Cisneros, Sandra: 1954—: Writer
Sandra Cisneros: 1954—: Writer
As the first Hispanic-American to receive a major publishing contract, Sandra Cisneros has provided a voice for she who had had none before, the Hispanic-American woman—or to use Cisneros' favored word—the chicana. "I'm trying to write the stories that haven't been written. I feel like a cartographer. I'm determined to fill a literary void," Cisneros told Jim Sagel of Publishers Weekly. In doing so,she speaks out against racism, sexism, poverty, and shame. Growing up a chicana in the poor barrios of Chicago, Cisneros knows these things well. She watched as the women around her gave up and gave in, accepting lives of second class citizenship, beholden to their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, and their priests. This wouldn't be Cisneros's fate. She escaped through language, writing her way out of that future. Along the way she has collected numerous awards and critical acclaim. The woman who proudly proclaimed she is "nobody's mother and nobody's wife," is in fact the greatest caregiver of all. She charts the map that shows chicanas and chicanos, women and wives, sisters and servants, the possibilities of freedom.
Sandra Cisneros was born on December 20, 1954 in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, populated mainly by Hispanic immigrants and hyphenated Americans. Cisneros and her family were of the latter category, Mexican-Americans or Chicanos. Her father, a Mexican native from a family of means had traveled to the United States in search of adventure. A chance visit to Chicago led him to Cisneros's mother, a Mexican-American from a working class family that had lived in the United States for many generations, working mainly on railroads. Love blossomed and Cisneros's father decided to settle in Chicago and raise a family of six boys and one girl. However, "like the tides," Cisneros told Publishers Weekly in 1991, they regularly moved back to Mexico to be near her paternal grandmother. And from Mexico back to another barrio of Chicago that looked to the young Cisneros like "France after World War II—empty lots and burned-out buildings," she told Publishers Weekly. The moving continued for many years. In "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," an article for The Americas Review, Cisneros noted that her grandmother's Mexican home was "the only constant in a series of traumatic upheavals."
Escaped Shame Through Books
The invariable movement—pulling up roots, packing boxes, new schools, new beds—took a toll on Cisneros.
At a Glance . . .
Born December 20, 1954 in Chicago, IL; daughter of an upholster and a homemaker, both of Mexican descent; six brothers. Education: Loyola University, Chicago, BA, 1976; University of Iowa, MFA, 1978. Religion: Catholic.
Career: Writer. Guest professor, California State University, Chico, 1987-88, University of California, Berkeley, 1988, University of California, Irvine, 1990, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1990, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1991; Literary Director, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio, TX, 1984-85; Artist in Residence, Foundation Michael Karolyi, Vence, France, 1983; College Recruiter and Counselor, Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 1981-82; Teacher, Latino Youth Alternative High School, Chicago IL, 1978-80.
Memberships: PEN; Mujeres por la paz (a women's peace group).
Awards: MacArthur Genius Award, 1995; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1982, 1988; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation,1985; Paisano Doble Fellowship, 1986; First and second prize in Segundo Concurso Nacional del Cuento Chicano, Lannan Foundation Literary Award, University of Arizona, 1991; Honorary Doctorate of Literature, State University of New York at Purchase, 1993.
Addresses: Home —San Antonio, TX.
She became shy and self-conscious. Already the odd one out as the only sister in a house of brothers, Cisneros found she fit nowhere. So she retreated into books and stories. One of her favorites was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, a picture book about a little house on a little hill, "where one family lived and grew old and didn't move away," Cisneros wrote in "Ghosts." It was a fantasy that she could never imagine for her own life. Instead, in 1966 her parents scraped together the money for a down payment on a small red bungalow. It sat on a broken down street in a poverty scarred Puerto Rican neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. It was a house Cisneros was ashamed of.
Though Cisneros attended Catholic schools, the education she received was less than ideal. In an interview for the anthology Authors and Artists for Young Adults, she said, "If I had lived up to my teachers' expectations, I'd still be working in a factory." Fortunately Cisneros's parents were firm believers in education, knowing that it was the only way their children could break the bonds of poverty. Library cards were mandatory in the family and Cisneros, without sisters to play with, too shy to make new friends, lost herself in the library's riches. Though she wrote a few poems as a child and served as the editor on her high school's literary magazine, it would not be until graduate school that Cisneros would finally become a writer.
