Sandra Cisneros

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Ellen McCracken (essay date 1989)

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SOURCE: "Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street: Community Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence," in Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writing and Critical Readings, edited by Asuncion Horno-Delgado, Eliana Ortega, et. al., University of Massachusetts Press, 1989, pp. 62-71.

[In the following essay, McCracken asserts that The House on Mango Street is marginalized by four factors: its ideology, its language, its writer's ethnicity, and her gender. She argues that the book's treatment of patriarchal violence should move it, and others like it, toward being accepted as part of the canon.]

Introspection has achieved a privileged status in bourgeois literary production, corresponding to the ideological emphasis on individualism under capitalism, precisely as the personal and political power of many real individuals has steadily deteriorated. In forms as diverse as European Romantic poetry, late nineteenth-century Modernismo in Latin America, the poetry of the Mexican Contemporáneos of the 1930s, the early twentieth-century modernistic prose of a Proust, the French nouveau roman, and other avant-garde texts that take pride in an exclusionary hermeticism, the self is frequently accorded exaggerated importance in stark contrast to the actual position of the individual in the writer's historical moment. Critical readers of these texts are, of course, often able to compensate for the writer's omissions, positioning the introspective search within the historical dimension and drawing the text into the very socio-political realm that the writer has tried to avoid. Nonetheless, many of us, at one time or another, are drawn into the glorified individualism of these texts, experiencing voyeuristic and sometimes identificatory pleasure as witnesses of another's search for the self, or congratulating ourselves on the mental acuity we possess to decode such a difficult and avant-garde text.

Literary critics have awarded many of these texts canonical status. As Terry Eagleton has argued, theorists, critics, and teachers are "custodians of a discourse" and select certain texts for inclusion in the canon that are "more amenable to this discourse than others." Based on power, Eagleton suggests metaphorically, literary criticism sometimes tolerates regional dialects of the discourse but not those that sound like another language altogether: "To be on the inside of the discourse itself is to be blind to this power, for what is more natural and non-dominative than to speak one's own tongue?"

The discourse of power to which Eagleton refers here is linked to ideology as well. The regional dialects of criticism that are accepted must be compatible, ideologically as well as semantically, with the dominant discourse. Criticism, for example, that questions the canonical status of the introspective texts mentioned above, or suggests admission to the canon of texts that depart from such individualistic notions of the self, is often labeled pejoratively or excluded from academic institutions and publication avenues.

We can extend Eagleton's metaphor to literary texts as well. How does a book attain the wide exposure that admission to the canon facilitates if it is four times marginalized by its ideology, its language, and its writer's ethnicity and gender? What elements of a text can prevent it from being accepted as a "regional dialect" of the dominant discourse; at what point does it become "another language altogether" (to use Eagleton's analogy), incompatible with canonical discourse?

The specific example to which I refer, Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street , was published by a small regional press in 1984 and reprinted in a second edition of 3,000 in 1985. Difficult to find in most libraries and bookstores, it is well known among Chicano critics and scholars, but virtually unheard of in larger academic and critical circles. In May 1985 it...

(This entire section contains 4194 words.)

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won the Before Columbus Foundation's American Book Award, but this prize has not greatly increased the volume's national visibility. Cisneros' book has not been excluded from the canon solely because of its publishing circumstances: major publishing houses are quick to capitalize on a Richard Rodríguez whose widely distributed and reviewedHunger of Memory (1982) does not depart ideologically and semantically from the dominant discourse. They are even willing to market an Anglo writer as a Chicano, as occurred in 1983 with Danny Santiago's Famous All Over Town. Rather, Cisneros' text is likely to continue to be excluded from the canon because it "speaks another language altogether," one to which the critics of the literary establishment "remain blind."

Besides the double marginalization that stems from gender and ethnicity, Cisneros transgresses the dominant discourse of canonical standards ideologically and linguistically. In bold contrast to the individualistic introspection of many canonical texts, Cisneros writes a modified autobiographical novel, or Bildungsroman, that roots the individual self in the broader socio-political reality of the Chicano community. As we will see, the story of individual development is oriented outwardly here, away from the bourgeois individualism of many standard texts. Cisneros' language also contributes to the text's otherness. In opposition to the complex, hermetic language of many canonical works, The House on Mango Street recuperates the simplicity of children's speech, paralleling the autobiographical protagonist's chronological age in the book. Although making the text accessible to people with a wider range of reading abilities, such simple and well-crafted prose is not currently in canonical vogue.

The volume falls between traditional genre distinctions as well. Containing a group of 44 short and interrelated stories, the book has been classified as a novel by some because, as occurs in Tomas Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra, there is character and plot development throughout the episodes. I prefer to classify Cisneros' text as a collection, a hybrid genre midway between the novel and the short story. Like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Pedro Juan Soto's Spiks, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, and Rivera's text, Cisneros' collection represents the writer's attempt to achieve both the intensity of the short story and the discursive length of the novel within a single volume. Unlike the chapters of most novels, each story in the collection could stand on its own if it were to be excerpted but each attains additional important meaning when interacting with the other stories in the volume. A number of structural and thematic elements link the stories of each collection together. Whereas in Winesburg, Ohio, one important structuring element is the town itself, in The House on Mango Street and … y no se lo tragó la tierra the image of the house is a central unifying motif.

On the surface the compelling desire for a house of one's own appears individualistic rather than community oriented, but Cisneros socializes the motif of the house, showing it to be a basic human need left unsatisfied for many of the minority population under capitalism. It is precisely the lack of housing stability that motivates the image's centrality in works by writers like Cisneros and Rivera. For the migrant worker who has moved continuously because of job exigencies and who, like many others in the Chicano community, has been deprived of an adequate place to live because of the inequities of income distribution in U.S. society, the desire for a house is not a sign of individualistic acquisitiveness but rather represents the satisfaction of a basic human need. Cisneros begins her narrative with a description of the housing conditions the protagonist's family has experienced:

We didn't always live on Mango Street. Before that we lived on Loomis on the third floor and before that we lived on Keeler. Before Keeler it was Paulina, and before that I can't remember. But what I remember most is moving a lot …

We had to leave the flat on Loomis quick. The water pipes broke and the landlord wouldn't fix them because the house was too old…. We were using the washroom next door and carrying water over in empty milk gallons.

Cisneros has socialized the motif of a house of one's own by showing its motivating roots to be the inadequate housing conditions in which she and others in her community lived. We learn that Esperanza, the protagonist Cisneros creates, was subjected to humiliation by her teachers because of her family's living conditions. "You live there?" a nun from her school had remarked when seeing Esperanza playing in front of the flat on Loomis. "There. I had to look where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed on the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing…." Later, after the move to the house on Mango Street that is better but still unsatisfactory, the Sister Superior at her school responds to Esperanza's request to eat lunch in the cafeteria rather than returning home by apparently humiliating the child deliberately: "You don't live far, she says … I bet I can see your house from my window. Which one? … That one? she said pointing to a row of ugly 3-flats, the ones even the raggedy men are ashamed to go into. Yes, I nodded even though I knew that wasn't my house and started to cry…." The Sister Superior is revealing her own prejudices; in effect, she is telling the child, "All you Mexicans must live in such buildings." It is in response to humiliations such as these that the autobiographical protagonist expresses her need for a house of her own. Rather than the mere desire to possess private property, Esperanza's wish for a house represents a positive objectification of the self, the chance to redress humiliation and establish a dignified sense of her own personhood.

Cisneros links this positive objectification that a house of one's own can provide to the process of artistic creation. Early on, the protagonist remarks that the dream of a white house "with trees around it, a great big yard and grass growing without a fence" structured the bedtime stories her mother told them. This early connection of the idea! house to fiction is developed throughout the collection, especially in the final two stories. In "A House of My Own," the protagonist remarks that the desired house would contain "my books and stories" and that such a house is as necessary to the writing process as paper: "Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem." In "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes," the Mango Street house, which falls short of the ideal dream house, becomes a symbol of the writer's attainment of her identity through artistic creation. Admitting that she both belonged and did not belong to the "sad red house" on Mango Street, the protagonist comes to terms with the ethnic consciousness that this house represents through the process of fictive creation: "I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much. I write it down and Mango says goodbye sometimes. She does not hold me with both arms. She sets me free." She is released materially to find a more suitable dwelling that will facilitate her writing; psychologically, she alleviates the ethnic anguish that she has heretofore attempted to repress. It is important, however, that she view her departure from the Mango Street house to enable her artistic production in social rather than isolationist terms: "They will know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out."

Unlike many introspective writers, then, Cisneros links both the process of artistic creation and the dream of a house that will enable this art to social rather than individualistic issues. In "Bums in the Attic," we learn that the protagonist dreams of a house on a hill similar to those where her father works as a gardener. Unlike those who own such houses now, Esperanza assures us that, were she to obtain such a house, she would not forget the people who live below: "One day I'll own my own house, but I won't forget who I am or where I came from. Passing bums will ask, Can I come in? I'll offer them the attic, ask them to stay, because I know how it is to be without a house." She conceives of a house as communal rather than private property; such sharing runs counter to the dominant ideological discourse that strongly affects consciousness in capitalists societies. Cisneros' social motifs undermine rather than support the widespread messages of individualized consumption that facilitate sales of goods and services under consumer capitalism.

Another important reason why Cisneros's text has not been accepted as part of the dominant canonical discourse is its demystificatory presentation of women's issues, especially the problems low-income Chicana women face. Dedicated "A las Mujeres / To the Women," The House on Mango Street presents clusters of women characters through the sometimes naive and sometimes wise vision of the adolescent protagonist. There are positive and negative female role models and. in addition, several key incidents that focus the reader's attention on the contradictions of patriarchal social organization. Few mainstream critics consider these the vital, universal issues that constitute great art. When representatives of the critical establishment do accord a text such as Cisneros' a reading, it is often performed with disinterest and defense mechanisms well in place.

Neither does The House on Mango Street lend itself to an exoticized reading of the life of Chicana women that sometimes enables a text's canonical acceptance. In "The Family of Little Feet," for example, Esperanza and her friends dress up in cast-off high heels they have been given and play at being adult women. At first revelling in the male attention they receive from the strangers who see them, the girls are ultimately disillusioned after a drunken bum attempts to purchase a kiss for a dollar. While capturing the fleeting sense of self-value that the attention of male surveyors affords women, Cisneros also critically portrays here the danger of competitive feelings among women when one girl's cousins pretend not to see Esperanza and her friends as they walk by. Also portrayed is the comer grocer's attempt to control female sexuality by threatening to call the police to stop the girls from wearing the heels. Cisneros proscribes a romantic or exotic reading of the dress-up episode, focusing instead on the girls' discovery of the threatening nature of male sexual power that is frequently disguised as desirable male attention and positive validation of women, though what is, in fact, sexual reification.

Scenes of patriarchal and sexual violence in the collection also prevent a romantic reading of women's issues in this Chicano community. We see a woman whose husband locks her in the house, a daughter brutally beaten by her father, and Esperanza's own sexual initiation through rape. Like the threatening comer grocer in "The Family of Little Feet," the men in these stories control or appropriate female sexuality by adopting one or another form of violence as if it were their innate right. One young woman, Rafaela, "gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid [she] will run away since she is too beautiful to look at." Esperanza and her friends send papaya and coconut juice up to the woman in a paper bag on a clothesline she has lowered; metonymical-ly, Cisneros suggests that the sweet drinks represent the island the woman has left and the dance hall down the street as well, where other women are ostensibly more in control of their own sexual expression and are allowed to open their homes with keys. The young yet wise narrator, however, recognizes that "always there is someone offering sweeter drinks, someone promising to keep [women] on a silver string."

The cycle of stories about Esperanza's friend Sally shows this patriarchal violence in its more overt stages. Like Rafaela, the young teenager Sally is frequently forced to stay in the house because "her father says to be this beautiful is trouble." But even worse, we learn later that Sally's father beats her. Appearing at school with bruises and scars, Sally tells Esperanza that her father sometimes hits her with his hands "just like a dog … as if I was an animal. He thinks I'm going to run away like his sisters who made the family ashamed. Just because I'm a daughter…." In "Linoleum Roses," a later story in the Sally cycle, we learn that she escapes her father's brutality by marrying a marshmallow salesman "in another state where it's legal to get married before eighth grade." In effect, her father's violent attempts to control her sexuality—here a case of child abuse—cause Sally to exchange one repressive patriarchal prison for another. Dependent on her husband for money, she is forbidden to talk on the telephone, look out the window, or have her friends visit. In one of his fits of anger, her husband kicks the door in. Where Rafaela's husband imprisons her with a key, Sally's locks her in with psychological force: "[Sally] sits home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission."

A role model for Esperanza, Sally has symbolized the process of sexual initiation for her younger friend. Two stories in the cycle reveal Esperanza's growing awareness of the link between sex, male power, and violence in patriarchal society. In "The Monkey Garden," Esperanza perceives her friend Sally to be in danger when the older girl agrees to "kiss" a group of boys so that they will return her car keys; "… they're making her kiss them," Esperanza reports to the mother of one of the boys. When the mother shows no concern, Esperanza undertakes Sally's defense herself: "Sally needed to be saved. I took three big sticks and a brick and figured this was enough." Sally and the boys tell her to go home and Esperanza feels stupid and ashamed. In postlapsarian anguish, she runs to the other end of the garden and, in what seems to be an especially severe form of self-punishment for this young girl, tries to make herself die by willing her heart to stop beating.

In "Red Clowns," the story that follows, Esperanza's first suspicions of the patriarchy's joining of male power, violence, and sex are confirmed beyond a doubt. She had previously used appellation throughout the first story in the Sally cycle to ask her friend to teach her how to dress and apply makeup. Now the appellation to Sally is one of severe disillusionment after Esperanza has been sexually assaulted in an amusement park while waiting for Sally to return from her own sexual liaison:

Sally, you lied. It wasn't like you said at alt … Why didn't you hear me when I called? Why didn't you tell them to leave me alone? The one who grabbed me by the arm, he wouldn't let me go. He said I love you, Spanish girl, I love you, and pressed his sour mouth to mine … I couldn't make them go away. I couldn't do anything but cry … Please don't make me tell it all.

This scene extends the male violence toward Esperanza, begun on her first day of work, when an apparently nice old man "grabs [her] face with both hands and kisses [her] hard on the mouth and doesn't let go." Together with other instances of male violence in the collection—Rafaela's imprisonment, Sally's beatings, and the details of Minerva's life, another young married woman whose husband beats her and throws a rock through the window—these episodes form a continuum in which sex, patriarchal power, and violence are linked. Earlier, Cisneros had developed this connection in the poem "South Sangamon," in which similar elements of male violence predominate: "he punched her belly," "his drunk cussing," "the whole door shakes / like his big foot meant to break it," and "just then / the big rock comes in." The House on Mango Street presents this continuum critically, offering an unromanticized, inside view of Esperanza's violent sexual initiation and its links to the oppression of other women in the Chicano community.

Cisneros does not merely delineate women's victimization in this collection, however. Several positive female role models help to guide Esperanza's development. Minerva, for example, although a victim of her husband's violence, makes time to write poetry. "But when the kids are asleep after she's fed them their pancake dinner, she writes poems on little pieces of paper that she folds over and over and holds in her hands a long time, little pieces of paper that smell like a dime. She lets me read her poems. I let her read mine." Minerva's artistic production is reminiscent of Dr. Reefy in Winesburg, Ohio's "Paper Pills," who scribbles words of wisdom on scraps of paper he crumples up, finally sharing them with a patient. It is also similar to the character of Rosendo in Soto's Spiks, a barrio artist who can only find space to paint an idyllic scene on the crumbling wall of his tenement bathroom and whose wife, acutely aware of the pressing economic needs of their young children, cannot afford the luxury of appreciating this non-revenue-producing art. Like Dr. Reefy, but unlike Rosendo, Minerva succeeds in communicating through her art; exchanging poems with Esperanza, she contributes to the latter's artistic development while at the same time offering a lesson in women's domestic oppression and how to begin transcending it.

