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Hispanic Heritage Month - Sep. 15 - Oct. 15, 2007

Sandra Cisneros

Birth: December 20, 1954 in Chicago, Illinois, United States
Nationality: American
Ethnicity: Hispanic American
Occupation: writer, college teacher

BIOGRAPHICAL ESSAY

As the first Hispanic-American to receive a major publishing contract, Sandra Cisneros has provided a voice for she who had had none before, the Hispanic-American woman--or to use Cisneros' favored word--the chicana. "I'm trying to write the stories that haven't been written. I feel like a cartographer. I'm determined to fill a literary void," Cisneros told Jim Sagel of Publishers Weekly. In doing so, she speaks out against racism, sexism, poverty, and shame. Growing up a chicana in the poor barrios of Chicago, Cisneros knows these things well. She watched as the women around her gave up and gave in, accepting lives of second class citizenship, beholden to their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, and their priests. This wouldn't be Cisneros's fate. She escaped through language, writing her way out of that future. Along the way she has collected numerous awards and critical acclaim. The woman who proudly proclaimed she is "nobody's mother and nobody's wife," is in fact the greatest caregiver of all. She charts the map that shows chicanas and chicanos, women and wives, sisters and servants, the possibilities of freedom.

Sandra Cisneros was born on December 20, 1954 in a poor neighborhood of Chicago, populated mainly by Hispanic immigrants and hyphenated Americans. Cisneros and her family were of the latter category, Mexican-Americans or Chicanos. Her father, a Mexican native from a family of means had traveled to the United States in search of adventure. A chance visit to Chicago led him to Cisneros's mother, a Mexican-American from a working class family that had lived in the United States for many generations, working mainly on railroads. Love blossomed and Cisneros's father decided to settle in Chicago and raise a family of six boys and one girl. However, "like the tides," Cisneros told Publishers Weekly in 1991, they regularly moved back to Mexico to be near her paternal grandmother. And from Mexico back to another barrio of Chicago that looked to the young Cisneros like "France after World War II--empty lots and burned-out buildings," she told Publishers Weekly. The moving continued for many years. In "Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession," an article for The Americas Review, Cisneros noted that her grandmother's Mexican home was "the only constant in a series of traumatic upheavals."

Escaped Shame Through Books

The invariable movement--pulling up roots, packing boxes, new schools, new beds--took a toll on Cisneros. She became shy and self-conscious. Already the odd one out as the only sister in a house of brothers, Cisneros found she fit nowhere. So she retreated into books and stories. One of her favorites was The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, a picture book about a little house on a little hill, "where one family lived and grew old and didn't move away," Cisneros wrote in "Ghosts." It was a fantasy that she could never imagine for her own life. Instead, in 1966 her parents scraped together the money for a down payment on a small red bungalow. It sat on a broken down street in a poverty scarred Puerto Rican neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. It was a house Cisneros was ashamed of.

Though Cisneros attended Catholic schools, the education she received was less than ideal. In an interview for the anthology Authors and Artists for Young Adults, she said, "If I had lived up to my teachers' expectations, I'd still be working in a factory." Fortunately Cisneros's parents were firm believers in education, knowing that it was the only way their children could break the bonds of poverty. Library cards were mandatory in the family and Cisneros, without sisters to play with, too shy to make new friends, lost herself in the library's riches. Though she wrote a few poems as a child and served as the editor on her high school's literary magazine, it would not be until graduate school that Cisneros would finally become a writer.

Following high school, Cisneros enrolled in Loyola University, Chicago to pursue a degree in English. In her household, gender stereotypes were strongly upheld. She told Publishers Weekly that her "seven fathers," meaning her father and six brothers, expected her to conform to appropriate women's roles. She was to be a caretaker, get married, have children--to be like the other women who "lay their necks on the threshold waiting for the ball and chain," as the child narrator Esperanza described in The House on Mango Street. "In retrospect, I'm lucky my father believed daughters were meant for husbands. It meant it didn't matter if I majored in something silly like English," Cisneros later told Glamour.

Found Her Voice in Her Past

Cisneros graduated from Loyola in 1976 and was accepted into the University of Iowa's Writers Workshop. At first she felt out of place. "What did I, Sandra Cisneros, know? What could I know? My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city's cracks," she recalled to Publishers Weekly. In an effort to fit in, she mimicked the writing of famous male authors, her professors, and even fellow students. Cisneros finally found her place during a class discussion of the home as a metaphor for writing. As her well bred classmates talked of long hallways and homey kitchens, she realized that she had no such home in her memory. It was this realization that finally let Cisneros break free. "It was not until this moment when I separated myself, when I considered myself truly distinct, that my writing acquired a voice," she told Publishers Weekly. "That's when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn't write about."

The themes of her childhood--poverty, cultural difference, uprootedness, and male dominance over women's lives--became her topics. "If I were asked what it is I write about, I would have to say I write about those ghosts inside that haunt me, that will not let me sleep, of that which even memory does not like to mention," she later wrote in "Ghosts." The little red bungalow she was so ashamed of as a child became the house on Mango Street. People she knew, had laughed at, and feared populated her stories. Her characters were Hispanic-Americans isolated from mainstream America by more than just a hyphen. Peppered with vivid, sensory imagery and Spanish turns of phrase, her work straddled the line between poetry and prose. Cisneros had created a beautiful language with which to share her stories.

