Esperanza is the narrator of the book, a young girl on the verge of becoming an adolescent. Together with her family-Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki and her sister Nenny-she has recently moved to Mango Street, where she finds the house that her family owns to be most definitely not the house of her dreams. The book traces Esperanza’s struggle to realize her fondest hopes (Esperanza’s name means “hope” in Spanish), and to establish her own unique identity. Mama is the primary figure of strength and stability in Esperanza’s family, even though she believes her life is largely one missed opportunity. Still, contrast Mama with Papa, whom Esperanza must comfort and for whom Esperanza must be strong when he learns of his father’s death. Esperanza’s brothers do not figure much in the story; they lead separate and untold lives from the girls. Nenny, however, Esperanza’s younger sister, is close to Esperanza, but Esperanza regards her more as a responsibility than as a friend.
At first, Esperanza thinks she finds a friend in Cathy, the “Queen of Cats,” but Cathy is moving out the Mango Street neighborhood because people like Esperanza-that is, Hispanics-“keep moving in.” Esperanza does, however, become good friends with Lucy and Rachel, with whom Esperanza buys a bicycle and with whom she is able to share the last innocent days of childhood.
Throughout the novel, Esperanza introduces us to a number of her Mango Street neighbors, usually in brief but evocative, detailed vignettes. Some of the more memorable among this cast of characters are: Gil, the African-American owner of a used furniture store who hangs on to an old music box as a cherished reminder of his own hopes and dreams; Meme Ortiz, one of the few non-threatening boys in the novel, who dares to re-name (in a sense, re-baptize) himself, as Esperanza wishes she could do; Marin, who is unafraid to meet the sexually-charged stares of Mango Street’s threatening male figures and who even invites their attention; Rosa Vargas, who, partly by choice and partly by circumstance, is unable to supervise her children, with at least one tragic result; Elenita, the Tarot-reading woman who seeks to bring order to her chaotic life through palmistry and fortune-telling; and The Three Sisters, enigmatic women who appear toward the end of the novel to outline Esperanza’s fate as a story-teller to her.
Other neighbors, not as well known, also appear in the book’s pages, such as Earl-Esperanza calls him “the Earl of Tennessee”-who brings a different “wife” to his apartment night after night, and the tragic figure of “Geraldo No Last Name,” who leaves Marin’s life an unknown quantity as quickly as he entered it, a symbol for all minority members of a culture who are ignored and, ultimately, lost.
Apart from Esperanza, perhaps the most fully developed female figures in the novel are Minerva, a former writer of children’s literature who is now trapped in an abusive marriage, but who-as did Esperanza’s late Aunt Lupe-encourages Esperanza to find the power in story-telling and narrative and words; and Sally, whom we watch change from an attractive and popular girl at school to a defeated and desperate wife, due in large part to the influence of a physically and possibly sexually abusive father.
Finally, of course, Mango Street itself emerges as a character. More than a setting, Mango Street is a community of diverse individuals, a neighborhood that the dominant culture cannot “write off” as a monolithic bloc of “others.” And Mango Street is a part of Esperanza’s identity, even as she leaves it behind to tell its story to us, her readers. Through Esperanza’s discovery of her unique voice, Mango Street, by the book’s close, finds its unique voice, too.