Also supportive of Esperanza's artistic creativity is her invalid aunt, Guadalupe: "She listened to every book, every poem I read her. One day I read her one of my own … That's nice. That's very good, she said in her tired voice. You just remember to keep writing, Esperanza. You must keep writing. It will keep you free…." Although the aunt lives in squalid, poor surroundings and is dying from a disease that has disfigured her once-beautiful body, she listens to the girl's stories and poems and encourages Esperanza's artistic talent. The story, "Three Sisters," recounts the wake held for the baby sister of Esperanza's friends Lucy and Rachel and is also the theme of Cisneros' earlier poem, "Velorio," in the collection entitled Bad Boys. Expanding upon "Velorio," however, this story introduces the figures of "the aunts, the three sisters, las comadres," visitors at the velorio who encourage Esperanza to see her artistic production in relation to the community: "When you leave you must remember always to come back … for the others. A circle, you understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street…. You can't forget who you are." Although Esperanza doesn't understand the women's message completely, the seeds of her socially conscious art have been planted here through the directives these women give her at the baby's wake.

Alicia, another positive role model who appears in "Alicia Who Sees Mice" and "Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps," also counsels Esperanza to value Mango Street and return there one day to contribute to its improvement: "Like it or not you are Mango Street and one day you'll come back too." To Esperanza's reply, "Not me. Not until somebody makes it better," Alicia wryly comments "Who's going to do it? The mayor?." Alicia had previously appeared in the collection as a university student who takes "two trains and a bus [to the campus] because she doesn't want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin." Rebelling against her father's expectations of her, that "a woman's place is sleeping so she can wake up early … and make the lunchbox tortillas," Alicia "studies all night and sees the mice, the ones her father says do not exist." Fighting what the patriarchy expects of her, Alicia at the same time represents a clear-sighted, non-mystified vision of the barrio. As a role-model and advice-giver to Esperanza, she embodies both the antipatriarchal themes and the social obligation to return to one's ethnic community that are so central to Cisneros' text.

Cisneros touches on several other important women's issues in this volume, including media images of ideal female beauty, the reifying stare of male surveyors of women, and sex roles within the family. In an effort to counter the sexual division of labor in the home, for example, Esperanza refuses one instance of women's work: "I have begun my own quiet war. Simple. Sure. I am the one who leaves the table like a man, without pulling back the chair or picking up the plate." Although this gesture calls critical attention to gender inequities in the family, Cisneros avoids the issue of who, in fact, will end up performing the household labor that Esperanza refuses here. This important and symbolic, yet somewhat adolescent gesture merely touches on the surface of the problem and is likely, in fact, to increase the work for another woman in Esperanza's household.

The majority of stories in The House on Mango Street, however, face important social issues head-on. The volume's simple, poetic language, with its insistence that the individual develops within a social community rather than in isolation, distances it from many accepted canonical texts. Its deceptively simple, childlike prose and its emphasis on the unromanticized, non-mainstream issues of patriarchal violence and ethnic poverty, however, should serve precisely to accord it canonical status. We must work toward a broader understanding among literary critics of the importance of such issues to art in order to attain a richer, more diverse canon and to avoid the undervaluation and oversight of such valuable texts as The House on Mango Street.


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Sandra Cisneros 1954–

Mexican-American poet and short story writer.

The following entry provides an overview of Cisneros's career through 1997. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 69.

With only a modicum of poetry and short story collections, Cisneros has attracted broad-based critical acclaim and popular success. Best known for The House on Mango Street (1984), a volume of loosely structured vignettes resisting any stable generic classification, Cisneros writes in an idiom that combines the prosaic and poetic syntax of both English and Spanish. Drawing heavily upon her childhood experiences and ethnic heritage as the daughter of a Mexican father and a Chicana mother, Cisneros's fiction and poetry address the impoverished conditions of barrio life, the cultural suppression of minorities in America, the struggle for self-identity in a pluralistic society, and the influence of culturally determined gender roles on the formation of character. Through dialogue and an emphasis on sensory imagery, Cisneros creates distinctly Latino characters who often exist along the margins of mainstream American culture, isolated because of their gender, ethnicity, or class origins. Most critics have commented on the multiple cultural perspectives exhibited by the themes, style, and language of Cisneros's writings, and others have commended her contributions to women's literature and gender studies.

Biographical Information

Born in 1954 at Chicago, Illinois, Cisneros is the only daughter of 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. Consequently, Cisneros often felt homeless and displaced; she sought comfort by reading extensively and occasionally wrote poetry and stories as a child and teenager. In 1976 Cisneros received a B.A. degree from Loyola University and a M.F.A. degree from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1978. Upon graduation, she returned to Chicago and taught at the Latino Youth Alternative High School until 1980, when she published her first poetry collection, Bad Boys (1980). Meanwhile, Cisneros began writing vignettes about the conflicted experiences of her youth that later became The House on Mango Street. In 1981 she took a position as college recruiter and counselor for minority students at Loyola, and she received a NEA fellowship in 1982, which led to a year-long appointment as artist in residence at Foundation Michael Karolyi in Vence, France. In 1984 Cisneros went west to San Antonio, where she directed literary programs at the Guadeloupe Cultural Arts Center. She returned to poetry for her next book, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987). Since 1987, when she joined the faculty of California State University as a guest professor, Cisneros has held other visiting professorships at various American universities and has published another critically acclaimed prose collection, Woman Hollering Creek (1991), and Loose Woman (1994), her fourth book of poetry.

Major Works

Variously classified as either a short story collection or a series of prose poems, The House on Mango Street directly relates to Cisneros's upbringing and touches upon issues ranging from divided cultural loyalties, social alienation, and the humiliations of living in poverty. The work centers on a character named Esperanza (meaning "hope"), a poor Latina teenager who longs for a room of her own in a house of which she can be proud. Esperanza ponders the drawbacks of choosing marriage over education, the emotional liberation attained through writing words, and the sense of confusion associated with adolescence. In the piece "Hips," for instance, Esperanza agonizes over the repercussions of her body's physical changes. A collection of twenty-two narratives ranging from a few paragraphs to several pages, Woman Hollering Creek addresses issues concerning minority status in contemporary America. The stories in this volume contain the interior monologues of various Mexican-Americans living near San Antonio, Texas, who have assimilated into American culture but maintain fierce loyalty to their Mexican heritage. The title story, for instance, recounts the fantasy life of a Mexican woman, deluded by American soap operas, who recognizes that her marriage to a Texan bears little resemblance to those on television. In "Never Marry a Mexican," a young Latina begins to feel contempt for her Anglo lover when a sense of guilt and inadequacy overwhelms her since she cannot speak Spanish. My Wicked, Wicked Ways, a collection of sixty poems, describes Cisneros's native Chicago, her travels in Europe, and, as the title implies, the sexual guilt associated with her strict Catholic upbringing. Evincing Cisneros's penchant for merging various genres, these poems sometimes resemble short stories, and each one incorporates idiomatic Spanish, impressionistic metaphors, and social commentary that reveal the doubts and fears felt by many Hispanic women—traits common to all of Cisneros's writings. Through wry observations and extended metaphors, Loose Woman portrays a fiercely proud, independent woman of Mexican descent. In a review of Loose Woman Susan Smith Nash asserts that Cisneros "probes the extremes of perceptions and negotiates the boundary regions that define the self and the systems of knowledge required in constructing a notion of identity."

Critical Reception

The pieces in The House on Mango Street won praise for their lyrical narrative structures, vivid dialogue, and descriptive precision. "The reality of Hispanic life rarely enters mainstream American writing," remarked Jenny Uglow, adding that "Cisneros sets out to fill the blank page and let her people speak." Admiring the distinctive prose of Woman Hollering Creek, critics have described the characters in this volume as idiosyncratic, accessible individuals capable of generating compassion on a universal level. Attracted by themes that subvert conventional wisdom regarding gender roles and identity formation, commentators on Cisneros's fiction often note a relationship between the content and the form of her writing. "Cisneros is indeed skillful in utilizing long-established literary traditions for revolutionary purposes," wrote Laura Gutierrez Spencer, finding that Cisneros's writings show "how literature can challenge deeply inculcated values and change the ways in which we perceive the world." Although Cisneros is noted primarily for her fiction, her poetry has also garnered attention, particularly for the way it tends to blur the distinction between literary genres. "What distinguishes Sandra Cisneros's poetry is also what makes categorizing it problematic," Nash observed, admitting that through her poetry "the reader gains the opportunity to celebrate the diversity of human experience and to participate in the reconfiguration of identity."

Maria Elena de Valdés (essay date Fall 1992)

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SOURCE: "In Search of Identity in Cisneros' The House on Mango Street," in The Canadian Review of American Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1, Fall, 1992, pp. 55-72.

[In the essay below, de Valdés examines the "highly lyrical narrative voice" of The House on Mango Street in relation to textual representations of "a poetics of identity" as a Chicana writer.]

Sandra Cisneros (1954–), a Chicago-born poet of Mexican parentage, published her first novel in 1984. The House on Mango Street is written in the manner of a young girl's memoirs. The forty-four pieces are, however, not the day-to-day record of a preadolescent girl, but rather a loose-knit series of lyrical reflections, her struggle with self-identity and the search for self-respect amidst an alienating and often hostile world. The pieces range from two paragraph narratives, like "Hairs," to the four-page "The Monkey Garden."

There are a number of significant issues to be discussed concerning The House on Mango Street but I believe that the most pressing issue is the ideological question of a poetics of identity in the double materialization of a Chicana. I am opposed to any critical strategy which ignores the qualitative perspective of the lyric narrative voice, the referential situation from which she is writing, and the issues she is writing about. In this study, I shall present the highly lyrical narrative voice in all its richness of a "persona" to which my commentary will seek to respond.

Cisneros's literary persona, Esperanza, is the lyric narrative voice to whom the reader responds and who the reader eventually knows. My theoretical position is closely allied and, to a large extent, indebted to Naomi Black's social feminism, which she defines as "the argumentation and process in which feminism is able to use the doctrine of difference not to obliterate differences of kind, but to change a society that uses difference as a basis for exclusion." The feminist social criticism that I have developed over the last four years builds on the infrastructure of Black's work and the orientation of Julia Kristeva's writing, but also draws from Paul Ricoeur's hermeneutic mode of inquiry.

The plan of this paper is to move rapidly from a semiotic level to a semantic level of the text before attempting an intertextual interpretation of my reading. The final stage of my exposition is to present the significance of the reading experience in that dialogic relation between the text and the reader and the reader's community. The sensibility and feeling that the narrator captures from her experiences governs her relations with her world and its people, and is part of the long tradition of literature of the coming of age. As an aesthetic process, the apprehension of the world of Mango Street becomes a metaphor for identity. The consequence of this aesthetic process is that the reader is directed less toward the singularity of the places, events and persons of Mango Street than toward the eye/I that writes them. The protagonist, Esperanza, probes into her world, discovers herself and comes to embody the primal needs of all human beings: freedom and belonging.

I am aware that some feminists, especially in English-speaking North America, do not share my philosophical premises, but it is my conviction that they will listen and respond to this voice from the North American third world. The following passage from ["What Is Text"] by Ricoeur will serve as an intellectual paradigm for my commentary on Chicana identity as a part of the reading experience. Ricoeur writes: "What we want to understand is not something hidden behind the text, but something disclosed in front of it. What has to be understood is not the initial situation of discourse, but what points toward a possible world…. To understand a text is to follow its movement from sense to reference, from what it says, to what it talks about." The organization of the study is, therefore, a strategy of communication. The main semantic focus of the text is the presentation of the narrating self.

My commentary is aimed at establishing a historically based, critical model of reading for the presentation of self. The narrating presence is a composite of a poetic enunciating voice and a narrative voice, and this presence can best be described as a formal function within the literary structure who, as a speaker, is only knowable as a story-teller in her response to the extratextual, societal, and historical, determinate referents. Notions of self or voice are implicitly controlled by the spectrum of the world of action as known to the reader, and notions of character are explicitly linked to the notions of person in the world. The union of the self and person, is the hallmark of the lyrical text. If voice or self is an impulse toward the world, person or character is a social structure of dispositions and traits. In brief, the text in The House on Mango Street presents the exterior and the interior of living in the world.

The narrative situation is a familiar one: a sensitive young girl's reflections of her struggle between what she is and what she would like to be. The sense of alienation is compounded because ethnically she is a Mexican, although culturally a Mexican American; she is a young girl surrounded by examples of abused, defeated, worn-out women, but the woman she wants to be must be free. The reflections of one crucial year in her life are narrated in the present from a first person point of view. This was the year of the passage from preadolescence to adolescence when she discovered the meaning of being female and Mexican living in Chicago, but, most of all, this was the year she discovered herself through writing. The girl who did not want to belong to her social reality learns that she belongs to herself, to others, and not to a place.

The frame for the short narratives is simple but highly effective. The family has been wandering from place to place, always dreaming of the promised land of a house of their own. When they finally arrive at the house on Mango Street, which is at last their own house, it is not the promised land of their dreams. The parents overcome their dejection by saying that this is not the end of their moving, that it is only a temporary stop before going on to the promised house. The narrator knows better. The conflict between the promised land and the harsh reality, which she always recognizes in its full force of rejection, violence, fear, and waste, is presented without compromise and without dramatization. This is just the way things are on Mango Street, but the narrator will not give up her dream of the promised house and will pursue it. The lesson she must learn is that the house she seeks is, in reality, her own person. She must overcome her rejection of who she is and find her self-esteem. She must be true to herself and thereby gain control of her identity. The search for self-esteem and her true identity is the subtle, yet powerful, narrative thread that unites the text and achieves the breakthrough of self-understanding in the last pieces.

We can trace this search through some of its many moments. The narrative development begins in the first entry, "The House": "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 says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know how those things go." The narrator goes on to establish the family circle where she has warmth and love but is lonely and, most of all, estranged from the world outside. Her name, Esperanza, in English means hope: "At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver." Fear and hostility are the alienating forces she tries to understand. Why do people of other color fear her? And why should she fear others? That's the way it is. "All brown all around, we are safe." Changes are coming over her, she is awakening to sexuality and to an adult world. It is in "Four Skinny Trees," that the identity question is explored: "They are the only ones who understand me. I am the only one who understands them."

"A Smart Cookie" touches one of the most sensitive areas of the text: the mother-daughter relationship. Her mother remains nostalgic not for what was, but for what could have been: "I could've been somebody, you know?" Being somebody is full of unarticulated significance, but in its impact on Esperanza, it means primarily to be herself and not what others wanted her to be. Her mother tells her she had brains, but she was also self-conscious and ashamed not to look as well as other more affluent girls. She quit school because she could not live looking at herself in the mirror of the other girls's presence. She states forthrightly: "Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down." The syndrome is there; it is a closed circle. You are poor because you are an outsider without education; you try to get an education, but you can't take the contrastive evidence of poverty and "[i]t keeps you down." The constant movement of the narrative takes up one aspect after another of the circumstances of the emerging subject that is Esperanza Cordero.

There is a subtle sequential order to the short sections. The text opens with the description of the house and its significance to the narrator, moves on to a delicate image of the family group, and with the third piece, "Boys and Girls," begins the highly lyrical exposition of the narrator's world, punctuated with entries of introspection in the narrator's struggle with her identity. "My Name," "Chanclas," "Elenita, Cards, Palm Water," "Four Skinny Trees," "Bums in the Attic," "Beautiful and Cruel," "The Monkey Garden," "The Three Sisters," and "A House of My Own," are the most significant pieces because they mark the narrative development of identity. The text ends with the anticipated departure from the house and the literary return to it through writing. Although each piece can be seen as a self-contained prose poem, there is the subtle narrative unity of the enunciating voice's search for herself as she observes and questions her world and its social, economic, and moral conventions.

