Sandra Cisneros's short story "Eleven" first appeared in her 1991 collection Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories. In the twenty-two stories in that collection, Cisneros presents characters who live on the border between Mexico and the United States and who struggle with their identities, heritage, and circumstances. As a Chicana, a woman of Mexican heritage born or raised in the United States, Cisneros uses the language and images of her community. In many of the stories, Cisneros inserts Spanish words, phrases, and expressions without translation, thus emphasizing the dual linguistic lives of those who live in San Antonio, Texas, and other border towns. While the stories in the collection are not directly based on events in the author's own life, Cisneros drew on the emotional content of her experiences to create the stories.
Rachel, the first-person narrator of "Eleven," finds herself embarrassed and silenced by her teacher on her birthday, through no fault of her own. Any reader who has found himself or herself unjustly treated will identify with Rachel's pain. That the events of the story take place on Rachel's birthday adds a poignancy to the story. Thematically, Cisneros demonstrates the way that a majority-culture educational system reduces minority-culture girls to near invisibility. "Eleven" and the other stories in Woman Hollering Creek solidify Cisneros's reputation as a masterful, creative, and poetic writer. Her work continues to generate both popular and critical interest.
Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 20, 1954. Her father was a Spanish-speaking Mexican, while her mother was an English-speaking Chicana (a woman of Mexican descent either born or raised in the United States). Cisneros was one of seven children, but she was the only daughter in the family. They were poor and moved frequently. This fact of Cisneros's life, along with the extended trips to Mexico to visit her paternal grandmother, contributed to her sense of isolation as a child. In Mexico, she was an outsider because she spoke English and seemed American; in the United States, she was an outsider because she also spoke Spanish and seemed Mexican. Her sense of displacement influenced most of her later writings. In fact, in her loneliness, Cisneros turned to reading and writing as a source of comfort.
In 1966, the family moved to a small two-story house in Chicago's North Side, where Cisneros found some stability and community. The house later served as a model for the one in her first novel, The House on Mango Street. Cisneros graduated from high school in Chicago, having been the literary magazine editor. She attended Loyola University, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1976. She next attended the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, one of the most prestigious graduate writing programs in the United States, earning an M.F.A. in 1978. Her time there was very difficult, and again she found herself feeling like an outsider. Nonetheless, during her years at Iowa, she developed her voice and her subject matter, using her heritage and childhood memories as the basis for her early work. The poems that constituted her master's thesis were ultimately revised, expanded, and published as My Wicked, Wicked Ways in 1987.
Cisneros's first published work was a poetry chapbook called Bad Boys (1980). In the years immediately after graduate school, Cisneros taught at an alternative high school in Chicago, became active within the Chicano community, and worked briefly for Loyola. She also was the recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, including one for fiction in 1982 and one for poetry in 1987. In 1984, Cisneros worked as the literature director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas, the city she began calling home.
Meanwhile, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, Cisneros continued to work on a series of autobiographical vignettes that grew into her first novel, The House on Mango Street, published by Arte Publico in 1983. She finished the novel while serving as the artist in residence at the Foundation Michael Karolyi in Vence, France, in 1983. This book received strong critical acclamation, winning the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award in 1985. With the publication of The House on Mango Street and the 1987 publication of My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Cisneros found herself in demand as a visiting writer at many campuses, including California State University, Chico; the University of California, Berkeley; the University of California, Irvine; the University of Michigan; and the University of New Mexico.
In 1991, Cisneros published Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories through Random House, a large, mainstream publisher. The collection, in which "Eleven" first appeared, immediately received wide readership and strong critical support. The book garnered for Cisneros a host of awards, including the PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction of 1991; the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award; the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; and the Lannan Foundation Literary Award. The stories of Woman HolleringCreek trace the lives of female narrators of all ages living in or near San Antonio, Texas.
An important event for Cisneros was her 1995 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Her commitment to her community was demonstrated by her establishment of the Latino MacArthur Fellows, a group that took as its mission community outreach. Cisneros is also the founder of the Macondo Foundation, dedicated to fostering creativity, generosity, and honor in Latino communities, and of the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation, an organization that gives grants to Texas writers.
After the publication of Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories, Cisneros published a collection of poetry, Loose Woman (1994), and a novel, Caramelo (2002). Cisneros's work continues to trace the journeys of those in the borderland between cultures. Groundbreaking in both subject matter and form, her writing speaks to new readers as well as to those who have followed her career closely. It is likely that Cisneros will long be considered one of the most influential writers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
"Eleven" is a brief narrative of only a few pages that is nonetheless a powerful statement on class and culture. Written in the first person, the story describes in the present tense the experience of a young Latina girl named Rachel in school on her eleventh birthday.
The story opens with Rachel's reflection on the nature of time as she contemplates her own birthday. She says that people contain all of the ages they have ever been, and that sometimes younger versions of oneself appear. For example, when someone is very hurt and wants to cry, it might be the three-year-old within him or her that does the crying. She even believes that sometimes an adult might need to feel like a three-year-old. She also astutely observes that the shift from one age to the next does not occur overnight; a person does not go to bed one night as a ten-year-old and wake up the next day eleven. Rather, it takes some getting used to, and it might take several months or almost a year before a person really feels like he or she is eleven years old.
The reason that Rachel contemplates age is because now, on her birthday, she wishes she were one hundred and two, not eleven. An incident with her teacher, Mrs. Price, has deeply wounded Rachel. In a recounting of the incident, when Mrs. Price holds up an ugly red sweater in front of the class and wants to know who owns it, she is clearly annoyed with the person who has left the sweater in the cloakroom for so long. After all the rest of the students deny ownership, Mrs. Price listens to a student say that it belongs to Rachel. Mrs. Price does not listen to Rachel, who is at first dumbfounded and then finally manages to deny ownership in "a little voice that was maybe me when I was four." The teacher overrules Rachel's protest and puts the sweater on her desk.
Rachel has a difficult time containing her inner three-year-old, who wants to cry, but she does so by remembering that her mother will have a birthday cake for her that evening to celebrate her eleventh birthday. She pushes the sweater slowly to the edge of her desk until it almost falls on the floor.Noticing this,Mrs. Price embarrasses Rachel again by interrupting the class and telling Rachel to put on the sweater. As earlier, she does not allow Rachel to speak, and she forces the girl to wear the offending piece of clothing. Rachel suddenly loses control and breaks down weeping, her head on her desk. "I wish I was invisible," she narrates, continuing to weep.
- Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories, including the short story "Eleven," was released on cassette tape along with the novel The House on Mango Street in 1992 by Random House Publishers.
- Books on Tape produced and released a compact disc set that includes Loose Woman and Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories in 2005.
As if this humiliation is not enough, at lunchtime one of the other girls in the class remembers that the sweater belongs to her, and Mrs. Price neither comments nor offers an apology. Although Rachel no longer must wear the sweater, her birthday has been ruined. All she now wishes for is to be "far away like a runaway balloon."
Phyllis Lopez is a student in the elementary classroom. She is the rightful owner of the red sweater that is forced upon Rachel. Rachel says that Phyllis is "stupid." While this opinion cannot be considered objective, it is possible to state that Phyllis's lapse of memory is causative in spoiling Rachel's birthday.
Mrs. Price is the teacher of the elementary school classroom where Cisneros sets the story "Eleven." Her name suggests that she is an Anglo teacher, while her students' names are all Latino in origin. Mrs. Price does not appear to be at all sensitive to the feelings of her students. When she brings the old red sweater out from the cloakroom, she does not quietly try to find the sweater's owner. Rather, she holds it up in front of the whole classroom and complains that it has "been sitting in the coatroom for a month." Her attitude clearly demonstrates that the owner of the sweater is guilty of a transgression, and consequently, none of the students will claim the sweater. Mrs. Price does not consider that the condition of the sweater may reflect negatively on its owner. Furthermore, she does not consider the humiliation she causes Rachel by insisting that the child put on the sweater. She uses a loud voice and disciplines Rachel in front of the entire class, on the basis of dubious evidence. She calls Rachel's reluctance to wear the sweater "nonsense," another clue that she does not understand the values of her students. In addition, she does not respect her students enough to offer an apology to Rachel when it becomes obvious that she herself was in error. In "Eleven," Mrs. Price is the antagonist of the story, a character who represents the injustice of majority culture when dealing with minority students.
Rachel is the protagonist in "Eleven." The entire story is told in a first-person, internal narrative, so the reader only understands events as they are filtered through Rachel's eyes. It is therefore possible to learn a great deal about her character from the details that she provides. Because the other students mentioned in the story have Latino names, and because Rachel calls her mother and father "mama" and "papa," and because all of the other stories in Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories feature female Latina protagonists, it is safe to assume that Rachel is a Latina herself.
Rachel is a kind and sympathetic character. Early on, she mentions trying to comfort her mother when her mother feels sad by telling her that it is okay to cry, even if she is an adult. In addition, Rachel also reveals that sometimes she feels the need to sit on her mother's lap, even though she is now eleven, because she feels scared. Moreover, it seems clear that Rachel is a very reflective child who thinks deeply about abstract matters such as the passage of time and the meaning of age. Her understanding that all people retain the childlike parts of themselves no matter how old they grow is both sensitive and mature.
Rachel is also a shy child, and she finds it difficult to answer her teacher when confronted with the ugly red sweater. Although it cannot be determined from the story, it is possible that Rachel is not a native English speaker, which would certainly contribute to her inability to stand up for herself when falsely accused. The reader also learns that Rachel is both "skinny" and disliked by Sylvia. These two details suggest that Rachel is an outsider in the classroom. It is possible that the other children pick on her, and it is likely that the teacher contributes to Rachel's isolation.
The events of the story take place on Rachel's eleventh birthday, and it is around this age that young women often become very self-conscious and easily embarrassed. In addition, young women at this age can be very cruel to those they see as outsiders. It is likely that Cisneros conceived of Rachel as eleven years old rather than younger because it places her at the tipping point between childhood and adolescence. The reader can imagine Rachel beginning her eleventh birthday as a child but, through the events of the day, returning to her home as a much older person, someone who understands at a very deep level that life is often unfair.
Sylvia Saldívar is the student who suggests to Mrs. Price that the red sweater belongs to Rachel. The only description of Sylvia's motivation is in the following sentence: "Maybe because I'm skinny, maybe because she doesn't like me, that stupid Sylvia Saldí var says, ‘I think it belongs to Rachel.’" It is difficult to analyze this character from these few words. On the one hand, Sylvia's remark to the teacher could be entirely innocent; she might have been trying simply to help establish the ownership of the sweater. On the other hand, Rachel feels that Sylvia does not like her. If this is the case, then Sylvia's remark could be interpreted as an attempt to both ingratiate herself with Mrs. Price and also deal Rachel a blow. Regardless of the class dynamics, however, Sylvia's remark is what sets the rest of the story in action.