Following high school, Cisneros enrolled in Loyola University, Chicago to pursue a degree in English. In her household, gender stereotypes were strongly upheld. She told Publishers Weekly that her "seven fathers," meaning her father and six brothers, expected her to conform to appropriate women's roles. She was to be a caretaker, get married, have children—to be like the other women who "lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain," as the child narrator Esperanza described in The House on Mango Street. "In retrospect, I'm lucky my father believed daughters were meant for husbands. It meant it didn't matter if I majored in something silly like English," Cisneros later told Glamour.
Found Her Voice in Her Past
Cisneros graduated from Loyola in 1976 and was accepted into the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop. At first she felt out of place. "What did I, Sandra Cisneros, know? What could I know? My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks," she recalled to Publishers Weekly. In an effort to fit in, she mimicked the writing of famous male authors, her professors, and even fellow students. Cisneros finally found her place during a class discussion of the home as a metaphor for writing. As her well bred classmates talked of long hallways and homey kitchens, she realized that she had no such home in her memory. It was this realization that finally let Cisneros break free. "It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice," she told Publishers Weekly. "That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about."
The themes of her childhood—poverty, cultural difference, uprootedness, and male dominance over women's lives—became her topics. "If I were asked what it is I write about, I would have to say I write about those ghosts inside that haunt me, that will not let me sleep, of that which even memory does not like to mention," she later wrote in "Ghosts." The little red bungalow she was so ashamed of as a child became the house on Mango Street. People she knew, had laughed at, and feared populated her stories. Her characters were Hispanic-Americans isolated from mainstream America by more than just a hyphen. Peppered with vivid, sensory imagery and Spanish turns of phrase, her work straddled the line between poetry and prose. Cisneros had created a beautiful language with which to share her stories.
After earning her master's degreein 1978, Cisneros returned to Chicago to teach at the Latino Youth Alternative High School for school dropouts. Though her job was demanding she continued to pursue her writing. She began to submit her poems to literary journals and found some success. Locally, she became a regular on the spoken word circuit, performing her work at bars and coffee shops. Her fame spread further when one of her poems was chosen to grace the buses of the Chicago public transport system.
Earned Literary Acclaim and Fame
In 1981 Cisneros took a short-lived administrative position at Loyola and then moved to Cape Cod. The following year Cisneros received the first of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. With the award money she left for Europe and three years later, while on the Aegean Sea in Greece, finished the manuscript that would become The House on Mango Street. Its 1985 publication was met with accolades and awards. Critics declared her a stunning new voice. Descriptions like sudden jewels filled the stories that made up the book. Her imagery stirred the senses and secured Cisneros a place on literary scene. General audiences devoured the book up and in a nod to the ultimate academic acclaim, The House on Mango Street found its way onto university syllabuses, most notably on the required curriculums of Yale and Stanford. The awkward young writer once intimidated by her more learned classmates was now listed prominently on "Required Reading" lists nationwide.
Made up of a series of poetic vignettes, The House on Mango Street is narrated by Esperanza, a Mexican-American girl coming of age in a Chicano barrio of Chicago. Not unlike Cisneros herself, Esperanza longs for a stable home. "Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias." Instead Esperanza has a house that is "small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath." Dedicated a las Mujeres, or to the Women, the book offers a voice of defiance to the oppressed, sidelined, subservient Hispanic woman. As Esperanza says, "I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate."
Following the publication of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros returned to the United States and accepted a position as an arts administrator in San Antonio, Texas. There, in 1986 she received a DoblePaisano fellowship. This allowed her the freedom to produce My Wicked, Wicked Ways, a book of poetry published in 1987. The poems tell of her European travels, her childhood in Chicago, and the Catholic guilt she feels at being a sexual, uncompromising woman. It also declares freedom for the Hispanic woman. A woman who says, "I've learned two things/To let go/clean as a kite string/and to never wash a man's clothes./These are my rules." By this time, Cisneros had decided to make San Antonio her home. Despite her literary acclaim, she found it difficult to find work. She found herself pasting flyers on street posts and 24-hour stores, trying to drum up enough students for a private workshop. Defeated and depressed, Cisneros left San Antonio for a guest lectureship at California State University in Chico. "I thought I couldn't teach. I found myself becoming suicidal," she told Publishers Weekly. Soon after arriving in California, Cisneros was awarded a second NEA fellowship. She promptly moved back to San Antonio and began writing again.
Became First Hispanic-American to Sign with a Major Publisher
Cisneros broke new ground by becoming the first Chicana author to receive the backing of a major publishing house when Random House published Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories in 1991. The collection of stories highlights the lives of Mexican-American women living in the San Antonio area. Again, her work drew critical and popular acclaim. Its publication also helped establish Cisneros financially. No more teaching or posting flyers, Cisneros could now make a living from writing alone.
