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.
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.
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 Street “a 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).
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.”