Esperanza Cordero observes, questions, and slowly finds herself determined through her relationship to the others who inhabit her world. She is drawn to the women and girls as would-be role models; within her family, her mother and her younger sister Magdalena (Nenny) are characterized, but the most searching descriptions are of girls her own age or, as she says, a few years older. Marin from Puerto Rico is featured in "Louie, His Cousin and His Other Cousin" and "Marin," Alicia in "Alicia Who Sees Mice," Rafaela in "Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut and Papaya Juice on Tuesdays," and, most important of all, Sally in "Sally," "What Sally Said," "Red Clowns," and "Linoleum Roses." The older women are treated with a soft-spoken sympathy through imagery: Rosa Vargas in "There Was an Old Woman She Had So Many Children She Didn't Know What to Do," Ruthie in "Edna's Ruthie," the neighbour Mamacita in "No Speak English," and her own mother in "A Smart Cookie."

The enunciating voice never breaks her verisimilar perspective. She speaks about what she sees and what she thinks. Her style is one of subtlety, understatement, and generosity. When she reflects on social hostility or the brutality of wife-beating, it is not with violence or rancour, but with a firm determination to describe and to escape the vicious circle of abused women: Rosa Vargas is the mother "who is tired all the time from buttoning and bottling and babying, and who cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come"; Marin who is not allowed out and hopes to get a job downtown so that she "can meet someone in the subway who might marry and take you to live in a big house far away"; "Alicia, who inherited her mama's rolling pin and sleepiness" and whose father says that "a woman's place is sleeping so she can wake up early with the tortilla star"; "Rafaela, who is still young but getting old from leaning out the window so much, gets locked indoors because her husband is afraid Rafaela will run away since she is too beautiful to look at"; "Minerva is only a little bit older than me but already she has two kids and a husband who left … she writes poems on little pieces of paper that she folds over and over and holds in her hands a long time." And, there is Sally whose father hits her and "her mama rubs lard on all the places where it hurts. Then at school she'd say she fell. That's where all the blue places come from. That's why her skin is always scarred."

The first person moves effortlessly from observer to lyrical introspection about her place in the world. The language is basic, idiomatic English with a touch of colloquial speech and a few Spanish words. The deceptively simple structure of sentences and paragraphs has a conceptual juxtaposition of action and reaction where the movement itself is the central topic. For example, "Those Who Don't," which consists of three short paragraphs, is about alienation and fear in a hostile society, but it is only fourteen lines in total. It begins with a direct statement about life as she sees it: "Those who don't know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we're dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake." The second paragraph, five lines long, begins with the "we" that is the implicit opposite of the "they" of the preceding paragraph. "But we aren't afraid. We know the guy…." With the economy of a well-written sonnet the third five-line paragraph brings the "they" and the "we" into an inverted encounter: "All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes." The description has been that of a keen observer, the composition is that of a poet.

This structure operates through a conceptual back and forth movement of images, like the action of the shuttle in the loom. An image appears which moves the reader forward, following the woof of the first-person through the warp of referential world, but as soon as the image takes shape it is thrust back toward the enunciator. The process is repeated again and again slowly weaving the tapestry of Esperanza's Mango Street. For example, in "Those Who Don't," the initial image is about the others, "Those who don't know any better," but it reaches culmination with the observation that "they think we're dangerous." The counter-move is that "They are stupid people." The new thrust forward is the reassurance of familiarity with the ostensible menacing scene that greeted the outsiders and led them to fear they would be attacked. But, when the shuttle brings back the narrative thread, it presents the inversion. The "we" are the "they" in another neighborhood. The movement back and forth will go on, the narrator says, "That is how it goes and goes." The colour of the warp is different in each community, the woof keeps them next to each other, but their ignorance and fear keeps them separate. The tapestry that is being woven by this constant imagistic back and forth movement of the narrator's perceptions and thoughts is not a plotted narrative, but rather a narrative of self-invention by the writer-speaker. The speaker and her language are mutually implicated in a single interdependent process of poetic self-invention.

The poetic text cannot operate if we separate the speaker from her language; they are the inseparable unity of personal identity. There is no utterance before enunciation. There is a fictional persona, Esperanza Cordero, who will speak, and there is the implicit continued use of idiomatic American English. But the enunciation that we read is at once the speaker and the spoken which discloses the subject, her subjectivity, and ours. An inescapable part of this subject is what she is expected to be: "Mexicans, don't like their women strong." "I wonder if she [my great-grandmother] made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn't be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don't want to inherit her place by the window." This close reading of the text with attention to how it operates, suggests a movement and a counter-movement which I have described metaphorically as the movement of a loom weaving the presence of subjectivity. Subjectivity is always seen against the background of her community that is Chicago's changing neighbourhoods. This determinate background gives narrative continuation, or narrativity, to the narrator's thoughts. The narrative development of this text can be described as the elaboration of the speaker's subjectivity. The symbolic space she creates should not be abstracted from the writing, because the writing itself is the creation of her own space. The structure of this text, therefore, begins as a frame for self-invention and as the writing progresses so does the subject. She is, in the most direct sense of the word, making herself and in a space of her own.

There are numerous empirical and verisimilar truth-claims about the way of life in the neighbourhood. All of these references form a well-knit web of specific truth-claims about social reality. Simultaneous to these truth-claims is another kind of reference. The reference to the narrator's own sense of the world, her wonderment and search for answers of why things are the way they are for her and for those who are her family, friends, and neighbours: Minerva "comes over black and blue and asks what can she do? Minerva. I don't know which way she'll go. There is nothing I can do"; "Sally. What do you think about when you close your eyes like that?… Do you wish your feet would one day keep walking and take you far away from Mango Street, far away and maybe your feet would stop in front of a house, a nice one with flowers and big windows." Esperanza meditates after her Aunt Lupe's death: "Maybe she was ashamed. Maybe she was embarrassed it took so many years. The kids who wanted to be kids instead of washing dishes and ironing their papa's shirts, and the husband who wanted a wife again. And then she died, my aunt who listened to my poems. And then we began to dream the dreams." This quest for answers takes on an explicit tension because of the depth of the themes the narrator treats, but the manner in which she develops her search for answers is the fundamental dialectic of self-world. She describes what is around her, she responds to people and places, but, most importantly, she reflects on a world she did not make, and cannot change, but must control or she will be destroyed. She is a young, dark-skinned girl of Mexican parentage, born in Chicago, speaking English, and feeling alienated.

The use of these determinate features is of primary importance, for it is through the interplay between the lyrical introspection and the truth-claims that the fusion of self (enunciating voice) and person (character) takes place. The power of the text lies precisely in the creation of this presence. It is this human presence that transcends the time, place, and condition of the composition to create a literary metaphor for a woman coming of age. Readers halfway around the world, who have never seen Chicago and have never experienced what it is to live with the fear expressed in "All brown all around, we are safe." can, nevertheless, understand what it is to be lonely and alienated and how difficult it is to come out free from an environment that enslaves.

The images evoked by the text all signal a subject: Esperanza Cordero, an adolescent Mexican American girl who wants to be a writer. As critical readers, we read in a manner that creates ourselves as recipients, our own self-invention as the sympathetic listeners of the tale, attentive to actualize the words into images clothed in the colors of our own experience. The subject that emerges from our reading is neither the author's nor ours; she is a unique construct of intersecting designs and paradigms, those of the author's structure of the text, and those of the larger cultural context we share, in part, with the author. But this construct can only be reconstructed from its effects on us, its readers. Thus, the subject I am dealing with in these pages is a deliberate reconstruction from the effects of reading.

In order to draw out the subject of this text I will comment on three of the numerous images which are part of this work. The imagery in this text functions on three levels, in the manner of prose poems. Images in this text are effective because they function at the level of form, of plot, and of symbolic significance. Each of these images serves, first, to establish the identity of the enunciating voice; this is primarily a poetic function of creating the lyric presence who experiences and speaks. But, the images also have a narrative function as a part of the plot line which is the search for the promised house. And, finally, each image takes on symbolic proportions because it participates in the rich intertextuality of literature.

"Four Skinny Trees" presents the most iconic image in the entire text. The trees are personified in the image of the narrator: "Four skinny trees with skinny necks and pointy elbows like mine," but the description is also markedly referential to the specific urban setting of the text: "Four who grew despite concrete." At the primary level of the enunciating voice's identity, the image evokes a powerful statement about belonging and not belonging to the place where they happen to have grown: "Four who do not belong here but are here." The narrative is composed of four short paragraphs. The first, with lyrical rhythm, establishes reciprocity between "I" and "they," "four skinny trees." The second completes the personification: "they" completely supplants "trees." The third paragraph introduces their function: "they teach"; and the fourth gives the lesson: to reach and not forget to reach and to "be and be."

At the level of plot, the trees serve as a talisman of survival in a hostile environment:

Let one forget his reason for being, they'd all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other. Keep, keep, keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.

When I am too sad and too skinny to keep keeping, when I am a tiny thing against so many bricks, then it is I look at trees. When there is nothing left to look at on this street. Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach. Four whose only reason is to be and be.

Esperanza's survival amidst surroundings that are negative and a rejection of her sensibility is not a denial of where she is and who she is, but rather a continuous fight to survive in spite of Mango Street as Esperanza from Mango Street. It is, however, at the symbolic level that the image of the trees attains its fullest significance. There is a secret to survival that the trees make manifest—an unconquerable will to fight without respite in order to survive in an urban setting:

Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They grow up and they grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.

I want to emphasize that the visual aspects of the textual imagery engage the reader in the visual figuration of vertical movement in trees. Is this a form of intertextuality? I think it would be more appropriate to say that this visual imagery is a woman's prose painting.

The highly lyrical presentation of "The Three Sisters" evokes the fairy godmothers of fairy-tale lore, each with a unique image and gift for the heroine. Their gift is the gift of self: "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." This poem-piece is unlike any of the others in form because it combines the prose-poem quality of the rest of the book with the most extended dialogue sequence. The three sisters speak to Esperanza. The speaking voices are of crucial importance for through their enunciation they become full participants in the story-telling evocation with Esperanza.

At the level of plot the sisters serve as revelation. They are the narrative mediators that enter the story, at the crucial junctures, to assist the heroine in the trial that lies ahead. It is significant that they are from Mexico and appear to be related only to the moon. In pre-Hispanic Mexico, the lunar goddesses, such as Tlazolteotl and Xochiquetzal, were the intermediaries for all women. They are sisters to each other and, as women, sisters to Esperanza. One has laughter like tin, another has the eyes of a cat, and the third hands like porcelain. This image is, above all, a lyrical disclosure of revelation. Their entrance into the story is almost magical: "They came with the wind that blows in August, thin as a spider web and barely noticed," for they came only to make the gift to Esperanza of her selfhood. At the symbolic level, the three sisters are linked with Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, the three fates. Catullus depicts them weaving their fine web of destiny: "These sisters pealed their high prophetic song, / Song which no length of days shall prove untrue." The tradition of the sisters of fate runs deep in Western literature from the most elevated lyric to the popular tale of marriage, birth, and the fate awaiting the hero or heroine. In Cisneros's text, the prophecy of the fates turns to the evocation of self-knowledge.

The last image I shall discuss is based on the number two, the full force of opposition between two houses, the one on Mango Street and the promised house which is now the projection of the narrator. Although this image runs throughout the text, "The House on Mango Street," "Alicia," "A House of My Own" and "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes," are the principal descriptions. The imagery of the house is in constant flux between a negative and a positive, between the house the narrator has and the one she would like to have: "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." On the level of the narrative voice's sense of belonging and identity, it is clear from the first piece that the house is much more than a place to live. It is a reflection, an extension, a personified world that is indistinguishable from the occupant. The oppositional pull and push continues throughout and reaches its climax in the last three pieces. In "Alicia and I Talking on Edna's Steps," it is in the form of reported dialogue: "No, this isn't my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I've lived here. I don't belong. I don't ever want to come from here … I never had a house, not even a photograph … only one I dream of." Because the house has become an extension of the person the rejection is vehement. She knows the person she is does not belong to the hostile ugly world she lives in.

"A House of My Own" expands on the promised house of her dreams in subtle, yet evocative, intertextuality to Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own: "Only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem." The house is now a metaphor for the subject and, therefore, the personal space of her identity. The last piece resolves the oppositional tension by transforming it into writing, into the metaphor of going away from Mango Street in order to return.

At the level of plot, the opposition of the house on Mango Street and a house of her own provides the narrative thread for the text. It is the movement implicit in the description of hostility and poverty and the belief in a better life that gives the story its inner cohesion and builds the consistency of the narrator's reflections. The fact that this conflict between alienation and the need to belong is common to persons of all cultures and across history gives the text its thematic link to world literature. There is a perfect circularity in the plot insofar as the text ends when the writing begins. The opening lines of the text are the closing. Esperanza has made her tension a tension creative of her subjectivity.

The idea of creative tension is well known to us through the work of Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space and The Poetics of Reverie as well as Paul Ricoeur's The Rule of Metaphor; however, we must be reminded that this idea was already implicit in Aristotle's discussion of representation as the tension between the object known to be represented and the means used to represent it. In my work, I follow the theory that the image is not the residue of an impression, it is not an imprint that fades with time; on the contrary, the image that is produced through speech gives us the speaking subject and the subject spoken of, entwined in a unity of expression. If we move from speech to the written text, the situation becomes richer with possibilities. The text makes the image possible, the reader makes it actual and the image is something new in our language, an entity of reflection that was not there before; it is the poetic subjectivity in which we participate.

My commentary on these pages is reflective, aimed at participation and not at imposing closure on the text for other readers. As readers, regarding the self-invention of writing, we must respect the specificity of the self-invention, that is, a Chicana coming of age. In all patriarchal societies, but especially in this one, there is the imposition of the sign of gender which serves to silence women, to force them to particularize themselves through the indirect means of the way and style in which they serve others. This is the ideological meaning of "a daddy's house." By writing, this young woman has created herself as a total subject and not a gender role or a disembodied voice.

The symbolic level of the image of the house is the most basic expression of existence. Everything about the house on Mango Street repels the lyric narrator. This house is not hers and does not reflect her presence. The house of her dreams is first described in negative terms, by what it cannot be: "Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's." This is followed by its attributes: "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." And it also excludes: "Nobody to shake a stick at. Nobody's garbage to pick up after." The problem is that she belongs to the house on Mango Street and to deny it would be at the expense of herself, of her identity. She belongs to a world that is not hers; it is an opposition that will not be resolved in a synthesis or a compromise. The metaphor of a place of her own draws upon the continuing tensional opposition. She learns not only to survive but to win her freedom, and the text itself with its title and its search for the promised house is the creative tension of poetry. The semantic impertinence of belonging and not belonging creates the metaphorical meaning of identity as one who does not forget to reach and to reach and whose only reason is to "be and be."

The conclusion, "Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes," is lyrical and meditative:

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 that I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot out.

The liberation of Esperanza through her writing draws from a rich tradition of a writer's self-creation. Reflection, in this tradition, is the movement toward the very core of being. Not only does the past become the present through the act of writing, but, of more consequence, the projection into the self's future is predicated on the self-knowledge of this existentialized consciousness. To remember, therefore, is not just to go back in time, it is the recovery of the past that makes the future. Cisneros writes it in these words: "You must keep writing. It will keep you free, and I said yes, but at that time I didn't know what she meant."

Sandra Cisneros's text is a fictional autobiography of Esperanza Cordero. This is a postmodern form of fiction stitching together a series of lyrical pieces, "lazy poems" Cisneros calls them, into the narrativity of self-invention through writing. In her study on autobiography, Sidonie Smith establishes a theoretical position which is at once lucid and fully applicable to my endeavor in this essay. Esperanza's position as a woman gives a particularity to the writing itself in four instances: (1) the fiction of memory, (2) of self, (3) of the reader, and (4) of the narrativity itself. Her position of authority to interpret herself must be asserted by writing, but it must be done against the grain, for she lives in a patriarchal Mexican American culture where stories about women silence and subjugate them as in the case of her namesake, her great-grandmother. Finally, Esperanza's basis of authority—she knows what she has lived and felt better than anyone else—is vulnerable unless she asserts her presence in a specific everyday reality; in other words, it cannot slip into a daydream escape route which would be an evasion, not a liberation; she must make her presence, the presence of a woman writing.