In 1995 Cisneros achieved what many consider to be the height of artistic success when she was awarded the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Its $225,000 purse allowed Cisneros to finally realize her childhood dream—a house of her own. She bought a large Victorian home in a historic district of San Antonio that she painted a bright neon purple. The local historic board promptly challenged her color choice saying it was not a historically accurate color. Not one to sit idly by while decisions are made for her, Cisneros clad in purple held news conferences on her lawn. She passed out petitions on purple paper. She declared the color a part of her Mexican heritage and accused the board of bias against Hispanic culture. "We are a people sin papeles [' without papers']!" she was quoted in Texas Monthly. "We don't exist. This isn't about my little purple house. It's about the entire Tejano community." In 1997 the board withdrew its objections and Cisneros's purple house stands. There she lives on her own terms, still "nobody's mother and nobody's wife," she makes her life with a small army of pets and a worldwide family of fans. In the last vignette of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza promises to go away in order "to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot [get] Editors check this source., see if word in brackets should be included. out." Cisneros continues to fulfill Esperanza's promise. "I'm looking forward to the books I'll write when I'm 60," she told Publishers Weekly. "There's a lot of good writing in the mainstream press that has nothing to say. Chicano writers have a lot to say. The influence of our two languages is profound."
Bad Boys, Mango Publications, 1980.
The House on Mango Street, Arte Publico, 1983.
Antojitos /appetizers, Art Publico Press, 1985.
The Rodrigo Poems, Third Woman Press, 1985.
My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Third Woman Press, 1987.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Random House, 1991.
Hairs: Pelitos, Knopf, 1994.
Loose Woman, Knopf, 1994.
"Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," The Americas Review, Spring 1987.
"Notes to a Young(er) Writer," The Americas Review, Spring 1987.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 9, Detroit, Gale Research, 1992.
The Americas Review, Spring 1990, p 64-80.
Glamour, November 1990, p 256-257.
Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1991, p F1.
Publishers Weekly., March 29, 1991, pp. 74-5.
Texas Monthly, Oct 1997, p148-151.
Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 20 December 1954. Education: Loyola University, B.A. 1976; University of Iowa, M.F.A. 1978. Career: Teacher, Latino Youth Alternative High School, Chicago, Illinois, 1978-80; college recruiter and counselor for minority students, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, 1981-82; artist-in-residence, Foundation Michael Karolyi, Vence, France, 1983; literature director, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio, Texas, 1984-85; guest professor, California State University, Chico, 1987-88, University of California, Berkeley, 1988, University of California, Irvine, 1990, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1990, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1991. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1982, 1988; American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation), 1985; Paisano Dobie fellowship, 1986; first and second proize, Segundo Concurso Nacional del Cuento Chicano (University of Arizona); Lannan Foundation Literary Award, 1991; H.D.L., State University of New York at Purchase, 1993; MacArthur fellow, 1995. Agent: Susan Bergholz Literary Services, 17 West 10th Street, Suite 5, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A. Address: Alfred A. Knopf Books, 201 East 50th Street, New York, New York 10022, U.S.A.
The House on Mango Street. Houston, Texas, Arte Publico Press, 1984.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York, RandomHouse, 1991.
Bad Boys. Mango Publications, 1980.
My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Bloomington, Indiana, Third WomanPress, 1987.
Loose Woman. New York, Knopf, 1994.
Foreword, Camellia Street by Merco Rodoreda, translated by David
Introduction, My First Book of Proverbs/Mi primer libro de dichos byRalfka Gonzalez and Ana Ruiz. Emeryville, California, Children's Book Press, 1995.
Foreword, Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students by Gregory Michie. New York, Teachers College Press, 1999.
Contributor, Daughters of the Fifth Sun: A Collection of Latin Fiction and Poetry, edited by Bryce Milligan, et al. New York, Riverhead, 1995.
Contributor, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: 101 Stories of Life, Love and Learning, edited by Jack Canfield, et al. Health Communications, 1997.
Contributor, Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West, edited by Linda M. Hasselstrom, et al. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Contributor, A Book of Poems, edited by Mark Warren. San Francisco, M. Warren, 1998.
Contributor, Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to Be American, edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York, Penguin, 1999.
