The House on Mango Street
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4797
ELLEN MCCRACKEN (ESSAY DATE 1989)
SOURCE : McCracken, Ellen. “Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence.” In Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, Nina M. Scott, and Nancy Saporta Sternbach, pp. 62-71. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
In the following essay, McCracken studies the instances of physical, sexual, and mental abuse committed against women in the male-dominated society depicted in The House on Mango Street. McCracken probes the effects these abuses have on Esperanza, the protagonist, and questions the apparent dearth of positive role models for her.
Introspection has achieved a privileged status in bourgeois literary production, corresponding to the ideological emphasis on individualism under capitalism, precisely as the personal and political power of many real individuals has steadily deteriorated. In forms as diverse as European Romantic poetry, late nineteenth-century Modernismo in Latin America, the poetry of the Mexican Contemporáneos of the 1930s, the early twentieth-century modernistic prose of a Proust, the French nouveau roman, and other avant-garde texts that take pride in an exclusionary hermeticism, the self is frequently accorded exaggerated importance in stark contrast to the actual position of the individual in the writer’s historical moment. Critical readers of these texts are, of course, often able to compensate for the writer’s omissions, positioning the introspective search within the historical dimension and drawing the text into the very socio-political realm that the writer has tried to avoid. Nonetheless, many of us, at one time or another, are drawn into the glorified individualism of these texts, experiencing voyeuristic and sometimes identificatory pleasure as witnesses of another’s search for the self, or congratulating ourselves on the mental acuity we possess to decode such a difficult and avant-garde text.
Literary critics have awarded many of these texts canonical status. As Terry Eagleton has argued, theorists, critics, and teachers are “custodians of a discourse” and select certain texts for inclusion in the canon that are “more amenable to this discourse than others.” 1 Based on power, Eagleton suggests metaphorically, literary criticism sometimes tolerates regional dialects of the discourse but not those that sound like another language altogether: “To be on the inside of the discourse itself is to be blind to this power, for what is more natural and non-dominative than to speak one’s own tongue?” (203).
The discourse of power to which Eagleton refers here is linked to ideology as well. The regional dialects of criticism that are accepted must be compatible, ideologically as well as semantically, with the dominant discourse. Criticism, for example, that questions the canonical status of the introspective texts mentioned above, or suggests admission to the canon of texts that depart from such individualistic notions of the self, is often labeled pejoratively or excluded from academic institutions and publication avenues.
We can extend Eagleton’s metaphor to literary texts as well. How does a book attain the wide exposure that admission to the canon facilitates if it is four times marginalized by its ideology, its language, and its writer’s ethnicity and gender? What elements of a text can prevent it from being accepted as a “regional dialect” of the dominant discourse; at what point does it become “another language altogether” (to use Eagleton’s analogy), incompatible with canonical discourse?
The specific example to which I refer, Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street , was published by a small regional press in 1984 and reprinted in a second edition of 3,000 in 1985.2 Difficult to find in most libraries and bookstores, it is well known among Chicano critics and scholars, but virtually unheard of in larger academic and critical circles. In May 1985 it won the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award,3 but this prize has not greatly increased the volume’s national visibility. Cisneros’ book has not been excluded from the canon solely because of its publishing circumstances: major publishing houses are quick to capitalize on a Richard Rodríguez whose widely distributed and reviewed Hunger of Memory (1982) does not depart ideologically and semantically from the dominant discourse. They are even willing to market an Anglo writer as a Chicano, as occurred in 1983 with Danny Santiago’s Famous All Over Town. Rather, Cisneros’ text is likely to continue to be excluded from the canon because it “speaks another language altogether,” one to which the critics of the literary establishment “remain blind.”
Besides the double marginalization that stems from gender and ethnicity, Cisneros transgresses the dominant discourse of canonical standards ideologically and linguistically. In bold contrast to the individualistic introspection of many canonical texts, Cisneros writes a modified autobiographical novel, or Bildungsroman, that roots the individual self in the broader socio-political reality of the Chicano community. As we will see, the story of individual development is oriented outwardly here, away from the bourgeois individualism of many standard texts. Cisneros’ language also contributes to the text’s otherness. In opposition to the complex, hermetic language of many canonical works, The House on Mango Street recuperates the simplicity of children’s speech, paralleling the autobiographical protagonist’s chronological age in the book. Although making the text accessible to people with a wider range of reading abilities, such simple and well-crafted prose is not currently in canonical vogue.
The volume falls between traditional genre distinctions as well. Containing a group of 44 short and interrelated stories, the book has been classified as a novel by some because, as occurs in Tomas Rivera’s … y no se lo tragó la tierra, there is character and plot development throughout the episodes. I prefer to classify Cisneros’ text as a collection, a hybrid genre midway between the novel and the short story. Like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Pedro Juan Soto’s Spiks, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, and Rivera’s text,4 Cisneros’ collection represents the writer’s attempt to achieve both the intensity of the short story and the discursive length of the novel within a single volume. Unlike the chapters of most novels, each story in the collection could stand on its own if it were to be excerpted but each attains additional important meaning when interacting with the other stories in the volume. A number of structural and thematic elements link the stories of each collection together. Whereas in Winesburg, Ohio, one important structuring element is the town itself, in The House on Mango Street and … y no se lo tragó la tierra the image of the house is a central unifying motif.
On the surface the compelling desire for a house of one’s own appears individualistic rather than community oriented, but Cisneros socializes the motif of the house, showing it to be a basic human need left unsatisfied for many of the minority population under capitalism. It is precisely the lack of housing stability that motivates the image’s centrality in works by writers like Cisneros and Rivera. For the migrant worker who has moved continuously because of job exigencies and who, like many others in the Chicano community, has been deprived of an adequate place to live because of the inequities of income distribution in U.S. society, the desire for a house is not a sign of individualistic acquisitiveness but rather represents the satisfaction of a basic human need. Cisneros begins her narrative with a description of the housing conditions the protagonist’s family has experienced:
We didn’t always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can’t remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot …
We had to leave the flat on Loomis quick. The water pipes broke and the landlord wouldn’t fix them because the house was too old…. We were using the washroom next door and carrying water over in empty milk gallons.
Cisneros has socialized the motif of a house of one’s own by showing its motivating roots to be the inadequate housing conditions in which she and others in her community lived. We learn that Esperanza, the protagonist Cisneros creates, was subjected to humiliation by her teachers because of her family’s living conditions. “You live there?” a nun from her school had remarked when seeing Esperanza playing in front of the flat on Loomis. “There. I had to look where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn’t fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing …” (p. 9). Later, after the move to the house on Mango Street that is better but still unsatisfactory, the Sister Superior at her school responds to Esperanza’s request to eat lunch in the cafeteria rather than returning home by apparently humiliating the child deliberately: “You don’t live far, she says … I bet I can see your house from my window. Which one? … That one? she said pointing to a row of ugly 3-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into. Yes, I nodded even though I knew that wasn’t my house and started to cry …” (p. 43). The Sister Superior is revealing her own prejudices; in effect, she is telling the child, “All you Mexicans must live in such buildings.” It is in response to humiliations such as these that the autobiographical protagonist expresses her need for a house of her own. Rather than the mere desire to possess private property, Esperanza’s wish for a house represents a positive objectification of the self, the chance to redress humiliation and establish a dignified sense of her own personhood.
Cisneros links this positive objectification that a house of one’s own can provide to the process of artistic creation. Early on, the protagonist remarks that the dream of a white house “with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence” (p. 8) structured the bedtime stories her mother told them. This early connection of the ideal house to fiction is developed throughout the collection, especially in the final two stories. In “A House of My Own ,” the protagonist remarks that the desired house would contain “my books and stories” and that such a house is as necessary to the writing process as paper: “Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem” (p. 100). In “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes ,” the Mango Street house, which falls short of the ideal dream house, becomes a symbol of the writer’s attainment of her identity through artistic creation. Admitting that she both belonged and did not belong to the “sad red house” on Mango Street, the protagonist comes to terms with the ethnic consciousness that this house represents through the process of fictive creation: “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free” (p. 101). She is released materially to find a more suitable dwelling that will facilitate her writing; psychologically, she alleviates the ethnic anguish that she has heretofore attempted to repress. It is important, however, that she view her departure from the Mango Street house to enable her artistic production in social rather than isolationist terms: “They will know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out” (p. 102).
Unlike many introspective writers, then, Cisneros links both the process of artistic creation and the dream of a house that will enable this art to social rather than individualistic issues. In “Bums in the Attic ,” we learn that the protagonist dreams of a house on a hill similar to those where her father works as a gardener. Unlike those who own such houses now, Esperanza assures us that, were she to obtain such a house, she would not forget the people who live below: “One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I’ll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house” (p. 81). She conceives of a house as communal rather than private property; such sharing runs counter to the dominant ideological discourse that strongly affects consciousness in capitalist societies. Cisneros’ social motifs undermine rather than support the widespread messages of individualized consumption that facilitate sales of goods and services under consumer capitalism.
Another important reason why Cisneros’s text has not been accepted as part of the dominant canonical discourse is its demystificatory presentation of women’s issues, especially the problems low-income Chicana women face. Dedicated “A las Mujeres/To the Women” (p. 3), The House on Mango Street presents clusters of women characters through the sometimes naive and sometimes wise vision of the adolescent protagonist. There are positive and negative female role models and, in addition, several key incidents that focus the reader’s attention on the contradictions of patriarchal social organization. Few mainstream critics consider these the vital, universal issues that constitute great art. When representatives of the critical establishment do accord a text such as Cisneros’ a reading, it is often performed with disinterest and defense mechanisms well in place.
Neither does The House on Mango Street lend itself to an exoticized reading of the life of Chicana women that sometimes enables a text’s canonical acceptance. In “The Family of Little Feet ,” for example, Esperanza and her friends dress up in cast-off high heels they have been given and play at being adult women. At first revelling in the male attention they receive from the strangers who see them, the girls are ultimately disillusioned after a drunken bum attempts to purchase a kiss for a dollar. While capturing the fleeting sense of self-value that the attention of male surveyors affords women, Cisneros also critically portrays here the danger of competitive feelings among women when one girl’s cousins pretend not to see Esperanza and her friends as they walk by. Also portrayed is the corner grocer’s attempt to control female sexuality by threatening to call the police to stop the girls from wearing the heels. Cisneros proscribes a romantic or exotic reading of the dress-up episode, focusing instead on the girls’ discovery of the threatening nature of male sexual power that is frequently disguised as desirable male attention and positive validation of women, though what is, in fact, sexual reification.
Scenes of patriarchal and sexual violence in the collection also prevent a romantic reading of women’s issues in this Chicano community. We see a woman whose husband locks her in the house, a daughter brutally beaten by her father, and Esperanza’s own sexual initiation through rape. Like the threatening corner grocer in “The Family of Little Feet ,” the men in these stories control or appropriate female sexuality by adopting one or another form of violence as if it were their innate right. One young woman, Rafaela, “gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid [she] will run away since she is too beautiful to look at” (p. 76). Esperanza and her friends send papaya and coconut juice up to the woman in a paper bag on a clothesline she has lowered; metonymically, Cisneros suggests that the sweet drinks represent the island the woman has left and the dance hall down the street as well, where other women are ostensibly more in control of their own sexual expression and are allowed to open their homes with keys. The young yet wise narrator, however, recognizes that “always there is someone offering sweeter drinks, someone promising to keep [women] on a silver string” (p. 76).
The cycle of stories about Esperanza’s friend Sally shows this patriarchal violence in its more overt stages. Like Rafaela, the young teenager Sally is frequently forced to stay in the house because “her father says to be this beautiful is trouble” (p. 77). But even worse, we learn later that Sally’s father beats her. Appearing at school with bruises and scars, Sally tells Esperanza that her father sometimes hits her with his hands “just like a dog … as if I was an animal. He thinks I’m going to run away like his sisters who made the family ashamed. Just because I’m a daughter …” (p. 85). In “Linoleum Roses ,” a later story in the Sally cycle, we learn that she escapes her father’s brutality by marrying a marshmallow salesman “in another state where it’s legal to get married before eighth grade” (p. 95). In effect, her father’s violent attempts to control her sexuality—here a case of child abuse—cause Sally to exchange one repressive patriarchal prison for another. Dependent on her husband for money, she is forbidden to talk on the telephone, look out the window, or have her friends visit. In one of his fits of anger, her husband kicks the door in. Where Rafaela’s husband imprisons her with a key, Sally’s locks her in with psychological force: “[Sally] sits home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission” (p. 95).
A role model for Esperanza, Sally has symbolized the process of sexual initiation for her younger friend. Two stories in the cycle reveal Esperanza’s growing awareness of the link between sex, male power, and violence in patriarchal society. In “The Monkey Garden ,” Esperanza perceives her friend Sally to be in danger when the older girl agrees to “kiss” a group of boys so that they will return her car keys; “… they’re making her kiss them” (p. 90), Esperanza reports to the mother of one of the boys. When the mother shows no concern, Esperanza undertakes Sally’s defense herself: “Sally needed to be saved. I took three big sticks and a brick and figured this was enough” (p. 90). Sally and the boys tell her to go home and Esperanza feels stupid and ashamed. In postlapsarian anguish, she runs to the other end of the garden and, in what seems to be an especially severe form of self-punishment for this young girl, tries to make herself die by willing her heart to stop beating.
In “Red Clowns ,” the story that follows, Esperanza’s first suspicions of the patriarchy’s joining of male power, violence, and sex are confirmed beyond a doubt. She had previously used appellation throughout the first story in the Sally cycle to ask her friend to teach her how to dress and apply makeup. Now the appellation to Sally is one of severe disillusionment after Esperanza has been sexually assaulted in an amusement park while waiting for Sally to return from her own sexual liaison:
Sally, you lied. It wasn’t like you said at all … Why didn’t you hear me when I called? Why didn’t you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn’t let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine … I couldn’t make them go away. I couldn’t do anything but cry … Please don’t make me tell it all.
This scene extends the male violence toward Esperanza, begun on her first day of work, when an apparently nice old man “grabs [her] face with both hands and kisses [her] hard on the mouth and doesn’t let go” (p. 52). Together with other instances of male violence in the collection— Rafaela’s imprisonment, Sally’s beatings, and the details of Minerva’s life, another young married woman whose husband beats her and throws a rock through the window—these episodes form a continuum in which sex, patriarchal power, and violence are linked. Earlier, Cisneros had developed this connection in the poem “South Sangamon ,” in which similar elements of male violence predominate: “he punched her belly,” “his drunk cussing,” “the whole door shakes / like his big foot meant to break it,” and “just then / the big rock comes in.”5 The House on Mango Street presents this continuum critically, offering an unromanticized, inside view of Esperanza’s violent sexual initiation and its links to the oppression of other women in the Chicano community.
