Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 763
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.
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.
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.
Jeff Thomson (essay date 1994)
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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 young girls with the arrival of their sexual lives. In the title story, the narrator is a young girl charged with selling cucumbers (an obvious phallic symbol) from the family's pushcart. She is seduced by a 37-year-old vagrant, Boy Baby, who claims to be the descendent of Mayan kings and is later arrested for the killings of 11 young girls over seven years. She believes that the seduction was her initiation into adult knowledge, into complete understanding: "I thought about all the world and how I suddenly became a part of history. . . . We were all the same somehow, laughing behind our hands, waiting the way all women wait." Cisneros suggests that the narrator is correct in believing that her seduction is also her initiation into a society of women—"We were all the same"—however the society is one of seduction and abandonment and not the glorious rise of the Mayan Sun Kings as Boy Baby would have her believe. "I don't know how many girls have gone bad from selling cucumbers. I know I'm not the first. My mother took the crooked walk too, I'm told, and I'm sure my Abuelita has her own story, but it's not my place to ask." Oddly the blame for the seduction is heaped upon every one except Boy Baby; the specific actions of men are never censured, even by the women of "the crooked walk," who should know. Women are left to bear the children and the shame.
From seduction and abandonment, Cisneros moves to more serious threats: rape and death. "My Tocaya" examines the danger of running away from the drab family life Cisneros's women are made to endure. Patricia, the narrator's namesake, is a girl who longs for the glamorous identity of television and movie stars—she "wore rhinestone earrings and glitter high heels to school" and "[i]nvented herself a phony English accent too, all breathless and sexy." When a body is found in a ditch, it is assumed to be Patricia's after she had "[d]isappeared from a life sentence at that taco house. Got tired coming home stinking of crispy tacos." Staying home left her no options, while running exposed her to multiple dangers; the options for women are limited at best, and almost nonexistent in this situation. Even when Patricia "[s]hows up at the downtown police station and says, I ain't dead," Cisneros doesn't let the reader forget that being a victim is one of the few ways for a woman to get any attention. As the narrator says, "All I'm saying is she couldn't even die right. But whose famous face is on the front page of the San Antonio Light, the San Antonio Express News, and the Southside Reporter? Girl, I'm telling you." Subtly again, Cisneros doesn't even remind the reader that there is still the unidentified body of a girl hanging over the story, a totem of female victimization. She doesn't need to remind us; the stories of girls and women found naked in ditches are all too familiar.
In her final section, "There Was a Man, There Was a Woman," Cisneros moves toward situations where women are attempting to free themselves from the world of sexual violence, stereotypes and controlled identity. In the collection's title story, Cléofilas, a Mexican bride brought north across the border to live with her new husband, believes deeply in the ideals of passion and love espoused in the telenovelas, Mexican soap operas, where "to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow. In the end." Like Esperanza in Mango Street, Cléofilas runs up against the myth of romantic love fostered not by men but by "the community 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 romanticizing and idealizing unrealistic sexual relations."
Cléofilas's new world is far removed from the heights of perfect love and noble suffering of her telenovela "The Rich Also Cry"; she is beaten by her husband and trapped in a suburban house between two women who are equally trapped: Dolores, by the memory of her dead husband and sons, and Soledad, whose "husband had either died, or run away with an ice-house floozie, or simply gone out for cigarettes one afternoon and never came back." Ultimately, Cléofilas finds she has no way out,
Because the towns are built so you have to depend on husbands. Or you stay home. Or you drive. If you're rich enough to own, allowed to drive, your own car.
There is no place to go. Unless one counts the neighbor ladies. Soledad on one side. Dolores on the other. Or the creek.
Woman Hollering Creek: La Gritonia in Spanish. The creek is the one emblem of escape in a world filled with the near impossibility of escape.
Cléofilas eventually manages to return to her father in Mexico, a dubious escape at best, with the help of a nurse and the nurse's friend Felice, a woman who stuns Cléofilas with her language and the simple fact that she is the owner of her own pickup. As Felice and Cléofílas drive through the subdivision and over the creek, Felice "opened her mouth and let out a yell as loud as any mariachi." Felice is free, she speaks herself into being, defying the social control that extends even to the geography: "Did you ever notice, Felice continued, how nothing around here is named after a woman? Really. Unless she's a Virgin. I guess you're only famous if you're a virgin." Cléofílas, so startled by a woman's assertion of identity and power, doesn't even realize that she herself is beginning to laugh, to break the silence that binds her in submission. "Then Felice began laughing again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of her own throat, a long ribbon of laughter like water." This is a small step toward the emancipation one sees in a character like Inés, but at least Cléofílas steps away from silence and toward sound, undifferentiated and spontaneous.
Quite the opposite of Cléofílas, Clemencia, the narrator of "Never Marry a Mexican," is a dominant, willful woman who fills out a masculine pattern of power. She is self-aware and self-defined:
I'll never marry. Not any man. I've known men too intimately. I've witnessed their infidelities, and I've helped them to it. Unzipped and unhooked in clandestine maneuvers. I've been accomplice, committed premeditated crimes. I'm guilty of having caused deliberate pain to other women. I'm vindictive and cruel, and I'm capable of anything.
Given Cisneros's personal statement—"I'm not kept by a university, and I'm not kept by a man"—one might mistakenly believe Cisneros admires Clemencia and is setting her up as a paradigm of a successful woman. Cisneros recognizes her character's autonomy, but understands how her power rises from a misuse of sexuality and is a dangerous result of women recapitulating the mistakes of men. Like a stereotypical male, Clemencia takes lovers easily and leaves them quickly; she uses sex as power, as a weapon. She goes to bed with a man while his wife is giving birth to their child and then, years later, sleeps with that same child. Her sexual conquests, like those of her stereotypical Don Juan counterparts, are attempts at control: she wants dominion over her lovers without giving up any of her own authority. Clemencia has escaped her traditional identity as a female only to find herself trapped in a different system.
In a curiously conflicting statement, Clemencia explains her existence: "Human beings pass me on the street, and I want to reach out and strum them as if they were guitars. Sometimes all humanity strikes me as lovely." Her world is formed around an emptiness, a vacant space she can never quite fill, and she believes all others must share this vacancy. Guitars make music only because they are hollow.
Cisneros has established the systematic difficulties of women's life, the stereotypes and enforced identity, the sexual violence of men, and the difficulty of escape. Inés, the witch-woman of "Eyes of Zapata," has escaped these difficulties and even forgiven Zapata (two necessary elements of "what is called heaven"), but she has done so by abandoning the life of the body, by withdrawing from the corporeal world. She begins to live by forsaking her body and its pain: "Each evening I flew in a wider circle. And in the day I withdrew further and further into myself, living only for those night flights." Her silent, unearthly wings reveal Zapata's faithlessness and despite her father's advice—the eyes that do not see cause the heart no pain—she looks deeply at this man and his other lover. The act of vision becomes essential; the act of seeing clearly and the capacity of memory become her sources of power because they are able to create an acceptable world—"what we call heaven"—in the face of feminine pain.
These two powers, vision and memory, are the resources of the true artist, she who is capable of altering the masculine paradigm: "The women in my family, we've always had the ability to see with more than our eyes." Although the reader is led to suspect that Inés is capable of such an artistic act, her power remains in the world of pure emotion, the world of the wars that begin "in our hearts and in our beds." It will take the final story of the collection to bring this triple unity of art, love, and life together.
Lupe Arredondo, narrator of "Bien Pretty," shares with Inés and other women of this collection a life of wounded love. She moved from San Francisco to San Antonio to keep from "dragging [her] three-legged heart" around. Solitary and separated, she is distanced from everything she knows and then, suddenly, Flavio Galindo, the exterminator, enters her life. Although uneducated, he is a poet, self-assured and centered, everything she is not. Flavio inherently understands the various philosophical constructs Lupe explains to him; he sums up the duality of yin/yang in a mexicano word taught to him by his grandmother. And where Lupe needs the trappings of Mexican culture to establish her identity, Flavio dresses in Izod shirts and Reeboks and is unfazed by her questioning. "I don't have to dress in a serape and a sombrero to be a Mexican," he says. "I know who I am." In response
[she] wanted to leap across the table, throw Oaxacan black pottery pieces across the room, swing from the punched tin chandelier, fire a pistol at his Reeboks, and force him to dance. I wanted to be Mexican at that moment, but it was true. I was not Mexican.
Flavio is grounded while Lupe is searching; she has no identity that isn't purchased.
Finally, Flavio agrees to work for Lupe as a model for a painting that updates the "Prince Popocatepetl/Princess Ixaccihuatl volcano myth, that tragic love story." After a number of requests he agrees, and as the painting progresses so does their emotional involvement, echoing the tragic love of Prince Popocatepetl and Princess Ixaccihuatl. When Flavio has to return to Mexico, to the family obligations of his seven sons and two ex-wives, Lupe is despondent; she has lost the part of her that was grounded. She retreats into foolish, New Age healing devices that are ultimately ineffectual:
I looked for my rose-quartz crystal and visualized healing energy surrounding me. I lit copal and burned sage to purify the house. I put on a tape of Amazonian flutes, Tibetean gongs, and Aztec ocarinas, tried to center on my seven chakras, and thought only positive thoughts, expressions of love, compassion, forgiveness. But after forty minutes I still had an uncontrollable desire to drive over to Flavio Munguia's house with my grandmother's molcajete and bash in his skull.
The mishmash of religions and cultures exemplifies her failure of identity; she is so many things she is nothing. She had her personality validated by this beautiful man, and now, without him her "nights are Gethsemane. That pinch of the dog's teeth just as it nips. A mean South American itch somewhere I can't reach." She says, "I have always been in love with a man." With the help of a supermarket cashier she begins to pull out of her self-imposed stupor.
One must believe that, from Flavio, Lupe has learned a great deal about the nature of self-definition, as she moves toward an acceptance of responsibility for her own salvation. In search of her identity, she begins to look, not to others, not to men, but to what she as a woman knows to be true. She finds bracing words in soap operas and pop songs, the elements of a feminine system of romantic identity that for Cléofilas had proved devastating. However, the difference between Lupe and Cléofilas is that Lupe takes what she finds and redefines the world through her own feminine lens. As she says,
One way or another. Even if it's only the lyrics to a stupid pop hit. We're going to right [also write] the world and live. I mean live our lives the way lives were meant to be lived. With the throat and wrists. With rage and desire, and joy and grief, and love till it hurts, maybe. But goddamn, girl. Live.
And this is exactly what she does; she goes back to the Prince Popocatepetl/Princess Ixaccihuatl painting and reinvents it. She remakes the myth as it now must apply to her life, not her life to it.
After all who's to say the sleeping mountain isn't the prince, and the voyeur the princess, right? So I've done it my way. With Prince Popocatepetl lying on his back instead of the Princess. I think I'm going to call it El Pipi del Popo. I kind of like it.
She has arrived, as an artist and as a woman, where she is finally grounded and able to create her world according to her definitions; she is celebrating life, and living, "because God-bless-it another day has ended, as if it never had yesterday and never will again tomorrow. Just because it's today, today. With no thought of the future or past. Today. Hurray. Hurray!" Small celebration is what Cisneros can offer. There is no major epiphany, just a series of daily tasks that allow women to extend themselves into the male world and make a new bed for themselves there. This is what Inés defined as "a little of what is called heaven." As Esperanza had found escape from Mango Street through her writing, Lupe has found her way out in her art.
However, because there is no ultimate salvation, no triumph, that does not mean there is no connection to "something bigger than our lives" and no possibility that the forces that control identity and shape the possible can be confronted. This connection is made between women, like the cashier and Lupe, and it can also be made between men and women, as it is with Inés and Zapata. As Cisneros has shown us in Inés and Lupe, the masculine world can be confronted, both in terms of romantic commitments and social positions, and alterations can be made. If, as Ramón Saldívar suggests, Cisneros's children's stories form the basis for an understanding of identity based on opposition to the dominant politic, then her newer, "adult" stories focus on overcoming such a politic and finding a unitary center. Woman Hollering Creek speaks from the silence, speaking freedom into existence and possible identity into being.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 31
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
Thomas Matchie (essay date 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4320
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 claims that, though these two books represent different times in American history, the characters, the narrative patterns and styles, and the language are strikingly similar, so that what Salinger picks up, according to Branch, is an archetypal continuity which is cultural as well as literary. I would like to suggest a third link in this chain that belongs to our own time, and that is Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street Published in 1989, this novella is about an adolescent, though this time a girl who uses, not the Mississippi or Manhattan Island, but a house in Chicago, to examine her society and the cultural shibboleths that weigh on her as a young Chicana woman.
Though not commonly accepted by critics as "canonical," The House on Mango Street belongs to the entire tradition of the bildungsroman (novel of growth) or the kunst-lerroman (novel inimical to growth), especially as these patterns apply to women. One can go back to 19th-century novels like Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), where a black woman working in the house of a white family in Boston is treated as though she were a slave. Later, Charlotte Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper (1889) depicts a woman who goes crazy when she is confined to a room in a country house by her husband, a doctor who knows little about feminine psychology. Finally, in Kate Chopin's The Awakening (1899), the protagonist literally moves out of the house to escape her Creole husband, but cannot find a male with whom to relate in this patriarchal culture.
In Mango Street, a hundred years later, Esperanza is actually part of a six-member family of her own race, but that does not prevent an enslavement parallel to Nig's. Though not limited to a single room as in Yellow Wallpaper, Esperanza's house is a symbol of sexual as well as cultural harassment, and she, like the narrator in Gilman's story, is a writer whose colorful images help her create a path to freedom. And as in The Awakening, Esperanza dreams of leaving her house, an action that like Edna's is related to all kinds of men who make up the power structure in her Chicana world.
So in a general way Cisneros's novel belongs to a female tradition in which culture and literary quality are important. But for her, far more significant as literary models are Huck Finn and Holden Caufield, primarily because they are adolescents growing up in culturally oppressive worlds. Cisneros's protagonist, like them, is innocent, sensitive, considerate of others, but extremely vulnerable. Like them, Esperanza speaks a child's language, though hers is peculiar to a girl and young budding poet. And like her predecessors, she grows mentally as time goes on; she knows how she feels, and learns from the inside out what in Holden's terms is "phony," and what with Huck she is willing to "go to hell" for. There are, of course, other Chicano novels that are bildungsromans, such as Tomás Rivera's . . . y no se lo Tragó la Tierra, but none presents a better parallel to Huck and Holden than Cisneros's Esperanza.
It may seem that the two boy's books are really journeys, while Mango Street is limited to a house, and therefore set—the opposite of a geographical quest. But when one looks at the patterns of the novels, what the boys go out to see simply comes past Esperanza, so that the effect is the same. She is simply a girl, and does not have the cultural opportunity to leave as they do. What is more important is that Mango Street continues a paradigm of growth where a young person encounters an outside world, evaluates it in relationship to herself, and then forges an identity, something that includes her sexuality and the prominence of writing in her life. [Ellen] McCracken [in Breaking Borders, edited by Asunción Horno-Delgado, et al., 1989] says that this character breaks new boundaries with her outward movement into "socio-political reality."
Huckleberry Finn begins with young Huck leaving a father who has abused him, the Widow Douglas who has tried unsuccessfully to educate him, and nigger Jim's owner, Miss Watson, who perpetuates the system of slavery which Huck will undercut on his journey down the river. Catcher in the Rye, as we learn in the end, is really a story Holden Caufield tells. Recovering from a mental breakdown, he begins by saying he's leaving school, Pency Prep, where in his view the teachers, alumni, and students are all phony. Mr. Spencer, his history teacher, talks to him just before leaving, but is more interested in justifying his test, which Holden failed, than understanding what is actually happening to the boy. Holden then goes to New York City to visit, not his parents, but his little sister. His father is a wealthy corporate lawyer and investor who is apparently too busy for Holden. Neither Huck nor Holden, however, is an arrogant individual, or sees himself as a rebel. They simply move out because, bored and lonesome, they object to the conditions they live under, and instinctively seek more comfortable worlds. The reader, however, cannot help but evaluate what is askew in the systems that fail these boys.
Esperanza actually loves her father, though as with Holden's he is virtually absent from the narrative. As Marcienne Rocard points out [in Americas Review, 1986], Chicanas concentrate intensely on "human relationships between generations"—something not stressed in Twain and Salinger. Esperanza thinks her father is brave; he cries after the death of a grandmother, and his daughter wants to "hold and hold and hold him." But this same father perpetuates a structure that traps women. The girl's mother, for instance, has talent and brains, but lacks practical knowledge about society because, says Esperanza, Mexican men "don't like their women strong." Her insight into an abusive father comes through her best friend Sally, whose father "just forgot he was her father between the buckle and the belt." So Sally leaves home for an early unhappy marriage. Another friend, Alicia, goes to the university to break the pattern of her dead mother's "rolling pin and sleepiness," but in studying all night and cooking, too, she begins to imagine that she sees mice, whereupon her father belittles her. Esperanza says Alicia is afraid of nothing, "except four-legged fur. And father." Gradually, Esperanza comes to see that the pressure on women in Chicana families comes from a system she simply, though painfully, has to leave. This act reflects the life of Cisneros herself, who says she had to leave home in order to "write about those ghosts inside that haunt me."
Truly, all three books are wrought with violence, which the protagonists seem to forgive. Huck is abused by his father. On the river he watches whole families kill each other off, including his friend Buck, whose senseless death he mourns. Ultimately he witnesses the tar and feathering of the King and Duke, conmen for whom he feels "sorry." Holden is also beaten several times—once by his roommate Stradlater, whom he thinks is handsome and sexy, but who knocks Holden bloody for calling him on the way he treated Jane Gallagher (Holden's old girlfriend) in the back of his car. Holden feels "sorry" for most girls, including the prostitute, Sunny, with whom he would rather talk than have sex, whereupon her pimp Maurice socks him in the stomach to get his five bucks. Holden is also concerned about the suicide of a Pency student, James Castle, who after being humiliated by other boys for not taking something back, jumped out a window. Holden was touched when Mr. Antonelli, his English teacher, went down and picked him up, blood and all. This violent death is crucial for Holden, probably because he sees himself in Castle, and needs someone older to understand.
Esperanza also feels for the victims of violence. What is interesting is that she sometimes interprets violence in a broad sense as injustice, or something in society that keeps people homeless, or in shabby housing. In the attic of her new house she'll have, not "Rats," but "Bums" because they need shelter. She has visions of the violence done to Geraldo, "another wetback," who rented "two-room flats and sleeping rooms" while he sent money back to Mexico; killed one night by a hit-and-run driver, he (in the minds of his people) simply disappeared. That violence becomes worse when individuals are confined to their homes. Mamacita, the big woman across the street, is beautiful but cannot get out because she "No speak English"—a phenomenon doubly tragic because her baby sings Pepsi commercials. But mostly Esperanza identifies with wives mistreated by men who confine them to their homes. Raphaela is locked in because she is too beautiful for her jealous husband. Earl, a jukebox repairman, and Sire, who drinks beer, hold their wives tight lest they relate to anybody else. Things like this make Esperanza's "blood freeze." She dreams of being held too hard. Once, after letting a man kiss her because he was "so old," she says he "grabs me by the face with both hands and kisses me on the mouth and doesn't let go." So, like Holden and Huck, this girl cares for others because of the violence done to them (and herself) in all kinds of contexts.
All three protagonists have a favorite place to escape oppression. For Huck, it's the raft, where he gets to know Jim—who becomes both friend and "father." Twain catches the harmony of their relationship in a natural setting through the poetic (melodic and imagistic) voice of Huck:
We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened; I judged it would have took too long to make so many. Jim said the moon could 'a' laid them.
Holden finds his main refuge in Central Park where he watches the ducks in the lagoon, once naively asking a cab driver where they go in winter. At another time walking through the park he sees a boy with his family singing and humming "If a body catch a body, comin' through the rye." Here Holden, like Huck, voices in a poetic way his unconscious longing for community—and the setting is again in nature. Later, he tells us that he would like to be that "catcher," as though one could save the innocent ones lost in the world of adults.
Ironically, Esperanza already has a family whom she loves, but that does not free her, for her father is gone and her mother stuck. She too longs for friends, talking first about a temporary friend Cathy who then moves away. Later, she takes some of her sister's money to buy a share in a bike with her neighbors Rachel and Lucy so she can play with them, but that is fleeting. As she matures and sees what is happening to people, she picks four trees, which like her have "skinny necks and pointy elbows." Others, like Nenny, do not appreciate those trees, but for Esperanza, they "teach," helping her to realize that like them she is here and yet does not belong. And like the trees Esperanza, who thinks in images, must continue to reach. Her goal, like that of Huck and Holden, is not to forget her "reason for being" and to grow "despite concrete" so as to achieve a freedom that's not separate from togetherness.