Culture Clash and the Immigrant Experience
Each of the stories in Woman Hollering Creek, including "Eleven," explores the experiences of girls and women who are members of a minority culture trying to navigate the waters of the majority culture in the United States. Rachel, like many young immigrants, finds herself spending most of her day in a public school setting. This is a place where she must learn not only the English language but also the values and customs of the majority culture. The names of the other students in the class suggest that they are of the same cultural background as Rachel. However, Rachel's depiction as an outsider in the class, someone the other children pick on and someone the teacher discounts, suggests that she may be a newcomer to the class, and most likely to the culture as well.
Rachel's thoughts of her family, her birthday cake, and the celebration that her family has planned for her at the end of the day serve as a contrast to the treatment she has received in the school. At home, as a fully integrated member of her family and its culture, she is an insider, someone who is valued and loved. She knows who she is, and she knows the conventions and values of her culture. Being a member of an immigrant family, at home her life is much the same as it would have been in the family's home country. At school, however, her life is very different. The public school classroom, as led by its majority-culture teacher, is an alien landscape for Rachel. It is a place where she learns important lessons about the authority structures of her new homeland. The teacher's disregard for Rachel's feelings allows the reader to experience firsthand what it is like to be a member of an immigrant community.
Justice and Injustice
In "Eleven," the narrator, Rachel, experiences injustice at the hands of her teacher and, to a lesser degree, her classmates. While the main event of the story, the mistaken attribution of a ratty red sweater to Rachel, might seem to be insignificant, for Rachel it proves a very important episode. To begin, everyone in the class, including Rachel, asserts that the sweater does not belong to him or her. Therefore, when one of the students tells the teacher that the sweater is actually Rachel's, it signals two possibilities to the others in the class: first, that Rachel is so poor that all her family can afford is a miserable looking red sweater, and second, that Rachel lied in denying that the sweater belonged to her.
To impose a legal metaphor on the scene, Sylvia plays the role of the prosecutor to Rachel's role of the accused. The teacher, of course, as the most powerful person in the classroom, fills the role of the judge, the dispenser of justice. In a place where justice is meted out fairly through a judicial system, there is an assumption that the accused is innocent until proven otherwise; an assumption that the judge will listen carefully to evidence before rendering a verdict; and an assumption that the judge will not punish the innocent, only the guilty. In addition, the accused is permitted to face his or her accuser and defend himself or herself.
The events of "Eleven" demonstrate a cruel perversion of justice. Mrs. Price listens only to Sylvia, who has no evidence that the sweater is Rachel's. Such hearsay evidence would not be permissible in a court of law attempting to serve justice. Further, Mrs. Price interrupts Rachel when she tries to defend herself and thus does not permit her to mount her own defense. Mrs. Price also punishes Rachel unjustly by forcing her to wear a sweater that she finds embarrassing. According to Rachel, the sweater "smells like cottage cheese," its arms are pulled out of shape, it has cheap plastic buttons, and it is itchy. Because Mrs. Price condemns Rachel so, Rachel's status suffers in the eyes of her classmates, who now believe her a pitiable liar.
When the truth of the matter becomes apparent, Mrs. Price compounds the injustice she has perpetrated by ignoring it. Rachel receives no apology and no restitution. Although she is innocent, she has been treated as guilty, the victim of an egregious injustice at the hands of a person who should have been a trusted adult.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, and How the García Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez. Write a paper in which you compare and contrast the experiences of Esperanza and the García sisters as young Latina women living in American culture.
- Working with a small group, develop a multi-media presentation demonstrating the contributions of contemporary Latina writers living in the United States. Your presentation might include images of the writers; a world map identifying the writers' birthplaces; Latina music; appropriate artwork; audio files of the writers reading their works; images that represent themes in the writers' works; samples of food from the various cultures represented in your presentation; and video clips of the writers, among other items. Use your presentation to introduce your fellow students to your selected writers and their cultures.
- Read all of the stories of Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories. Identify Spanish phrases and words used in the stories and find translations for these words. Why do you think that Cisneros uses a combination of Spanish and English when writing her stories? What effect does the insertion of Spanish into her stories have on the reader? Is it necessary to be able to read both English and Spanish to enjoy the stories? Write a paper in which you discuss Cisneros's linguistic choices in Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories.
- Investigate the history of the American Southwest, particularly that of Texas. How did this area become a part of the United States? What happened to the people who were already living there? How do these historical circumstances inform your understanding of Chicano culture? How do these circumstances differ from the way Europeans immigrated to the United States? Write a paper discussing your findings. Be sure to cite your sources.
- Draw a map of where you lived when you were eleven. Make the map elaborate with details, including where you played, your friends' houses, places that were dangerous, and other such landmarks. Use the map as a tool for remembering stories about your childhood. Complete three ten-minute sessions of free writing on your three strongest memories, choose the one that you like best, and revise your free writing into a story. Display your map and story along with those of the other students in class.
- Imagine that your classroom is an art gallery and that you are responsible for mounting an exhibition of Chicano art. Find examples of Chicano art online or in books, and print or copy them, in color if possible. Write brief descriptions of each piece you select, noting information about the artist and the work. Develop a catalog of your exhibition for gallery visitors to read.
The coming-of-age story is one of the most popular in literature. In this type of fiction, a young protagonist, through adventures and misadventures, learns something important about life and grows from a child into an adult. In general, this growth signals a positive movement for the protagonist.
However, "Eleven" demonstrates that growth is not always happy, nor is it necessarily positive. When the story opens, Rachel is thinking about her birthday and about growing older. She demonstrates a keen understanding that growing older is difficult, because although one grows older birthday by birthday, all the characteristics of the younger self always remain. Thus, an adult who feels deeply sad might find herself behaving like a three-year-old and crying. This is precisely the situation Rachel finds herself in. Although she knows that on the day of the story she is eleven years old, her teacher makes her feel like a small child unable to control her tears or her feelings.
Rachel's growth can be charted by examining her early description of the birthday cake that awaits her at home where her family members will sing happy birthday to her. She uses this thought early in the story as a way of not thinking about her shame. However, after Mrs. Price fails to apologize or attempt to make restitution to her, even the thoughts of her birthday have changed: "There's a cake Mama's making for tonight, and when Papa comes home from work we'll eat it. There'll be candles and presents and everybody will sing Happy birthday, happy birthday to you, Rachel, only it's too late." The lessons that Rachel has learned are that her voice will not always be strong enough to be heard and that adults are not necessarily to be trusted to act fairly. It is now too late for her to enjoy her birthday the way a child should, with happy abandon. Rather, from this day on, the celebration of her birthday will be tinged with the memory of unjust shame and humiliation. No longer a child at eleven, Rachel has been confronted with a cruel reality of life as an adult.
First-person Point of View
In an interview with Bridget Kevane in the book Latina Self-Portraits, Cisneros asserts, "Living in San Antonio gives me so much. It's so rich. There is so much to tap in terms of voices." Recalling her frame of mind when working on her collection Woman Hollering Creek, she notes that the stories are "very much set on the border because I am living at the border. I was much more concerned with representing different types of Chicanos on paper." In the case of "Eleven," Cisneros assumes the voice of a particular child who is trying to celebrate her birthday in the face of shame and humiliation. In this story, Rachel represents one of the least powerful members of a family in America: she is a child, she is Latina, she is physically small, and she is temperamentally shy. Through the skillful use of point of view, Cisneros allows readers to understand and sympathize with Rachel without having to be told what to think.
Point of view serves as a narrative device. For example, a writer can choose to use a third-person omniscient point of view, meaning that the telling of the story is not embodied in a character but rather seems to come from some all-knowing consciousness that exists outside of the story itself. "Eleven" is told from the opposite perspective, in the first-person limited point of view. At its extreme, this point of view becomes an interior monologue. The entire story is told through Rachel's senses and thoughts. The reader is limited to what Rachel sees, hears, smells, touches, tastes, and thinks. Even the words of the other characters are not recorded in real time but rather are reported slightly later, filtered through the internal monologue of the protagonist.
The danger that a writer faces in using such a tightly controlled and narrow point of view is that the reader may begin to feel slightly claustrophobic. The internal monologues in "Eleven" and in other stories from Woman Hollering Creek, including "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn" and "Salvador, Late or Early," are successful in part because of their length; they are scarcely more than vignettes, extending only for a few pages. In addition, Cisneros draws on the reader's own memories of being a child, which certainly include being alternately happy, sad, embarrassed, and joyful. By using the limited first-person point of view, the author is able to capture the voice of a child, with all the abandon and linguistic creativity characteristic of a young person. In "Eleven," this is particularly crucial. Rachel must undergo a transformation from a happily innocent child to one who knows the true score of life. By telling the story in the girl's voice, Cisneros subtly draws the reader through that painful transformation along with Rachel.
Use of Imagery
While the word image is generally associated with the sense of sight, the word imagery is used more broadly in literature. It refers to language, often figurative rather than literal, that appeals to any of the senses. Thus, a poem or story could have auditory imagery, appealing to the sense of hearing; gustatory imagery, appealing to the sense of taste; tactile imagery, appealing to the sense of touch; kinesthetic imagery, appealing to the sense of movement; or olfactory imagery, appealing to the sense of smell. Because imagery is presented through very concentrated language, it is generally more common in poetry than in prose.
One of the most important images in "Eleven" is that of the red sweater: "It's an ugly sweater with red plastic buttons and a collar and sleeves all stretched out like you could use it for a jump rope." Readers can easily visualize the sweater through this image. Cisneros involves more of the senses each time she mentions the sweater. It sits on Rachel's desk "like a big red mountain." Rachel moves the sweater with her ruler, not even wanting to touch it, so as to distances herself as far from the offending sweater as she possibly can. Again, readers will have no difficulty picturing and feeling this movement through the images used by Cisneros to paint the scene. Perhaps the most effective use of imagery in the story is the moment when Rachel is forced to put the sweater on her own body: "I put one arm through one sleeve of the sweater that smells like cottage cheese, and then the other arm through the other and stand there with my arms apart like if the sweater hurts me and it does, all itchy and full of germs that aren't even mine." In this single sentence, Cisneros evokes the reader's olfactory, kinesthetic, visual, and tactile senses. By doing so, the reader experiences Rachel's humiliation from the inside out, not just from objective visualization. The feeling of the itchy sweater may linger on the reader's arms long after the pages of the book are closed.
