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Novelist and short story writer Sandra Cisneros draws upon her childhood experiences and ethnic heritage in her work, and confronts large issues like poverty, self-identity, and gender roles. Most of her characters are of Latin American heritage, and Cisneros depicts their social and cultural alienation through dialogue and sensory imagery rather than conventional narrative structures. Cisneros is best known for The House on Mango Street (1984), a volume of vignettes described as both a short story collection and a series of prose poems.
Biographical and Historical Context
The Only Daughter, Moving Across Borders
Cisneros was the only daughter in a family with seven children. With six domineering brothers, Cisneros learned at an early age to speak out. In a January 1993 interview, she said, ”You had to be fast and you had to be funny—you had to be a storyteller. Cisneros did not remain in one place for long as a child since her family moved back and forth between the United States and Mexico. In the late 1960s, her parents bought the tiny two-story bungalow in Chicago’s North Side that would one day inspire her successful novel, The House on Mango Street.
Although Cisneros wrote poetry and prose during her childhood years, she did not realize her potential as a writer until she attended the University of Iowa’s Writers Work shop in the late 1970s. Her lack of a stable home life made Cisneros a shy child with few friends. Her mother passed along a love for reading, and Cisneros used the world of books as an escape, often imagining herself the main character in a story controlled by an omniscient narrator.
Student, Teacher, Lecturer
Once at Loyola University, as the only Hispanic English major, she began to discover her cultural roots. There, she joined the Chicago poetry scene and found great enthusiasm for her work. She began to write in earnest as a student in the creative-writing program, then applied, and was accepted, to the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The years she spent at Iowa influenced the trajectory of Cisneros’s life and writing. Many of her professors were difficult and intimidating, yet Cisneros built a support system of those who encouraged her as she tried to find her voice. For example, at Iowa, she made friends with Joy Harjo, a Native American writer, who also felt alienated by the challenges of the Iowa workshop. Cisneros’s master’s thesis, a collection of poems titled My Wicked, Wicked Ways, predicted themes that would repeat in her career: self-identity, love relationships, and friendship. Revised, the thesis was published in 1987.
Cisneros taught at Latino Youth Alternative High School in Chicago from July 1978 to December 1980. During this time, she wrote, but never had enough time or energy to finish any of her projects. She became a public speaker/reader after one of her poems was chosen for an ad campaign on the Chicago area public buses, and she enjoyed the adulation of audiences. But soon she missed her writing and decided to focus on completing a book. Cisneros published Bad Boys in 1980, an autobiographical poetry collection that portrayed her life in the Mexican ghetto in Chicago.
From Europe to Mango Street
During the spring of 1983, Cisneros was artist in residence at the Fondation Michael Karolyi in Vence, France. Earlier, in 1982, she received a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which she used to travel through Europe. During that time she began work on a series of poems that appeared in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, a collection that some say broke gender stereotypes by dealing with ”bad girl sexual politics.” But The House on Mango Street (1984) was Cisneros’s largest success. Like her previous book of poetry, the novel uses her autobiographical experiences to draw a narrative of an adolescent girl coming of age in the urban ghetto. Cisneros wanted to write through what she called an ”anti-academic voice—a child’s voice, a girl’s voice, a poor girl’s voice, a spoken voice, the voice of an American-Mexican.”
Teaching, Hollering, and Caramelo
In the late 1980s, Cisneros completed a Paisano Dobie Fellowship in Austin, Texas, and won awards for her short stories in the Segundo Concurso Nacional del Cuento Chicano, sponsored by the University of Arizona. Cisneros also began teaching in 1987 when she joined the faculty of California State University, and has held other visiting professorships at a variety of universities ever since. Her career has flourished in the last two decades, with the critically acclaimed prose collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), books of poetry that include Loose Woman (1994), and her most recent novel, Caramelo (2002). With Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, Cisneros became the first Chicana (Mexican American woman) to receive a major publishing contract for a work about Chicanas. Caramelo was honored as book of the year by The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. The novel was also nominated for the Orange Prize in England and other prestigious awards.
Works in Literary Context
Much of Cisneros’s work reflects upon the connections between identity, culture, and a strong sense of place. The House on Mango Street is narrated by Esperanza Cordero as she comes of age in a poor Hispanic urban ghetto. Cisneros’s third book of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, written with financial support from a 1982 National Endowment for the Arts grant, includes autobiographical poems about Cisneros’s travels through Europe and the guilt associated with a Mexican and Catholic upbringing. In her short story collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), Cisneros draws Mexican American characters near San Antonio, Texas, and addresses social and economic issues associated with stereotypical roles, minority status, and cultural conflicts.