All three protagonists have friends who fail them, usually in some kind of romantic context. Huck rejects his friend Tom Sawyer because of Tom's "A-rabs" and "elephants," and in the end Huck gets impatient with Tom's excessive charades to free Jim. "What I want is my nigger," says Huck. Holden's critique of romanticism has to do with girls. He gets disgusted with the abusive way his friends treat them. Ackley, for instance, is a "terrible personality," always raving about "giving it" to some girl, but Ackley is just a talker. It is Stradlater who actually takes out Holden's friend Jane Gallagher and abuses her in the back of his car and then brags about it. Later, Holden recalls some beautiful moments with Jane, with whom he always felt "happy," and of whom he never took advantage.
Esperanza's best friend Sally is also a kind of romantic. She paints her eyes like Cleopatra and likes to dream. In an autobiographical note, Cisneros says she "glamorized living" in shabby neighborhoods where "the best friend I was always waiting for never materialized." Tragically, it is Sally who betrays her friend and admirer in the monkey garden (an animal pen turned old car lot) where she trades the boys' kisses for her lost keys, while all concerned laugh at Esperanza for trying to defend her friend with a brick. Later, Sally leaves Esperanza alone at the fair next to the "red clowns" (at once comical and tragic figures) where she is molested because her romantic friend "lied." Actually, the whole experience is a lie, given what she had been led to expect.
Still, all three have a moral center, a person they can count on, or should be able to. Huck, of course, comes to appreciate Jim, who has "an uncommon level head for a nigger." Ultimately he will literally "go to hell" for this man he has come to trust and love. Holden puts his trust in his English teacher, Mr. Antonelli, who invites the boy to his house overnight, listens and gives him sound advice. He tells Holden his father is really concerned, and that he's heading for a special kind of fall. In the end, however, Antonelli makes sexual advances toward Holden, so the boy leaves and consequently does have a breakdown. The one person Holden loves and trusts, of course, is his sister Phoebe, and his memories of the innocent fun they had together are touching. But she is too little to be a source of emotional help, and when she follows him out of the house, he puts her on a carousel at the zoo where she can play. It's that wonderful image of childhood that Holden cannot get beyond because of his acute sensitivity toward a world he sees as phony, but in which he feels he is going "down, down, down."
Esperanza also has a little sister, Nenny, for whom she feels responsible. Nenny, however, is again too little. Esperanza often refers to her as "stupid" and in the chapter on "Hips," where Esperanza is becoming more aware of the sexual role of a woman's body, she says Nenny just "doesn't get it." Her real hope comes in Aunt Lupe who is dying—"diseases have no eyes," says the young poet. In a game the girls invent, they make fun of Lupe, and for this Esperanza, like Huck, feels she will "go to hell." Actually, it is Lupe who listens to the girl's poems and tells her to "keep writing." That counsel becomes the basis of Esperanza's future apart from Mango Street.
It is important to recognize that the three novels contain religious language that at once seems to undercut traditional religion, and in the mouths of the young seems to say more than they realize. Huck, for instance, is supposedly an uneducated soul, and when Miss Watson talks about going to "the good place," he replies that if she's going there he "doesn't think he'll try for it." This is not only humorous, but unknown to Huck juxtaposes for the reader the fact that Miss Watson does not seem to connect her practice of religion with ownership of slaves. Christianity has to do with compassion, and that Huck will put into practice in his friendship with Jim. Likewise, Holden might see religions and ministers as phony, and himself as an atheist, but in arguing with one of his school mates, he says that he has an attraction to Jesus, and does not like the Disciples because they let Jesus down. And he can't imagine Jesus sending even Judas to hell. For the reader, Jesus' compassion only parallels Holden's own life, where he feels so deeply for others, though so many fail him.
For Esperanza, religion is a cultural thing; in her Catholic world, God the father and Virgin Mother are household terms. But for this young poet, religion takes on mythic or poetic dimensions. She sees herself, for instance, as a red "balloon tied to an anchor," as if to say she needs to transcend present conditions where mothers are trapped and fathers abusive. She even sees herself molested in a monkey garden (a modern Eden) among red clowns (bloodthirsty males). She appeals to Aunt Lupe (Guadalupe, after the Mexican Virgin Mother), who tells her to write, to create. In the end, when Esperanza meets three aunts, or sisters (her trinity), she in effect has a spiritual vision, one which she describes in concrete language. One is cat-eyed, another's hands are like marble, a third smells like Kleenex. The girl uses these sights, smells, and touches to envision poetically her future house. As with Huck and Holden, there is something she does not fully understand. What she knows is that through these comadres (co-mothers) she will give birth to something very new. Like the two male protagonists, she longs for a respect and compassion absent in her experiences on Mango Street, and these women are her spiritual inspiration.
The ending of Mango Street is also very significant in terms of literary continuity. Just prior to the end Esperanza meets the three aunts at the funeral of a sister of her friends Lucy and Rachel; they tell her she cannot forget who she is and that if she leaves she must come back. In the end the girl recognizes that she both belongs and does not belong to Mango street. Then she vows to return to the house because of the "ones who cannot" leave. One reason for this is her writing, which has made her strong. She plans to "put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much." What this means relative to other women's novels is that she reverses a trend. In Our Nig, Nig is dissipated in the end. The protagonist of Yellow Wallpaper goes crazy before literally crawling over her dominating husband's body. Edna in The Awakening swims to her death rather than face a culture that will not recognize her identity. Not so with Esperanza. She is strong (something Mexican women should not be), perfectly aware of the problems with a patriarchal culture, and because of her love for her people, albeit abused and dehumanized, vows to return, and it is the writing which gives her the strength.
Here is where Cisneros returns to Huck and Holden for her cue. Consciously or not, Huck has challenged the very basis of a pre-Civil War culture. In the last fifth of the novel, however, it's not clear whether he returns to the ways of Tom Sawyer in staging Jim's escape or whether he's come to a new level of consciousness where he confronts Tom in the name of Jim. In the end he lights out into the territory so, in his words, they won't "civilize me." In this way he seems to reject the culture of slavery, even though in Tom Sawyer Among the Indians, written afterwards, Huck returns to that culture by adopting with Tom old romantic ways. In any case, the notion of going back, even to join an abusive culture, or not going back, is a key issue in Twain's handling of Huck in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.
Holden is slightly different. In the end he is recovering from the shock he received from living in a post-World War II world. It has devastated him. But in telling his story he seems to come back to normal, so that the very telling has the effect of giving him strength. Indeed, he says,
I sort of miss everybody I told about. Even old Stradlater and Ackley, for instance. I think I even miss that goddam Maurice.
It's not clear how Holden will relate to his phony world again, any more than it is with Huck, except that he consciously chooses it, perhaps because he needs people, no matter what they are like. But the fact is he's going back.
Esperanza's choice has a different twist. Thoroughly aware of the abusive nature of her culture, she comes to the decision that though she does not want to come from Mango Street, and does not want to go back till somebody "makes it better," she nevertheless chooses to return for the sake of the others. She is "strong" and, in contrast to Huck, feels drawn back, not just because she needs people, like Holden, but because they need her.
There is one other way in which Cisneros seems to look to her predecessors for literary and cultural continuity, and that is the way she as an author comes into the text. Mark Twain, of course, creates in Huck the authentic voice of an illiterate river boy. At times, however, it is not clear whether it is Huck speaking, or Twain the satirist. When Huck tears up his letter to Miss Watson, for instance, he may think he's going to hell, but we know he's acted morally, indeed courageously. And sometimes Twain uses a tone and style quite different from Huck's, as in Col. Sherburn's lecture to the mob on cowardice after the killing of Boggs. Here Twain seems to be talking directly to his reader, and if we can connect the two incidents, the author may be directly lecturing us all on how cowardly we are compared to the growing, thinking, choosing Huck. In Catcher Holden speaks in the language of an immature adolescent, often using words like "sonofabitch" and "goddam," while in his own mind he's becoming a "madman." Still, we sympathize with him as sensitive, perceptive, and highly moral. At times, however, Salinger seems to break through the text, as in the person of Antonelli, who tells Holden "you're not the first person who was ever confused and frightened and even sickened by human behavior." Then he continues, "You'll learn from them—if you want to. Just as someday if you have something to offer, someone will learn something from you." It is as if Salinger is telling his audience to read Holden's story if you really want to know what is wrong with this age.
In Mango Street Cisneros has created the voice of a child, who is also a poet, a writer. For the most part that voice is consistent, but sometimes not. Once when Esperanza is playing an outside voice puts her friends and herself in perspective:
Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza and Nenny.
In this case it is the author who seems to be speaking. And when Lupe is dying, and Esperanza helps lift her head, suddenly we are inside Lupe: "The water was warm and tasted like metal." Here the author's presence is unmistakable. Perhaps Cisneros's most significant intrusion comes when Esperanza says that Mexican men do not "like their women strong"—a comment that belongs more to an adult than a child, and it seems to underpin the whole novel. [In an unpublished essay] Shannon Sikes claims that Esperanza as writer plays with the narratorial voice throughout the book, so that it's difficult to distinguish between the younger and a later, older person who is both character and author.
So Cisneros, like Twain and Salinger, seems to enter the narrative to help define its ultimate meaning. Unlike the boys' quests, however, this novel is a collection of genres—essays, short stories, poems—put together in one way to show Esperanza's growth, but in another to imitate the part-by-part building of an edifice. Indeed, the house on Mango Street does not just refer to the place Esperanza is trying to leave, but to the novel itself as "a house" which Esperanza as character and Cisneros as author have built together. Huck may go out to the territory, rejecting civilization, and Holden may tell his story to gain the strength to return, but Esperanza through her writing has in fact redesigned society itself through a mythical house of her own.
In this regard, Lupe once told Esperanza to "keep writing," it will "keep you free." At that time the girl did not know what she meant, but in the end Esperanza says "she sets me free," so in a sense the house is already built—a monument to her people and her sex. [In an unpublished essay] Andrea O'Reilly Herrera says that Esperanza's house is an imaginative version of Mango Street "resurrected, reconstructed, and rendered through language." Indeed, Esperanza is very different from the other women in the text. She has learned from them and not made their mistakes. So she is not trapped like her mother, Alicia, or Sally, or the others. Like Huck and Holden, she is the example for other Chicana women whom Cisneros would have us take to heart. Indeed, as the witch woman Elenita predicted earlier, Esperanza elects to build a "new house, a house made of heart." And in the tradition of, but distinct from Huck and Holden, that is just what she has accomplished.
Jean Wyatt (essay date 1995)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11351
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 countries," as Cisneros describes the condition of living on the border between Anglo and Mexican cultures. In addition, these two stories deal with a problem specific to women: the female protagonists of "Woman Hollering Creek" and "Never Marry a Mexican" wrestle with Mexican icons of sexuality and motherhood that, internalized, seem to impose on them a limited and even negative definition of their own identities as women. In "Never Marry a Mexican" the protagonist, Clemencia, throws her energy into defying the model of La Malinche, a historical figure who over centuries of patriarchal mythmaking has become the representative of a female sexuality at once passive, "rapeable," and always already guilty of betrayal. In "Woman Hollering Creek" the protagonist, Cleófilas, must redefine La Llorona, the figure of traditional Mexican folklore who wanders wailing for her lost children, in order to redefine her own possibilities as a woman and a mother. On the one hand, the stories emphasize the tenacity of these icons' hold on Chicanas' and Mexican women's self-images. On the other hand, the protagonists inhabit a border zone between Anglo and Mexican cultures where the perpetual clash and collision of two sets of signifiers, two systems of social myth, can throw any one culture's gender ideology into question. "Woman Hollering Creek" dramatizes the positive aspect of border living—the possibilities it offers for transformation. But borderland existence can be disabling too: in "Never Marry a Mexican" the ambiguous space between cultures generates only confusion and, finally, a newly rigid gender definition. It is the dialectic between the fluidity of the borderland and the seeming intransigence of internalized icons of womanhood in "Never Marry a Mexican" and "Woman Hollering Creek" that this essay will explore.
It would seem, from what Chicana feminist writers report, that Mexican social myths of gender crystallize with special force in three icons: "Guadalupe, the virgin mother who has not abandoned us, la Chingada (Malinche), the raped mother whom we have abandoned, and la Llorona, the mother who seeks her lost children." According to the evidence of Chicana feminist writers, these "three Our Mothers" haunt the sexual and maternal identities of contemporary Mexican and Chicana women. [In Feminist Studies/Critical Studies, edited by Teresa de Lauretis, 1986] Cherríe Moraga, for instance, asserts that "there is hardly a Chicana growing up today who does not suffer under [La Malinche's] name." And Norma Alarcón, writing about the same legendary figure [in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, 1983] says, "the pervasiveness of the myth is unfathomable, often permeating and suffusing our very being without conscious awareness." Cisneros speaks, in her interview with Pilar Aranda [The Americas Review, 1990], of her own difficulties in growing up with a negative and a positive role model always held up before her—La Malinche and La Virgen de Guadalupe. These "ghosts" still haunt her, she says, and she writes not to exorcise them—that is impossible—but to "make [my] peace with those ghosts." In an interview with Reed Dasenbrock and Feroza Jussawalla, [in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, edited by Reed Way Dasenbrock and Feroza Jussawalla, 1992] Cisneros claims that the narrative of Rosario in a third story in the collection, "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," represents her own negotiation with the figure of the Virgen de Guadalupe. That story, which I will come back to at the end of this essay, makes it clear that Cisneros considers Mexican icons of femininity to be intimately bound up with individual Chicanas' and Mexican women's self-images and self-esteem; to live with them comfortably—and there is no way to run away from them—each woman has to "make her peace with them" in her own way.
A borderland offers a space where such a negotiation with fixed gender ideals is at least possible. Where cultures overlap, definitions become fluid. Cisneros draws attention to the shifting meaning of signifiers in the border zone by using the same "border" phrase to mean two different things: recurring in "Never Marry a Mexican" and "Woman Hollering Creek," the phrase "en el otro lado"—"on the other side"—can mean either the U. S. or Mexico, shifting its referent according to where the speaker stands. Likewise, "Mexican" in the opening paragraph of "Never Marry a Mexican" means first a Mexican national, then a U. S. citizen of Mexican descent. Fixed definitions waver as the words in which they are moored lose their stability. Cisneros also puts the unitary definitions of things into motion by juxtaposing English and Spanish. For instance, in the story "Bien Pretty" in the same collection, the narrator ponders: "Urracas. Grackles. Urracas. Different ways of looking at the same bird." The shift from one language to the other and back again implies a shift between cultural codes: the narrator is able to look at the bird from one side of the border, then from the other. And that "double vision" precludes a single authoritative definition of grackle. As with "grackle," so with "woman." A woman living on the border has a better chance of shaking off the hold of any single culture's gender definition because she has to move back and forth between Mexican and Anglo signifying systems, in, as Gloria Anzaldúa puts it [in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 1987] a "continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each paradigm."
In "Woman Hollering Creek" the word "Woman" (and therewith the gender role) becomes unstable as it is interpreted first within a Mexican symbolic system, then within a Chicana symbolic system. While the Mexican woman, Cleófilas, can hear in the sound of the river called Woman Hollering Creek only the wail of La Llorona, a Mexican figure of sorrowing womanhood, the Chicana Felice interprets the creek's sound—its "hollering"—as a "Tarzan hoot," and so gives both the word "Hollering" and the concept "Woman" a new definition. Felice can go back and forth between cultural paradigms, see things first from a Mexican perspective, then from an Anglo perspective, and take her choice of signifiers (and of mythic figures) from either side. Felice goes to el otro lado—the other side—of the gender border as well, appropriating Tarzan's cry from the territory of masculinity. If border living means that one can move back and forth across national boundaries—if one can choose to see birds as grackles or urracas—why should the border between genders remain inviolable? Why should Tarzan's expressive cry remain eternally and exclusively attached to an icon of masculinity if Felice can use it to express her own vision of womanhood? "Woman Hollering Creek" thus opens up gender definitions on all sides to the fluidity of border existence.
"Never Marry a Mexican," however, complicates the notion of subverting feminine gender roles by borrowing from masculinity: in reaction to the passive sexuality ascribed to La Malinche, Clemencia adopts the aggressive, violent sexual stance of the "chingón," but that tactic fails to release her from the influence of the Malinche legend. Escaping the crippling polarities of gender is not so simple as appropriating the gestures of masculinity, then. (Clemencia's and Felice's subversions of gender—the one failed, the other successful—set up an interesting dialectic with Judith Butler's theory of gender as performance, a dialectic that I explore in the final section of this essay.) Likewise, "Never Marry a Mexican" tempers the optimism of "Woman Hollering Creek" about border existence. If shuttling back and forth between the standpoints of two different cultures can be creative, as it is in "Woman Hollering Creek"—if, as Anzaldúa says, thinking simultaneously through two divergent cultural paradigms can engender a third way of looking at the world, a mestiza way—inhabiting a border zone can also mean getting caught between cultures. Clemencia in "Never Marry a Mexican" is stranded in the interstices, in "the space between the different worlds she inhabits," as Anzaldúa puts it. Both "alienated from her mother culture [and] 'alien' in the dominant culture," Clemencia does not fully grasp the meanings of either Mexican or Anglo signifying systems.
The opening paragraph of "Never Marry a Mexican" introduces boundary living as Clemencia's heritage: "Never marry a Mexican, my ma said once and always. She said this because of my father. She said this though she was Mexican too. But she was born here in the U.S., and he was born there, and it's not the same, you know." As in Woman Hollering Creek generally, the ambiguity of border existence is immediately tied to the ambiguity of language. "Mexican" seems to mean two different things within the same paragraph: does Mexican mean a Mexican national or a U. S. citizen who identifies as Mexican? This sliding of "Mexican" from one side of the border to the other suggests the entitlement that Clemencia's birth position gives her to a vision that perceives things from both sides of the border at once. But the ambiguity of the word "Mexican" can also suggest confusion, and in Clemencia's story Cisneros explores the down side of being a mestiza, the discursive bewilderment that can result from living in the space where two cultural systems meet and conflict. As the focus of verbal ambiguity on the word "Mexican" implies, Clemencia's discursive confusion encompasses a confusion about her own identity and about her position in both Mexican and Anglo discourses.
In her interview with Aranda, Cisneros describes the discomfort of "being a Mexican woman living in an American society, but not belonging to either culture" as a kind of cultural "schizophrenia"—the negative version of Anzaldúa's double vision: "We're not Mexican and in some sense we're not American. I could not live in Mexico because my ideas are too . . . americanized. On the other hand, I can't live in America, or I do live here, but, in some ways, almost like a foreigner." In "Never Marry a Mexican" Cisneros dramatizes this double unbelonging through Clemencia's inability to function in either Anglo or Mexican discourse. "That's . . . water under the damn," she remarks, glossing her own speech: "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." The disparity between the discourse "in this country" and the discourse "in our house" leaves Clemencia caught between, at home neither at home nor in "this"—her own—country.
Clemencia's response to bicultural indeterminacy is to throw out the undecideable term—Mexican. In the following passage she is warming to her opening theme, "I've never married and never will," by listing the men she could never marry. But she is also negating the term "Mexican," apparently unaware of the implications for her own identity:
Mexican men, forget it. For a long time the men clearing off the tables or chopping meat behind the butcher counter or driving the bus I rode to school every day, those weren't men. Not men I considered as potential lovers. Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Chilean, Colombian, Panamanian, Salvadorean, Bolivian, Honduran, Argentine, Dominican, Venezuelan, Guatemalan, Ecuadorean, Nicaraguan, Peruvian, Costa Rican, Paraguayan, Uruguayan, I don't care. I never saw them. My mother did this to me.
While Clemencia attributes her avoidance to her mother's advice, "Never marry a Mexican," she strays from her mother's discourse—where Mexican means a Mexican national, with Clemencia's father as prototype—into Anglo discourse. She borrows the Anglo habit of lumping all Latinos into a single monolithic identity—"Mexican"—a label that erases individual differences and distinct cultures to consign all brown-skinned persons to a single category. As in (racist) Anglo discourse, Clemencia's word choice blurs the distinction between race and class: "Mexican" here means busboys, butchers' assistants, bus drivers—working-class men lumped together under an ethnic label that in actuality designates a class—a class of servers. Clemencia dissociates herself from a Mexican or Mexican American discourse that would define these individuals differently.
But Clemencia has not mastered Anglo discourse either. And using that discourse without fully recognizing its racist values makes her miscalculate her own position in the sexual contract with Drew. To Drew, the white lover who abandoned her eighteen years before and who remains the obsessive center of her thinking, "Mexican" means Clemencia herself, as his own language makes clear when he breaks off their affair: "Hadn't I understood . . . he could never marry me. You didn't think . . . ? Never marry a Mexican. Never marry a Mexican . . . No, of course not. I see. I see." What is a "Mexican"? An inappropriate other. But who that other is depends on where you stand; and Clemencia, caught between two discourses, has a foothold in neither. Although Clemencia of course means the term "Mexican" to apply only to men, only to potential suitors, the word is a shifter in this story, and its shifting does not stop at men, but moves on to designate Clemencia herself. Adopting the Anglo racist definition of "Mexican" ultimately means identifying against herself; and having emptied the term of value ("those weren't men . . . I never saw them"), she is left without resources when "Mexican" confronts her as the signifier of her own identity. The discursive naiveté that led Clemencia to misinterpret "Mexican," and her own social position, has tragic consequences; abandoned by Drew, she remains in an abstract space between cultures, isolated from both Anglo and Mexican American communities, where she replays in memory scenes from the sexual drama with Drew that took place eighteen years earlier.
