Sandra Cisneros' first novel, The House on Mango Street, brought an entirely new voice to American literature, describing the experience of narrator Esperanza Cordero, a Mexican American girl living a hardscrabble existence in Chicago. As Bebe Moore Campbell put it, in the New York Times Book Review: "She is not only a gifted writer, but an absolutely essential one."
The book bore the author's powerful descriptive talents: Comparing her house on Mango Street with the "real house" her parents had promised her, Esperanza notes, "The house on Mango street is not the way they told it at all. It's small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath."
Cisneros, who grew up in Chicago as the only daughter in a family of seven children, attended college on scholarship and was an ethnic anomaly as a graduate student at University of Iowa's renowned Writers' Workshop. There is a lyric quality to Cisneros' work that makes sense, given her alternate life as a poet who has published several volumes of poetry (two, 1980's Bad Boys and 1985's The Rodrigo Poems, are no longer in print).
As a poet, Cisneros has a staccato, highly evocative style. From "A Few Items to Consider," for example: "First there is the scent of barley/to remember. Barley and rain./The smooth terrain to recollect and savor./Unforgiving whiteness of the room./Ambiguity of linen. Purity./Mute and still as photographs on the moon." Cisneros suffuses her poetry and fiction with healthy dose of Spanish and a feminine sensibility, female narrators who remember everything and for whom no detail or sensation is too small. Paragraphs are often punctuated by lists and five-word snapshots. As Cisneros herself has said, she is a miniaturist.
Her poetry and a 1991 collection of stories, Woman Hollering Creek, would have to tide fans over until the long-awaited release of her second novel, 2002's Caramelo. Like her first novel, the story is narrated by a Mexican-American girl; but the scope is a broader one, covering generations of a family as viewed through a cherished caramelo rebozo, or striped traditional shawl, which has been passed down through generations to the book's heroine.
Caramelo has a comical and occasionally unconventional spirit to it, as when one of the characters in the story breaks in to complain about how she is being portrayed. The novel began as an exploration of her own family, and the connection to Cisneros' own life is evident. Here as in other work, Cisneros fills in the gaps between Mexico and the U.S., personal myth and reality.
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From the September/October 2002 issue of Book magazine
Sandra Cisneros, the acclaimed author of The House on Mango Street, shows up at the Liberty
Bar, a ramshackle restaurant not far from San Antonio's defunct Pearl Brewery, says hi to a couple of
the waiters and takes a seat. The city has endured several days of heavy rain, and now, like much of
Central Texas, it's pretty well flooded. Cisneros is carrying a white canvas bag, which, it turns
out, is protecting a treasure she wants to show off. She reaches in and produces a silk shawl colored
a light turquoise. It's a rebozo.
The rebozo is Mexico's quintessential mestizoor mixedobject, Cisneros
says, fingering the eight-foot-long piece of fabric. Traditionally, she explains, the body is woven
on a loom by men. "But this," she adds, sliding her hand down to the fringe, more than a foot of
gossamer spiderweb, "this is often woven by hand, by women." A distilled product of Spanish and
native Indian influences, the rebozo has been used for a variety of purposes over the
centuries: shawl, apron, scarf, headdress, baby sling and tablecloth. In the past, in parts of the
country, the way a woman wore one signaled her status: married, single, prostitute. Now Cisneros has
put one of them to use as a central image in her expansive new novel, providing Caramelo
with its title. (A caramelo is a particular type of rebozo highly prized for its
The turquoise rebozo Cisneros is holding is very finely made, a rare collector's item. "I
could get one like it for $200," she says. Then she grins. "You?" (I'm a white guy from Dallas.)
"You'd get it for $400."
Cisneros, 47, has been honored -- a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant, an American Book Award --
primarily as a short-story writer and poet, but her novel The House on Mango Street is what
made her, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, America's most widely read Latina author.
Since its publication in 1984, Mango Street has sold more than 2 million copies, becoming a
perennial on library and classroom reading lists across the country. It is the story of Esperanza, a
young, alienated Chicana girl growing up in a gritty, inner-city neighborhood in Chicago, a feminist
and Hispanic coming-of-age tale.
