Sandra Cisneros Essay - Critical Essays

Sandra Cisneros American Literature Analysis

In a 1991 interview, Cisneros spoke of the “deluge of voices” she heard upon returning to Chicago after studying in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She said she was “fascinated by the rhythms of speech.” Both her fiction and her poetry may be described as a deluge of voices, for virtually all of her fiction and some of her poems take the general form of the dramatic monologue.

A dramatic monologue is a literary work that consists of a speech such as one might hear in ordinary conversation, or especially in a play. A good example is “Los Boxers,” in which a talkative widower in a laundromat explains to a young mother how he has learned to do his laundry systematically, effectively, and cheaply, without any perception of the irony of his giving this information to a Latina—for whom such work is traditionally a life sentence and who presumably still knows a good deal more about doing laundry than he does.

Cisneros’s stories more often take the form of an internal monologue. The reader follows the speaker’s inner thoughts as if he or she were saying them out loud in a distinctive voice; often the speaker is engaged in some specific actions while thinking. An example is “My Friend Lucy Who Smells Like Corn,” a story that communicates the joys of youthful friendship in a poor neighborhood. The speaker breathlessly describes her friend while recounting past and current activities and adventures, including snatches of dialogue. She reveals her pleasures in playing at Lucy’s house with her friend’s eight sisters and tells of her wish for sisters of her own so that she could sleep with them “instead of alone on a fold-out chair in the living room.”

Almost every story and many poems seem to be spoken aloud, even if there is not a specific dramatic situation. Even when a story clearly consists of recorded writing, as opposed to speech, Cisneros emphasizes a particular writing voice. For example, in “Little Miracles, Kept Promises,” she presents notes left at shrines, notes thanking or making requests of various saints. Each note is a story told in a unique voice that reveals the personality of the writer, his or her situation and cultural background, and the writer’s conception of the addressed saint as a listener. Though forms of the dramatic monologue and closely related letter forms are favorites for Cisneros, she occasionally tells stories in the third-person voice, and many of her poems seem to be in her own voice, describing her own family and acquaintances.

Readers will recognize similarities between characters in her stories and members of her family. The Reyes family of Caramelo and the Cordero family of The House on Mango Street are based on her own family. While these novels and several of her stories contain autobiographical elements, Cisneros points out that these always are fictionalized and not literal stories from her life.

Cisneros’s main themes include the position of women in Latino culture, the problems of Latinas who want to live independent lives, and the complex relations between Anglo-Americans, Mexican Americans, and Mexicans. She also gives considerable attention to religious themes, reflecting her ambivalence toward her family’s Catholicism and her eventual conversion to Buddhism, which she says allowed her to maintain her devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Although Cisneros has clear political concerns that appear in virtually all of her work, her stories and poems are rarely political or moral tracts. Even the parable “There Was a Man, There Was a Woman” presents portraits without explaining the meanings readers should see in the depiction of the two characters.

As Cisneros has said in interviews, one of her purposes as an artist is to change the way in which people see their world. Her works thus often present a picture of Latino life from a point of view that reveals aspects that ordinarily might be hidden. For example, in “Los Boxers,” there is no moralistic voice that points out the irony of a middle-aged widower telling a mother how to do laundry. The man simply talks, and the irony is left for the reader to discover. As one thinks about such a story, with its new point of view on “women’s work,” further discoveries about political meanings in the story may emerge, such as, for example, what it means that a man finds the problems of doing laundry interesting to think and talk about.

Furthermore, in the context of traditional Latino culture—in which the ideal woman passively serves men, obeying her father and then her husband, giving her life to housekeeping and motherhood—the story of a Latino advising a Latina about laundry takes on another dimension. For example, “Los Boxers” opens with a child dropping and breaking a bottle of soda, setting up a situation in which the mother, following orders, cleans up the glass and mops away the spill, while the man watches and lectures. He never thinks of helping her; in his culture, this is unthinkable, even for a man who has learned to do his own laundry. Because Cisneros usually avoids overt political statement, confining herself to pointed description or letting her characters speak, readers are encouraged to explore implicit meanings of the presented experience.

The House on Mango Street

First published: 1984

Type of work: Novella

In a mid-twentieth century Chicago barrio, a Latina enters her teen years, struggling to become the person she envisions herself being.

The House on Mango Street is Cisneros’s best-known work. Though it is made up of stories and sketches, some of which have been published separately, the collection has the unity of a novella. Cisneros has described the book as a connected collection, “each story a little pearl. . . . the whole thing like a necklace.” In her own mind, Esperanza Cordero, the narrator, has one main problem: She wants to have a house of her own. As the story develops, the meaning of having a house of her own grows richer and more complex, until finally, she understands that she wants not only a literal house but also “a home in the heart.” Furthermore, her one problem connects with many other problems that are clearer to the reader than to Esperanza, especially problems related to the roles and treatment accorded women in her culture and the problems of being Mexican American in U.S. culture.

Esperanza is the older of two daughters and has two brothers. Her wish for a house grows out of the family desire that is realized when they buy the house on Mango Street. This turns out not to be the home of which they have dreamed, with a large yard and many bathrooms, but the house they can afford, in a neighborhood being transformed into a ghetto. Esperanza’s disappointment sparks her wish. She also realizes after moving to Mango Street that she does not want to live her life as do most women whom she knows. She is named after her great-grandmother, a woman who refused to marry: “Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. . . . And the story goes she never forgave him.”

Having inherited her great-grandmother’s name,...

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