Sexuality and Culture in ‘The House on Mango Street’ and ‘Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe’
In latinx children’s literature, there are themes that are more prevalent in this genre than other. In Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Benjamin Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe, the two latinx protagonists Esperanza and Aristotle deal with sexuality and gender roles, family relationships, and racial and ethnic identity. The coming of age stories of Esperanza and Aristotle display the unique struggle that comes with being a young adult of a minority heritage and the how their culture becomes an additional factor in themes throughout the text. Like other coming of age stories in The House on Mango Street and Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe the main protagonists are growing and begin to learn a lot about their sexuality and the gender roles of the environments that they live in.
It is made clear early on that Esperanza understands the gender roles in the latinx community when referring to her grandmother, “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 – but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don’t like their woman strong” (Cisneros,10). Based on what she has seen growing up in her own family Esperanza can see that in Mexican families the women are expected to be more submissive. Esperanza’s sexual and gender experience can be reflected in her relationship with Sally. Sally and her relationships showcase what is considered normal or acceptable in the latinx community where the woman are discouraged to speak out against domestic abuse. Sally herself is abused but tries to justify the actions by stating that she is never hit hard, however Esperanza notes that her skin is always scarred. The true extent of her abuse is shown when Esperanza states,” But Sally doesn’t tell about the time that he hit her with his hands just like a dog, she said, like if I was an animal.”(Cisneros, 92). Esperanza not only understands the amount of abuse happening in her community but also that the woman know about this and complicit with the abuse. When at a carnival waiting for Sally Esperanza is sexually assaulted and her response shows how frustrated she is with this how abuse it treated around her. “Sally Sally a hundred times. Why didn’t you hear me when I called? Why didn’t you tell them to leave me alone?” (Cisneros, 100). Esperanza shows more frustration with Sally then her attackers because just as Sally’s mother knows of her abuse Esperanza understands how abuse against women is handled in her community.
While Aristotle does not face the same problems in the community that Esperanza faces being a girl, being gay in a latinx community that is often very tied to Catholicism. It is while Ari is still in denial of his feelings for Dante that he learns about his aunt Ophelia being a lesbian and the divide it caused in their family. There was standing-room-only at her funeral mass. “It was obvious that she had been deeply loved. By everyone except her family.” (Saenz,66). While Ari had not yet come out and admitted he had feelings for Dante what happened with his aunt and his brother were to examples of how homosexuality and gender were viewed in his community. Ari older brother who is a sore subject in his house was tricked when approaching a prostitute and ended up killing the man out of rage. His aunt who was a lesbian was essentially kicked out of the family because of this and was treated like an outsider even until her death. Ari tries very hard to follow what is considered normal because of the family drama revolving around anything to do with homosexuality. The negative connotation around homosexuality in his community has a lingering effect on Ari, continuing to deny his feelings even when he is surrounded by family and friends that would accept him.
Another factor that effects Esperanza and Ari uniquely because of their latinx heritage is family relationships. Families in Hispanic communities are often larger than normal and more close knit. Esperanza experiences this more traditional style being close to her siblings. If you don’t get them you may turn into a man. “Nenny says this and she believes it. She is this way because of her age. That’s right, I add before Lucy or Rachel can make fun of her. She is stupid alright, but she is my sister.” (Cisneros,50). Although Esperanza sometimes fights with her siblings she does love them and they are like friends to her. Being Latina and being new to the area Espiranza’s family also gives her a sense of belonging and a place where she fits in. On the other hand, Ari is more of an outsider even in his own family. My twin sisters were twelve years older. “Twelve years was a lifetime. I swear it was. And they’d always made me feel like a baby or a toy or a project or a pet…Maybe all that silence about my brother did something to me. I think it did. Not talking can make a guy pretty lonely” (Saenz, 3). Ari has not only a distant relationship with is older siblings because of the age gap but also with his father, a veteran who doesn’t talk or share much since returned from war. Ari shows how this family disconnect has affected his self-esteem and caused him to be more of an outcast. The same struggles experienced in their family lives are also present in how Esperanza and Aristotle have trouble finding their own identity.
Because Aristotle and Esperanza are both from latinx communities they not only have trouble finding out where they fit in but also how their culture plays a role in their identity. Esperanza’s name is a symbol of this struggle “In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting.”(Cisneros,10). Esperanza hates her name, she dislikes how difficult it is to pronounce and wishes she had a simpler name finally landing on the name Zeze the X as a name she wishes she could have, a name easy to say but does not reflect her culture at all. Her name is one aspect which causes Esperanza to feel like an outsider. This among other things is a way that she compares herself to her siblings and peers in her path to find out where she belongs. Although Esperanza’s family gives her some sense of belonging, in her eyes she finds that her siblings are closer to normal and often wishes to be more like them. However, Aristotle’s main problem with his identity is his sexual orientation. It is because of his family and the culture he grew up in that he is inclined to feel ashamed of what he was feeling for Dante. “From the minute I’d met Dante, I had fallen in love with him. I just didn’t let myself know it, think it, feel it. My father was right. And it was true what my mother said. We all fight our own private wars.” (Saenz,80). Aristotle had spent so much time fighting this battle over his identity that even when the people around him expressed that what he may have been feeling would have been fine he continued to fight back because of the inner struggle he was facing. Aristotle is haunted by the memory of his aunt and his brother that he feels it would be easier for him and everyone if he tries to push his feelings away.
Ultimately, it is when Esperanza and Aristotle accept their environment and their own personal characteristics that they are happy and obtain a sense of belonging, Esperanza understanding what the house on mango street means to her and Aristotle being able to express himself with Dante. Esperanza and Aristotle are both adolescence growing up in a latinx community or family and through their journeys they give a unique perspective of a different kind of coming of age story. Both characters experience exploring gender and sexuality in their communities, family relationships, and their own identities as latinx adolescence. Both text explore what it means to be latinx and how the culture can have an added effect on these difficult situations that teens go through.
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In latinx children’s literature, there are themes that are more prevalent in this genre than other. In Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street and Benjamin Saenz’s Aristotle and Dante […]