Sandra Cisneros Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Chicago, Illinois, 1954. Education: Loyola University, B.A. 1976; University of Iowa, M.F.A. 1978. Career: Teacher, Latino Youth Alternative High School, Chicago, Illinois, 1978-80; college recruiter and counselor for minority students, Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, 1981-82; artist-in-residence, Foundation Michael Karolyi, Vence, France, 1983; literature director, Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, San Antonio, Texas, 1984-85; 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. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts fellow, 1982, 1988; American Book Award (Before Columbus Foundation), 1985; Paisano Dobie fellowship, 1986; first and second proize, Segundo Concurso Nacional del Cuento Chicano (University of Arizona); Lannan Foundation Literary Award, 1991; H.D.L., State University of New York at Purchase, 1993; MacArthur fellow, 1995. Agent: Susan Bergholz Literary Services, 17 West 10th Street, Suite 5, New York, New York 10011, U.S.A.
The House on Mango Street. Houston, Texas, Arte Publico Press, 1984.
Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York, RandomHouse, 1991.
Bad Boys. Mango Publications, 1980.
My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Bloomington, Indiana, Third WomanPress, 1987.
Loose Woman. New York, Knopf, 1994.
Foreword, Camellia Street by Merco Rodoreda, translated by David
H. Rosenthal. Saint Paul, Minnesota, Graywolf Press, 1993. Hairs: Pelitos (juvenile, bilingual), translated from the English byLiliana Valenzuela, illustrated by Terry Ybanez, New York, Knopf, 1994.
Introduction, My First Book of Proverbs/Mi primer libro de dichos byRalfka Gonzalez and Ana Ruiz. Emeryville, California, Children's Book Press, 1995.
Foreword, Holler If You Hear Me: The Education of a Teacher and His Students by Gregory Michie. New York, Teachers College Press, 1999.
Contributor, Daughters of the Fifth Sun: A Collection of Latin Fiction and Poetry, edited by Bryce Milligan, et al. New York, Riverhead, 1995.
Contributor, Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul: 101 Stories of Life, Love and Learning, edited by Jack Canfield, et al. Health Communications, 1997.
Contributor, Leaning into the Wind: Women Write from the Heart of the West, edited by Linda M. Hasselstrom, et al. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
Contributor, A Book of Poems, edited by Mark Warren. San Francisco, M. Warren, 1998.
Contributor, Growing Up Ethnic in America: Contemporary Fiction about Learning to Be American, edited by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan. New York, Penguin, 1999.
Contributor, Bearing Life: Women's Writings on Childlessness, edited by Rochelle Ratner. Consortium, 2000.
Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, conducted and edited by Feroza Jussawalla and Reed Way Dasenbrock, Jackson, University Press of Mississippi, 1992; Having Our Way: Women Rewriting Tradition in Twentieth-Century America, edited by Harriett Pollack, Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, Bucknell University Press, 1995; Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street by Elizabeth L. Chesla, Piscataway, New Jersey, Research & Educational Association, 1996; Sandra Cisneros: Latina Writer and Activist by Caryn Mirriam-Goldberg, Springfield, New Jersey, Enslow, 1998.
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Chicana feminist, poet, and novelist, Sandra Cisneros, has been described most recently as "frankly erotic" (New York Daily News) and as a writer "whose literary voice is a deluge of playfulness, naughtiness, heartbreak, and triumph" (The Miami Herald). On the cover of her latest volume of poetry, Loose Woman, Time magazine describes her as "a unique feminist voice that is at once frank, saucy, realistic, audacious." Cisneros would likely agree with her critics—for she, herself, rounds out this R-rated collection with a fierce and powerful self-assessment: "I'm Bitch. Beast. Macha." But to understand the resonating irony of such a statement—to hear at once the laughter and the rage in Cisneros's wanton self-stereotyping—we need to return to the innocent world of Mango Street, the fictional space where Cisneros first became a writer.
Her first novel, and perhaps most widely read work to date, The House on Mango Street tells the heartwarming story of Esperanza Cordero, the young Chicana heroine who, like Cisneros herself, "comes of age" in a Chicago barrio, despite obstacles imposed by racism, classism, and sexism. A collection of forty-four seemingly unrelated vignettes, the novel's style may appear simplistic and choppy, but Esperanza's character is the center of consciousness that provides both coherence and perspective from chapter to chapter. Because her interactions with relatives and friends help Esperanza to define her goals, critics are right to say she is at once dependent on and critical of the Chicano community; like Cisneros herself, Esperanza embraces her culture warmly, but criticizes gender injustices within it. In this sense, as Julian Olivares points out, Cisneros "breaks the paradigm of the traditional female bildungsroman"—where female characters, unlike their male counterparts, are typically portrayed as seeking solely marriage and motherhood, resulting in a restriction or loss of freedom. After observing her mother's lifetime of sacrifices and her friends' physical and sexual abuse at the hands of men, Esperanza instead desires to leave the barrio, have a house of her own, and become a writer. These goals are not intended merely for her own self-improvement, however, but to educate others—especially the women—in her community as well.