Immigration from Mexico to the United States
Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, immigration from Mexico to the United States grew steadily. During the 1990s, the overall immigrant population of the United States from all countries grew by 11.3 million people, faster than at any other time in U.S. history. Meanwhile, a growing percentage of those immigrating to the United States were from Mexico. By 2006, 30 percent of all immigrants to the United States were coming from Mexico, according to a report prepared by Jeanne Batalova for the Migration Policy Institute in 2008.
In addition to those immigrants coming into the United States legally, from the 1990s onward, an increasing number of undocumented immigrants also entered the country. Mexico is the largest source of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Jennifer Van Hook, Frank D. Bean, and Jeffrey Passel estimate in a 2005 report for the Migration Policy Institute that 3.5 million unauthorized immigrants were living in the United States in 1990 and that the majority of those were from Mexico. By 2006, according to Batalova, "more than half of all unauthorized immigrants in the United States were from Mexico." She further estimates that 6.6 million unauthorized immigrants were from Mexico.
The implications of these changing immigration patterns have worked themselves throughout the social fabric of the United States. For example, beginning in the early 1990s, an increasing number of U.S. residents reported speaking Spanish in their homes as their primary language. As a result, in many communities, signs and public notices were printed in both English and Spanish. Further, many schools added aids and teachers who could speak Spanish and included English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in their curricula to accommodate the growing number of students who were not yet proficient in English. Additionally, "Spanglish," a form of speech that includes both Spanish and English words, came to be spoken and understood by a growing segment of the population. (Sandra Cisneros's linguistic choices in Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories mirror this trend.) Finally, a growing number of stores and businesses came to display signs indicating that they had the capability of conducting business in Spanish.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1990s: Feminist Chicana writers such as Denise Chavez, Gloria Anzaldúa, and Sandra Cisneros, among others, find publishers for their work, followed by critical attention and wide readership.
Today: Both Chicana and Chicano writers have grown in popularity among members of minority and majority cultures alike.
1990s: A report prepared by the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1993 states that the Mexican population in the United States nearly doubled between 1970 and 1980 and nearly doubled again by 1990.
Today: According to a 2008 report prepared for the Migration Policy Institute, more than 11.5 million Mexican immigrants are living in the United States as of 2006.
1990s: The 1993 Department of Commerce report states that as of 1990, the primary language of about 14 percent of the population of the United States is a language other than English. Spanish is spoken by about 50 percent of all non-English speakers in the United States.
Today: The U.S. Census Bureau reports that as of 2005, 32.2 million people in the United States speak Spanish as their primary language at home, constituting about 12 percent of the total population. Nearly one in eight U.S. residents speak Spanish.
There has been negative backlash against these cultural shifts. Some Americans blamed Mexican immigrants for taking jobs from English-speaking U.S. residents, although this could not be documented statistically. In addition, some Americans did not want Spanish-speaking students to be taught in Spanish, nor did they want Spanish-speaking residents to be served in Spanish in businesses or in stores. They supported what was known as the "English only" movement, holding that if someone wanted to live in the United States, then that person should learn English.
The evidence actually suggests that immigrant groups arriving in the United States from 1990 onward have learned English at least one generation sooner than those immigrants who had arrived earlier. Young people in particular have learned English very quickly and have begun immediately assimilating themselves into mainstream culture. According to a 2005 survey, "among all those who speak Spanish at home, more than one-half say they speak English very well." At the same time, however, there has been fear among immigrant groups that they could lose their distinctive ethnic traditions and rituals through assimilation.
In many parts of the United States, Mexican traditions and rituals became well known beginning in the 1990s. For example, in many communities, Cinco de Mayo, the Mexican independence day celebrated on May 5, is marked with parades and celebrations. Likewise, the tradition of the quinceañera, the celebration of a girl's fifteenth birthday, serves as an important social event in many communities. Finally, Mexican food and drink became even more prevalent during the closing years of the twentieth century.
The Chicano Movement
The terms Chicano and Chicana are highly politicized words. Chicano refers to a person of Mexican descent either born or raised in the United States who chooses to identify with the term. During the 1960s and the 1970s, the Chicano movement strove (along with other civil rights movements of the same time period) to improve the educational and social status of Chicanos. Leaders such as César Chávez drew national attention to problems facing Latino farm workers. Through organizations such as the United Farm Workers, Chávez secured better working conditions and civil liberties for his people.
In the realm of the arts, the political activist and writer Roldolfo "Corky" Gonzales, with his 1967 epic poem "Yo Soy Joaquin" ("I Am Joaquin"), offered a new vision of what it means to be Chicano. As expressed by Gonzales in his poem, Chicanos are neither European nor indigenous but rather a combination of many identities, sometimes in conflict with each other. He also explores the myth of Aztlán, which he identifies as the legendary homeland of the Aztec people, located in the American Southwest. His work, as well as that of other activists, encouraged Chicanos throughout the country to value the strong cultural contributions they made to the American social fabric. Thus, one of the characteristics of the growing Chicano population in the United States in the last years of the twentieth century was the concomitant growth of cultural expression, as noted by Eva Fernández de Pinedo in her 2006 article "An Overview of Contemporary Chicano/a Literature." She writes: "The demographic rise in Chicanos/as during the last decades has been accompanied by the flowering of its cultural production, particularly literature."
Fernández de Pinedo accurately assesses the changing scene of Chicano literature during the 1980s and 1990s, the decades when Cisneros was writing The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories: "After a period of male-dominated literary production, the 1980s and 1990s witnessed the emergence of Chicanas who dealt with gender and sexuality, issues largely ignored in previous Chicano writing." Indeed, the Chicana women who began writing in the 1980s and 1990s revitalized the movement through their inclusion of gender politics as an important consideration. The stories of women struggling with the twin yokes of patriarchy and racism struck a chord with both minority and majority readers.
Chicana writers seemed particularly well situated to comment on one of the most common themes in literature emerging during the 1990s, the borderlands. Chicana writers often found themselves straddling two worlds, one in English, the other in Spanish. Fernández de Pinedo notes that Chicano/a writers "express the need to combine two cultures and ways of life at the same time as they criticise the inability to be accepted by Mexico or the United States…. The idea of existing in a border state and not belonging, or being accepted by Mexico or the U.S. is a recurrent theme in this literature." Certainly, this is one of the primary issues that Cisneros addresses in Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories.
Although Sandra Cisneros received wide praise for both her poetry and her prose during the 1980s, she became much better known with the 1991 publication of Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories. Stories like "Eleven" earned her both critical respect and a cross-cultural readership. In fact, a number of critics have discussed the poetic qualities of Cisneros's prose. The novelist Barbara Kingsolver, for example, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review writes of Woman Hollering Creek: "Sandra Cisneros has added length and dialogue and a hint of plot to her poems and published them in a stunning collection." Kingsolver further notes that "nearly every sentence contains an explosive sensory image." Although she is talking about the stories in general, "Eleven" in particular demonstrates this stylistic characteristic of Cisneros's writing. Kingsolver asserts, "When you read this book, don't be fooled: It's poetry."
Many critics found growth in Cisneros's new collection of stories, noting that she had fleshed out her poetry and deepened her narrative sense. For example, in a 1991 review in the Nation, Patricia Hart notes that in Woman Hollering Creek, "Cisneros breathes narrative life into her adroit, poetic descriptions, making them mature, fully formed works of fiction." Carol Muske, writing in Parnassus: Poetry in Review in 1995, offers a similar assessment, calling the collection Cisneros's "most mature work."
The format of the stories has interested other critics; while the works are "fully formed," as Hart notes, it is sometimes difficult to easily place them within a genre. Are they poems? Are they vignettes? Or are they truly short stories? Mary Pat Brady argues in an article about Woman Hollering Creek in American Literature:
Many of the stories (for example, "Eleven" and "Mexican Movies") defy, or at least ignore, the conventions of storytelling…. Without the soothing structure of a beginning, middle, or end, without a goal to tug a reader through the plot, these brief stories emphasize through contrast the predictability of conventional narratives.
Yet another group of critics has focused on these stories as statements of feminine and cultural identity. Michael Carroll and Susan Maher, in their North Dakota Quarterly article "‘A Las Mujeres’: Cultural Context and the Process of Maturity in Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek," identify the author's terrain in noting that her "exploration of female maturation traverses within the rich yet conflicted cultural context of the Texas/Mexican borderlands." Certainly, the maturation process experienced by Rachel in "Eleven" is compounded and complicated by the cultural conflicts. Likewise, in a review of the collection by Peter S. Prescott and Karen Springen appearing in Time, the critics note: "Noisily, wittily, always compassionately, Cisneros surveys woman's condition—a condition that is both precisely Latina and general to women everywhere. Her characters … are without exception strong girls, strong women. The girls who tell their brief stories are so alert they seem almost to quiver." Finally, Jeff Thomson, writing in a 1994 article in Studies in Short Fiction, finds in the short story "Eleven" an expression of the way cultural conflicts can lead to the fragmentation of identity. Quoting the story, he argues that it "sets up a system of multiple selves like ‘little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other’ and the difficulty of maintaining a unity of self in the face of authority."
Perhaps Cynthia Tompkins, writing in the Dictionary of Literary Biography in 1995, best summarizes Cisneros's accomplishments in Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories, particularly in stories such as "Eleven": "By re-creating a Chicana child's perspective, Cisneros has already made a significant contribution to the development of the Chicano literary tradition. Moreover, by focusing on the socialization processes of the Chicana, she has criticized and challenged major stereotypes."
Diane Andrews Henningfeld
Henningfeld is a professor of English who publishes widely on literary topics. In the following essay, she discusses the marginalization of the protagonist in "Eleven."
In the stories of Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories, Sandra Cisneros explores the lives of Chicana girls and women living in and around San Antonio, Texas. Her primary concern is with how these female characters locate their identity and personal authority in the midst of this cultural borderland. In many of the stories, women use the legends and mythology of their own heritage to define a strong identity. In the opening story, "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," for example, the narrator celebrates her friend Lucy and the rich ethnicity of their lives together. Their identities are secure, and their joy is profound.
The second story of Woman Hollering Creek, to the contrary, features a narrator who does not become stronger as she recognizes her own identity but rather finds herself powerless in her interactions with her peers and her teacher. Tellingly, the transformation from strong and secure to weak and powerless takes place within a public school. In the story "Eleven," the education of the narrator, Rachel, includes systematic marginalization because of her status as a young person, as a girl, and as a Chicana.
