Sandra Cisneros Cisneros, Sandra (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Sandra Cisneros 1954-

American short story writer and poet. See also Sandra Cisneros Poetry Criticism, Sandra Cisneros Literary Criticism (Volume 193), Sandra Cisneros Literary Criticism (Volume 118), and Woman Hollering Creek Criticism.

Drawing upon her childhood experiences and ethnic heritage as the daughter of a Mexican father and a Chicana mother, Cisneros addresses poverty, cultural suppression, self-identity, and gender roles in her fiction and poetry. She is perhaps best known for her award-winning The House on Mango Street (1983), a volume of loosely structured vignettes focusing on adolescent rite of passage and the treatment of women in a distinctly chicano community. The House on Mango Street, as well as Cisneros's more recent collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991), have won critical acclaim for their realistic depiction of the condition of Hispanic women and for their innovative compositional style, which exhibits the overall completeness of a novel, the dynamic energy of a short story, the pointedness of a vignette, and the lyricism of poetry.

Biographical Information

Born in Chicago, Cisneros was the only daughter among seven children. The family frequently moved between the United States and Mexico because of her father's homesickness for his native country and his devotion to his mother who lived there. Cisneros wrote poems and stories throughout her adolescence and college years at Loyola University but did not discover her literary voice until attending the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop in the late 1970s. During a discussion of French philosopher Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space and his metaphor of a house as a realm of stability, Cisneros 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.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Noted for their powerful dialogue, vivid characterizations, and well-crafted prose, Cisneros's short story collections are unique in that they incorporate several genres. Of her short fiction, Cisneros has written: "I wanted to write a collection which could be read at any random point without having any knowledge of what came before or after. Or, that could be read in a series to tell one big story. I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation." Therefore, while each story within her two collections is complete in itself, it is bound to the others by common themes that focus on Hispanic women, divided cultural loyalties, feelings of alienation, sexual and cultural oppression, and degradation associated with poverty. The House on Mango Street features the semi-autobiographical character of Esperanza, a poor, Hispanic adolescent who, humiliated by her family's poverty and dissatisfied with the repressive gender values of her culture, longs for a room of her own and a house of which she can be proud. Esperanza ponders the disadvantages of choosing marriage over education, the importance of writing as an emotional release, and the sense of confusion associated with growing up. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories is a collection of twenty-two narratives revolving around numerous Mexican-American characters living near San Antonio, Texas. Ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages, the stories in this volume contain the interior monologues of individuals who have been assimilated into American culture despite their sense of loyalty to Mexico. In "Never Marry a Mexican," for example, a young Hispanic woman begins to feel contempt for her white lover because of her emerging feelings of inadequacy and cultural guilt resulting from her inability to speak Spanish.

Critical Reception

Critics praise Cisneros's ability to explore conflicts directly related to her upbringing, including divided loyalties, feelings of alienation, and degradation resulting from poverty. Although she addresses important contemporary issues associated with minority status throughout her two collections, critics have described her characters as idiosyncratic, accessible individuals capable of generating compassion on a universal level. Commentators laud her lyrical narratives, vivid dialogue, and powerful descriptions, applauding her poetic depictions of life as a Chicana woman, as well as her deft treatment of such controversial themes as sexism, racism, and poverty.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

The House on Mango Street 1983

Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories 1991

Other Major Works

Bad Boys (poetry) 1980

The Rodrigo Poems (poetry) 1985

My Wicked Wicked Ways (poetry) 1987

Loose Woman (poetry) 1994

Jeff Thomson (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "What is Called Heaven": Identity in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 31, No. 3, Summer, 1994, pp. 415-24.

[In the following essay, Thomson surveys the strong, feminist, female characters in Cisneros's second short fiction collection. ]

"The wars begin here, in our hearts and in our beds" says Inés, witch-woman and "sometime wife" to Emiliano Zapata in "Eyes of Zapata," the most ambitious story of Sandra Cisneros's second collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. In Inés, Cisneros presents a narrator who is capable of seeing both at a distance and up close, who is able to encompass both the physically violent world of Zapata's revolution and the emotionally violent world of love. She is able to see both worlds and, more importantly, understands how the pain of both worlds is merely a manifestation of the same disease—a failure of love. Cisneros says in a voice that is Inés speaking to Zapata but also Cisneros speaking to the reader (the two are easily confused—even Cisneros claims to have woken from a dream believing she was Inés):

We drag these bodies around with us, these bodies that have nothing at all to do with you, with me, with who we really are, these bodies that give us pleasure and pain. Though I've learned how to abandon mine at will, it seems to me we never free ourselves completely until we love, until we lose ourselves inside each other. Then we see a little of what is called heaven. When we can be that close we no longer are Inés and Emiliano, but something bigger than our lives. And we can forgive, finally.

When a writer claims to identify with a character to the extent that she wakes up unsure who is who, one can assume that that character is going to speak deeply and come as close to the truth as fiction can come to the truth of the human heart. This is true of Inés.

