Drawing heavily upon her childhood experiences and ethnic heritage as the daughter of a Mexican father and Mexican American mother, Cisneros addresses poverty, cultural suppression, self-identity, and gender roles in her fiction and poetry. She creates characters who are distinctly Latin and are often isolated from mainstream American culture yet equally unaccepted in traditional Latin American cultures. She is perhaps best known for her award-winning The House on Mango Street (1983), a collection of short fiction focusing on adolescent rites of passage and the treatment of women in Chicano communities. Cisneros illuminates the dual predicament of being a Chicana in a white-majority land and a woman in a patriarchal society. Through her poetry and fiction, she emphasizes the need for Chicana women to gain control of their bodies, language, and destinies.
Born in Chicago, Cisneros was the only daughter among seven children. Assuming that she would adopt a traditional female role, her brothers attempted to control her life; as a result, Cisneros has recalled feeling as if she had "seven fathers." Her father's homesickness for his native country and his devotion to his mother who still lived there caused the family to move often between the United States and Mexico. Consequently, Cisneros often felt homeless and displaced. She began to read extensively, finding comfort in such works as Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House and Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Cisneros earned a bachelor's degree from Loyola University in 1976. She had written poems and stories throughout her childhood and adolescence, but she did not find her literary voice until attending the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in 1978, where she completed a master's degree in creative writing. During a discussion of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space and his metaphor of a house as a realm of stability, she realized that her experiences as a Chicana woman were unique and outside the realm of dominant American culture. She observed that with "the metaphor of a house—a house, a house, it hit me. What did I know except third-floor flats. Surely my classmates knew nothing about that. That's precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible." Shortly after participating in the Iowa Workshop, Cisneros returned to Loyola, where she worked as a college recruiter and counselor for minority and disadvantaged students. Troubled by their problems and haunted by conflicts related to her own upbringing, she began writing seriously as a form of release. Cisneros has worked as an educator of both high school and college students, serving as a creative writing instructor at institutions including the University of California's Berkeley and Irvine campuses and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Cisneros has received a number of awards, including National Endowment for the Arts fellowships in 1982 and 1988, the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1985 and the American Book Award for The House on Mango Street, and the 1992 PEN Center West Award for her short story collection Woman Hollering Creek (1991).
Cisneros's short story collections are praised for powerful dialogue, vivid characterizations, and well-crafted prose. Cisneros has stated that her objective in writing short fiction is to create "stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation." While each story within her collections is complete in itself, it is bound to the others by common themes that focus on Latinas, divided cultural loyalties, feelings of alienation, sexual and cultural oppression, and degradation associated with poverty. The House on Mango Street features a semi-autobiographical Chicana adolescent named Esperanza who, humiliated by her family's poverty and dissatisfied with the repressive gender values of her culture, overcomes her situation by writing about her experiences: "I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much." Esperanza hopes her writing will someday enable her to leave Mango Street but vows to return for the women left behind—"the ones who cannot get out." Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories features twenty-two narratives that involve numerous Mexican American characters living near San Antonio, Texas. This work follows a structural and thematic pattern similar to The House on Mango Street, but the female protagonists are more mature and complex. Ranging in length from a few paragraphs to several pages, the stories are first-person narratives of individuals who have been assimilated into American culture but feel a residual loyalty to Mexico. In "Never Marry a Mexican," for example, a young Latina expresses feelings of contempt for her white lover, fueled by her emerging sense of inadequacy and guilt over her inability to speak Spanish. In Caramelo, the protagonist, Celaya, struggles to find her identity as the only daughter among six brothers.
The narrative alternates between the present (Ceyala's time) and the past (her grandmother's era). By discovering her grandmother's history, Celaya learns many lessons about her own life and is able to take control of her own destiny. Although Cisneros is noted primarily for her fiction, her poetry has also garnered attention. In Loose Woman: Poems (1994), Cisneros offers a portrait of a fiercely proud, independent woman of Mexican heritage. In My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987), a collection of sixty poems, Cisneros writes about her native Chicago, her travels in Europe, and, as reflected in the title, guilt over the conflict between her sexuality and her strict Catholic up-bringing.
Critics of Cisneros's short fiction point out that for several reasons she has yet to be fully embraced by the American literary community. They have argued that because Cisneros's prose combines elements of several genres, it diverges from generally accepted literary patterns in American fiction. Some commentators have also considered Cisneros's dialogue overly simplistic, especially in The House on Mango Street, where she often incorporates children's speech and games into her stories. Further, a number of critics have contended that her recurrent portrayal of male violence toward women presents an unflattering view of Hispanic life. Many commentators, however, have lauded these same elements in Cisneros's fiction, asserting that her distinctive literary and innovative techniques have been greatly underappreciated and that her concentration on cultural imperialism and women's issues has universal appeal. According to these critics, it is these aspects, in addition to her skillful prose, striking realism, and dynamic characterizations, that have established Cisneros as an emerging feminist literary figure. While Cisneros's poetry has received little recognition, her House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek are lauded for illuminating the dual marginality faced by Chicana women: fighting for equal status with both whites and men.