Esperanza introduces us to Rosa Vargas, mother of "so many" children that they are unsupervised much of the time, because Rosa is unable to watch them all, all the time. She is a single mother; her children's father abandoned the family. Unsupervised, and without respect even for themselves, the children get into all kinds of trouble, sometimes with tragic results: "nobody looked up not once the day Angel Vargas learned to fly and dropped from the sky like a sugar donut, just like a falling star, and exploded down to earth."
The title given to this vignette plays off of the old nursery rhyme about the woman who lived in a shoe-perhaps an unspoken, ironic comment on the poverty in which the Vargas family lives. Unlike that old woman, however, Rosa does not "whip them all soundly and put them to bed": she acts from the other extreme. Instead of abusing her children, she neglects them. And yet Esperanza is quick to point out that this neglect is not entirely Rosa's own fault. She is bone-tired because the children's father has left her, and them; and the Mango Street neighborhood-which, to this point, readers have seen in a generally favorable light-bears some complicity in Angel's (strongly inferred) death. Cisneros wrote her novel a decade before the African proverb "It takes a village to raise a child" became popular to the point of becoming a clich, but this vignette suggests that she would agree with its sentiment. Who is to blame for Angel's death? Himself, because he behaved recklessly; his absent father, whose departure no doubt contributed to his lack of respect "for all things living, including [himself]"; his mother, who was not watching him but who at the same time was unable to do so effectively; his neighbors, for not caring for or about him: "[A]fter a while you get tired of being worried about kids who aren't even yours." Here again we see Cisneros' emphasis on interdependency, for the lack of precisely that quality leads to death-literally and, one could argue, metaphorically or even spiritually. And the distinctions of these "kinds of death" may, in fact, not matter much in the end.
The House on Mango Street: Novel Summary: There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn't Know What to Do