Like her tactic of dismissing the signifier "Mexican" without examining her own implication in the cultural context she is throwing out, Clemencia deals with the influence of La Malinche on her sexuality not through introspection, but through outright repudiation of the passive, guilty sexuality that La Malinche models and through the definition of her own sexuality, in opposition, as active, violent, aggressive.
An Aztec princess sold into slavery, Malintzin, or Malinche, eventually became Cortez's translator; she was also his lover and the mother of their son, Don Martin, the first mestizo, of mixed Indian and Spanish parentage. Malinche not only translated for Cortez; she also advised him, giving away religious secrets of the Aztecs that allowed him to impose his authority on them. While the dignity and competence of the historical Malintzin were apparently respected by both Indians and Spanish, after independence Mexican storytellers pinned the blame for the Conquest on her complicity with Cortez and more specifically on her sexual complicity. As Cherríe Moraga explains, "Malintzin, also called Malinche, fucked the white man who conquered the Indian peoples of Mexico and destroyed their culture. Ever since, brown men have been accusing her of betraying her race, and over the centuries continue to blame her entire sex for this 'transgression.'" She is "slandered as La Chingada, meaning the 'fucked one,' or La Vendida, a sell-out to the white race." While it would seem that mastering several languages, giving successful strategic advice, negotiating between Indians and Spaniards, and enabling the Conquest imply an active competence, Malinche is characterized not as doing but as done to: "In the very act of intercourse with Cortez, Malinche is seen as having been violated. She is not, however, an innocent victim, but the guilty party—ultimately responsible for her own sexual victimization." Lack of agency together with guilt: according to Chicana feminists, contemporary Chicanas and Mexican women have to bear the full weight of this paradox. Normal Alarcón writes that "the myth contains the following sexual possibilities: woman is sexually passive, and hence at all times open to potential use by men whether it be seduction or rape. . . . nothing she does is perceived as a choice. Because Malintzin aided Cortés in the Conquest of the New World, she is seen as concretizing woman's sexual weakness . . . always open to sexual exploitation." By virtue of having female genitalia, then, woman is sexually guilty—guilty for being open to the world.
It is against this passive sexual identity that Clemencia defines herself. Although she accepted, laughing, the pet names Drew gave her—"Malinalli, Malinche, my courtesan"—apparently careless of the betrayal connoted by replaying the part of native courtesan to Drew's white conqueror, she rebels against the model of Malinche as sexually exploited victim, as "the Chingada . . . the Mother forcibly opened, violated." [In his The Labyrinth of Solitude: Life and Thought in Mexico, 1961] Octavio Paz elaborates all the meanings of chingar in an effort to understand "the strange permanence of Cortés and La Malinche in the Mexican's imagination." He argues, "The ultimate meaning always contains the idea of aggression. . . . The verb denotes violence, an emergence from oneself to penetrate another by force." When chingar is used in the narrowly sexual sense, "the chingón is the macho, the male; he rips open the chingada, the female, who is pure passivity, defenseless against the exterior world. The relationship between them is violent, and it is determined by the cynical power of the first and the impotence of the second." To Clemencia, apparently, one is either the chingada or the chingón—and she chooses to be the chingón. Describing sex with Drew, she says, "I leapt inside you and split you like an apple. Opened for the other to look and not give back." Clemencia not only takes the man's part—"I leapt inside you"—but she performs the violent actions attached to the verb chingar: "I split you like an apple" appropriates "the idea of breaking, of ripping open" attached to the usually masculine chingar. She imagines that this takeover puts Drew in her power: "You were ashamed to be so naked. . . . But I saw you for what you are, when you opened yourself for me." Following the logic of the violator, who pries open what is closed, peels back the protective surface to take possession of what is inside, Clemencia seeks to possess what is now revealed—Drew's private inner self—through her look; she thus appropriates the power of the male gaze to control, to possess ("to look and not give back").
Clemencia extends her sexual ravages to women's bodies, if only in fantasy. In the years since Drew left her, Clemencia has slept with other married men—often while their wives were giving birth. "It's always given me a bit of crazy joy to be able to kill those women like that. . . . To know I've had their husbands when they were anchored in blue hospital rooms, their guts yanked inside out." Now it is a woman's body that is opened up, exposed, vulnerable, while Clemencia, the "gran chingón," pursues a bitter, vindictive sexual satisfaction—a kind of rape at one remove.
While Clemencia thus evades the stereotype of sexual victim, it is only by projecting it onto the other—the lover or the other woman—while leaving the gender dynamic of violence in place. And that dynamic imprisons her in a rigid sex role as surely as if the reversal had not taken place. In the cultural binary ascribed by Paz to the Mexican macho, "there are only two possibilities in life: either [one] inflicts the actions implied by chingar on others, or else [one] suffers them [oneself] at the hands of others." Having bought into this logic, which excludes any alternative to the pair violator/violated, Clemencia must live exclusively on the violator side of the equation; any hint of vulnerability would immediately situate her on the side of victim. Hence, perhaps, her emphatically one-sided self-definition—"I'm vindictive and cruel and I'm capable of anything"—and her equally emphatic determination to live outside the roles of wife and mother: "I'll never marry . . . I've never married and I never will." Having identified herself with the hard, ruthless, closed pole of the open-closed binary, she cannot admit desires to be loved or to nurture and protect, which would align her with the pole of open, vulnerable mother.
Yet it is just those desires that surface in the final lines of the story: "Sometimes all humanity strikes me as lovely. I just want to reach out and stroke someone, and say There, there, it's all right, honey. There, there, there." This expression of a desire to soothe and console—to mother, in a word—contradicts the ruthless tone of the whole preceding narrative. It would seem that positioning herself as chingón, "vindictive and cruel," makes Clemencia subdue maternal impulses to nurture and comfort that, if traditional, are unmistakably her own. This concluding return of a repressed desire for tenderness, while surprising, is only the last and most straightforward of eruptions from the underside of Clemencia's macho discourse. On the narrative surface Clemencia cares only about power, boasting of her power over Drew, whom she paints and repaints, choosing "to birth [him] on canvas. . . . And if that's not power, what is?", and of her power over women, whom she figuratively "kills" with adultery. Yet underneath runs a subtext of images drawn from maternal processes—conception, gestation, birth, nursing, even incest—which testify to desires for motherhood that Clemencia keeps hidden, even from herself.
On the night Drew's wife Megan gave birth to their son, for instance, Clemencia positioned herself parallel to the birth process: "While his mother lay on her back laboring his birth, I lay in his mother's bed making love to [Drew]." She has reenacted this imitation of birth many times, with other men: "And it's not the last time I've slept with a man the night his wife is birthing a baby. Why do I do that, I wonder? Sleep with a man when his wife is giving life, being suckled by a thing with its eyes still shut. Why do that?" It is at this point that she says, "It's always given me a bit of crazy joy to be able to kill those women like that. . . . To know I've had their husbands when they were anchored in blue hospital rooms, their guts yanked inside out, the baby sucking their breasts while their husband sucked mine." While sex is ostensibly the site of Clemencia's violence against women, the parallel with the suckling baby and mother suggests that sex functions, rather, as a poor substitute for maternity.
Addressing Drew's son mentally, Clemencia probes further into the workings of the maternal body: "Pretty boy. Little clone. Little cells split into you and you and you. Tell me, baby, which part of you is your mother. I try to imagine . . . her long long legs that wrapped themselves around this father who took me to his bed." Imagining back through the division of cells to the moment of conception, Clemencia here conflates her own body with the mother's body: "her long long legs" belong to Megan, but in the same phrase it is herself whom "this father took to his bed." She imagines herself into the very act of conception. Despite the avowed intention of Clemencia to injure Drew's wife for taking Drew away from her, it seems that Clemencia's rage reflects envy, not jealousy, in Jessica Benjamin's sense of the term: "Envy is about being, not having." The various images of maternity suggest that Clemencia does not so much want to have Drew as to be Megan, actively mothering. Hence her claim that she, not Megan, produced the son—from an abstract site of power divorced from the body: "Your son. Does he know how much I had to do with his birth? I was the one who convinced you [Drew] to let him be born. . . . I'm the one that gave him permission and made it happen, see."
Clemencia's use of gummy bears to mark her invasion of Megan's territory also demonstrates her ambivalence toward Megan. While Drew is cooking dinner, Clemencia funds a package of gummy bears in her back-pack and manages to put one in Megan's make-up jar, in her nail polish bottle, in her lipstick, even in her diaphragm. This is a language of signs legible to women on both sides of the race/class barrier: "I was here." Vengeance is hers, then—but again the act of the chingón, penetrating into all of Megan's most private places, carries a maternal subtext. Clemencia takes apart Megan's Russian babushka doll until she "got to the very center, the tiniest baby inside all the others . . . this [she] replaced with a gummy bear." Clemencia substitutes her own signifier for the "baby" in the doll-within-a-doll's innermost compartment, symbolically interrupting the clones of generational succession, each a replication of the same, with her own "difference." Then, borrowing motherhood, Clemencia puts the purloined "baby" into her pocket, where "all through dinner I kept . . . touch[ing] it, it made me feel good." But on the way home she throws the "baby" into a stagnant creek "where winos piss and rats swim. The Barbie doll's toy stewing there in that muck. It gave me a feeling like nothing before and since." The episode expresses the full range of Clemencia's ambivalence, an ambivalence shot through with feelings of racial exclusion: as Megan's baby in Clemencia's pocket, the doll evokes Clemencia's "borrowing" of her motherhood; as the toy of the "Barbie doll" (Clemencia's derisive label for Megan), the doll becomes metonymically identified with a Barbie doll, icon of white woman as idealized sex object. Clemencia's rage is directed not just against the woman who occupies the position she wants as Drew's lover and mother of his son, but against the principle that race determines desirability.
Now, some eighteen years later, Clemencia continues a process of revenge against Megan that is simultaneously an imitation of her motherhood. Namely, she has an affair with Drew and Megan's son:
I sleep with this boy, their son. To make the boy love me the way I love his father. To make him want me, hunger. . . . Come here, mi cariñito. Come to mamita. Here's a bit of toast.
I can tell from the way he looks at me, I have him in my power. . . . Come to mamita. . . . I let him nibble. . . . Before I snap my teeth.
Again, Clemencia's ostensible motive is power—sexual power over the son, which gives her indirect power over his parents. But the rhetoric of nurturing and maternal endearment, which blends into the discourse of mastery, suggests that underneath she is continuing her peripheral relation to mothering. Clemencia seems to have taken a stand outside conventional marriage and family—"I've never married and never will"—only to force her way back in through the most enmeshed of family relations, incest: "You could be my son . . .".
Just before the concluding upsurge of repressed maternal yearning directed to the world at large—"There, there, it's all right, honey. There, there, there"—Clemencia has a sudden insight into the physical life of the mother she has been imitating. She imagines how it feels to be Drew in bed "with that wife beside you, warm, radiating her own heat, alive under the flannel and down and smelling a bit like milk and hand cream, and that smell familiar and dear to you, oh." The wistful tone of Clemencia's description suggests that she glimpses the contrast between the concrete reality of the maternal body—warm, alive, smelling, radiating heat—and the insubstantiality of her own position in an abstract space.
The reader, misled for a time by the vividness of the questions and comments Clemencia addresses to Drew and his son, gradually comes to realize that there is no audience. Clemencia's narrative is a monologue that reflects her spiritual isolation. She is doubly marginalized. First, she exists in a margin of maternity, obsessed, but in the abstract, with maternal processes—metaphors, only, of conception, gestation, birth, nursing, and nurturing. Second, she occupies an uneasy position marginal to both Mexican and Anglo discourse. She is unable to grasp how race and gender discourses of Anglo culture situate her in relation to her white lover (she can't read the injunction, "Never Marry a Mexican," from Drew's standpoint); and, having thrown out Mexican culture wholesale, she is too distanced to read the signs provided by traditional Mexican stories. For she remembers a scene she used to play with Drew fondly, apparently without realizing its implications:
Drew, remember when you used to call me your Malinalli? It was a joke, a private game between us, because you looked like a Cortez with that beard of yours. My skin dark against yours. Beautiful, you said. . . .
My Malinalli, Malinche, my courtesan, you said, and yanked my head back by the braid. Calling me that name in between little gulps of breath and the raw kisses you gave, laughing from that black beard of yours.
Clemencia calls attention to all the details—her hair, a braid in the style of an indigenous woman, her skin, dark against her lover's, her willing acceptance of the white man's sexual domination, even his violence—that place her squarely in the role of La Malinche, playing the part of traitor to her race in a white man's sexual games. Yet she does not see that she and Drew went on playing out the Malinche script: after exploiting her talents and her sexuality, Drew abandoned her as Cortez abandoned La Malinche after the Conquest.
Despite Clemencia's determination to throw out the Mexican ideology that ties her sexuality to La Malinche's, her life remains shackled to the Malinche story. Why? Clemencia's metaphor for her mother, whom she also denies, will perhaps throw light on what is wrong with Clemencia's tactic of repudiation. Clemencia says that she has not been able to mourn her mother's death because, before she died, her mother was to her what a crippled leg was to the little finch she used to have: the leg got twisted in a bar of the cage, then "dried up and fell off. My bird lived a long time without it, just a little red stump of a leg." Her memory of her dead mother is "like that": "like if something already dead dried up and fell off, and I stopped missing where she used to be." Her mother was "already dead" to her before she died: "where she used to be" was already an empty place. How can she mourn the absence of an absence? But if one follows the metaphor to completion—past what Clemencia intends—it seems that negation is insufficient to free her from the maternal connection. Clemencia has rejected her mother for marrying a white man and transferring her love, loyalty, and property to the new family. But denial of the mother—"like my ma didn't exist . . . Like if I never had a mother . . . Like I never even had one"—leaves her still attached, as the analogy with the bird's still connected stump suggests. The mother continues as a denied but still present appendage that spreads its deadness across Clemencia's living potentials. For although Clemencia sees her refusal to marry as an independent stance, the insistent negatives, "I'll never marry. Not any man. . . . No. I've never married and never will. . . . those weren't men. Not men. . . . I never saw them," can be read as extensions of her mother's injunction, "Never marry a Mexican." The mother's negative spirit, encapsulated in the phrase, remains to frame the negative space where Clemencia lives, as it frames the text.
What is true for Clemencia's mother is true for the various signifiers of Mexican culture that Clemencia repudiates. The troubled identity of "Mexican" continues to plague Clemencia (as Drew's speech reminds us) in spite of her erasure of Mexicans as persons. She continues to act out La Malinche and Cortez—both sides, in fact—despite her willed repudiation of the gender ideology they embody. Because they are part of her social formation, they remain part of her inner life—dead remnants attached to her like stumps.
Are cultural icons then inescapable? "Never Marry a Mexican" seems to say they are. In "Woman Hollering Creek" Cisneros is more optimistic about the possibility of changing one's affiliation with damaging social myths. And hope for change rests precisely on the ground that seems so barren in "Never Marry a Mexican," the ground of a Mexican American woman's consciousness where two cultures meet. Felice, the Chicana woman in "Woman Hollering Creek," is a mestiza in Anzaldúa's sense—a woman who can balance the contradictory paradigms of Anglo and Mexican cultures in a single vision and out of their contradictions create "a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves." When Cleófilas, the Mexican protagonist, comes into contact with Felice's mestiza vision, the resulting "cultural collission" jolts Cleófilas into a new way of seeing Mexican myths of gender, liberating her from a debilitating identification with La Llorona.
In "Woman Hollering Creek" Cisneros juxtaposes the heroines of contemporary Mexican telenovelas with the traditional figure La Llorona to imply that then, now, and always the ideals of femininity that Mexican popular culture presents to its women are models of pain and suffering. As the story begins, Cleófilas leaves her father and six brothers in Mexico to marry Don Pedro and move with him across the border to Texas. Cleófilas has been prepared for love and marriage largely by the telenovelas she watched as a girl growing up in a small Mexican town. "What [she] has been waiting for," single-mindedly, for years, is passion—"passion in its purest crystalline essence. The kind the . . . telenovelas describe when one finds, finally, the great love of one's life, and does whatever one can, must do, at whatever the cost." On the surface, the telenovelas' idealization of love ill prepares Cleófilas for the actualities of marriage: her new husband "doesn't look like the men on the telenovelas," and married life doesn't imitate their plots, either. More subtly, though, as Frances Restuccia [in Genders] has pointed out, the telenovelas' lesson that one must do "whatever one can . . . at whatever the cost," in order to keep on loving, prepares Cleófilas for the submissions of a beaten wife. The telenovelas glamorize pain as a necessary part of love, so that Cleófilas and her friends in Mexico adopt the idea of suffering and make it part of their life plans: "Somehow one ought to live one's life like that. . . . Because to suffer for love is good. The pain all sweet somehow."
While Cleófilas is shocked, when her husband beats her for the first time, to discover that the pains of love can be physical as well as emotional, the acceptance of suffering inculcated by the telenovelas—"the pain all sweet"—readies her for the part of beaten wife:
The first time she had been so surprised she didn't cry out or try to defend herself. She had always said she would strike back if a man, any man, were to strike her.
But when the moment came, and he slapped her once, and then again, and again; until the lip split and bled an orchid of blood, she didn't fight back, she didn't break into tears, she didn't run away as she imagined she might when she saw such things in the telenovelas. . . .
Instead . . . she had been so stunned, it left her speechless, motionless, numb. She had done nothing but reach up to the heat on her mouth and stare at the blood on her hand as if even then she didn't understand.
Stunned into silence by the dissonance of the beating with all her beliefs about love and marriage, Cleófilas remains silent as the beatings continue because there is "no place to go," no one to talk to. Gone is the female community of her Mexican hometown whose shared values and gossiping intimacy are reflected in the narrative voice of the earlier, Mexican sections. In Texas, there is no female community—"no huddled whispering on the church steps each Sunday . . . here the whispering begins at sunset at the ice house instead"—and that is a gossiping among men, hostile to women. Cleófilas turns for companionship to the only female entity available, a creek named "La Gritona," or "the shouting woman": "The stream . . . a thing with a voice all its own, all day and all night calling in its high, silver voice. Is it La Llorona, the weeping woman? La Llorona, who drowned her own children. Perhaps La Llorona is the one they named the creek after, she thinks, remembering all the stories she learned as a child." Finding the heroines of the telenovelas useless as models for her present life situation, Cleófilas falls back on an icon of Mexican tradition; but Mexican folklore joins with contemporary Mexican popular culture in offering Cleófilas only ideals of passive female suffering. "Pain is sweet," say the telenovelas, and the traditional figure of La Llorona is caught up in eternal sorrow, lamenting the loss of her children.
While the oral tradition to which La Llorona belongs is lively, generating ever new versions of what she suffered (three of my Chicana students related three different versions of the legend, told them by their mothers), what remains consistent through all the different versions is the sound of La Llorona's eerie wail. Usually, she is presented as a mother who has drowned her children and now roams searching for them. In one version, for instance, she kills her three children because they get in the way of her wild living; after her own death, God sends her back to seek them eternally. In another version, the figure is fused with La Malinche: when Cortez wanted to take their son back to Spain with him, Malinche killed the son, then herself, rather than be separated from her child; since then, her spirit roams, moaning "Aayy!" In other legends, La Llorona as the ghost of La Malinche mourns her lost children, the Indians whom she betrayed to Cortez. La Llorona's wail is sometimes said to have preceded Cortez, to have been one of the eight omens in Tenochtitlan that foretold the Conquest: in that case the children La Llorona grieves for are the Indians about to be slaughtered, and her cry continues through the centuries to mourn the loss of the indigenous civilization. Most often, La Llorona appears by the shore of a river or lake—she is said to have drowned her children—and sometimes she acts as siren, enticing men into the water to die. While the circumstances of her story change, La Llorona's cry of sorrow remains. That wail of inarticulate pain, reflected in the river's indeterminate grito, or shout—which Cleófilas reads as "pain or rage"—offers Cleófilas an analogue to her own inarticulate misery.