After earning her master's degree in 1978, Cisneros returned to Chicago to teach at the Latino Youth Alternative High School for school dropouts. Though her job was demanding she continued to pursue her writing. She began to submit her poems to literary journals and found some success. Locally, she became a regular on the spoken word circuit, performing her work at bars and coffee shops. Her fame spread further when one of her poems was chosen to grace the buses of the Chicago public transport system.

Earned Literary Acclaim and Fame

In 1981 Cisneros took a short-lived administrative position at Loyola and then moved to Cape Cod. The following year Cisneros received the first of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships. With the award money she left for Europe and three years later, while on the Aegean Sea in Greece, finished the manuscript that would become The House on Mango Street. Its 1985 publication was met with accolades and awards. Critics declared her a stunning new voice. Descriptions like sudden jewels filled the stories that made up the book. Her imagery stirred the senses and secured Cisneros a place on literary scene. General audiences devoured the book up and in a nod to the ultimate academic acclaim, The House on Mango Street found its way onto university syllabuses, most notably on the required curriculums of Yale and Stanford. The awkward young writer once intimidated by her more learned classmates was now listed prominently on "Required Reading" lists nationwide.

Made up of a series of poetic vignettes, The House on Mango Street is narrated by Esperanza, a Mexican-American girl coming of age in a Chicano barrio of Chicago. Not unlike Cisneros herself, Esperanza longs for a stable home. "Not a flat. Not an apartment in back. Not a man's house. Not a daddy's. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias." Instead Esperanza has a house that is "small and red with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath." Dedicated a las Mujeres, or to the Women, the book offers a voice of defiance to the oppressed, sidelined, subservient Hispanic woman. As Esperanza says, "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."

Following the publication of The House on Mango Street, Cisneros returned to the United States and accepted a position as an arts administrator in San Antonio, Texas. There, in 1986 she received a Doble-Paisano fellowship. This allowed her the freedom to produce My Wicked, Wicked Ways, a book of poetry published in 1987. The poems tell of her European travels, her childhood in Chicago, and the Catholic guilt she feels at being a sexual, uncompromising woman. It also declares freedom for the Hispanic woman. A woman who says, "I've learned two things/To let go/clean as a kite string/and to never wash a man's clothes./These are my rules." By this time, Cisneros had decided to make San Antonio her home. Despite her literary acclaim, she found it difficult to find work. She found herself pasting flyers on street posts and 24-hour stores, trying to drum up enough students for a private workshop. Defeated and depressed, Cisneros left San Antonio for a guest lectureship at California State University in Chico. "I thought I couldn't teach. I found myself becoming suicidal," she told Publishers Weekly. Soon after arriving in California, Cisneros was awarded a second NEA fellowship. She promptly moved back to San Antonio and began writing again.

Became First Hispanic-American to Sign with a Major Publisher

Cisneros broke new ground by becoming the first Chicana author to receive the backing of a major publishing house when Random House published Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories in 1991. The collection of stories highlights the lives of Mexican-American women living in the San Antonio area. Again, her work drew critical and popular acclaim. Its publication also helped establish Cisneros financially. No more teaching or posting flyers, Cisneros could now make a living from writing alone.

In 1995 Cisneros achieved what many consider to be the height of artistic success when she was awarded the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Its $225,000 purse allowed Cisneros to finally realize her childhood dream--a house of her own. She bought a large Victorian home in a historic district of San Antonio that she painted a bright neon purple. The local historic board promptly challenged her color choice saying it was not a historically accurate color. Not one to sit idly by while decisions are made for her, Cisneros clad in purple held news conferences on her lawn. She passed out petitions on purple paper. She declared the color a part of her Mexican heritage and accused the board of bias against Hispanic culture. "We are a people sin papeles ['without papers']!" she was quoted in Texas Monthly. "We don't exist. This isn't about my little purple house. It's about the entire Tejano community." In 1997 the board withdrew its objections and Cisneros's purple house stands. There she lives on her own terms, still "nobody's mother and nobody's wife," she makes her life with a small army of pets and a worldwide family of fans. In the last vignette of The House on Mango Street, Esperanza promises to go away in order "to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot [get] Editors check this source., see if word in brackets should be included. out." Cisneros continues to fulfill Esperanza's promise. "I'm looking forward to the books I'll write when I'm 60," she told Publishers Weekly. "There's a lot of good writing in the mainstream press that has nothing to say. Chicano writers have a lot to say. The influence of our two languages is profound."

PERSONAL INFORMATION

Born December 20, 1954 in Chicago, IL; daughter of an upholster and a homemaker, both of Mexican descent; six brothers. Education: Loyola University, Chicago, BA, 1976; University of Iowa, MFA, 1978. Religion: Catholic. Memberships: PEN; Mujeres por la paz (a women's peace group). Addresses: Home--San Antonio, TX.

AWARDS

MacArthur Genius Award, 1995; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1982, 1988; American Book Award, Before Columbus Foundation, 1985; Paisano Doble Fellowship, 1986; First and second prize in Segundo Concurso Nacional del Cuento Chicano, Lannan Foundation Literary Award, University of Arizona, 1991; Honorary Doctorate of Literature, State University of New York at Purchase, 1993.

CAREER

Writer. Guest professor, California State University, Chico, 1987-88, University of California, Berkeley, 1988, University of California, Irvine, 1990, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1990, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, 1991; Literary Director, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio, TX, 1984-85; Artist in Residence, Foundation Michael Karolyi, Vence, France, 1983; College Recruiter and Counselor, Loyola University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 1981-82; Teacher, Latino Youth Alternative High School, Chicago IL, 1978-80.

SOURCE: Contemporary Hispanic Biography. Vol. 1. Gale Group, 2002.