A Latina of many colors, Sandra Cisneros

Miriam Martinez

Her works have not only left their mark among academics but also in the lives of many readers. The House on Mango Street, Woman Hollering Creek, and her long awaited novel Caramelo, masterfully deliver her own voice and tell of a meaningful part of America’s history.

Meeting Sandra Cisneros at Tortes Tam Haven in her adopted office in San Antonio over some tacos, the phone ringing at the counter, the noise and the spicy aromas from the taqueria’s busy kitchen, reveal that being one of the most remarkable voices of contemporary literature in the US does not necessarily mean an unapproachable intellectual immersed in dense theories and unable to relate to everyday things and real people.

Sandra Cisneros is just the opposite, highly energetic and an eager convensationalist. The framework of her poetry and fiction are precisely everyday many Latinas have experienced: restrictions on the grounds of race, class, and gender, but it also portrays a burgeoning sensuality, women’s solidarity and humor. Cisneros has made it into the mainstream literary, tradition of her country and has surmounted the “minority writer” label, but she still has a chamaca spirit, fortunately.

She has been a sort of medium that channels the voices of women like Lucy, Chayo, Lupe, or Esperanza, the leading character of the book that propelled her to fame, The House on Mango Street. The book has sold over 2 million copies and is required reading at all levels ranging from elementary to university level.

Book magazine’s Dagoherto Gilb said of her staggering success, “I knew Sandra Cisneros before she was Sandra Cisneros. She’s like my sister. We came up together but her rise went much higher than mine. Talking about Sandra Cisneros these days is like talking about Frida Kahlo.”

Sandra Cisneros, like Esperanza, also grew up in Chicago. Born to a Mexican lather and a Mexican-American mother, Cisneros was the third child and only daughter in a family of seven children. She describes herself as a (laughter with six father. “My father always defined my gender to my brothers. He’d say, ‘This is your sister, you must take care of her.'”

Sandra’s father emigrated to the US, where he spent some time looking for a place to settle until he eventually arrived in Chicago, where the Mexican community was striving to make some bucks. Her Mexican-American mother had to give up school for a job at a couple of factories. This was a time when the Cisneroses led some sort of a Gypsy life. To save on rent, the family spent summers back in Mexico with the grandparents. But going back to Chicago meant struggling to find a place to live in a variety of ethnic neighborhoods sharing space with Italians, Puerto Ricans, blacks, and Poles. Finally in 1965 at age ten, Sandra and her family found a somewhat fixed place on Campbell Avenue near Humboldt Park.

Sandra’s father became her reference for Mexican popular culture, Mexican comic books such as Familia Burron, the music of Agustin Lara, Mexican cinema, and fotonovelas. But it was her mother who exposed the children to arts and literature. Every time they had the chance, her mother would take the kids to free concerts in the park and on museum visits. “She was the more educated of the two, even though she was self educated, didn’t go beyond 9th grade and working class, she passed my father as far as curiosity and hunger for learning is concerned. My father had studied a year in UNAM (Mexico City’s vast national university) when he left Mexico, and then he had to learn a trade when he mine to the US.

“My mother used to take us all to the public library. We didn’t have books because we couldn’t afford them. I loved books. Even before I could read I loved the public library, maybe because it was quiet, unlike my house, where the radio and TV were on, and my brothers were fighting. I just loved the place,” recalls Cisneros.

Growing up in Chicago, Sandra attended crowded Catholic schools where the nuns and teachers were oppressive, unsupportive, and, worst of all, very racist. An example of such an experience is skillfully portrayed in Eleven, a short story where an abusive teacher forces an eleven year old to wear an abandoned sweater that is not even her own.

“I suffered a lot when I yeas a child, feeling things. But I also experienced beautiful things very deeply, not just sorrows. As a kid I used to look at a flower, and I’d feel this unity with the universe. I would look at a tree, and he would talk to me. That introversion was good; it shaped me as a writer.”

Sandra became an introspective child who found comfort in Dickens, Carroll, the Brothers Grimm, and Andersen. “I think, in a way, I was collecting my own mythology,” and “adds, “along with that I was coloring in my father’s fotonovela magazines. With a little red pencil dipped in spit, I would color lipstick on all the ladies’ pictures.”