Contributor, Bearing Life: Women's Writings on Childlessness, edited by Rochelle Ratner. Consortium, 2000.*
Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, conducted and edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1992; Having Our Way: Women Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America, edited by Harriett Pollack, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1995; Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street by Elizabeth L. Chesla, Piscataway, New Jersey, Research & Educational Association, 1996; Sandra Cisneros: Latina Writer and Activist by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Springfield, New Jersey, Enslow, 1998.* * *
Chicana feminist, poet, and novelist, Sandra Cisneros, has been described most recently as "frankly erotic" (New York Daily News ) and as a writer "whose literary voice is a deluge of playfulness, naughtiness, heartbreak, and triumph" (The Miami Herald ). On the cover of her latest volume of poetry, Loose Woman, Time magazine describes her as "a unique feminist voice that is at once frank, saucy, realistic, audacious." Cisneros would likely agree with her critics—for she, herself, rounds out this R-rated collection with a fierce and powerful self-assessment: "I'm Bitch. Beast. Macha." But to understand the resonating irony of such a statement—to hear at once the laughter and the rage in Cisneros's wanton self-stereotyping—we need to return to the innocent world of Mango Street, the fictional space where Cisneros first became a writer.
Her first novel, and perhaps most widely read work to date, The House on Mango Street tells the heartwarming story of Esperanza Cordero, the young Chicana heroine who, like Cisneros herself, "comes of age" in a Chicago barrio, despite obstacles imposed by racism, classism, and sexism. A collection of forty-four seemingly unrelated vignettes, the novel's style may appear simplistic and choppy, but Esperanza's character is the center of consciousness that provides both coherence and perspective from chapter to chapter. Because her interactions with relatives and friends help Esperanza to define her goals, critics are right to say she is at once dependent on and critical of the Chicano community; like Cisneros herself, Esperanza embraces her culture warmly, but criticizes gender injustices within it. In this sense, as Julian Olivares points out, Cisneros "breaks the paradigm of the traditional female bildungsroman"—where female characters, unlike their male counterparts, are typically portrayed as seeking solely marriage and motherhood, resulting in a restriction or loss of freedom. After observing her mother's lifetime of sacrifices and her friends' physical and sexual abuse at the hands of men, Esperanza instead desires to leave the barrio, have a house of her own, and become a writer. These goals are not intended merely for her own self-improvement, however, but to educate others—especially the women—in her community as well.
Many critics have drawn obvious parallels between Cisneros's life and that of Esperanza in Mango Street : both have a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother, and thereby straddle two cultures; both desire to leave the barrio to become writers; both eventually find "a home in the heart"—which translates to the ability to succeed individually (to call her "home" her "self"), and collectively on behalf of the community (to reinvent certain cultural stereotypes for all Chicanos). In personal interviews, Cisneros confided that it was not until she took graduate-level writing workshops with predominantly white, wealthy classmates, that she began tapping into her "difference" in order to create unique writing material; thus, upon remembering and sketching characters and events from her impoverished childhood, Cisneros at last developed her own voice as a writer—one she had previously suppressed and sacrificed because there were no Chicano/a models in her classes to emulate. Similarly, this budding decisiveness applies to her character, Esperanza, as well. For example, Cisneros describes Mango Street as "a very political work … about a woman in her twenties coming to her political consciousness as a feminist woman of color." Surely, this statement describes Cisneros's own experience, as well as Esperanza's.
One cultural stereotype that Cisneros attempts to reinvent is the portrayal of women in Chicano literature, which only reaffirms patriarchal values and the unrealistic, if not abusive, treatment of Chicanas. In an interview, Cisneros explains how the two role models in Mexican culture—la Virgen de Guadalupe y la Malinche—are difficult for women to negotiate. They signify the extremes of saint and traitor, respectively, and there are no "in-betweens." Women are often sanctified or vilified, but rarely are they portrayed as ordinary or acceptable; therefore, their natural sexuality—and even their beauty—are often punished by protective fathers and brothers.
If The House on Mango Street paved the way for Cisneros's coming-into-feminist-consciousness, then her first volume of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways took that new self-awareness one step further in its confrontation of a taboo subject in Chicano culture: a woman's (liberal) sexuality. The title of the collection, therefore, is simply ironic: while her culture may view her as "wicked"—she writes about choosing not to marry, traveling abroad on her own, and sleeping with various men—for Cisneros, the term does not mean "evil," but free; her poetry abounds in positive personal choices. The title thus pokes fun at the stereotypical notion that she is (wrongly) considered "wicked" by her culture for merely articulating her own story in her poems.