Cisneros does not merely delineate women’s victimization in this collection, however. Several positive female role models help to guide Esperanza’s development. Minerva, for example, although a victim of her husband’s violence, makes time to write poetry. “But when the kids are asleep after she’s fed them their pancake dinner, she writes poems on little pieces of paper that she folds over and over and holds in her hands a long time, little pieces of paper that smell like a dime. She lets me read her poems. I let her read mine” (p. 80). Minerva’s artistic production is reminiscent of Dr. Reefy in Winesburg, Ohio’s “Paper Pills,” who scribbles words of wisdom on scraps of paper he crumples up, finally sharing them with a patient. It is also similar to the character of Rosendo in Soto’s Spiks, a barrio artist who can only find space to paint an idyllic scene on the crumbling wall of his tenement bathroom and whose wife, acutely aware of the pressing economic needs of their young children, cannot afford the luxury of appreciating this non-revenue-producing art. Like Dr. Reefy, but unlike Rosendo, Minerva succeeds in communicating through her art; exchanging poems with Esperanza, she contributes to the latter’s artistic development while at the same time offering a lesson in women’s domestic oppression and how to begin transcending it.
Also supportive of Esperanza’s artistic creativity is her invalid aunt, Guadalupe: “She listened to every book, every poem I read her. One day I read her one of my own … That’s nice. That’s very good, she said in her tired voice. You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free …” (p. 56). Although the aunt lives in squalid, poor surroundings and is dying from a disease that has disfigured her once-beautiful body, she listens to the girl’s stories and poems and encourages Esperanza’s artistic talent. The story, “Three Sisters ,” recounts the wake held for the baby sister of Esperanza’s friends Lucy and Rachel and is also the theme of Cisneros’ earlier poem, “Velorio ,” in the collection entitled Bad Boys . Expanding upon “Velorio ,” however, this story introduces the figures of “the aunts, the three sisters, las comadres,” visitors at the velorio who encourage Esperanza to see her artistic production in relation to the community: “When you leave you must remember always to come back … for the others. A circle, you understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street…. You can’t forget who you are” (p. 98). Although Esperanza doesn’t understand the women’s message completely, the seeds of her socially conscious art have been planted here through the directives these women give her at the baby’s wake.
Alicia, another positive role model who appears in “Alicia Who Sees Mice ” and “Alicia and I Talking on Edna’s Steps ,” also counsels Esperanza to value Mango Street and return there one day to contribute to its improvement: “Like it or not you are Mango Street and one day you’ll come back too.” To Esperanza’s reply, “Not me. Not until somebody makes it better,” Alicia wryly comments “Who’s going to do it? The mayor?” (p. 99). Alicia had previously appeared in the collection as a university student who takes “two trains and a bus [to the campus] because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin” (p. 32). Rebelling against her father’s expectations of her, that “a woman’s place is sleeping so she can wake up early … and make the lunchbox tortillas,” Alicia “studies all night and sees the mice, the ones her father says do not exist” (p. 32). Fighting what the patriarchy expects of her, Alicia at the same time represents a clearsighted, non-mystified vision of the barrio. As a role-model and advice-giver to Esperanza, she embodies both the antipatriarchal themes and the social obligation to return to one’s ethnic community that are so central to Cisneros’ text.
Cisneros touches on several other important women’s issues in this volume, including media images of ideal female beauty, the reifying stare of male surveyors of women, and sex roles within the family. In an effort to counter the sexual division of labor in the home, for example, Esperanza refuses one instance of women’s work: “I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am the one who leaves the table like a man, without pulling back the chair or picking up the plate” (p. 82). Although this gesture calls critical attention to gender inequities in the family, Cisneros avoids the issue of who, in fact, will end up performing the household labor that Esperanza refuses here. This important and symbolic, yet somewhat adolescent gesture merely touches on the surface of the problem and is likely, in fact, to increase the work for another woman in Esperanza’s household.
The majority of stories in The House on Mango Street , however, face important social issues head-on. The volume’s simple, poetic language, with its insistence that the individual develops within a social community rather than in isolation, distances it from many accepted canonical texts.6 Its deceptively simple, childlike prose and its emphasis on the unromanticized, non-mainstream issues of patriarchal violence and ethnic poverty, however, should serve precisely to accord it canonical status. We must work toward a broader understanding among literary critics of the importance of such issues to art in order to attain a richer, more diverse canon and to avoid the undervaluation and oversight of such valuable texts as The House on Mango Street .
1. Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 201 and passim.
2. Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (Houston: Arte Público Press, 1985). Subsequent references will be to this edition and will appear in the text. For the figures on the press run see Pedro Gutiérrez-Revuelta, “Género e ideología en el libro de Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street,” Críticas 1, no. 3 (1986): 48-59.
3. Gutiérrez-Revuelta, “Género e ideología,” 48. This critic also cites nine articles that have appeared to date on Cisneros’ text. They consist primarily of reviews in Texas newspapers and articles in Chicano journals. See also Erlinda González-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo’s “Growing up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros,” Revista Chicano-Riqueña 13 (1985): 109-19.
4. Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio (New York: Viking Press, 1964, rpt. 1970); Pedro Juan Soto, Spiks, trans. Victoria Ortiz (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1973); Gloria Naylor, The Women of Brewster Place (New York: Penguin Books, 1983); and Tomás Rivera, … y no se lo tragó la tierra/And the Earth Did Not Part (Berkeley: Quinto Sol, 1971). Among the many specific comparisons that might be made, Naylor’s “Cora Lee” has much in common with Cisneros’ “There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn’t Know What to Do.”
5. Sandra Cisneros, Bad Boys (San Jose, Calif.: Mango Publications, 1980).
6. Other critics have argued that Esperanza’s departure from Mango Street is individualistic and escapist, and that the desire for a house of her own away from the barrio represents a belief in the American Dream. See Gutiérrez-Revuelta, “Género e ideología,” 52-55 and Juan Rodríguez, ”The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros,“ Austin Chronicle, 10 Aug. 1984 (cited in Gutiérrez-Revuelta, p. 52). I find that the text itself supports the opposite view, as does the author’s choice of employment. Cisneros has returned to a Chicago barrio, teaching creative writing at an alternative high school for drop-outs. See “About Sandra Cisneros,” The House on Mango Street, 103.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097
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.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories
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SUSAN E. GRIFFIN (ESSAY DATE 1997)
SOURCE: Griffin, Susan E. “Resistance and Reinvention in Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julie Brown, pp. 85-96. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997.
In the following essay, Griffin chronicles the steps that the female protagonists in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories must take in order to gain control over their lives and destinies.
In her prefatory poem to My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Sandra Cisneros asks, “What does a woman [like me] inherit that tells her how to go?” (x). This question about the cultural inheritance of Mexican American women and how it shapes their perceptions of the choices available to them is central to Cisneros’ work. Throughout her poetry and fiction, she has depicted the material and ideological forces that circumscribe Mexican American women’s lives.1 In her novel The House on Mango Street, and in several of the poems in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Cisneros portrays women who are trapped by poverty and controlling, often violent, relationships with men. In her second book of fiction, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, she explores the cultural as well as the material limitations of the lives of Mexican American women. Like Cisneros herself, her female characters often must come to terms with a cultural tradition that they love but also view as oppressive because of the limited conception of appropriate behavior for women available within Mexican narratives and culture (Rodríguez Aranda 66). In Woman Hollering Creek, the role that Mexican popular culture and traditional Mexican narratives play in limiting women’s sense of identity becomes one of Cisneros’ central concerns.
The limitations of traditional Mexican representations of women are embodied in the dichotomy between two of the most influential women in Mexican myth and culture—the Virgin of Guadalupe and Malintzin Temepal, often referred to as Malinche, the translator for and lover of Hernan Cortes, the Spanish conqueror of Mexico. Cisneros describes growing up with these two female figures—the Virgin of Guadalupe and Malinche—as the two primary role models for women in her culture as “a hard route to go”—a position in which she felt she must choose “one or the other, there’s no in-between” (Rodríguez Aranda 65). Traditionally, Mary is defined primarily in terms of her role as a mother and is associated with family life and the beliefs of the Catholic Church; because of the story of her appearance to Juan Diego in Teyapec, she is also seen by many Mexicans as the protector of their people, their patron saint. Malinche, in contrast, is associated with lust, selfishness, and the betrayal of her race. In “From a Long Line of Vendidas: Chicanas and Feminism,” Cherríe Moraga describes how Malinizin’s actions are perceived: “To put it in its most base terms: Malinizin, also called Malinche, fucked the white man who conquered the Indian people of Mexico and destroyed their culture. Ever since, brown men have been accusing her of betraying her race” (175).
In Cisneros’ depiction of the cultural influences upon Mexican American women in Woman Hollering Creek, it is not only the literal figures of the Virgin and Malinche that influence women’s views of identity, however. The women in her stories are also influenced by all the contemporary forms of popular culture, like movies, television, and songs—particularly genres within these media that emphasize romance—which utilize the Virgin/Malinche, good/evil, pure/fallen paradigm and define women primarily in terms of their relationships with men. In stories like “Woman Hollering Creek, ” television is the primary medium that embodies beliefs about appropriate behavior for women. In this story, Cisneros depicts a world in which television, along with movies and songs, is becoming our common mythology (77).2 But she portrays these forms of popular culture as reinforcing the same limited roles for women as narratives about Malinche and the Virgin. These limitations are illustrated by the two types of women depicted in the telenovelas3 of “Woman Hollering Creek ” and “Bien Pretty, ” the evil scheming woman and the pure, passive, long-suffering woman who must endure great hardships for love.
Cisneros and other Mexican American women authors and feminist critics have noted that Mexican women who reject traditional familial roles are often perceived by those within their culture as Malinche has been, as traitors to their race. The question that Sandra Cisneros attempts to work out in Woman Hollering Creek is how Mexican American women can create new roles for themselves—ones that reject the Virgin/ Malinche dichotomy and the definition of women mainly in terms of their relations with men— without wholly rejecting Mexican culture. For Cisneros, this means not abandoning the narratives of her culture but reinventing and revising both traditional myths and the narratives of current popular culture. Through the short stories in this collection, Cisneros is able to illustrate different ways in which women can reject and even rewrite traditional narratives.
Cisneros’ title story, “Woman Hollering Creek, ” is the story in which she most clearly illustrates the negative effects of popular romance genres’ portrayal of women, and it is also the story in which she begins to illustrate how women can resist the romance narrative. Within this work, Cleófilas, the story’s central character, interprets the events that happen to her in the literal, chronological narrative of the story within the context of another narrative—one she has absorbed from the telenovelas she watches and the romance novels she reads. Cleófilas’s actions in “Woman Hollering Creek ” are constructed by— and eventually in resistance to—this type of romance narrative.
Cleófilas, like several of the girls in The House on Mango Street, believes in a view of romantic love that is perpetuated through the media and the popular culture of both Mexico and the United States. This view is connected to what she reads in romance novels and sees in the telenovelas. Like American soap operas, telenovelas focus on women characters and romance, but, because they have endings and include a limited number of characters, they have more in common with romance novels—both the Spanish-language Corín Tellado type, which Cleófilas reads, and the similar English-language Harlequins—than with American soap operas.
Cleófilas accepts the idea promoted by the telenovelas that love is the ultimate good, “the most important thing” (44). She daydreams about the characters in the telenovelas—handsome men who finally confess their love and devotion to the women who adore them—and she imagines this kind of passion in her own life. What Cleófilas has been waiting for all her life is “passion … passion in its purest crystalline essence. The kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finds finally the great love of one’s life” (44).
The love of the telenovelas and romance novels, however, is linked with images of wealth and escape and, at the same time, connected with suffering and self-sacrifice. Like the ideas of the women in The House on Mango Street, Cleófilas’ ideas about romance and her decision to marry are connected to her desire to be materially better off. The girls on Mango Street are aware of the shabbiness of their shoes and clothes and the houses they live in, and, with the exceptions of Esperanza and Alicia, they believe that marriage is their best opportunity to have better things. This wish for more material wealth is interwined with romantic visions of being rescued by a man who will carry them away from their present lives. What they desire most is a means of escape, so love, distant places, beautiful clothes, jewelry, and houses all become part of the same fantasy. Marín, a friend of Esperanza, the narrator of The House on Mango Street, tells Esperanza that the best jobs for girls are downtown because there you “get to wear nice clothes and can meet someone in the subway who might marry you and take you to live in a big house far away” (26). This is the kind of fantasy—a man rescuing a woman from a dreary life and taking her away to a life of love and luxury—toward which romance novels’ plots build. As Ann Barr Snitow explains in “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women Is Different,” romances like Harlequins are based on “a sustaining fantasy of rescue, glamour, and change” that includes descriptions of exotic places and detailed descriptions of consumer items, like furniture, clothes, and gourmet food (248, 250).4 It is this fantasy of glamour and change that Cleófilas believes in when she marries. After hearing the name of the town where Juan Pedro, the man who has proposed to her, lives, she thinks it has “[a] nice sterling ring to it. The tinkle of money. She would get to wear outfits like the women on the tele, like Lucía Mendez. And have a lovely house …” (45).
Cleófilas daydreams about the passionate professions of love on the telenovelas, but there is a sharp contrast between this romantic passion and her thoughts about her husband with acne scars and a pot-belly “whose whiskers she finds each morning in the sink, whose shoes she must air every evening on the porch, this husband …who doesn’t care at all for music or telenovelas or romance or roses or the moon floating over the arroyo” (49). In even greater contrast to the perfect passion of the telenovelas is the violence that Cleófilas is a victim of in her own life and is aware of in the world around her. The first time her husband hits her—an incident in which he slaps her “again and again” until her lip splits and bleeds “an orchid of blood” (47)—is only the first of many beatings that begin soon after he and Cleófilas are married and sometimes leave her with black and blue marks all over her body. Cleófilas also notices that the newspapers seem filled with tales of women being beaten and killed:
This woman found on the side of the interstate. This one’s cadaver, this one unconscious, this one beaten blue. Her ex-husband, her lover, her father, her brother, her uncle, her friend, her co-worker. Always. The same grisly news in the pages of the dailies.