Marginalization is a term often used by literary and social theorists to describe the way that an individual, group, or community is denied power. In the process of being marginalized, the individual or group is moved farther from the center of power in any structure, and as a consequence, the individual or group loses social or material status. Frequently, scholars discuss marginalization in terms of race or gender relations, demonstrating how those in power may wittingly or unwittingly secure their hold on power by lowering the status of individuals or groups who wish to access power. At times marginalization occurs when the powerful resort to stereotypical or biased thinking. Thus, culturally held assumptions about members of particular ethnic, gender, or socioeconomic groups end up contributing to the marginalization of those groups. As a result, those who are marginalized often find themselves both silenced and treated unjustly without recourse.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- The House on Mango Street, published in 1983, is Cisneros's first novel. The structure of the book is innovative, as it consists of short, poetic vignettes told through the voice of Esperanza, a poor Chicana girl.
- Hairs/Pelitos, a bilingual children's book by Cisneros, was published in 1994. Beautifully illustrated, the book lovingly describes the various heads of hair found in the family. Older English-speaking students will find that it offers an excellent opportunity to practice reading in Spanish.
- Cisneros's poetic skills are evident in several collections of poetry, including My Wicked, Wicked Ways, published in 1987, and Loose Woman, published in 1994.
- In her semi-autobiographical novel How the García Girls Lost Their Accents (1991), Julia Alvarez traces in reverse chronological order how a Spanish-speaking family who must leave the Dominican Republic due to political problems gradually becomes a part of the culture of the United States.
- Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg's biography Sandra Cisneros: Latina Writer and Activist, written for young adults and published in 1998, is a starting point for the study of Cisneros and her work.
- Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock and published in 1992, provides students with the means to compare and contrast writers from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
"Eleven" is instructional in laying bare some of the most insidious power structures in American culture. In the first place, while public school education is widely considered a standard of participatory democracy, the public school is also often a place where girls and ethnic minorities first taste the bitter fruits of marginalization. Mrs. Price, the teacher in the story, demonstrates how the power structures of schools assist in denying some students their rightful voice and justice.
There are a number of details that are easy to overlook when reading the story but that are essential in analyzing Rachel's marginalization. In the first place, Mrs. Price does not have a Latino name, indicating that she inhabits a social group different from that of her students. The name "Price" also carries with it symbolic resonance, as the teacher's approval can only be won at a terribly high price. Finally, in many, perhaps most elementary classrooms, a teacher will know when it is a student's birthday. Often the student will be singled out for special treatment or given special privileges. Mrs. Price apparently does not know that it is Rachel's birthday, or if she does know, she fails to mark the occasion in any special way. That none of the other students comment on the fact that it is Rachel's birthday can also be read as a clue that she is not a member of the inner group herself; she may have already been marginalized by teacher and fellow students alike before the story begins.
The events of the story begin with Mrs. Price holding up an ugly red sweater that no one in the class wants to claim. There are a number of reasons for the students to deny ownership. In the first place, Mrs. Price's words and gestures suggest that she is deeply annoyed by the offending sweater. Obviously, any student claiming the sweater could be subjected to the emotionally negative experience of a lecture or scolding. In addition, Mrs. Price is making a public announcement and is asking the culprit to publically claim the piece of clothing, a gesture that is likely to cause embarrassment and lead to a loss of stature for the student among the peer group.
A less obvious, but no less important, problem with Mrs. Price's request is that because the sweater is ugly, stretched out, and unclean, the owner of the sweater is likely to be a student whose family does not have enough money to provide nicer clothing. Thus, by claiming the sweater, the student will in effect be announcing his or her own membership in the lower class. Mrs. Price appears to be blind to this implication, a blindness that suggests her own membership in a social class that is higher than that of many of her students.
When one of the other students in the class, Sylvia, tells the teacher that the sweater belongs to Rachel, Mrs. Price immediately accepts the statement. By making the statement and seemingly assisting the teacher, Sylvia aligns herself with the power structure in the class, placing herself closer to the center of power while simultaneously participating in Rachel's marginalization. That Sylvia is believed suggests that she is part of an insiders' group, while in being put on trial Rachel is pushed farther outside the power structure.
Rachel does attempt to deny ownership of the sweater and thus reassert herself as a member of the class, but she finds that she cannot speak. When Rachel finally finds her voice, Mrs. Price interrupts her and contradicts her statement: "‘Of course it's yours,’ Mrs. Price says. ‘I remember you wearing it once.’" In this brief statement, Mrs. Price takes away not only Rachel's voice but also her ability to speak her own past. Clearly, Mrs. Price's memory of past events is the only one that counts in the classroom. Rachel's memory is discounted; according to Mrs. Price, Rachel must have forgotten that she once wore the sweater. The implication is not lost on Rachel. She rightly notes, "Because she's older and the teacher, she's right and I'm not." This is a hard lesson to learn—that the correctness of a statement may have nothing to do with the facts of the matter and everything to do with the age and authority of the speaker.
The silencing of one small girl in a public school classroom has larger cultural implications as well. As Deborah L. Madsen argues in Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature, "The denial of language and the enforcement of silence upon the women of the Chicano community are urgent issues for Chicana feminism." In this context, Rachel's being silenced is far more insidious than the teacher's mistreating a student. The episode is a graphic demonstration of how a dominant culture can systematically silence both women and minorities, beginning very early in the lives of girls.
Silencing is only the first step of Rachel's marginalization. Because of her powerlessness to speak on her own behalf, she is subjected to embarrassment and humiliation, a potent punishment for any eleven-year-old child. She also becomes the target for Mrs. Price's anger: "‘Rachel,’ Mrs. Price says. She says it like she's getting mad. ‘You put that sweater on right now and no more nonsense.’"
Rachel's identity as a girl whose mother and father will be sharing her birthday cake with her at home that night crumbles as she assumes the identity of the red sweater. Wearing it identifies her visibly as a girl without power or voice. Rachel sits with her head on her desk, crying, with "little animal noises" coming out of her. The choice of words is significant: no longer a little girl on her eleventh birthday with choices, hopes, and dreams, Rachel has been reduced to a small, whimpering animal.
Rachel's marginalization is not complete, however, until Phyllis Lopez finally claims the sweater herself and Mrs. Price does not acknowledge her error. Rachel correctly identifies this moment as the worst part; that the teacher fails to publicly recognize her own error and also fails to apologize for the punishment she has unfairly placed on Rachel's shoulders reveals to the child that for the powerless, the world is not a fair place at all. Madsen argues that the world Cisneros portrays in "Eleven" is "a world that so often lacks the logic of justice and the closure of self-fulfillment." Just as Madsen suggests, "Eleven" closes without closure, ending in injustice. Through this story, then, Cisneros heart-wrenchingly reveals the ways that the majority culture, represented by Mrs. Price, can transform jubilant young Chicana girls, like the narrator of "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," into silent, invisible, marginalized women who wish they were "far away like a runaway balloon."
Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, Critical Essay on "Eleven," in Short Stories for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.
Deborah L. Madsen
In the following excerpt, Madsen provides biographical background on Cisneros and discusses the author's efforts to address cross-cultural identity in her stories.
In a 1990 interview Sandra Cisneros joked that after ten years of writing professionally she had finally earned enough money to buy a secondhand car. Her struggle for recognition as a Chicana writer earned her critical and popular acclaim with the publication of The House on Mango Street (1984), the success of which was followed by Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). Her poetry collection My Wicked, Wicked Ways was published by the Berkeley-based Chicana Third Woman Press in 1987, and the outrageous themes of these poems continued in the poems collected in Loose Woman, which appeared in 1994. Cisneros's work is characterized by the celebratory breaking of sexual taboos and trespassing across the restrictions that limit the lives and experiences of Chicanas. These themes of trespass, transgression, and joyful abandon feature prominently in her poetry. The narrative techniques of her fiction demonstrate daring technical innovations, especially in her bold experimentation with literary voice and her development of a hybrid form that weaves poetry into prose to create a dense and evocative linguistic texture of symbolism and imagery that is both technically and aesthetically accomplished.
Sandra Cisneros was born in the Puerto Rican district of Chicago on 20 December 1954. Her parents' mixed ethnic background (Spanish-speaking Mexican father and English-speaking Mexican American mother) is reflected in the cultural hybridity that is one of Cisneros's recurring themes. She is the third child and only daughter in a family of seven children, a condition that Cisneros has described as leaving her marginalized as a consequence of her gender. During Cisneros's childhood her father's restless homesickness caused the family to move frequently between Chicago and her paternal grandparents' house in Mexico City, and always she lived in urban neighborhoods. Although her early years were spent in cramped urban apartments, Cisneros recalls her childhood as solitary. Cisneros ascribes to the loneliness of those formative years her impulse to create stories by re-creating in her imagination the dull routine of her life.
She graduated with a B.A. degree from Loyola University in 1976 and completed an M.F.A. in creative writing at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1978. It was at Iowa that Cisneros discovered, first, a sense of her own ethnic "otherness" and, second, the unique literary voice that characterizes both her poetry and her fiction. She describes her early writing as inferior imitations of the work of mainstream writers; in the discovery of her difference came a rejection of this attempt to join the American literary orthodoxy. The voice she discovered, the voice she had unconsciously suppressed, is the voice of the barrio.
An ongoing commitment to those who grow up in the barrio has led Cisneros to become involved as a teacher in educational projects designed to assist the urban underprivileged, such as the Latino Youth Alternative High School in Chicago. She has worked variously as a teacher, a counselor, a college recruiter, a poet-in-the-schools, and an arts administrator in order to support her writing. Cisneros has taught creative writing at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; the PEN Center West Award for the best fiction of 1991; the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award; a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship; and the Frank Dobie Artists Fellowship, Austin, Texas. Sandra Cisneros moved to the Southwest in 1984; she now lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is currently working on a novel, Caramelo.