Symbolism of the House on Mango Street
Cisneros, in an essay collection called From a Writer’s Notebook, writes that not until her experience at the Iowa Writers Work shop did she realize that her childhood home would make a good subject for a book. After reading Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space written in the 1950s, ”the metaphor of a house” made an impact. Cisneros revised Bachelard’s male-oriented perspective and creates a personal reality ”about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible. And this is when I discovered the voice I’d been suppressing all along without realizing it.” Scholar Julian Olivares writes, ”Mango Street is a street sign, a marker, that circum scribes the neighborhood to its Latino population of Puerto Ricans, Chicanos and Mexican immigrants. This house is not the young protagonist’s dream house; it is only a temporary house.”
Cisneros’s Feminist Messages
Feminist messages strongly resound throughout Cisneros’s body of work. As she addresses issues of crosscultural identity and con-fronts the traditional patriarchal values (those defined historically by men) of Mexican and American heritage, she expresses the idea that ”[we women have] got to define what we think is fine for ourselves instead of what our culture says.” Jean Wyatt notes Cisneros’s engagement with the ways in which a woman’s identity is oppressed by her culture and how she focuses specifically on the female protagonists of the short stories ”Woman Hollering Creek” and ”Never Marry a Mexican,” who struggle to relate to conventional Mexican symbols of sexuality and motherhood. These ”role models” include: ”Guadalupe, the virgin mother,” ”la Chingada (Malinche), the raped mother,” and ”la Llorona, the mother who seeks her lost children.”
Works in Critical Context
Cisneros experiments with genre, language, and form throughout her work. Exemplified in The House on Mango Street, her style is a marriage of prose and poetry, magic and realism, American culture and Hispanic heritage. Cisneros’ unique narrative voice has earned her consistent praise from critics and readers alike.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories
Readers and reviewers alike have praised Cisneros’s rich characterization and distinctive voice in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. They suggest her skills as a poet add depth to her prose and often echo author and Los Angeles Book Review writer Barbara Kingsolver: ”Cisneros has added length and dialogue and a hint of plot to her poems and published them in a stunning collection.” Kingsolver also proclaimed that ”nearly every sentence contains an explosive sensory image.” Similarly, Bebe Moore Campbell in the New York Times Book Review suggested that Cisneros ”seduces with precise, spare prose and creates unforgettable characters we want to lift off the page and hang out with for a little while.”
Publishers Weekly called Caramelo, written nine years after The House on Mango Street, a ”major literary event.” Critics of the novel praised Cisneros’s imagery and realistic bilingual dialogue. Scholar Carol Cujec writes, ”Sandra Cisneros bathes our senses in Latino culture as we accompany her characters walking the scorched sands of Acapulco, buying shoes at Chicago’s Maxwell Street flea market, . . . and eventually finding their destinies and their destinations.” Cujec concludes her review of the novel by saying, ”All in all, this is a stunning, creative novel that shows sparks of genius in its use of language: poetic, authentic, and deliciously spiced with Spanish.” Reviewer Toni Fitzgerald agrees, evoking classic comparisons:
It’s impossible not to compare Cisneros’ multigenerational tale to The House of the Spirits or One Hundred Years of Solitude, but unlike Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Cisneros’s magic comes from actual realism. Each word is a brushstroke.
- Duarte-Valverde, Gloria. ”Cisneros, Sandra.” Notable Latino Writers. Vol. 1. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press, 2006.
- Herrera-Sobek, Maria and Helena Maria Viramontes Gloria, eds. Chicana Creativity and Criticism. Houston, TX: Arte Publico, 1988.
- Modern American Literature. Eds. Joann Cerrito and Laurie DiMauro. Vol. 1. 5th ed. Farmington Hills, MI: St. James Press, 1999.
- Aranda, Pilar. ”On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked, and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” Americas Review 18 (Spring 1990): 64-80.
- Cujec, Carol. ”Caramel-coated Truths and Telenovela Lives: Sandra Cisneros Returns with an Ambitious Novel about the Latino Community.” World and I 18:3 (March 2003): 228.
- Mullen, Harryette. ”A Silence Between Us Like a Language: The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek.” MELUS 21 (Summer 1996): 3-20.
- Wyatt, Jean. ”On Not Being La Malinche: Border Negotiations of Gender in Sandra Cisneros ‘Never Marry a Mexican and ‘Woman Hollering Creek. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. 14:2 (Fall 1995): 243-272
- Fitzgerald, Toni. ”Caramelo.” Book Reporter. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from http://www.BookReporter. com/.
- Juffer, Jane. ”Sandra Cisneros’ Career.” Modern American Poetry. Retrieved October 4, 2008 from http:// http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/ poets/a_f/cisneros/career.htm/.
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