Although the combination of the myths of romantic love and the reality of men’s control over and violence against women initially may appear to be antithetical, the romantic myths play a role in perpetuating the cycle of violence in “Woman Hollering Creek ” because both are dependent upon male action and female passivity. At one point in “Woman Hollering Creek, ” Juan Pedro throws one of Cleófilas’s Spanish romance novels across the room, hitting her and leaving a raised welt on her cheek. In this scene, the language of romance embodied by the book and the reality of violence literally intersect, and the romance novel becomes something that Juan Pedro uses as a weapon against his wife, but telenovelas and romance novels also function as destructive forces in more subtle, less literal ways in “Woman Hollering Creek. ” They bring love and sacrifice or love and suffering together. After the telenovela episode when Lucía Mendez from Tú o Nadie confesses her love, Cleófilas thinks that the sacrifices this character has made and the hardships she has endured are worth the price “because to suffer for love is good, The pain all sweet somehow. In the end” (45). Although Cisneros does not indicate whether this woman from the telenovela is suffering physical abuse, one of the ideas that Cleófilas absorbs from the telenovelas is that suffering for love is a good thing—immediate sacrifice and suffering lead the women on television to a final happy ending.
This idea that love is the ultimate good and therefore worth suffering for is embedded in the plots of romance novels and telenovelas. The romance blends love and suffering because, as Ann Barr Snitow argues, romance novels—and I would extend this to telenovelas as well—“Make bridges between contradiction; they soothe ambivalence” (253). In them, love magically converts “a brutal male sexuality” to romance (253); through his relationship with the heroine, the hero softens. Snitow argues that, in romances, cruelty, callousness, and coldness are equated with maleness, and the novels’ happy endings offer the “possibility that male coldness, absence, and boredom are not what they seem” (250). In the end, a rational explanation for the male hero’s behavior appears, and it becomes apparent that “in spite of his coldness or preoccupation, the hero really loves the heroine and wants to marry her” (250). Before the happy resolution, the heroine may suffer as a result of the hero’s indifference or his anger and abuse, but the emphasis is on the happy ending, and the heroine’s suffering becomes just part of the plot that leads to this ending. In Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature, Janice Radway describes the message inherent in this process:
When a romance presents the story of a woman who is misunderstood by the hero, mistreated and manhandled, and then suddenly loved, protected, and cared for by him because he recognizes that he mistook the meaning of her behavior, the novel is informing its readers that minor acts of violence can be similarly reinterpreted as the result of misunderstandings or jealousy born of “true love.”
This view of love allows Cleófilas to see the suffering of the character in the telenovela as “…all sweet somehow. In the end”; she believes that for “the great love of one’s life,” a woman does “whatever one can, must do, whatever the cost” (44). For most of “Woman Hollering Creek, ” her belief in romance allows Cleófilas to retain the hope that, beyond her own suffering, there may be a happy ending.
Because of this belief in happy endings, Cleófilas does not reject the romance plot when her husband begins to beat her as Esperanza does when she is raped in The House on Mango Street. After Esperanza’s rape, the gap between the romance plot and her own life becomes too great to reconcile, and she feels betrayed by the images of love and sex she has seen in the media. “They all lied,” she thinks,”All the books and magazines everything that told it wrong” (100). Even after her husband has begun to beat her regularly, however, Cleófilas clings to the romance plot and tries to reconcile it with her own life. She begins thinking of her life as a telenovela in which “the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight” (52-53). She imagines romance and happy endings as things that happened to someone with a romantic name and thinks that if she were to change her name to something “more poetic than Cleófilas,” her life might be more like the lives of the women in the telenovelas (53).
Radway argues that romantic violence arises from an inability to imagine “a situation in which a woman might acquire and use resources that would allow her to withstand male opposition and coercion” (72), and, for most of “Woman Hollering Creek, ” Cleófilas is in this very position. She is simply unable to imagine rejecting the romance plot and resisting her husband. Along with the violence of Cleófilas’s life and the images and language of the telenovelas, however, there is a third narrative that emerges in “Woman Hollering Creek. ” The creek itself comes to represent the voices of real women who are silenced by violence and by the myths the telenovelas and romance novels perpetuate. After moving to Texas, Cleófilas is always aware of the creek’s presence and is fascinated by its name, but it is only when she meets Felice at the end of the story that the creek becomes linked with resistance to the romance plot. When Cleófilas moves to Seguín, she is puzzled by the name of the creek—La Gritona, Woman Hollering. “Such a lovely name for a creek,” she thinks, “Though no one could say whether the woman hollered from anger or from pain” (46). For most of the story, these are the only two emotions that Cleófilas can imagine as this woman’s motivation—anger or pain, rage or suffering—because these are the only explanations her life or the telenovelas offer her for a woman’s shout. She speculates about whom the creek is named for, imagining it might be La Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexican folklore (51).5 Yet she is unable to come up with an explanation that satisfies her, and the only women she knows in Seguín are unable to or uninterested in helping her. Cleófilas observes that no one in the town “questioned, little less understood” the name Woman Hollering.
Even when she is puzzled by the river, Cleófilas experiences it as “an alive thing, a thing with a voice all its own” (51), and, when she finally seizes an opportunity to leave her husband and return to Mexico, she realizes that the voice of the woman hollering may be a voice of celebration.In the scene in which Cleófilas is leaving Seguín, Cisneros uses a woman’s shout, a holler, to represent a voice that resists both male violence and the romance narrative. When Felice, who has promised to give Cleófilas a ride to the Greyhound station, yells as they cross the river, Cleófilas is shocked. Felice yells not out of anger or pain, but because she wants to shout—as a kind of tribute to the woman for whom the river was named and the other women she represents. “Every time I cross the bridge I do that,” Felice tells her, “Because of the name, you know. Woman Hollering. Pues, I holler” (55). “Did you ever notice,” Felice continues, “how nothing around here is named after a woman?” (55). The shout Felice gives is filled with strength, fearlessness, celebration rather than with pain, fear, or pleading—a shout that both Felice and Cleófilas describe as a “a holler like Tarzan” (55-56).
It is appropriate that Felice is the vehicle of such celebration because her emotional and economic self-sufficiency make her unlike any woman Cleófilas has ever met before. When Cleófilas asks if the pickup Felice is driving is her husband’s, Felice tells her she does not have a husband; “the pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it” (55). Everything about Felice amazes Cleófilas and helps her begin to imagine alternatives for women beyond either her own life or the lives of love and suffering in the telenovelas and Corín Tellado romance novels. By witnessing the power of Felice’s shout—a shout that defies the idea of women as silent victims or sufferers—Cleófilas becomes aware of her own voice. After Felice shouts, Cleófilas hears laughter, and her first response to this is to think that Felice must be laughing, but she soon realizes it is not Felice. The sound is “gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter like water” (56). This laughter is a form of expression that cannot be contained or understood within the romance plot that Cleófilas has accepted for most of “Woman Hollering Creek. ” Like Felice’s shout and the creek itself, it represents a voice in opposition to the romance script and implies Cleófilas’s potential to reclaim her own life, as well as her voice, by resisting the popular romance narrative.
The ending of “Woman Hollering Creek, ” however, marks only the first step Cisneros depicts in the rejection of equating women with passivity and suffering. While the final scene of this story demonstrates that Cleófilas is beginning to realize that there are other possibilities for women’s lives than the ones she has previously imagined, the story does not reveal how she will use this realization, how it will affect her own self-image and her view of the telenovelas. In “Little Miracles, Kept Promises, ” Cisneros portrays a young woman who is not only able to resist a traditional narrative but is also capable of appropriating and rewriting it. In this story composed of different characters’ petitions to various saints, including the Virgin Mary, Chayo, the character whom Cisneros describes at the greatest length, feels alienated from the other women of her culture—both the Virgin and the women of the telenovelas. Chayo, who wants to devote herself to painting rather than motherhood, tells the Virgin in her letter, “Though no one else in my family, no other woman, neither friend nor relative, no one I know, not even the heroine in the telenovelas, no women, wants to live alone. I do” (127). Chayo even confesses to Mary that she has been unable to accept her, to “let you in my house,” because she has associated Mary with her mother and grandmother’s silent acceptance of suffering (127). Chayo desires an image not of a woman suffering but of a woman who is strong and powerful. She writes to Mary, “I wanted you bare-breasted, snakes in your hands. I wanted you leaping and somersaulting the backs of bulls. I wanted you swallowing raw hearts and rattling volcanic ash. I wasn’t going to be my mother or my grandma. All that self-sacrifice, all that silent suffering” (127).
Chayo is able to accept Mary only by revising or reinventing her image of her. She begins to see her as the spiritual force that is incarnated in images of Aztec deities as well as in portraits of the Virgin. She views her as Nuestra Senora de Soledad, Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrow and also as Tonantzín, Coatlaxopeuh, Teteoinnan, Toci, Xochiquetzal, and she addresses her as Mighty Guadalupana Coatlaxopeuh Tonantizín. To Chayo, Mary becomes a figure who embodies both the suffering and endurance of women and their strength and power, and this frees her not only to love Mary but to love herself—to choose not to repeat the lives of her mother and grandmother without feeling like a traitor to her race.
The central character in Cisneros’s “Bien Pretty ” also engages in this process of rewriting or reinventing, both in relation to a traditional Mexican myth and in relation to contemporary romances. Like Chayo, Lupe is an artist. She is a painter who is using her lover, Flavio, as a model for Prince Popocatépetl in her “updated version of the Prince Popocatépetl/Princess Ixtaccíhuatl volcano myth”6 until her lover leaves her and returns to his wife and children in Mexico (144). After Flavio leaves, Lupe continues her job as an art director for a community cultural center but is unable to paint and begins watching television when she comes home from work—first old Mexican movies and then telenovelas—and begins buying Corín Tellado romance novels and magazines with stories about telenovela stars.
Her response to the telenovelas is different than Cleófilas’s, however. Lupe realizes what the attraction of telenovelas is, but she also realizes that the images of women in the telenovelas reinforce traditional stereotypes of women. After a conversation with a cashier at Centano’s Drugstore about one of the latest telenovelas, “Si Dios quiere,” Lupe thinks:
Amar as vivir. What it comes down to for that woman at Centano’s and for me. It was enough to keep us tuning in every day at six-thirty, another episode, another thrill. To relive that living when the universe ran through the blood like river water. Alive. Not the weeks spent writing grant proposals, not the forty hours standing behind a cash register shoving cans of refried beans into plastic sacks.
But what the telenovelas can provide is only a severely limited version of what it means to be alive—living as devising ways to attain the attention and favor of men and, as in “Woman Hollering Creek, ” romance linked with suffering. Lupe’s frustration with these limitations is illustrated in the dreams she begins having about the telenovelas she is watching—dreams that express her desire to revise the actions of the telenovela characters:
I started dreaming of these Rosas and Briandas and Luceros. And in my dreams I’m slapping the heroine to her senses, because I want them to be women who make things happen, not women who things happen to. Not loves that are tormentosos. Not men powerful and passionate versus women either volatile and evil or sweet and resigned. But women. Real women. The ones I’ve loved all my life.
In “Bien Pretty, ” Cisneros implies both that women can find a different kind of female figure in some popular culture narratives and that where these models are unavailable they can choose to create their own. Lupe can listen, not to “Lola Beltran sobbing ‘Soy infeliz’ into her four cervezas. But Daniela Romo singing ‘Ya no. Es verdad que te adoro, pero mas me adoro yo.’ I love you, honey, but I love me more” (163). By the end of this short story, Lupe realizes that she must make an effort to “right the world and live …the way lives were meant to be lived” (163)—not the way lives are portrayed in the telenovelas. This means living with self-respect, independence, and strength as well as with passion, desire, and pain.
When Lupe returns to her volcano painting to finish it, this need to rewrite the kinds of stories told about women affects her work, and she decides to switch the positions of Prince Popocatépetl and Princess Ixtaccíhuatl because “after all who’s to say the sleeping mountain isn’t the prince, and the voyeur the princess, right?” (163). What Lupe, like Cleófilas, and Chayo has discovered is a different way of viewing an old story, a process that can be applied both to traditional Mexican and Aztec stories and to popular romance genres in order to yield new narratives.
1. Cisneros has published three collections of poetry, Bad Boys (1980), My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987), and Loose Woman (1994); one novel, The House on Mango Street (1983), composed of forty-four brief narratives of vignettes; and one collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). She was born in 1954 in Chicago and, like Esperanza Cordero, her narrator from The House on Mango Street, grew up there. Cisneros is a 1978 graduate of the University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which she attended after graduating with a BA in English from Loyola University. From 1978 to 1980 she taught creative writing at an alternative high school in Chicago. Since the early 1980s she has received several grants and fellowships, including two from the National Endowment for the Arts.
2. In her interview with Pilar E. Rodríguez Aranda, Cisneros discusses the possibility that “the visual is taking the place of oral myth” and explains that, while she was teaching, she realized she must resort to references to television characters in order to make her points because “that was our common mythology, that’s what we had in common, television” (77).
3. Literally translated telenova means “a novel transmitted by television” (Rector and Trinta 194). Although in the United States they are often referred to as Spanish-language soap operas, Telenovelas differ from American soap operas because they have endings— usually happy ones. A telenovela usually runs for several months, and then a new one begins in the same time slot.
4. In her article “The Incorporation of Women: A Comparison of North American and Mexican American Popular Culture,” Jean Franco asserts—using the work of Carola Garcia Calderon’s Revistas Femininas, La mujer como objecto de consumo—that Harlequins and Corín Tellado romance novels are similar but notes that in the Corín Tellado romance novels, the kind of Spanish romance novels Cleófilas reads in “Woman Hollering Creek” and Lupe reads in “Bien Pretty,” luxury items, expensive clothes, and jewelry are emphasized even more than in Harlequins (Franco 124).
5. Llorona is a mythical apparition of a weeping woman. Many versions of the Llorona legend exist throughout Mexico and the Pacific and Southwestern portions of the United States. Explanations of the reason for Llorona’s sorrow vary greatly among the different versions of the story. In several of these variants, she mourns drowned children and is sighted near a river, creek, or other body of water.
6. Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl are dormant volcanoes in central Mexico named after legendary Aztec lovers, Ixtaccíhuatl, an Aztec emperor’s daughter, and Popocatépetl, an Aztec warrior. For a description of the myth, see Frances Toor’s A Treasury of Mexican Folk-ways. Mexico, D. F.: Mexico Press, 1947.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. New York: Random House, 1989.
———. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. New York: Random House, 1992.
———. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1991.
Franco, Jean. “The Incorporation of Women: A Comparison of North American and Mexican American Popular Culture.” Studies in Entertainment: Critical Approaches to Mass Culture. Ed. Tania Modleski. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 119-138.
Moraga, Cherríe. “From a Long Line of Vendidias: Chicanas and Feminism.” Feminist Studies/Critical Studies. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986. 173-190.
Radway, Janice. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Rector, Monica, and Aluizio Ramos Trinta. “The Telenovela.” Diogenes 113-114 (1981): 194-204.
Rodríguez Aranda, Pilar E. “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-Three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” The Americas Review: A Review of Hispanic Literature and Art of the USA. 18 (1990): 64-80.
Snitow, Ann Barr. “Mass Market Romance: Pornography for Women Is Different.” Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality. Eds. Ann Barr Snitow, Christine Stansell, and Sharon Thompson. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983. 245-263.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
Bad Boys (poetry) 1980
The House on Mango Street (novel) 1983
The Rodrigo Poems (poetry) 1985
My Wicked, Wicked Ways (poetry) 1987
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (short stories) 1991
Hairs: Pelitos (juvenilia) 1994
Loose Woman: Poems (poetry) 1994
Caramelo (novel) 2002
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1293
SOURCE: Cisneros, Sandra. “Only Daughter.” In Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women, edited by Wendy Martin, pp. 10-13. Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1996.
In the following essay, Cisneros describes her struggles to attain self-worth in a patriarchal society and recounts the joy of gaining her father’s respect and pride in her accomplishments as a writer.
Once, several years ago, when I was just starting out my writing career, I was asked to write my own contributor’s note for an anthology I was part of. I wrote: “I am the only daughter in a family of six sons. That explains everything.”
Well, I’ve thought about that ever since, and yes, it explains a lot to me, but for the reader’s sake I should have written: “I am the only daughter in a Mexican family of six sons.” Or even: “I am the only daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother.” Or: “I am the only daughter of a working-class family of nine.” All of these had everything to do with who I am today.
I was/am the only daughter and only a daughter. Being an only daughter in a family of six sons forced me by circumstance to spend a lot of time by myself because my brothers felt it beneath them to play with a girl in public. But that aloneness, that loneliness, was good for a would-be writer—it allowed me time to think and think, to imagine, to read and prepare myself.
Being only a daughter for my father meant my destiny would lead me to become someone’s wife. That’s what he believed. But when I was in fifth grade and shared my plans for college with him, I was sure he understood. I remember my father saying, “Que bueno, mi’ja, that’s good.” That meant a lot to me, especially since my brothers thought the idea hilarious. What I didn’t realize was that my father thought college was good for girls—for finding a husband. After four years in college and two more in graduate school, and still no husband, my father shakes his head even now and says I wasted all that education.
In retrospect, I’m lucky my father believed daughters were meant for husbands. It meant it didn’t matter if I majored in something silly like English. After all, I’d find a nice professional eventually, right? This allowed me the liberty to putter about embroidering my little poems and stories without my father interrupting with so much as a “What’s that you’re writing?”
But the truth is, I wanted him to interrupt. I wanted my father to understand what it was I was scribbling, to introduce me as “My only daughter, the writer.” Not as “This is my only daughter. She teaches.” El maestra—teacher. Not even profesora.
In a sense, everything I have ever written has been for him, to win his approval even though I know my father can’t read English words, even though my father’s only reading includes the brown-ink Esto sports magazines from Mexico City and the bloody ¡Alarma! magazines that feature yet another sighting of La Virgen de Guadalupe on a tortilla or a wife’s revenge on her philandering husband by bashing his skull in with a molcajete (a kitchen mortar made of volcanic rock). Or the fotonovelas, the little picture paperbacks with tragedy and trauma erupting from the characters’ mouths in bubbles.
My father represents, then, the public majority. A public who is disinterested in reading, and yet one whom I am writing about and for, and privately trying to woo.
When we were growing up in Chicago, we moved a lot because of my father. He suffered periodic bouts of nostalgia. Then we’d have to let go our flat, store the furniture with mother’s relatives, load the station wagon with baggage and bologna sandwiches, and head south. To Mexico City.
We came back, of course. To yet another Chicago flat, another Chicago neighborhood, another Catholic school. Each time, my father would seek out the parish priest in order to get a tuition break, and complain or boast: “I have seven sons.”
He meant siete hijos, seven children, but he translated it as “sons.” “I have seven sons.” To anyone who would listen. The Sears Roebuck employee who sold us the washing machine. The short-order cook where my father ate his ham-and-eggs breakfasts. “I have seven sons.” As if he deserved a medal from the state.
My papa. He didn’t mean anything by that mistranslation, I’m sure. But somehow I could feel myself being erased. I’d tug my father’s sleeve and whisper: “Not seven sons. Six! and one daughter.”
When my oldest brother graduated from medical school, he fulfilled my father’s dream that we study hard and use this—our heads, instead of this—our hands. Even now my father’s hands are thick and yellow, stubbed by a history of hammer and nails and twine and coils and springs. “Use this,” my father said, tapping his head, “and not this,” showing us those hands. He always looked tired when he said it.
Wasn’t college an investment? And hadn’t I spent all those years in college? And if I didn’t marry, what was it all for? Why would anyone go to college and then choose to be poor? Especially someone who had always been poor.
Last year, after ten years of writing professionally, the financial rewards started to trickle in. My second National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. A guest professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. My book, which sold to a major New York publishing house.
At Christmas, I flew home to Chicago. The house was throbbing, same as always; hot tamales and sweet tamales hissing in my mother’s pressure cooker, and everybody—my mother, six brothers, wives, babies, aunts, cousins—talking too loud and at the same time, like in a Fellini film, because that’s just how we are.
I went upstairs to my father’s room. One of my stories had just been translated into Spanish and published in an anthology of Chicano writing, and I wanted to show it to him. Ever since he recovered from a stroke two years ago, my father likes to spend his leisure hours horizontally. And that’s how I found him, watching a Pedro Infante movie on Galavision and eating rice pudding.
There was a glass filmed with milk on the bedside table. There were several vials of pills and balled Kleenex. And on the floor, one black sock and a plastic urinal that I didn’t want to look at but looked at anyway. Pedro Infante was about to burst into song, and my father was laughing.
I’m not sure if it was because my story was translated into Spanish, or because it was published in Mexico, or perhaps because the story dealt with Tepeyac, the colonia my father was raised in, but at any rate, my father punched the mute button on his remote control and read my story.
I sat on the bed next to my father and waited. He read it very slowly. As if he were reading each line over and over. He laughed at all the right places and read lines he liked out loud. He pointed and asked questions: “Is this So-and-so?” “Yes,” I said. He kept reading.
When he was finally finished, after what seemed like hours, my father looked up and asked: “Where can we get more copies of this for the relatives?”
Of all the wonderful things that happened to me last year, that was the most wonderful.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2859
CAROL A. CUJEC (REVIEW DATE MARCH 2003)
SOURCE: Cujec, Carol A. "Caramel-Coated Truths and Telenovela Lives: Sandra Cisneros Returns with an Ambitious Novel about the Latino Community." World &I 18, no. 3 (March 2003): 228.
In the following review, Cujec compliments Cisneros's storytelling in Caramelo and studies the novel's portrayal of the choices available to Chicana women past and present, illustrating the importance of decision-making on women's self-determination.
In her new novel Caramelo, 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, listening to a grandmother complain about the mangoes, and eventually finding their destinies and their destinations. Caramelo loops and spirals among four generations, traveling from Mexico City to Chicago to Texas and back in eighty-six chapters. Cisneros admits that this is her most ambitious and challenging work, which is why it took her eight years to complete.
Cisneros was the first Chicana writer to emerge on the mainstream literary scene in the 1980s. Her first novel, The House on Mango Street, is now a staple of countless high school and college literature classes. Critical praise as well as several prestigious awards, including the Before Columbus American Book Award and a MacArthur "genius" grant, have established her literary prominence. No wonder she faced so much pressure to complete this long-awaited work. As Cisneros explained in a phone interview, "In the past, when I wrote other books, most of the time people had no idea what I was doing, nor did they care. What I felt this time was the pressure of the public waiting for this book. Even my family, this time they were waiting for this book as well."
Caramelo, a fictionalized autobiography, is not heavily plot-driven but more a series of vignettes similar to Cisneros' other works of prose. The novel begins with a memento—a photograph taken in Acapulco during a tumultuous family vacation nearly ending in divorce. The Reyes family stands in the photo: Inocencio, his wife, Zoila, and his six sons, along with Inocencio's mother, called "the Awful Grandmother" by the narrator. The only one missing, curiously, is the narrator herself, Inocencio's youngest child and only daughter Celaya (called Lala), who was five at the time. "They've forgotten about me," complains Lala, adding, "It's as if I'm the photographer walking along the beach with the tripod camera on my shoulder asking,—Un recuerdo? A souvenir? A memory?"
In fact, by writing these memories Lala is the photographer, with her vivid words creating snapshots of everyday life and significant moments that make up a true family portrait. In the end, her words become the most enduring memento: "Remembering is the hand of God. I remember you, therefore I make you immortal." Lala brings her images into sharp focus with sensory details that transform a collection of static photos into fragrant, sweaty, mouthwatering slices of life. She records a trip across the border into Mexico, for example, as an explosion of the senses: "Churches the color of flan,…the smell of diesel exhaust, the smell of somebody roasting coffee, the smell of hot corn tortillas along with the pat-pat of the women's hands making them, the sting of roasting chiles in your throat and in your eyes."
Like the intricate caramel-colored shawl, the caramelo rebozo, given to the Awful Grandmother by her own mother, the story is an intricate and incomplete tapestry. The theme of weaving, with the caramelo rebozo as its symbol, is clearly feminine. The rebozo was used at every significant moment in a woman's life, explains Lala. It could be used as a dowry, a burial shroud, to carry or breast-feed a child, cover one's head in church, even communicate silent vows of love. The caramelo rebozo, coming from the mother, is specifically a maternal symbol; the characters find themselves suckling its fringe or draping it around themselves like arms in moments of despair.
The word caramelo, meaning caramel, also evokes a sweet, thick syrup running down the throat and the warm brown color of skin, Candelaria's skin. Candelaria, whom Lala calls Cande (candy), is the daughter of her grandmother's washerwoman. Immediately, young Lala is entranced by her color: "Smooth as peanut butter, deep as burnt-milk candy … A color so sweet, it hurts to even look at her." Lala sees Candelaria as beautiful, although others look down on her for her indigenous roots and poverty. "How can you let that Indian play with you … she's dirty. She doesn't even wear underwear," complains Aunty Light-Skin. At her young age, Lala isn't aware that dark skin is considered ugly. Through this snapshot and numerous other references to skin color, Cisneros shows the cruel and absurd racial and class discrimination that dark-skinned Latinos face from those with lighter skins. In the end, Lala learns that this girl she met in her youth was actually her half sister.
How the Awful Grandmother earned her nickname is no mystery. In the first part of the novel, when the family visits her in Mexico City, she treats everyone like dirt—except for her first son, Inocencio, her only passion. She makes life miserable for Zoila, a Chicana and therefore beneath her son. She considers her grandchildren barbarians who can't even speak proper Spanish. Her most vicious act: revealing Inocencio's illegitimate daughter Candelaria to his wife in an attempt to break up the marriage. "You're better off without her kind," she tells her son. "Wives come and go, but mothers, you have only one!"
Though this portrait is as flat as an old photograph, Cisneros takes us back in time to tell the Awful Grandmother's girlhood story in part 2 of the novel, adding dimension and humanity to this woman. Before becoming powerful, she was powerless. Before becoming intolerable, she was invisible. Before becoming the Awful Grandmother, she was Soledad. Like Cinderella without the fairy godmother, Soledad lost her mother at an early age, and her father remarried a woman who cared little for her. Her only memento of her mother, famous for her intricate weaving of rebozo fringe, was the unfinished caramelo rebozo: "No soft hair across her cheek, only the soft fringe of the unfinished shawl."
Soledad's father sent her away to live with his cousin, who couldn't even keep track of how many children she had, and an uncle who would try to lift Soledad's skirt while she slept. Soledad—her name means loneliness—toiled for several years in this filthy household that smelled of "the scorched-potato-skin scent of starched cloth," "the sour circles of cottage cheese stains on the shoulder from burping babies," "the foggy seaside tang of urine."
With fairy-tale notions of being saved by love, at one decisive moment she declared that she would marry the next man who walked down the street. This person was Narcisco Reyes. Draped in her caramelo rebozo, Soledad sobbed out her story to him; taking pity, Narcisco asked his parents to hire her as a servant. Narcisco provided her a means of escape and even seemed to be a protective, fatherly figure. Yet naively, Soledad continued to romanticize this meeting as a romance of destiny, envisioning herself as a star-crossed character in a telenovela, a Mexican soap opera.
So starved was Soledad for affection that she welcomed Narcisco's lustful advances, even confusing them with parental love ("She had not felt this well loved except perhaps when she was still inside her mother's belly, or had sat on her father's lap"). In contrast, Narcisco selfishly regarded her compliance as just another household duty: "was it not part of her job to serve the young man of the house?" Even after becoming pregnant and marrying Narcisco, Soledad remained emotionally isolated, especially after his potent affair with the bewitching Exaltacion Henestrosa, from which he would never recover. Soledad suffered from this discovery because she loved fiercely, "the way Mexicans love." "We love like we hate," describes Cisneros. Turning to a wisewoman selling tamales outside the church, Soledad asked for advice to end her pain. The only cure was to fall in love again, which is exactly what happened the day that Inocencio was born. This one satisfying bond of love, a mother's love, filled a great canyon in her heart. For the rest of her life, her love for Inocencio was strong enough to fill the void of lost parental and romantic love.
Destiny and destination
Before Lala becomes the insightful, impassioned narrator of her family story, she is a confused adolescent struggling to create an identity in the face of conflicting cultural and gender expectations. Cisneros herself, who has proudly stated that she is "nobody's wife, nobody's mother," struggled with stepping out of the traditional roles expected of a Latina. "I think that growing up Mexican and feminist is almost a contradiction in terms," she explained. "Your culture tells you that if you step out of line, if you break these norms, you are becoming anglicized, you're becoming the malinche," she told one interviewer. Thus, much of her work deals with straddling two cultures in an attempt to redefine what it means to be Latina. This is Lala's struggle in the final part of the novel.
