Professor examines influence of Chicago’s diverse Latino community in ‘The House on Mango Street’

Rachel Holtzman, Reporter

Drawing from the literature, history and culture of predominantly Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, English Prof. John Alba Cutler will speak about the novel “The House on Mango Street” by Sandra Cisneros this Friday.

The lecture, titled “Finding Mango Street: Sandra Cisneros and Latino Chicago,” will be held in Wieboldt Hall at Northwestern’s Chicago campus. The program serves as the second of five lectures in the School of Professional Studies’ Literature and Liberal Arts Lecture Series, but the first to take place at the Chicago campus.

“We wanted the lecture to be in Chicago precisely so we could reach a broader audience,” Cutler said. “We really want to connect with that community of people and with that energy of Latino communities in Chicago. I think there’s real interest in Cisneros’ work and in her identity as a Chicago writer.”

Cutler said he will speak about the unique influences of Chicago’s Latino community on Cisneros’ writing in his lecture. Unlike many Latino communities in the northeast or southwest United States, there are Latinos of many nationalities encountering each other in Chicago , he said.

“Chicago is home to Mexican-American, Puerto Rican-American, Cuban-American, and Dominican-American communities,” Cutler said. “A lot of people have written about “The House on Mango Street” as just a Mexican-American novel, but it’s actually about the intersection of nationalities and ethnicities.”

Cutler said he hopes the lecture’s focus on Chicago’s Latino communities, specifically the Near West Side and Humboldt Park, will give people insight on the communities’ influences on Cisneros as a writer.

Amy Danzer, assistant director of graduate programs in the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern, and the main organizer of the lecture series, said the idea for the lecture — originally pitched by Cutler — was considered terrific from the start.

“We invited Professor Cutler to the lecture series and then it just kind of blew up,” Danzer said.

The lecture series is in its fourth year and targets graduate students, Danzer said. Typically, the events are hosted in Evanston and no more than 45 students attend. She added that the shift to Chicago was an experiment to see if the series could reach a wider audience and that she has been surprised by the results.

“This is the first time we’re encountering popularity with this particular event,” Danzer said. “I think ‘The House on Mango Street’ has a lot of appeal to the city, to educators and to students. It’s a book that has a lot of relevance.”

Interest in Cisneros’ work has grown stronger in recent years, said Cutler, who teaches contemporary literature classes. Her popularity inspired discussion, book sales and even an exhibit at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago last year.

Cutler said he hopes the lecture will inspire people to learn more about the author and Latino Chicago.

“I hope that maybe they’ll buy two or three books by Cisneros and fall in love with them,” Cutler said. “Or that they decide to visit the Puerto Rican Cultural Center or the National Museum of Mexican Art. That’s really what I hope people will take away from the event.”

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