While Cisneros describes only Cleófilas's first beating, she indicates that Cleófilas is baffled because she is caught in a classic cycle of domestic violence like the one that Lenore Walker describes [in The Battered Woman, 1979], where the phase of intense battering is followed by a phase of loving contrition: "She could think of nothing to say, said nothing. Just stroked the dark curls of the man who wept and would weep like a child, his tears of repentance and shame, this time and each." Classic, too, are the obstacles to escape: a dependent child, a new pregnancy, a lack of money and mobility, a social climate that condones violence against women (the men who drink with her husband in the ice house joke about how one of them killed his wife), and, perhaps most debilitating, Cleófilas's isolation.
Drawing on Mexican culture for support, Cleófilas finds only a figure that reflects her helpless suffering: identifying with La Llorona's frozen sorrow means accepting her lot as beaten wife, bound into a circle of uncomprehending pain, unable to articulate her experience or to find release through action. That identification offers a still more dreadful possibility: "La Llorona calling to her. She is sure of it. Cleófilas sets the baby's Donald Duck blanket on the grass. Listens. . . . The baby pulling up fistfuls of grass and laughing. La Llorona. Wonders if something as quiet as this drives a woman to the darkness under the trees." The juxtaposition of La Llorona, "who drowned her own children," with the baby laughing in its innocence creates the dread that Cleófilas will answer La Llorona's "call," drown her child, and so enter fully into La Llorona's mourning.
But a Chicana figure provides Cleófilas with a more positive role model. Cleófilas prevails on her husband to take her to a prenatal clinic. The reader is then privy to one side of a telephone conversation in which Graciela, a Mexican American nurse-practitioner at the clinic, describes Cleófilas's bruised body and persuades her friend Felice to give Cleófilas a ride to the Greyhound station in San Antonio so she can take the bus back to her hometown in Mexico. Graciela's conversation contains a last reference to Cleófilas's imprisonment in the Mexican iconography of suffering womanhood: "her name's Cleófilas. . . . One of those Mexican saints, I guess. A martyr or something." Graciela clearly sets herself apart from Mexican culture here, as in her condescension toward Cleófilas, whom she regards as "other"—"another one of those brides from across the border," who "doesn't even speak English."
The distance between Chicana and Mexican culture becomes even more apparent when her friend Felice drives Cleófilas and her small son across "La Gritona," or Woman Hollering Creek, on the way to San Antonio:
But when they drove across the arroyo, the driver opened her mouth and let out a yell as loud as any mariachi. . . .
Every time I cross that bridge I do that. Because of the name, you know. Woman Hollering. Pues, I holler. . . . Did you ever notice, Felice continued, how nothing around here is named after a woman? Really. Unless she's the Virgin. I guess you're only famous if you're a virgin. She was laughing again.
That's why I like the name of that arroyo. Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, right?
Felice "said this in a Spanish pocked with English and laughed." The Chicana, who stands astride Anglo and Mexican cultures, is not captive to the myths of either culture: she can hear in the creek's voice either La Llorona's lament or Tarzan's cry, and take her pick. The creek is a "Woman," but unlike the landmarks named after the Virgin that annoy Felice, its name does not impose a single definition of femininity—nor is it confined to a single culture: the creek has both a Mexican and an English name. The indeterminacy of the creek's name, as of its sound, enables Felice to define "woman" for herself. When she hears the woman/creek's voice as a "Tarzan hoot," she appropriates for women the privileges of freedom and mobility usually associated with masculinity and comically exaggerated in Tarzan's hypermobility and freedom from all social constraints. Felice's grito may also be read as a call to arms, to the cause of female solidarity, which now rescues Cleófilas from domestic abuse, as in a Mexican general's grito to rally his troops or as in Tarzan's call to rally the elephants to Jane's rescue.
Cisneros does not problematize Felice's use of male codes to define a new female self, as she clearly does Clemencia's appropriation of the chingón persona. Felice drives a pickup truck; but rather than subject that symbol of masculine autonomy and power to doubts about the "gender trouble" involved in taking on the outward trappings of masculinity, Cisneros presents the pickup, through Cleófilas's admiring wonder, as the outward sign of Felice's independence, freedom of choice, and mobility—it is the vehicle, after all, of her effective action in the world, as she drives Cleófilas and her son to safety.
Everything about this woman, this Felice, amazed Cleófilas. The fact that she drove a pickup. . . . when Cleófilas asked if it was her husband's, she said she didn't have a husband. The pickup was hers. She herself had chosen it. She herself was paying for it. . . .
. . . Felice was like no woman she'd ever met. Can you imagine, when we crossed the arroyo she just started yelling like a crazy, she would say later to her father and brothers. Just like that. Who would've thought?
Who would've? Pain or rage, perhaps, but not a hoot like the one Felice had just let go. Makes you want to holler like Tarzan, Felice had said.
To the Mexican woman whose sexual and maternal identity is imbricated with her culture's imagos of women, the Chicana's bicultural—and cross-gender—flexibility opens a new range of female possibilities. Not only does the llorar of the stream give way to a resounding grito, not only does Cleófilas see beyond the whimpering lamentation of the long-suffering woman to the possibility of a woman who shouts out triumphantly "a yell as loud as any mariachi," but the example of Felice's loud self-assertion apparently enables Cleófilas to regain her own voice. She shapes her experience into the story she will tell her father and brothers.
Beyond Cleófilas' cognitive appreciation of women's alternatives in the paragraph cited above comes a leap into identification. The story ends: "Then Felice began laughing again, but it wasn't Felice laughing. It was gurgling out of [Cleófilas's] own throat, a long ribbon of laughter, like water." Cleófilas has a demonstrated talent for identification, first with the telenovelas' heroines, then with the creek and La Llorona. Here Cleófilas crosses over ego boundaries as well as national boundaries to identify with Felice. Her laughter, indistinguishable at first from Felice's, expresses in her own voice the female exuberance Felice has been modeling for her. The further description of her laughter as a "gurgle," a "ribbon of . . . water," suggests that this is a three-way merger. The promised identification with the creek has occurred—an identification no longer destructive now that the river's murmur can be heard as a celebration of female autonomy and mobility.
In this story where naming is so vital, there is even a hint (buried in Graciela's phone conversation with Felice) that Cleófilas might well use her gift for identification to imitate Felice's autonomy in choosing her own names, her own female models. Before the encounter with Felice Cleófilas could only wish for a name like the telenovelas ' heroines—"somehow she would have to change her name to Topazio, or Yesenia, Cristal, Adriana, Stefania, Andrea, something more poetic than Cleófilas. Everything happened to women with names like jewels"; or she would have to name her mute suffering after La Llorona, thus squeezing her own experience into culturally validated categories, living "happily ever after" or mutely enduring one's suffering. Graciela's tongue-in-cheek remark on the phone to Felice—"When her kid's born she'll have to name her after us"—suggests the possibility of a naming that is less coerced by the ideological forces of myth and history, a naming that passes on to the next generation a more positive model of female autonomy ("Graciela" means graceful, and "Felice" means happy).
The narrative movement of the story imitates the abrupt change in Cleófilas's fortunes. Just as the cycle of battering begins to seem inevitable to a woman captive to domestic violence, so the reader of this story feels increasingly trapped in a downward trajectory of events that appears to lead inevitably to more violence. The intervention of the Chicana community in the last three pages, which frees Cleófilas from the helpless isolation of the battered woman, also releases the reader from this narrative impasse. The very swiftness of the turn-around gives the reader a lift of spirit that enhances the text's celebration of the possibility that a Chicana perspective can transform Mexican cultural myths. What Felice does for Cleófilas is a synecdoche for what Cisneros is doing for the reader: rewriting a traditional Mexican story of gender to turn a lament into a shout of triumph or of joy.
Felice is able to use the fluidity of the borderland creatively to produce a new vision of womanhood; Clemencia's effort at transformation fails: what is the difference between the two? Is Cisneros pointing to a specific psychological or social positioning that enables one to function well in a border situation? While one might wish for a clear and simple answer, Cisneros is not in the business of handing out morals for better border living or for managing traditional icons of womanhood; the two stories take their place with other stories in the collection to mark possible positions on a broad spectrum of accommodations to living between Anglo and Mexican cultures. Nonetheless, issues common to the two stories and to a third story, "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," set up a dialectic that I would like now to explore.
Clemencia lives out the consequences of adopting a masculine role in "Never Marry a Mexican." She insists on being as far away as she can get from the pole of violable femininity, and so she leaps to the masculine pole just as narrowly defined, following Mexican tradition, as aggressive and violent. That masquerade leads to the self-deprivation that identification with any gender role does—to the denial of half her capacities and desires, the so-called "feminine" qualities of tenderness, comfort, and compassion. Susan Gubar argues [in the Massachusetts Review, 1981] that it does not strengthen female identity to leave it behind in favor of masculinity. Just the opposite: the necessity of abjuring womanhood in favor of masculine impersonation calls attention to the weakness of being a woman. And acting out masculinity leaves the underlying womanhood unaltered. Indeed, although Clemencia enjoys making the boasts of the chingón —"I'm guilty of having caused deliberate pain to other women. I'm vindictive and cruel"—she falls back on traditional "women's wiles" when she tries to act on the world outside her own sexual theater: waiting ("I've been waiting patient as a spider all these years"), jealous scheming against the "other woman," and manipulating men through giving and withholding sexuality. Clemencia's wholesale rejection of the sexuality associated with La Malinche neither redefines womanhood nor grants her possession of the power associated with masculinity, but leaves femininity and masculinity still standing as polar opposites, with Clemencia oscillating between.
In the light of Clemencia's failed appropriation of a masculine position, a reader may look askance, in retrospect, at Felice's imitation of Tarzan in "Woman Hollering Creek." Just as the chingón persona that Clemencia adopts exaggerates the aggressiveness conventionally associated with masculinity, so the figure of Tarzan enacts a construct of essential masculinity: muscular, mobile, masterful. Is not moving from La Llorona to Tarzan, from a stereotype of helplessly suffering femininity to an ideal of super-masculine agency, as much of a leap and as unavailing to women who have to function in the real world as the move from la chingada to el chingón? As I have argued, however, while Clemencia moves between the poles of a binary opposition, Felice positions herself on a border. That is, Felice goes back and forth across the gender border as freely as she goes across the border between Mexican and Anglo signifying systems, picking what she likes, selectively, from either side, as forms to express her own feelings. Looking to Tarzan for inspiration does not limit her to a masculine stance: while she hollers like a man, Tarzan, she does so as a woman, responding to the creek's invitation to imitate a "woman hollering." Similarly with her pickup: she adopts the masculine symbol of the pickup truck to enhance a woman's mobility—her own mobility and that of the woman she carries away from abuse. To the objection that Felice's adoption of a pickup is too easy or too unexamined a way of appropriating the freedom and mobility traditionally associated with masculinity, a biographical note will perhaps suggest a response. Cisneros herself drives a pickup, she said at a recent conference, and it is "menstrual blood red." Crossing the gender border and combining signifiers from both sides throws into question not Felice's (or Cisneros's) womanliness, but the gendered logic that assigns objects and gestures exclusively to one side or the other of a gender divide.
To put my analysis in terms of the ongoing feminist debate on gender construction and deconstruction: if gender is "performative," as Judith Butler argues [in her Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, 1990]—a temporal construct of gestures and speech acts infinitely repeated to give the illusion of a stable gender identity—if, in other words, gender is a discursive effect merely, then Felice's refusal to perpetuate the discourse of a unitary gender identity effectively deconstructs the "natural" category of exclusive femininity, and thus the feminine/masculine binary. Butler's theory seems useful on the level of social reality: that is, if many persons across a culture were performing disruptive gender acts, then parody, displacement, and "proliferating gender configurations" like Felice's would be enough to make visible the imitative, constructed nature of gender and to suggest alternatives.
But the fact that gender is constructed does not make its hold less tenacious. Because Felice is on stage for only two pages, the reader is not privy to the struggles she went through to reach the point of masterful play with the signifiers of gender; Clemencia's example, meanwhile, throws into question the efficacy of acts and speech acts to shake the hold of gender on the individual consciousness. Clemencia embraces the performance of an alternative gender identity on every level: in gesture and speech act, in mental act too, she performs the chingón. Yet she remains caught in a cultural construction of gender, split between performing the male part and "acting like a woman." Butler's optimism about the ability of the subject to change through speech acts seems to be founded on a notion of the subject as produced exclusively by discourse: "To be constituted by language is to be produced within a given network of power/discourse which is open to resignification, redeployment, subversive citations from within and interruption and inadvertent convergence within such networks." In other words, the very iterability that produces the illusion of gender continuity also creates the possibility of slippage, opening up rigid gender structures to redefinition. But gender is both a discursive category to be contested and an integral element of a person's sense of who she (or he) is, as Stephen Frosh and Lynne Layton have recently argued. Gender ideology is intransigent because it produces the subject in question, so that conventional notions of gender ground not just cultural representations but self-representations as well. So an exclusive focus on the discursive possibilities for gender subversion minimizes both the complexity of gender identity acquisition and the cultural work required to change a gender identification. Some theory that takes the psychological production of subjectivity—both discursive and prediscursive—into account is necessary to bridge the gap that Butler's discourse theory leaves between the social signifying order and the individual psyche. Perhaps some attention to processes of identification can provide such a bridge.
Cisneros's tales of gender emphasize the force and tenacity of identificatory processes in the creation of gender identity; but "Woman Hollering Creek" also suggests the power of identification to change gender affiliations. Cleófilas's identification with the telenovelas' heroines leads her to absorb their attitudes toward life (love is everything, love is pain, pain is sweet). This identification with the image of the other on the screen is akin to mirror stage identification, when according to Lacan the ego is born out of the child's misidentification with the image in the mirror. Imaginary identification, then, carries the force of that early misrecognition and operates discursively, persuading Cleófilas to take on her culture's definition of womanhood as suffering. Here identification functions as interpellation, "the process whereby a social representation is accepted and absorbed by an individual as her (or his) own representation and so becomes, for that individual, real, even though it is in fact imaginary." But identification does not always operate hegemonically. Take Cleófilas's identification with Felice. If Cleófilas were constituted entirely by discourse, such that the identity of woman as loving and suffering for love were the only one that seemed "real" to her, then she would see Felice's gender position as bizarre and repellant. Yet she can identify with Felice and thus with a liberatory model of womanhood. What enables her to do this?
Identification is an archaic process that long predates the entry into language. In Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Freud establishes identification as "the earliest expression of an emotional tie with another person" and specifies that "identification endeavors to mould a person's own ego after the fashion of the one that has been taken as a model." The two statements, taken together, imply that identification operates in the earliest stages of self-formation. In adult years, identification bears the mark of its primitive origins: when I identify with you, I do not make fine discriminations or choose selectively which traits to mimic, but experience identification as totalizing and immediate. I walk and talk and move like you and experience your beauty and power as my own. In "Sameness and difference: Toward an 'overinclusive' theory of gender development," Benjamin charts the gender identifications that take place over a child's first four years of life: until the oedipal stage (roughly the fourth year) the child identifies with both mother and father, elaborating these identifications in imitative play. Benjamin argues that the long developmental process of identifying with multiple roles creates as its (unconscious) legacy an adult capacity for identifying with various gender positions. Benjamin thus claims for identificatory processes the power to connect with difference and to undermine the rigidity of fixed gender roles. "Woman Hollering Creek" is a story about cultural influences and confluences rather than about psychosexual development, so there is no account of how Cleófilas acquired her capacity for identification. Whatever its origins, Cleófilas's aptitude for identification works counterhegemonically in the way that Benjamin suggests: her global identification with Felice (her laughter is Felice's laughter, her attitudes, at least for the moment, Felice's attitudes) bridges difference and springs Cleófilas free from the coercions of gender discourse as effectively as the identification with La Llorona and the telenovelas ' heroines earlier imprisoned her in the position of inarticulately suffering woman.
Sometimes operating discursively, sometimes not, identification is representative of aspects of psychosexual development that have their origins in prelinguistic experience but must nevertheless be included in an account of gender identity acquisition and subversion. Indeed, "Never Marry a Mexican" implies that one's orientation to discursive pressures is formed by early psychosexual experience and that if one struggles against one's imbrication with cultural models of gender without dealing first with one's identifications within the family, one fails at transformation. Clemencia's attitude to cultural discourse—in particular, to the story of La Malinche—is conditioned by her identification with her mother, who apparently dealt with conflict by splitting, or polarizing: having trouble with a Mexican husband, she repudiated all Mexicans as a block. When Clemencia similarly repudiates all Mexican men and then rejects her mother, she is operating in a mimetic mode, thinking like her mother. She comes to discourse, and to the figure of La Malinche in particular, already identified with her mother's negativity, so that repudiation of La Malinche is her only defense. Fixed in the maternal conceptual habit of polarization, she is unable to think dialectically about the extremes of femininity and masculinity represented by the (mythical) Malinche and Cortez, so she can generate only more and more extreme versions (or inversions) of the gender binary she is trying to escape. And despite her conscious rejection of both her blood mother and her cultural mother, she remains identified with their stories: she undertakes the risky sexual liaison with the white man that she deplores in her mother's life, and she acts out La Malinche's story, experiencing the betrayal of both her mother and her white lover.
If identification plays a part in constructing a woman's gender identity, and if identification is as deep and tenacious as it proves to be in Clemencia's case—and as Alarcón and Moraga claim that identification with La Malinche is for many Chicana and Mexican women—then breaking free of these identifications may involve more than the invention of new speech acts. It may entail "a struggle at the roots of the mind," as Raymond Williams has said [in Marxism and Literature, 1977]—"not casting off an ideology" (as Clemencia has done), "or learning phrases about it, but confronting a hegemony in the fibres of the self."
A character in "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," a third story in Woman Hollering Creek, models such a struggle, thereby demonstrating the cultural and self-exploration that Clemencia's performance of gender lacks. The story also foregrounds the way that family and culture reflect and repeat a single gender definition, making a daughter's identification with the social ideal of womanhood seem inescapable. Because the final portion of this story comes close to a personal statement by Cisneros herself—"the last speaker, [Rosario] . . . That's me"—it can offer a quasi-autobiographical, metafictional commentary on Cisneros's project in the two stories under consideration. Rosario's "letter" to the Virgin models a border negotiation with a cultural icon: she goes back and forth between two cultures' constructions of the ideal woman—Indian and Mexican—and rather than settling on one side of the border or the other, she brings the two visions of sacred womanhood together in a single sentence.
Rosario has been raging, apparently for years, at the Virgen de Guadalupe for "all that self-sacrifice, all that silent suffering"—for modeling the passive endurance of misery and oppression that she sees reflected in her mother and grandmother. Her past warfare with the Virgen resembles Clemencia's outright repudiation of La Malinche and so makes the negative stand of that story seem like a stage in an ongoing dialectical process. "I wouldn't let you in my house. . . . Couldn't look at you without blaming you for all the pain my mother and her mother and all our mothers' mothers have put up with. . . . I wasn't going to be my mother or my grandma. . . . Hell no. Not here. Not me." The buildup of negatives, the determination not to "be" the cultural mother (or the blood mother either), the wholesale repudiation of a passive cultural icon, all recall Clemencia's one-dimensional strategy of rejection. But denial is only a stage; Rosario moves on to consider La Virgen from the standpoint of indigenous Indian culture. She acknowledges the Virgen's other face—the face of Tonantzín, the powerful Aztec fertility goddess who gives life to the crops and protects her Indian people: "No longer Mary the Mild, but our mother Tonantzín." Rosario does not, however, fix on this substitution of Tonantzín for "Mary the Mild"; she evokes the fierce Tonantzín side of the Virgen—the aspect that, because it represents all the Mexican people, Indian as well as Mexican, can rally everyone to fight against oppression—only to read the virtues of Mary the Mild through that vision:
That you could have the power to rally a people when a country was born, and again during civil war, and during a farmworkers' strike in California made me think maybe there is power in my mother's patience, strength in my grandmother's endurance. Because those who suffer have a special power, don't they? The power of understanding someone else's pain.
Rosario does not settle on one side of the cultural border, then, not even on the side of power, but returns to read Mary's (and her own mothers') capacity for endurance through the strengths of Tonantzín. That encompassing vision, carried on down the page by a kind of triumphant border-crossing list of all Tonantzín's names—Aztec, Catholic, Mexican, American—enables the speaker to see her mother's and grandmother's strength as real and to embrace her own female potential (p. 128). It is the Virgen de Guadalupe's biculturalism that gives her figure the capacity to empower different modes of being a woman.