Lala finds herself depressed, yet unsure of what she wants: "A bathroom where I can soak in the tub and not have to come out when some-body's banging on the door. A lock on my door. A door. A room … Somebody to tell my troubles to … To be in love." She contemplates both a liberated and traditional life for herself. She's not training for the traditional Latina role of housewife. At the same time, she faces cultural restrictions. "If you leave your father's house without a husband you are worse than a dog … If you leave alone you leave … como una prostituta," warns her father. When her brother Toto enlists, her father boasts that it will make a man out of him. "But what's available to make a woman a woman?" wonders Lala.
Sharing the naive, fairy-tale notions held by Soledad, she dreams of being rescued by true love. When she finds her first boyfriend, Ernesto, she pushes him toward marriage, despite the warnings of the Awful Grandmother's spirit. "It's you, Celaya, who's haunting me," the spirit insists. "Why do you insist on repeating my life?… There's no sin in falling in love with your heart and with your body, but wait till you're old enough to love yourself first." Lala finally realizes that she can take charge of her destiny: "You're the author of the telenovela of your life. Comedy or tragedy? Choose." Playing on the double meaning of destino, Lala declares, "Ernesto. He was my destiny, but not my destination."
The spirit of the Awful Grandmother, trapped in limbo as penance for her unkindness, begs Lala to tell her story so that she may be understood and finally forgiven. Weaving stories and in the process healing old family wounds becomes Lala's new destiny: "Maybe it's my job to separate the strands and knot the words together for everyone who can't say them, and make it all right in the end." Cisneros has also declared this her own mission as a writer—to be a voice to the voiceless.
Cisneros begins Caramelo with this disclaimer: "The truth, these stories are nothing but story.… I have invented what I do not know and exaggerated what I do to continue the family tradition of telling healthy lies." Yet this is the most autobiographical work Cisneros has written. She began it when her father was ill, and it is dedicated to him. Caramelo chronicles the history of his family, describes her own struggles within the family, and portrays her father's unending devotion to her with the sentimentality of a daughter looking back fondly rather than a young girl struggling to be free from his overprotectiveness.
Cisneros begins with these kernels of truth, weaving them with fiction to create a work that is as authentic as it is fantastic. In this way, she is examining the very nature of storytelling. What is a storyteller? "Liar/Gossip/Troublemaker, Big-Mouth," she writes in one chapter title. The fictional author Lala freely admits having to make up details to fill in gaps. Cisneros uses an inventive and humorous technique to elucidate the creative process; in part 2, the spirit of the Awful Grandmother repeatedly interrupts the narrator to interject or condemn her for exaggerating, lying, or (more likely) telling too much of the ugly truth. "I have to exaggerate," insists Lala. "I need details. You never tell me anything." At other times, Lala defends the truth of her story, reminding her listeners that life is more outrageous than any telenovela: "I know this sounds as if I am making it up, but the facts are so unbelievable they can only be true." Cisneros even purposely tells different versions of the same stories to show the fluidity of memory and how the truth changes according to the storyteller.
Cisneros compares the art of storytelling to weaving. Like life, the novel is not neat and complete; it is complex and sometimes tangled, with many loose threads. "Because a life contains a multitude of stories and not a single strand explains precisely the who of who one is, we have to examine the complicated loops," explains the narrator. The effect borders on overwhelming at times, as we are introduced to numerous minor characters in footnotes and even footnotes to footnotes. This gives a sense of the vastness of experience connected to one family. We are not told a complete story; rather, we are allowed to examine the various interlocking threads of a small patch: "Pull one string and the whole thing comes undone." Cisneros admits that at first she did not know how all these stories would fit together: "As a reader, you will think that I planned all of the loops and the double backs and the repetition, but I didn't. It was something that just occurred and gave me a confirmation in the idea of divine providence because I really was writing this just by following my heart."
Caramelo contains not only a personal, emotional tale but, as in her other works, a clear political message as well. "I was writing it on behalf of the immigrant community and hoping to get to people like President Bush, policy makers, citizens that might feel frightened of people unlike themselves, communities in Germany, Finland, Japan," says Cisneros. "I really was thinking by the time the book ended that maybe this was something I was writing for the state that the globe is in right now." Her goal: to create empathy for all those considered "other." This goal is best accomplished through her vibrant, authentic characterization.
An element of nonfiction has been added to the novel by incorporating numerous footnotes and a chronology intended to educate readers on Latino history and culture. Cisneros explains that these notes are intended for everyone—even readers within the Latino community: "I feel as if so many children who are of Mexican descent don't know their own history. I'm especially talking about Mexicans on this side of the border. I saw those footnotes being for the sake of everyone." The cultural footnotes are light: descriptions of music, movies, well-known Latino entertainers. The historical footnotes are more overtly political; for example, a biting list of U.S. anti-immigrant policies is contrasted with examples of the honorable role Latinos have played in American wars. Given the complexity of the story, these educational tidbits weigh down the text at times and give the impression that perhaps the author wants to accomplish too much.
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. Should you look for Caramelo at a theater near you anytime soon? Realizing its cinematic quality, Cisneros has thought about adapting it for the big screen; however, she worries about what would have to be eliminated from this complex family album by changing the medium. "I realized the book was huge with so many stories, and the idea of what would be left out bothered me," she explained. Her solution—to turn it into a telenovela. "I finally realized that the form that could contain so many stories wouldn't be a two-hour film but something like a telenovela. That's what I think would be perfect for this book."
As for her next project, Cisneros plans on writing vignettes, which she describes as "small and jewel-like and very beautiful." The subject: erotica. The title: Infinito. Let us hope that another eight years do not pass before she once again cloaks us in her colorful tapestry of words.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9349
SOURCE: Madsen, Deborah L. "Sandra Cisneros." In Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli, pp. 105-34. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
In the following essay, Madsen explores Cisneros's dual marginality as a Latin female, examines her self-determination and control over the physical, sexual and social aspects of her life, and highlights the autobiographical elements in Cisneros's poetry and fiction.
In a 1990 interview Sandra Cisneros joked that after ten years of writing professionally she had finally earned enough money to buy a secondhand car.1 Her struggle for recognition as a Chicana writer earned her critical and popular acclaim with the publication of The House on Mango Street (1984), the success of which was followed by Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991). Her poetry collection My Wicked, Wicked Ways was published by the Berkeley-based Chicana Third Woman Press in 1987, and the outrageous themes of these poems continued in the poems collected in Loose Woman, which appeared in 1994. Cisneros's work is characterized by the celebratory breaking of sexual taboos and trespassing across the restrictions that limit the lives and experiences of Chicanas. These themes of trespass, transgression, and joyful abandon feature prominently in her poetry. The narrative techniques of her fiction demonstrate daring technical innovations, especially in her bold experimentation with literary voice and her development of a hybrid form that weaves poetry into prose to create a dense and evocative linguistic texture of symbolism and imagery that is both technically and aesthetically accomplished.
Sandra Cisneros was born in the Puerto Rican district of Chicago on 20 December 1954. Her parents' mixed ethnic background (Spanish-speaking Mexican father and English-speaking Mexican American mother) is reflected in the cultural hybridity that is one of Cisneros's recurring themes. She is the third child and only daughter in a family of seven children, a condition that Cisneros has described as leaving her marginalized as a consequence of her gender.2 During Cisneros's childhood her father's restless homesickness caused the family to move frequently between Chicago and her paternal grandparents' house in Mexico City, and always she lived in urban neighborhoods. Although her early years were spent in cramped urban apartments, Cisneros recalls her childhood as solitary. Cisneros ascribes to the loneliness of those formative years her impulse to create stories by re-creating in her imagination the dull routine of her life.
She graduated with a B.A. degree from Loyola University in 1976 and completed an M.F.A. in creative writing at the Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1978. It was at Iowa that Cisneros discovered, first, a sense of her own ethnic "otherness" and, second, the unique literary voice that characterizes both her poetry and her fiction. She describes her early writing as inferior imitations of the work of mainstream writers; in the discovery of her difference came a rejection of this attempt to join the American literary orthodoxy. The voice she discovered, the voice she had unconsciously suppressed, is the voice of the barrio.
An ongoing commitment to those who grow up in the barrio has led Cisneros to become involved as a teacher in educational projects designed to assist the urban underprivileged, such as the Latino Youth Alternative High School in Chicago. She has worked variously as a teacher, a counselor, a college recruiter, a poet-in-the-schools, and an arts administrator in order to support her writing. Cisneros has taught creative writing at the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at Irvine, and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship; the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award; a Lannan Foundation Literary Award; the PEN Center West Award for the best fiction of 1991; the Quality paperback Book Club New Voices Award; a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship; and the Frank Dobie Artists Fellowship, Austin, Texas. Sandra Cisneros moved to the Southwest in 1984; she now lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is currently working on a novel, Caramelo.
Cisneros describes writing as something she has done all her life from the time when, as a young girl, she began writing in spiral notebooks poems that only her mother read. Her first published book, Bad Boys, appeared as the Chicano Chapbook No. 8 (1980). Her novel The House on Mango Street was published by a small regional press in 1984 and the following year was awarded the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award. The novel draws heavily upon childhood memories and an unadorned childlike style of expression to depict life in the Chicano community. Issues of racial and sexual oppression, poverty, and violence are explored in a sequence of interconnected vignettes that together form a modified autobiographical structure. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories continues the exploration of ethnic identity within the patriarchal context of Chicano culture. The stories in this volume offer snapshots of Mexican American life: sights and smells recalled in childish memories, stories told by witches who see all of Chicano history from past to future, the hopes and aspirations of grandparents and grandchildren, friends and neighbors, Mexican movies, and "Merican" tourists. Her first volume of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, is described by Cherríe Moraga as "a kind of international graffiti, where the poet—bold and insistent—puts her mark on those travelled places on the map and in the heart."3Loose Woman similarly invokes the cultural and the emotional in an intoxicating sequence of outrageously confessional moments. Cisneros has also published essays on writing and her role as a writer, most notably the selections titled "From a Writer's Notebook. Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession" and "Notes to a Young(er) Writer," both of which appeared in the Americas Review (1987). Her books have been translated into ten languages.
In Cisneros's work the effort to negotiate a cross-cultural identity is complicated by the need to challenge the deeply rooted patriarchal values of both Mexican and American cultures. Cisneros writes, "There's always this balancing act, we've got to define what we think is fine for ourselves instead of what our culture says."4 Chicana feminism has arisen largely from this need to contest the feminine stereotypes that define machismo, while at the same time identifying and working against the shared class and racial oppression that all Chicanos/as—men, women and children—experience. To adopt models of femininity that are thought of as Anglo is, as Cisneros describes, to be
told you're a traitor to your culture. And it's a horrible life to live. We're always straddling two countries, and we're always living in that kind of schizophrenia that I call, being a Mexican woman living in an American society, but not belonging to either culture. In some sense we're not Mexican and in some sense we're not American.5
Patriarchal definitions of feminine subjectivity, some Anglo but mostly Mexican, affect all of Cisneros's characters by creating the medium in which they live. The protagonist of The House on Mango Street, the girl Esperanza, compares herself with her great-grandmother with whom she shares her name and the coincidence of being born in the Chinese year of the horse,
which is supposed to be bad luck if you're born female—but I think this is a Chinese lie because the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong.6
This fiery ancestor, "a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn't marry" (Mango Street, 11), is forcibly taken by Esperanza's great-grandfather, and her spirit broken, she lived out her days staring from her window. The narrator remarks, "I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window" (11). This woman is the first of many Esperanza encounters who are broken in body and spirit by the patriarchal society that defines the terms by which they live.
The primary effect of these prescriptive definitions is the experience of the self as marginal, as failing to belong in the culture in which one lives. Cisneros challenges marginality but in subtle ways and using the weapons at her disposal as an artist: imagery, symbolism, forms of narrative connectivity that are at odds with rational, discursive logic. Like so many Chicana writers, Sandra Cisneros rejects the logic of the patriarchy in favor of more provisional, personal, emotional, and intuitive forms of narrative. She creates stories, not explanations or analyses or arguments. The stories that comprise The House on Mango Street are linked according to a loose and associative logic. In this way the fragmented structure of the text embodies a quest for freedom, a genuine liberation that resolves rather than escapes the conflicts faced by the Chicana subject. María Elena de Valdés describes how Cisneros's narrative technique relates to the theme of feminist resistance:
The open-ended reflections are the narrator's search for an answer to the enigma: how can she be free of Mango Street and the house that is not hers and yet belong as she must to that house and that street. The open-ended entries come together only slowly as the tapestry takes shape, for each of the closed figures are also threads of the larger background figure which is the narrator herself.7
The threads with which the story is then woven are the complex image patterns Cisneros gradually develops and the imagistic connections she builds among the vignettes. The first story, which describes the houses in which Esperanza has lived, ends with her father's promise that their cramped and shabby house is temporary. The next story, "Hairs," begins with a description of her father's hair and goes on to contrast it with her mother's. The contrast between mother and father is continued and generalized in the third story, "Boys and Girls," which ends with Esperanza's hope that she will one day have the best friend for whom she yearns. The fourth story concerns the meaning of Esperanza's name, "Hope." In this way Cisneros creates vignettes that are self-contained, autonomous, yet link together in an emotionally logical fashion and build to create a picture of life in the barrio, seen through the experiences of the young Esperanza and her developing consciousness of herself as an artist.
The stories collected in Woman Hollering Creek are organized according to a similar associative logic. The volume is divided into three named sections: "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," "One Holy Night," and "There Was a Man, There Was a Woman." Each section shares a loosely defined theme: the experience of Chicano/a children in "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," "Eleven," "Salvador Early or Late," "Mexican Movies," "Barbie-Q," "Mericans," and "Tepeyac"; the betrayal of Chicana girl children in the stories "One Holy Night" and "My Tocaya"; and the limited choice of adult relationships available to women in patriarchal Chicano/a society in "Woman Hollering Creek," "The Marlboro Man," "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta," "Remember the Alamo," "Never Marry a Mexican," "Bread," "Eyes of Zapata," "Anguiano Religious Articles Rosaries Statues …," "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," "Los Boxers," "There Was a Man, There Was a Woman," "Tin Tan Tan," and " Bien Pretty." Though many of these stories depict the lives of individuals who are comprehensively defeated by the sheer burden of work, worry, and care they are required to bear, in some of them Cisneros creates characters who are able to subvert oppressive definitions of gender identity in favor of marginal, hybrid selves.
