More Than the Fence is Whitewashed
Throughout history, many groups of people have been oppressed and mistreated.
These minorities, who fought for equality and acceptance for themselves, have been severely underrepresented in American literature. Finding accurate minority representation in literature is still a challenge, and it is important that these groups of people are more fully culturally included. Minority representation in literature is not a wish; it is a necessity. Although finding examples of minority representation is often difficult, some authors, such as Sandra Cisneros, have managed to include minority groups in their writings. Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street includes Mexican-American and female representation, which enables minorities to relate to characters and their experiences, gives minorities a sense of inclusion and acceptance, and educates society about different cultures and groups of people; all of which are highly important for people of color and other minorities in today’s society. As a Mexican-American and female author, Cisneros writes about her struggles with adversity as a result of her identity through the experiences of her characters.
According to a biography of Cisneros, “Cisneros’ work explores issues that are important to her: feminism, love, oppression, and religion” (Mathias). In addition to tackling issues that she feels are important, her use of non-fictional characters allows her to give an authentic voice to the problems that she has experienced personally and those that people around her have experienced. Just as Esperanza Cordero wished she could escape poverty, “She [Cisneros] wanted desperately to believe that her poverty was just a temporary situation” (Mathias). Her work teaching in a Chicago high school also gave her insight into the struggles of young Latina women, some of which she had faced as a young girl. Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street largely includes minority representation, as a result of her minority background. The book specifically focuses on the hardships of Latino people and women and young girls.
The House on Mango Street focuses on its female protagonist and predominantly includes female characters. By focusing on women and young girls, Cisneros gives them societal value, making them important enough to include in literature. According to an article on gender inequality in children’s literature, “The simple fact of how much the book includes female characters reflects the value that is accorded to women and girls” (Diekman 375). Esperanza also discusses problems common among young girls and women. In “Hairs,” Esperanza discusses physical imperfection and insecurities about her appearance and her body. She also explains that she feels alienated from the boys in her neighborhood because she is a girl in “Boys & Girls.
” The book’s abundance of female characters and discussion of gender struggles makes it a major source of female representation in literature. The House on Mango Street is not only an example of inclusion for women in literature, but it is also an example of accurate Mexican-American representation in literature. The characters in the book, especially Esperanza and her family, face real struggles including poverty and discrimination. The entire Cordero family deals with life in a country that discriminates against their culture and identity. When describing an encounter with one of her neighbors, Esperanza says, “That’s when we move away. Got to.
Then as if she forgot I just moved in, she says the neighborhood is getting bad” (Cisneros 12). Esperanza’s neighbor believed that the influx of Mexican-American population made the neighborhood “bad.” The House on Mango Street focuses on the Mexican-American experience and the struggles that come along with being a Latino immigrant, including discrimination and ignorance. Racial discrimination affects Esperanza from a young age, and many minorities face the same discrimination throughout their entire lives. Often times, discrimination begins at birth for minorities, especially people of color. Minorities can often relate to experiences shared by other minorities, especially those within the same minority group; moreover, minority representation enables these people to relate to characters and situations in inclusive literary works.
The House on Mango Street includes many experiences to which Mexican-Americans and women can relate. The first is in “The Monkey Garden,” when a group of boys tries to make a young girl, Sally, kiss them after they stole her car keys. When Esperanza tries to protect Sally, the boys shame her and make her feel guilty. Women are often shamed for defending themselves or others in times of distress, an effect of the long history of oppression of women, and these individuals can relate to Esperanza’s experience with the teenage boys. This vignette is also an example of discrimination among members of the same racial group based on other inequalities. Sandra Cisneros uses her minority background and experiences to make her characters relatable.
According to an article discussing the importance of minority representation, “It is important that readers not only find characters to identify with, but that they can relate to situations found in the books they are asked to read” (Colby 3). Cisneros herself said, “All the emotions my characters feel, good or bad, are mine” (Cisneros xxiii). The theme of trapped women in The House on Mango Street helps women relate to these characters through similar feelings and experiences. Women can also relate to the young girls in “The Family of Little Feet,” who are told they should not wear heels or feminine clothing unless they want to be sexualized and catcalled. These are experiences that only women can relate to, and it is important that these issues are discussed in mainstream literature to expose others to these misogynistic practices. The shared experiences among a minority group are often effective in conveying a specific message or idea to an audience.