As a writer, Cisneros is known for the vividness and vitality of her prose and her ability to capture
working-class Mexican-Americans with immediacy and poignancy, weaving together their voices quickly
and lyrically. Mango Street is a novel, but it is made up of bursts, with chapters often
only a few paragraphs long. As Cisneros says simply, "I'm a miniaturist," meaning the scale of her
work is small but intense.
Caramelo, however, is anything but small. Even with its earthiness and mock-heroic tone, at
440 pages the book is Cisneros' shot at a Latino epic, a multigenerational saga and historical novel
complete with footnotes, appearances by the likes of dancer Josephine Baker and coverage of the
Mexican Revolution of 1910. In part, it's the story of Cisneros' own family and their treks from
Mexico City to Chicago and back; and in part, it's the story of the great Latino immigration to the
United States. Irish and Jewish writers have had their family tales of New York City's Lower East
Side, the tenements and sweatshops. Cisneros' fictionalized family experience, however, is filled
with road trips in the back of a crowded red Chevy station wagon and fond memories of Mexican film
Caramelo took Cisneros a long time -- nine years -- to write. She says she originally just
wanted to explain the life of her father. But to do that, she had to explain her "Awful Grandmother,"
her father's mother, a bossy, melodramatic woman. But to do that, she first had to tell the story of
her "Little Grandfather." Each step took her story back in time and upped the tale's complexity
until, at one point in Caramelo, the Awful Grandmother breaks in as a quarrelsome narrator,
comically objecting to the way her life is being told.
"Postmodernism, people call it," Cisneros says of the storytelling games and footnotes found in
novels by Manuel Puig and David Foster Wallace, and now in her own. "De nada," she says,
waggling her hand in dismissal. "It's just the way people talk. You start a storyoh, but you
have to explain something first. So you take a detour, but that leads to something else. Then you get
back to your story."
Cisneros' stories often have narrators who need to speak, who feel they have to fight to be heard.
That presence is essentially a ghost of the author's Chicago childhood. She was la
consentida of the family, her "daddy's little princess." She had six brothers and no sisters,
but if she was the only daughter, as she's written, she was also only a daughter. Her
father, Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral, reserved his boasting for his many sons -- but he was the person
who taught Cisneros, she feels, to take pride in her work. A skilled upholsterer, he started A.
Cisneros & Sons, a business that still exists despite Alfredo's death from cancer in 1997. He wasn't
altogether comfortable living in Chicago; every few years he took the family back to Mexico City,
where he was raised. "He missed his mother," Cisneros says with a groan.
Alfredo supported his daughter's decision to attend Chicago's Loyola University on scholarship and
then the University of Iowa's famed Writers' Workshop, where she was the only Latina student. This
was in the late '70s, long before Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin were pop icons, and Cisneros felt
out of place, isolated and frightened. Her father thought schooling would improve her chances of
marrying, and marrying above her class. "All that time, he thought I was getting my marriage degree,"
Cisneros says, rolling her eyes. "When I graduated, he thought I'd wasted my chance to catch a
college guy." (She's still single, but says she has a "male partner.")
After leaving Iowa, Cisneros returned to Chicago and struggled to make a living teaching
underprivileged high schoolers. In 1984 she came to San Antonio, where she now lives, to work at a
local arts center. Mango Street was originally published by Houston's Arte Publico Press
that year, but Cisneros still had to survive on grant money and the occasional teaching gig, even
going so far, at one point, as to post flyers in supermarkets promoting her own creative writing
classes. Her agent, however, managed to sell some of Cisneros' short stories and the rights to
Mango Street to Random House. The publisher reissued the novel in 1991, along with the story
collection Woman Hollering Creek.