Cisneros describes writing as something she has done all her life from the time when, as a young girl, she began writing in spiral notebooks poems that only her mother read. Her first published book, Bad Boys, appeared as the Chicano Chapbook No. 8 (1980). Her novel The House on Mango Street was published by a small regional press in 1984 and the following year was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award. The novel draws heavily upon childhood memories and an unadorned childlike style of expression to depict life in the Chicano community. Issues of racial and sexual oppression, poverty, and violence are explored in a sequence of interconnected vignettes that together form a modified autobiographical structure. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories continues the exploration of ethnic identity within the patriarchal context of Chicano culture. The stories in this volume offer snapshots of Mexican American life: sights and smells recalled in childish memories, stories told by witches who see all of Chicano history from past to future, the hopes and aspirations of grandparents and grandchildren, friends and neighbors, Mexican movies, and "Merican" tourists. Her first volume of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, is described by Cherríe Moraga as "a kind of international graffiti, where the poet—bold and insistent—puts her mark on those travelled places on the map and in the heart." Loose Woman similarly invokes the cultural and the emotional in an intoxicating sequence of outrageously confessional moments. Cisneros has also published essays on writing and her role as a writer, most notably the selections titled "From a Writer's Notebook. Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession" and "Notes to a Young(er) Writer," both of which appeared in the Americas Review (1987). Her books have been translated into ten languages.
In Cisneros's work the effort to negotiate a cross-cultural identity is complicated by the need to challenge the deeply rooted patriarchal values of both Mexican and American cultures. Cisneros writes, "There's always this balancing act, we've got to define what we think is fine for ourselves instead of what our culture says." Chicana feminism has arisen largely from this need to contest the feminine stereotypes that define machismo, while at the same time identifying and working against the shared class and racial oppression that all Chicanos/as—men, women and children—experience. To adopt models of femininity that are thought of as Anglo is, as Cisneros describes, to be "told you're a traitor to your culture. And it's a horrible life to live. 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. In some sense we're not Mexican and in some sense we're not American."
Patriarchal definitions of feminine subjectivity, some Anglo but mostly Mexican, affect all of Cisneros's characters by creating the medium in which they live. The protagonist of The House on Mango Street, the girl Esperanza, compares herself with her great-grandmother with whom she shares her name and the coincidence of being 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." This fiery ancestor, "a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn't marry," is forcibly taken by Esperanza's great-grandfather, and her spirit broken, she lived out her days staring from her window. The narrator remarks, "I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window." This woman is the first of many Esperanza encounters who are broken in body and spirit by the patriarchal society that defines the terms by which they live.
The primary effect of these prescriptive definitions is the experience of the self as marginal, as failing to belong in the culture in which one lives. Cisneros challenges marginality but in subtle ways and using the weapons at her disposal as an artist: imagery, symbolism, forms of narrative connectivity that are at odds with rational, discursive logic. Like so many Chicana writers, Sandra Cisneros rejects the logic of the patriarchy in favor of more provisional, personal, emotional, and intuitive forms of narrative. She creates stories, not explanations or analyses or arguments. The stories that comprise The House on Mango Street are linked according to a loose and associative logic. In this way the fragmented structure of the text embodies a quest for freedom, a genuine liberation that resolves rather than escapes the conflicts faced by the Chicana subject. María Elena de Valdés describes how Cisneros's narrative technique relates to the theme of feminist resistance: "The open-ended reflections are the narrator's search for an answer to the enigma: how can she be free of Mango Street and the house that is not hers and yet belong as she must to that house and that street. The open-ended entries come together only slowly as the tapestry takes shape, for each of the closed figures are also threads of the larger background figure which is the narrator herself." The threads with which the story is then woven are the complex image patterns Cisneros gradually develops and the imagistic connections she builds among the vignettes. The first story, which describes the houses in which Esperanza has lived, ends with her father's promise that their cramped and shabby house is temporary. The next story, "Hairs," begins with a description of her father's hair and goes on to contrast it with her mother's. The contrast between mother and father is continued and generalized in the third story, "Boys and Girls," which ends with Esperanza's hope that she will one day have the best friend for whom she yearns. The fourth story concerns the meaning of Esperanza's name, "Hope." In this way Cisneros creates vignettes that are self-contained, autonomous, yet link together in an emotionally logical fashion and build to create a picture of life in the barrio, seen through the experiences of the young Esperanza and her developing consciousness of herself as an artist.
The stories collected in Woman Hollering Creek are organized according to a similar associative logic. The volume is divided into three named sections: "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," "One Holy Night," and "There Was a Man, There Was a Woman." Each section shares a loosely defined theme: the experience of Chicano/a children in "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," "Eleven," "Salvador Early or Late," "Mexican Movies," "Barbie-Q," "Mericans," and "Tepeyac"; the betrayal of Chicana girl children in the stories "One Holy Night" and "My Tocaya"; and the limited choice of adult relationships available to women in patriarchal Chicano/a society in "Woman Hollering Creek," "The Marlboro Man," "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta," "Remember the Alamo," "Never Marry a Mexican," "Bread," "Eyes of Zapata," "Anguiano Religious Articles Rosaries Statues …," "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," "Los Boxers," "There Was a Man, There Was a Woman," "Tin Tan Tan," and "Bien Pretty." Though many of these stories depict the lives of individuals who are comprehensively defeated by the sheer burden of work, worry, and care they are required to bear, in some of them Cisneros creates characters who are able to subvert oppressive definitions of gender identity in favor of marginal, hybrid selves….
Source: Deborah L. Madsen, "Sandra Cisneros," in Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature, University of South Carolina Press, 2000, pp. 105-34.
In the following excerpt, Thomson explores gender and feminine adversity in the stories of Woman Hollering Creek, arguing that "Eleven" is a story about "maintaining the unity of self in the face of authority."
"The wars begin here, in our hearts and in our beds" says Inés, witch-woman and "sometime wife" to Emiliano Zapata in "Eyes of Zapata," the most ambitious story of Sandra Cisneros's second collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. In Inés, Cisneros presents a narrator who is capable of seeing both at a distance and up close, who is able to encompass both the physically violent world of Zapata's revolution and the emotionally violent world of love. She is able to see both worlds and, more importantly, understands how the pain of both worlds is merely a manifestation of the same disease—a failure of love. Cisneros says in a voice that is Inés speaking to Zapata but also Cisneros speaking to the reader (the two are easily confused—even Cisneros claims to have woken from a dream believing she was Inés [Sagel 74]):
We drag these bodies around with us, these bodies that have nothing at all to do with you, with me, with who we really are, these bodies that give us pleasure and pain. Though I've learned how to abandon mine at will, it seems to me we never free ourselves completely until we love, until we lose ourselves inside each other. Then we see a little of what is called heaven. When we can be that close we no longer are Inés and Emiliano, but something bigger than our lives. And we can forgive, finally.
When a writer claims to identify with a character to the extent that she wakes up unsure who is who, one can assume that that character is going to speak deeply and come as close to the truth as fiction can come to the truth of the human heart. This is true of Inés.
Inés is the fully aware feminine self, a woman who has seen her own reality—her people embroiled in a civil war and led by her deceitful, unfaithful husband—and does not flinch or look away. She takes the deepest pain inside herself and through it claims the power of her own identity. Ingesting the pain of her world by facing it head-on gives her strength and the will to persevere: "And I took to eating black things—huitlacoche the corn mushroom, coffee, dark chilies, the bruised part of the fruit, the darkest, blackest things to make me hard and strong." This is the power of Cisneros's women, to see and to remember, to master the pain of the past and understand the confluence of all things; women continue in a cycle of birth and blood; they become themselves through the honest acceptance of the world beyond the body. Cisneros believes women must overcome and change their worlds from the inside out. They must become the "authors" of their own fate.
Yet what sets Inés apart from most of the women in the collection is her acceptance of all pain, not just female pain. She sees the small boy inside Zapata, the boy thrust unprepared into leadership and war; she sees the bodies of the federale corpses hanging in the trees, drying like leather, dangling like earrings; she sees her father, who once turned his back on her, placed with his back against the wall, ready for the firing squad. What particularly defines this story is the acceptance of masculine suffering as well as feminine. "We are all widows," Inés says, "the men as well as the women, even the children. All clinging to the tail of the horse of our jefe Zapata. All of us scarred from these nine years of aguantando—enduring" (original italics). The image of every widow, male or female, clinging to the horse's tail doesn't absolve men from blame for beginning and continuing this war, but at the same time it doesn't exclude them from suffering.
The union of gender, and gender-based ideologies, is essential to the strong, feminine characters of the later stories of Woman Hollering Creek, because for Cisneros it is necessary to include masculine suffering to achieve a total synthesis. Each of the earlier pieces is independent of the others, yet as whole sections they define specific areas of adversity—specifically feminine adversity. The first section, "My Lucy Friend Who Smells like Corn," takes a form similar to that established by Cisneros in her earlier, applauded collection The House on Mango Street—childhood vignettes. The "Lucy Friend" story sets up the paradigm of the Cisneros's female world:
There ain't no boys here. Only girls and one father who is never home hardly and one mother who says Ay! I'm real tired and so many sisters there's no time to count them…. I think it would be fun to sleep with sisters you could yell at one at a time or all together, instead of alone on the fold out chair in the living room.
This is a world without men, where the fathers are drunk or absent, the mothers are left to raise the children alone and the only possible salvation is a sisterhood that more often than not fails.
The stories continue in this vein, establishing aspects of an archetypal Chicana female identity. "Eleven" sets up a system of multiple selves like "little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other" and the difficulty of maintaining a unity of self in the face of authority. "Mexican Movies" and "Barbie-Q" are concerned with stereotypes and enforced identity. From her young girl's voice, Cisneros satirizes the portrayals of Mexicans in film by contrasting a Chicana family's daily life with the films of Pedro Infante (his name itself denotes a child-like, false identity) who "always sings riding a horse and wears a big sombrero and never tears the dresses off the ladies, and the ladies throw flowers from balconies and usually somebody dies, but not Pedro Infante because he has to sing the happy song at the end." Although the barrio life of Cisneros's families is usually far from wealthy, here at least she presents us with a world of safety and security, where the false happiness of women tossing flowers from balconies doesn't interfere with the games the sisters play in the aisles. And then
The movie ends. The Lights go on. Somebody picks us up … carries us in the cold to the car that smells like ashtrays…. [B]y now we're awake but it's nice to go on pretending with our eyes shut because here's the best part. Mama and Papa carry us upstairs to the third-floor where we live, take off our shoes and cover us, so when we wake up it's Sunday already, and we're in our beds and happy.
The satire is so subtle that one is led to believe the girls and perhaps even her parents do not see the films as stereotypes that limit their ability to be accepted in the white world, but the reader is obviously meant to.