Inés is the fully aware feminine self, a woman who has seen her own reality—her people embroiled in a civil war and led by her deceitful, unfaithful husband—and does not flinch or look away. She takes the deepest pain inside herself and through it claims the power of her own identity. Ingesting the pain of her world by facing it head-on gives her strength and the will to persevere: "And I took to eating black things—huitlacoche the corn mushroom, coffee, dark chilies, the bruised part of the fruit, the darkest, blackest things to make me hard and strong." This is the power of Cisneros's women, to see and to remember, to master the pain of the past and understand the confluence of all things; women continue in a cycle of birth and blood; they become themselves through the honest acceptance of the world beyond the body. Cisneros believes women must overcome and change their worlds from the inside out. They must become the "authors" of their own fate.

Yet what sets Inés apart from most of the women in the collection is her acceptance of all pain, not just female pain. She sees the small boy inside Zapata, the boy thrust unprepared into leadership and war; she sees the bodies of the federale corpses hanging in the trees, drying like leather, dangling like earrings; she sees her father, who once turned his back on her, placed with his back against the wall, ready for the firing squad. What particularly defines this story is the acceptance of masculine suffering as well as feminine. "We are all widows," Inés says, "the men as well as the women, even the children. All clinging to the tail of the horse of our jefe Zapata. All of us scarred from these nine years of aguantando—enduring" (original italics). The image of every widow, male or female, clinging to the horse's tail doesn't absolve men from blame for beginning and continuing this war, but at the same time it doesn't exclude them from suffering.

The union of gender, and gender-based ideologies, is essential to the strong, feminine characters of the later stories of Woman Hollering Creek, because for Cisneros it is necessary to include masculine suffering to achieve a total synthesis. Each of the earlier pieces is independent of the others, yet as whole sections they define specific areas of adversity—specifically feminine adversity. The first section, "My Lucy Friend Who Smells like Corn," takes a form similar to that established by Cisneros in her earlier, applauded collection The House on Mango Street—childhood vignettes. The "Lucy Friend" story sets up the paradigm of the Cisneros's female world:

There ain't no boys here. Only girls and one father who is never home hardly and one mother who says Ay! I'm real tired and so many sisters there's no time to count them. . . . I think it would be fun to sleep with sisters you could yell at one at a time or all together, instead of alone on the fold out chair in the living room.

This is a world without men, where the fathers are drunk or absent, the mothers are left to raise the children alone and the only possible salvation is a sisterhood that more often than not fails.

The stories continue in this vein, establishing aspects of an archetypal Chicana female identity. "Eleven" sets up a system of multiple selves like "little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other" and the difficulty of maintaining a unity of self in the face of authority. "Mexican Movies" and "Barbie-Q" are concerned with stereotypes and enforced identity. From her young girl's voice, Cisneros satirizes the portrayals of Mexicans in film by contrasting a Chicana family's daily life with the films of Pedro Infante (his name itself denotes a childlike, false identity) who "always sings riding a horse and wears a big sombrero and never tears the dresses off the ladies, and the ladies throw flowers from balconies and usually somebody dies, but not Pedro Infante because he has to sing the happy song at the end." Although the barrio life of Cisneros's families is usually far from wealthy, here at least she presents us with a world of safety and security, where the false happiness of women tossing flowers from balconies doesn't interfere with the games the sisters play in the aisles. And then

The movie ends. The Lights go on. Somebody picks us up . . . carries us in the cold to the car that smells like ashtrays. . . . [B]y now we're awake but it's nice to go on pretending with our eyes shut because here's the best part. Mama and Papa carry us upstairs to the third-floor where we live, take off our shoes and cover us, so when we wake up it's Sunday already, and we're in our beds and happy.

The satire is so subtle that one is led to believe the girls and perhaps even her parents do not see the films as stereotypes that limit their ability to be accepted in the white world, but the reader is obviously meant to.

Similarly, in "Barbie-Q" Cisneros attacks artificial feminine stereotypes that are epitomized in every Barbie doll. The narrator and her companion play Barbies with two basic dolls and an invisible Ken (again a comment on the absence of male figures in the culture) until there's a sale on smoke damaged dolls. When the girls are able to buy an assortment of new dolls, Cisneros asks, in a bitingly satiric tone, "And if the prettiest doll, Barbie's MOD'ern cousin Francie . . . has a left foot that's melted a little—so? If you dress her in her new 'Prom Pinks' outfit, satin splendor with matching coat, gold belt, clutch and hair bow included, so long as you don't lift her dress, right—who's to know?" Cisneros is both attacking and acknowledging the depths our culture goes to in an attempt to hide women's assumed "faults"—not the least of which is the fact that her very sexuality is assumed to be based around the idea of the lack of a penis, as is winked at in Cisneros's linguistic raising of the dress. It is men whose theories and intellectual models have defined women as flawed, but it is also women who perpetuate that myth by buying Barbies for their daughters, in essence supporting male theory through their actions. The responsibility of both men and women for the system that keeps women confined in partial identity is a theme Cisneros will return to again and again. Ultimately, the female characters who escape this system are those who have assimilated characteristics of both sexes.

