Sandra Cisneros Cisneros, Sandra (Vol. 193) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Sandra Cisneros 1954-

American novelist, poet, short story writer, and children's writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Cisneros's career through 2003. See also Sandra Cisneros Literary Criticism (Volume 118), Sandra Cisneros Short Story Criticism, Sandra Cisneros Poetry Criticism, and Woman Hollering Creek Criticism.

Cisneros is best known for her prose volume The House on Mango Street (1984), a collection of vignettes based on her experiences growing up in a working-class Latin-American neighborhood of Chicago. Cisneros received the American Book Award and the Before Columbus Foundation Book Award in 1985, both for The House on Mango Street, which was a bestseller and has become a mainstay on the reading lists of college courses in ethnic and gender studies. Through the character of Esperanza, a twelve-year-old Chicana girl and the narrator of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros examines issues of Chicana identity in the bi-cultural context of the Latin-American community. The House on Mango Street is also considered a coming-of-age story, highlighting Esperanza's quest for self-definition and self-empowerment through the creative act of writing. Cisneros is widely recognized for her groundbreaking work, which utilizes experimental forms of prose narrative and challenges traditional gender roles. Her work has been viewed as a vital part of expanding the literary canon to include the Chicana experience. Cisneros was awarded the McArthur Foundation “genius” award in 1995.

Biographical Information

Cisneros was born December 20, 1954, in Chicago, Illinois, to a Mexican father and a Chicana mother. The only girl in a family of seven children, she often felt dominated by her brothers and father. Her sense of cultural displacement as a Chicana was in part due to her family's frequent moves between Mexico and the United States. She spent the majority of her childhood living in apartment buildings in the poorer neighborhoods of Chicago's South Side. When she was a teenager, her parents bought a house, a goal they had always dreamed of achieving; but Cisneros regarded the house as ugly and shabby, and nothing like what she had imagined a house should be. As she was growing up, she spoke Spanish with her father and English with her mother, and most of her work is written in English but also contains smatterings of Spanish words and phrases. Cisneros earned a B.A. in English from Loyola University in 1976, and enrolled in the graduate program in creative writing at the renowned University of Iowa Writer's Workshop. While there she developed the idea of the house as a metaphor for Chicana identity. Thinking back on her childhood, she felt that her experiences living in impoverished urban apartment-dwellings in the Latin-American community was unique in comparison to those of her fellow students and professors. As she later related, “the metaphor of a house—a house, a house, it hit me. What did I know except third-floor flats. Surely my classmates knew nothing about that. That's precisely what I chose to write: about third-floor flats, and fear of rats, and drunk husbands sending rocks through windows.” This idea formed the seed of what was to become The House on Mango Street. After earning an M.F.A. in creative writing in 1978, Cisneros returned to Chicago, where she taught at the Latino Youth Alternative High School. Her first poetry collection, a chapbook entitled Bad Boys, was published in 1980. In 1981, she began working as a college recruiter and counselor for minority students at Loyola. She received a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1982, allowing her to serve for one year as artist-in-residence at the Michael Karolyi institute in Vence, France. Upon returning to the United States, Cisneros worked as the literature director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center in San Antonio, Texas. With the success of The House on Mango Street, she began a series of guest professorships at universities throughout the United States, including California State University at Chico (1987 to 1988), University of California at Berkeley (1988), University of California at Irvine (1990), University of Michigan (1990), and University of New Mexico at Albuquerque (1991). Cisneros has written three essays in which she discusses her development as a writer and her conceptualization of The House on Mango Street: “Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession,” “Notes to a Young(er) Writer,” and “Do You Know Me?: I Wrote The House on Mango Street,” all published in The Americas Review.