Sandra knew she wanted to attend college when she was in 5th grade. At that age, she had some sort of a vision. “I kind of visualized my name in the card catalogue. I wanted my name, my family name on the spine of a book. This was very important to me because my brothers ‘always kept telling me that I was not a real Cisneros, because I would get married and lose my name. I think that’s why I’m single,” she chuckled her almost-childlike laughter. That was a secret she kept to herself for some time.

Cisneros was ready for college and the civil rights movement and worked hard towards getting grants for minority groups. “My father, in the Mexican tradition, was planning to send me to college en busca de un marido. So he thought I was going to find un hombre preparado. That’s what he wanted me to go to college far. However, when I finished college with two degrees, one in humanities and another in creative writing, my dad was very disappointed because I had no husband.” Recalling all these events, Cisneros is quite effective in cracking these stories as jokes.

After graduating from Loyola University of Chicago, Cisneros embarked on the prestigious Iowa University Writers Workshop. Established true blue American mentality writers were the norm, so Sandra felt frightened. During a discussion on Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, the topic was the archetypical idea of the house, but for Cisneros it became an issue. A woman started talking about her grandmother’s house, her house in Rome, and her house on the beach. “Everyone was in this animated discussion of homes and attics and stairwells and basements and nooks and crannies.” The topic on The House did not make any sense to a soon-to-be writer who lived in gritty places in Chicago. She felt inadequate and unsure of her capabilities to understand what was clear for the rest.

Everyone seemed to have some communal knowledge, which Cisneros did nor have. There was no such house in bet memories, and that led her to questioning her place in the world as a writer. What had once made her feet inadequate and awkward, she suddenly retired was maybe her best asset. From that moment onwards she became a rebel by finally discovering her own voice. She knew first “hand the reality none of her classmates were capable of writing about. The House on Mango Street was the result of that epiphany.

Through a series of brief vignettes, and a good dose of autobiographical memoirs, the reader witnesses the coming-of-age of Esperanza, and the painful knowledge that she earns the hard way while growing up in a Mexican barrio in Chicago. Women oppressed by their offspring, household chores, abusive relationships, and the overwhelming impact of a male world is the universe found in The Home on Mango Street, where a sense of belonging is almost nonexistent. At the end of the book, Esperanza eventually and painstakingly finds the way to liberation and choice, and as a critic pointed out, the character becomes a metaphor for possibility.

Jim Sagel of Publishers Weekly said, “Such identification with her characters and her culture is altogether natural for Sandra Cisneros, a writer who has always found her literal/voice in the real voices of her people, her immediate family, and the extended familias of Latino society.

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 their “mainstream.”

Cisneros went back to Chicago and got involved in teaching literacy, Spanish literature, and Spanish for Latino students. She also ran a poetry workshop and at the saner time worked as a counselor at Loyola, all this while working on The House on Mango Street. In the meantime she received her first National Endowment for the Arts grant. She hit the road to Europe, and came back with her book published originally by Arte Publico Press in 1984, which won the Before Columbus American Book Award.

She wanted a space of her own and moved to San Antonio, where she worked as literary director at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center but quit after some differences with the directors. “I was a little too avant-garde for this group of very progressive leftist Chicano artists.”

Cisneros, was awarded the Dobie-Paisano fellowship in 1986, and she found meager support through a writing seminar announced by fliers in laundromats. She accepted a pint at Carroll State University in California, and Cisneros took a walk on the down side, afraid of academia and struggling with her battered self-confidence That moment of turbulence–Cisneros was calling counseling lines, saying she wanted to kill herself and her cat Pablo–led her to the book of poems My Wicked Wicked Ways, published by Third Woman Press.

In the meantime, her soon-to-be agent, Susan Bergholtz, was so impressed with The House on Mango Street that she was determined to offer her a contract at Random House. It took four years for Bergholtz to convince Cisneros. In her darkest hour, an NEA grant and regained confidence made clear for Cisneros that she was up to the task of living off her pen, and she called Bergholz. Next, a collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros’s long-awaited book after The House on Mango Street, sold nearly 20,000 hardback copies and almost 80,000 paperback volumes.