Cisneros begins the end of her text with the affirmation of self-invention that displaces men's stories about women: "I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong." By writing, Esperanza has not only gained control of her past, she has created a present in which she can be free and belong at the same time. Her freedom is the fundamental freedom to be herself and she cannot be herself if she is entrapped in patriarchal narrativity. Mango Street will always be part of this woman, but she has taken the strength of trees unto herself and has found the courage to be the house of her dreams, her own self-invention.

Principal Works

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Bad Boys (poems) 1980The House on Mango Street (prose) 1984The Rodrigo Poems (poems) 1985My Wicked, Wicked Ways (poems) 1987Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (prose) 1991Hairs: Pelitos (juvenilia) 1994Loose Woman (poems) 1994

Leslie S. Gutiérrez-Jones (essay date 1993)

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SOURCE: "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, State University of New York Press, 1993, pp. 295-312.

[In the essay below, Gutiérrez-Jones discusses Cisneros's transformation of conventional elements of the Bildungsroman genre in The House on Mango Street, focusing on the link between communal and individual narrative strategies.]


The space of a tactic is the space of the other. Thus it must play on and with a terrain imposed on it and organized by the law of a foreign power.

            —de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

Dreaming of a day when she might attain the "American dream" of home ownership, the young protagonist of Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street promises herself that if that day comes, she will joyfully accommodate "passing bums" in her attic, because she "know[s] how it is to be without a house." Esperanza's lack of a "real house" to call her own repeatedly troubles this child of the barrio; when a nun from her school incredulously identifies the family's tenement lodgings, the little girl's sense of identity is devastated: "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." The house of the title, which succeeds this apartment, still falls far short of Esperanza's dreams; it still "isn't it," not "a real house"—one with a yard and a fence and "real stairs, not hallway stairs, but stairs inside like the houses on T.V." Excluded from the suburban standard presented through her father's job and through television, Esperanza has available to her only external models—models she can "rent" but never own. Raised amid annual relocations, shared washrooms, and landlord-tenant battles, Esperanza also experiences her root-lessness on the most literal level; the house she searches for, she anxiously insists, must be one she "can point to." Acutely aware of the disempowerment that results from lacking "a home of one's own," she yearns to stake out an architectural space—one which she implicitly assumes will provide her with the "space" to develop a sense of identity and an artistic voice. But when architecture will not cooperate, she must look instead to her imagination in order to create a sense of place—one which can, in turn, provide a place for her writing.

Esperanza must learn to create for herself, and from herself, a "home" which will be truly hers. She finds—or creates—such a space for herself through her art, through the writing which her Aunt Lupe insists will keep her free. Shifting from a literal to a metaphoric register, her "house" becomes not a structure she can point to, but a spiritual sanctuary she carries within: "only a house quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before the poem." During her year on Mango Street, Esperanza does develop a sense of place and identity: by the work's end, she has found peace and purpose in her writing; she has created for herself the "home in the heart" predicted by the local fortuneteller.

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. Writer and character both face the conflict between desire for self-expression and fear of being co-opted by the very forms of self-expression available. The individual focus of writing, and particularly of the genre of the Bildungsroman, threatens to betray that aspect of identity which most calls out for expression: membership in a community. Only a fierce loyalty to this connection provides an adequate response, for Esperanza as for Cisneros, to the ambivalences generated by individual artistic achievement. Like her protagonist, who insists that the house of her own cannot be "a man's house"—especially "not a daddy's"—Cisneros must insistently remake the conventions and formulas of a patriarchal individualistic tradition, using them in order to transform them, tactically appropriating them in order to make them her own … and, by extension, her community's.

One model for understanding what is at stake in such an appropriation may be found in Michel de Certeau's analysis of the creative art forms of the disempowered, the "subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups, which, since they lack their own space, have to get along in a network of already established forces and relationships." For the marginalized writer, the "already established forces and relationships" are represented by the literary tradition of the dominant culture: the genre definitions, the intertextual "lineage," the theoretical frameworks, and the like. Such products of hegemonic culture are ubiquitous, and contact with them virtually inescapable; any writer, then, becomes a "consumer" of sorts. But consumption for de Certeau may become a form of production: creativity may thus be expressed in the Chicana writer's "ways of using," in her "innumerable and infinite small transformations of and within the dominant cultural economy in order to adapt it to [her] own interests and [her] own rules." Cisneros, in de Certeau's terms, "poaches" upon the supposedly private reserve of the white male Anglo-European literary tradition, moving like a nomad "across fields she did not write." Like Esperanza, she can neither purchase nor inherit a "ready-made" structure to call home, but instead creates from within a new space, a home in the heart where her fellow transients are welcome.


We advanced none to the rank of Masters but such as clearly felt and recognized the purpose they were born for, and had got enough of practice to proceed along their way with a certain cheerfulness and ease.

          —Goethe, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship

As a ready-made structure for a Chicana writer to inhabit, the Bildungsroman poses some serious problems, and so we should examine the literary territory Cisneros would occupy. On the most basic level, the controversy that surrounds any attempt to define this genre leaves the location of its "walls" quite uncertain. Among scholars of English literature, Jerome Buckley's Season of Youth remains the most popular touchstone for revision and debate; but perhaps Randolf Shaffner's study of the apprenticeship novel, which follows Buckley's analysis, illuminates most clearly the strain that would be involved in simply "inserting" a Chicana protagonist into Buckley's master plot. Shaffner begins his study with an explicit statement equating his use of the terms "Bildungsroman" and "apprenticeship novel"—an equation reinforced by his title. The concept of apprenticeship, however, by suggesting its senior counterpart, makes explicit the goals of normative—white, male—"development";two items on Shaffner's "checklist" of the genre's distinguishing traits make glaringly apparent his model's essential incompatibility with Cisneros' project. According to Shaffner, the Bildungsroman presupposes "the belief that a young person can become adept in the art of life and become a master," as well as "the prerequisite of potential for development into a master" (emphasis mine). In Goethe's terms, he must be able to recognize the purpose he was born for. Esperanza may achieve a certain level of control over her life and art, even a certain (heavily circumscribed) sense of power and potential—but the society which constructs and sanctions the identity of "master" will nevertheless deny her this title based on her status as a Chicana. The issue of potentiality (and its corollary, another of Shaffner's presuppositions: "the key notion of choice") sets up the major tension for a female Bildungsroman: if bildung is the tradition whereby the "young male hero discovers himself and his social role," and if the sanctioned social role of women still precludes a true search for, or discovery of, an individual "self," how can this young female hero hope to experience a counterpart to bildung?

When Esther Labovitz tackles the problematic issue of de-fining a female Bildungsroman, she astutely identifies a number of the changes such a hybrid would entail, especially concerning distinctions between male and female parameters of rebellion; yet she assumes that the female Bildungsroman evolved naturally during the twentieth century in response to women's improved social conditions developing belatedly as "cultural and social structures appeared to support women's struggle for independence." The degree to which the "cultural and social structures" cited by Labovitz as supporting women's independence are, in fact, in place for women of color (or more generally for women marginalized and oppressed on account of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class) seems questionable; but, more critically, her analysis of the female Bildungsroman suggests a trajectory which would (and supposedly should) parallel the male version, presumably "catching up" at the projected point at which women's independence gains full social support: the point at which a young woman's rebelliousness, like a young man's, could be relegated to a simple and temporary "stage" preceding "mature" acceptance of the established social order. But while the Bildungsroman of a white western bourgeois male—or even, theoretically, of a "liberated" white western bourgeois female—might appropriately provide a denouement stressing the achievement of "a proper balance between internal individual development and external submissions to group regulations," such a resolution would likely undercut the social critique of a politically self-conscious writer, or protagonist, of color.

Cisneros' narrator does finally achieve a sense of calm resolution, but it is not the resolution of surrender or acceptance; rather, Esperanza insists with quiet determination that she has "gone away to come back." She has left behind her selfish desire to escape, alone, from the barrio of Mango Street, not to return "until somebody makes it better." Realizing "Who's going to do it? The mayor?," Esperanza commits herself to changing, not accepting, the established order—to becoming that somebody who is emphatically not the mayor and who will indeed try to make it better. Esperanza's final determination to return to Mango Street "for the ones [she] left behind. For the ones who cannot [get] out" reflects a crucial point of difference from the sacred ground of the literary genre upon which Cisneros is poaching.

This shift from an individual to a communal perspective marks a significant turn upon the highly individualistic tradition Cisneros would "homestead." The Bildungsroman's emphasis on the individual reverberates with ethnocentric assumptions and political implications, as Susan Stanford Friedman notes, along with other feminist and cultural critics:

Isolate individualism is an illusion. It is also the privilege of power. A white man has the luxury of forgetting his skin color and sex. He can think of himself as an "individual." Women and minorities, reminded at every turn in the great cultural hall of mirrors of their sex or color, have no such luxury.

A strong focus on the autonomous subject (exemplified by Bildungsromane such as Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) would betray Cisneros' political ideology in writing the life of a sexually, ethnically, and economically marginalized protagonist like Esperanza. As Esperanza's culture and experience little resembles Stephen Dedalus', so Cisneros' rendering of her narrative must distance itself from Joyce's; the Bildungsroman's privileging of the individual must not negate Esperanza's, and Cisneros', commitment to the community.

As narrator, Esperanza creates and chronicles her developing identity not through self-absorbed introspection, but by noting, recording, and responding to the lives around her—those lives for whom almost half of the collection's forty-four "prose poems" are named, and whose significance is underscored by Cisneros' title, which situates Esperanza not as a solitary loner but as she comes to perceive herself: a product and member of a particular community. Immune to the "privilege of power" associated with glorifying the individual, Esperanza comes to understand that the three strange sisters, and her friend Alicia, are right: Mango may say "goodbye sometimes," but even when set free from the physical locale, Esperanza "will always be Mango Street" (my emphases). Protagonists like Cisneros' might be outsiders vis à vis the dominant culture, yet they are emphatically not loners. Unlike the traditional "American" hero, who underscores his independence by isolating himself on the high seas (Captain Ahab), in the wilderness (Thoreau), in the "territories" (Huck Finn), or on the road (Jack Kerouac), Cisneros' hero has no such choice. Esperanza has already been symbolically cast out of mainstream "American" suburbia; her status as outsider is not chosen, but imposed. Yet she does not react to her exteriority by perceiving herself as "alone against the world." Rather, Esperanza defines herself as a member of a community—the community that is Mango Street.


Let one forget his reason for being, they'd all droop like tulips in a glass, each with their arms around the other, Keep, keep, keep, trees say when I sleep. They teach.

—Sandra Cisneros, The House on Mango Street

The reconceptualization of identity and individual development found in Cisneros' work radically transforms both the Bildungsroman and the standard wisdom of developmental psychology. Carol Gilligan takes issue with the traditional "developmental litany" which "intones the celebration of separation, autonomy, individuation, and natural rights." Gilligan cites Nancy Chodorow's claim for differences between female and male identity formation based on the child's recognition of similarity to (female) or difference from (male) the primary caretaker—most often maternal in our society—in order to examine both its empirical effects and its theoretical implications. Criticizing conventional notions that reduce development to a simple linear ordering based on separation, Gilligan instead envisions separation and attachment as a "reiterative counterpoint in human experience," recognizing both the "role of separation as it defines and empowers the self" and "the ongoing process of attachment that creates and sustains the human community." She sees a mature stage of development as one in which the individual recognizes her interconnectedness with the world, achieving a balance between responsibility to herself and responsibility to others.

Cisneros' Esperanza explores the difficulties—and the possibilities—inherent in the struggle for such a balance, as she learns that neither self nor community can sustain itself independently; each requires the other. For example, when she senses the difficulty of reconciling "femininity" with conventional notions of adulthood, she determines "not to grow up tame like the others" and instead practices her "own quiet war," "leav[ing] the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate" (emphasis mine). But this strategy of male emulation only shirts the burden to her mother (whose sacrifices are described in the segment which immediately follows), and casts herself into the role of the "bad" woman, the villainess in the movies "with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel." Esperanza admires the selfishness of this woman whose "power is her own. She will not give it away," yet when she tries to envision such an identity for herself, the callousness of such power brings her to an abrupt—and disturbing—realization. When "the three sisters"—her friends' comadres, whose eerie clairvoyance suggests both the Fates and Macbeth's witches—order her to make a wish, she complies, thinking "Well, why not?" But when she is immediately reprimanded, "When you leave you must remember to come back for the others," she feels chastised and guilty: "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."

The sisters recognize that Esperanza is "special," that "she'll go very far," and that she does therefore have a responsibility to herself and her talent, a responsibility which will necessitate her packing her "bags of books and paper." Esperanza likewise realizes the implications of her talents, acknowledging in her final vignette that she will indeed go far: "one day I will say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever." And yet her power and freedom are both circumscribed and expanded through being shared. She will never be like the "tame" women "who lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain"; but neither will she be like Stephen Dedalus, who sees his art as a function of his own autonomy, necessitating his abandonment of home, fatherland, and church. Esperanza senses her ongoing responsibility: not toward the centers of (relative) power, the fathers and husbands who contribute to the oppression of Mango Street's women by demanding obedience and docility, but toward those to whom Cisneros has dedicated the work: "A las Mujeres." Her loyalty is toward the less powerful, the less strong, the less articulate in the dominant language: toward those, the sisters remind her, "who cannot leave as easily as you." Although she recognizes in her closing statement that her achievements might be misunderstood by friends and neighbors, she reassures herself that all will be rectified: "They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out." By the end of her narrative, then, Esperanza attains the balanced maturity described by Gilligan.

In order to reach this resolution, Esperanza must juggle her conflicting feelings toward suburban havens ("Sally" versus "Those Who Don't"); toward the onset of sexuality ("Sire" versus "Red Clowns"); toward marriage ("Marin" versus "Linoleum Roses"); and toward fathers ("Papa Who Wakes Up Tired in the Dark" versus "What Sally Said"). Throughout these struggles Esperanza continues to value connectedness; for example, although she first describes her younger sister Nenny as a burden ("Since she comes after me, she is my responsibility"), Nenny provokes more loyalty than resentment. When Nenny reveals her childish ignorance about the mystery of women's hips, Esperanza stubbornly stands by her:

If you don't get them you may turn into a man. Nenny says this and she believes it. She is this way because of her age.

That's right, I add before Lucy or Rachel can make fun of her. She is stupid alright, but she is my sister.

Putting her critical judgments aside, Esperanza asserts her familial loyalty above all. Similarly, her thoughts of her parents are filled not with the hostility and resentment of a sullen adolescent, but with tenderness and gratitude for the emotional security they provide:

my mother's hair … sweet to put your nose into when she is holding you, holding you and you feel safe, is the warm smell of bread before you bake it, is the smell when she makes a little room for you on her side of the bed still warm with her skin, and you sleep near her, the rain outside falling and Papa snoring. The snoring, the rain, and mama's hair that smells like bread.

Likewise, she does her best to return such comfort, as she later sympathizes with her grieving father:

my brave Papa cries. I have never seen my Papa cry and don't know what to do….

And I think if my own Papa died what would I do. I hold my Papa in my arms. I hold and hold and hold him.

The continuity between generations will remain unbroken; as her father weeps for the loss of his parent, Esperanza recognizes that some day she will in turn grieve his death—and will herself need to be held and held and held.