Major Works

The House on Mango Street represents a unique work of prose that defies previously existing categories of literature. While it is autobiographical in nature, it is ultimately a work of fiction. Although it is frequently referred to as a novel, and sometimes as a collection of short stories, The House on Mango Street has been more accurately described as a series of forty-four interconnected vignettes, written in a lyrical prose style that borders on prose poetry, that range in length from several paragraphs to several pages. Cisneros has said of these vignettes, “I wanted stories like poems, compact and lyrical and ending with a reverberation.” Narrated by Esperanza, an adolescent girl living in el barrio, these vignettes describe the experiences of Chicana girls and women in a working-class Chicago neighborhood during the early 1960s. The House on Mango Street has been described as a coming-of-age novel, a rite-of-passage novel, and a Latina bildungsroman (a novel of formative education) or künstlerroman (novel of an artistic apprenticeship). Each vignette stands alone as a complete piece, while the vignettes together make up a composite story that traces the development of Esperanza's self-identity as a Chicana writer who resists the limitations of traditional roles imposed upon women in the Latin-American community. Cisneros draws on the house as a symbol for a variety of thematic concerns: the house symbolizes the “American Dream” of middle-class comfort that the people of Esperanza's community fantasize about but will likely never achieve, and also symbolizes the realm of literature, expressing Esperanza's desire to become a writer. At other times, the house functions as a symbol of female confinement within the traditional, prescribed gender roles as wife and mother. Esperanza's childhood home also represents a family history and cultural heritage which are both enriching and confining to an adolescent girl with high aspirations. Through this complex symbolism and the variety of characters and stories Esperanza reveals in her narrative, Cisneros explores themes of economic oppression, ethnic identity, female sexuality, and the power of storytelling to reconcile the past with the present and future. In the course of her development as a young writer, Esperanza struggles to negotiate conflicts between individual self-determination and community identity, between the private space of the home and the public sphere of the streets, between her Mexican heritage and her participation in American culture. Additionally, she experiences a battle between the comforts of the familiar neighborhood and the urge to break free from its limitations, as well as between traditional gender roles and her emergent feminist consciousness. Cisneros's feminist reclaiming of the Chicana experience is indicated by her dedication in The House on Mango Streeta las mujeres” (“to the women”). The vignettes that comprise this volume describe such female experiences as the hopelessness of wives confined to their homes, the struggle of a mother whose husband has abandoned her, the isolation of a young girl married to a jealous, controlling husband, a sexual assault upon the narrator at a carnival, the terrors of domestic violence, and the physical maturation of Esperanza's body as she grows into womanhood. The penultimate vignette, “A House of My Own,” echoes the essay A Room of One's Own, by early-twentieth-century feminist writer Virginia Woolf. In Cisneros's rendition of Woolf's assertion that a woman needs a room of her own in order to become a writer, Esperanza describes her fantasy of “a house all my own … a house as quiet as snow, a space for myself to go, clean as paper before a poem.” In the final vignette, “Mango Says Goodbye Sometimes,” Esperanza tells her readers, “I like to tell stories. I am going to tell you a story about a girl who didn't want to belong.” The conclusion of The House on Mango Street then ends with the same words that make up the opening of the book—in a paragraph that begins, “We didn't always live on Mango Street.” Cisneros brings ther story full circle, ending the work with the culmination of Esperanza's coming-of-age—the writing of the book itself.

Woman Hollering Creek (1991), Cisneros's next fiction volume, is a collection of twenty-two stories, narrated as interior monologues of a variety of Mexican-American women living in the area of San Antonio, Texas. In contrast to the adolescent narrator of The House on Mango Street, the stories in Woman Hollering Creek are narrated by mature adult women with a complex range of emotions and relationships. In these stories, Cisneros continues to explore themes of Chicana identity, particularly in terms of the conflicts between popular American culture and traditional Mexican culture, as well conflicts between traditional gender roles and individual freedom. The story “Woman Hollering Creek,” for example, concerns a woman whose fantasies about marriage are based on telenovelas—Spanish-language soap operas. The lives of the characters in the soap operas are contrasted against the protagonist's life and her marriage to an abusive man. In “Never Marry a Mexican,” a young woman becomes insecure about her Chicana identity because she does not know how to speak Spanish. Caramelo (2002) is an episodic novel narrated by fourteen-year-old Celaya Reyes, who is known as Lala. Lala's family travels by car from their home in Chicago to a family reunion at the house of Soledad, the “Awful Grandmother,” in Mexico City. Lala's narrative weaves back and forth between the past and the present as she struggles to reconcile her cultural heritage and family history with a desire to assert her own individual identity. Lala draws on the image of the “rebozo caramelo,” a traditional (caramel-colored) family shawl worn by her grandmother, as a metaphor for the interweaving of family legend, national history, multi-cultural fusion, and personal experience into a unified pattern that constitutes her complex self-identity. Cisneros relates a panoramic family saga that spans three generations against a backdrop of Mexico's turbulent history. She includes numerous extensive footnotes within the text of Caramelo, explaining a variety of cultural and historical facts that are relevant to Lala's story. While Cisneros is best known for her prose writings, her several books of poetry have been recognized as powerful works of lyrical writing that address similar themes to those within her stories and novels. Her poetry volumes include The Rodrigo Poems (1985), My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987), and Loose Woman (1994).