Similarly, in "Barbie-Q" Cisneros attacks artificial feminine stereotypes that are epitomized in every Barbie doll. The narrator and her companion play Barbies with two basic dolls and an invisible Ken (again a comment on the absence of male figures in the culture) until there's a sale on smoke damaged dolls. When the girls are able to buy an assortment of new dolls, Cisneros asks, in a bitingly satiric tone, "And if the prettiest doll, Barbie's MOD'ern cousin Francie … has a left foot that's melted a little—so? If you dress her in her new ‘Prom Pinks’ outfit, satin splendor with matching coat, gold belt, clutch and hair bow included, so long as you don't lift her dress, right—who's to know?" Cisneros is both attacking and acknowledging the depths our culture goes to in an attempt to hide women's assumed "faults"…. It is men whose theories and intellectual models have defined women as flawed, but it is also women who perpetuate that myth by buying Barbies for their daughters, in essence supporting male theory through their actions. The responsibility of both men and women for the system that keeps women confined in partial identity is a theme Cisneros will return to again and again. Ultimately, the female characters who escape this system are those who have assimilated characteristics of both sexes.
Perhaps exploring a similar situation from a different angle, "Salvador Late or Early" examines a social system that is not inherently feminine, but because of the absence of masculine figures one must assume its problems and their solutions are left to the resources of women. Like "Alice Who Sees Mice" from Mango Street, in which the title character must rise early and make her father's lunchbox tortillas after the death of her mother, "Salvador Late or Early" is a reworking of one of Cisneros's favorite tropes: children who have lost their childhood. Salvador is "a boy who is no one's friend"; he is a boy trying to be his father, trying to take care of the younger children while his mother "is busy with the business of the baby." Salvador "inside that wrinkled shirt, inside the throat that must clear itself and apologize each time it speaks, inside that forty-pound body of a boy with its geography of scars, its history of hurt … is a boy like any other." Cisneros's suggestion that the loss of childhood is normal and common is probably the most damning social criticism of all. She indicts everyone for the common failure of not protecting children from the horrors of the adult world.
The overall theme of these stories is the vulnerability of the mostly female narrators; their world is defined externally to them. The barrios and small towns are, as Barbara Harlow notes about Mango Street, filled with "stories which recount the short histories of the neighborhood's inhabitants embedded in the longer history of Hispanic immigration, relocation, and political displacement in the United States" (161). The vignettes that Cisneros offers are not supposed to be read as isolated incidents, but rather emblematic of a social structure that allows little cultural movement and less possibility for the formation of an identity outside the boundaries of the barrio. Cisneros moves through a paradigm of feminine life—childhood, adolescence, adulthood—exploring avenues of possible escape, possible identity….
Source: Jeff Thomson, "‘What Is Called Heaven’: Identity in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, 1994, pp. 415-24.
In the following excerpt, Ganz examines the wide range of voices Cisneros used for the characters in the stories of Woman Hollering Creek.
… Sandra Cisneros's discovery of her poetic voice in Iowa was, up until that time, the single most important moment in her life as a writer and the result of that insight was both the personal accomplishment and critical success of The House on Mango Street. After she'd explored and mastered that territory, that is, writing from the point of view and in the voice of Esperanza (the young Sandra), moving on meant experimenting with many voices—voices as divergent and dissimilar as possible from her own. In Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories she brilliantly realizes her intentions as she presents us, from one prose piece to the next, with a complex variety of voices and points of view. Her gamut of characters ranges from, for example, the disembodied spirit of Inés Zapata (Emiliano Zapata's wife), to Rudy Cantú, drag queen extraordinaire. Cisneros creates what she calls a "deluge of voices" (Campbell 6), "voices," she emphasized at the 1991 Poetry Conference in Santa Fe, "that weren't mine at all." They speak in language as rich and diverse as the expanse they embody—they are the expressions of her immediate family, of the Chicano-Riqueño community she grew up in, and the voices from her life both between and as a part of the two cultures in which she now dwells.
One particular prose piece, "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," is perhaps the most telling representation of the diversity of voices that make up Woman Hollering Creek. It is introduced by a prelude told in the voice of a young, working-class Chicana who, while shopping in a "religious store" for a statue or "holy picture" to give to a friend in the hospital, is told by the … storeowner, "I can see you're not going to buy anything." When the narrator protests and says that she will, she's just thinking, he replies, "Well, if it's thinking you want, you just go across the street to the church to think—you're just wasting my time and yours thinking here." She does go across the street, and inside the church she reads the little letters of supplication that the churchgoers leave for the Virgin and other saints….
One of the unexpected reasons that Cisneros's stories resonate with such genuineness is that her indispensable source for names and other cultural information is the San Antonio phone book. When she's searching for just the right name for a character, she leafs through the listings for a last name then repeats the process for a first name, thereby coming up with a euphonious or suitable combination without appropriating anybody's real name. Cisneros also uses the Yellow Pages and mail-order catalogues in much the same way for the names of businesses and so forth. For inspiration, she reads the Popul Vuh, the Maya Bible.
About the experience of writing Woman Hollering Creek and giving voice to so many different characters, Cisneros said at the Santa Fe conference, "I felt like a ventriloquist."Her advice to the writers in attendance was to "transcribe voices of the people of a community you know," and confided that she keeps voluminous files of snippets of dialogue or monologue—records of conversations she hears wherever she goes. She emphasized that she'll mix and match to suit her purpose because, as she put it, "real life doesn't have shape. You have to snip and cut."
When Cisneros was at work on Woman Hollering Creek, she became so immersed in her characters that they began to penetrate her unconscious; once, while writing "Eyes of Zapata," she awakened in the middle of the night, convinced for the moment that she was Inés, the young bride of the Mexican revolutionary. Her dream conversation with Zapata then became those characters's dialogue in her story. The task of breaking the silence, of articulating the unpronounceable pain of the characters that populate Woman Hollering Creek, was a very serious undertaking for Cisneros. She said in a recent interview: "I'm trying to write the stories that haven't been written. I felt like a cartographer; I'm determined to fill a literary void" (Sagel 74). The pressure intensifies for her because of her bi-culturalism and bi-lingualism: She charts not only the big city barrio back alleyways, its mean streets and the dusty arroyos of the borderland, but also offers us a window into the experience of the educated, cosmopolitan Chicano/artist, writer and academic. While she revels in her bi-culturalism, enjoys her life in two worlds, and as a writer she's grateful to have "twice as many words to pick from … two ways of looking at the world," her wide range of experience is a double-edged sword. In the Sagel interview, she revealed another side of her motivation to tell many peoples's stories in their own voices—the responsibility and the anxiety which that task produces: "One of the most frightening pressures I faced as I wrote this book," she says, "was the fear that I would blow it…. I kept asking myself, What have I taken on here? That's why I was so obsessed with getting everybody's stories out" (74).
She feels under additional pressure as the first Chicana to enter the mainstream of literary culture. Until Random House published Woman Hollering Creek and The House on Mango Street was reissued by Vintage Press, the Chicano literature that had crossed over into the mainstream remained a male domain—Gary Soto, Luis Valdez, Richard Rodréguez, Jimmy Santiago Baca and Alberto Rios had all made the transition. Women, however, were unrepresented there until Cisneros's recent successes. On September 19, 1991 she said in a National Public Radio interview broadcast on Morning Edition:
I think I can't be happy if I'm the only one that's getting published by Random House when I know there are such magnificent writers—both Latinos and Latinas, both Chicanos and Chicanas—in the U.S. whose books are not published by mainstream presses or whom the mainstream isn't even aware of. And, you know, if my success means that other presses will take a second look at these writers … and publish them in larger numbers then our ship will come in.
While it is undeniable that Sandra Cisneros has traversed the boundary dividing the small press market and the mainstream publishing establishment, a controversy continues about her writing among the critics over the issue of genre-crossing. In her review of Woman Hollering Creek in the Los Angeles Times titled "Poetic Fiction With A Tex-Mex Tilt," Barbara Kingsolver writes that "Sandra Cisneros has added length and dialogue and a hint of plot to her poems and published them in a stunning collection called Woman Hollering Creek." Later on in the review she elaborates:
It's a practical thing for poets in the United States to turn to fiction. Elsewhere, poets have the cultural status of our rock stars and the income of our romance novelists. Here, a poet is something your mother probably didn't want you to grow up to be…. When you read this book, don't be fooled. It's poetry. Just don't tell your mother. (3-4)
In her review in The Nation, Patricia Hart writes, "In her new book, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros breathes narrative life into her adroit, poetic descriptions, making them mature, fully formed works of fiction" (598).
We might ask then, is Woman Hollering Creek poetry or is it prose? Ever since the publication of The House on Mango Street, critics have debated the degree to which Cisneros embraces both norms simultaneously. Gary Soto addresses the mirror image of the same issue in his review of her poetry collection, My Wicked Wicked Ways:
I use the term "prosaic poetry" not in disapproval, but as a descriptive phrase. Cisneros, as she illustrated in The House on Mango Street, is foremost a storyteller. Except for the "Rodrigo Poems," which meditate on the themes of love and deceit, and perhaps a few of the travel poems, each of the poems in this collection is a little story, distilled to a few stanzas, yet with a beginning, middle, and end. (21)
It is unlikely that critics will ever reach a definitive agreement on the matter of whether Cisneros's writing is poetic prose or prose-like poetry. I predict, however, that this question will persist throughout her literary career, continuing to arise in subsequent criticism of her work. Cisneros herself is entitled to the final word (for the time being, at least) on the subject. At a reading in Albuquerque, New Mexico in October, 1991 she said that when she has the words to express her idea, it's a story. When she doesn't, it's a poem.
Sandra Cisneros is a relatively young writer, both chronologically and in the sense that she is a fresh voice, a new presence in the spectrum of contemporary literature. One is likely to forget her relative inexperience because of the wisdom and understanding that charge and permeate her stories and poems. From time to time I am reminded of it, however, when I come across a passage that verges on the cute—at times, whether in a poem or story, she veers dangerously toward the precious. A reviewer for Booklist wrote the following criticism about The House on Mango Street, but it could apply to her work in other instances as well:
These vignettes of autobiographical fiction … written in a loose and deliberately simple style, halfway between a prose poem and the awkwardness of semiliteracy, convincingly represent the reflections of a young girl. Occasionally the method annoys by its cuteness. (281)
Far more often than it is coy or cloying however, Cisneros's work is affecting, charming and filled with the humor and the rich cultural offerings of Mexican America. Her style is as clear as water, as evinced in her unadorned syntax, her spare and elegant phrasing, and the entirely original Mexican-American inflected diction of her poetry and prose. Yet, as with the clearest water, beneath the surface, Cisneros's work is alive with complexity and depth of meaning. Cisneros's voice is the sound of many voices speaking—over the kitchen table, out on the street, across the borderlands, and through the years.
Source: Robin Ganz, "Sandra Cisneros: Border Crossings and Beyond," in MELUS, Vol. 19, No. 1, Spring 1994, pp. 19-29.
