Sandra Cisneros Cisneros, Sandra (Vol. 118) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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

Ellen McCracken (essay date 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4194 words.)

Maria Elena de Valdés (essay date Fall 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5979 words.)

Leslie S. Gutiérrez-Jones (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 5416 words.)

Harryette Mullen (essay date Summer 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 6075 words.)

Laura Gutierrez Spencer (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4240 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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.


(The entire section is 195 words.)