Critical Reception

Cisneros has received widespread critical acclaim for The House on Mango Street. Critics have applauded her innovative form of prose which transcends the boundaries of several genres while maintaining the lyricism of poetry and the impact of the short story. Diane Klein described the unique formal qualities of The House on Mango Street as “a series of almost epiphanic narrations mirrored in a structure that is neither linear nor traditional, a hybrid of fictive and poetic form, more like an impressionistic painting where the subject isn't clear until the viewer moves back a bit and views the whole.” Reviewers have noted her vivid, sensual, detailed descriptions of life in the Latin-American urban community, and praised her colorful characterizations and lively dialogue integrating English with Spanish words, phrases, and idioms. Cisneros has also been acknowledged for her use of personal voice and point-of-view in the narratives of Esperanza, whose perspective develops from that of a thoughtful child into that of a mature and insightful young woman. Many scholars have commented on Cisneros's construction of a complex Chicana identity which reconciles individual self-determination with a strong sense of responsibility and connection to family and community. As Maria Karafilis has observed, Esperanza “constitutes herself as a political agent capable of achieving and maintaining personal and political power and also demonstrates an effective means for others like her to claim a space for themselves in the world.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Bad Boys (poetry) 1980

The House on Mango Street (novel) 1984

The Rodrigo Poems (poetry) 1985

My Wicked, Wicked Ways (poetry) 1987

Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (short stories) 1991

Hairs: Pelitos (juvenilia) 1994

Loose Woman: Poems (poetry) 1994

Caramelo (novel) 2002

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Julian Olivares (essay date fall-winter 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Olivares, Julian. “Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space.” Americas Review 15, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1987): 160-70.

[In the following essay, Olivares examines Cisneros's use of imagery in The House on Mango Street, analysing the metaphor of the house and the dialectics of inside vs. outside, here vs. there, integration vs. alienation, and comfort vs. anxiety.]

In some recent essays collectively titled “From a Writer's Notebook,”1 Sandra Cisneros talks about her development as a writer, making particular references to her award-winning book, The House on Mango Street.2 She states...

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Wendy K. Kolmar (essay date 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kolmar, Wendy K. “‘Dialectics of Connectedness’: Supernatural Elements in Novels by Bambara, Cisneros, Grahn, and Erdrich.” In Haunting the House of Fiction: Feminist Perspectives on Ghost Stories by American Women, edited by Lynette Carpenter and Wendy K. Kolmar, pp. 236-49. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Kolmar examines novels by four authors who utilize supernatural elements in their writing. The works discussed are: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, The Salt Eaters, by Toni Cade Bambara, Tracks, by Louise Erdrich, and Mundane's World, by Judy Grahn.]

During the seven years I...

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Dianne Klein (essay date September 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Klein, Dianne. “Coming of Age in Novels by Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros.” English Journal 81, no. 5 (September 1992): 21-6.

[In the following essay, Klein examines two novels by Chicano/a writers that represent the Chicano/a coming-of-age experience and the search for personal identity: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, and Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya.]

At birth, each person begins a search to know the world and others, to answer the age-old question, “Who am I?” This search for knowledge, for truth, and for personal identity is written about in autobiographies and in bildungsroman fiction. For years, though, the canon of...

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Maria Elena de Valdes (essay date 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Valdes, Maria Elena de. “The Critical Reception of Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.” In Gender, Self, and Society: Proceedings of the IV International Conference on the Hispanic Cultures of the United States, edited by Renate von Bardeleben, pp. 287-95. New York: Peter Lang, 1993.

[In the following essay, Valdes provides an overview of critical responses to The House on Mango Street, based on reviews published in three different sets of sources: mainstream newspapers, academic journals, and the ethnic-oriented periodicals. Valdes examines the intersection of the “symbolic reader” and the “implied reader” in Cisneros's text.]


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Juanita Heredia (essay date fall-spring 1993-1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Heredia, Juanita. “Down These City Streets: Exploring Urban Space in El Bronx Remembered and The House on Mango Street.Mester 22-23, nos. 1-2 (fall-spring 1993-1994): 93-105.