In the following interview with Sagel, Cisneros comments on her efforts to chart the "barrio ditches" and the "borderland arroyos" of the Latino landscape in her short stories.
Taped to her word processor is a prayer card to San Judas, a gift from a Mexico City cab-driver. Her two indispensable literary sources are mail order catalogues and the San Antonio (Tex.) phone book. She lights candles and reads the Popul Vuh before sitting down to write long into the night, becoming so immersed in her characters that she dreams their dialogue: once she awoke momentarily convinced she was Ines, bride of the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
Such identification with her characters and her culture is altogether natural for Sandra Cisneros, a writer who has always found her literary voice in the real voices of her people, her immediate family and the extended [families] of Latino society.
"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 says. With the Random House publication of her new collection of stories, Woman Hollering Creek (Fiction Forecasts, Feb. 15), and the simultaneous reissuing of her earlier collection of short fiction, The House on Mango Street, in a Vintage edition, Cisneros finds herself in a position to chart those barrio ditches and borderland arroyos that have not appeared on most copies of the American literary map but which, nonetheless, also flow into the "mainstream."
The 36-year-old daughter of a Mexican father and a Chicana mother, Cisneros is well aware of the additional pressure to succeed with this pair of books that represent the opportunity for a wider readership, not only for herself but for scores of other Latina and Latino writers right behind the door that she is cracking open.
"One of the most frightening pressures I faced as I wrote this book was the fear that I would blow it," Cisneros says, sweeping a lock of her closely cropped black hair from her forehead as she sips a midmorning cup of coffee. "I kept asking myself, What have I taken on here? That's why I was so obsessed with getting everybody's stories out. I didn't have the luxury of doing my own."
Coupled with that "responsibility to do a collective good job," is Cisneros's anxiety about how her work will be perceived by the general reading public. Universal as her themes are, Cisneros knows her characters live in an America very different from that of her potential readers. From her friend Lucy, "who smells like corn," to Salvador, whose essence resides "inside that wrinkled shirt, inside the throat that must clear itself and apologize each time it speaks," Cisneros's literary landscape teems with characters who live, love and laugh in the flowing cadences of the Spanish language.
Yet, unlike her character Salvador, Cisneros offers no apologies when she speaks. Energetic and abounding with gusto—only the Spanish word will do to describe her engaging humor—Cisneros relishes the opportunity to startle the jaded reader and poetically unravel stereotypes, especially those that relate to Latinas.
"I'm the mouse who puts a thorn in the lion's paw," she says, with an arch smile reminiscent of the red-lipped sonrisa on the cover of My Wicked Wicked Ways (Third Woman Press, 1987), a collection of poetry celebrating the "bad girl" with her "lopsided symmetry of sin/and virtue."
"An unlucky fate is mine/to be born woman in a family of men," Cisneros writes in one of her "wicked" poems, yet it is that very "fate" that laid the groundwork for the literary career of this writer, whose name derives from the Spanish word for "swan."
Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros grew up in a family of six brothers and a father, or "seven fathers," as she puts it. She recalls spending much of her early childhood moving from place to place. Because her paternal grandmother was so attached to her favorite son, the Cisneros family returned to Mexico City "like the tides."
"The moving back and forth, the new schools, were very upsetting to me as a child. They caused me to be very introverted and shy. I do not remember making friends easily, and I was terribly self-conscious due to the cruelty of the nuns, who were majestic at making one feel little. 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."
It was that "retreat" that transformed Cisneros into an observer, a role she feels she still plays today. "When I'm washing sheets at the laundromat, people still see me as just a girl. I take advantage of that idea. The little voice I used to hate I now see as an asset. It helps me get past the guards."
Among the first "guards" that Cisneros sneaked past were the literary sentinels at the University of Iowa's Writer's Workshop, which she attended in the late '70s. Her "breakthrough" occurred during a seminar discussion of archetypal memories in Bachelard's Poetics of Space. As her classmates spoke about the house of the imagination, the attics, stairways and cellars of childhood, Cisneros felt foreign and out of place.
"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. Suddenly I was homeless. There were no attics and cellars and crannies. I had no such house in my memories. As a child I had read of such things in books, and my family had promised such a house, but the best they could do was offer the miserable bungalow I was embarrassed with all my life. 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.
"It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice. I knew I was a Mexican woman, but I didn't think it had anything to do with why I felt so much imbalance in my life, whereas it had everything to do with it! My race, my gender, my class! That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about."
Thus it was that The House on Mango Street was born and Cisneros discovered what she terms her "first love," a fascination with speech and voices. Writing in the voice of the adolescent Esperanza, Cisneros created a series of interlocking stories, alternately classified as a novel and as a collection of prose poems because of the vivid and poignant nature of the language. Since its first publication in 1984 by Arte Publico Press, Mango Street has sold some 30,000 copies. The book is used in classes from junior high school through graduate school in subjects ranging from Chicano studies to psychology to culture, ideas and values at Stanford University, where it has been adopted as part of the "new curriculum."
Mango Street was also the catalyst that drew Cisneros to her literary agent or, to be more accurate, that led Susan Bergholz to Cisneros. Bergholz was so moved after reading the book that she did something she had never done before: she set out to track down the writer. "It was a delightful chase," Bergholz recalls, in spite of the fact that it took some three to four years to accomplish.
Ironically, even while Bergholz was enlisting the aid of Richard Bray of Guild Books to contact Cisneros, the writer was going through what she calls the worst year of her life, 1987. She had spent the previous year in Texas through the auspices of a Dobie-Paisano fellowship. Though the experience had convinced her to make Texas her permanent home, the writer found herself unable to make a living once the fellowship expired.
While her boyfriend waited tables, Cisneros handed out fliers in local supermarkets and laundromats, trying to scrape together enough students to teach a private writing workshop. At last, she was forced to leave her newly adopted home, her confidence shaken and her outlook on life darkened.
The depression she sank into followed her to California, where she accepted a guest lectureship at California State University in Chico. "I thought I couldn't teach. I found myself becoming suicidal. Richard Bray had told me Susan was looking for me, but I was drowning, beyond help. I had the number for months, but I didn't call. It was frightening because it was such a calm depression."
An NEA fellowship in fiction revitalized Cisneros and helped her get on her feet again, both financially and spiritually. Finally calling that Manhattan phone number stuffed in her pocket, Cisneros sent Bergholz a small group of new stories. With only 39 pages in hand, Bergholz sold Woman Hollering Creek to Joni Evans and Erroll McDonald at Random House/Vintage; Julie Grau became the book's enthusiastic editor.
Then, of course, the real work began for Cisneros, whose previous output had been about one story every six months. "There's nothing like a deadline to teach you discipline, especially when you've already spent your advance. Susto helps," Cisneros says, explaining that fear motivated her to put in eight-to-12-hour days. Though exhausting, the experience was genuinely empowering.
"Before, I'd be … waiting for inspiration. Now I know I can work this hard. I know I did the best I could."
That's not to say Cisneros believes she's done the best work of her career. "I'm looking forward to the books I'll write when I'm 60," she observes. She's also looking forward to the contributions other Latina and Latino writers will be making in the future. "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. The Spanish language is going to contribute something very rich to American literature."
Meanwhile, this self-described "migrant professor" plans to continue her personal and literary search for the "home in the heart," as Elenita the Witch Woman describes it in Mango Street. As "nobody's mother and nobody's wife," Cisneros most resembles Ines Alfaro, the powerful central character in "Eyes of Zapata," the story Cisneros considers her finest achievement.
Small, but "bigger" than the general himself, Ines is the woman warrior, the Soldadera who understands what the men will never comprehend, that "the wars begin here, in our hearts and in our beds." She is the bruja, the nagual who flies through the night, the fierce and tender lover who risks all, the eater of black things that make her hard and strong.
She is, in short, a symbol of the Latina herself, the Mexican woman whose story is at last being told, a story of life and blood and grief and "all the flower colors of joy." It is a story at once intimate and universal, guaranteed to shove a bittersweet thorn into the paws of literary lions everywhere.
Source: Jim Sagel, "Sandra Cisneros: Conveying the Riches of the Latin American Culture Is the Author's Literary Goal," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 238, No. 15, March 29, 1991, pp. 74-75.
In the following review, well-known novelist Kingsolver offers a favorable impression of Woman Hollering Creek, noting Cisneros's use of sensory images.
From poetry to fiction and back doesn't seem too long a stretch for some writers. Linda Hogan's recently published Mean Spirit was a first novel, but the author's reputation runs long and deep in the tiny community of North Americans who buy and read poetry. Louise Erdrich is well known for her novels, but once upon a time she was (and surely still is) a poet. Joining their ranks, Sandra Cisneros has added length and dialogue and a hint of plot to her poems and published them in a stunning collection called Woman Hollering Creek.
The 22 stories mostly range from short to very short (six paragraphs), with a handful that are longer. All are set along the Tex-Mex border where people listen to Flaco Jimenez on Radio K-SUAVE and light candles in church to ward off the landlord and mean ex-lovers. Their language gets in your ear and hangs on like a love powder from the Preciado Sisters' Religious Articles Shop.
Nearly every sentence contains an explosive sensory image. A narrator says of her classmate, "A girl who wore rhinestone earrings and glitter high heels to school was destined for trouble that nobody—not God or correctional institutions—could mend." A child runs off in "that vague direction where homes are the color of bad weather." Emiliano Zapata's abandoned lover remembers: "It was the season of rain. Plum … plum plum. All night I listened to that broken string of pearls, bead upon bead upon bead rolling across the waxy leaves of my heart."
The subject of love, inseparable from babies, hope, poverty and escape, is everywhere in these characters' talk and dreams…. A girl explains that love is like "a big black piano being pushed off the top of a three-story building and you're waiting on the bottom to catch it." Her friend gives this account: "There was a man, a crazy who lived upstairs from us when we lived on South Loomis. He couldn't talk, just walked around all day with this harmonica in his mouth. Didn't play it. Just sort of breathed through it, all day long, wheezing, in and out, in and out.
"This is how it is with me. Love I mean."
In the face of all this fatal passion, though, women of grit keep fashioning surprising escapes out of radio lyrics and miracles. In the title story, a bride, whose knowledge of marriage comes from a Mexican soap opera, is taken by her new husband across the border to Texas, far from her family, where he beats her. The creek that runs past her house is called La Gritona—Woman Hollering Creek—and she's fascinated because she has heard women wail but never actually shout, an act requiring anger or joy. In the story's wonderful, non-soap-opera ending, she meets a woman who knows how to holler.
