedom later on gives her power to be literally free. Esperanza hopes that she will also find physical freedom in writing, as she promises to continue with her studies and writing so as to escape Mango Street. She gives a final promise that she will not forget those whom she has left behind and that she will return for them through writing about their suffering and bad experiences.

Cisneros, through her protagonist character, Esperanza posits that language can deliberate people from suffering and gives them freedom. Most of the characters that are isolated from the rest of the society and are viewed to hail from a lower class are those ones who do not have the power of language especially English language. Esperanza narrates her story in short English sentences, often in broken English. Nonetheless, she is aware of the adult world. She says “For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go” (Cisneros 5).

Cisneros continues to express the power of language in her novel as a tool used by characters in their struggle for self-definition. Esperanza understands that it is only through the power of language that she can define herself in the society. She has to define herself both as a writer and as a woman, and her insight of her identity changes as the novel progresses. At the beginning of the novel Esperanza feels that she can define herself well by changing her name. She wants to live her own life away from her parents and sister and she feels that it is through changing her name that she can accomplish the goal.

The kind of the language that has been used in the fiction, Chicano fiction is considered to be a representation of a language in general, which can be used to express a complex linguistic reality including Chicano discourse. Thus language can be used to mark power and allow a given group of people to differentiate themselves from others. When Esperanza narrates her story, her intention is not only to be understood, but also to be known and respected like other native speakers of English. Therefore if a language is a symbolic tool, then we can deduce that it can also be used as a tool of power. Esperanza uses language to construct herself as a subject so as to analyze her significance and identity. “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting…” Esperanza is trying to say that the meaning of her name is more superior in English than in her native language, Spanish. “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.”(Cisneros 73) There is a phonetic aspect of Esperanza’s name which changes her schoolmates and teachers pronounce it. Her name the become a symbol of mixture of two cultures which will help her to migrate among the two conflicting cultural contexts so as to come in terms with her own identity.

Just like in The House on Mango Street, Othello shows how powerful and hazardous language can be especially when used by a dishonest person who produces his words so eloquently. Othello’s Lago has a power of language–he behaves like a puppeteer and the rest of the characters are like his puppets (Shakespeare 25).

Being not able to speak a particular language may pose a lot of challenges when one goes to a new place. Esperanza’s father explains how one can find it so challenging living in the United States when he or she does not speak English. He says that when he first visited the United States of America, the only English food that he knew was “hamandeggs,” hence he was forced to eat hamandeggs for three consecutive days.

Furthermore, Cisneros in The House on Mango Street uses a number of small poems and often makes references to the poem so as to signify the power of language to Esperanza and her neighbors. Some of the poems that the author refers to include: a poem written by Esperanza, Jump-roping chants, and a few simple internal rhymes within the text. However, there are some poems which are just mentioned like the one that Esperanza recites to Ruthie. The abundance of the poems that Cisneros employs in his writing especially thee lines by women is a key suggestion that women living in Mango Street are in a mission of making their lives better through the use of beautiful language. There are many rhymes in the poem is a way that Esperanza tries to express some of the unpoetic features of her life less difficult and more ordered. Up to this far, the author delineates how writing can be used to show how powerful a language is.

Walter Mignolo, in his writing Local Histories/Global Design (2000), posits that “bilanguaging” is preciously the celebration of the crack in the global process between local histories and global design” (p. 250). According to Mignolo (2000) the breakdown in global realms occurs at a point where local histories conflicts with the global design. The author uses the term “languaging” so as to express what give the language power and makes it possible. He posits that there is no possible language without languaging. This strategy is consistent with the Cisneros’ view regarding how the marginal communities become isolated during their first visit in the United States. They will feel inferior because they do not have the power of the language to express their concern. Due to lack of common language, they feel alienated with no friends. “Someday I will have a best friend of my own. One I can tell my secrets to. One who will understand my jokes without my having to explain them...?” (Cisneros 43) Here the author is expressing how much lack of a language can make one useless without any friend whom she can share her problems. However, speaker is having hope that one day; perhaps after she shall have had a good mastery of English language she will have a friend. Therefore, we can conclude the power of a language can give people hope for a better future.

Mignolo (2000, p. 265) notices that because langauging is a process where languages interact and that language is what gives room for describing and conceiving languaging, the bilanguaging would precisely tale root in social transformation. Esperanza is a person who is culturally hybrid, being a Chicana, Mexican and American and she lives in a culture which is highly shaped by colonialism. Hence it can be deduced that hybridization does not welcome the principle of monologue, instead it chooses a competing discourse in a language. This makes it significant to consider social-cultural context before analyzing a language. Because Cisneros is a Chicano writer, she brings the usefulness of the term borderland in her fiction to help in analyzing the Chicano culture and the border discourse. The House on Mango Street can be seen as a good example of border writing. In as much as Esperanza supports the use of English, it can be noted that in certain occasions, other languages such as Spanish come in to be employed in key words due to the emotional charge and the extent of intimacy in such words. Because of this the author is trying to express that the power of a language lies in the content of the words that is carried in the language. For instance “Papa who wakes up tired in the dark”, she says “Your abuelito is dead, Papa says early one morning in my room. ‘Esta muerto’, and then if he just heard the news himself, crumples like a coat and cries, my brave Papa cries” (Cisneros 56). This premise could be shared by Esperanza when she says that has different meanings in different environments. She says that her schoolmates and friend in school say her name so funnily as if the syllables of hr name are made tin. However, she says that her name sound sweater in Spanish and appears as if it made out of something softer. Here Esperanza links her Spanish language to something with is so important and closer to her heart, giving her comfort, maybe she equates Spanish language to her comfort Zone and with her family, whilst she does not see English like something which is close to her heart. According to this statement we could conclude that English language is a public life language.