It was good timing. The year before, Oscar Hijuelos had become the first Latino to win the Pulitzer
Prize for Fiction (for The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love), and Cisneros' books were
released about the same time as were new novels by Julia Alvarez (How the García Girls Lost
Their Accents) and Ana Castillo (Sapogonia). In short, it was a watershed moment for
Latino writers. The '90s would be the decade they -- Cisneros included -- reached the rest of
"I was lucky," Cisneros admits. As she worked on the stories that would become Woman Hollering
Creek, she says the project began to feel like Noah's Ark. "It was my first book with a major
publisher and I might not have another chance. So I shoved my own voice to the background and tried
to gather all the voices that hadn't been heard, to tell the story of our community in all its
San Antonio suits Cisneros. As far as she's concerned, Austin -- traditionally the state's literary
crossroads -- is just too white and too expensive. San Antonio is funkier, more savory, more
easygoing. It doesn't have the aggressive corporate gleam of Dallas or Houston -- or, for that
matter, Austin. The Alamo City is poorer, cheaper, and its population is nearly 60 percent Hispanic.
After a childhood spent shuttling between Mexico and the United States, Cisneros is living in a place
where the two nations are interwoven.
But her relationship to San Antonio hasn't always been an easy one. She was already a literary star
in 1997, when that relationship was tested by a local city commission that took issue with her house.
Or, more specifically, with her house paint.]
In 1992, after the success of her books, Cisneros purchased a vintage 1903 metal-roofed house in one
of the oldest neighborhoods in Texas, a national historic district south of downtown San Antonio
called King William. (Being able to afford a house -- a home in the heart, as it says in Mango
Street -- had been one of her obsessions. "For a writer, for the solitude to write," she says,
"you don't need a room of your own, you need a house.") King William is diverse, with some
stately Victorian mansions as well as a few crumbling bungalows and red-brick warehouses, but
according to the city commission, the purple, turquoise and pink paint job that Cisneros applied to
her place a few years after moving in violated the district's code of period authenticity. Cisneros
was outraged. What about the area's original Mexican settlers and their taste in colors?
After several years of meetings, the purple had faded, as all things do, in the subtropical sun. The
dispute was resolved in typical San Antonio fashion when the resultant lavender was deemed
acceptable. The house went unchanged, but the fiasco made national headlines and the author's
reputation grew substantially.
"I knew Sandra before she was Sandra Cisneros," jokes Dagoberto Gilb, a 51-year-old Austinite, the
author of Woodcuts of Women and a New Yorker contributor. The two met after each
received a Dobie Paisano, a fellowship named for Texas folklorist J. Frank Dobie that bestows upon
the state's authors six months' worth of writing time at a ranch house near Austin. "She's like my
sister," he adds. "We came up together. But her rise -- her rise went much higher than mine.
Talking about Sandra Cisneros these days is like talking about Frida Kahlo." Like the legendary
Mexican painter, Cisneros has cross-cultural appeal; she's a popular artist whose life and work have
come to embody larger forces in society, and she seems to fulfill needs beyond her readership's
ordinary desire for a story with a few entertaining characters. It's a lot of responsibility for a
writer to bear, and Cisneros, who says she's a Buddhist, sometimes seeks spiritual guidance. "I ask
for help to honor the people I'm connected to," she says. "I ask, 'What should I be saying?' " As a
writer with an audience that crosses ethnic and national lines, she feels this is "what I was put on
this planet to do -- to do work that's bigger than just me."
Outside the Liberty Bar, the rain has let up, if only for the moment. Cisneros gently lays the
rebozo across her lap, and the conversation turns back to Caramelo. Writing it, she
says, was like backtracking through ancestors and the "healthy lies" of family legend, linking
herself to "this long thread of people." History, Cisneros claims, is all plot; it's deadly dull
without the life of human detail and human connection. And where history didn't provide the
connections ... well, she's a novelist: She made them up. "I don't have women who are writers in my
family," she says, spreading her arms as if to indicate not just her mother, aunts and grandmothers
but all of Latin and American literature. "Who are my antecedents?" Without such role models, without
such guidance, she says she simply "imagined these women as weavers, and I am part of their
tradition. Writing is like sewing together what I call these 'buttons,' these bits and pieces."
The storyteller as weaver. The storyteller as a maker of rebozos.
"I can't even sew a button," Cisneros says. "But I do with words what they did with cloth."
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