In her collection of short fiction Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros returns to many of the same coming-of-age themes explored in Mango Street —pre-teen anxiety, sibling relationships in a culture where girls are less valued than boys, loss of virginity and its shameful consequences, and identity conflicts from living on both sides of the Mexican border. The stories represent a range of authorial voices—from young girls to housewives—who struggle with gender inequality in their culture and their lives. Perhaps the character that best bridges the adolescent Esperanza of Mango Street and the mature, confident macha of Cisneros's "Loose Woman" poem, is the young bride, Cleofilas, the protagonist of the eponymous story, "Woman Hollering Creek." Based on the myth of the Llorona legend about a poor Mexican woman who drowned her children and died of grief after her husband abandoned her for another woman, Cisneros's story reinvents the tragic tale when Cleofilas is similarly victimized by an abusive husband and escapes a life of silent suffering in exchange for freedom across the border. At the end of the story, Cleofilas leaves her husband and crosses the arroyo to begin her own life, thus replacing the legendary wail of La Llorona with her own "ribbon of laughter, like water."
If we now return to the end of the 1994 collection Loose Woman, to Cisneros's brazen declaration, "I'm a macha, hell on wheels," we understand that her tone is playful, but her message quite serious. Any writer who publicly implores publishers to print the work of younger Chicanas, as Cisneros does, is not truly "bad" as this poem implies. Once again, Cisneros is merely redefining stereotypical labels. In this collection, after supporting herself by her writing for ten years and living as "nobody's wife and nobody's mother" in a house of her own, Cisneros asserts her most confident identity—one that is comfortable with the contradictions of living in two cultures. In an interview, Cisneros claimed to be "reinventing the word 'loose."' It no longer need mean promiscuous, but rather, free. "I really feel that I'm the loose," she said, "and I've cut free from a lot of things that anchored me." While Cisneros has described her Wicked Ways (writing) days as "wandering in the desert," she calls her recent collection, Loose Woman, a celebration of the home in her heart. Currently, Cisneros lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is working on another novel called "Carmelito."
—Susan E. Cushman
Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 20 December 1954. Education: Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, B.A. 1976; University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, M.F.A. 1978. Career: Writer; teacher, Latino Youth Alternative high school, Chicago, Illinois, 1978-80; artist-in-residence, Foundation Michael Karolyi, Vence, France, 1983; guest lecturer, California State University, Chico, 1988. Lives in Chicago. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1982, 1987; American Book Award from Before Columbus Foundation, for The House on Mango Street, 1985; Paisano Dobie fellowship, 1986; Lannan Foundation Literary award, 1991; MacArthur fellow, 1995.
The House on Mango Street. 1983.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. 1991.
Hairs: Pelitos. 1994.
Bad Boys. 1980.
The Rodrigo Poems. 1985.
My Wicked Wicked Ways. 1987.
Loose Woman. 1994.*
"Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and Demystification of Patriarchal Violence" by Ellen McCracken, in Breaking Boundaries, edited by Asunción Horno Delgado, 1989; "On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros" by Pilar E. Rodríguez, in Americas Review, Spring 1991, pp. 64-80; "Caught between Two Worlds: Mexican-American Writer Sandra Cisneros Walks a Thin Line between Two Clashing Cultures" by Mary Ann Grossmann, in St. Paul Pioneer Press-Dispatch, May 1991; Mirrors beneath the Earth: Short Fiction by Chicano Writers edited by Ray González, 1992; Creating Safe Space: Violence and Women's Writing, edited by Tomoko Kuribayashi and Julie Ann Tharp, 1998.* * *
Sandra Cisneros's books of short stories, The House on Mango Stree t and Woman Hollering Creek, express the tensions between the Chicana woman's experience and the experience of the dominant culture in the United States, and Cisneros's voice is the voice of a woman on the border. The stories reveal the margins where experimentation and alternative visions develop and where political innovation and cultural creativity occur. These women's voices also happen to be very strong voices. In both The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros gives women the capacity to speak loudly of their own experience, and the voices "let out a yell as loud as any mariachi."
The 45 stories in The House on Mango Street, Cisneros's first book, are all narrated by Esperanza, a young girl whose name means hope but in Spanish also "means sadness, it means waiting." Esperanza's desire to write transforms her world, and she rejects the idea that women should be silent. She finds a way to retain her own voice, and in doing so she also finds a way to escape. She tells her friend Alicia, "I don't ever want to come from here." As Julian Olivares has said, it is her writing that will take her away from the cramped, too small house that has been for her parents a real achievement and for most Americans "an image of 'felicitous space."' She dreams of larger things than her parents do, and by dint of her writing she hopes to achieve her dream. She will be free.