Another compelling heroine, in "Bien Pretty," is an educated Latina from San Francisco who's spent her life trying to nail down her ethnic identity. She moves to San Antonio for a job, where she falls into a lonely evening routine of chips and beer for dinner, falling asleep on the couch, and waking up in the middle of the night with "hair crooked as a broom, face creased into a mean origami, clothes wrinkled as the citizens of bus stations." She heads all her letters home with "Town of Dust and Despair," "until suddenly, disastrously, she falls in love with an exterminator from La Cucaracha Apachurrada who reminds her of an Aztec God. She loses her heart and learns what she can never be, but discovers what she is.
My favorite in the collection is "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," a sampling of letters of petition or thanks pinned onto the altar of the Virgin of Guadalupe. The Familia Arteaga thanks the Virgin in a businesslike manner for having saved them when their bus overturned near Robstown. Another note, more blunt, says, "Please send us clothes, furniture, shoes, dishes. We need anything that don't eat." …
It's a funny, caustic portrait of a society in transition that still pins its hopes on saints. The last of the letters begins, "Virgencita … I've cut off my hair just like I promised I would and pinned my braid here by your statue." This supplicant's family believes she is selfish and crazy for wanting to be an artist instead of a mother. She pours out her heart to a Virgin who traces her lineage not only to Guadalupe and Bethlehem but also to wild, snake-charming Aztec goddesses. It's a fine revelation of a cultural moment in which potent saints can hold a young woman back or send her on her way, depending on which traditions she opts to cherish.
Woman Hollering Creek is Cisneros' second collection of stories (following The House on Mango Street, which Random House is reissuing), and I hope there will be more. It's a practical thing for poets in the United States to turn to fiction. Elsewhere, poets have the cultural status of our rock stars and the income of our romance novelists. Here, a poet is something your mother probably didn't want you to grow up to be. Even the most acclaimed could scarcely dine out twice a year, let alone make a living, on the sales of their poetry collections. Fiction has a vastly larger audience that's hard not to covet.
So, if they're going to do it, all poets would do well to follow the example of Sandra Cisneros, who takes no prisoners and has not made a single compromise in her language. When you read this book, don't be fooled: It's poetry. Enjoy it, revel in it. Just don't tell your mother.
Source: Barbara Kingsolver, "Poetic Fiction with a Tex-Mex Tilt," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 28, 1991, pp. 3, 12.
In the following excerpt, Hart compares Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek to the work of Rosario Ferre and applauds Cisneros's characterizations and descriptions, calling them "fully formed works of fiction."
…The wrenching pull of competing cultures and languages is just as important in Mexican-American Sandra Cisneros's art as it is in Rosario Ferre's. Anger repressed bursts the seams of life for Cisneros's female characters, who struggle valiantly to make something beautiful from the ugly fabric fate has given them to work with. Cisneros's first book of fiction, The House on Mango Street (1984), was a collection of prose-poem reflections on a girlhood in which creative talent fought to survive a hostile environment, sensitive memories set down as a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and winner of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. In her new book, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros breathes narrative life into her adroit, poetic descriptions, making them mature, fully formed works of fiction. Her range of characters is broad and lively, from Rudy Cantu, drag queen par excellence, in whose ears the crowd's applause sizzles like when "my ma added the rice to the hot oil"; to the disembodied spirit of Emiliano Zapata's wife; to a teenage girl who returns to the shrine of the Virgen de los Lagos to ask Mary to take back the boyfriend the girl previously prayed for.
Calques and puns are hidden throughout like toy surprises that double the pleasure of the bilingual reader. The title story, "Woman Hollering Creek," is an impish, literal translation of Arroyo la Gritona, a creek whose name sounds as though it may have been derived from La. Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexican folklore—part Circe, part Magdalene. The irony is that the main character, a young bride brought across the border from Mexico only to be abused, begins the tale crying over her plight, but in the end escapes the stereotyped role of tearful victim through the help of strong, independent Felice, who hollers in exhilaration like Tarzan as the pair cross the river to freedom.
In "Bien Pretty," the last story in the collection, Cisneros beautifully draws the struggle of a talented but underappreciated Chicana painter to connect culturally and sexually with men who circle and abandon her, a situation she survives nobly, "in my garage making art": The men who know her language and folklore may disappoint, but as painter she transforms one bug-exterminating lover into volcanic Prince Popocatepetl, and on her canvas, as in Cisneros's fiction, the results are at once dramatically specific and universal.
If superstition is the opiate of Latin America's desperate poor, it is no surprise that Ronfio Ferre's ire flowers into magic feminism. By contrast, the toughness that Sandra Cisneros's characters need to survive U.S. streets makes hard-eyed realism her ideal mode. The catalysts are remarkably similar for the two, but the resulting chain reactions of rage delight with a clear chemical difference.
Source: Patricia Hart, Review of Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, in the Nation, Vol. 252, No. 17, May 6, 1991, p. 598.
Batalova, Jeanne, "Mexican Immigrants in the United States," in Migration Information Source, April 2008, http://www.migrationinformation.org/USfocus/display.cfm?ID=679 (accessed June 21, 2008).
Brady, Mary Pat, "The Contrapuntal Geographies of Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories," in American Literature, Vol. 71, No. 1, March 1999, pp. 117-50.
Carroll, Michael, and Susan Maher, "‘A Las Mujeres’: Cultural Context and the Process of Maturity in Sandra Cisneros' Woman Hollering Creek," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 64, No. 1, Winter 1997, pp. 70-80.
Cisneros, Sandra, "Eleven," in Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories, Random House, 1991, pp. 6-9.
Fernández de Pinedo, Eva, "An Overview of Contemporary Chicano/a Literature," in Literature Compass, Vol. 3, No. 4, July 2006, pp. 658-75.
Hart, Patricia, "Babes in Boyland," in the Nation, Vol. 252, No. 17, May 6, 1991, pp. 597-98.
Kevane, Bridget, "A Home in the Heart: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros," in Latina Self-Portraits: Interviews with Contemporary Women Writers, edited by Bridget Kevane and Juanita Heredia, University of New Mexico Press, 2000, pp. 51-2.
Kingsolver, Barbara, "Poetic Fiction with a Tex-Mex Tilt," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 28, 1991, pp. 3, 12.
Madsen, Deborah L., Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature, University of South Carolina Press, 2000, pp. 24, 40.
Muske, Carol, "Through the Ivory Gate," in Parnassus: Poetry in Review, Vol. 20, No. 1/2, 1995, pp. 409-23.
Prescott, Peter S., and Karen Springen, "Seven for Summer," in Time, Vol. 117, No. 22, June 3, 1991, p. 60.
Thomson, Jeff, "‘What Is Called Heaven’: Identity in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek," in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer 1994, pp. 415-24.
Tompkins, Cynthia, "Sandra Cisneros," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 152, American Novelists since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by James Giles and Wanda Giles, Gale Research, 1995, pp. 35-41.
U.S. Census Bureau, "Facts for Features," July 16, 2007, http://www.census.gov/Press-Release/www/releases/archives/facts_for_features_special_editions/010327.html (accessed June 21, 2008).
U.S. Census Bureau, "We the American … Hispanics," September 1993, http://www.census.gov/apsd/wepeople/we-2r.pdf (accessed June 21, 2008).
Van Hook, Jennifer, Frank D. Bean, and Jeffrey Passel, "Unauthorized Migrants Living in the United States: A Mid-decade Portrait," in Migration Information Source, September 2005, http://www.migrationinformation.org/Usfocus/display.cfm?ID=329 (accessed June 21, 2008).
Augenbraum, Harold, and Margarite Fernández Olmos, eds., U.S. Latino Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and Teachers, Greenwood Press, 2000.
This book includes critical analyses of works by eighteen influential Latino writers, including Rudolfo Anaya, Sandra Cisneros, and Julia Alvarez.
Brackett, Virginia, A Home in the Heart: The Story of Sandra Cisneros, Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2005.
Written for the young adult reader, this biography follows Cisneros's life from her childhood through the publication of Caramelo.
Herrera-Sobek, Mariá, and Helena Mariá Viramontes, eds., Chicana Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature, rev. ed., University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
This particularly interesting compilation of poetry, prose, criticism, and artwork demonstrates the range of themes in and growth of contemporary Chicana creativity, including work on female sexuality, social justice, and gender roles.
Hoobler, Dorothy, Thomas Hoobler, and Henry G. Cisneros, The Mexican American Family Album, Oxford University Press, 1998.
Structured like a family photo album, this book begins with the earliest Mexicans who suddenly found themselves living in the United States when the Americans annexed their property. It then traces the growth of Mexican Amerian culture in the United States through vintage photographs, text, and interviews.
Pollack, Harriet, ed., Having Our Way: Women Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America, Bucknell University Press, 1995.
Pollack provides a series of essays detailing the ways that contemporary women writers are expanding the canon of American literature through creative and innovative approaches to their own stories.
Rebolledo, Tey Diana, The Chronicles of Panchita Villa and Other Guerrilleras: Essays on Chicana/Latina Literature and Criticism, University of Texas Press, 2005.
This book contains twenty essays by Rebolledo on Chicana/Latina literature, including an overview called "Women Writers, New Disciplines, and the Canon."
eleven-plus in the UK, an examination taken at the age of 11–12 to determine the type of secondary school a child should enter; the examination is now limited to a few local education authority areas.
give us back our eleven days a slogan used in protest against the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752, when the date moved directly from 2 to 14 September. In this form it is associated with Hogarth's cartoon showing a rowdy Oxfordshire election of 1754.
up to eleven in informal usage, up to maximum volume; with reference to a scene in the film This is Spinal Tap (1984), featuring a supposedly louder amplifier with control knobs having 11 rather than 10 as the top setting.
See also nine-eleven, rain before seven, fine before eleven.
e·lev·en / iˈlevən/ • cardinal number equivalent to the sum of six and five; one more than ten; 11. (Roman numeral: xi or XI.) ∎ eleven years old: the eldest is only eleven. ∎ eleven o'clock: she often worked until eleven at night. ∎ a size of garment or other merchandise denoted by eleven. ∎ a group or unit of eleven people or things. ∎ a sports team of eleven players.DERIVATIVES: e·lev·en·fold / -ˌfōld/ adj. & adv.
Hence eleventh (XIV), superseding OE. endleofeǒa, itself a new formation superseding previous endlyfta = OS. ellifto, OHG. einlifto (Du. elfde, G. elfte), ON. ellifti :- Gmc. *ainliftan-; see -TH2.