Many critics have drawn obvious parallels between Cisneros's life and that of Esperanza in Mango Street: both have a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother, and thereby straddle two cultures; both desire to leave the barrio to become writers; both eventually find "a home in the heart"—which translates to the ability to succeed individually (to call her "home" her "self"), and collectively on behalf of the community (to reinvent certain cultural stereotypes for all Chicanos). In personal interviews, Cisneros confided that it was not until she took graduate-level writing workshops with predominantly white, wealthy classmates, that she began tapping into her "difference" in order to create unique writing material; thus, upon remembering and sketching characters and events from her impoverished childhood, Cisneros at last developed her own voice as a writer—one she had previously suppressed and sacrificed because there were no Chicano/a models in her classes to emulate. Similarly, this budding decisiveness applies to her character, Esperanza, as well. For example, Cisneros describes Mango Street as "a very political work … about a woman in her twenties coming to her political consciousness as a feminist woman of color." Surely, this statement describes Cisneros's own experience, as well as Esperanza's.
One cultural stereotype that Cisneros attempts to reinvent is the portrayal of women in Chicano literature, which only reaffirms patriarchal values and the unrealistic, if not abusive, treatment of Chicanas. In an interview, Cisneros explains how the two role models in Mexican culture—la Virgen de Guadalupe y la Malinche—are difficult for women to negotiate. They signify the extremes of saint and traitor, respectively, and there are no "in-betweens." Women are often sanctified or vilified, but rarely are they portrayed as ordinary or acceptable; therefore, their natural sexuality—and even their beauty—are often punished by protective fathers and brothers.
If The House on Mango Street paved the way for Cisneros's coming-into-feminist-consciousness, then her first volume of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways took that new self-awareness one step further in its confrontation of a taboo subject in Chicano culture: a woman's (liberal) sexuality. The title of the collection, therefore, is simply ironic: while her culture may view her as "wicked"—she writes about choosing not to marry, traveling abroad on her own, and sleeping with various men—for Cisneros, the term does not mean "evil," but free; her poetry abounds in positive personal choices. The title thus pokes fun at the stereotypical notion that she is (wrongly) considered "wicked" by her culture for merely articulating her own story in her poems.
In her collection of short fiction Woman Hollering Creek, Cisneros returns to many of the same coming-of-age themes explored in Mango Street—pre-teen anxiety, sibling relationships in a culture where girls are less valued than boys, loss of virginity and its shameful consequences, and identity conflicts from living on both sides of the Mexican border. The stories represent a range of authorial voices—from young girls to housewives—who struggle with gender inequality in their culture and their lives. Perhaps the character that best bridges the adolescent Esperanza of Mango Street and the mature, confident macha of Cisneros's "Loose Woman" poem, is the young bride, Cleofilas, the protagonist of the eponymous story, "Woman Hollering Creek." Based on the myth of the Llorona legend about a poor Mexican woman who drowned her children and died of grief after her husband abandoned her for another woman, Cisneros's story reinvents the tragic tale when Cleofilas is similarly victimized by an abusive husband and escapes a life of silent suffering in exchange for freedom across the border. At the end of the story, Cleofilas leaves her husband and crosses the arroyo to begin her own life, thus replacing the legendary wail of La Llorona with her own "ribbon of laughter, like water."
If we now return to the end of the 1994 collection Loose Woman, to Cisneros's brazen declaration, "I'm a macha, hell on wheels," we understand that her tone is playful, but her message quite serious. Any writer who publicly implores publishers to print the work of younger Chicanas, as Cisneros does, is not truly "bad" as this poem implies. Once again, Cisneros is merely redefining stereotypical labels. In this collection, after supporting herself by her writing for ten years and living as "nobody's wife and nobody's mother" in a house of her own, Cisneros asserts her most confident identity—one that is comfortable with the contradictions of living in two cultures. In an interview, Cisneros claimed to be "reinventing the word 'loose."' It no longer need mean promiscuous, but rather, free. "I really feel that I'm the loose," she said, "and I've cut free from a lot of things that anchored me." While Cisneros has described her Wicked Ways (writing) days as "wandering in the desert," she calls her recent collection, Loose Woman, a celebration of the home in her heart. Currently, Cisneros lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is working on another novel called "Carmelito."
—Susan E. Cushman