These promises of success and escape are tested by her own culture. The women of her world are not supposed to leave home except to marry and bear children. Esperanza, however, like the great-grandmother for whom she was named, was born in "the Chinese year of the horse—which is supposed to be bad luck if you're born female—but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong." Even as a young girl, Esperanza recognizes her strength and realizes that it can cause her trouble. Her great-grandmother is more than a namesake; she is a warning, "a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn't marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off."
Much like Cisneros herself, Esperanza spent her childhood in a Puerto Rican neighborhood in Chicago. Like Esperanza, Cisneros too told herself, "I've got to get out of here." In order to escape, Cisneros, like Esperanza, had to write, and so she chose the only reality she knew—"third floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through the window."
The awareness of how people survive in the barrio is central to both The House on Mango Street and to Woman Hollering Creek.
Several stories show how the barrio protects itself from outsiders while keeping women virtual prisoners inside. When women insist on freedom, males often turn violent. Nor are scenes of patriarchal and sexual violence glossed over in either book. The control of women through violence is challenged by the adolescent Esperanza and by Felice in "Woman Hollering Creek," the title story in the second book. Both characters reject the stereotypes of women. Esperanza refuses to accept the definition of her life by her father or her brothers, and Felice drives a pickup truck and, like many women in Woman Hollering Creek, asserts, "I'll never marry."
Sally, a young girl who lives on Mango Street, does not escape. She is often kept home from school by her father because he says, "To be beautiful is trouble." Esperanza asks, "Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn't have to go home? Do you wish your feet would one day keep walking and take you far away from Mango Street?" The futility of the dream of walking away is seen in what happens to Sally. She "got married like we knew she would, young and not ready but married just the same." Sally's husband, like her father, imprisons her. He will not let her "talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window. And he doesn't like her friends, so nobody goes to visit her unless he is working."
Esperanza, too, is brutalized by a man who says, "I love you, Spanish girl," and then rapes her. The romantic notion of love is savagely destroyed: "His dirty fingernails against my skin … his sour smell. I couldn't do anything but cry." She refuses, however, to bow to that experience.
The cruelty that lurks beneath the relationships between men and women in the barrio and the ways in which women cope signal that Cisneros is not simply portraying women as victims. Certainly, several women in both books are victimized by men who know well how other men behave, for they behave that way themselves, but neither Esperanza nor Felice will be victimized. Esperanza knows that she is being raped, and she will not be silent about the brutality. Her telling is encouraged by an invalid aunt who commands, "You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free."
Cisneros did free herself; she left Chicago as Esperanza leaves Mango Street. But Esperanza knows that what other women tell her is also true: "When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand. You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street."
In Woman Hollering Creek Cisneros returns to the heart of her community and gives her people voice. In an interview with Pilar Rodriguez-Aranda, she spoke of the women of that community: "We're always straddling two countries, and we're always living in that kind of schizophrenia that I call, being a Mexican woman living in an American society, but not belonging to either culture." The machisma she flaunts in "Never Marry a Mexican" is a way of both criticizing her world and insisting on her place in it. A woman must have more options. A woman must have power, and to achieve that she must be "nobody's mother and nobody's wife." This freedom also makes her as "dangerous as a terrorist."
Woman Hollering Creek does not simply give voice to women suspended someplace between Mexican and American culture. In the book Cisneros crosses linguistic borders and captures what Latinas have brought to America, a history of "the awful grandmother [who] knits the names of the dead and the living into one long prayer fringed with the grandchildren born in that barbaric country with its barbarian ways." She blurs language, genre, and finally roles in order to find a voice for herself in that "barbaric country." In learning to say what her experience is as a Latina in the United States and as a woman in a house full and a culture full of men, Cisneros creates a new self.
Cisneros's stories examine a social system that is inherently masculine but that depends upon women for survival. Both books valorize strong women who, despite their long history of living in the houses of men, have become Zapatistas who challenge, "The wars begin here, in our hearts…. You have a daughter. How do you want her treated?"
—Mary A. McCay
See the essay on "Little Miracles, Kept Promises."