This ability makes representation and the relation of minority experiences to the experiences of literary protagonists and antagonists absolutely essential. The theme of women feeling trapped throughout The House on Mango Street conveys the message that women should be free to follow their own paths and make their own decisions. In “Helplessness,” Esperanza is made to feel ashamed for her actions in defending herself and her friends, but she recognizes that she was doing the right thing and should not be ashamed of her actions and choices. These lessons are extremely important to teach in a society that tells young girls and women, “Shut up,” instead of, “Speak up.” Storytelling and writing have always been used to teach lessons, and inclusion and representation are important aspects of teaching lessons through literature.
A study of students’ reasoning for choosing to read certain literary works explains, “Many of our students commented on the ability to relate to characters and situations in books as a factor in book selection” (Colby 2). There is a clear correlation with the desire to read and being able to find a part of oneself in a character or a character’s experiences. As well as allowing minorities to relate to characters in literary works, representation in works of literature gives minorities a sense of inclusion and acceptance. “Multicultural literature helps children identify with their own culture, exposes children to other cultures, and opens the dialogue on issues regarding diversity” (Colby 1). This exposure and education is extremely important to the growth and development of all people, but mainly minority children, who hope to see themselves represented in the way privileged groups of people are represented in the media.
As a result of the effects of representation on child development, the lack of inclusion awarded to minorities often has negative effects on minority children. A study experimenting with the effects of underrepresentation on students explains, “Upon realizing the effects of seeing only white people portrayed in books during their years in school, many students began to empathize with children from underrepresented cultures in children’s literature” (Colby 2). Inadequate representation of minorities in mainstream literature has serious effects on the mentalities and development of these individuals. Inclusion and acceptance of minorities in literature not only cultivates education about minorities, but it also facilitates an acceptance of minority groups by minorities themselves. In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza tries to hide her feminine identity to fit in with the boys in her neighborhood, but she still feels isolated from them.
Through this experience, she learns that suppressing a part of her identity cannot help her fit in. Sandra Cisneros herself believed that green lawns and white picket fences were what made privileged people “normal” because that was what she saw in the media. As a result, she began to hate her poverty-induced lifestyle. Representation of minorities and people dealing with struggles of poverty and discrimination could have prevented her hatred and made her feel as though she was “normal.” An article about the facilitating of acceptance through representation explains, “The inclusion of quality multicultural literature [in school curriculum] is an excellent way to give children positive experiences that foster an acceptance and appreciation for cultural differences” (Hillard 729).
Representation in works of literature also educates society about different cultures and minority groups. Representing minorities in mainstream media helps to educate other groups of people about minorities and minority struggles. The inclusion of minority representation in literature opens the discussion of minorities and issues such as racism, sexism, and other societal issues. The House on Mango Street discusses discrimination against Mexican-American immigrants, educating other groups of people about the struggle with discrimination that many Mexican-American people often face. In “Cathy Queen of Cats,” a young girl in Esperanza’s neighborhood says that her family must move away because the neighborhood is getting bad.
Cathy’s family believes that the increase in Mexican-American population makes the neighborhood a bad place to live. Through this, Cisneros is making the point that prejudice is often based on preconceived notions resulting from misinformation. Educating other groups of people about minorities can help prevent prejudice by spreading accurate information about minority groups. “Multicultural literature can introduce children to unfamiliar practices and concepts inherent to different cultures” (Hillard 728). Introducing these unfamiliar concepts through mainstream literature spreads accurate knowledge to the public in a way that it cannot otherwise be taught.
Education can also help build relationships and understanding between people of privileged backgrounds and minorities. When non-minority individuals are able to gain insight into the struggles of minorities, they begin to sympathize with these minorities and are often encouraged to help minorities overcome the struggles they face. An article by Louise Sparks outlines the current system for dealing with prejudice in the United States, stating, “Denial and avoidance, then, appear to be the main techniques for dealing with one of the most pervasive and crucial problems of U.S. society” (Sparks 2). The same article also offers a solution to the issue of prejudice in the country.
“In general, then, it appears that in dealing with white children, facilitating knowledge about others and anti-racist attitudes have priority…” (Sparks 6). Education through representation, however, is not exclusively aimed towards privileged individuals. Minority representation helps minorities learn about their own cultures and identities as well.
