Culture is a term that refers to the set of social beliefs and customs that govern a particular group of people. In every group of people whether religious, social or racial there exists an underlying culture that defines them. In simple terms, culture refers to a people’s way of life.
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The cultural heritage of a given community is responsible for the views and attitudes expressed by these people. On the other hand, identity is a term that is used to refer to an individual’s understanding and presentation of one self.
This presentation is analyzed in terms of how the individual expresses his or her own ideas and values as a representation of a unique personality. At a communal level, identity is perceived as a collective affiliation in terms of expression of values and conception of daily life situations.
The two terms are usually intertwined in a complementary relationship as it is difficult to understand the concept of one without putting it in the context of the other. Culture affects identity and identity shapes and affects culture.
It is an arguable fact that identity is not an innate human characteristic but a construction of the cultural environment. The identity assumed by an individual is as a result of the system surrounding him. The system is in turn directed and shaped by culture.
By reacting to culture an individual creates an identity peculiar to him or her, the process occurs in both conscious and unconscious manner. An individual may choose to follow the culture of the community or go against it, in both cases, we will have individuals with different identities but both shaped by the same culture.
A demonstration of the role of culture in constructing an individual’s identity can be demonstrated using characters in Cisnero’s, “House on Mango Street”. The protagonist of the story, Esperanza, a young girl is in conflict with her identity.
Her parents are of different ethnic affiliations, her mother being a Latina and her father a Hispanic. The physical and cultural environment of her new neighborhood is not up to her previous expectations. It is a society characterized by male dominance and the women are expected to take a secondary role.
This renders the women vulnerable to cruelty from the male side. Due to the substandard cultural conditions together with other poor economical factors like poverty, she feels s a need to move out and search for her own free space.
Esperanza is in dire need to reaffirm her existence and construct her identity. However, she is seen to be in conflict over her past and present as they both are non ignorable factors in the formation of her new identity (Cisneros 25).
Esperanza desires be financially stable and more independent than she presently is. Despite the fact that her family is an important part of her background, she is not proud of it due to their poverty. She gets excited when she attracts the boys attention at a dance. This makes her feel worthy and wanted.
She is aware of the role played by self presentation in identity formation. She wants to be identified as a smart young woman and thus when she wears old shoes to a party; she is ashamed and hides them under the table in an effort to conceal her poverty.
Esperanza embraces language as a tool of cultural identification and liberation. She uses art as a form of expression and also as a medium through which she can voice her ideas, values, ambitions, dreams and thoughts.
Through her stories, we can see her attempt to bring together important forces that are relevant in the construction of her identity. The forces include her sexuality, her family’s poverty, ethnic affiliations and gender.
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We eventually see a new Esperenza at the end of the book; she has found an independent voice and has managed to affirm her identity. She has undergone numerous changes in her life and she has finally awakened to the Esperanza that was buried within her waiting to be released through the creative use of language.
Naturally, it is designed that an individual should take control of his life. However, we cannot ignore the fact that there are external forces that are always acting in line or in opposition of this endeavor. In the shaping of one’s identity, an individual has the liberty to enjoy a given percentage of control in identity formation.
The control is in terms of the individual’s reaction to the culture governing the society. However an individual is unable to enjoy total control in the process of identity formation due to the inability to divorce culture from identity.
An individual’s psychology is an important aspect in cultural formation. The psychology of an individual is shaped by an individual’s experiences. Sigmund Freud argues that, the subconscious part of the human mind contains repressed emotions.
Depending on an individual’s life experiences their repressed emotions will dictate their identities.
Applying Freud’s psycho analysis to a character like Sally, she has been brought up in the same cultural environment as Esperenza but her attitude towards life is different to that of Esperenza owing to their different family backgrounds.
Her reaction to her father’s oppression complicates her situation as she attempts to form and ascertain her identity. Her father’s abuse greatly affects her self esteem and she struggles to reaffirm her self worth by seeking approval from members of the opposite sex.
Even at school, she seeks and gains popularity all in an attempt to satisfy her repressed desire. But in the process, she ends up in the same fate she had been running away from all along as she ends up a defeated and extremely desperate wife.
There are many forces apart from culture that play an important role in the process of identity formation; these include gender, and historical background. It is important to note that an individual may find it impossible to control these forces.
The only way an individual can acquire a partial control in identity formation is by understanding and redirecting these forces in a manner that does not lead to self destruction. This requires a proper attitude and a sense of responsibility on the part of the individual.
The society in Cisnero’s story is patriarchal and is thus characterized by male dominance. Members of the male gender idolize themselves with power and expect their women to assume a submissive role. They are able to use their masculinity to intimidate and oppress their women into assuming a secondary role.
This in effect has allowed some of the men to be disrespectful to women. The men assume that due to the primary role attached to the male gender, they have the right to physically and sexually abuse their women. Esperanza is raped at a carnival and a woman like Sally is physically abused by her father.
The intimidation on women has rendered members of the female gender a vulnerable lot. The vulnerability is reflected in the identities attached to them such that women are not accorded with the same respect as that of men. This is also seen when women are reduced to sexual objects by men.
It is this confinement of women into their tradition gender roles like home making and child bearing that Esperanza attempts to challenge.
She understands how female gender roles have led to the inferior identification of the women in her society and expresses a wish to challenge these roles while at the same times create a consciousness among the women.
If a woman wishes to empower herself, she should be willing to divorce herself from these gender roles and create an identity devoid of the intimidating cultural values and roles attached to women.
There is the tendency of an individual to want to associate with the past they are aware of. The fear of dealing with the unknown is evident when Esperenza has a difficulty in detaching herself from the past she is sometimes ashamed of.
The past and the present are intertwined in the text as the past of some of the characters seem to be catching up with them. Gil, an African-American holds unto an old music box which is meant to remind him of his old hopes.
The hopes and ambitions built in the past provide a basis for the decisions and identities that are made and created in the future respectively. The past is a driving force for the future and it is hard to erase that part of an individual’s life.
In an attempt to stay in touch with it, individuals attempt to cherish their past by holding onto physical items like Gil’s old music box or even past memories like Esperenza childhood memories as told in her stories.
Literature as a discipline engages itself in the representation and presentation of the society together with the issues that affect it.Through history; we are able to gather the injustices the Latinos and Mexicans faced.
Ever since the slavery period, these groups have had a desire to rehabilitate their society and achieve a social, economic and cultural state equal to that of other Americans states. In the text Cisnero uses the symbolism of the house to represent this dream the residents of Mango Street have.
Even though they may never be able to achieve it, they share the dream of achieving a middle class American lifestyle just like their ancestors.
The existence of the different ethnic groups leads to the existence of different cultures. Esperanza‘s mother is a Latina but her father is a Mexican. As she narrates her story of her childhood home we are able to gather how she symbolically uses the house to represent her mixed cultural heritage that is confusing to her.
Just like her fellow people of the Caribbean heritage, she is in search of an identity but the main stumbling block is her mixed parentage and inability to trace back to a common ancestry.
Through literary appreciation of the house on Mango Street, we are able to appreciate, historical practices like colonialism, slavery and even racism and how they are responsible for the different cultures and identities in the world today.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage, 1991. Print.