This hard-won border dialectic points up by contrast Clemencia's imprisonment in a single culture's rigid dichotomy (el chingón versus la chingada), and it dramatizes the cultural labor that Clemencia avoids. It would seem, from the dialogue with the Virgen, that negotiating with and against the symbolic inheritance of Mexican culture involves an examination of how the cultural ideal works, both inside and outside: how the icon of La Virgen or La Malinche functions in the social world to maintain the hierarchy of gender relations; how it functions in the family to enhance and enforce mother-daughter identifications and so ensure the transmission of gender definitions from one generation to the next; and how it works in the internal world to limit and shape one's impulses and regulate one's behavior. Rosario follows the direction of her own anger to arrive at discursive analysis: La Virgen de Guadalupe has been used by the patriarchy to make her and women in general "docile and enduring." Rosario has to reconstruct La Virgen—has to retrieve her face of power, the face of Tonantzín, from her own Indian ancestry—in order to go forward with her life. It would seem that Clemencia has the opportunity to reconstruct Malinche through a similar act of sympathetic imagination: for Malinche, like Clemencia, came to occupy the untenable space between cultures—Indian and Spanish—and was abandoned there by a white lover. But rather than restore the historic dimension to Malinche (as contemporary Chicana revisionists are doing), Clemencia merely acts out against the Malinche of patriarchal tradition. To reject the cultural icon rather than reconstructing it does not work because Mexican cultural icons of womanhood are "part of you," as Cisneros says in her interview with Aranda: they "live inside you."
Viewed from the perspective of the collection as a whole, the three stories can be seen as parts of a dialectical process of negotiating with cultural icons that are both inalienable parts of oneself and limitations to one's potential as a woman. Accepting the ideals of womanhood as they are defined by Mexican culture does not provide a stage for ongoing development, as the example of Cleófilas demonstrates: identifying with La Llorona commits her to the long-suffering endurance of oppression, her powers of self-expression limited to a wail. Clemencia's strategy of repudiation cannot be a final solution either, because it locks her into a posture opposite to, and therefore defined by, the sexual victimization embodied in La Malinche: as Anzaldúa says, "all reaction is limited by, and dependent on, what it is reacting against." Rosario describes the stages of her negotiation with the Virgen de Guadalupe as a process that stretches over years and thus makes Cleófilas's and Clemencia's positions seem like two stages of an ongoing dialectic. Rosario rejects Guadalupe, re-examines her, embraces her, and finally reconstructs her as a figure that she can understand, live with, and use as a model. To revise the traditional icons is to empower oneself, as Rosario implies in her address to Guadalupe: "When I could see you in all your facets . . . I could love you, and, finally, learn to love me." Sandra Cisneros—unlike her character Clemencia—sees this reconstruction of the myths and the living identities tied to them as a communal process, shared with other Chicana writers, which she calls, following Alarcón, "'reinventing ourselves,' revising ourselves. We accept our culture, but not without adapting [it to] ourselves as women."
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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."
Ganz, Robin. "Sandra Cisneros: Border Crossings and Beyond." MELUS 19, No. 1 (Spring 1994): 19-29.
Praises Cisneros's narrative voice, asserting it "carries across and beyond the barriers that often divide us."
Gutiérrez-Jones, Leslie S. "Different Voices: The Re-Bildung of the Barrio in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street." In Anxious Power: Reading, Writing, and Ambivalence in Narrative by Women, edited by Carol J. Singley and Susan Elizabeth Sweeney, pp. 295-312. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
Asserts that: "Just as Esperanza must leave behind her dependence on rented spaces and on standards external to her own experience, so Cisneros, a Chicana writer, is faced with the challenge of creating a home in the midst of a predominantly white, predominantly male, literary tradition: that of the Bildungsroman."
Herrera, Andrea O'Reilly. "'Chambers of Consciousness': Sandra Cisneros and the Development of the Self in the BIG House on Mango Street." Bucknell Review 39, No. 1 (1995): 191-204.
Explores the metaphorical significance of the house in Cisneros's short fiction collection.
Kingsolver, Barbara. "Poetic Fiction with a Tex-Mex Tilt." Los Angeles Times Book Review (April 28, 1991): 3, 12.
Scrutinizes the poetic elements of Woman Hollering Creek.
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, et al., pp. 62-71. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
Comparative study of the differing narrative modes found in Rivera's and Cisneros's bildungsromans.
——. "Latina Narrative and Politics of Signification: Articulation, Antagonism, and Populist Rupture." Critica: A Journal of Critical Essays 2, No. 2 (Fall, 1990): 202-07.
Studies the short story collections of Nicholasa Mohr and Cisneros as works in opposition to the dominant discourse of gender and ethnic subjugation.
Olivares, Julián. "Entering The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)." In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, pp. 209-35. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
Provides strategies for teaching Cisneros's short fiction, including recurring themes, stylistic elements, and comparisons to other works of ethnic literature.
Valdés, María Elena de. "In Search of Identity in Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." The Canadian Review of American Studies 23, No. 1 (Fall 1992): 55-72.
Discusses the search for identity in Cisneros's short fiction.
——. "The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street." In Gender, Self, and Society: Proceedings of the IV International Conference on the Hispanic Cultures of the United States, edited by Renate von Bardeleben, pp. 287-300. Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993.
Surveys the critical reaction to Cisneros's short story collection.
Additional coverage of Cisneros's life and career is contained in the following sources published by The Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 9; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 131; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 69; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 122, 152; DISCovering Authors: Multicultural Module; Hispanic Literature Criticism; and Hispanic Writers.
Reuben Sánchez (essay date 1995)
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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 literature laments our homelessness and reflects the fragmentation or loss of myth, most children's literature celebrates home and affirms belief in myth." In doing so, however, children's literature might very well offer an unrealistic view of the world: "Even though I celebrate all those wonderful mythic houses in children's literature as an invaluable legacy of comfort, I worry that they deny too much of reality. Certainly, if children are to reach their potential and make their contribution to humanity, they must eventually move beyond a perception of the world as they desire it to be and accept it as it is—enormously destructive, turbulent, and chaotic as well as creative and peaceful." Though children find myth attractive, they might nonetheless acquire a distorted "perception of reality" should the book emphasize myth—or if myth and reality are irreconcilable. Wolfs distinctions between myth and reality and between literature for children and literature for adults are crucial to scholars who wish to fashion a hermeneutics of discourse concerning children's literature. But as one might expect, the practice of literary interpretation could render such distinctions problematic in certain texts.
The foremost proponent of archetypal criticism, Northrop Frye, describes the structure of the monomyth in historical terms as a movement in Western literature from primitive myth to modern irony, a schema that does much to subordinate myth to irony. Frye's rigorous schema has since been critiqued by historicists, structuralists, post-structuralists, and feminists, but there nonetheless remains a tendency in literary studies to view myth as the opposite of reality. Such a tendency might limit the appeal, perhaps the usefulness, of texts that are said to be mythic. For the purposes of this essay, however, I should like to consider myth in the sense that Joseph Campbell defines it in The Hero with a Thousand Faces: "It would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation. Religions, philosophies, arts, the social forms of primitive and historic man, prime discoveries in science and technology, the very dreams that blister sleep, boil up from the basic, magic ring of myth." Campbell's definition blurs the distinction between myth and irony, which allows us to recognize how and why myth moves us and is useful to us, adults and children alike. Through story telling the writer's perception of the world is manifested. We might think of myth, therefore, as cultural story telling, a way by which the writer who belongs to and identifies with a particular community explains why the world is the way it is, from the point of view of that particular community. The writer either validates a myth, or modifies a myth without rejecting it, or rejects a myth and creates a new myth based on his or her own experience. In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros participates in the third type of story telling by combining myth (home) and irony (homelessness) in her depiction of life in the barrio as seen through the eyes of a girl.
Cisneros addresses the theme of home versus homelessness in a series of forty-four vignettes—some as short as a few paragraphs, others as long as four or five pages—written in a language that is easily accessible and in a style that is sophisticated in its presentation of voice and theme. There is no single narrative strand, though the vignettes are loosely connected to each other in that they concern a brief period in which Esperanza, the book's protagonist, lives on Mango Street. We are never told her age, but she seems to be about ten or eleven years old. She wishes to find a house of her own:
Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.
Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem.
This type of story telling incorporates both extremes—home contrasted with homelessness, the ideal house contrasted with the realistic, harsh surroundings—into a larger myth concerning the child's perception of her world and her rejection of the patriarchal myth that would prevent her from finding a house of her own. To free her protagonist of one myth, Cisneros must create another myth.
Esperanza recognizes the reality of her own homelessness, for she points out that until they move into the house on Mango Street her family has lived in several different houses; on Mango Street she continues to wish for her ideal house, a wish that initiates and concludes the narrative, the narrative thus ending with a type of return, a tradition in children's literature. There is closure to the narrative in the repetition of a specific passage at the end of The House on Mango Street. At the beginning Esperanza states, "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." Near the end she reiterates, "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, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to." What Esperanza adds to the second passage evinces her discovery that although what she remembers initially is moving often, what she remembers finally is Mango Street. The addition to the second passage suggests that there has been a change in Esperanza from the beginning to the end of her story telling, where her concern is with a particular neighborhood and a particular house, to which she vows she will return.
The closure resulting from the narrative circling back on itself by means of repetition can also be described as an example of Freud's fort da idea, fort meaning "gone away" and da meaning "here." Once the reading process has been completed, the reader recognizes how and why the beginning and the end depend upon one another. As Terry Eagleton points out: "Fort has meaning only in relation to da." Although repetition suggests closure, the narrative, in fact, is not self-enclosed; rather, it is open-ended and encourages the reader to consider what will become of Esperanza after the book has ended.
[In Children's Literature, 1987] Margaret Higonnet has suggested that in "its ideological functions of social control" children's literature is an "imperialist form," but that the form is artistic as well as ideological. Because children's literature is often characterized by repetition and a firm sense of closure, even predictability in that closure, any deviation from that form results in a narrative fragment or rupture—an artistic deviation that involves the child reader in the process of giving meaning to the text. Higonnet describes two types of fragments: the mosaic is a gap within the story, which the child reader must fill in; the sherd is a gap at the end of the story, which compels the child reader to supply an ending for the (incomplete) story after the narrative itself has concluded. Higonnet argues, "A somewhat older audience permits an author to use the sherdlike fragment not only to evoke threatening subjects but to provoke the reader's conscious activity. The most interesting type of fragment, then, may be that which deliberately propels the reader into responsibility for the unwritten narrative conclusion." The sherdlike fragment applies to the ending of The House on Mango Street Although the book has closure, it is also open-ended in that it does not tell us whether Esperanza finds her ideal house. Essential to the didactic quality of the text, however, is the lesson that if Esperanza does indeed escape Mango Street, and we cannot help but believe she will, she must return "for the others." In her depiction of the reality of homelessness and the myth of home, Cisneros shows how and why dialectic—homelessness/home, irony/myth, escape/return—influences Esperanza's growing awareness of who she is and what her ideal house means to her. But the unique fort da quality of the narrative leaves the outcome of that search for the ideal house unresolved for the child/adult reader.
By the end of the narrative, Esperanza recognizes that she must someday "return" to Mango Street empowered as a writer. Cisneros was raised in Chicago and, like Esperanza, in her writing returns to the barrio. Although Cisneros is writing fiction, there are nonetheless parallels between Cisneros and Esperanza. In her autobiographical essay "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," Cisneros tells that hers was a large family (six brothers and her parents) living in small apartments, the family traveling often between Chicago and Mexico. Like her protagonist (who also comes from a large family—three brothers, a sister, and parents), Cisneros has learned to write about "the ones who cannot out," which implies a tie not only between narrator Esperanza and the characters within the fictional narrative but also between writer Cisneros and the readers of the text. In writing about Esperanza's childhood, Cisneros, as Aidan Chambers would say, writes "on behalf of adolescence." Chambers argues that writers who reject "the adult exploitation of youth" instead write "on behalf of a state of life that still lives inside you, even though you are past the age when it is the socially evident and psychologically pertinent expression of your existence."
The return of the writer—Espernanza and Cisneros—to her childhood is symbolized by the mythic image of the circle, a symbol both of the circular journey she as a writer must take when remembering and writing about her childhood, and of the circle that binds "las Mujeres/the Women," to whom the book is dedicated, within and outside the narrative. The child's wished-for escape and the adult's self-empowered return comprise the fort da quality of a narrative that is, in its sherdlike conclusion, incomplete.
In the vignette "The Three Sisters," which comes near the end of the book, Esperanza is instructed about what leaving and returning means. At the wake of a child, "Lucy and Rachel's sister," Esperanza meets "las comadres," three old women whom she finds very mysterious. The Spanish word comadre is a term that mother and godmother use to refer to each other; it could also be the term women friends who are not related use to address each other. But the word possesses other connotations as well. In New Mexico, for example, La Comadre Sebastiana (or Doña Sebastiana, as she is also known) is the skeletal image of Death seated on la carreta de la Muerte (the death cart) in Penitente processions. Penitentes (penitents) are a lay brotherhood of Roman Catholics who observe rituals associated with the passion of Christ. Since the image of La Comadre Sebastiana seems exclusive to New Mexico, Cisneros may not have this specific image in mind in her presentation of las comadres. Yet, the aura of death surrounds these three women; one might say that, like La Comadre Sebastiana, the three sisters are intended to remind us of death:
They came with the wind that blows in August, thin as a spider web and barely noticed. Three who did not seem to be related to anything but the moon. One with laughter like tin and one with eyes of a cat and one with hands like porcelain. The aunts, the three sisters, las comadres, they said.
The baby died. Lucy and Rachel's sister. One night a dog cried, and the next day a yellow bird flew in through an open window. Before the week was over, the baby's fever was worse. Then Jesus came and took the baby with him far away. That's what their mother said.
The vignette is about death, but it is also about life. It concerns the beginning—or, in mythic terms, the birth—of Esperanza's recognition of what it will mean to return to her past.
The three sisters sense that Esperanza wants to leave Mango Street, wants to leave the barrio. "When you leave you must remember always to come back," one of las comadres tells her. But la comadre emphasizes that there is more to it than simply coming back:
When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. 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.
Then I didn't know what to say. It was as if she could read my mind, as if she knew what I had wished for, and I felt ashamed for having made such a selfish wish.
You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember? She asked as if she was telling me. Yes, yes, I said a little confused.
The thrice-repeated injunction to come back for the others emphasizes for the child the lesson to be learned, but it also focuses the reader's attention on the central issues in The House on Mango Street: why Esperanza must leave, and how and why she must return. Esperanza feels "ashamed for having made such a selfish wish," although the injunction does not imply that her wish to escape Mango Street is selfish. Rather, la comadre instructs Esperanza to "return," instructs her to "remember." The return will not necessarily be literal but rather symbolic, described as a circle. As of yet Esperanza is "a little confused," but the implications of this injunction will soon be clear to her.
In "Alicia & I Talking on Edna's Steps," the vignette following "The Three Sisters," Alicia repeats la comadre's injunction to Esperanza, though more emphatically: "Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you'll come back too." Esperanza is identified with, is bound to, her neighborhood. Indeed, she is Mango Street, as the young woman (Alicia) and the old woman (la comadre) point out to her. Esperanza finds little if any comfort in the recognition that she is bound to Mango Street. Nor can she find comfort in the prospect of returning. She declares that she will not return, "Not until somebody makes it better." "Who's going to do it?" asks Alicia. "The mayor?" The very thought of the mayor making it better seems funny to Esperanza. She must learn that she will have to make it better—by remembering her past and writing about it.
Esperanza learns that she must not leave simply to find a house on a hill in another part of town. She must "remember to come back for the others," and thereby come back for herself. The path she will take as writer is circular: Leaving to come back to leave again, and so on.
Lissa Paul suggests that the restriction of the child or the woman to the home is a common theme in literature, but that the significance of that restriction is only now being recognized: "Because women and children generally have to stay at home without the affairs of state to worry about, their stories tend to focus on the contents of their traps, the minute and mundane features of everyday life around which their lives revolve: household effects, food, clothes, sewing, interior decorating, and nuances of social relationships. These homely details have been redeemed by feminist critics . . . as having interest; as being as worthy for critical attention as descriptions of battles or card games or beer drinking." By focusing on such details and recognizing their significance for the protagonist, feminist critics articulate the "physical, economic, and linguistic entrapment" in which the heroine finds herself. Paul argues that whereas the hero traditionally relies upon forza (violence) in his quest, the "survival tactic" the heroine traditionally relies upon to free herself is froda (fraud): "Though deceit is the traditional tactic of the heroine, it is most visible in the tactics of defenceless child protagonists in children's literature." This survival tactic is one way that the "difference" or "otherness" can be seen between the male and the female, the adult and the child. That difference is also being recognized as relevant to all readers: "The quickening of academic interest in women's and children's literature testifies that something in their stories is in touch with the temper of our time. Trickster stories express a contemporary reality; powerlessness is no longer a condition experienced primarily by women, children and other oppressed people. It is a condition we all recognize." Powerlessness is of course Esperanza's condition, and she is in danger of remaining powerless. Showing why the female is powerless enables Cisneros to offer a way by which her protagonist may empower herself. Esperanza learns that she can empower herself through "books and paper"—a form of "deceit" in that books and paper enable her to "subvert" the "physical, economic and linguistic traps in women's and children's literature."
Why Esperanza wishes to escape Mango Street and how and why she must return are the issues Cisneros addresses by means of the home versus homelessness theme. In doing so, she has created a narrative account of "a condition we all recognize"—a narrative, further, accessible to both the adult reader and the child reader. Esperanza wants to escape Mango Street, wants a house of her own, but unlike her male counterparts in other works she does not escape to the pastoral world. Chicanas usually choose to write about female characters in urban settings, whereas Chícanos usually choose to write about male characters in pastoral settings or in either pastoral or urban settings (sometimes moving freely between both settings). Although the choice of setting may not strictly depend upon gender, there does seem to be a tendency among Chícanos to allow their male characters the freedom to move about in the city or in the country or both, whereas there seems to be a tendency among Chicanas to restrict their female characters to movement within the neighborhood, or the house.
The pastoral traditionally concerns the urban poet's praise of nature and the simple life of the shepherd, in contrast with the complicated life of the city dweller. Though seemingly unaffected by the problems typically found in the city, the pastoral is not always and simply Utopian, for there are conflicts the protagonist must face. In American literature one might even consider why the writer uses a particular version of the pastoral as a setting: uncontrolled nature (forests, rivers, plains), or controlled nature (fields, pastures, gardens, orchards). These two versions of the pastoral are found in, for example, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, where the young protagonist Antonio is torn between the llano (the plain, representing his father's side of the family) and Las Pasturas (the pastures, representing his mother's side of the family). Although his family lives outside the small town, the town is nonetheless a significant factor in that it represents sources of conflict for Antonio.
Often, the male protagonist's movement from the urban to the pastoral may serve only as a momentary escape from the harshness of the urban, the protagonist eventually returning to face his troubles in the city. Or the pastoral itself may be threatening to the protagonist. In works by Chícanos, the pastoral is apropos as well to the search for the mythical Aztlan, the search for what Aztlan symbolizes.
The Chicana's concern with "place"—a house, or a room of one's own—is a reaction against the patriarchal myth that denies the Chicana a place of her own. Whereas the Chicano is free to journey through the mountains or the cities, the Chicana's movement has often been restricted by the Chicana writers themselves. The reality the Chicana addresses, then, is the reality of her restriction to the urban setting—particularly the house or the room. That setting is Esperanza's past and her present in The House on Mango Street; she recognizes that it might very well be her future as well.
Instead of wishing to escape to the pastoral, Esperanza wants her house to be in another part of town:
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.
Some days after dinner, guests and I will sit in front of a fire. Floorboards will squeak upstairs. The attic grumble.
Rats? they'll ask.
Bums, I'll say, and I'll be happy.
Her vision of an escape is to a house on a hill, far away from Mango Street but still in the city. Some of the visitors she will receive will not be from the Utopian world of the pastoral but from the realistic world of the barrio. The passage is a poignant and gently humorous reminder of the significance of the home versus homelessness theme in this book.
Yet, the passage has also drawn criticism. Ramon Saldivar states [in Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference, 1990], for example: "Incapable of imagining a house without rats in the attic, and naively accepting the derogatory epithet 'bums' for all street people, the child innocently combines the features of a cognac advertisement with a scene from a shelter for the homeless." Saldivar might be distinguishing between Esperanza's naivete and Cisneros's maturity, might not be criticizing Cisneros per se. Although a concern with the protagonist's naivete might be relevant to children's literature, Saldivar's concern seems more ideological than literary. In many children's books the young protagonist seems naive, but can also seem sophisticated for her years. Recall Alice, Dorothy, Bobbie (Roberta from The Railway Children), Jo March, Mary Lennox, Meg Murray, Lucy Pevensie, and a host of princesses from fairy tales.
Esperanza's use of the word bums is derogatory only from the adult reader's perspective—perhaps an example of "the adult exploitation of youth." The negative implication of the word is not indicative of Esperanza's attitude toward the homeless. That is, if she "naively" uses a derogatory term, she certainly does not have a derogatory attitude toward the homeless. (On the other hand, her use of the term "Bum man" in the vignette "The Family of Little Feet" is intended to be derogatory because of the sexual threat the man poses to Rachel and to the others.) Esperanza declares that she will give the homeless shelter and will care for them because she identifies with their plight: "I know how it is to be without a house." If they are homeless, she implies, then so is she. The word bums should perhaps be understood more properly in its specific context in the story and by means of criteria appropriate to the literary text.