Born 1954, Chicago, Illinois
Daughter of Elvira C. Anguiano and Alfredo Cisneros del Moral
The daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother, and sister to six brothers, Sandra Cisneros has worked as a teacher to high school dropouts, a poet-in-the-schools, a college recruiter, and an arts administrator. She has also taught as a visiting writer at a number of universities around the country. Cisneros is a graduate of the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop and recipient of four writing fellowships for poetry and fiction, two from the National Endowment for the Arts, one from the Lannan Foundation (1991), and one from the MacArthur Foundation (1995). She is the first Chicana writer to be published by a mainstream press (Random House).
Told through the point of view of a young girl, Cisneros' first book of fiction, The House on Mango Street (1984), is characterized by a deceptively simple, accessible style and structure. The novel's short sections are marvels of poetic language that capture a girl's vision of the world she inhabits. Esperanza is already painfully aware of the racial and economic oppression her community suffers, but it is the fate of the women in her barrio that has the most profound impact on her, especially as she begins to develop sexually and learns that the same fate might be hers. The parade of women victimized by their culture's rigid gender roles begins with her great-grandmother, "a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn't marry until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window all her life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow… I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window." Esperanza bears witness to the hard lessons taught Chicanas about being women and belonging to men: Rafaela whose husband locks her up because she is too beautiful, Minerva who takes her husband back every time he leaves her, Sally whose father beats her. Sally gets married before the eighth grade to escape her father's domination, only to fall under the control of her husband: "She is happy except sometimes her husband gets angry and once he broke the door when his foot went through, though on most days he is okay. Except he won't let her talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window."
By the end of the book, Esperanza's journey toward independence merges two central themes, that of writing and a house of her own. Her rejection of woman's place in the culture involves not only writing but also leaving the barrio, raising problematic issues of changing class and cultural identity. But Esperanza concludes the book with the promise to return, understood metaphorically, through her writing: "They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out."
Mango Street captures the dialectic between self and community in Chicana writing. Esperanza finds her literary voice through her own cultural experience and that of other Chicanas. She seeks self-empowerment through writing, while recognizing her commitment to Chicanas. Her promise to pass down to other women the power she has gained from writing is fulfilled by the text itself.
In Cisneros' 1984 collection of poetry, My Wicked Wicked Ways, the young voice of Mango Street coexists with that of a grown woman/poet struggling with her contradictory desires. The narrator of these poems wants to be independent and an artist. While she takes many lovers, she prefers to "dance alone." As Theresa Martínez notes, "Poetry—both painful and miraculous emerges from a lonely and sometimes isolated self who is, at the same time, truly her core being, a woman who is well worth knowing for her own sake."
This struggle to find her place not only as a woman but also as an artist is carried through in Woman Hollering Creek (1991), a collection of short stories. Set on both sides of the border, the stories of Woman capture the "in-between" of Chicano identity, as in "Mericans," when gringo tourists are disappointed to learn that the picturesque children they have photographed are Americans visiting their Mexican grandmother. It is in these stories that Cisneros first gives full rein to her biting sense of humor: the grandmother's full moniker is "the awful grandmother," and the child narrator passes her time in church counting the awful grandmother's nose hairs. In "One Holy Night," Cisneros lightens an otherwise depressing tale with confessions like: "I don't know how many girls have gone bad from selling cucumbers. I know I'm not the first." In "My Tocaya," the narrator, Patricia, has a Chicana schoolmate who changes her name to Trish and affects a British accent. "A girl who wore rhinestone earrings and glitter high heels to school," Patricia observes, "was destined for trouble that nobody—not God or correctional institutions—could mend."
The stories in Woman mine the rich vein of popular culture, as in "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," and continue Cisneros' thematic concern with male/female relationships, whether spiraling in old patterns ("Never Marry a Mexican") or telling the story of a woman's escape from a battering husband through the legend of La Llorona in the title story "Woman Hollering Creek." The woman's savior appeared in the form of a loud, laughing, pickup truck driving comadre named Felice (Happiness). Felice doesn't need a man. She's got her truck, and she makes the payments herself.
In Loose Woman (1994), a book of love poems, Cisneros poetic voice has grown stronger and more self-assured. Most of the bravado of Wicked Ways has worn off, and the poet who is left alone sometimes finds herself wishing "books loved back." But she picks herself up and shakes off self-pity in the catalogue poem, "You Bring Out the Mexican in Me," a rollicking, Whitmanesque howl at love's power to affirm life.
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CA (1991). Hispanic Writers (1991). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995).
Americas Review (Fall-Winter 1990, Spring 1990). Critica (1986). Midwest Quarterly (Autumn 1995). Revista Chicano-Riquena (1985).
