Esperanza Cordero (The House on Mango Street)
Esperanza is the most fully developed character in the book. All our information about her comes from her; some things she tells us directly (and we must be alert to the possibility that they are perhaps true only at the moment she says them), others indirectly in her reported actions, thoughts, and feelings. Some things about her we can never know, but because her voice is both direct and intimate, we can "know" her in some ways better than her friends and family do, better perhaps than she knows herself.
On one hand, Esperanza is a typical young adolescent girl, at some moments a child and at some an adult. She jumps rope with her friends, rides three on a bike, is drawn to a good Bugs Bunny cartoon. Very late in the book, she says of a neighbor, "I like Alicia because once she gave me a little leather purse with the word GUADALAJARA stitched on it . . . " — a very childish locution, for we know that Esperanza's feelings of liking and admiration for Alicia are not at all that simple.
On the other hand, this woman-child can exhibit very mature insights. Her assessments of Sally ("all you wanted was to love, . . . and no one could call that crazy") and of Marin ("waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life"), for example, show her innate ability not only to recognize another person's motives but also to empathize with others, both signs of mental and emotional maturity. They are also signs of an imaginative intelligence that marks Esperanza as something more than average. She is a very bright girl who likes to read, to learn things and put new information together, to show off what she knows. Moreover, her intelligence is specifically creative, as is shown by her poetry, her originality, and especially her characteristic way of describing things in imaginative similes and other metaphors.
Perhaps it is Esperanza's imaginative intelligence that makes her suspect the traditional path to womanhood, through courtship and early marriage, of being a trap. It is a trap that draws her, of course; like most young girls, she feels herself becoming a sexual being, and she is impatient to get away from home, to stop being her parents' daughter and start being her own person. Doing this in the traditional way, she sees, would be dangerous. Finding a new way will be lonely and difficult, for she will have to swim against the current. But Esperanza is able to employ her natural adolescent impulses and feelings in this enterprise, channeling them into independence, ambition, and the courageous refusal to capitulate to social pressures towards conformity.
In order to make these transformations, Esperanza necessarily dramatizes herself somewhat, as when she decides to become "beautiful and cruel." Such self-dramatization really amounts to forming a mental image of herself that she can adjust as needed. Part of Esperanza's self-image is one of stoicism; she keeps her feelings to herself and actually — for the narrator of a book — says relatively little, leaving the reader to infer a great deal. In "Four Skinny Trees," she seems to be working on her self-image, rather enjoying her identification with the trees in what she sees as their strength, anger, and feeling of displacement. Only in "Red Clowns" does Esperanza actually break down — significantly, not to the reader but to her own mental picture of Sally — and characteristically she returns in the next chapter in her usual terse style, as if the incident had never happened. And, in the three short chapters at the end of the book, she reveals what we might already have guessed about her: Esperanza is a person who will feel everything very deeply and will quietly channel her experiences and feelings into creative energy; they will emerge transformed, as art.
Our knowledge of other characters also comes from Esperanza, who understands them on her own level; we can know more about them, in some cases, by combining what she says with our own insights into human nature. An example is one very minor character — Earl, the jukebox repairman who lives in a basement apartment near Esperanza. Esperanza knows some things about him and probably recognizes his loneliness and displacement, but as a child, she is still unable to articulate these things; older readers will see more than Esperanza does. Other minor characters (including some, like Lucy and Rachel, Nenny, even Esperanza's mother, who appear in more than one chapter) can be "analyzed" as well; the trick is to examine the character through Esperanza's eyes and at the same time to recognize — given our knowledge of who Esperanza is — the hints she gives us, almost unconsciously, of the character she does not yet see. (It is a measure of Cisneros' talent that these hints are almost always present, but that they never intrude upon the integrity of Esperanza's character.) Some of these characters, like Earl, are really minor; the others, important as they may be in Esperanza's life, are (typically for a girl her age) both taken for granted and dismissed from the front row of people with whom she is just now most concerned. The really important people to Esperanza are girls and young women whom she sees as possible role models, a little older than she, a little closer to womanhood.