A much harsher view of Esperanza—and, by extension, Cisneros—is expressed by Juan Rodriguez in his review of The House on Mango Street [Austin Chronicle, 1984]. Like Saldivar, Rodriguez faults Esperanza for wanting a particular type of house: "That Esperanza chooses to leave Mango St., chooses to move away from her social/cultural base to become more 'Anglicized,' more individualistic; that she chooses to move from the real to the fantasy plane of the world as the only means of accepting and surviving the limited and limiting social conditions of her barrio becomes problematic to the more serious reader." The literary value of The House on Mango Street is thus suspect for Rodriguez, but his conclusions seem based on whether Cisneros espouses a particular political ideology. Rodriguez does not recognize that Cisneros's text is political and serious in that she writes about oppression (political, economic, sexual) and the way her protagonist might free herself from that oppression. Her politics just do not happen to be his politics. Of the significant distinctions to be made between Chicano narrative and Chicana narrative, one might thus distinguish in terms of politics. The intention, however, should be to understand as fully and clearly as possible both the politics and the manner in which the politics is presented. Even Saldivar's critique of Esperanza's politically incorrect use of the word bums—Esperanza's politics, if you will—does little to clarify this distinction, since his overall treatment of Chicana narratives is rather brief (one twenty-eight-page chapter, six pages of which are devoted to Cisneros's book) in comparison to his overall treatment of Chicano narratives (six chapters).
Conclusions that the word bums is derogatory and indicative of Esperanza's naivete and that Esperanza's desire to escape her environment shows that she (with Cisneros) lacks political commitment serve as examples of what can happen when one does not evaluate a literary text on its own terms and on the terms appropriate to the genre, when one complains instead of analyzes. If we prefer complaint to analysis, we may miss the significant points made in the vignette "Bums in the Attic": Esperanza will not give up her dream; she will not forget "those who cannot out"; she will not forget who she is; she will find a house of her own.
The dangers critics like Saldivar and Rodriguez risk when they evaluate the work of a writer like Cisneros are similar to the dangers adults risk when they attempt to evaluate children's literature according to criteria they may bring with them from their work in other genres or other disciplines. The criteria by which one evaluates literature for children is often, and perhaps unavoidably, at least in part the same criteria by which one evaluates literature for adults. "Whatever the topic to be studied," Margaret Meek argues [in Children's Literature: The Development of Criticism, edited by Peter Hunt, 1990];
in literature, as elsewhere, we inherit the theories of our predecessors, willy nilly: and in making our own we are bound to represent not only their earlier methods of inquiry, but also the pattern of associated constructs already existent in our own minds. Thus, I cannot speculate about children's literature without incorporating the tissues of ideas that inform my everyday thinking about literature, children, reading, writing, language, linguistics, politics, ideology, sociology, history, education, sex, psychology, art, or a combination of some or all of these, to say nothing of joy or sadness, pleasure or pain. This is a lengthy way of saying that those who would theorize do so initially about themselves.
We cannot, therefore, help but evaluate children's literature according to what we have learned from our predecessors and according to our personal tastes. Yet as Meek reminds us: "In the past 20 years, we have outgrown the need to establish children's books as a legitimate area of study, but we are still looking through the lorgnettes of critical models now outworn in adult literature." Theorizing of course enables us to articulate the value of children's literature or of Chicana literature; but as we have seen, theorizing that is not based on close literary analysis or that is not based on an appreciation of genre can lead to the subordination of these literatures for political reasons.
Cisneros addresses the home versus homelessness theme in an urban rather than pastoral setting. In the vignette "The Monkey Garden," she shows why the pastoral must be rejected—a rejection, certainly, of the pastoral image of Eden, perhaps a postlapsarian vision of Eden, for this garden is overgrown and decaying. The urban world has overtaken the pastoral world in that the garden becomes a junk yard where "Dead cars appeared overnight like mushrooms." In the garden, too, Esperanza, brick in hand, realizes that Sally does not want to be "saved" from "Tito's buddies." This realization results in a form of self-expulsion in that Esperanza now feels she no longer belongs in the garden: "I looked at my feet in their white socks and ugly round shoes. They seemed far away. They didn't seem to be my feet anymore. And the garden that had been such a good place to play didn't seem mine either."
It is time, she senses, for her to leave the garden and what it represents. She is changing, outgrowing that which kept her in the garden until now, and she expresses that awareness through a reference to her feet and shoes—one of many references to feet and shoes in Cisneros's book. Others may be found, for example, in "The Family of Little Feet" and "Chanclas" (a chancla is a type of slipper or old shoe), vignettes concerned with the confusion involved in the transition from childhood to adolescence.
Cisneros presents the image of the garden in order to reject it. Any attempt to return to an edenic past would be ironic for the female who seeks freedom from the patriarchal Genesis myth. Though Esperanza may not fully understand why, she nonetheless feels that she no longer belongs in the garden: "Who was it that said I was getting too old to play the games?" Nor does she require a deity to evict her. The theme of exile from the garden—the recognition and rejection of what the garden represents—is specifically related to the home versus homelessness theme: the home Cisneros rejects is the patriarchal, edenic home.
The rejection of the patriarchal home has become an important theme in Chicana literature. For example, Estela Portillo Trambley also critiques the patriarchal myth in her short story "The Trees." Nina, "a confident city girl," marries the youngest of four sons of Don Teofilo Ayala, the head of a family that owns a large and very productive apple orchard. When the old patriarch dies, Nina worries about how the orchard will be divided among the brothers. She wishes to acquire the inheritance for herself and for her husband, Ismael (a name reminiscent of exile). By turning the brothers against each other, Nina eventually brings about the destruction of that garden—because she is greedy, to be sure, but also because she is opposed to the patriarchal world of which she is a victim. She was raped when she was a child; and as an adult she is expected to play the role of submissive housewife: "The family, with its elementary tie to the earth, had established a working patriarchal order. The father and sons lived for a fraternal cause, the apple orchards. Their women followed in silent steps, fulfilled in their women ways. If ambition or a sense of power touched the feminine heart, it was a silent touch. The lives were well patterned like the rows of apple trees and the trenches that fed them. Men and women had a separate given image until Nina came." Although Portillo Trambley does not justify Nina's destructive behavior or encourage the reader to sympathize with Nina, she nonetheless shows how the patriarchal order can, through its obsessive adherence to a "fraternal cause," bring about its own destruction. After all, Nina is "an avenging angel come to the Garden of Eden." In her critique of the Eden myth Portillo Trambley makes her protagonist, as Hamlet would say, both "scourge and minister." Like Cisneros, Portillo Trambley presents the patriarchal image of the garden to show why it must not only be rejected but also destroyed. This metaphorical significance of rejection/destruction is fundamental to Cisneros's handling of the home versus homelessness theme: Esperanza understands that she must assert her independence if she is to find "A house all my own."
In the vignette "Beautiful & Cruel," Esperanza declares that she will rebel against the traditional role expected of her by acting like a man: "I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate." Yet, only three vignettes later in "Red Clowns," which immediately follows "The Monkey Garden," Esperanza becomes a victim. She goes with Sally to the carnival, where Sally goes off with a boy and leaves Esperanza alone. What happens next is not clear, but it appears that Esperanza is raped, or if she is not, the experience is just as traumatic:
Sally Sally a hundred times. 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.
Sally, make him stop. I couldn't make them go away. I couldn't do anything but cry. I don't remember. It was dark. I don't remember. I don't remember. Please don't make me tell it all.
The pattern seems similar to what happens to Nina; however, Esperanza will diverge from that pattern, we assume, for only two vignettes after "Red Clowns" Esperanza meets las comadres in the vignette "The Three Sisters." Esperanza will destroy the male myth, not by literally destroying the garden as Nina does, but by becoming a writer and writing about her past.
Cisneros's critique of patriarchal society—the forms of power through which it protects its "fraternal cause"—and her reaction against that society are evident through much of the book. The critique and the reaction are examples of what Gloria Anzaldúa refers to as "writing" that is "dangerous": "Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what the writing reveals: the fears, the angers, the strengths of a woman under a triple or quadruple oppression. Yet in that very act lies our survival because a woman who writes has power. And a woman with power is feared." Esperanza seeks to possess this kind of power. In the vignette "My Name" she declares that "the Chinese, like the Mexicans, don't like their women strong." Although she has inherited her grandmother's name, Esperanza will not "inherit her place by the window." Instead, she will "baptize" herself "something like Zeze the X," a name whose very sound conjures resistance, a cacophonous name that she feels will help her assert her power to avoid her grandmother's fate. Esperanza decides "not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain" ("Beautiful & Cruel"). Vowing to break away from what confines her makes Esperanza "dangerous" (a word Cisneros uses often in the book): "Them are dangerous," Mr. Benny points out to Esperanza and her friends. "You girls too young to be wearing shoes like that. Take them shoes off before I call the cops, but we just run" ("The Family of Little Feet"). Sally, too, is considered dangerous because of the type of clothes and shoes she wears, as Esperanza says to her: "I like your black coat and those shoes you wear, where did you get them? My mother says to wear black so young is dangerous, but I want to buy shoes just like yours, like your black ones made out of suede, just like those" ("Sally"). Esperanza is fascinated by what is deemed dangerous.
Throughout The House on Mango Street, the many references to children's literature are evidence of that genre's impact on Cisneros. In "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," Cisneros tells of books and fairy tales that were especially significant to her as a child. One such book was Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House, which "was my own dream. And I was to dream myself over again in several books, to reinvent my world according to my own vision." She mentions such favorite fairy tales as "Six Swans" and "Ugly Duckling," as well as the Doctor Dolittle series, The Island of Blue Dolphins series, the Alice books, and Hitty: Her First 100 Years, this last book being "a century account of a wooden doll who is whisked through different homes and owners but perseveres." One can easily see, then, how the adult writer indeed writes "on behalf of adolescence."
In certain instances in The House on Mango Street, the references to children's literature also serve as metonyms through which Cisneros develops the home versus homelessness theme and the rejection of the patriarchal myth theme. For example, in the vignette "Edna's Ruthie," Esperanza tells how she had memorized "The Walrus and the Carpenter" from Through the Looking-Glass, and one day recited it to Ruthie, a friend, "because I wanted Ruthie to hear me." In Tweedledee's poem the unsuspecting oysters are tricked and then eaten by the walrus and the carpenter. Esperanza's selection of this story is not accidental, as it bears special relevance to her vow not to be overpowered by the society in which she lives—her vow, that is, "not to grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain."
Besides the Alice books, there is another text that Cisneros uses in her characterization of Ruthie. Esperanza describes Ruthie's whistling as "beautiful like the Emperor's nightingale." This fairy tale serves as a metonym of the world in which Ruthie and Esperanza live. In Andersen's "The Nightingale," the emperor, one of the last people in his realm to know about the nightingale, finally recognizes and appreciates the beauty of its song. He cages the nightingale, however, so that it can sing only for the court. An artificial nightingale is later manufactured and brought to the court, which results in the loss of interest in the live nightingale; no one notices when the nightingale escapes back to the forest. But when the artificial nightingale breaks and the music is gone, the emperor begins to grow weak. With Death sitting on his chest and the demons of his past surrounding the emperor, the nightingale returns from the forest and rescues him through the beauty of its song. The nightingale then agrees to come and sing for him from time to time, though the emperor must promise not to tell anyone.
According to Esperanza—who perhaps got it from Ruthie herself—Ruthie was married and left Mango Street only to be forced to return and live with her mother: "She had lots of job offers when she was young, but she never took them. She got married instead and moved away to a pretty house outside the city. Only thing I can't understand is why Ruthie is living on Mango Street if she doesn't have to, why is she sleeping on a couch in her mother's living room when she has a real house all her own, but she says she's just visiting and next weekend her husband's going to take her home. But the weekends come and go and Ruthie stays." Of course, Ruthie does not have "a real house all her own," and that is Cisneros's point. Like Andersen's nightingale, Ruthie is caged and ignored. For example, if she was indeed married, then she is ignored by her husband. Nor does her mother seem to show much affection for her: "Once some friends of Edna's came to visit and asked Ruthie if she wanted to go with them to play bingo. The car motor was running, and Ruthie stood on the steps wondering whether to go. Should I go, Ma? she asked the grey shadow behind the second-floor screen. I don't care, says the screen, go if you want. Ruthie looked at the ground. What do you think, Ma? Do what you want, how should I know? Ruthie looked at the ground some more. The car with the motor running waited fifteen minutes and then they left." The image of Ruthie is of a female literally trapped and unable to escape Mango Street, to escape "her mother's living room," for that matter. Ruthie is only one of many symbols in The House on Mango Street of the trapped female.
For Esperanza, there is something at once sad and beautiful about Ruthie. Like Andersen's nightingale, Ruth is much admired and loved because she is undemanding and unselfish. She "sees" beauty and, for Esperanza, she possesses beauty: "Ruthie sees lovely things everywhere. . . . When we brought out the deck of cards that night, we let Ruthie deal. . . . We are glad because she is our friend." Interpreting the allusions to stories by Dodgson and Andersen enables us to understand the themes Cisneros addresses through the characterization of Ruthie: the homelessness and the victimization of the female.
Ruthie loves books and says she "used to write children's books once," although now she seems unable to read, which suggests the possibility of losing the empowerment that comes through reading and writing. Books and paper give Esperanza the power to be dangerous and (possibly) to avoid Ruthie's fate. She recognizes that through the power of books and paper she will make the prophecies of the old woman (la comadre) and of the young woman (Alicia) come true:
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.
Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?
They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.
She says that she will leave and that she will come back. But these actions are beyond the confines of the narrative—a narrative fragment, that is, to be resolved by the reader.
Perhaps most important, the power Esperanza acquires through books and paper will give her the strength to return. This is the world of myth, but it is also the world of irony. Wolf makes a compelling argument for the distinction between children's literature and adult literature in terms of the myth/home-irony/homelessness dichotomies. But she also argues that in five books—Jarrell's The Animal Family, Norton's The Borrowers, Lively's The House in Norham Gardens, Fox's One-Eyed Cat, and Schlee's Ask Me No Questions—we can trace the movement from myth to irony. The five books "range in their portraits of houses from the romantic to the ironic." I suggest that this range may be seen specifically in The House on Mango Street.
Mango Street is a place where Esperanza may have at times felt joy and a sense of belonging, but it is also a place where she realizes that women are locked in their rooms by jealous and insecure husbands, a world in which there is violence, incest, and rape. She describes a harsh world from which she seeks escape, but a world to which she must return empowered as writer.
At the end of The House on Mango Street Esperanza recognizes, and Cisneros validates, the empowerment that comes through writing and remembering. Hence, the writer can find her freedom, can find her voice as writer, though she can only find that freedom and voice by honoring an injunction: You will come back, she is told. She may or may not go far away, but she will come back for herself and "for the others." Here, then, is yet another circle in the book that includes those outside the fictional narrative, those to whom the book is dedicated, and those who will read the book, thereby perpetuating the circular journey of the child/adult each time the text is read. There is indeed a circle that binds, that extends beyond the confines of the narrative to bind las mujeres. Dedicating her book "A las Mujeres / To the Women," Cisneros has come back "For the ones who cannot out." The book's dedication and the very last line of the book form* a circle symbolic of remembering always to come back.
Julián Olivares (essay date 1996)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4263
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 Street She states that the nostalgia for the perfect house was impressed on her at an early age from reading many times Virginia Lee Burton's The Little House. It was not until her tenure at the Iowa Writers Workshop, however, that it dawned on her that a house, her childhood home, could be the subject of a book. In a class discussion of Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space, she came to this realization: "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." Yet Cisneros' reverie and depiction of house differ markedly from Bachelard's poetic space of house. With Bachelard we note a house conceived in terms of a male-centered ideology. A man born in the upper crust family house, probably never having to do "female" housework and probably never having been confined to the house for reason of his sex, can easily contrive states of reverie and images of a house that a woman might not have, especially an impoverished woman raised in a ghetto. Thus, for Bachelard the house is an image of "felicitous space ( . . . ) the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace (. . . ) A house constitutes a body of images that give mankind proofs or illusions of stability." Cisneros inverts Bachelard's nostalgic and privileged utopia, for her's is a different reality: "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. And this is when I discovered the voice I'd been suppressing all along without realizing it."
The determination of genre for Mango Street has posed a problem for some critics. Is Mango Street a novel, short stories, prose poems, vignettes? Cisneros herself states:
I recall I wanted to write stories that were a cross between poetry and fiction. I was greatly impressed by Jorge Luis Borges' Dream Tigers stories for their form. I liked how he could fit so much into a page and that the last line of each story was important to the whole in much the same way that the final lines in poems resonate. Except 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.
She adds that if some of the stories read like poems, it is because some had been poems redone as stories or constructed from the debris of unfinished poems. The focus, then, on compression and lyricism contributes to the brevity of the narratives. With regard to this generic classification, Cisneros states:
I said once that I wrote Mango Street naively, that they were "lazy poems." In other words, for me each of the stories could've developed into poems, but they were not poems. They were stories, albeit hovering in that grey area between two genres. My newer work is still exploring this terrain. ("Do You Know Me?")
On a different occasion, Cisneros has called the stories "vignettes." I would affirm that, although some of the narratives of Mango Street are "short stories," most are vignettes, that is, literary sketches, like small illustrations nonetheless "hovering in that grey area between two genres."
I should like to discuss some of these stories and vignettes in order to demonstrate the manner in which Cisneros employs her imagery as a poetics of space and, while treating an "unpoetic" subject—as she says, expresses it poetically so that she conveys another element that Bachelard notes inherent to this space, the dialectic of inside and outside, that is, here and there, integration and alienation, comfort and anxiety. However, Cisneros again inverts Bachelard's pronouncement on the poetics of space; for Cisneros the inside, the here, can be confinement and a source of anguish and alienation. In this discussion we will note examples of (1) how Cisneros expresses an ideological perspective of the downtrodden but, primarily, the condition of the Hispanic woman; (2) the process of a girl's growing up; and (3) the formation of the writer who contrives a special house of her own.
This book begins with the story of the same title: "The House on Mango Street":
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 Pauline, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot. Each time it seemed there'd be one more of us. By the time we got to Mango Street we were six—Mama, Papa, Carlos, Kiki, my sister Nenny and me. (. . . )
They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always so we wouldn't have to move each year. (. . . )
But the house on Mango Street is not the way they told it at all. It's small and red with tight little steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen you have to push hard to get in. There is no front yard, only four little elms the city planted by the curb. Out back is a small garage for the car we don't own yet and a small yard that looks smaller between the two buildings on either side. There are stairs in our house, but they're ordinary hallway stairs, and the house has only one washroom, very small. Everybody has to share a bedroom—Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.
Once when we were living on Loomis, a nun from my school passed by and saw me playing out front. The laundromat downstairs had been boarded up because it had been robbed two days before and the owner had painted on the wood YES WE'RE OPEN so as not to lose business.
Where do you live? she asked.
There, I said, pointing up to the third floor. You live there?
There. I had to look to 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. There. I lived there. I nodded.
I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to. But this isn't it. The house on Mango Street isn't it. For the time being, Mama said. Temporary, said Papa. But I know how those things go.
Mango Street is a street sign, a marker, that circumscribes the neighborhood to its Latino population of Puerto Ricans, Chícanos and Mexican immigrants. This house is not the young protagonist's dream house; it is only a temporary house. The semes that we ordinarily perceive in house, and the ones that Bachelard assumes—such as comfort, security, tranquility, esteem—are lacking. This is a house that constrains, one that she wants to leave; consequently, the house sets up a dialectic of inside and outside: of living here and wishing to leave for there.
The house becomes, essentially, the narrator's first universe. She begins here because it is the beginning of her conscious narrative reflection. She describes the house from the outside; this external depiction is a metonymical description and presentation of self: "I knew then I had to have a house. A real house. One I could point to." By pointing to this dilapidated house, she points to herself. House and narrator become identified as one, thereby revealing an ideological perspective of poverty and shame. Consequently, she wants to point to another house and to point to another self. And as she longs for this other house and self, she also longs for another name. But she will find that in growing up and writing, she will come to inhabit a special house and to fit into, find comfort, in her name.
In "My Name" the protagonist says: "In English my name means hope. In Spanish it means too many letters. It means sadness, it means waiting . . . It is the Mexican records my father plays on Sunday mornings when he is shaving, songs like sobbing." In this vignette Esperanza traces the reason for the discomfiture with her name to cultural oppression, the Mexican males' suppression of their women. Esperanza was named after her Mexican great-grandmother who was wild but tamed by her husband, so that: "She looked out the window all her life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow . . . Esperanza, I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window." Here we have not the space of contentment but of sadness, and a dialectic of inside/outside. The woman's place is one of domestic confinement, not one of liberation and choice. Thus, Esperanza would like to baptize herself "under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees. Esperanza as Lisandra or Maritza or Zeze the X. Yes. Something like Zeze the X will do." That is, Esperanza prefers a name not culturally embedded in a dominating, male-centered ideology.
