The Story Of Their Lives

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It seemed the perfect book to use with my 6th grade pull-out students, the majority of whom were first- or second-generation Mexican immigrants.

In the spring of 1991, I didn't know who Sandra Cisneros was. So it wasn't name recognition that led me to pick up her book The House on Mango Street one night as I moseyed about the labyrinthine nooks and crannies of the Seminary Co-op bookstore on the University of Chicago campus. I don't know what it was, actually. What I remember is being somehow drawn to the book, and that once I started reading, I couldn't put it down. It's a cliche I know, but in this case it's the truth. I read at least half the book standing there in the aisle and finished it that night. The short but stirring vignettes, which center on Esperanza Cordero, a Mexican-American girl growing up in a working-class Chicago barrio, stayed with me for days.

When I found myself teaching at Seward Elementary School on the southwest side of Chicago the following September, Esperanza and The House on Mango Street crept back into my mind. It seemed the perfect book to use with my 6th grade pull-out students, the majority of whom were first- or second-generation Mexican immigrants. Esperanza's neighborhood was much like their own, and her struggles, I thought, would speak to their experiences. That would certainly be a new sensation for them. Their basal readers and Seward's library shelves were populated with few characters who looked or spoke or lived like they did.

I made copies of the first few stories from the book and introduced them to my classes, intending eventually to read the entire work with the kids. It was tough going, though. They enjoyed the stories, but because of their poor reading skills and limited vocabularies, our pace was painfully slow, and Cisneros' poetic use of the language and rich narrative was often lost.

I had an idea: My pull-out students might grasp more of the book's subtle charms if it was read to them. I approached Bob Fabian, Seward's 8th grade language arts teacher, and told him I was looking for a couple of girls to work on a special project. I explained that I hoped to make an "audio book" of The House on Mango Street and wanted the girls to do dramatic readings of the stories. I wanted them to be Esperanza, to interpret the character in their own voices. Bob said he'd mention it to one of his classes and see if anybody was interested.

The next morning, as soon as the opening bell rang, five girls appeared in the doorway of the converted coat closet that served as my classroom. Seward, like many of the elementary schools in Chicago's Mexican neighborhoods, was severely overcrowded, and every conceivable space in the building was pressed into service.

"Hi," I said, putting aside what I was working on and standing to greet the girls. "Are you guys here about The House on Mango Street?" I had the annoying tendency of calling both male and female students "guys."

"Mmmm," answered the girl in front, laughing in a self-conscious way. "I guess so."

"Mr. Fabian told us you were going to have tryouts for some kind of reading program, or something like that," added another.

"You're at the right place," I assured them. "Come on in."

I had to back up to let them pass. The closet was so narrow at its entrance that only one person could squeeze past my desk at a time. Once inside, each of the girls sat in one of the eight collapsible desks that lined the length of the seven-by-fifteen-foot space.

After we introduced ourselves, I held up a copy of the book and asked if any of them had heard of it. No one had. As I passed it around for them to see, I explained that, like them, the author of the book was a Mexican-American who had grown up in Chicago. The girls listened politely, but I couldn't measure their interest. One of them flipped through the book, stopping to read a few lines that caught her eye. As I outlined the audio book project, I passed out photocopies of the first few stories and asked the girls to read them that night. I told them we would meet the next morning before school, and I would listen to each of them read.

We read the stories, discussed them, defined new words, and the girls tried to explain cultural references that I didn't understand.

At 8 o'clock the next day, they all filed in again, this time less guarded and with a pleasant "Hi, Mr. Michie," as they entered. After we sat down, I opened my book and asked who wanted to read first. Nancy, whose kind eyes turned up slightly at the corners and who wore her permed hair pulled into a barrette behind her head, spoke up. "We were wondering," she said, measuring her words, "like, do you think we could all do it?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, Mr. Fabian told us you were looking for two people to read, but--well, we all liked the stories, and all of us want to do it."

"I was really only planning to use a couple different voices," I said as I scanned the faces of the other girls. They looked as if they thought I was getting ready to lower the boom on them. "But if you all want to be part of it, then--well, I guess you'll all be a part of it. We'll just have five Esperanzas."

And with that, all five Esperanzas smiled.

"Chanclas" was the title of the story, and that's as far as Alejandra got. As soon as she read the word aloud, the girls all burst out laughing.

I looked up from my book, puzzled. "What's so funny?"

"I don't know," Nancy said, still giggling and stealing a glance at Yajaira. "That's just not the kind of word you expect to see in a book."

"It's not bad, is it?" I asked. From what I had surmised in my earlier reading, chanclas were shoes of some type.

"No, not bad," responded Virginia. "It's just...I don't know how to explain it."

"They're shoes, right?"

"Yeah, like the kind--Como se llama en ingles?"

"Flip-flops," said Maritza.

"There you go!"

I still didn't get the joke. "So what's so funny about flip-flops?"