[In the following essay, Heredia examines two coming-of-age novels that represent urban life from a Latina feminist perspective: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, set in Chicago, and El Bronx Remembered, by Nicholasa Mohr, set in New York City. Heredia asserts that the protagonists in both novels develop a social consciousness and self-awareness of their roles within the public sphere that allows them to experience intellectual and psychological freedom from patriarchal...

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Juan Daniel Busch (essay date fall-spring 1993-1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Busch, Juan Daniel. “Self-Baptizing the Wicked Esperanza: Chicana Feminism and Cultural Contact in The House on Mango Street.Mester 22-23, nos. 1-2 (fall-spring 1993-1994): 123-34.

[In the following essay, Busch contends that The House on Mango Street represents the protagonist's development of Chicana feminist empowerment and a fluid and progressive notion of Chicana identity.]

A counterstance locks one into a duel of oppressor and oppressed; locked in mortal combat, like the cop and the criminal, both are reduced to a common denominator of violence. The counterstance refutes the dominant culture's views and beliefs, and,...

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Jacqueline Doyle (essay date winter 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Doyle, Jacqueline. “More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.MELUS 19, no. 4 (winter 1994): 5-35.

[In the following essay, Doyle discusses the ways The House on Mango Street broadens the white middle-class feminist perspective expressed in Virginia Woolf's essay A Room of One's Own to include a working-class Chicana feminist perspective.]

“Books continue each other,” Virginia Woolf told an audience of young women some sixty years ago, “in spite of our habit of judging them separately” (Room [A Room of One's Own] 84). Books such as Ellen Moers's Literary Women, Elaine Showalter's...

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Nancy Corson Carter (essay date summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Carter, Nancy Corson. “Claiming the Bittersweet Matrix: Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, and Adrienne Rich.” Critique 35, no. 4 (summer 1994): 195-204.

[In the following excerpt, Carter examines three autobiographical texts by female authors: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, by Alice Walker, and Your Native Land, Your Life, by Adrienne Rich. Carter asserts that in each tale, the protagonist draws from a “bittersweet” past in a transformative process of self-empowerment to develop a newly emergent sense of personal identity.]

This writing begins simply, in gratitude. I have found three wise...

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Andrea O'Reilly Herrera (essay date 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Herrera, Andrea O'Reilly. “‘Chambers of Consciousness’: Sandra Cisneros and the Development of the Self in the BIG House on Mango Street.Bucknell Review 39, no. 1 (1995): 191-204.

[In the following essay, Herrera examines the idea of the house as a metaphor for personal identity in The House on Mango Street, asserting that Cisneros appropriates the traditional novelistic form of the bildungsroman in representing a young Chicana's struggle for female, communal, and literary identity.]

One writes to make a home for oneself, on paper.

—Alfred Kazin

Before we...

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Julian Olivares (essay date 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Olivares, Julian. “Entering The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros).” In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, pp. 209-35. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Olivares provides analysis of central themes within The House on Mango Street, and suggests some possible approaches to teaching the work.]


Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street1 is a book about Esperanza Cordero, a Chicana girl who lives in the barrio, or ghetto, of a large city.2 Through...

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Ellen C. Mayock (essay date September-December 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Mayock, Ellen C. “The Bicultural Construction of Self in Cisneros, Álvarez, and Santiago.” Bilingual Review/La Revista Bilingue 23, no. 3 (September-December 1998): 223-29.

[In the following essay, Mayock examines three novels by Latina authors: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accent, by Julia Álvarez, and When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago. Mayock asserts that each of these novels constitutes a bi-cultural Latina transformation of the traditional bildungsroman.]

Virginia Woolf once said, “How queer to have so many selves” (Kakutani B2), a comment which immediately introduces the...

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Maria Szadziuk (essay date September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Szadziuk, Maria. “Culture as Transition: Becoming a Woman in Bi-Ethnic Space.” Mosaic 32, no. 3 (September 1999): 109-29.

[In the following essay, Szadziuk examines the autobiographical novels of three women writers: The House on Mango Street, by Cisneros, When I Was Puerto Rican, by Esmeralda Santiago, and Loving in the War Years, by Cherríe Moraga. Szadziuk asserts that all three novels explore the concept of culture-in-transition through the metaphor of culture-as-travel.]