The story "Never Marry a Mexican," for example, begins with the disappointment of the narrator's grandparents that their son should have married a United States-born Mexican—a woman who is neither white like an Anglo nor raised properly in the ways of Mexican femininity:
what could be more ridiculous than a Mexican girl who couldn't even speak Spanish, who didn't know enough to set a separate plate for each course at dinner, nor how to fold cloth napkins, nor how to set the silverware.8
The lesson learned by the narrator is "Never Marry a Mexican," which she generalizes into a determination never to marry. Instead she cultivates a hybrid identity, belonging to several socioeconomic classes and yet to none. She describes herself as "amphibious"—capable of surviving in radically different environments. And although she is United States-born, still the native idiom does not come naturally to her. She exclaims, ironically in the very idiom she denies, "I can't ever get the sayings right even though I was born in this country. We didn't say shit like that in our house" (73). This awareness of cross-cultural marginality extends even to the endearments used by her lover; he calls her Malinche, "my courtesan," the native woman taken by Cortés and mother of the hybrid Chicano race. But this woman, Cisneros's narrator, takes her own peculiar revenge upon her adulterous lover: in his wife's absence she plants around the house a trail of sticky sweets, in places only his wife will look—her makeup bag, her nail polish bottles, her diaphragm case. Then she seduces this faithless lover's son, and the significance of the story becomes clear as a confession to this son and an explanation of the relationship in which he has become involved. This vengeance is more than personal; it is revenge upon an Anglo man who believes he can "Never Marry a Mexican." This is vengeance sought on behalf of La Malinche for all her Chicana daughters who are good enough to seduce but never good enough to marry. This is vengeance on behalf of all the women who are led to believe that marriage is the only mechanism by which their lives may be validated and if they are not married then they themselves are somehow not valid.
The legacy of La Malinche is the fragmentary subjectivity commonly experienced by Chicanas: women who seek approval on both Anglo and Mexican terms, so that the unitary sense of self is inevitably sacrificed. The Chicana writer perhaps experiences this conflict most intensely:
the Chicana has had to be a cultural schizophrenic in trying to please both the Chicano and Anglo publishers, not to mention pleasing the readers, who may neutralize her potential to create within her own framework of ideas.9
In these words Marcela Christine Lucero-Trujillo describes the experience of cross-cultural identity and alienation that is perhaps the single most common theme in ethnic women's writing. To lose one's sense of self in the effort to satisfy mutually antagonistic sets of cultural values is the danger negotiated by Cisneros's characters. The image of living under occupation, of living in an occupied territory or even of becoming occupied territory, describes the experience of both a woman under Chicano patriarchy and a Chicana under Anglo dominance. This accounts for Cisneros's use of the image of the window in several of the stories in The House on Mango Street. Women are depicted sitting by their windows, forbidden or afraid to enter the world represented by the street, literally and physically trapped in their imposed domesticity. Esperanza's friend Sally is beaten by her jealous husband if she so much as speaks to anyone in his absence; Rafaela's husband locks her in their apartment, so she communicates with the world solely through the window; Mamacita refuses to leave her building because she cannot speak English. Such women experience the world in a series of vignettes which permit no unifying structure. They live lives without narrative, without context, but representing a logic of oppression and cruelty too ugly to confront. In her fiction Cisneros tells of living with a double burden imposed by white women and by men of all colors. The complexities of gender, race, and class, which will not remain distinct but instead compound their oppressive effects, form the labyrinth that Cisneros seeks to map.
Fiction is used to expose the many lies that are told to children, especially girl children, in order to regulate their desires, ambitions, and aspirations. The narrator of the story "One Holy Night" tells her girl cousins who are curious to know "how it is to have a man": "It's a bad joke. When you find out you'll be sorry" (Woman Hollering Creek, 35). But these girl children seem to have no choice other than to "find out," eventually. The juxtaposition of the vignettes in The House on Mango Street dramatizes the attempts of the adolescent Esperanza to reconcile her childish naïveté with the realities of adult Chicana life. In the story "Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark" Esperanza makes an important distinction between her own father and other men as she struggles to reconcile her love for her father with the treatment she receives from other men and the patriarchal attitudes that inform their behavior toward her. In the preceding story, "First Job," Esperanza describes her first experience of sexual harassment, by a man old enough to be her father:
he said it was his birthday and would I please give him a birthday kiss. I thought I would because he was so old and just as I was about to put my lips on his cheek, he grabs my face with both hands and kisses me hard on the mouth and doesn't let go.
In one of the pivotal stories of The House on Mango Street, "Red Clowns," Esperanza describes her sexual initiation. She is assaulted by a group of Anglo boys while waiting at the fairground for her friend Sally. Esperanza's feelings of helplessness, confusion, and pain are overwhelmed by the sensation of betrayal: betrayal by Sally who was not there when Esperanza needed her but also betrayal by all the women who ever failed to contradict the romantic mythology of love and sex. Esperanza says, "You're a liar. They all lied. Only his dirty fingernails against my skin, only his sour smell again" (100). Esperanza directs her anger and shame not at the perpetrators of this violent act; she does not have the words, the language with which to direct blame at men, and privileged white men at that, and so she internalizes that sense of blame and accuses women instead. As María Herrera-Sobek explains:
The diatribe is directed not only at Sally the silent interlocutor but at the community of women who keep the truth from the younger generation of women in a conspiracy of silence: silence in not denouncing the 'real' facts of life about sex and its negative aspects in violent sexual encounters, and complicity in embroidering a fairy-tale-like mist around sex and romanticizing and idealizing unrealistic sexual relations.10
In the earlier story "Beautiful and Cruel" Esperanza tells of her desire to become like the movie actresses who are beautiful and cruel. The kind of actress Esperanza most wants to be "is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away" (Mango Street, 89). This image of an empowered woman is quite distinct from the imagery of femininity encountered in popular culture. The character Marin, for example, represents the young victim of patriarchal popular culture. Esperanza recalls that Marin sings popular songs of romantic love, and she tells the younger girls
how Davey the Baby's sister got pregnant and what cream is best for taking off moustache hair and if you count the white flecks on your finger-nails you can know how many boys are thinking of you and lots of other things I can't remember now.
(Mango Street, 27)
Marin's ambition is to work in a department store, where she can look beautiful and wear fashionable clothes and meet someone to marry. Romantic love and personal beauty are the ideologies that inform her sense of herself, her worth, and the direction of her life. Esperanza realizes that Marin is waiting for someone, a man, to come along and take control of her life. She refuses to accept responsibility for her life herself; she places that responsibility with the unknown man for whom she is waiting. As Esperanza imagines, Marin is "waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall, someone to change her life" (27). Unlike the movie actress in the story "Beautiful and Cruel," whatever feminine power Marin possesses she gives away.
But in "Red Clowns," Esperanza tells of her discovery that a "Spanish girl" does not possess any power and that whatever is desired of her will be taken from her by force. Ignorance of her own helplessness is what Esperanza most resents: the deliberate falsehoods that lead her to believe she has a power that always has been denied her. The adults into whom children like Esperanza mature are deceived by their culture about who they are and what they can achieve in their lives. Esperanza's mother uses her own life to warn her daughter of the danger of the ideology of personal beauty. She tells how she left school because she had no nice clothes to wear and only when it was too late did she see the mistake she had made. The lives led by her parents represent for Esperanza the discrepancy between the promises made by her culture and the reality of the life that is actually delivered. Her parents believe that hard work will be rewarded in material ways. They live in the expectation that life will become easier and their next house will be bigger and better. Eventually Esperanza stops believing them and the mythology they believe. She refuses to accompany the family on Sunday afternoon drives to admire the houses and gardens of rich Anglo-Americans—the people for whom her parents and neighbors toil. America promises its citizens more than it is willing to deliver; but Chicano culture promises its little girls less than they are capable of achieving—a life of drudgery, servitude, and self-denial.
Cisneros's treatment of sexuality is divided between a celebration of the power of a demythologized feminine sexuality and a powerful awareness of misogyny and the control of women through the control of their sexuality. The control of bodily appearance, how the female body is represented in words and in flesh, is a powerful strategy for the control of women's minds. In the language of patriarchy, femininity is defined closely with the female body. It is because she is a woman that Alicia must rise before dawn to do her dead mother's work before she goes to school. Alicia is told that "a woman's place is sleeping so she can wake up early with the tortilla star" (Mango Street, 31) to begin another day of cooking, cleaning, and serving her family. Female identity is inscribed upon the feminine body, as the girls speculate about the true function of women's hips:
They're good for holding a baby when you're cooking, Rachel says.…You need them to dance, says Lucy.…You gott a know how to walk with hips, practice you know—like if half of you wanted to go one way and the other half the other.
(Mango Street, 49)
It is in terms of feminine usefulness to men—as entertainment (dancing), bearing and raising children, cooking, appearing sexually attractive—that the female body derives its usefulness, not as the representation of individual or feminine subjectivity. So the feminine is defined in objective terms, as women appear to men, rather than the subjective terms of feminine experience.
Many women are trapped within these cultural constructs. They find their femininity represented in a language that serves the interests of men and the masculine view of the world. Consequently, these women are unable to describe, even to themselves, the reasons for their suffering. The title story of Woman Hollering Creek tells of the young woman Cleófilas, who is brought to Texas from Mexico by the husband she hopes will transform her life into the kind of romance she knows from magazines, novels, and telenovelas.
Cleófilas thought her life would have to be like that, like a telenovela, only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight.
She discovers instead a life of neglect, abuse, beatings, loneliness. This is until a nurse introduces her to an entirely different kind of woman—someone who will help her leave her violent husband and return to Mexico, someone who suggests that the "hollering" for which the creek is named does not have to signify only sadness or anger but perhaps also defiance, a bold assertion of femininity and the will to self-determination. This woman, Felice, introduces Cleófilas to a whole new perspective on femininity and a range of previously unthinkable possibilities for living her life. Felice fractures the patriarchal narratives of womanhood that have constrained Cleófilas's thinking about herself and her potential.
Cisneros devotes much of her work to this effort of fracturing the powerful narratives of femininity that serve the interests of the patriarchy. Not limited to deconstructing patriarchal gender definitions, Cisneros also devotes her energies to telling about her sexuality but from her own feminine point of view, which is emphatically not a male point of view. This is the significance of Cisneros's "wicked, wicked ways," the title of her 1987 volume of poems. She is "wicked" in that she has reappropriated, taken control of, her own sexuality and the articulation of it—a power forbidden to women under patriarchy. Her wickedness is that of defying a patriarchally constructed boundary separating that which is legitimate for a woman from that which is not. The "loose woman," described in the poem of the same name, assumes mythological proportions as a consequence of her subversive powers: "They say I'm a beast … a bitch. / Or witch … the woman of myth and bullshit.…By all accounts I am / a danger to society. / I'm Pancha Villa" (Loose Woman, 112-13, 2.1, 4-5, 24)—come to save the women! This loose woman breaks laws, disregards religion, terrorizes men; "In other words, I'm anarchy" (Loose Woman, 114, 1.47).
The poems collected in Loose Woman enact a defiant reclamation of feminine sexuality—for example, "I Let Him Take Me," "I Am So in Love I Grow a New Hymen," "Black Lace Bra Kind of Woman," "Down There," "A Man in My Bed Like Cracker Crumbs," and "Loose Woman." Titles such as these are indicative of the boisterous humor, the earthiness, the extrovert energy of these poems. All are short, all set a scene and implicitly tell a tale, and all speak in powerful images that celebrate a demythologized femininity. A "black lace bra kind of woman" is a "loose woman," a woman who defies the polite rules governing feminine behavior, a woman who has "rambled / her '59 Pontiac between the blurred / lines dividing sense from senselessness" (Loose Woman, 78, 2.7-9). She is dangerous, the kind every girl's mother warned against: "Ruin your clothes, she will. / Get you home way after hours" (2.10-11). This kind of woman is reckless in her enjoyment of her life, her self, her body, and the poem celebrates this vibrant state of being: "And now the good times are coming. Girl, / I tell you, the good times are here" (2.17-18).
In the poem "Down There" Cisneros creates a vocabulary with which to write poetry about the reality of women's bodies. She does this not only to make of feminine sexuality a legitimate subject for poetry but also to challenge the decorum governing the ways in which the female body has been represented in poetry. The poem begins by administering a shock to poetic decorum: "Your poem thinks it's bad. / Because it farts in the bath. / Cracks its knuckles in class. / Grabs its balls in public" (Loose Woman, 79, 2.1-4). The poem is characterized initially by a sequence of "bad" macho habits: farting, peeing in the pool, picking one's nose, spitting, and swaggering like a macho John Wayne or Rambo. Then the tone shifts slightly and the poem is likened to objects rather than behaviors: a used condom, testicle skin, a lone pubic hair, a cigarette stub "sent hissing / to the piss pot" (2.59-60), half-finished beer bottles—in short, "the miscellany of maleness" (1.64). In these stanzas the poem is deliberately offensive, the images deliberately shocking, an outrageous violation of poetic decorum. But then comes Cisneros's ironic twist: as she turns to the central (the real) subject of her poem, the language assumes a more serious, decorous, "poetic" tone, yet the subject itself is an outrageous violation of patriarchal poetic decorum—"men-struation": "Yes,/Iwantto talk at length about Men-/ struation. Or my period" (2.88-90). The ironic hyphenation of "men-struation" draws attention to the gendered fashion in which women's and men's bodies enter poetic discourse. Cisneros goes on to describe this feminine blood as the link between sexuality and creativity: "I'd like to dab my fingers / in my inkwell / and write a poem across the wall. / 'A Poem of Womanhood'" (2.120-23). But this poem is not just made of a woman's experience and produced by a woman; it is also for women and of them; it is representative of the commonality of all women: "Words writ in blood. But no, / not blood at all, I told you. / If blood is thicker than water, then / menstruation is thicker than brother-/ hood" (2.125-29). It is in the true and authentic representation of feminine experience, including the reality of feminine sexuality, that women will find the solidarity that comes from shared gender experiences. Only by casting off the poetic stereotypes of patriarchal discourse will women overcome the divisive effects of those stereotypes and discover the potential for joy in their own bodies that is denied them.