“Even though the stories may take place in chocolate factories or academies of wizardry, literary adventures educate children about what is expected and valued in the real world” (Diekman 373). The education of minorities through literature is only made possible through accurate representation of minorities in literary works. Literature teaches lessons about morality, friendship, and situational actions, but it also teaches about stereotypes, which perpetuates them in today’s literature-dependent society. One of the major stereotypes taught through literature is the concept of gender roles. “Sexist as well as nonsexist stories may thus perpetuate gender inequity through the reinforcement of the traditional feminine ideal” (Diekman 375). Gender roles, or the concept that actions or things can be associated solely with one gender, are perpetuated throughout a majority of literary works.
“Sexist books might especially reinforce the importance of gender categories by depicting boys and girls as always playing separately or emphasizing strict boundaries between objects associated with girls and those associated with boys” (Diekman 375). Perpetuating stereotypes in literature is a major issue, and it is one of the reasons accurate minority representation is necessary. Minority representation and education is highly important in today’s society, which tends to embrace prejudice rather than criticize it. Representation and education is essential because it can prevent insecurity among minorities. Cisneros’s quote, “I’ve managed to do a lot of things in my life I didn’t think I was capable of,” demonstrates her insecurity with her own talents because of her identity as a Mexican-American woman (Cisneros 1228). Cisneros further expresses her self-doubt as a result of a negative view of her identity as a woman and a person of color when she says, “Especially because I am a woman, a Latina, an only daughter in a family of six men” (Cisneros).
Educating minorities about themselves and their cultures not only makes minority representation in literature crucial, but it also promotes further representation. According to Louise Sparks, “Constructing a positive and knowledgeable racial/cultural identity is one of a Third World child’s major developmental tasks in our racist society” (Sparks 3). Positive and accurate representation can help minorities learn about themselves and their roots, as well as help them push past stereotypes that are often presented to them. Minorities should be taught that stereotypes do not define them as people and should not be taken seriously. At the same time, they should be provided accurate information about their identity and culture.
Minority representation and education is also imperative because it enables individuals from privileged backgrounds to understand the struggles of minorities. The quote, “Every day we come into contact with individuals from a myriad of cultural backgrounds. The way we handle these encounters will be based largely on knowledge and attitudes derived from past experiences,” explains the importance of being educated about minorities (Hillard 729). When we meet people from different backgrounds and groups of people throughout our day, we should be able to recognize and understand their struggles and their views. We should not be blind to differences in race, ethnicity, or other distinguishing factors. The topic of color blindness is discussed by Sparks when she says, “At least, this concept is counter-productive, because while parents, teachers, and others are silent about racism, children are trying to make sense of their experiences” (Sparks 4).
Instead, education and understand should be encouraged through mediums such as literature, television, and social media. Representation can also help prevent racism, sexism, and other injustices in society. Prejudice is a major issue, and the prevention of prejudice in society should be encouraged as much as possible. This is another reason that minority representation is extremely important. The goal for many people, especially minorities, is a world where differences among the identities of individuals are accepted and nurtured rather than criticized and shamed.
“Until then, adults must guide children’s anti-racist development. This will include the fostering of: 1) accurate knowledge and pride about one’s racial/cultural identity; 2) accurate knowledge and appreciation of other racial groups; and 3) an understanding of how racism works and how to combat it” (Sparks 5). These three actions, when properly executed, can help prepare an individual to combat all types of prejudice in society, and accurate minority representation in literature is essential to the ability to carry out these actions. Currently, finding multicultural literature and creating awareness about the effects of its use in children’s education proves to be a challenge; moreover, it is highly important that accurate minority representation find its way into mainstream literature and media. Works Cited Cisneros, Sandra.
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“Heightening Awareness about the Importance of Using Multicultural Literature.” Teachers, Schools, and Society Reader. Ed. Karen Zittleman and David M. Sadker. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2007.
1-7. Print. Diekman, Amanda B., and Sarah K. Murnen.
“Learning to Be Little Women and Little Men: The Inequitable Gender Equality of Nonsexist Children’s Literature.” Sex Roles. Ed. Irene Hanson Frieze. New York: Springer, 2004.
373-385. Print. Hillard, Lara L. “Defining the ‘multi-‘ in ‘multicultural’ through Children’s Literature.” Reading Teacher. Ed.
Shannon Fortner. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1995. 728-729. Print. Mathias, Kelly. Voices from the Gaps.
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