Esperanza's compassion extends beyond these ties to her immediate family, to the many abused or abandoned wives of Mango Street: to Rosa Vargas, "who is tired all the time from buttoning and bottling and babying and who cries every day for the man who left without even leaving a dollar for bologna or a note explaining how come," to Rafaela and Sally, whose husbands jealously lock them away, to Minerva, with whom Esperanza shares her poems. Her intuitive understanding of other, younger women—women closer to her own age—is especially striking, as she attains a sort of omniscience born of empathy:

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….

Sally, do you sometimes wish you didn't have to go home?… You could close your eyes and you wouldn't have to worry about what people said because you never belonged here anyway and nobody could make you sad and nobody would think you're strange because you like to dream and dream … when all you wanted, all you wanted, Sally, was to love and to love and to love and to love and no one could call that crazy.

In such passages Esperanza's usually simple prose style reaches a lyrical intensity, as she gives voice to the longing for love and striving after dreams which breeds loneliness—and the seeds of dependency ("someone to change her life")—in these young women. In particular, Esperanza grasps Sally's unhappiness, and shares with her the anguish of a home that can never fulfill that term's promise—a home which is not her own, a home where she "never belonged … anyway."

Esperanza bonds with Marin and Sally over the sort of fantasies in which many residents of this barrio indulge; yet even more pervasive on Mango Street, when such escapism fails, is the sense of exclusion; Esperanza feels strongly for all her neighbors who "don't belong": the unhappy Mamacita who speaks no English, the eccentric Ruthie who "laughs all by herself," Esperanza's own Aunt Lupe "sick from the disease that would not go," and others. Through her sympathy for these individuals' plights, Esperanza comes to understand the nature of xenophobia, sexism, and bigotry—the fear of difference which excludes, and even ridicules, Mamacita, Ruthie, and Lupe, not for who they are but for how they look and how they speak, Esperanza has herself participated in such injustice, as when she joins her friends in mocking Lupe's infirmity. This cruelty, generated spontaneously from the obliviousness of a childhood game, is unintentional; Esperanza's simple defense is "We didn't know. She had been dying such a long time we forgot." But when her aunt does finally die, the girls take on responsibility for her death, and Esperanza unsparingly shoulders her share of the burden for their communal guilt:

Most likely I will go to hell and most likely I deserve to be there. My mother says I was born on an evil day and prays for me. Lucy and Rachel pray too. For ourselves and for each other … because of what we did to Aunt Lupe.

Such painful experiences with "difference" elucidate Esperanza's encounters with racial prejudice: with misunderstanding and fear born of ignorance, and with the phenomenon of not belonging.

Those who don't know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we're dangerous…. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.

But we aren't afraid….

All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes.

Esperanza does not learn such lessons as an isolate individual, but rather shares them (as do the weird sisters), as part of a group: as one of three girlhood friends, in the case of mocking Lupe, or as part of a general "we" of Mango Street, in the case of "Those Who Don't." Her budding feminism, like this sensitivity to the dynamics of exclusion, is also gained through interaction and involvement with others. She recognizes the dangers of her gender and refuses the threatened "ball and chain" partly in response to the experiences and warnings of others (for example, her mother in "A Smart Cookie") and partly in response to her own experiences with harassment and abuse, the majority of which either occur in the company of her friends ("The Family of Little Feet"), or result from a betrayal by more "sophisticated" classmates like Sally ("The Monkey Garden" and "Red Clowns"). Bearing out Gilligan's assertions, Esperanza does not experience—or narrate—the harsh lessons of growing up as an autonomous, self-absorbed individual, but as a sensitive and involved member of a community.

This more interactive model for development—what Gilligan refers to as a privileging of "identity as relationship"—may yet precipitate its own anxieties and ambivalences, especially in earlier stages of development, when, according to Gilligan, the sense of responsibility to others may overwhelm a sense of responsibility to oneself. At this stage Gilligan notes the emergence of a pattern of fears based on the "danger" of individual success. While an individual who privileges separation will experience relations with others in terms of a hierarchy, characters like Esperanza, who privilege attachment, may perceive her interaction with others in terms of a "web." These two metaphors imply contrasting goals (respectively, moving up versus staying centered) and contrasting dangers (entrapment born of intimacy versus isolation born of achievement). Rather than the more typically "male" anxiety—"the wish to be alone at the top and the consequent fear that others will get too close"—Esperanza must come to terms with "the wish to be at the center of connection and the consequent fear of being too far out on the edge." By determinedly marching away, yet with equal determination promising a return and reconciliation, Esperanza achieves a sense of balance between her own needs and the needs of her community—to the benefit of both.


"Something" different speaks again and presents itself to the masters in the various forms of non-labor—the savage, the madman, the child, even woman.

—Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

Esperanza's narrative itself attains a similar balance between her needs and the community's. Just as she can understand and express the "voices" of silenced women like Marin and Sally, so too she "knows" and conveys experiences such as those of the anonymous hit-and-run victim, "Geraldo No Last Name." Geraldo died without having met Esperanza (she hears only the barest outlines of the episode, through her friend), and lived a life quite removed from her own, as a non-English-speaking (probably undocumented) immigrant. Yet she intuitively grasps—and communicates—aspects of his life otherwise closed off to acquaintances, doctors, police, and even his own family:

They never saw the kitchenettes. They never knew about the two-room flats and sleeping rooms he rented, the weekly money orders sent home, the currency exchange. How could they?

His name was Geraldo. And his home is in another country. The ones he left behind are far away. They will wonder. Shrug. Remember. Geraldo. He went north … we never heard from him again.

Esperanza speaks for the excluded, in de Certeau's terms "the various forms of non-labor": the sickly, the deranged, the abused, the anonymous dead and the disempowered; the simple poetry of her prose gives voice to the "cries of the People excluded from the written." She expresses herself as an artist by expressing the struggles of others, establishing her own identity as she conveys the identity of her neighborhood.

Yet even with such a noble project, valorizing the lives of those not generally considered worthy of literary attention, Esperanza is still faced with the potentially alienating effects of artistic achievement: the more her identity becomes that of "the writer," the less she will be an ordinary member of her own community. As an intellectual and artistic enterprise, writing confers upon the writer a certain power: a certain autonomy, control, and authority which is likely to distance the writer from her own disempowered community. De Certeau conveys just such a problematic when he associates the origins of written culture with the privileging of the autonomous individual, with the "mastery" of a hegemonic culture based on rationality, industry, and economic production. Powerless and placeless, the nonelite consumers of this master culture function as the oral disruption, the voices upon whose existence and exclusion the production of writing depends.

Esperanza (and, by extension, Cisneros) undercuts this alienating authority, evading its threatened division from the community by expressing herself and her subjects in prose which eschews the conventions of formal literary language. The simple, childlike poetry of Mango Street does not stifle "the cries of the People excluded from the written" to provide a monologic narrative or an omnipotent narrator; rather, Esperanza gives expression to "a kind of speech" which emerges as "what 'escapes' from the domination of a sociocultural economy," from the tyranny of the written word. With the informal eloquence of a storyteller, she captures rhythms of speech and dynamics of conversation, conveying the oral element(s) of the barrio's voice(s). Quotation and explication are interwoven smoothly, with no quotation marks to isolate and contain other voices; for example, her own and her mother's voices are allowed to flow and alternate without interruption:

Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could've been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head.

Similarly, free indirect discourse conveys the distressed and disjointed rhythms of Marin's narrative, even when Esperanza's retelling of it shifts pronouns into the third person.

And how was she to know she'd be the last one to see him alive. An accident, don't you know…. And he was just someone she danced with. Somebody she met that night. That's right.

That's the story. That's what she said again and again. Once to the hospital people and twice to the police.

At times Esperanza's narrative voice drops out altogether and she is heard faintly (even lost) among a chaotic chorus of children's voices, as in the segment made up entirely of dialogue (or multiple monologue) entitled "And Some More":

There's that wide puffy cloud that looks like your face when you wake up after falling asleep with all your clothes on.

Reynaldo, Angelo, Albert, Armando, Mario …

Not my face. Looks like your fat face.

Rita, Margie, Emie …

Whose fat face?

Esperanza's fat face, that's who. Looks like Esperanza's ugly face when she comes to school in the morning.

Such a blending of competing voices would elicit anxiety and resentment from a narrator like Stephen Dedalus, but for Esperanza this cacophony produces only light-hearted (and self-critical) humor, as Nenny's catalogue of cloud names finally intersects—and comments on—the bickering of the group:

Your ugly mama's toes.

That's stupid.

Bebe, Blanca, Benny …

Who's stupid?

Rachel, Lucy, Esperanza, and Nenny.

The competing voices eventually blend to produce a sort of harmony—even a simple wry wisdom—in a way that a monologic narrative would not allow. Such rhetorical instances mark yet another aspect of Esperanza's unique development toward an artistic voice and a sense of self which would achieve an ongoing balance between connection and separation. Esperanza does not need either to indulge in self-imposed exile nor to inhabit externally-imposed, rented spaces that can never be her own; instead she creates a true home—a home in the heart—by absorbing and embracing the voices of her community.

The House on Mango Street, then, despite its apparently "single" narrator, expresses the multiplicity of focus found in many recent works of fiction by women: Alice Munro's The Lives of Girls and Women, Gloria Naylor's The Women of Brewster Place, Joan Chase's During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, Nicholasa Mohr's Rituals of Survival, Alison Lurie's Only Children, and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Telling a communal story diffuses the problematic ideology of individualism, and allows female writers the opportunity to explore (and potentially to resolve) tensions between group involvement and individual autonomy—tensions that cannot be addressed within a literary tradition glorifying a single protagonist. The genre of the Bildungsroman, then, provides a particularly treacherous, yet particularly rewarding, ground for Cisneros' "poaching." As the young Esperanza must create an identity for herself in a fictional world which denies selfhood to members of her sex, her class, and her ethnic group, Cisneros must create her own space, and assert her own voice, within a culture not historically open to her; her tactic of poaching upon the Bildungsroman provides an opportunity, as it were, to renovate and remodel the rented cultural space of this patriarchal genre, in order to make it her own.

Further Reading

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Herrera-Sobek, María. "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction." The Americas Review XV, Nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1987): 171-88.

Determines that the theme of the loss of innocence structures the rape scene of "Red Clowns."

Lee, A. Robert. "Chicanismo as Memory: The Fictions of Rudolfo Anaya, Nash Candelaria, Sandra Cisneros, and Ron Arias." In Memory and Cultural Politics, New Approaches to American Ethnic Literatures, edited by Amrijit Singh, Joseph T. Skerrett, Jr., and Robert E. Hogan, pp. 320-39. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996.

Compares Chicana/o writers's representations of "memory," including Cisneros's use of female intimacy and "womanism."

Nash, Susan Smith. Review of Loose Woman. World Literature Today 69, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 145-46.

Focuses on the deconstruction of patriarchal notions of "identity" in Loose Woman.

Uglow, Jenny. "A Local Universe." Times Literary Supplement, No. 4650 (15 May 1992): 20.

Admires the domestic themes and "local" characters of The House on Mango Street.

Harryette Mullen (essay date Summer 1996)

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SOURCE: "'A Silence Between Us Like a Language': The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek," in MELUS, Vol. 21, No. 2, Summer, 1996, pp. 3-20.

[In the essay below, Mullen discusses Cisneros's representation of the conflict of Hispanic and Anglo cultures and their respective linguistic codes in terms of Latino tensions between race, class, gender, and ideology.]

… the cognitive level of language not only admits but directly requires recoding interpretation, that is, translation. Any assumption of ineffable or untranslatable cognitive data would be a contradiction in terms. But in jest, in dreams, in magic, briefly, in what one would call everyday verbal mythology, and in poetry above all … the question of translation becomes much more entangled and controversial … poetry by definition is untranslatable…. If we were to translate into English the traditional formula Tradutore, traditore as "the translator is a betrayer," we would deprive the Italian rhyming epigram of all its paronomastic value. Hence a cognitive attitude would compel us to change this aphorism into a more explicit statement and to answer the questions: translator of what messages? betrayer of what values?

                                  —Roman Jakobson

In jests, dreams, magic, poetry, and poetic prose, Sandra Cisneros finds abundant examples of the "everyday verbal mythology" of Mexican-American culture. Language and literacy as sites of cultural and class conflict, or what Paulo Freire and Donaldo Macedo describe as the "antagonistic" yet potentially "positive" relationship of minority to dominant linguistic and cultural codes, are critical matters in Woman Hollering Creek. The text includes frequent references to the specificity and difference coded into any and all languages; to the violence of inadequacy of translation and interpretation; to the translator's and, by extension, the writer's unfaithful role as betrayer of the culture's inside secrets; and to the existence of encoded messages, which are more accessible to readers familiar with various insider codes and cryptographic devices deployed in the text.

These attributes Cisneros's text shares with texts by other Chicano, Latino, and minority writers, who implicitly or explicitly refer to their own ambiguous relationships to both dominant and subordinated cultures in their roles as translators and interpreters of minority experience. Novelists Arturo Islas in The Rain God and Ron Arias in The Road to Tamazunchale both refer to the surrender and resistance of the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas to Spanish conquistadors; both also refer to the resulting cultural conflict and inner division of those whose heritage comes from the mixing and mating of the Amerindian and the European, and those whose native culture straddles the border separating, yet also joining Mexico and the United States. The Mexican legend of the traitorous interpreter, La Malinche, an almost subliminal allusion in Ana Castillo's The Mixquiahuala Letters, is directly invoked in Cisneros's "Never Marry a Mexican." The sublimated or subliminal cultural script is yet another one of the insider codes that minority, ethnic, and feminist writers may deploy in their texts. The repression of subordinated cultures and languages by the dominant culture and language is paralleled by, and frequently associated metonymically with, other repressed elements that erupt from the "unconscious" of the text to disturb, contradict, or at least complicate its conscious signification.

That Spanish operates both as an insider code comprehensible to some but not to others, and also as a repressed language in its subordination to English as the dominant language in the U.S., might be read as the primary signification of the entire text of Woman Hollering Creek. The reader again and again confronts the untranslatability of the subordinated cultural discourse into the language of the culturally dominant other: "[The poem is] Pretty in Spanish. But you'll have to take my word for it. In English it just sounds goofy." The beauty of the Spanish language is as untranslatable into English as the beauty of Flavio Minguia in "Bien Pretty" or Chato (fat-face), aka Chaq Uxmal Paloquin in "One Holy Night." Their masculine beauty, like the poetry of the Spanish language, is simply unreadable to anyone using a dominant Aryan standard of beauty, or whose perceptions are limited by a heterosexist male gaze. The untranslatability of the beauty of Spanish, the unpronounceability of Spanish and Amerindian names on the gringo tongue, and the invisibility or discursive silencing of Chicanos are all figured in Cisneros's text. Considering how Spanish is repressed in its subordination to English, Cisneros is also aware that Aztec, Mayan, Nahuatl, and other indigenous languages are repressed in turn by Spanish as Mexico's official language, its dominance a legacy of European colonial conquest. Amerindian words may enter the text of a Chicano writer as yet another insider code. The fact that even dictionaries, lexicons, and grammars of these languages are largely accessible only to readers of Spanish, means that the use of such words can create an insider discourse within an insider discourse, of educated Mexican and Mexican-American writers and readers who, in the process of exploring-their own origins, have investigated Mexico's indigenous roots.

Of course Spanish itself operates in the text as a sign of insider status, particularly the bilingual Spanglish which, in the equivocal description of Castillo's poet-narrator, is spoken "with an outrageous accent splattered with Chicanismos, one could only assume was not done with some intention." One of Cisneros's characters, Cleófilas, calls the mixture "Spanish pocked with English," the latent metaphor, perhaps inadvertently, evoking disfigurement and disease. Particularly given "English Only" mandates, the backlash against bilingual education, and the resistance of U.S. publishers to bilingual texts, U.S.-born Chicanos sometimes express ambivalence about this language, while border-crossing Mexican-born artists, notably the poet Alurista and writer and performance artist Guillermo Gomez-Pena, apparently have felt freer to sample in their work the hybrid offspring of Spanish and English.

