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...
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