Cisneros describes the discovery of this potential for joy, this subversive enjoyment of one's own sexuality, as a source of power for women: "Sexyness [sic], I think, it's a great feeling of self-empowerment."11 She has been criticized both by other women and by men for some of the forms taken by this celebration of her sexuality, such as the highly suggestive photograph of Cisneros as "vamp" that adorns the cover of My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Cisneros describes that photography:
The cover is of a woman appropriating her own sexuality. In some ways, that's also why it's wicked; the scene is trespassing that boundary by saying 'I defy you. I'm going to tell my own story.'12
Cisneros goes on to describe her dismay when women failed to perceive the transgressive meaning of her gesture. She reports the following encounter, when
some feminist asked: 'How could you, a feminist, pose like lewd cheesecake to sell your book?' And that offended me. At first I was hurt, then I thought about it and said: 'Wait a second, where's your sense of humor? And why can't a feminist be sexy?'13
The breaking of sexist stereotypes cuts both ways in Cisneros's work, against both the male and female limits that can be placed upon feminine sexuality. The transgression of patriarchal taboos is an important aspect of Cisneros's work as a Chicana writer. Sandra Cisneros is under no illusions about the power of feminine sexuality as a weapon used against women. She recognizes that in the context of the barrio, or any poor neighborhood, feminine sexuality is equated with vulnerability: "I was writing about it [the barrio] in the most real sense I knew, as a person walking those neighborhoods with a vagina," she says in reference to her subject in The House on Mango Street.14
Cisneros is not coy when it comes to articulating clearly the reasons why women become trapped in situations of extreme oppression. Fear of violence, sexual violence especially, is one of the prime strategies by which women are kept under control. Poverty, illiteracy, inability to speak English—these reinforce and exaggerate the coercive effect of patriarchal violence by limiting the mobility and opportunities of women. In poetry Cisneros carves out a space for these subjects and the words with which to articulate them. In "Still Life with Potatoes, Pearls, Raw Meat, Rhinestones, Lard, and Horses Hooves," for example, she contrasts the myth of genteel poverty with the reality of life in Mexican San Antonio: "poverty's not quaint when it's your house you can't escape from. / Decay's not beautiful to the decayed" (Loose Woman, 109, 2.37-38).
Although Cisneros does not flinch from depicting the squalor and deprivation of the life lived by many Chicanos, she does not dwell upon these hardships. Mexican history and mythology offer a rich vocabulary of poetic allusions with which to represent the complexity of a dual cultural heritage. In particular Cisneros addresses the issue of Mexican role models: "We're raised in a Mexican culture that has two role models: La Malinche y la Virgen de Guadalupe. And you know that's hard route to go, one or the other, there's no in-betweens."15 The virgin and the whore—these categories of "good" versus "bad" women are complicated by the perception, shared by many Chicana feminists, that they risk betrayal of the people if they pursue an alternative construction of femininity that is perceived to be Anglo. In her 1986 essay "Cactus Flowers: In Search of Tejana Feminist Poetry" Cisneros questions the playful tone of some Chicana feminist poetry that dares to criticize Chicano men only to a certain point, a point from which the poet can "slip back into the safety zone and say 'just kidding.'"16 She asks of the poet under discussion, Angela de Hoyos, in her collection Woman, Woman:
Why is de Hoyos afraid to fall out of the graces of the males whom she is obviously angry with? Is she afraid of being labelled a Malinchista by them, corrupted by gringa influences which threaten to splinter her people?17
Threats to Chicana self-definition come, then, from Angla America as well as from the machismo of Chicano culture.
As a Chicana feminist Cisneros needs to revise aspects of her hybrid culture as a woman: that is, both by using her power as a woman and by challenging those aspects of her double cultural inheritance that prescribe what she as a woman can be. In order to do this Cisneros claims a symbolic vocabulary of Aztec allusions in her poems and in stories such as "Never Marry a Mexican," which is discussed above. For instance, the poem "You Bring Out the Mexican in Me" works through a frenetic list of all those things that comprise "Mexicanness." Throughout the poem this notion of Mexicanness has encompassed multitudes, including the most radical opposites (Loose Woman, 4-6). From "the filth goddess Tlazolteotl … the swallower of sins … the lust goddess without guilt" to the Virgin, this poem and the subjectivity it describes aspire toward a kind of unity that can never be unitary, that is always predicated on conflict, the "Aztec love of war," the "pre-Columbian death and destruction," the "rain forest disaster, nuclear threat … Mexico City '85 earthquake," extremes of passion. In poems such as this Cisneros claims her right to the inheritance passed down to her by Aztec women, the conquered women who survived despite the Virgin's people. Catholicism is a powerful legacy, but the pagan legacy is just as potent. In poems such as "You Bring Out the Mexican in Me" Cisneros uses this pagan force to resist the gender stereotypes of Catholicism and the guilt with which they are enforced.
Traces of these stereotypes are to be found in every household, in every Chicano/a community. Cisneros's commitment to the cultura y raza is represented by the extension of the family to encompass the entire community. In her stories family members are often evaluated for their effectiveness as role models in the ongoing effort to resist oppressive patterns of behavior. This is especially true of female relatives: mother, aunts, comadres, girl cousins, abuelitas. The lives that make up the family are subjected to a subtle ideological analysis to reveal the conditions of their entrapment. An ironic commentary on this analytical watchfulness is represented in the story "Barbie-Q." The title itself is a pun—signifying both the universal attraction of Barbie dolls for all little girls and also the fact that the dolls our narrator can afford to own are those salvaged from a warehouse fire:
So what if our Barbies smell like smoke.…And if the prettiest doll, Barbie's MOD'ern cousin Francie with real eyelashes, eyelash brush included, has a left foot that's melted a little—so?
(Woman Hollering Creek, 16)
The narrator has absorbed the merchandising rhetoric together with the values represented by the doll. Consequently the vignette is presented in a tone of naive defiance of those socioeconomic pressures that will ensure these little girls never can meet the standard of feminine beauty signified by the doll. The doll is both role model (in terms of body image, at least) and evidence of the exclusion of Chicanas from governing Anglo definitions of femininity.
In The House on Mango Street Esperanza learns first what she does not want to be and then learns what she has the potential to become. She is named for a great-grandmother who was dominated by her husband and spent her life sitting at her window looking out, thinking of all the things she might have been. There are the characters Marin, the neighbor who has been brought from Puerto Rico to baby-sit her young cousins and look for a husband; Minerva, who writes poetry but is trapped physically in an abusive marriage; Esperanza's mother, who speaks two languages and sings opera but is too scared to go downtown because she cannot speak English; and Sally, who marries to escape her violent father. But then there are the comadres, the three sisters, who tell Esperanza that she must escape in order to come back for those who cannot find a way out themselves; it is for them she must always remember:
A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can't erase what you know. You can't forget who you are.
(Mango Street, 105)
And Alicia repeats this lesson: if life on Mango Street is ever to improve, then it will be because people like Esperanza have made it better. In response to Esperanza's insistence that she does not belong and does not want to belong, Alicia insists that not only is Esperanza shaped by the culture of Mango Street, but she will return to change it because, she asks, "Who's going to do it? The mayor? And the thought of the mayor coming to Mango Street makes me laugh out loud" (Mango Street, 107). It is as a writer that Esperanza must struggle to make that difference, because politicians will not. No one else will do it.
It is as an artist that Esperanza discovers how she can make a difference to life on Mango Street. But the altruistic aspect of her writing is slow to dawn upon her. This is because the Chicana artist needs to be selfish in order to have the time to write. Cisneros has written of her mother who let her read and study in her room rather than do her chores; later it was her family who provided financial assistance when she needed it.18 The Chicana writer needs to resist the traditional lifestyles available to Mexican American women: marriage and children would leave no time and no energy for creativity. Cisneros tells how even a regular job can threaten the concentration of energy necessary for writing. "I would like a wife, instead of a husband, because then he could take care of the kids," she jokes.19 For the woman writer, marriage means a burden of housework with which creative work cannot compete. The solitary time needed for thinking and writing is incompatible with marriage—but this is the traditional lifestyle for the Chicana who is expected to move from the father's house to that of the husband. The private mental space in which the creative process occurs is crucially related to physical space and interpersonal space.
It is no accident, then, that the house provides a controlling metaphor in The House on Mango Street and that Esperanza's growing awareness of herself as an artist is tied to her need to discover a space of her own; a place to think her own thoughts and to write them down in an appropriate silence. The characters Aunt Lupe and Minerva in The House on Mango Street seek in poetry both a refuge from their oppressive lives and an authentic kind of freedom that resolves rather than simply eludes the conflicts that characterize their experience of subjectivity. But these women have no space to call their own. Esperanza experiences the house in which she lives as a metaphor for her entire sense of self. In the first vignette she describes the shame evoked by a nun's words: "You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing. There. I lived there" (Mango Street, 5). From this humiliation comes a determination to live in a "real" house. And with this real house will come a firm and stable sense of being, in place of the nothingness evoked by the nun. Esperanza sees an image of herself reflected in the nun's face and in her words; as a poet Esperanza is able to use words to construct both a means of escape and a means to return to the house on Mango Street.
Poetry, writing, becomes in Cisneros's work much more than words on a page. Poetry is the real business of living because the writing process engages the poet in the difficult business of contesting all those cultural pressures that are placed upon the ethnic woman. To live in freedom and to be free to write are complementary aspects of the same effort at self-liberation. As a consequence, Cisneros writes many poems about poetry, poems that deliberately confuse poetry with other passionate engagements. "I Let Him Take Me," for instance, misleads the reader by using the language of romantic love in such a way that the poetic muse is personified as a lover. But we are aware only of the lover—until the final line. Then the love which is sneered at by others, the love at which the poet labors and which she nurtures, and the lover who "never disappointed, / hurt, abandoned" is dramatically identified as "Husband, love, my life—/ poem" (Loose Woman, 11, 2.15-16, 17-18).
The discovery and protection of a space in which to be alone is one of the threads that unifies the vignettes of The House on Mango Street. The narrative sequence develops as a Kunstlerroman—a portrait of the artist as a young Chicana. In their instructive essay "Growing Up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros" Erlinda González-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo contrast the characteristics of the male coming-of-age narrative with Cisneros's narrative style in The House on Mango Street.20 Esperanza first learns to see herself as an artist and then realizes how to be an artist by discovering a mission that is defined by what she can do for all the women, not just herself. Her escape from the barrio must be instructive, for then it can be true freedom based on acceptance rather than self-denial. Esperanza wants not simply to escape or transcend her surroundings, for however brief a time; she embraces literature as a potent opportunity to take control over her own life's story. Agency, in the determination of her self and her life, is what writing offers. Speaking as a Chicana, Cisneros explains:
None of us wants to abandon our culture. We're very Mexican, we're all very Chicanas. Part of being Mexican is that love and affinity we have for our cultura. We're very family centered, and that family extends to the whole Raza. We don't want to be exiled from our people.21
Though many of her characteristic themes and subjects are shared in both her poetry and fiction, the two forms appear quite distinct to Cisneros—opposed almost:
Poetry is the art of telling the truth, and fiction is the art of lying. The scariest thing to me is writing poetry, because you're looking at yourself desnuda. You're always looking at the part of you that you don't show anybody.22
But at the center of that self-scrutiny is the core of truth that Cisneros identifies as the poem itself. In radical contrast fiction is as extroverted as poetry is introverted: "the definition of a story is something that someone wants to listen to. If someone doesn't want to listen to you, then it's not a story."23 Cisneros's poems do tell stories, but in a compact, economical, and highly imagistic fashion. Her poetry is a kind of storytelling; it can be narrative in this way. But more striking is the highly poetic and evocative quality of Cisneros's fiction.
Several commentators have remarked upon the richly poetic, allusive quality of Cisneros's prose, and she, remarking upon the formal indeterminacy of The House on Mango Street, describes how she wanted to create stories that read like compact and lyrical poems, formed into a collection that could be read at any point in the sequence or as a single narrative.24 The literary structures Cisneros uses are as multifaceted as her cultural identity. In seeking to forge a language that will express but not misrepresent her experiences Cisneros, like many Chicana writers, encounters a number of difficulties. First, there is the question of language and the competing claims of English and Spanish to prominence in her work. Second, many of the canonical literary styles within the American tradition were created to express the realities of masculine experience. Even those forms suited to feminine expression manifest an Anglo vision of the world. Cisneros, along with many of her Chicana sisters, confronts the twin difficulties of writing as a woman and as a Chicana every time she begins to write. The patriarchal bias of Chicano culture and the Anglo bias of American women's culture represent the twin obstacles of sexism and racism that Chicanas must negotiate in order to write authentically. American English is commonly perceived as a language of duplicity, the language of treaty violation, the voice of the master. English threatens to corrupt Chicana expression just as Anglo-American cultural values corrupt the Mexican American community. Cisneros writes mostly but not exclusively in a hybrid English that is required to accommodate Spanish words and phrases. She describes in a witty bilingual fashion the choice she made to write in English as resulting from her lack of familiarity with the nuances of a Spanish-language culture:
I never write in Spanish, y no es que no quiero sino que I don't have that same palate in Spanish that I do in English. No tengo esa facilidad. I think the only way you get that palate is by living in a culture where you hear it, where the language is not something in a book or in your dreams. It's on the loaf of bread you buy, it's on the radio jingle, it's on the graffiti you see, it's on your ticket stub. It must be all encompassing.25
But Cisneros's command of idiom is most striking. The narrative voice of The House on Mango Street captures the nuances of a child's expression, balanced against the demands of the vocabulary of adulthood into which Esperanza is entering. Cisneros favors the first-person mode of address, and it is this quasi-confessional, seemingly autobiographical style that lends her work (in fiction and poetry) such immediacy and such power.
Power is a word that recurs constantly when describing Sandra Cisneros's writing. She has described the Chicana writer as someone who is necessarily an obsessive. By virtue of who she is and the circumstances of her birth, the Chicana writer has no leisure to pursue the aesthetic just for its own sake. She is motivated not so much by inspiration but by the need to articulate pressing issues and to give expression to the ghosts that haunt her.26 "Night Madness Poem" describes this compulsion to seek relief in the crafting of words. The poem that seeks expression is likened to "A pea under twenty eiderdowns./Asadness in my heart like stone" (Loose Woman, 49, 2.3-4). As the poem continues, we realize that the words Cisneros wants to speak are to the absent lover she cannot telephone, but these are also the words of her poetry. Frustrated love and frustrated writing merge and are confused, so the poem ends with a challenge: "Choose your weapon. / Mine—the telephone, my tongue" (2.30-31). The struggle for language in which to represent the realities of her experience is the subject of poems such as "By Way of Explanation," in which she uses geography to describe her body: her knees, "devout Moroccans," her hands "twin comedies / from Pago Pago," "The breasts / to your surprise / Gaugin's Papeete" (Wicked Ways, 92, 2.23, 24-26, 30-31). Cisneros deliberately includes the physical body in her poetry in order to contest the assumption that bodily existence is not an appropriate subject for poetry and also to challenge the idea that the body and bodily functions ought not to be spoken of.