In a manner more subdued, given the pressure exerted by the audience of monolingual readers of English, the texts of Castillo, Cisneros, and other Chicano/Latino authors aesthetically and ideologically exploit the slippage of nonstandard dialects between error or deviation, and motivated or intentional differences arising from the historical and cultural distinctiveness of Spanglish, Tex-Mex, Inglenol, and Calo in relation to standard English as well as Castillian Spanish or standard Mexican Spanish. Like a joke or a Freudian slip of the tongue that reveals some unconscious truth, the linguistic "errors" of a character expose the repressed cultural conflict of the bilingual speaker: "But that's—how do you say it?—water under the damn? 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."

From this ideologically contested space of linguistic difference, error, mutual incomprehension and antagonism, these bilingual authors have the potential to construct what might be regarded as a third language, accessible to those whose linguistic experience, combined with their formal education, has produced a new and emancipatory literacy. This new literacy, with its syncretic aesthetic, embraces elements excluded by the dominant standardized languages used in Mexico and the U.S. Thus, it frequently incorporates what, in standard dictionaries of English and Spanish, would be labeled as slang, argot, colloquialism, or nonstandard usage; or what is often excluded from dictionaries because it is generally excluded from written, as opposed to spoken, discourses. For Cisneros and others, such elements include nicknames, diminutives relegated to "baby talk," the speech of children, and other intimate or familiar speech, nonstandard codes of subordinated minority cultures, folk references, obscenities, curses, as well as onomatopoeia, such as "¡zas!" and "rrr, rrr, rrr."

Signaling its intentionality in its exploration of the significance of linguistic codes, which both include and exclude, Cisneros's text incorporates obvious uses of cryptography, such as the poet's acrostic coding of the name of his beloved within the narrative text of "Tin Tan Tan"; in "Little Miracles, Kept Promises"; the use of a code substituting numerals for letters, that disguises the homoerotic content of a message included among other prayers—in Spanish, English, and Spanglish—inscribed as ex votos in a Mexican-American Catholic church; or, less obviously, the coded usage of Hispanic names one might (or because of cultural silencing perhaps might not) find stitched into the AIDS quilt in "Remember the Alamo." In this last story, the juxtaposition of a gay night club with perhaps the most famous Texas tourist site constructs a metonymical association of icons memorializing the massacre of celebrated heroes of Texas history on the one hand, and, on the other hand, obscure individuals who have died of AIDS during the ongoing epidemic of our own time. This juxtaposition further comments on the silencing of Mexicans in standard Texas histories as well as the silencing of linguistic and racial minorities in public discourses generated in the battle against the deadly virus.

Cryptic encodings of names and secret messages in the literary text privilege the literate over the illiterate, since they have no oral equivalent outside of literate discourses. Yet other encodings, while included in a literary discourse, refer to the "experience of the other." This discourse of the other includes illiteracy and orality, superstition and folk culture, ignorance and resistance. The conflict and potential dialogue of usually antagonistic domains, to which Cisneros is acutely sensitive, influence her approach, as a poet and fiction writer, in addressing an audience of bilingual readers of Spanish and English, as well as monolingual English readers.

As a highly educated writer, Cisneros is aware of the dominant canon from which her work deliberately and self-consciously deviates. As a Chicana of working class background, she acknowledges and refers in her text to the linguistic and cultural practices of those usually excluded from dominant literate discourses. As "the daughter of a Mexican father" who gave her the language of tenderness ("quien me dio el lenguaje de la ternura") and "a Mexican-American mother" who "gave [her] the fierce language," Cisneros grew up exquisitely attuned to the vigor of ethnically inflected working class English and the emotional resonances and intimacies of colloquial, familial Spanish.

Ay! To make love in Spanish…. To have a lover sigh mi vida, mi precios, mi chiquitita, and whisper things in that language crooned to babies, that language murmured by grandmothers, those words that smelled like your house, like flour tortillas, and the inside of your daddy's hat, like everyone talking in the kitchen at the same time…. That language…. Nothing sounded dirty or hurtful or corny. How could I think of making love in English again?

If, for J. Hillis Miller and Paul de Man, "deconstruction" and "unreadability" name "what is learned" and also, contrarily, the uncertainty or "undecidability" of determining any factual knowledge of cognitive data in a literary text, then for the ethnic text, what is learned—and what is never entirely fixed as certain, translatable knowledge—is always not only who I am, but also who we are. Thus, names and the process of naming, for individuals as well as communities, are thus fundamental to Cisneros's attempt to produce a culturally representative yet open and polysemous text.

Names, especially nicknames, and intimate forms of address, often diminutives, which circulate in private, usually oral, discourses operate in a similar way as insider codes in her stories. It is left to the reader to know or infer that "Chavela" is a nickname for "Isabel," as "Chayo" is short for "Rosario," and "Chucha" for "Jesua"; or to fathom the subtle distinctions enunciated by "Patty," "la Patee," or "Patrrri-see-ah," as opposed to "Trish." Cisneros delights in the fact that even underpants, calzones in standard Spanish, have a baby talk nickname, chones, a word that, for those who know the language, automatically signals the informality and intimacy of familiar speech. As in the stories titled "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta," "Los Boxers" and "Bien Pretty," the suggestive balancing of English and Spanish in the bilingual title of "My Tocaya" ("My Namesake") privileges the creative syncretism of the bilingual speaker's English-jangled Spanish and Spanish-entangled English, just as the signification of names and naming is privileged cultural discourse. While initially distancing herself from "Trish," the narrator considers her linguistic and cultural kinship with her tocaya reason enough to critique her behavior from a communal perspective.

Characters like Trish, the scandalous Carmen Berriozabal of "La Fabulosa," Rosario, Clemencia, and Cleófilas, all attempt to escape narrow constraints defining women's experience. They are the wayward and wandering ones, whose names are mentioned in gossip, tabloid headlines, and prayers. The risk of waywardness is indicated by the unidentified dead girl in "My Tocaya." In contrast to Cisneros's first work of fiction, The House on Mango Street, which depicts a community of women restricted in their movements within the barrio, confined to interior spaces, and trapped in their domestic roles as daughters, wives, and mothers—with only the child narrator Esperanza (her name means Hope) escaping—Woman Hollering Creek offers stories of a variety of women trying various means of escape, through resistance to traditional female socialization, through sexual and economic independence, self-fashioning, and feminist activism, as well as through fantasy, prayer, magic, and art. Cisneros's most complex characters are those who, like adult Esperanzas, have left and returned to the barrio as artists. For them, art is a powerfully seductive way of "Making the world look at you from my eyes. And if that's not power, what is?" in "Little Miracles, Kept Promises" and "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta," characters who speak from within the community look askance at others who shed their "namesake" status and intimacy when they call themselves "Hispanic" or "Spanish" (rather than "Latino," "Mexican," or "Chicana") for the sake of assimilation, upward mobility, or winning government grants.

The inclusiveness or exclusiveness of the name "Mexican" is explored in "Never Marry a Mexican"; and the candies hidden by the Chicana protagonist inside the possessions of another woman constitute another cryptic communication. Like the perplexing advice of the narrator's mother, which gives the story its title, the candy bears are an example of the ambiguous signification of coded, hidden, or double messages. Clemencia hides candy "gummy bears" in intimate places where they are sure to be found and interpreted as a message from a sexual rival by the "scary Dallas type" wife of the narrator's lover. Clemencia's act of sabotage, a parody of insemination and impregnation, in which the seemingly impregnable complacency of the wife is penetrated, indicates the narrator's possessiveness toward her rival's husband and child, as well as Clemencia's ambivalent desire to escape representations of woman as sexual object, passive reproductive vessel, and compliant consumer, in favor of an alternative, self-authored, and subversive inscription as desiring subject and productive cultural agent.

Paradoxically, Clemencia is most "Mexican" when she acts out her rage in private rituals that connect her to cultural figures symbolizing women's destructive aspect. A gummy bear is substituted for the "tiniest baby inside" of Megan's nesting Russian "wooden babushka dolls." Clemencia symbolically drowns "the baby" in a muddy creek, as if re-enacting La Llorona's infanticide. At an extratextual level, the gummy bear has an idiosyncratic symbolic resonance for Cisneros. According to the author, "an upside-down gummy bear" resembles "a Mexican statute of Coatlicue." Thus, by inversion, the sugary sweet candy that the artist-protagonist plants like a poison pill in the boudoir of her rival connects her to the creative/destructive potential invested in the Aztec phallic mother goddess Coatlicue, as her cryptic communication resonates with the ambiguous signification of the traitorous translator Malintzin Tenepal/La Malinche/Dona Marina. Malintzin was betrayed by her own mother, who sold her daughter into slavery to protect her son's inheritance; and Malintzin, who served as La Lengua [the tongue] for Hernan Cortes, is silenced in Mexican and Spanish histories despite the extraordinary linguistic abilities that made her an agent of historical and cultural transformation. She who was active and indispensable as La Lengua becomes utterly passive and disposable as La Chingada, the one who got screwed: no virgin mother of immaculate conception, but mother of the new mestizo race and culture of Mexico.

As the meaning of childbearing gets gummed up when women's reproduction is defined and controlled within racist and patriarchal structures, a "gummy bear" candy signifies polyvalently, if not quite undecipherably. Clemencia subverts conventional social uses of candy as a means by which a (usually male) lover communicates affection to his beloved or as a gift given by a father to celebrate the birth of a daughter. Bearing a male child, being "white" and legally wed to Drew—and thus, by virtue of her birth, marriage, and reproductive labor, occupying a more secure class position—all make Megan an unforgivable enemy for the self-made woman Clemencia, whose refusal to marry signals both her rebellion and her search for autonomy as a woman unprotected by patriarchy, at the same time that it confirms her obedience as a daughter following her mother's counsel.

While on the surface it seems unequivocal, her mother's advice is actually cryptic, ambiguous, and certainly ironic, in part because "Mexican" frequently is used to refer not only to Mexican nationals but also to naturalized and native born U.S. citizens of Mexican descent. So it is uncertain who exactly are the "Mexicans" Clemencia's mother warned her against. Perhaps she meant only: Be sure not to marry a man like your father. Clemencia cannot forgive her mother for marrying an Anglo after her father's death. Her mother's advice might mean: Never marry a man born in Mexico. Clemencia herself is the offspring of a bourgeois Mexican father and a working class Mexican-American mother. In this story, "Mexican" operates chiefly as a sign of difference, whether it is a difference of nationality or national origin; of culture, language, or class; or even of gender, since (presumably) the "Mexicans" Clemencia is warned not to marry are all men. Yet the same term is also a sign of equivalence, since "Mexican" can be interpreted to include Clemencia and her mother, as well as the husband and father who was born in Mexico.

Then again, her mother's advice might mean: marry a man who is not of Mexican descent. Or more specifically: marry an Anglo, as the mother did when given a second chance. The erotically adventurous Clemencia behaves as if she had heard only the first two words of the admonition: never marry. Although she says she is "too romantic for marriage," she also prides herself on being something of a sexual outlaw, never a captive bride in the prison of marriage: have "Mexican" lovers, but refrain from marrying any of them. It is unlikely that is what her mother meant, but from a rebellious daughter's perspective, it is a plausible, if subversive, interpretation. The mother's advice to her daughter and her second marriage to an Anglo and Clemencia's own sexual independence, all point to a possible equation of "Mexican" with a set of culturally specific gender roles and rules, from which both mother and daughter, in different ways, seek to distance themselves.

When the U.S. born Clemencia considers her own sexual freedom and social mobility, the category "Mexican" excludes her, but expands to include any man of Latino heritage, particularly if he is working class. She dismisses from consideration the entire catalogue of Latino men. However, when it comes to her affair with a Texas yuppie, the meaning of "Mexican" suddenly doubles back to include Clemencia herself, thereby excluding her from the range of women suitable for marriage to Drew. She is blessed and cursed with fulfillment of her own rebellious wish: to be lover or mistress only, never a wife. As she contemplates her status as discarded lover in relation to Megan, her sexual rival, Clemencia imagines Drew explaining to his wife the trail of tell-tale gummy bears, with a fabrication about the superstitious Mexican house cleaner. Having believed that as an artist she was positioned outside of the hierarchical division of socio-economic classes, or possibly moved upward through her relationship with Drew, Clemencia gets her comeuppance by finding herself his servant. At most, she can hold onto her relationship to Drewonly through her role as his son's instructor, a role she vengefully subverts by seducing the boy, as she herself had been seduced as Drew's student.

While the author insists that Drew is Anglo—clearly he is Anglo-identified—this reader sees nothing in the text that definitely fixes his ethnicity. Even Clemencia's statement, "I love it when you speak to me in any language," implying that Drew is not a native Spanish speaker, oddly echoes the narrator of "Eyes of Zapata," who says to Emiliano, "you spoke to us in our language." While "Eyes of Zapata" is of necessity written in English, with a sprinkling of Spanish words evocative of the landscape and culture of Mexico, this statement reminds the reader that the text is not only the author's imaginative construction of the voice of Zapata's lover, but is also a translation of that imagined voice into a different language, since the narrator would actually address her lover, the Mexican revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata, in Mexican Spanish. Ironically, her abandonment by her lover and isolation from her people, despite a common language and shared belief in the revolution, is echoed by the rejection and loneliness of the alienated Clemencia.

"Never Marry a Mexican" might be seen to reflect current debates concerning the proper naming of Mexican-Americans and other Latinos. Having largely jettisoned a prior designation as "Spanish" people, which seemed to signal a Eurocentric orientation while repressing indigenous Amerindian roots, the question remains whether U.S. Hispanics (a census category melding together people of diverse racial and national origins) desire to be counted as "white" people, and thus assimilable into the dominant culture of the U.S., as Linda Chavez counsels; or as a "brown" or "bronze" raza, and thus members of the global majority of "people of color," the identification preferred by many who designate themselves Chicanos or Latinos rather than Hispanics. At the least, the question of identity is a challenge for people whose culture resists Anglicization.

In addition to her portraits of the artist as a Chicana, Cisneros is concerned with representing the silenced and marginalized, including children, homosexuals, and working class and immigrant Chicanos and Mexicanos, whose stories have been untold or untranslated. Her particular focus on the silencing of women is signaled in the title story, "Woman Hollering Creek." The creek called "La Gritona" is reminiscent of popular folktales about "La Llorona," a nameless tragic woman who drowned herself and her children. The creek, the border, and the telenovelas define the mythic spaces given to Cleófilas in her fantasies of escape from a battering husband. The cultural scripts associated with each space offer her different escape fantasies: homicide and/or suicide, like La Llorona; dramatic border crossings, like the escape of an outlaw desperado from the U.S. into Mexico, or the crossings of mojados and smuggler coyotes; or telenovelas, soap operas that provide the escape of entertainment. Cisneros creates a new destiny in a story that revises all three of these cultural scripts, allowing Cleófilas a realistic escape with the help of Chicana feminist activists. Translating from "La Llorona" (weeping woman) to "La Gritona" (shouting woman) to the English "Woman Hollering Creek" allows a greater set of possibilities for interpreting the cry of the restless spirit. With its haunting sound of wind and water, the creek speaks with an enigmatic voice—crying, weeping, wailing, shouting, hollering "like Tarzan," perhaps even laughing—a voice too often denied in traditional representations of Latinas. Paradoxically, "La Llorona," a woman silenced in life, wails her grief in death. Cleófilas learns to decode a feminist message of survival in the haunted voice of the creek that hollers with the rage of a silenced woman. Much as Chicana feminists have revised folklore, legend, and myth to open up possibilities for new representations of women, the activism of Felice and her compañeras helps Cleófilas to reinterpret the message of La Gritona, translating her voice from a wail, to a holler, to a shout, to laughter; from an arroyo associated with a tragic legend to "a creek … full of happily ever after."

