Sandra Cisneros 1954-
American poet, novelist, and short story writer
The following entry presents criticism from 1992 to 2002 on Cisneros's life and works. See also Sandra Cisneros Short Story Criticism, Woman Hollering Creek Criticism, Sandra Cisneros Literary Criticism (Volume 118) and Sandra Cisneros Literary Criticism (Volume 193).
Cisneros is one of the most popular and acclaimed Latina writers of fiction and poetry. The only daughter of a Mexican American father and a Latina mother, her work draws heavily from a childhood spent shuttling between working class neighborhoods of Chicago and extended stays with her father's family in Mexico. Her best known work is her first, The House on Mango Street (1983), a lyric novel of a young Latina from the barrio who preserves the stories of older women while creating an independent feminist identity. Cisneros has drawn attention for stretching the conventions of genre. Her prose is considered rhythmic, her poetry is dramatic. She has taught at several universities and was the recipient of a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation.
Cisneros was born in Chicago on December 20, 1954. Cisneros's family often visited her father's parents in Mexico for long periods of time, and each return was prompted a move into a different flat in a different Chicago ghetto. When she was a teenager Cisneros's parents finally settled her and her six brothers into a modest house in a predominantly Puerto Rican neighborhood. Though an average student, Cisneros was a passionate reader and wrote continuously. As she settled into high school, her teachers encouraged her to write. She eventually attended Loyola University, graduating in 1976 with a B.A. in English. The following fall Cisneros began a two-year residency at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. She was often lonely at Iowa, but it was there that she had an epiphany. During a class discussion of the house as a metaphorical haven for reverie and creativity, she realized her classmates' notions of a middle class suburban house were worlds away from her childhood spent in cramped apartments in the Chicago ghettos. From this realization came a desire to express a uniquely Latina voice, and the metaphor of the house was the foundation for The House on Mango Street. After Iowa she returned to Chicago and taught community education and worked as a counselor at Loyola. She also continued to write and perform poetry, some of which poet Gary Soto helped her publish in the chapbook Bad Boys (1980). A National Endowment for the Arts grant enabled her to travel to Europe in 1982. In 1983, The House on Mango Street was published, igniting a succession of writing grants and teaching fellowships from several schools, including the Universities of California, Michigan, and New Mexico. In 1987, despite publishing the poetry collection My Wicked Wicked Ways, she began feeling suicidal over her desperate struggle to make a living and continue her writing. Her money struggles ended in 1991 when she became the first Chicana writer to sign a contract with a major publisher. Cisneros stopped teaching, bought a house in San Antonio, Texas, and devoted herself fully to writing. In 1995 she was awarded a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation. Cisneros writes for several popular magazines, gives frequent readings and lectures, and continues to publish poetry and fiction. Her work is critically acclaimed, commercially successful, and widely taught in high schools and colleges.
Cisneros told Pilar Rodriguez-Aranda in The Americas Review that when people would characterize The House on Mango Street as fiction, she would say “I'm a poet, I just write this naively.” Cisneros's body of published poetry, however, is quite modest. In an interview with Martha Satz for Southwest Review, Cisneros described her poetry as “a little periscope that goes into my psyche” that has “nothing to do with publishing. The idea that poetry must be published reminds me of the fallacy that because women have a uterus they must have children.” Nevertheless, she has been praised for two collections of poetry. My Wicked Wicked Ways, published in 1987, was her masters thesis at Iowa, with an introductory poem added for publication. It describes the maturation of a Latina writer, resembling Cisneros, whose identity is formed by her neighborhood, her struggle to escape the suffocation of her family, her adventures beyond the boundaries of family and her culture, and her blossoming as a writer, a feminist, and a woman in control of her body and her life. In her next volume, Loose Women (1994), the poems are more openly erotic, and the voices are like that of Cisneros herself—exuberant, ribald, and imbued with earthy Spanish-inflected rhythms.
A 1992 Publishers Weekly review of My Wicked Wicked Ways said Cisneros “attitudinizes too much” and allowed “a disconcerting degree of sentimentality” into her poems, and in 1994 the same publication praised the bold writing of Loose Women but concluded that her poems “lack the depth, the complexity and the lyrical magic of the author's fiction.” Critics who praise Cisneros tend also to question the poetry/prose dichotomy. In Parnassus, Carol Muske declared that “Cisneros speaks poetry naturally, but her prose sings,” and in the Los Angeles Times Book Review Barbara Kingsolver even wrote that the short stories in Woman Hollering Creek (1991) were really poems to which Cisneros had “added length and dialogue and a hint of a plot.” Susan Smith Nash described Cisneros's poetic language as “sometimes rather flat, unadorned diction,” but argued that in the erotic poems of Loose Women Cisneros “utilizes wry, pungent observations and extended metaphors in order to set up parallels between the phenomenal world and the mind.” Cisneros's friend Gary Soto said that My Wicked Wicked Ways “is an example of what poetry can do: excite us, make us laugh, make us see ourselves in ridiculous affairs, or bring back childhood. This is an ambitious book. Cisneros prods her subjects with a language that is imaginative and clearly intelligent.”