Drawing heavily upon her childhood experiences and ethnic heritage Sandra Cisneros (born 1954) creates characters who are distinctly Hispanic and often isolated from mainstream American culture by emphasizing dialogue and sensory imagery over traditional narrative structures.
Born in Chicago, Cisneros was the only daughter among seven children. Concerning her childhood, Cisneros recalled that because her brothers attempted to control her and expected her to assume a traditional female role, she often felt like she had "seven fathers." The family frequently moved between the United States and Mexico because of her father's homesickness for his native country and his devotion to his mother who lived there. Consequently, Cisneros often felt homeless and displaced: "Because we moved so much, and always in neighborhoods that appeared like France after World War II—empty lots and burned-out buildings—I retreated inside myself." She began to read extensively, finding comfort in such works as Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Cisneros periodically wrote poems and stories throughout her childhood and adolescence, but she did not find her literary voice until attending the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in the late 1970s. A breakthrough occurred for Cisneros during a discussion of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space and his metaphor of a house; she realized that her experiences as a Hispanic woman were unique and outside the realm of dominant American culture. She observed: "Everyone seemed to have some communal knowledge which I did not have—and then I realized that the metaphor of house was totally wrong for me. … I had no such house in my memories. … This caused me to question myself, to become defensive. What did I, Sandra Cisneros, know? What could I know? My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks."
Shortly after participating in the Iowa Workshop, Cisneros decided to write about conflicts directly related to her upbringing, including divided cultural loyalties, feelings of alienation, and degradation associated with poverty. Incorporating these concerns into The House on Mango Street, a work that took nearly five years to complete, Cisneros created the character Esperanza, a poor, Hispanic adolescent who longs for a room of her own and a house of which she can be proud. Esperanza ponders the disadvantages of choosing marriage over education, the importance of writing as an emotional release, and the sense of confusion associated with growing up. In the story "Hips," for example, Esperanza agonizes over the repercussions of her body's physical changes: "One day you wake up and there they are. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the key in the ignition. Ready to take you where?" Written in what Penelope Mesic called "a loose and deliberately simple style, halfway between a prose poem and the awkwardness of semiliteracy," the pieces in The House on Mango Street won praise for their lyrical narratives, vivid dialogue, and powerful descriptions.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories is a collection of twenty-two narratives revolving around numerous Mexican-American characters living near San Antonio, Texas. Ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages, the stories in this volume contain the interior monologues of individuals who have been assimilated into American culture despite their sense of loyalty to Mexico. In "Never Marry a Mexican," for example, a young Hispanic woman begins to feel contempt for her white lover because of her emerging feelings of inadequacy and cultural guilt resulting from her inability to speak Spanish. Although Cisneros addresses important contemporary issues associated with minority status throughout Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, critics have described her characters as idiosyncratic, accessible individuals capable of generating compassion on a universal level. One reviewer observed: "In this sensitively structured suite of sketches, [Cisneros's] irony defers to her powers of observation so that feminism and cultural imperialism, while important issues here, do not overwhelm the narrative."
Although Cisneros is noted primarily for her fiction, her poetry has also garnered attention. In My Wicked Wicked Ways, her third volume of verse, Cisneros writes about her native Chicago, her travels in Europe, and, as reflected in the title, sexual guilt resulting from her strict Catholic upbringing. A collection of sixty poems, each of which resemble a short story, this work further evidences Cisneros's penchant for merging various genres. Gary Soto explained: "Cisneros's poems are intrinsically narrative, but not large, meandering paragraphs. She writes deftly with skill and idea, in the 'show-me-don't-tell-me' vein, and her points leave valuable impressions." In her poetry, as in all her works, Cisneros incorporates Hispanic dialect, impressionistic metaphors, and social commentary in ways that reveal the fears and doubts unique to Hispanic women. She stated: "If I were asked what it is I write about, I would have to say I write about those ghosts inside that haunt me, that will not let me sleep, of that which even memory does not like to mention. … Perhaps later there will be a time to write by inspiration. In the meantime, in my writing as well as in that of other Chicanas and other women, there is the necessary phase of dealing with those ghosts and voices most urgently haunting us, day by day."
Americas Review, Spring, 1987, pp. 69-76.
Bloomsbury Review, July-August, 1988, p. 21.
Chicano-Riquena, Fall-Winter, 1985, pp. 109-19.
Glamour, November, 1990, pp. 256-57.
Los Angeles Times, May 7, 1991, p. F1.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 28, 1991, p. 3.
Mirabella, April, 1991, p. 46. □