This silence is a form of ignorance that oppresses women in particular by keeping them from knowledge of the power they can access through their physical femininity and by promoting feelings of shame and guilt about their sexuality. In the essay "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess" Cisneros discusses her own inherited ignorance of her body and her sexuality. She exclaims,
No wonder, then, it was too terrible to think about a doctor—a man!—looking at you down there when you could never bring yourself to look at yourself. ¡Ay, nunca! How could I acknowledge my sexuality, let alone enjoy sex, with so much guilt? In the guise of modesty my culture locked me in a double chastity belt of ignorance and vergüenza, shame.27
Many of the poems in My Wicked, Wicked Ways address and affirm the poet's transgressive sexuality: in poems about adultery (for example, "For All Tuesday Travellers" and "Amé, Amo, Amaré"), about sexual obsession (such as "Drought"), and about her sensuality and sexual attraction to men (in "Sensuality Plunging Barefoot into Thorns").
The 1992 preface to the reprinted collection is itself a poem that establishes the context for the poems and introduces the primary themes: the difficult choice to become a writer, the transgression of family and cultural expectation: "A woman like me / whose choice was rolling pin or factory / An absurd vice, this wicked wanton / writer's life" (Wicked Ways, x). The poem "His Story" develops this theme by presenting the father's view of his nonconformist daughter. He searches among family precedents for women who have trespassed across the borders of approved feminine behavior, trying to find an explanation for his sorrow. The poem concludes with the poet's reflection on her father's explorations: "An unlucky fate is mine / to be born woman in a family of men"; and her father's lament: "Six sons, my father groans, / all home. / And one female, / gone" (Wicked Ways, 38-39, 2.33-34, 35-38). The poems that follow this preface are then presented as the offspring of her union with the poetic muse: a brood of "colicky kids / who fussed and kept / me up the wicked nights" (Wicked Ways, xii). And in poems such as "The Poet Reflects on Her Solitary Fate," Cisneros describes the compulsion to write, the need to express her creativity: "The house is cold. / There is nothing on TV. / She must write poems" (Wicked Ways, 37, 2.13-15).
Though this poem, like all of Cisneros's work, is intensely personal she has discovered how to uncover the subtle and intricate web of connections that bind the personal with the cultural. Cisneros begins with personal experiences, feelings, and thoughts and suggests the complex ways in which these attributes of the private self have been shaped, prescribed, and monitored by cultural, racial, political, and economic forces. Her sense of responsibility as a writer is conceived in terms of these social and cultural influences. She explains that she is the first woman in her family to assume a public voice through writing, to take upon herself the power to speak and find that she is heard.28 This privilege brings with it a responsibility to witness the lives and to register the worlds of those who remain invisible: the powerless, the silent. Cisneros tells of how she admires the poetry of Emily Dickinson and what she took to be Dickinson's ability to live both domestic and artistic lives simultaneously. Then Cisneros discovered Dickinson's housekeeper, the woman who performed the routine chores to keep the household running, freeing Dickinson to pursue her intellectual work. Cisneros describes how Emily Dickinson's housekeeper helped her to recognize the enormous contribution her own mother made to enable the young Sandra to read and write when instead she should have been washing dishes.29
In a sense, then, Cisneros's work is dedicated to her mother and to Emily Dickinson's housekeeper, the women who are forgotten but who made possible the lives of other literary women. In her essay "Cactus Flowers" Cisneros describes the courage it takes to define oneself as a Chicana writer:
To admit you are a writer takes a great deal of audacity. To admit you are a feminist takes even greater courage. It is admirable then when Chicana writers elect to redefine and reinvent themselves through their writing.30
To be a writer is, for Sandra Cisneros, to have the opportunity to do something for the silenced women and for all women by inventing new paradigms, by defining new Chicana voices, and by living as a liberated feminine subject of the story she has written for herself.
- Pilar E. Rodríguez Aranda, "On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros," Americas Review 18 (Spring 1990): 64.
- See Sandra Cisneros, "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," Americas Review 15:1 (1987): 69-72.
- Cherríe Moraga, jacket blurb, Sandra Cisneros, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987); rpt. (New York: Alfred K. Knopf, 1995).
- Aranda, "Interview," 66.
- Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street (1984); rpt. (London: Bloomsbury, 1992), 10. Future page references are given in the text.
- María Elena de Valdés, "The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, "in Gender, Self, and Society Proceedings of IV International Conference on the Hispanic Cultures of the United States, ed. Renate von Bardelben (Frankfurt, Germany: Peter Lang, 1993), 293.
- Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991); rpt. (London: Bloomsbury, 1993), 69. Subsequent page references are given in the text.
- Marcela Christine Lucero-Trujillo, "The Dilemma of the Modern Chicana Artist and Critic," in The Third Woman: Minority Women Writers of the United States, ed. Dexter Fisher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1980), 330.
- María Herrera-Sobek, "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction," in Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature, ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, special issue, Americas Review 15, no. 3, 4 (Fall-Winter 1987): 178.
- Aranda, "Interview," 69.
- Ibid., 68.
- Ibid., 69.
- Ibid., 65.
- Sandra Cisneros, "Cactus Flowers: In Search of Tejana Feminist Poetry," Third Woman 3:1,2 (1986): 74.
- Ibid. 74.
- Aranda, "Interview," 79.
- Ibid., 71.
- Erlinda González-Berry and Tey Diana Rebolledo, "Growing Up Chicano: Tomás Rivera and Sandra Cisneros," Revista Chicano Requeña 13.3-4 (1985): 109-19.
- Aranda, "Interview," 66.
- Ibid., 75.
- Ibid., 76.
- See Sandra Cisneros, "Do You Know Me? I Wrote The House on Mango Street," Americas Review 15 (Spring 1987): 78.
- Aranda, "Interview," 74.
- See Cisneros, "Ghosts and Voices," 73.
- Sandra Cisneros, "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess," in Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, ed. Ana Castillo (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996), 46.
- See Sandra Cisneros, "Notes to a Young(er) Writer," Americas Review 15 (Spring 1987): 76.
- Ibid., 75.
- Cisneros, "Cactus Flowers," 79.
Cisneros, Sandra. Bad Boys. Chicano Chapbook No. 8. 1980.
——. "Cactus Flowers: In Search of Tejana Feminist Poetry." Third Woman 3, nos. 1 and 2 (1986): 73-80.
——. "Do You Know Me? I Wrote The House on Mango Street." Americas Review 15 (Spring 1987): 77-79.
——. "From a Writer's Notebook. Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession." Americas Review 15 (Spring 1987): 69-73.
——. "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession." Americas Review 15, no. 1 (1987): 69-72.
——. "Guadalupe the Sex Goddess." In Goddess of the Americas: Writings on the Virgin of Guadalupe, edited by Ana Castillo, 46-51. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
——. The House on Mango Street. 1984. 2d rev. ed. Houston: Arte Público, 1988.
——. "Living as a Writer: Choice and Circumstance." Feminist Writers Guild 10 (February 1987): 8-9.
——. Loose Woman. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994.
——. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1987.
——. "Notes to a Young(er) Writer." Americas Review 15 (Spring 1987): 74-76.
——. "Only Daughter." In Máscaras, edited by Lucha Corpi, 120-23. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1997.
——. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 1991.
——. "A Writer's Voyages." Texas Observer, 25 September 1987, pp. 18-19.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1129
Cisneros, Sandra, Feroza Jussawalla, and Reed Way Dasen-brock. "Sandra Cisneros." In Writing Women's Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by Twentieth-Century American Women Writers, edited by Susan Cahill, pp. 459-68. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.
Cisneros discusses political, economic, and social concerns, racial issues, and her literary influences.
Brunk, Beth L. "En otras voces: Multiple Voices in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." Hispanofila, no. 133 (September 2001): 137-50.
Analyzes Cisneros's narrative style in The House on Mango Street and the underlying reasons behind these narrative techniques.
Cisneros, Sandra, and Gayle Elliot. "An Interview with Sandra Cisneros." Missouri Review 25, no. 1 (2002): 95-109.
Cisneros explains her political and social motivations, her use of short story and full novel forms, and the importance and power of language.
Curiel, Barbara Brinson. "The General's Pants: A Chicana Feminist (re)Vision of the Mexican Revolution in Sandra Cisneros's 'Eyes of Zapata'." Western American Literature 35, no. 4 (winter 2001): 403-27.
Examines Cisneros's demythologizing of Emiliano Zapata by retelling history through the eyes of Ines, his lover. Through this retelling, Cisneros provides a voice to the many voiceless and almost anonymous women throughout history.
——. "Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. "In Reading U.S. Latina Writers: Remapping American Literature, edited by Alvina E. Quitana, pp. 51-60. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Discusses the major themes in the stories in Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, and analyzes Cisneros's dual role as feminist writer and Latina/o culturist.
Doyle, Jacqueline. "More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." MELUS 19, no. 4 (winter 1994): 5-53.
Evaluates the differences between majority, white feminism and the feminism of minorities by studying differences between Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and Cisneros's The House on Mango Street. Also analyzes feminist ideas of claiming language and space as tools for empowerment.
——. "Haunting the Borderlands: La Llorona in Sandra Cisneros's 'Woman Hollering Creek'." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 16, no. 1 (15 May 1996): 53-70.
Chronicles the struggles of Cleofilas, the protagonist in the short story "Woman Hollering Creek." Cleofilas attempts to control her destiny in a male-dominated society; she is haunted by and grateful to the women in history who shaped her life and have fought within and against the patriarchal system.
Ganz, Robin. "Sandra Cisneros: Border Crossings and Beyond." MELUS 19, no. 1 (spring 1994): 19-29.
Provides biographical information about Cisneros and examines her body of work, noting its poetic prose, medley of narrative voices, and representation of marginalized and silenced people.
González, Myrna-Yamil. "Female Voices in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street. "In U.S. Latino Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and Teachers, edited by Harold Augenbraum and Margarite Fernández Olmos, pp. 101-11. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.
Provides discussion of Esperanza's feminist empowerment in The House on Mango Street, examining her taking control of language, home, and her body in the book.
Herrera, Andrea O'Reilly. "'Chambers of Consciousness': Sandra Cisneros and the Development of the Self in the BIG House on Mango Street." In Having Our Way: Woman Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America (Bucknell Review Series, Vol. 39, No. 1), edited by Harriet Pollack, pp. 191-204. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1995.
Explores the symbolic aspects of space, room, and home in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.
Herrera-Sobek, Maria. "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction." Americas Review 15, no. 3-4 (fall-winter 1987): 171-81.
Details the use of rape scenes in contemporary Chicana literature as a theme that reinforces the lack of power women experience in a male-dominated society.
Randall, Margaret. "Weaving a Spell." Women's Review of Books 20, no. 1 (October 2002): 1-3.
Provides a positive assessment of Caramelo.
Rangil, Viviana. "Pro-Claiming a Space: The Poetry of Sandra Cisneros and Judith Ortiz Cofer." MultiCultural Review 9, no. 3 (September 2000): 48-51.
Analyzes the dual marginality of Latinas, and uses examples of poetry by Cisneros and Ortiz Cofer to highlight the difficulties faced by women who must fight for both cultural and sexual identity.
Rojas, Maythee G. "Cisneros's 'Terrible' Women: Recuperating the Erotic as a Feminist Source in "Never Marry a Mexican' and 'Eyes of Zapata'." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 20, no. 3 (1999): 135-57.
Studies Cisneros's female protagonists' physical and sexual journeys from male receptacles and possessed objects to self-directed, non-subordinate bodies, and explores the mental and spiritual changes that accompany these efforts.
Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. "Mujeres en Lucha/Mujeres de Fuerza: Women in Struggle/Women of Strength in Sandra Cisneros's Border Narratives." In Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature, pp. 81-123. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Illuminates the many borders that appear in Cisneros's poems and short stories, such as physical boundaries, economical chasms, and gender-based demarcations—and her protagonists' attempts to not only cross, but erase these borders.
Szadziuk, Maria. "Culture as Transition: Becoming a Woman in Bi-ethnic Space." Mosaic 32, no. 3 (September 1999): 109-29.
Examines the works of Cisneros, Esmeralda Santiago, and Cherríe Moraga, and explores the authors' similar themes of displacement, their characters' quests for identity, and women's interrelationships.
de Valdes, Maria Elena. "In Search of Identity in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." Canadian Review of American Studies 23, no. 1 (fall 1992): 55-72.
Examines the connecting themes that run throughout the stories in The House on Mango Street, demonstrates the poetic quality of Cisneros's writing, and chronicles the protagonist's development toward self-possession.
Wyatt, Jean. "On Not Being La Malinche: Border Negotiations of Gender in Sandra Cisneros's 'Never Marry a Mexican' and 'Woman Hollering Creek'." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 14, no. 2 (fall 1995): 243-71.
Stresses Cisneros's protagonists' efforts to break away from the traditional stereotypical portraits of Mexican woman—typically either as mother/wife or manipulator/whore. Wyatt asserts that the characters attempt to claim sexuality, freedom, and personal space without being labeled or defined by men.
Yarbo-Bejarano, Yvonne. "Chicana Literature from a Chicana Feminist Perspective." Americas Review 15, no. 3-4 (fall-winter 1987): 139-45.
Illustrates the importance of writing as an instrument for liberation for Chicanas, providing a voice for previously silenced and marginalized women.
OTHER SOURCES FROM GALE:
Additional coverage of Cisneros's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vols. 9, 53; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 64, 118; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 69, 118; Contemporary Women Poets; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 122, 152; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Feminist Writers; Hispanic Literature Criticism; Hispanic Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Latino and Latina Writers, Vol. 1; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 5; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Ed. 2; Major 20th-Century Writers, Ed. 2; Novels for Students, Vol. 2; Poetry Criticism, Vol. 52; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 3, 13; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 32; and World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 1.