Issues created by post-national, multicultural societies involve not only questions about peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups but also the variety of...

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Felicia J. Cruz (essay date winter 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cruz, Felicia J. “On the ‘Simplicity’ of Sandra Cisneros's House on Mango Street.Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (winter 2001): 910-46.

[In the following essay, Cruz discusses the variety of reader responses to The House on Mango Street in terms of the textual ambiguity inherent in Cisneros's storytelling style.]

As I perused the back cover of a recent Vintage Books edition of The House on Mango Street a short while ago, I read that it has been translated worldwide and that it has become a “classic” work in the canon of coming-of-age novels. This prompted me to think about whether this edition of Mango Street—which...

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Beth L. Brunk (essay date September 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brunk, Beth L. “En Otras Voces: Multiple Voices in Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street.Hispanofila 133 (September 2001): 137-50.

[In the following essay, Brunk asserts that Cisneros's construction of a multiple and shifting narrative point-of-view in The House on Mango Street works to reveal the social realities of the urban, poor, Latin-American community in which the protagonist grows up.]

In The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros creates a narrator, twelve-year-old Mexican-American Esperanza Cordero, who is fluent in a variety of voices. In this series of vignettes, Cisneros creates variations between an...

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Gail Caldwell (review date 22 September 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Caldwell, Gail. “El Norte, the Hard Way.” Boston Globe (22 September 2002): D6.

[In the following review, Caldwell asserts that Cisneros's Caramelo is lacking in narrative structure, cohesiveness, and momentum, and ultimately fails as a novel.]

The Mexico evoked in Sandra Cisneros's prose is scarcely the global hodgepodge of a modern Mexico-for-export—that place of late where norteamericanos queue up for burritos under hegemony's golden arches. Instead it's the cloistered country of a few decades ago, where the zocalo, or town square, still exudes the music and mayhem of an entire culture. Rendered with delicate precision in her 1991 story...

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Margaret Randall (review date October 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Randall, Margaret. “Weaving a Spell.” Women's Review of Books 20, no. 1 (October 2002): 1, 3.

[In the following review, Randall offers high praise for Cisneros's Caramelo, judging it to be an ambitious, captivating, and masterfully written novel.]

In 1984 Arte Publico Press in Houston published The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. Neither press nor author were known beyond the circles of those who were beginning to enjoy a burgeoning Chicana literature. A few Chicano names were just then entering the mainstream. Cisneros was one of what would soon emerge as a brilliant and diverse group of women—from an array of Latina...

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Roz Kaveney (review date 6 December 2002)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kaveney, Roz. “Where the Heart Is.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5201 (6 December 2002): 23.

[In the following review, Kaveney lauds Cisneros's skillful blending of autobiography and fiction in Caramelo, calling the novel an “achieved and enjoyable book.”]

The stories that Sandra Cisneros tells us about her Mexican American family [in Caramelo] are the ones we already know. A young hopeful bride turns into a bullying matriarch, then into a pathetic invalid who manages to ensure that her granddaughter at least no longer hates her. An ambitious young man finds his only real success is becoming a competent father. A smart, almost European...

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Carol Cujec (essay date March 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Cujec, Carol. “Caramel-Coated Truths and Telenovela Lives: Sandra Cisneros Returns with an Ambitious Novel about the Latino Community.” World and I 18, no. 3 (March 2003): 228.

[In the following essay, Cujec discusses the dominant themes and influences of Caramelo.]

In her new novel Caramelo, Sandra Cisneros bathes our senses in Latino culture as we accompany her characters walking the scorched sands of Acapulco, buying shoes at Chicago's Maxwell Street flea market, listening to a grandmother complain about the mangoes, and eventually finding their destinies and their destinations. Caramelo loops and spirals among four generations, traveling...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Cisneros, Sandra, Feroza Jussawalla, and Reed Way Dasenbrock. “Sandra Cisneros.” In Writing Women's Lives: An Anthology of Autobiographical Narratives by Twentieth-Century American Women Writers, edited by Susan Cahill, pp. 459-68. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

Cisneros discusses political, economic, and social concerns, racial issues, and her literary influences.


Cisneros, Sandra, and Gayle Elliot. “An Interview with Sandra Cisneros.” Missouri Review 25, no. 1 (2002): 95-109.

Cisneros explains her political and social motivations, her use of short story and...

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