Such a dialectic of inside/outside, of confinement and desire for the freedom of the outside world is expressed in various stories. Marin, from the story of the same name, who is too beautiful for her own good and will be sent back to Puerto Rico to her mother, who wants to work downtown because "you . . . can meet someone in the subway who might marry and take you to live in a big house far away," never comes out of the house "until her aunt comes home from work, and even then she can only stay out in front. She is there every night with the radio . . . Marin, under the streetlight, dancing by herself, is singing the same song somewhere. I know. Is waiting for a car to stop, a star to fall. Someone to change her life. Anybody." And then there is Rafaela, too beautiful for her own good:
On Tuesdays Rafaela's husband comes home late because that's the night he plays dominoes. And then Rafaela, who is still young, gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at.
("Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut and Papaya Juice on Tuesdays")
One way to leave house and barrio is to acquire an education. In "Alicia Who Sees Mice," a vignette both lyrical and hauntingly realistic, the narrator describes her friend's life. Alicia, whose mother has died so she has inherited her "mama's rolling pin and sleepiness," must arise early to make her father's lunchbox tortillas:
Close your eyes and they'll go away her father says, or you're just imagining. And anyway, a woman's place is sleeping so she can wake up early with the tortilla star, the one that appears early just in time to rise and catch the hind legs hidden behind the sink, beneath the four-clawed tub, under the swollen floorboards nobody fixes in the corner of your eyes.
Here we note a space of misery and subjugation, a dialectic of inside/outside, a Latina's perception of life—all magnificently crystallized in the image of the "tortilla star." To Alicia Venus, the morning star, does not mean wishing upon or waiting for a star to fall down—as it does for Rafaela, nor romance nor the freedom of the outside world; instead, it means having to get up early, a rolling pin and tortillas. Here we do not see the tortilla as a symbol of cultural identity but as a symbol of a subjugating ideology, of sexual domination, of the imposition of a role that the young woman must assume. Here Venus—and the implication of sex and marriage as escape—is deromanticized, is eclipsed by a cultural reality that points to the drudgery of the inside. Alicia "studies for the first time at the university. Two trains and a bus, because she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin . . . Is afraid of nothing except four-legged fur and fathers."
There are two types of girls in Mango Street There are those few who strive for an education, like Alicia and the narrator, but most want to grow up fast, get married and get out. But these, like Minerva, usually have to get married, and they leave a father for a domineering husband. Such is the fate of Sally in "Linoleum Roses":
Sally got married like we knew she would, young and not ready but married just the same. She met a marshmallow salesman at a school bazaar and she married him in another state where it's legal to get married before eighth grade . . . She says she is in love, but I think she did it to escape. (. . . )
[Her husband] wont let her talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window. And he doesn't like her friends, so nobody gets to visit her unless he is working.
She sits at home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission. She looks at all the things they own: the towels and the toaster, the alarm clock and the drapes. She likes looking at the walls, at how neatly their corners meet, the linoleum roses on the floor, the ceiling smooth as wedding cake.
The title is an oxymoron expressing an inversion of the positive semes of house and revealing a dialectic of inside/outside. "Linoleum roses" is a trope for household confinement and drudgery, in which the semes of rose—beauty, femininity, garden (the outside)—and rose as a metaphor for woman are ironically treated. The roses decorate the linoleum floor that Sally will have to scrub. This is an image of her future. The image of the final line, the "ceiling smooth as wedding cake," resonates through the story in an ironical twist, a wedding picture of despair.
Such images as "tortilla star" and "linoleum roses" are the type of imagery that perhaps only a woman could create, because they are derived from a woman's perception of reality; that is to say, that this imagery is not biologically determined but that it is culturally inscribed. A woman's place may be in the home but it is a patriarchal domain.
With regard to the poetics of space and the dialectic of inside/outside and as these apply to the process of growing up, I shall give only one example, but one that also touches on the formation of the writer. It is taken from the story "Hips," in which the process of a girl's growing up is initially described as a physical change, the widening of the hips:
One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition. Ready to take you where?
They're good for holding a baby when you're cooking, Rachel says turning the jump rope a little quicker. She has no imagination. (. . . )
They bloom like roses, I continue because it's obvious I'm the only one that can speak with any authority; I have science on my side. The bones just one day open. Just like that.
Here, then, Esperanza, Lucy and Rachel are discussing hips while jumping rope with little Nenny. At this point the kids' game turns into a creative exercise as the older girls take turns improvising rhymes about hips as they jump to the rhythm of the jump rope. Esperanza sings:
Some are skinny like chicken lips.
Some are baggy like soggy band-aids
after you get out of the bathtub.
I don't care what kind I get.
Just as long as I get hips.
Then little Nenny jumps inside but can only sing the usual kids' rhymes: "Engine, engine, number nine." Suddenly, the awareness of time passing and of growing up is given a spatial dimension. Esperanza, on the outside, is looking at Nenny inside the arc of the swinging rope that now separates Nenny's childhood dimension from her present awareness of just having left behind that very same childhood: "Nenny, I say, but she doesn't hear me. She is too many light years away. She is in a world we don't belong to anymore Nenny. Going. Going." Yet Esperanza has not totally grown out of her childhood. She is still tied to that dimension. Although we perceive a change in voice at the end of the story, she is still swinging the rope.
Indications of Esperanza's formation as a writer and predictions of her eventual move from home and Mango Street are given in two stories related to death, suggesting perhaps that creativity is not only a means of escape from the confines of Mango Street but also an affirmation of life and a rebirth. The first story is "Born Bad," in which Esperanza reads her poetry to her aunt who appears to be dying from polio. The aunt replies:
That's nice. That's very good, she said in her tired voice. You must remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will help keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn't know what she meant.
In "The Three Sisters" three mysterious women appear at the funeral of a neighbor's child. Here Esperanza begins to fit into the cultural space of her name. These women seek out Esperanza for special attention:
What's your name, the cat-eyed one asked.
Esperanza, I said.
Esperanza, the old blue-veined one repeated in a high thin voice. Esperanza . . . a good name. (. . . )
Look at her hands, cat-eyed said.
And they turned them over and over as if they were looking for something.
Yes, she'll go very far . . .
Make a wish.
Yes, make a wish. What do you want?
Anything? I said.
Well, why not?
I closed my eyes.
Did you wish already?
Yes, I said.
Well, that's all there is to it. It'll come true.
How do you know? I asked.
We know, we know.
Esperanza. The one with marble hands called aside. Esperanza. She held my face with her blue-veined hands and looked and looked at me. A long silence. When you leave you must remember always to come back, she said.
When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. 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.
Then I didn't know what to say. It was as if she could read my mind, as if she knew what I had wished for, and I felt ashamed for having made such a selfish wish.
You must remember to come back. For the ones who cannot leave as easily as you. You will remember? She asked as if she was telling me. Yes, yes, I said a little confused.
In this paradigm of the fairy godmother, Esperanza receives a wish that she does not understand. How can she leave from here to there and still be Mango Street? How can she come back for the others? What is the meaning of the circle? Esperanza thought that by leaving Mango Street and living in another house, one that she could point to with pride, she would leave behind forever an environment she believed to be only temporary. A mysterious woman embeds in Esperanza's psyche a cultural and political determination which will find expression in her vocation as a writer. Esperanza will move away from the confining space of house and barrio, but paradoxically within them she has encountered a different sort of space, the space of writing. Through her creativity, she comes to inhabit the house of story-telling. Although she longs for "A House of My Own"—
Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories. My two shoes waiting beside the bed. Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after.
—it is clear, nonetheless, that a magical house is had though the creative imagination: "Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem."
The realization of the possibility of escape through the space of writing, as well as the determination to move away from Mango Street, are expressed in "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes":
I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.
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 Pauline, but what I remember most is Mango Street, sad red house, the house I belong but do not belong to.
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.
One day I will pack my bags of books and paper. One day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away.
Friends and neighbors will say, What happened to that Esperanza? Where did she go with all those books and paper? Why did she march so far away?
They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out.
I do not hold with Juan Rodríguez that Cisneros' book ultimately sets forth the traditional ideology that happiness, for example, comes with the realization of the "American Dream," a house of one's own. In his review of Mango Street, Rodríguez states:
That Esperanza chooses to leave Mango St., chooses to move away from her social/cultural base to become more "Anglicized," more individualistic; that she chooses to move from the real to the fantasy plane of the world as the only means of accepting and surviving the limited and limiting social conditions of her barrio becomes problematic to the more serious reader.
[Austin Chronicle, August 10, 1984]
This insistence on the preference for a comforting and materialistic life ignores the ideology of a social class' liberation, particularly that of its women, to whom the book is dedicated. The house the protagonist longs for, certainly, is a house where she can have her own room and one that she can point to in pride, but, as noted through this discussion of the poetics of space, it is fundamentally a metaphor for the house of story-telling. Neither here in the house on Mango Street nor in the "fantasy plane of the world"—as Rodríguez states, does the protagonist indulge in escapism. Esperanza wants to leave but is unable, so she attains release from her confinement through her writing. Yet even here she never leaves Mango Street; because, instead of fantasizing, she writes of her reality. [In International Studies in Honor of Tomás Rivera, edited by Julián Olivares, 1985] Erlinda Gonzales and Diana Rebolledo confirm that the house is symbolic of consciousness and collective memory, and is a nourishing structure so that "the narrator comes to understand that, despite her need for a space of her own, Mango Street is really a part of her—an essential creative part she will never be able to leave"; consequently, she searches in (as narrator) and will return to (as author) her neighborhood "for the human and historical materials of which [her] stories will be made." On the higher plane of art, then, Esperanza transcends her condition, finding another house which is the space of literature. Yet what she writes about—"third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows, anything as far from the poetic as possible"—reinforces her solidarity with the people, the women, of Mango Street.
We can agree, and probably Cisneros on this occasion does, with Bachelard's observation on the house as the space of daydreaming: "the places in which we have experienced daydreaming reconstitute themselves in a new daydream, and it is because our memories of former dwelling places are relived as daydreams that these dwelling places of the past remain in us for all time." The house that Esperanza lives and lived in will always be associated with the house of story-telling—"What I remember most is Mango Street"; because of it she became a writer. Esperanza will leave Mango Street but take it with her for always, for it is inscribed within her.
Sandra Cisneros with Martha Satz (interview date 1997)
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8138
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 that it has such a range. It's written, I suppose, with the intent that it can be read as single stories or as a novel. It does have one general theme.
I suppose the book is being marketed that way because the story is told from a child's point of view; the work is written in simple but very powerful language. It deals with an experience that's not usual for a young person's book.
It always surprises me when children like the story. When I have read it to children there are certain stories they understand and enjoy. My intent was to write stories that don't get told—my mother's stories, my students' stories, the stories of women in the neighborhood, the stories of all of those people who don't have the ability to document their lives. One of the reasons I dedicated the book to women was that there were so many people to whom I was indebted because I stole their stories. That's how I put the book together. It's a young girl's diary in a sense. All the stories are told from the point of view of a woman-girl who is in that nebulous age between childhood and adulthood. Some days she's a child and for a few days she might be an adult. That always struck me as a kind of mysterious time, so I chose her as the persona for these stories.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the selection "Hips," just because it contains unusual material.
It's fun to read that one out loud. I think the book has a wide range because some of the stories are very playful, and some are very sad and serious, and I guess "Hips" is a little bit of both. If I had to summarize the book, I guess I'd say it's a book about a young girl's discovery of her sexuality. I like to read it because I get to sing, which I don't get to do very often.
There are so many things in "Hips" that don't usually appear in stories—all the jump rope rhymes, all the minutiae of the girl experience.
I especially relish writing about all those little things no one ever writes about. I included all of the girl knowledge that you get. I had this storehouse of information—little nursery rhymes and jump rope songs—and I thought what can I do with these things? And finally, when I was writing this book, I thought I would throw them all into one story, and that's how that story came about.
It's unusual, too, in a book that is read sometimes by children, that the sun isn't shining and there's not a dog named Spot. There are rats.
It's very curious. I went to school at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and everyone was writing about the sun shining and beautiful gardens, but those things weren't in my life. I think it was important for me to have the cultural shock I experienced at Iowa, for me to experience my otherness, in order for me to choose my subject intentionally.
I wanted to ask you about the girlhood that probably inspired Mango Street. Tell me about what you were like as a small girl.
We never owned books in my house, not because my mother didn't want us to have books. She loved books very much. We couldn't afford them, so I never knew you could own a book until I was about twelve. We did go to the public library, though, and our house was always filled with borrowed books. I think that was very important in nurturing me as a writer. My mother, of course, was instrumental in taking me there and bringing me back and making sure we had books and telling us stories.
What was your father's attitude toward the girl who had her head in a book?
I think in a way it's fortunate that I was a girl because my father thought it was all right that I was interested in writing and literature. He thought I was only a girl and therefore what harm could come of it? I would eventually get married and if I wanted to go to college and major in creative writing or literature, that was okay because I'd get married anyway. So he ignored it, whereas my mother, I think, lived through me vicariously, and she has supported me and is supporting me now. She is very happy about the choices I've made.
That attitude of your father, "she's only a girl . . ."
Well it's funny, I'm thirty-one and I've had quite a bit of success with my writing now. But my father never acknowledged my success until very recently—until last summer, in fact. Because he is from Mexico City, he reads in Spanish. Last summer I read at the Colegio de Mexico and several of my pieces, especially pieces from House on Mango Street, had been translated. It was the first time he read anything I wrote. He had a funny response. He kind of looked at it and said "mmm," and in Spanish he said, "Who wrote this?" I said, "I did." And he looked at it and said "Mmm, who helped you?" I think he's secretly been very pleased to see my name on books. And I'm very proud of it because I'm the only daughter of a family of six sons—very traditional sons at that—who always made me feel as if I was not a Cisneros because I was a girl and would forfeit my name at marriage. I'm very pleased to see that I'm the one who put the name on that book cover.
I read in an interview that you said men often write in a romanticized way about the barrio because they had a different experience from women.
That's true. I have lived in the barrio, but I discovered later on in looking at works by my contemporaries that they write about the barrio as a colorful, Sesame Street-like, funky neighborhood. To me the barrio was a repressive community. I found it frightening and very terrifying for women. The future for women in the barrio is not a wonderful one. You don't wander around "these mean streets." You stay at home. If you do have to get somewhere, you take your life in your hands. So I wanted to counter those colorful viewpoints, which I'm sure are true to some extent but were not true for me.
Tell me about your college experience.
It's very curious. I want to mention how fortunate it was for me to have gone the route that I did. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to attend a university, unlike many young writers I've met in the barrio and in the communities who work in isolation. I was born at a time when there were government grants that allowed me to pursue higher education. I was able to attend an undergraduate program that had a writer in residence, and he, of course, took great interest in my work and recommended me to the University of Iowa. At the time I entered rather naively; I had no idea that it was a prestigious workshop or that it was quite unusual that I got there. I was the only Chicano writer, and I believe the only Latina that has graduated from the program. But at the time I didn't have that consciousness. I just went there directly from undergraduate school, which may have been detrimental—to go so young in my life without having developed a voice of my own first. It was a bit of a shock to be in a program like the one at Iowa. It's a disciplined and rigorous program. I think I entered quite a different person from the one who left. I became very rebellious there. I never liked the work that my classmates were doing, and as an attempt to move far away from their style, I stumbled upon the voice that predominates in the House on Mango Street, which is a street child's voice.
What didn 't you like about your classmates' work?
Well, theirs was a very distilled writing. I suppose it was a true voice for my classmates, but my attempt to try to imitate an esoteric style of writing was untrue to my experiences. I think everyone has to stumble around to find her voice. Coming from a working class background, an ethnic community, an urban community, a family that did not have books in the house, I just didn't have the same frames of reference as my classmates. It wasn't until I realized and accepted that fact that I came upon the subjects I wanted to write about.
So it was at Iowa that you understood you had a legitimate thing to write about and a legitimate way to write about it.
Right. I'm grateful for Iowa. If anything, it stirred me up, and that's good.
What did your classmates think when you began to produce this sort of material?
It's very funny. I think a workshop should not intimidate its students into not writing. Anything that silences you is dangerous. I didn't find it a supportive community, at first, and didn't write anything for a year. It wasn't until the second year that I decided I would write something no one else in the class could write about. I think it's an important thing to ask yourself: What can I write about that no one else can write about? For myself, since I was going through some traumatic experiences at the time, I chose to write about my past—my childhood experiences, my mother, and especially women in the community. So a great number of the stories in here are girl stories or women stories.
You write of women who are very powerful, in their own way—power disapproved of, but power nonetheless.
Yes. But in powerless circumstances, I think. It's true.
What do you make of your experience of woman and power? How do you use that material?
I think that growing up Mexican and feminist is almost a contradiction in terms. For a long time—and it's true for many writers and women like myself who have grown up in a patriarchal culture, like the Mexican culture—I felt great guilt betraying that culture. 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—influenced and contaminated by these foreign influences and ideas. But I'm very pleased to be alive among the current generation of women. Many writers are redefining our Mexicanness and it's important if we're going to come to terms with our Mexican culture and our American one as well. So it's a dilemma. I think many of my stories come from dealing with straddling two cultures, and certainly it's something I'm going to deal with in future stories.
You spoke of your mother's pride in your work. What is her attitude, though, toward your strength and independence?
My mother is a very feisty, strong, and independent woman. It's too bad she was born when she was, because I think women were nurtured so much they were made helpless. She's very much the mother that is described in the story "A Smart Cookie"—a woman who can speak two languages and fix the TV and draw, but doesn't know how to get downtown because she doesn't know which train to take. She's a woman of contradictions. On the other hand, I'm sure if it weren't for her, my brothers and I would not be the creative individuals we are. So in a sense, we're living her dreams for her. I know she's very pleased with my stories, though she gets a little embarrassed about my writing about her. But so long as I read them in public when she's out of the room it's okay.
Do you feel that by writing her stories and other women's stories, you are redeeming her experience and giving her some strength?
Yes, very much so. I think my mother is always going to be a voice in my stories. She's very much the persona I use in these stories and in the poems. It's her voice I hear when I sit down and begin a piece.
Fifteen years have passed, and I must say I have been teaching House on Mango Street for a number of years now, very happily too. And in the section called "My Name," the protagonist ends by saying she'd like to baptize herself under a new name—ZeeZee the X. For me her chosen name seems to indicate a variable to be expressed, indicative of an identity to be shaped. Do you think the name may be seen as a metaphor for your life too, shaping the identity of a Latina, a feminist writer?
Yes, I think so. Much of Mango Street I wrote on the blind, intuitively, and now when I read it out loud, it so much echoes my life that it's frightening. I did not intend it as autobiographical or as a mask for my own life, but it turns out that I'm living the fiction I created. ZeeZee the X came from my own love affair with the Autobiography of Malcolm X. I loved the X in Malcolm X and the idea of his choosing that as a name. I am and always have been enamored with exotic names and names that begin with letters of the alphabet like X or Y or Z, those strange letters. And so the name came out intuitively. But yes, you are right. I've had to be filling in that blank. And for Esperanza it's so nice to have a name with a Z in it because it lends a sense of flair. There's a zest to it. It sounds exotic and wild. So it's not just X. There's a wildness to Z.
And speaking of wildness, sex for women in House on Mango Street is dangerous. In the section of Mango called "The Family of Little Feet," when the little girls find high heels and try them on, the grocer Mr. Benny comments that the shoes are dangerous. And they prove to be so, because the shoes make the little girls objects of male sexual desire. Sexuality in the environment you describe brings oppression and confinement. But in your poetry, and especially in Loose Woman, you write female erotic poetry. Have you found this liberating?
Well, you know what? I think House on Mango Street intimated that wherever there is a source of power for women, it is forbidden. Sex is forbidden by male society because men know that's where our nuclear reactors are, so to speak. These are Chernobyls in the making. And, of course, women venture into this dangerous space and then feel bad because patriarchy dictates they are dangerous. With Loose Woman, I entered a realm where I am writing from a dangerous fountainhead. But that book was never meant to be published. It was not even a book. It was what I call a box of poems. They were "poems I threw under the bed," metaphorically, thinking of Emily Dickinson, poems too dangerous to publish in my lifetime. And I had a very adverse reaction when Loose Woman came out in Texas. It received almost no reviews. The one or two reviews it received were so negative and so hurtful to me that I thought, why am I writing poetry for anyone? The reason I write it is not to publish it but to get the thorn out of the soul of my heart.
Do you think the negative reviews were a result of your being a daring woman writing about female sexuality?
