Cover of the 1989 Vintage edition.
I am excited to head into my Chicana/o Literature class this week because we’ll be discussing Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street. I love using this book because the stories are so short, it’s a useful way to introduce students to the techniques of literary criticism. Seriously, when a story like “Hairs”–in which the main character, Esperanza, describes her family member’s hair–is all of ten sentences long, we can read it aloud, pick it apart, discuss the meaning of the details, and create a model thesis statement about it all in the space of one class time. Aside from being beautifully written, Cisneros’ work is a pedagogical treasure.
I love House on Mango Street for very personal reasons, too. It was the first work of Chicana/o literature that I ever encountered. Nowadays, of course, it’s a common reading in middle and high schools across the nation. Not so when I was in high school. I picked it up during my senior year. I don’t recall how it came into my hands, but it wasn’t through any of my teachers or friends. I might have stumbled upon it at the bookstore. Or maybe my mom read about it in the newspaper and picked up a copy for me. (She once showed me a newspaper interview with the writer Victor Villaseñor, but in my know-it-all teenage stubbornness, I took a look at his photo and thought, “Who’s this old guy? Whatevs.” And so the novel Rain of Gold narrowly missed out on the chance to be my first ever Chicana/o literature reading.)
I had always been an avid reader, from a young age. The best day of the month would be when our Scholastic or Troll Book Club orders arrived at school and I got a new set of paperbacks to call my own. My parents did not have a lot of money, but my mom always found a little extra to put towards the little library burgeoning in my bedroom. Yet, in all my literary explorations, I never had encountered a character who was Mexican, like me. Or hated her long name, like me. Or was living in the Midwest, like me. House changed all this . . . and changed me forever. I already had dreams of becoming a fiction writer, and now, in Sandra Cisneros, I had an actual role model. If she could do it, then maybe I can, too. What a comfort the thought was to a young Chicana who felt all alone in her ethnic experience.
I arrived at college ready to declare an English major. I was the only one of my circle of friends who was interested in the field. Most of my friends were pre-med and, as luck would have it, the TV show ER premiered during our freshman year. All those pre-meds would gather around the television set in the common room of the dorm and watch the show religiously, convinced they were getting a preview of what their professional lives would look like. Most of them did go on to become doctors, and who knows? Maybe they really are living out primetime-worthy dramas and having lusty affairs with their coworkers.
As far as I knew, there were no TV shows about English majors or the lives of literature professors or literary scholars or writers. And the pre-meds never let me forget it. They loved to tell me, “All you’re gonna need to know after graduation is how to say, ‘Would you like some fries with that?’” I heard that “joke” quite often. If I could track them down today, I still would be tempted to slap them in the face with a photocopy of my Ph.D., and say, “Guess what? I’m a DOCTOR now, too! So suck it!”
I hear echoes of their question (“What on earth will you do with that degree?”) today when students come into my office, seeking advice on choosing a major. Many who come my way are inspired by the issues of social justice we discuss in class and a desire to “help” their communities of origin. Their heart calls them towards a degree in Sociology, Criminal Justice, Political Science, History. Yet, time and again, they sign up for a bachelor’s degree in Business, concentrating in Marketing, Accounting, or Human Resources. (No offense, but who in their right minds chooses to major in Human Resources? What exactly is there to study?)
“Why are you a Business major?” I ask. “You don’t even sound excited about it.”
The usual answer: ”Because I know I’ll get a job. If I major in Sociology, what kind of job would I ever get?”
If they view social science degrees with skepticism, what chance do degrees in the humanities have? In all my years at this school, I have never, not even once, met a Latina/o English major. Every once in a great while, I will meet a Spanish major. But at my school, where students of color outnumber white students, the Chicana/os in literary studies (or philosophy, dance, music, etc.) are rare.
Part of the reasons boils down to the fact that most of the students at our institution are the first in their families to attend college. And times are tough: They struggle to pay for their education; they work part or even full time to support themselves. As classes are constantly being cut by the administration, students have a harder time making timely progress towards their degrees and getting into the courses they need. Currently, our Chicana/o Literature class does not “count” towards any General Education requirements, so for many students, there is little incentive to enroll. They are under tremendous pressure to finish college and start working to help support their families. There is no time or money to waste on something as “frivolous” as literature. I need a job–now!
I encourage students to major in what they love, since they have to spend 4+ years doing the work. To some extent, it doesn’t matter what field that happens to be. Having a bachelor’s degree is a requirement for any entry-level position. Whether you major in business, history, sociology, or art history, employers will assume that because you completed your degree, then you must have decent writing abilities and have a general education about the world. You can write a memo, create a PowerPoint presentation for your team, and greet clients without embarrassing the higher-ups. Before I applied to my doctoral program, I had a job for a company that designed parts for railcars. Was I putting my literary training to use each day? Not exactly. But did I have a steady paycheck? Yes.
And here’s where I come back to Cisneros and House on Mango Street. Most of the students enrolled in the Chicana/o literature class come from non-literary majors. I then spend a lot of class time introducing them to the basics of analyzing poems, short stories, and novels. It takes a lot of work to draw them into discussion and to help them feel comfortable sharing an interpretation of a text, which is always accompanied with, “Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but…” I constantly assure them, “No! There is no such thing as ‘reading too much into’ literature. That’s the point–just think out loud, let’s reflect on what this detail might mean.”
I’m just happy that the class had enough enrollment to happen this semester. On the first day, I announced: “Many of you are interested in heading back into our communities and making a difference. Maybe literature seems like ‘just’ entertainment. But let me tell you: There is nothing more political than literature and the arts. And there has never been a political movement that survived without literature, art, and music.” I saw their heads nodding. Okay, class was underway!
Literature matters. It matters to me. It matters to Chicana/o communities. It is how our people have expressed their deepest pain and most beautiful dreams when no other outlet was available to them. We have always sung our songs and shared our stories. It’s in our blood. We can’t exist without our stories–and we can’t afford not to study the humanities.