Searching for and validating folk and popular articulations often excluded from "the literary," Cisneros employs throughout the entire text of Woman Hollering Creek a network of epigraphs taken, not from the literary traditions of the United States or Europe or Latin America, but instead from Mexican ballads and romantic popular songs that circulate throughout, and indeed help to constitute. Spanish-speaking communities through dissemination of recordings, through jukeboxes located in restaurants and nightclubs located (along with tortillerias, mercados, cines, and botanicas) in Latino neighborhoods, and through Spanish-language radio stations broadcasting to cities or geographic regions with large Spanish-speaking populations. Cisneros privileges such commercial/cultural sites in which commodities and services are aimed at a culturally specific clientele, such as the cinemas devoted to the showing of films from Mexico or telenovelas, soap operas, produced for Mexican television and syndicated in the U.S.

The church functions similarly, as a cultural as well as religious site: specifically as a site of origin for insider discourses specific to Mexican-American and other Latino cultures, through the exchange of prayers and religious services for offerings made and thanks given by devout Catholics whose religion syncretically embraces folk beliefs. Cisneros recognizes and acknowledges the prayers of ordinary people addressing the Christian God, Catholic saints fused with Aztec goddesses, and even African deities, as a folk discourse worthy of inclusion in a literary text of an emergent minority literature. As Rosario offers her braid to the Virgin in thanks for the opportunity to become an artist rather than a mother, Cisneros offers her book (with its elaborate list of acknowledgments to family, friends, colleagues, la Divina Providencia, and Virgen de Guadalupe Tonantzin) as a kind of literary ex voto devoted to Chicano culture. Her text associates this folk genre with the religious articles and folk healing paraphernalia referred to in "Anguiano Religious Articles," "Little Miracles, Kept Promises" and "Bien Pretty." These religious or quasi-religious cultural sites, like such fixtures of U.S. commercial culture as Kwik Wash laundromats, K-Mart, Woolworth's, Kash N Karry, Luby's Cafeteria, and flea markets where fire-damaged Barbie doll Dream Houses can be purchased by families who could not afford to buy them even at K-Mart, are markers of class and gender, as well as sites for the reproduction of the dominant culture and the production of a resistant ethnic minority culture, which is neither entirely of the U.S. nor Mexico.

Permitting unstudied inscriptions of folk practice and entrepreneurial flair, associated with religious and secular sites of cultural production, to enter and influence her text is the author's conscious choice, signaling the intersection of aesthetic and ideological concerns. Cisneros asserts that selectively "allowing what comes in from the neighborhood" to inscribe itself within her own writing practice can change the course of a story as it is written. "The story was transformed" when the author incorporated into the manuscript of what became "Bien Pretty" the text of an advertising flyer left by a local exterminator, and Flavio Munguia, unschooled poet and slayer of cockroaches, was born. As a working-class organic intellectual, secure in his Mexican identity, he gently challenges the self-conscious Chicanismo of the narrator, Guadalupe (Lupe/Lupita), a new age bohemian artist. Her name invokes La Virgen de Guadalupe as a cultural symbol, as in the naming of San Antonio's Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a site of contact between artists and the local Mexican-American community.

Through the relationship of Flavio and Lupe, through the dialogue implied by the juxtaposition of "Tin Tan Tan" with "Bien Pretty," as well as through the author's willingness to allow the barrio in some sense to collaborate in the writing of her text, Cisneros suggests a complex interaction of artist and community. Nourished by poetry, as Lupe is fed by her painting, Flavio represents the indigenous creativity and cultural "authenticity" of the barrio, on which the trained artist relies for inspiration. Perhaps attracted by the playful rhyme advertising the pest control services of La Cucaracha Apachurrada [The Squashed Cockroach], Lupe hires him as an exterminator, then offers him a job as artist's model, "Because you have such a wonderful. Face." Despite the threat that Lupe will objectify him, Flavio accepts, already imagining "what kind of story" he can make of the adventure. At first, he seems more committed to Lupe's project than she herself. He arrives ahead of her at the garage studio, "like if he was the one painting me."

Like Chaq Uxmal Paloquin in "One Holy Night," Flavio's Amerindian features seem to the narrator exotically, genuinely Mexican. "I'm thinking … you might be the perfect Prince Popo for a painting I've had kicking around in my brain." While Chaq, who bragged of descent from "an ancient line of Mayan Kings," turns out to be plain old Chato, with "no Mayan blood." Flavio has the "face of a sleeping Olmec … heavy Oriental eyes, thick lips and wide nose … profile carved from onyx." His bona fide Mexican identity, paradoxically indicated by Asian and African features, is partially confirmed for Lupe by the intimacies exchanged when they "make love in Spanish." However, the "true test" of authenticity is, significantly, a cry of pain: "When Flavio accidentally hammered his thumb, he never yelled 'Ouch!' he said 'Ay!' The true test of a native Spanish speaker." Their tempestuous affair refigures, as it regenders, the dynamic encounter of the explorer artist with the indigenous creativity of the community. Here, the result is the artist's revisioning of an Aztec myth visualized in popular Mexican-American culture in countless velvet paintings, barrio murals, custom vans, and complimentary calendars "like the ones you get at Carniceria Ximenez or Tortilleria Guadalupanita." When Lupe learns that he has a wife in Mexico, she represses and sublimates her "uncontrollable desire to drive over to Flavio Munguia's house with [her] grandmother's molcajete and bash in the skull." Instead of pounding him with the stone mortar inherited from her abuelita's kitchen, she returns to her art work with a new inspiration, as well as an empowering feminist vision:

Went back to the twin volcano painting. Got a good idea and redid the whole thing. Prince Popo and Princess Ixta trade places. 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.

For middle-class characters, such as the narrators of "Bien Pretty" and "Never Marry a Mexican," particular forms of identification with Mexican and Chicano cultures are indicated through specific modes of commodity consumption—as well as through self-conscious appropriations from working class, immigrant, and folk cultural production. The ironic humor with which they adorn themselves and decorate their homes with folk and kitsch artifacts signifies their middle class acculturation and privilege, as much as it indicates their attempt to escape or transcend class through self-fashioning: identifying as an artist, bohemian, new age hippie, or, like Gomez-Pena, an ethnically specific "hipiteca"; living in or near the barrio; patronizing local ethnic businesses; and blending culturally specific and syncretic spiritual practices with new age eco-feminist spiritualism. Cisneros's use of irony, humor, inversion, parody, deliberate transgression and strategic revision of cultural scripts, problematizes ethnic authenticity. Figuring the artist-intellectual as female, desiring subject, and the community as male, desired object also complicates the signification of identity, as gender further complicates the artist's cultural and class identification and inverts a previous gender coding found in the male-dominated cultural production of the emergent Chicano Movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

"Bien Pretty" and "Never Marry a Mexican" are narrated by women artists, each pulled in a different direction by desire: Lupe toward the native intelligence of the community; Clemencia toward a seductive "Cortez" who introduces her to the world of "the rich, who come to [her] exhibitions and buy [her] work." While Clemencia describes her class position as "amphibious," Lupe stresses her activist credentials as a supporter of farmworkers: "[We] go back a long way. Back to the grape-boycott demonstrations in front of the Berkeley Safeway. And I mean the first grape strike." Clemencia regards her work as a translator as "a form of prostitution," while Lupe insists on the untranslatability of certain Spanish terms, like la fulana, and prefers the sound of the word urracas to its English equivalent "grackles." Each has faced a gabacha [nemesis]: the blonde whom Lupe calls "la otra" (inscribing the "white" woman as "the other"); and the "red-headed Barbie doll" who is the recipient of Clemencia's miniature Coatlicues.

For both women, art is revenge, therapy, magic, affirmation, and power. Clemencia obsessively paints and repaints portraits of her pale-skinned lover to gain power over something she "drew." Lupe's encounter with Flavio inspires her to confront her blank canvas; to challenge restrictive gender codes and cultural inscriptions; to possess, and inscribe her desire upon, the body of her lover, a body already imprinted with tattooed names of other women. Lupe "rewrites" her relationship to Flavio, as "Bien Pretty" rewrites "Tin Tan Tan." She boldly repositions herself in relation to the folk, who are both inscribers and themselves inscribed. Both Lupe, the proud Chicana, and Clemencia, the confessed Malinchista, perform art as brujeria, or "Mexican voodoo." Their powers link them to the spellbinding sorcery of the narrator of "Eyes of Zapata," whose words "can charm" and "can kill," but who, nevertheless, is abandoned by her lover and the revolution. With their relative privilege and power offset by their gender and their marginal status in both Anglo and Hispanic cultures, Clemencia feels betrayed by "Cortez," Lupe by her "Prince Popo."

The implicit contradictions in the artist's appreciation of, and identification with, the folk culture of immigrants and working class Chicanos are demonstrated in these two stories; and the possible naïveté of such a position is explored. Clemencia self-consciously notes her idealization and possible infantilization of barrio culture, which she may have associated with her own childhood before she took on her adult identity of cosmopolitan artist-intellectual": "The barrio looked cute in the daytime, like Sesame Street." She is aware that she has romanticized the barrio where there are "more signs in Spanish than in English." As a painter, she cultivates an aesthetic appreciation for the popular culture and folk life of working class and immigrant Chicanos and learns, ambivalently and complexly, both to identify with and to dissociate herself from "Mexicans."

Lupe, the nomadic narrator of "Bien Pretty," an artist turned arts administrator, humorously contrasts her own meager possessions with the grand inventory of cultural and aesthetic artifacts that contributes to the Frida Kahlo-inspired decor of the house she sublets from a successful Chicana artist. As a tenant, surrounded by someone else's possessions, in a house strategically located "where the peasantry lives—but close enough to the royal mansions" of a historic district—she measures her own poverty, or rather, her bohemian rootlessness and marginality. Confronted by Flavio, who forces her to admit to herself, "I was not Mexican," she feels her own inauthenticity, or rather her cultural hybridity. Yet she is rich in self-confidence once she makes the commitment to her painting.

If Rosario of the milagritos is the potential Chicana artist struggling from the cocoon of familial and communal expectations, Lupe and Clemencia are intense, brave butterflies, so deeply imbued with a sense of beauty and purpose that no heartache can deter them from their art. Such stories and characters, juxtaposed as they are with stories of poor, immigrant, and working class Chicanos and Mexicanos, draw the reader's attention, not only to the conflict of Hispanic and Anglo cultures and their respective linguistic codes, but also to tensions within Latino communities, of race, class, gender, and ideology; and of unequal access to education, bilingual instruction, literacy, class mobility, and the rights and privileges of U.S. citizenship.

Cisneros's text registers tensions implicit in a community where the border between the U.S. and Mexico is reproduced within the psyche of the individual, and where the "Mericans" are also the "Mexicans." The computer spell checker suggests "Mexican" as a substitute for "Merican," Cisneros's paragrammatic truncation of "American." The alteration, like translation, makes distinct signifiers equivalent. The words are equal in length if not identical in meaning. After all, Mexicans are Americans and, as the North American Free Trade Agreement reminds those who needed reminding, Mexico is part of North America. The spell checker also suggests "Moroccan" as a possible replacement for the unrecognized word, but that is another story.

Laura Gutierrez Spencer (essay date 1997)

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SOURCE: "Fairy Tales and Opera: The Fate of the Heroine in the Work of Sandra Cisneros," in Speaking the Other Self: American Women Writers, edited by Jeanne Campbell Reesman, University of Georgia Press, 1997, pp. 278-87.

[In the essay below, Gutierrez Spencer analyzes the way Cisneros inscribes "feminine" motifs of fairy tales and librettos into her narrative art.]

Within the Western narrative tradition, female characters are commonly presented within the narrow confines of polarized roles limited to either madonna or whore, villain or victim. In a similar fashion, the fate of these characters also tends to fall to extremes. Depending upon the narrative form, the female protagonist all too often finds either an early end in death or an equally premature, if metaphorical, "demise" as she conveniently disappears into a cloud of anonymity after the hero has come to the rescue and married her. In so many plots, the appropriate denouement of dramatic tension is the death of the heroine. Female characters who are adventurous, inquisitive, active, or otherwise rebel against patriarchal rules of female comportment are often killed in punishment for their disobedience. Unfortunately, the passive, pliant heroine often meets the same fate. Her death is portrayed as a valiant sacrifice for the life or comfort of the male hero. More simply stated, female protagonists, whether they are "good girls" or "bad girls" still die, in literal and metaphoric terms. Catherine Clément, in Opera, or the Undoing of Women, documents this tradition. Among the most famous operas for instance, the death toll includes "nine by knife, two of them suicides; three by fire; two who jump; two consumptives; three who drown; three poisoned; two of fright; and a few unclassifiable, thank god for them, dying without anyone knowing why or how. Still, that is just the first sorting. And with my nice clean slate in my hands, I examine all those dream names in their pigeonholes, like butterflies spread out on boards. All that is left is to write their names above them: Violetta, Mimi, Gilda, Norma, Brunhilde, Senta, Antonia, Marfa…." The misogynistic effect of these plots, of course, is not limited to the world of opera. This tendency comes from the very wellspring of literature, myth.

The most common example of myth in modern times and the form that has had the most impact upon our society is the fairy tale. Many of the tales that we tell our children before they sleep include plots in which mate heroes are rewarded for their audacity, courage, and curiosity. Demure princesses are praised for their beauty and kindness, while other female characters, like Goldilocks, are punished for their curiosity and active natures. The active female character in fairy tales is either vilified as a figure of evil or is punished for her audacity.

Throughout her work, Sandra Cisneros has critiqued the fate of the heroine in Western patriarchal literature. She accomplishes this, in part, through reference to popular fairy tales. Cisneros's first book includes a feminist analysis of the social and personal consequences for women who believe in fairy tales and wait for Prince Charming to fulfill their existence. In The House on Mango Street, Cisneros draws attention to the messages that fairy tales impart to females about the roles they should play, or not play, in life. This book contains glimpses of the lives of various women and the social, cultural, and economic forces that have entrapped them in stultifying circumstances. Although individual stories in The House on Mango Street include examinations of prejudice, poverty, domestic abuse, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexism, one of the central themes of the book is that the women of Mango Street have been limited in the opportunities available to them to develop their own agendas and talents. This repression serves to subordinate these women's lives to husband and home. The theme of limitation and restriction is represented by many images of trapped women. In these stories women lean out of windows, stand in doorways, stare at the seams between ceiling and walls, and envy other women who "throw green eyes easily like dice and open homes with keys."

The stories in The House on Mango Street that take the form of revisionist fairy tales feature characteristic elements of the classic children's stories but are set within a different context and have more specific outcomes for the female characters. They oppose the traditional marriage to the hero and "happily-ever-after" conclusion. Cisneros's version of these fables reveal the truer-to-life consequences for women who are socialized to live their lives waiting for the happy ending. The stories "Rafaela Who Drinks Papaya and Coconut Juice on Tuesdays" and "The Family of Little Feet" allude respectively to "Rapunzel" and "Cinderella." Cisneros's heroines are young girls and women in the housing projects of Chicago. They do not live happily ever after. Beautiful Rafaela, for instance, is locked in her own house by a jealous husband. She "leans out the window and leans on her elbow and dreams her hair is like Rapunzel's. On the corner there is music from the bar and Rafaela wishes she could go there and dance before she gets old." In "The Family of Little Feet" the little-girl protagonist and her friends are given a bag of used high-heeled shoes. The girls try on heels for the first time in their life and marvel at how the shoes make their legs look beautiful and long. They walk, dance, and strut around the neighborhood until they realize the power of the shoes. On this sojourn, the girls become the objects of leering glances, an angry rebuke, and the offer of a dollar for a kiss from a drunken bum. As if by magic, the shoes have drawn unwanted attention to the budding sexuality of the young girls. As opposed to the blushing Cinderella whose symbol of salvation is a shoe, these young heroines learn that high-heeled shoes "are dangerous." They learn that the power their sexuality holds in attracting attention from males often has negative consequences.