Maybe that was true. I shouldn't imply there were that many reviews. They were just so vitriolic. I think the fact that I wandered into Texas with my awards rattling in my pocket threatened a lot of male poets—"How dare I?" So now in retrospect, I can see that it really wasn't about me, but about someone else's unhappiness, which is what a lot of bad reviews are about, I think.
Was publishing that book frightening for you because it was so personal?
Yes. I can go out and read the fiction and I'm on my little soap box, doing my politics, brandishing my sword. But poetry is not like that. Poetry doesn't have anything to do with the public. I can't even direct what I'm going to write about, it comes of its own accord. It's a little periscope that goes inside my psyche, and it's a frightening thing to have someone looking at your nightmares and dreams. Poetry has nothing to do with publishing. The idea that poetry must be published reminds me of the fallacy that because women have a uterus they must have children. That's how I felt about poetry when I saw my first book. I think Emily Dickinson was absolutely lucid to write so freely without thinking of the public or what the neighbors would say. She knew that the true reason one writes poetry and works at the craft is simply to write that poem. I learned this even before that bad review or before anybody said anything. All I needed was to see the picture on the cover of the small press edition with me sitting in a provocative pose, which was never supposed to be on a cover. It was an intimate picture that my photographer boyfriend and I took after we had been doing these traditional, close-cropped head portraits. Then we got wilder and wilder because I kept drinking glasses of wine as this photo session went on. When we saw the contact sheet, Ana Castillo said, "You should use this for the cover." I said, "Oh no, we can't use that." Of course then we did, and the photo is a metaphor for what's inside—seduction, playfulness, sassiness, everything revealed. I didn't like the idea of myself being exposed to that extent. I looked at it and realized that I don't have to publish. After that I decided to publish only my fiction and keep the poems private. A lot of my private life was being gobbled up by the public, and I wanted something for myself, and no one seemed to care about poetry anyway. It wasn't as if people were banging down the door for my poems.
So this is your decision as of now, not to publish your poetry?
No, that was then. What happened, though, was when Random House saw how successful I was (it wasn't that they loved poetry so much), they thought "Hey, we can sell this girl's books of poetry, too." And suddenly I was offered a deal. I didn't want them to have my book of poetry, but I wanted a small press, Third Woman Press, to benefit from my success. So the way we did it was give the paperback rights to Third Woman Press, which continues to this day, but sell the hardcover rights to Random House; therefore if someone wanted the book after the hardcover sold out they'd have to buy the paperback. In this way, the little press could piggyback on the big one. I'm very loyal to the editor of Third Woman and wanted to help her out. She's very loyal to me—a very, very dear friend. She didn't want to say no to this deal and keep me from having more success and distribution of my books. As for me, I didn't care if the book went out of print and no one ever saw the poems again. So what happens? I'm forced to go on a book tour to promote a book I wrote in my twenties.
Which is My Wicked, Wicked Ways?
Yes, and I don't even write like that anymore. I'm embarrassed because the poems are just my juvenilia. I don't like to read them. I tell the audiences this is akin to publishing your high school yearbook. What am I going to do? So what I do is this. I read the introduction, which is a poem. That is the only new thing in the book and a wonderful way to get out of reading the older poems. I read the introduction that talks about my position now and say, "Well, you can buy the book and read the rest of the poems. I'll read you some new poems." So that's how I pulled those poems out from under the bed. People used to come up to me after readings and say, "Where can I get that poem you just read?" And I'd say, "Oh that's not published." And so many people were asking for copies, it got to be a nuisance photocopying poems for friends and strangers. Eventually I gave them to Susan, my agent, thinking if we published them in a magazine, at least I could refer my audience to such and such journal, and they'd leave me alone and I wouldn't have to keep running to Kinko's, right? But as it turns out, Susan called me back immediately after I sent her the manuscript. It's really funny because the collection was in these different typefaces that kind of documented my poverty and my rise out of it. Some poems were composed on my junky little typewriter—the one that made little holes with the o; there were some on my little typewriter that was a step up, an electronic one; all the way finally to computers. So you could see these different typefaces over the years. Susan had counted the poems and said, "You have something like fifty-seven poems, and if you would write just a few more, you'd have a collection." I didn't want to publish a collection, but by then the poems were far enough removed from me that I said yes and I think the success of that book is partly because I wrote it as if it could not be published. It's looser in form. It's loose in every which way you can think of and I like that book of poetry. I don't read from the other one anymore.
There is an unusual poem in that collection called "Down There, " which deals in part with menstruation.
Yes. I wrote that for two of my male students when I was teaching at California State University. I had two freshmen in an introduction to creative writing class, and I couldn't make them understand. They would write these poems every class period to try to gross each other out. They were in a competition of picking gross subjects. You know, kind of locker room material.
Right. My criticism was that these weren't poems. They thought I was being fastidious about subject matter and of course I was not. I was just saying that if you're going to use this, it has to be a poem. So when the class ended, I wrote that poem overnight as a gift to them, to show them what I meant. We had a class reunion at the end of the semester, which I always do with my workshops, and I read that poem to them as my response to their gross poems and I said, "Okay, I'm going to show you guys what I mean and I'll gross you guys out and yet at the same time make it a poem." That's why that poem is there.
I admire that kind of boldness in you. I've looked at your Ms. Magazine article about Guadalupe the Sex Goddess.
Yes. That's in the collection called Goddess of the Americas.
Yes. You talk quite explicitly about your sexuality.
I try to talk about the things that make me a little uncomfortable. Then I know I'm on the right track.
Do you mean uncomfortable for you, for your students, for your audience?
I make it an assignment to my students and myself to write about the things we don't talk about, because those are the things that are real gold mines.
Emotional gold mines? Poetic gold mines?
Both. Why would I want to write the same old thing about the Virgin of Guadalupe? I'm writing a novel. I don't have time to stop. If I'm going to stop my writing, it might as well be to discover something I've always wanted to say, something vital and necessary to the community. That piece for me is very important, and I wish it were in every sixth grader's textbook. Of course it never will be.
I read it for the first time a couple of days ago to prepare for this interview and I think I would like to make it part of my women's studies class curriculum.
Oh, I wish you would. There's so much that goes unspoken that I think the mainstream community needs to understand. For example, the whole idea of not having a bedroom with a door or not even having a separate bedroom makes the whole idea of yourself, your sexuality, and your awareness different. It is something that really needs to be taken into account. I don't see this in stories. I don't see this in children's books. These are the things I want to write about. There are kids that sleep on couches and how can you explore your body if you don't have privacy? How do you expect a girl to be a woman in the sixth grade and to know anything about her body—whether it's for pleasure, or to make choices about reproduction?
And no one has spoken about this?
That's right. Nobody talks about that. When I had the opportunity to write about the Virgin of Guadalupe, I said I'm not going to write anything unless it's something I've never said and no one else has written about. I do see the Virgin of Guadalupe as a very powerful, sexual goddess, a symbol of creative destructiveness.
As long as we are talking about powerful women, talk to me a little bit about the witch, the bruja, in your story "Eyes of Zapata."
Oh, I like that story.
I love it too.
I never get to read it because it's just as she says—her story's a thread and if you pull one string the whole plot comes undone. I have tried to read that, but you cannot pull out one part without the audience understanding the whole piece. But I was just talking to my friend who has a theater here in Dallas. I said that the story is meant as a play. He is going to take a look at it and think about performing it.
Where do you see this witch figure—in folklore, in women's lives?
In the mirror. When I see someone who is really wise and in her power and really writing from her vulva, that's a witch.
What does writing from the vulva mean to you?
Well, you know how they say you have to write with balls. I really think that's not right, because for men, everything happens from the balls. Writing with balls is easy for men, and something I think they have to overcome. It's some sort of low-level shop work for them, and they've got to go beyond that. Women have to move away from the heart and go down just a little bit farther, don't you think? We have to go "down there." Writing from "down there" is difficult, again because there are all these restrictions. There are all these lead walls and vaults with doors—again I'm thinking of Chernobyl. We've got that nuclear power plant down there. It's very powerful.
And how does one get there? How have you gotten there?
I think one of the ways I've gotten there is the way I did Loose Woman—to pretend that what I'm writing is so dangerous that no one can see it in my lifetime. That's the way I could write from that place. I would be like Emily Dickinson. No one could see my writing in my lifetime. It allowed me, for the first time, to be absolutely free, to even say things that were not politically correct, things that I would be ashamed of saying.
When you say things that are not politically correct, you mean . . . ?
Oh, things that are unsisterly or mean. I have written mean poems—vengeful, jealous, and ugly.
I wanted to ask you about your use of language. For example, in one of the poems you use the word cunt. Many women see that word as a very negative, derogatory, male term. Do you think in your poem you have changed the usage of that word?
I didn't even realize that book had so many bad words in it until one day . . .
I'm not offended by the dirty words.
I didn't even realize they were there until I had to read on the radio and they said, now you cannot use any of these words. I said, "My God, they're all in that book." But when I was writing it, I wasn't thinking in a sinister way. I was simply using the truest words I could to determine what I wanted to say with all of its richness and smells. It was what I wanted to say. There were no words that would say what I meant that didn't sound like I was in a doctor's office.
I understand and that's part of the progress we 've made, isn't it? Women writing from the vulva are going to create those words and those stories and that language.
Right. I've had to use the bad words in Spanish, too. Like panocha is a very bad word and I put it in my essay on the Goddess, and a lot of people were freaked out.
What does the word mean?
It would be like cunt. And people were freaked out when they heard that. In fact that essay could not find a home because people were so freaked out by it. The New Yorker wanted it but they cut out all of the goddess part. They just wanted the parts about going to high school. One of those bold, brassy magazines wanted it, but they wanted to clean it up. And then Susan, my agent, said no. This piece is exactly about fighting against all that. So we've got to leave it. Ms. was the only magazine that would take it just as it is. And they were brave enough to run it.
What has the MacArthur meant to you?
The MacArthur's meant some wonderful things, good and bad. The bad has been that I was in the middle of trying to still my life and settle it so that I could concentrate on my novel and it has stirred things up now. Everybody keeps bothering me and knocking on the door.
Now you 're a certified genius.
I can imagine what it's like for someone like Toni Morrison or anyone who's gotten the bigger prizes. Man! It gets in the way of writing, which is a very solitary act. So it gets to the point where I was struggling with trying to quiet my life down and go underground when this MacArthur comes and stirs everything up again. On the other hand, it has allowed me something that I did not have without a great expense to myself, which is health insurance, because I'm an independent. I'm not associated with any university. It's given me five years in which I have security. I liken my job to a seamstress who sews a wedding dress before the wedding and has spent all the money already but still has to sew the dress. That's what my job is. So it's given me peace of mind. One of the other great things that it's done for me is give me my green card. Those who still had doubts about whether I was a real writer or not must be silent.
It's given you certification.
Right. I don't need the university anymore. Now I am a certified person. I am the real thing now as a writer. It has also meant that I don't need to work for awards anymore. The awards were important for me, for that credibility. When I was younger, they were important certainly for money to write with. Now awards for me are redundant. After this one, I don't need any more, psychologically.
Was it important for your confidence level, psychologically, or had you arrived at a place where you didn't need that external reinforcement?
No. There's something I needed. Dorothy Allison and I have talked about this. If you've been poor, you never get over the fear of being poor again. I've only had money for the last six years. People don't realize that I had a hard time paying my bills six years ago, and even though I earn more and more each year, much to my surprise, I'm always afraid there's going to be a time when I'll be poor again and won't be able to make the mortgage payment. All of these things are there, now. I think the MacArthur has given me a kind of security. Even after the money runs out, I can do lectures. It's built my self-confidence about all the ways I can make money to meet that mortgage. Like writing articles. I was very insecure about that when I was younger. I always thought about getting married to a university so that I could have the benefits, the security. Now I don't need that. The MacArthur has given me carte blanche to do whatever I want. The MacArthur is there for life, even if the money's not there. If I want to go teach anywhere or need reassurance that I have made it, there it is. And any other award now would just be redundant. It would just bring more fame, which I don't need. I need solitude to write.
When you say "get married to a university" . . . ?
Yes, because I think a university, academic life, for me has been like marriage. It's like giving up freedom.
You 've always used this kind of language in talking about yourself as a poet. You 've said that you 've chosen a love of poetry over other kinds of love. You have insisted in your writing that you are not the wife of anyone, you are not the mother of anyone. Do you still think of writing and marriage as alternative paths?
Yes. It's still hard. I think as a writer I did things the reverse of the way some other writers have. I've been married to my writing and now I'm in a place where there's some security. So if I wanted to get married now I could. It's not my goal in life, but it's certainly feasible now. Children, too, that's something I think of. I think, oh my God, will there be a day when my bio note will say she is someone's mother?
So it now becomes an option for you?
Well, it becomes an option as long as I earn the money. So in a way I wouldn't really be the mother, I'd be the father. And if I wanted to be the father, I'd have to invent that.
You 've been inventing a lot of things.
I think so. That's why I have faith that I will come to something in the next ten years. If I want to have a child or if I want to have a partner, I'm confident that it's not going to be a traditional relationship or a traditional family life. At first I felt the pressure that it was something I had to do before I was forty-five. But now I know if I want a child I can adopt. There are lots of things I can do.
I have to tell you I've adopted two children, one when I was forty-three. I adopted my first child when I was in my twenties, he grew up, and then I adopted another one—a daughter.
I need to talk to you about that because it's something I've been thinking about. I don't want to have all these people coming to me and giving me their opinions. I don't think it's something other people can tell you, not even your partner because inevitably your partner's not going to be there when it comes to being the parent. I think women invariably, whether they're married or not, wind up being single parents. All mothers are single parents.
I adopted my children as a single person.
But even if you are married, you are still a single parent. Isn't that true? I know men who are the most politically correct, and they say I will be there and that's not true. They're not there.
They "babysit" their children.
I think in order to have a child, you have to have the father—the provider—and two mothers. Two nanas. I would be the father and I'd have to support two nanas. That I think is the way to do it. I would have to continue doing my writing to earn the money to support two nanas.
Would you find that a loss to yourself—the primary bond with the child?
I don't know because I've never been the mother. Maybe I would find that I would want to be the mother and the nanas would have to be the nanas. I still think it would take three women. I really think you have to hire the two and not take advantage of your family. I think I could earn enough money now so that I could have two nanas. My friend said you need a nana and enano—that's a midget. He was just being silly, but wouldn't that be funny if you had them like in the court of Velasquez? A nana, enano, and the mamma?
But this is part of you, you invent life.
Yes. I think it's like all the poems, and as I once said in a lecture, "Your life is like a rough draft." People see the final draft, which is the books, and so they expect you to be perfect. We, all of us, are just rough drafts.
Would you say of yourself that you inhabit the borderlands?
Yes, definitely, because there really isn't any other place for me to go. When I lived in the other world it was killing me. It killed my spirit.
The other world meaning . . . ?
The world that other men and women live in kills my spirit. It's so wonderful now, at this age, to get confirmation that living against the grain has taken me exactly where I wanted to go. I'm less fearful or maybe not less fearful, but fear is part of it and I expect it now. I know that I can get past it.
Have there been other women that you have looked to living in the borderlands, say Gloria Anzaldua?
Well I can't look at Gloria because Gloria's situation is a little bit different from mine. She's a lesbiana writer. We look at each other's work. But to live I find myself reading autobiographies and biographies to guide and inspire me at times when I'm really lost. The other women writers that I meet like Dorothy Allison, or film makers, people that come into my life as I meet them—we try to put our heads together. Very powerful women in film help me. In a sense, I think biographies help me a lot because I can know the end of the story.
So who, for example, strikes you in terms of biographies?
I like Maria Callas a lot. Of course I don't like her ending. I think she made some mistakes. Tina Modotti the photographer. I just finished reading her autobiography.
Powerful women always seem to be inventing their lives. In her book, Writing a Woman's Life, Carolyn Heilbrun writes about how we don't have enough stories about women leading lives with alternative scripts.
Yes. I look at the stories—Emily Dickinson, all of these biographies—and of course, I'm always reading between the lines. Jean Rhys, for example—a woman I love and adore. I love looking at her life and wonder how you can suffer so much and still make something wonderful by saying maybe you weren't great at living your life, but you were great at obsessing over it and coming out with a piece of fiction that is perfect even if your life is not. That kind of vindicates life. So I look at artists, at different movie stars . . . I'm always reading really bizarre people like Jean Harlow. I just finished reading her biography. It's really fascinating because people come to my house and they'll say "I don't have these books." It looks like a rather eclectic list but I read them because I must, I have to, I need a home.
And can you go back home?
You mean to my home?
I mean to your community, to your family? How does that work for you?
Well I have been going home because right now my father is very ill. So I am living half the time in my mother and father's home in my old bedroom. I say old even though it wasn't that old because we moved into the house when I was in college.
What is that like for you?
It's been really hard. I moved there thinking I was going to stay the whole time my father was ill. My father has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. It's been too much, and yet I realize this is the household that created the writer. It's overwhelming to me to go back to the house where to be alone or to seek privacy is evil or anti-social, anti-family. A high school teacher recently told me her Latina students couldn't understand why Esperanza wanted to go off by herself, why she wanted to be alone. According to their perspective, to be alone, to be exiled from the family is so anti-Mexican. My family still finds my behavior rather strange. I'm pulled to be with them, and yet to be with them requires an inordinate amount of time in front of a television screen. So at the end of the day I feel bloated and sick, as if I've eaten a box of jelly donuts or something. To be with my father means to lie on the bed next to him and watch bad actresses weeping on telenovela.
Are you attempting to understand each other better now?
I understand them. I think my mother understands the tenor of my life. My father, I understand; I really feel I've made my peace with him in the last couple of years. One of the most wonderful things about the MacArthur has been that my father has recognized me as a writer.
When I interviewed you fifteen years ago, we talked about your relationship to your father. And I remember your telling a little story about your father reading House on Mango Street for the first time and saying, "Who wrote this?"
What he read was "Tepeyac"; he only read House recently because it came out in Spanish, which is also how he was able to read "Tepeyac"; it was translated. That one story came out in Mexico. He read House only because he is on dialysis, and he had to do something. He said, "This is all very fine, Sandra (he told me in Spanish), but couldn't you write something for adults?" I immediately thought of what I had written for adults, but there's nothing my father could see. Woman Hollering Creek just came out in Spanish, and I gave it to him. My father can't read because he's too sick. And even if he were well enough, he wouldn't read. He's not a reader. But my father understands what I do now, even if he doesn't read my stories. The novel I'm writing is about him. My agent asked me, when she found out my father was sick, if I was going to be reading chapters of the novel to him. No, he doesn't need to hear the book. He knows he's in the story. He has no curiosity about it. He doesn't have to read. Like Curie said about her own family, they don't need to read the book—they have me. I feel like that with my father.
So you have peace, you think, with each other?
Oh yes, That's the one blessing of my life, right now, with my father's illness. My father has lived long enough to understand what I do, without reading my work. He understands the level of my success, and he understands why I did it. It's so wonderful that he's lived long enough so that now he says la novela, the novel, instead of when are you going to get married? That's what he used to say. Now it's "Don't get married because they only want your money." That's what he advised recently.
That's a marvelous resolution.
I know. There's a bitter sweetness to it. I just finished writing a letter to the MacArthur people saying that was the best gift the MacArthur gave me—my father. He's dying but this is what I always prayed for—that he would live long enough to see what I was doing, instead of introducing me like a high school teacher. When I won the MacArthur I had this horrible feeling that my father was going to die.
Now that all your wishes had been granted?
Yes. My father got sick last autumn and he had a quadruple bypass, and I was sure he was not going to survive it. It was a few months after the MacArthur, and I said well, here it comes. It didn't quite come then; it's coming now. Still, it was expected. His health has been failing. I believe there's something bigger, that a much more incredible Author than I'll ever be arranged all these things in an incredible pattern. I knew when the MacArthur came that my father was going to be taken. It was just time.
And there's no more anger from you?
No. Actually, my anger hasn't been directed to my father in a long time. I think I was angry when I was an undergraduate. I had to tell my father everything, even if it hurt him. I insisted on being absolutely honest. I haven't had a relationship like that with my father in a long time. Now he has just let me go. It was more a frustration with my father not understanding what I was doing with my life. But not anger.
You were not angry that the men in your family were protecting you from yourself and keeping you from your own power and sexuality?
They were. I also understood that part of the reason my father trapped me and kept my brothers protecting me, all of them telling me I was a princess, was that he loved me so much. He wanted me to be in a little bubble. But his overprotectiveness also allowed me to be who I am, so in a way he helped me to do things. You know how you always have this child that rebels against his parents and does the extreme opposite. So I don't think anger is the right word. There was that anger, I think, in my teens. I pretty much have done what I wanted. It was necessary that he be so protective because it allowed me to develop into who I am.
As you said in the selection "Eleven" in Woman Hollering Creek, "what they never tell you when you 're eleven, you 're also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. " All of those contribute to the end.
Yes. I think so.