"It's just the word," Nancy explained. "It's like slang or something. I've just never seen that word printed in a book before. It's not that it's funny, it's just--it's like an inside word, you know? Like a word nobody outside knows. You get me?"

We began meeting before school two mornings each week. We read the stories, discussed them, defined new words, and the girls tried to explain cultural references that I didn't understand. Once we'd read the whole book, I asked each girl to choose five stories that she wanted to read on tape. This was difficult because there were several stories that more than one of the girls wanted to narrate. But after some negotiating and compromise, we settled on readings that left everyone more or less satisfied. From that point on, the stories they chose became theirs.

The vignettes in The House on Mango Street never failed to conjure up memories from the girls' own lives, and we spent as much time sharing those as we did reading the book. As days and weeks passed, I got to know more about each of the girl's singular stories and sensibilities. Each of them may have been Esperanza, but each was Esperanza in her own unique way.

Virginia was small and thin, with gelled bangs that curled down past her eyebrows, barely leaving room for her eyes to peek out underneath. Quick-witted and a natural performer, Virginia went home every night to Mexican parents who were strict Catholics. They allowed her to leave the house only to go to school and to work. Saturdays and Sundays, she sold jeans and T-shirts from 8 till 4 at the Swap-O-Rama flea market. Yajaira, the quietest of the group, had yet to discover her inner or outer beauty. Her mother pulled her hair into a long, tight braid, and her stepfather tightly orchestrated the rest of her life. She was responsible for looking after her younger sister, Erika, who was just learning English, and often brought her along for our morning gatherings.

The vignettes in the book never failed to conjure up memories from the girls' own lives, and we spent as much time sharing those as we did reading the book.

Maritza, the tallest, whose slightly nasal voice carried with it a touch of longing, was born in Puerto Rico. The youngest of four daughters, she came to Chicago after her parents divorced when she was 5 years old. She dreamed of becoming a lawyer. Alejandra, a skilled artist who had recently gotten her thick, black hair lopped off in favor of a short bob, was the only one of the five who had a serious (at least in 8th grade terms) boyfriend, and she continually updated us on all the relationship's ups and downs. She and her two younger sisters lived with their mother, who supported the family working second shift on the bacon line of a meat packing plant.

Nancy, perhaps the most introspective of the girls, was the sixth of nine children and had her sights set on being the first in her family to graduate from college. She lamented the fact that her older brother Odie, who she insisted was "the smartest one in the family" and had been the first to finish high school, had not continued his education. Nancy's sensitive readings of some of Mango Street's most emotive stories made it clear that she had seen plenty sadness of her own.

By February, the Mango Girls, as they were now calling themselves, had practiced the stories so many times that we all knew them virtually by heart. Soon we would be ready to put them on tape. On the morning of Valentine's Day, we listened as Maritza worked through the opening lines of "Alicia & I Talking on Edna's Steps":

I like Alicia because once she gave me a little leather purse with the word "Guadalajara" stitched on it, which is home for Alicia, and one day she will go back there. But today she is listening to my sadness because I don't have a house.

You live right here, 4006 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of.

No, this isn't my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I've lived there. I don't belong. I don't ever want to come from here.

"Could I start over?" Maritza asked after stumbling over a couple of phrases.

"Sure, go ahead. But hang on a second." I turned to Nancy, who was reading over Maritza's shoulder. I sensed she was preoccupied with something. "Nancy, you OK?"

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said.

"You sure nothing's wrong?"

"I'm sure."

Maritza nudged Nancy. "Tell him," she said. Nancy looked at me, but no words came.

"If it's something you don't want to talk about, you don't have to," I told her.

"Tell him!" repeated Maritza.

"I just don't want to make a big deal out of it," Nancy said, looking around at the others. "Our house burned last night."

"Oh, my God!" gasped Yajaira and Virginia as one.

I should have known something was wrong. Nancy had come in that morning without her copy of the book. Nancy never forgot her book.

"It's OK," Nancy added quickly, trying to deflect attention from herself. "Everybody's all right. Nobody died or anything."

None of us knew what to say. It didn't seem right to go on reading. It was the second time in as many months that fire had destroyed the home of a Seward student. "Did it burn...everything?" I asked awkwardly.

"Yeah. Everything's ruined. Either from the fire or the smoke or the water. I had to borrow clothes from my aunt. My sisters don't even have shoes."

"You didn't have to come, you know," I said. "We would have understood."

"I wanted to," said Nancy earnestly. "My sisters told me not to, but I wanted to come. I don't know why. I just wanted to be here. I had bought cupcakes for everybody for Valentine's Day, but...Can we please just keep reading?" she asked. I nodded and Maritza began again. The rhythm and familiarity of the words felt good.

That afternoon, I gave Nancy my copy of Mango Street to use over the weekend. I told her I'd buy her a new one and give it to her on Monday.

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