Perhaps exploring a similar situation from a different angle, "Salvador Late or Early" examines a social system that is not inherently feminine, but because of the absence of masculine figures one must assume its problems and their solutions are left to the resources of women. Like "Alice Who Sees Mice" from Mango Street, in which the title character must rise early and make her father's lunchbox tortillas after the death of her mother, "Salvador Late or Early" is a reworking of one of Cisneros's favorite tropes: children who have lost their childhood. Salvador is "a boy who is no one's friend"; he is a boy trying to be his father, trying to take care of the younger children while his mother "is busy with the business of the baby." Salvador "inside that wrinkled shirt, inside the throat that must clear itself and apologize each time it speaks, inside that forty-pound body of a boy with its geography of scars, its history of hurt . . . is a boy like any other." Cisneros's suggestion that the loss of childhood is normal and common is probably the most damning social criticism of all. She indicts everyone for the common failure of not protecting children from the horrors of the adult world.

The overall theme of these stories is the vulnerability of the mostly female narrators; their world is defined externally to them. The barrios and small towns are, as Barbara Harlow notes about Mango Street, filled with "stories which recount the short histories of the neighborhood's inhabitants embedded in the longer history of Hispanic immigration, relocation, and political displacement in the United States." The vignettes that Cisneros offers are not supposed to be read as isolated incidents, but rather emblematic of a social structure that allows little cultural movement and less possibility for the formation of an identity outside the boundaries of the barrio. Cisneros moves through a paradigm of feminine life—childhood, adolescence, adulthood—exploring avenues of possible escape, possible identity.

Cisneros's second section, "One Holy Night," moves from childhood to the complex world of adolescent female sexuality. Again Cisneros gives the reader narrators who speak in subtle satire, exposing the multiple layers of danger faced by...

(The entire section is 4438 words.)

Thomas Matchie (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Literary Continuity in Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street," in The Midwest Quarterly, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1, Autumn, 1995, pp. 67-79.

[In the following essay, Matchie analyzes the similarity of narrative patterns and styles, characters, and language between Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and Cisneros's The House on Mango Street]

In 1963 in a collection of articles entitled Salinger, Edgar Branch has a piece in which he explores the "literary continuity" between Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. Branch...

(The entire section is 4320 words.)

Jean Wyatt (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "On Not Being La Malinche: Border Negotiations of Gender in Sandra Cisneros's 'Never Marry a Mexican' and 'Woman Hollering Creek'," in Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall, 1995, pp. 243-71.

[In the following essay, Wyatt explores the relationship between the internalized icons of womenhood and the tension between Anglo and Mexican cultures to determine how it affects the female protagonists of Cisneros's stories "Never Marry a Mexican" and "Woman Hollering Creek."]

Like many of the stories in Woman Hollering Creek, the title story and "Never Marry a Mexican" describe the advantages and the difficulties of "straddling two...

(The entire section is 11351 words.)

Reuben Sánchez (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Remembering Always to Come Back: The Child's Wished-For Escape and the Adult's Self-Empowered Return in Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street," in Children's Literature, Vol. 23, 1995, pp. 221-41.

[In the following essay, Sánchez addresses Cisneros's treatment of home and homelessness in the stories comprising The House on Mango Street]

In an essay on "home" and "homelessness" in children's literature, Virginia L. Wolf [in Children's Literature, 1990] suggests that one distinction between literature for children and literature for adults may be that the former tends to embrace myth while the latter tends to embrace reality: "Whereas much adult...

(The entire section is 7402 words.)

Julián Olivares (essay date 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space," in Chicana Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature, edited by María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes, University of New Mexico Press, 1996, pp. 233-44.

[In the following essay, Olivares discusses the theme of space in Cisneros's first short story collection, and demonstrates the manner with which she employs her imagery as "poetics of space."]

In some recent essays collectively titled "From a Writer's Notebook," Sandra Cisneros talks about her development as a writer, making particular references to her award-winning book, The House on Mango...

(The entire section is 4263 words.)

Sandra Cisneros with Martha Satz (interview date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Returning to One's House: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros," in Southwest Review, Vol. 82, No. 2, Spring, 1997, 166-85.

[In the following interview, Cisneros discusses her childhood, the female perspective in her work, and her experience as a Latina writer.]

SATZ: Your book House on Mango Street has been marketed as a book for young people, but it isn't the sort of book that is usually produced for children. Would you talk about that?

CISNEROS: I'd like to comment on that. It seems to be marketed as a young people's book, but my readers range anywhere from second graders to university students to housewives. I like the fact...

(The entire section is 8138 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)

Doyle, Jacqueline. "More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street" Melus 19, No. 4 (Winter 1994): 5-35.

Applies the feminist discourse of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own to Cisneros's short story collection.

——. "Haunting the Borderlands: La Llorona in Sandra Cisneros's 'Woman Hollering Creek'." Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies XVI, No. 1 (1996): 53-70.

Contends that the protagonist of Cisneros's short story "seeks a language to articulate her own story and the stories of the mute feminine victims of male violence in the newspapers."


(The entire section is 551 words.)