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.
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.
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."
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."