Cisneros's portrayals of fairy-tale heroines are revisionist only in the sense that she applies a feminist analysis to the underlying messages that fairy tales convey to women. In drawing attention to how male domination, denial of personal ambition, lack of education, abuse, and low expectations affect women's lives, Cisneros attacks the weak heroine of the fairy tale who is "unable to act independently or self-assertively; she relies on external agents for rescue; she restricts her ambitions to hearth and nursery." By revealing the concrete effects of waiting for someone to keep us "on a silver string," the author reveals the other side of the fate of the fairy-tale heroine.

Sandra Cisneros's use of operatic themes dates also to The House on Mango Street. Here, in a manner similar to her use of fairy tales, the author calls attention to the misogyny of patriarchal literature by way of reference to Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In a vignette entitled "A Smart Cookie," the protagonist's mother laments her own lack of education and the life it might have brought her: "I could've been somebody, you know? my mother says and sighs. She has lived in this city her whole life. She can speak two languages. She can sing an opera. She can fix a T.V." In this quote, the mother's knowledge of opera serves as confirmation of her intelligence. However, as the story continues, it becomes evident that the author has featured the protagonist of Puccini's opera in the story to represent the patriarchal archetype of feminine virtue and sacrifice. The narrator talks about her mother, saying, "Today while cooking oatmeal she is Madame Butterfly until she sighs and points the wooden spoon at me. I could've been somebody, you know? Esperanza, you go to school. Study hard. That Madame Butterfly was a fool. She stirs the oatmeal. Look at my comadres. She means Izaura whose husband left and Yolanda whose husband is dead. Got to take care all your own, she says shaking her head." The mother in "A Smart Cookie" has seen through the sentimentalization of the heroine's sacrifice. The lives of her sisters and comadres serve as evidence of the foolishness of relegating the direction of one's life to another. The mother's disgust with Butterfly's sacrifice mirrors the disgust she feels over her own self-destruction: "Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down. You want to know why I quit school? Because I didn't have nice clothes. No clothes, but I had brains. Yup, she says disgusted, stirring again. I was a smart cookie then." Again, Cisneros reveals the danger for women of being more concerned with the opinions and impressions of others and allowing these concerns to dominate one's life. The mother does not perceive poverty but a lack of internal authority to be the source of her loss.

Even though the stories in The House on Mango Street fail to rewrite the tragic fate of the heroine, there is a foreshadowing of the desire to do so. For instance, in the story "Beautiful and Cruel," the narrator claims as a role mode! a type of woman that she has seen in the movies. This woman is free, powerful, beautiful, and defiant:

In the movies there is always one with red red lips who is beautiful and cruel. She is the one who drives the men crazy and laughs them all away. Her power is her own. She will not give it away.

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.

The narrator's gesture of defiance, leaving the table "like a man," signifies that she refuses to become a domesticated female. The heroine that Cisneros has created in this story will not self-destruct, nor will she give up control of her life. In the operatic realm, this character is most easily identified as Carmen. According to Catherine Clément's analysis of the ill-fated heroines of opera, the most feminist of these is "Carmen the Gypsy, Carmen the damned." Carmen indeed is an operatic manifestation of Cisneros's "one with red, red lips," for Carmen "drives the men crazy and laughs them all away." Carmen, like the Medusa, the Sphinx, and the Minotaur, is a figure of paradox. The mere fact that she is a woman who acts like a man proves it, for within the symbolic order, the male occupies a position of active supremacy over the passivity of the female. To oppose that order is to invite disaster. Yet, what else could Carmen do? What Cisneros does not mention in "Beautiful and Cruel" is that according to the patriarchal literary tradition, the powerful and defiant female figure is inevitably punished for her audacity. That is why Clément refers to her as "Carmen the damned." The hierarchical structure upon which patriarchal societies are based cannot allow this carnivalesque figure to upset the social apple cart in which men are allowed more power and choices than women. According to Elisabeth Bronfen, the death of the female protagonist functions to eliminate a threat to the patriarchal order: "Countless examples could be given to illustrate how the death of a woman helps to regenerate the order of society, to eliminate destructive forces or serves to reaggregate the protagonist into her or his community." The defiant Carmen must be suppressed or die, and since she will never give her power away, she is killed.

The story "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta" appears in the collection by Sandra Cisneros entitled Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. This story at first reading is notable because of one salient and surprising element: the heroine does not die. Not only is she not punished for her freewheeling ways, but she flourishes and thrives. In this incongruous tale, the active, independent, and defiant woman is the one who "lives happily ever after." Upon closer examination, the reader discovers the subtext of this story. This is a revision of Carmen. The first clue Cisneros allows the reader is the title: "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta." The author gives an adulatory nickname to her protagonist, changes the context of the story from Spain to Texas, and calls the work an "operetta," a small opera.

In the first paragraph of the story Cisneros makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the Spanish heritage of the original Carmen: "She likes to say she's 'Spanish,' but she's from Laredo like the rest of us—or 'Lardo,' as we call it. Her name is Berriozábal. Carmen." On one level, the narrator appears to be ridiculing this character, who, like many Mexican Americans, attempts to "whitewash" herself by ignoring her Indian heritage and eschewing the word "Mexican" in exchange for "Spanish." On another level, of course, Cisneros is associating her protagonist with the operatic figure.

The narrator continues with a description of the protagonist. Her most salient physical trait is her large breasts: "big chichis, I mean big." Carmen's other characteristic trait is her independent nature. "Carmen was a take-it-or-leave-it type of woman. If you don't like it, there's the door. Like that. She was something." While in some ways Cisneros's heroine is a quintessential feminist, unlike many authors, Cisneros avoids an idealization of her heroine. The narrator describes her as "not smart. I mean, she didn't know enough to get her teeth cleaned every year, or to buy herself a duplex." Although the protagonist is portrayed as a woman of limited attributes, this does not detract from her status as a heroine worthy of a happy end.

Cisneros's plot mirrors the opera in many ways. At the beginning of the Prosper Merimée plot, Carmen has taken as her lover a brigadier named Don José. The Chicana Carmen becomes involved with a corporal at Fort Sam Houston named José Arrambide. The Spanish Don José is engaged to a sweet young thing named Micaela who is waiting for him to marry her. In Cisneros's version, José's high school sweetheart "sold nachos at the mall, still waiting for him to come back to Harlingen, marry her, and buy that three-piece bedroom set on layaway." In the figure of Micaela, both plots include a reference to the classic fairy-tale heroine, the demure and passive one who waits for her prince to take charge of her life. She is often used in literature as the virtuous foil of the lecherous, adventurous "witches and bitches." According to Karen Rowe's analysis of fairy-tale figures, "Because cleverness, will-power, and manipulative skill are allied with vanity, shrewishness, and ugliness, and because of their gruesome fates, odious females hardly recommend themselves as models for young readers. And because they surround alternative roles as life-long maidens or fiendish stepmothers with opprobrium, romantic tales effectively sabotage female assertiveness." Another Micaela-like figure in opera is Alfredo's sister in La Traviata. This virginal character provides the motivation for the courtesan's sacrifice of her own happiness, in order that the other woman may make a financially and socially profitable marriage. Carmen, however, makes no sacrifice and fearlessly confronts her announced fate.

Again, according to Merrimée's story, Carmen entices Don José to abandon the army and join a group of smugglers, then leaves him for a toreador named Escamillo. Cisneros, on the other hand, has Carmen leave José for an ambitious Texas senator named Camilo Escamilla. In both stories, the besotted José is overcome with rejection and the realization that he has no control over Carmen. The opera ends as José confronts Carmen outside the bullring. Carmen defiantly proclaims her love for Escamillo before she is stabbed to death by her former lover. The violent death of the rebellious heroine is deemed as necessary in a symbolic system where the existence of a free and enterprising female is viewed as seditious and damaging to the social order. This tendency is as common, Rowe observes, in mythic tales as much as opera libretti: "By punishing exhibitions of feminine force, tales admonish, moreover, that any disruptive nonconformity will result in annihilation or social ostracism." While Western literature provides few examples of the rebellious feminine, these characters are necessarily punished in order to serve as an example to potential Carmens.

Catherine Clément has made an intriguing analysis of how Georges Bizet's score musically represents the conflict between the unfettered feminine versus the hierarchical rigidity of the patriarchal order. She identifies Bizet's use of tonality as a technique of representing the patriarchal social order in which the masculine has dominion over the feminine. Within this context, the term "tonality" refers to music written in a key according to the paradigm of a seven-tone scale. In its linear quality and the rigidity with which the tonal scale differentiates between notes considered harmonious and dissonant in each key, tonality could be said to correspond to the oppositional qualities of symbolic texts.

As Julia Kristeva has emphasized, in Western thought the "symbolic" is based upon the definition of elements of reality by means of restriction. These elements, then, are oriented according to mutual opposition, a system of opposition hierarchically organized in such a manner that good occupies a position superior to evil, light to dark, and male to female. It might be argued that the importance of the symbolic in patriarchal society is to maintain this hierarchical paradigm. The "semiotic" modality, on the other hand, is perceived to be seditious in its ignorance of phallocentric paradigms and traditions. It does not operate upon an epistemology of opposition and heirarchy. One of the primary characteristics of the semiotic modality is the figure of paradox. In its unification of disparate entities, the figure of paradox by definition defies the oppositional structure of the symbolic. The unclassifiable nature of paradox is, at the very least, threatening to the rational order of the symbolic, represented by mythic figures of opposition such as the male hero and the passive heroine. When paradox does enter into the realm of myth it is considered to be disruptive, even evil. In Western mythology at least, when a male hero confronts a figure of paradox, the hero inevitably prevails. This pattern is evident when one notes that in classical mythology Theseus slew the Minotaur and defeated an army of Amazons, Perseus beheaded the Medusa, and Hercules took the golden girdle of Ares from Hippolyte, the queen of the Amazons.

According to Clément, Bizet's use of chromaticism serves to challenge the supremacy of the tonal scale just as the semiotic modality challenges the patriarchal authority of the symbolic. Chromaticism, which came into common use in Western music during the end of the Romantic period, was used to stretch and blur the authoritative and restrictive quality of tonal music. Clément describes chromaticism as "the sultry, slippery, seductive female who taunts and entraps, who needs to be brought back under tonal domination and absorbed." The correlations between tonality and the symbolic order compared to those of chromaticism and the semiotic are remarkable. Within the domains of language and music, these modalities serve, respectively, to sustain and repudiate patriarchal epistemologies.

Within the text-score of Carmen we can see that chromaticism serves to disrupt a strict sense of tonality, just as the heroine diverts José from his militaristic discipline: as Clément remarks, "Carmen makes her first appearance with the slippery descent of her 'Habanera' and it is her harmonic promiscuity—whichthreatens to undermine Don José's drive for absolute tonal closure at the conclusion of the opera—that finally renders her death musically necessary." The predominance of the symbolic over the semiotic is made manifest by the defeat of the paradoxical figure of the active woman. Although Bizet's opera includes one of the most powerful of operatic heroines, her demise is as ignominious and inevitable as the rest. The Amazon is conquered again.

In her "Texas Operetta," Sandra Cisneros acknowledges the literary tradition that punishes audacious heroines, yet she chooses to defy that tradition by rewriting millennia of literary history. Instead of imposing a finite conclusion upon the reader, Cisneros offers three possible endings from which to choose. The elective nature of the conclusion is created by the testimonial form of the narration: "According to who you talk to, you hear different." The first conclusion is similar to that of the opera in that José attacks Carmen with a knife: "José's friends say he left his initials across those famous chichis with a knife." The violence of this ending is mitigated by the skeptical attitude of the narrator: "but that sure sounds like talk, don't it?"

The second conclusion focuses on the male protagonist's pain: "I heard he went AWOL. Became a bullfighter in Matamoros, just so he could die like a man." The figure of Escamillo is alluded to with the reference to bullfighting. The expressed desire to "die like a man" represents the deleterious effect that Carmen's strength has upon the masculinity of the hero. This version of the conclusion turns the narrative violence of self-destructive tendencies toward the male figure. Of course, this particular twist is quite rare in the operatic tradition, as women in opera are forever dying for, or because of, men. This option is provided in the following sentence: "Somebody else said she's the one who wants to die."

The first two conclusions provided in "La Fabulosa: A Texas Operetta" fall into the register of the symbolic, under which only one of two opposing forces can prevail. Hélène Cixous deems it inappropriate for feminists to follow this traditional "rational" system in their writing. She observes: "Opposition, hierarchizing exchange, the struggle for mastery which can end only in at least one death (one master-one slave, or two nonmasters = two dead)—all that comes from a period in time governed by phallocentric values." In an effort to provide a literary space where resolution is not based upon unilateral annihilation, Cisneros provides another possible conclusion. Despite the discretionary quality presented by the inclusion of alternate endings, Cisneros uses the voice of the female narrator to give authority to the last and most felicitous conclusion. The narrator begins by denying the veracity of the first two denouements: "Don't you believe it. She ran off with King Kong Cárdenas, a professional wrestler from Crystal City and a sweetie. I know her cousin Lerma, and we saw her just last week at the Floore Country Store in Helotes. Hell, she bought us a beer, two-stepped and twirled away to 'Hey Baby Qué Pasó.'" Cisneros refuses to allow the suppression of the rebellious, chromatic feminine. This Carmen not only is not punished, but continues upon her adventurous path, finding love with a nurturing, masculine partner. The Tex-Mex hit "Hey Baby Qué Pasó" includes the only reference to the fate of José in this last version of "La Fabulosa"'s conclusion. The lyrics include the phrases: "Hey Baby, ¿qué pasó? / Porque me tienes el loco / No me dejes de ese modo." Cisneros uses this musical reference to create the background for Carmen's joyous exit from the story. Instead of the righteous and apocalyptic climax created by Bizet for the death of the heroine, the Chicana author employs a joyous polka by the Texas Tornados, appropriate for triumphant Carmen. In spite of the celebratory quality of the song, one can hear the echoes of José's incredulity in the chorus: "Hey baby, ¿qué pasó?" Sandra Cisneros is indeed skillful in utilizing long-established literary traditions for revolutionary purposes. Her versions of Cinderella and Rapunzel turn the classic versions inside-out to disclose the real consequences for women of patriarchal socialization. Within her stories, Cisneros reveals the metaphoric death of the fairy-tale heroine. Although the princesses of the classic fairy tales supposedly go on to live "happily ever after," we never hear of their lives or paths of growth after the nuptials to the handsome prince. Cisneros picks up the tale and tells the real fate of the heroine who lives in patriarchy.

Within the operatic tradition there is no need to uncover the propensity for misogyny. On the contrary, scenes of women murdered at the hands of men or who commit suicide on behalf of men number among the most glorified moments in opera. In one salient characteristic, however, opera differs from the fairy tale. In the classic children's stories, the sweet, pliant princesses are rewarded by marriage to the prince, while the only active characters, witches and wicked stepmothers, are vilified and often punished with gruesome deaths. Opera libretti, on the other hand, tend to punish with remarkable regularity the passive heroine as well as the active, rebellious one. Sandra Cisneros defies this tradition in opera and other narrative forms by recreating the powerful female figure of Carmen and allowing her to live and thrive. Just as she retells the fairy tale in a more realistic light, Cisneros changes the context of the opera Carmen from nineteenth-century Seville to modern-day Texas. However, by altering the standard denouement of the tragedy in a way that contradicts the patriarchal necessity of opposition and the ultimate domination of the male, Cisneros dismisses the tradition of eliminating the paradoxical figure of a powerful woman. Through her revisions of fairy tales and Carmen, Sandra Cisneros's works demonstrate how literature can challenge deeply inculcated values and change the ways in which we perceive the world. Consequently, she tells stories that shake the roots of a literary tradition as old as the fairy tale.


Cisneros, Sandra (Feminism in Literature)


Cisneros, Sandra (Vol. 193)