“I watched my brother watch the world… Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was some place other than this place…”
Another Brooklyn, page 77.
“One day we were passing a house that looked, in my mind, like houses I had seen in Mexico. I don’t know why. There was nothing about the house that looked exactly like the houses I remembered…”
The House on Mango Street, pages 17-18.
These passages take me to my childhood. A place where in my backyard a lawn chair was my princess throne, and the fence that barely held itself vertical defined my kingdom. A time when my heart was what guided my mind, and I could see the streets of Dayton as more than a place where my family experienced poverty. It was also a place of possibilities and alternate futures where I would someday be the woman awaiting me in the shadows of my periphery. A main difference is my background. In many ways I grew up a privileged, white individual who presented as their male birth assignment. My quest for womanhood was put on back burners to my journey of living up to societal norms. But the inside depths of my heart, the places of my mind where this girl has always been, are home to a voice that has always guided us, and I can relate to the coming-of-age narratives these two stories present.
Cisneros begins her tale of young womanhood from the home, personifying the neighborhood and bringing character to the very experience of living on Mango Street. Community status being a shared trait of all involved. In my own impoverished community in the early 1980s we also could relate to the idea that we were “tired of looking at what [we] don’t have,” as Esperanza lamented. Hand me downs, the alley belongings of once wealthier inhabitants moved on, busy working parents giving us room to explore and choose our own path of survival. These are all the makings of a world where as kids we built the scaffolding of the future with nothing but junk and imagination. Where we tried on different shoes until we found our step. And also, sadly, the sort of environment where our blossoming womanhood is held of lesser value.
Both Cisneros and Woodson show us that shared communal socioeconomic stress does not eliminate predators or tie us all together in a shared humanity or morality. The fact that a young girl is alone, brown or black, poor or her parents are not present, makes her the object of male harassment. Part of the female awakening is sexual, and often complicated by the intentions and actions of older men. In Mango Street it was a neighbor’s old high heeled shoes and the epiphany that the shape of the girls’ legs and hips were a beacon for deviant advances. In Another Brooklyn, Woodson shows us more closely that, “at 8, 9, 10, 11, 12… we knew were being watched.” They learn in preteen childhood to warn each other that the repairman will stare at your panties and bare feet. That the pastor in choir at church will stand behind you and press himself into your body. That girls as young as Gigi at 12 are often raped in their own apartment buildings or by people they see everyday. That girls like Esperanza are taken advantage of or raped by dates and friends who say they love you while they destroy your trust and innocence. There is zero wonder in my mind why young women like Gigi dream of escape to Hollywood, or why August hides in books and university, clinging to their way out.
In friendship and identity, I can relate to August in the Woodson piece the most. Clinging to the window, watching the world happen, seeing the girls play jump rope and sing songs and hearing the jelly flip flops hit the pavement; and praying to the stars and universe that you too could belong, that you too could become this young woman, full of life and opportunity and ability. “The three of them walked down our block, dressed in halter tops and shorts, arms linked together, laughing. I watched until they disappeared, who they were, how they… became.” Exactly my experience. There are moments of each book where I find myself through the eyes of the narrator; equating my internal struggle to find myself within the women around me and the longing gaze of these two young girls, desperately wanting to find a place they fit in and reign.
Another strong theme I resonated with was the unreliability of memories in each piece, only rivaled by the absolute magic of imagination and perception. I too remember the pain of my puberty as a disjointed collection of images and feelings. It’s easy for me to place the wrong emotion at the wrong point of time and find myself interpreting either the wrong past, or the past I felt it was at that time. Or is that as adults we simply see behind us very differently than we did as children seeing ahead? Whom do we see? Who are we trying to be?
The Woman Awaiting.
These stories took me to places. I could feel my own coming of age explained in the awkward steps and pitfalls of these young women. From the building of female bonds and women’s networks to the dismantling of youth and the entry to adulthood where bonds often seem more like faded memories. These stories also took me to my future and the future of my daughter, where I can now see more clearly due to the eloquence of these two authors that part of our mission as women is to hold as many hands as we can, to embrace the women who can lift us up when we struggle to escape, or to carry the women who can’t escape as easily as we do. These stories help solidify in me that we are a connected humanity, regardless of skin colors, genders, or educations; regardless of the good or harms we do to one another. And that even if we could truly escape where we came from, we may only find we’ve escaped the place we… became.