The power of language can be determined by whether the language is spoken by the majority or minority in a given set up. Chicanos from where the author hails is referred to as a minority. Often people have categorized a language as either minority or majority depending on the number of the speakers who speak that particular language. However, interestingly, the function and the status of the language should be the yardstick to constitute whether a language is a majority or a minority. Moreover, the terms minority and majority usually describes the distribution of power among the people in the society. The majority often describes the dominant group, whereas minority is the dominated group. Geraldo, a character in The House on Mango Street, can be considered as one who hails from the dominated group; if anything he was “just another brazer who didn’t speak English. Just another wet-back. You know the Kind. The one who always looked ashamed” (Cisneros 66). The narrator places Geraldo on a minority because he did not have power of language (English). Furthermore, he is also placed as a minority group since he addresses himself as a brazer, also known as bracero. Bracero means temporary immigrant casual worker in English language. To this far we can see the power of a language as described by the author through his characters. Those who speak majority language as ascribed by the number of speakers of that particular language are viewed to be more powerful compared to those who speak minority language. In fact their language is seen to be more powerful. This is the exact scenario that Cisneros presents to be happening in the United States. However, Cisneros through her character, Esperanza is determined to shun this idea of viewing a language to be more powerful because it has several speakers and looking down upon other languages because they have fewer speakers.

The power of language as used by the expressed by the author in The House on Mango Street can be described while looking at whether a language is a standard variety or a non- standard variety. Often standard variety is considered to be more superior to non- standard variety. Standard English is mostly used in teaching, print and second language learners. It is mostly associated with the upper class and educated people. Standard English and non-standard English differ in their grammatical construction. Non-standard English will use ‘ain’t’ instead of the standard aren’t, isn’t, haven’t and hasn’t. In The House on Mango Street, “Gil‟s furniture bought & sold”, Esperanza describes the “junk store” whose owner is a “black man” can be viewed as a minority: “This, the old man says shutting the lid, this ain‟t for sale”. The author uses a few instance of non-standard form on English in his writing. For example, “Mr. Benny says, Hey ain‟t you kids know better than to be swinging up there?” (Cisneros 30) in order to express the power of language. Therefore, going by the definition of standard language, we can categorize Chicano discourse as a non-standard variety and is more often seen a deviation from the set norm. Judging the power of a language concerning the correctness of a language should be based on social rather than linguistic. Notably, there is nothing in the non-standard variety that makes them inferior or less powerful to the standard variety.

Cisneros has expressed how people who try to create identity in a culturally hybrid society are often rejected. They are usually viewed as people who have forgotten their roots. Mamacita is actually not happy with her child when she realizes that her child has started to learn English language. According to her she should remain true to her roots, no wonder she misses home. The author is trying to say that when other characters such as Esperanza feel that they can become more powerful by learning more languages, there is a way such ac makes one less powerful in the society depending with the set up of the society where one hails. However, a person who does not realize his or her identity and the emptiness which results from lack of identity brings problems like self-esteem, lack of objectivity in life, distress and emotional confusion. There are characters in the novel who desire to master Spanish language so as to help them realize their identity and free themselves from the dominant culture. Nonetheless, there are those character who apt and embrace dominant culture in order to attain social and economic improvement in their lives. “My father says when he came to this country he ate hamandeggs for three months. Breakfast, lunch and dinner. Hamandeggs. That was the only word he knew. He doesn‟t eat hamandeggs anymore” (Cisneros 77). He father had to learn a more “powerful” language even though he still has his roots in Mexico because his relatives still live there. However there are people who try to hold on their roots, such as Mamacita in the hope that she does not get influenced by the English dominant language.

Conclusion

The narrator employs the use of languages which are markers of Chicano language–Spanish and English. Even though English is the predominant language in her narration, there are a few syntaxes of Spanish. Cisneros has expressed the theme of the power of language to symbolize identity. Besides, The Home on Mango Street has successfully expressed a language as an important tool that people need in their daily life. Just like the author puts it, there are several people who have suffered in the past when they go to new social- cultural environments where they cannot speak their languages.

Works cited

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Contemporaries of Random House, 1984.

Delgado, Luisa Elena, Rolando J. Romero, and Walter Mignolo. "Local histories and global designs: An interview with Walter Mignolo." Discourse 22.3 (2000): 7-33.

Shakespeare, William. othello. Vol. 6. JB Lippincott Company, 1886.

Hall, Stuart, ed. Representation: Cultural representations and signifying practices. Vol. 2. Sage, 1997.

Delgado, Luisa Elena, Rolando J. Romero, and Walter Mignolo. "Local histories and global designs: An interview with Walter Mignolo." Discourse 22.3 (2000): 7-33.

January 13, 2023
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