Sandra Cisneros Cisneros, Sandra (Feminism in Literature) - Essay

Introduction

(Feminism in Literature)

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.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

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).

MAJOR WORKS

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.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

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.

Principal Works

(Feminism in Literature)

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

Primary Sources

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 1293 words.)

General Commentary

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 9349 words.)

The House on Mango Street

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 4797 words.)

Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories

(Feminism in Literature)

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?”...

(The entire section is 4969 words.)

Caramelo

(Feminism in Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 2859 words.)

Further Reading

(Feminism in Literature)

Biography

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.

Criticism

Brunk, Beth L. "En otras voces: Multiple Voices in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." Hispanofila, no. 133 (September 2001): 137-50.

...

(The entire section is 1129 words.)