Loose Woman, a poetry book that spent a long season under Cisneros’s bed, was not meant to be published, but Bergholz persuaded her to let the world know about it. Good reviews and good sales resulted in the advance for Caramelo, so far her best work. What started as a 12-page short story, became larger than any of her other books. “Well, it turns out that the story got bigger and bigger like dough. I could never get to an end. I showed it to my friend, and he said, ‘You have a novel here.’ I put it aside, finished Woman Hollering Creek, and took the story back out, and with 50 pages I got an advance, and that’s how I started it.” The novel took nine years in the making. “How long would it take? How do I know? OK, three years. Three years (went by) and the book wasn’t done, and three years morn and nine years. If I’d known it would take nine years I wouldn’t have started it. It was like a nine-year pregnancy. With every year, just like a pregnant woman, I became crankier and meaner and more difficult. It was a very difficult pregnancy.”

In 1992, with improved finances, what was a long time obsession became a reality, a house of her own, “a home in the heart.” After a while, Cisneros refurbished her vintage 1903 metal-roofed house, located in San Antonio’s historical King William district. According to the city council, painting a home purple, turquoise, and pit& violated the historical guidelines of the area. The Incident hit the front page of many newspapers, and the legal battle went on for a couple of years while the sun was toning down the house to a mole “appropriate” lilac.

During the making of Caramelo, Cisneros received the “genius” MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and with it she came to terms with her father, who for years opposed Cisneros’s career choice toward literature instead of marriage.

Caramelo is Cisneros’ homage to her father, and also a three generations family saga, very much like her own. The story takes a stroll through different times, as if they we’re a long, glossy, and intricate rebozo.

“Spanish is the “language of tenderness for me. Even if I don’t write in Spanish, the Spanish sensibilidad, the Spanish syntax, the language thing of looking at a word comes in English (but) it’s (infused with Spanish) whether I like it or not. It makes the English so particularly my voice that people lead it, and they know it’s my writing. It’s my fingerprint.”

The Sandra Cisneros Story: Publications and Achievements

Sandra Cisneros’ Works

Bad Boys (poems), Mango Publications, 1980. The House on Mango Street, Arte Publico, 1984; Vintage, 1991. (Translated into Spanish by Elena Poniatowska, Alfaguara, Vintage Espanol, 1994). My Wicked, Wicked Ways (poems), Third Woman Press, 1987, Random House 1992.

Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (short stories), Random House, 1991; Vintage 1992. Hairs / Pelitos (children’s book), illustrated by Terry Ybanez, Knopf, 1994. Loose Woman (poems), Knopf, 1994; Vintage, 1995 Caramelo (novel), Knopf, 2002: Vintage, 2003. Vintage Cisneros (anthology), Vintage, 2004

Her audience has expanded wider. Her work has been translated into languages such as Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, Galician, Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Spanish of course, and most recently into Greek, SerboCroatian, Swedish, Turkish, and Thai.

Achievements

1984, Illinois Artists Grant 1984, Texas Institute of Letters Dobie-Paisano Fellowship 1985, Before Columbus American Book Award for The House on Mango Street 1986, Chicano Short Story Award, University of Arizona 1988, Roberta Holloway Lectureship at the University of California, Berkeley 1988, 1982, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship 1993, Honorary Doctor of Letters from the State University of New York, Purchase 1995, MacArthur Foundation Fellowship 2002, Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from Loyola University, Chicago 2003, Texas Medal of the Arts Award

A Rebel with a cause.

Cisneros turned down lucrative advertising deal with GAP because she thinks the company does little for Latinos. Likewise, she refuses to allow her work to be published in anthologies that classify her as a “Hispanic” writer, because she sees the term as one imposed on Latinos by other Americans.

Through Spanish Eyes

“Spanish gives me a way of looking at myself and the world in a new way, For those of us living between worlds, our job in the universe is to help others see with more than their eyes during this period of chaotic transition. Our work as bicultural citizens is to help others become visionary, to help us examine our dilemmas in multiple ways and arrive at creative solutions; otherwise we all will perish” Sandra Cisneros in Los Angeles Times.

The Beauty of Prose

“Lucy Anguiano, Texas girl who smells like corn, like Frito Bandito chips, like tortillas, something like that warm smell of nixtamal or bread the way her head smells when she’s leaning close to you over a paper cut-out doll or on the porch when we are squatting over marbles trading this pretty crystal that leaves blue stars on your hand for that giant cat-eye with a grasshopper green spiral in the center like the juice of bugs on the windshield when you drive to the border, like the yellow blood of butterflies.” Woman Hollering Creek

COPYRIGHT 2004 Ferraez Publications of America Corp.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group