Contributing Editor: Lora Romero
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students generally find reading Cisneros a delightful experience. The
brevity and humor of her stories help make them accessible even to those
unfamiliar with the Mexican-American culture in which much of her writing
is set. In fact, one of my colleagues taught Cisneros very successfully
to students in Galway, Ireland.
One potential source of discomfort for students is Cisneros's manifestly
feminist sensibility. Some students may accuse her (as they would accuse
virtually any other feminist writer) of "man-bashing." When this
issue comes up, I point out that, ironically, defining feminism in that
way makes men the center of attention. Then I encourage students to talk
about what they think feminism means and/or should mean. Sometimes students
with more sophisticated definitions of feminism can convince their peers
that feminism does not reduce to man-hating; in any case, giving the students
a forum for talking through the issue is usually productive since it is
one about which they will probably have strong (if unexamined and unarticulated)
The feminism of women of color, however, is complicated by ethnic identification.
Some students will be assuming that ethnic authors should offer only "positive"
images of minorities--which means, in effect, talking about sexism in minority
communities is off-limits. I encourage students to interrogate their assumptions
about ethnic authors' "duties." At the same time, I acknowledge
that being both a woman of color and a feminist can be a difficult task
since one of the stereotypes of Latino men (and non-white men generally)
is that "they treat their women badly." Then I try to turn students'
attention back to the text to see if they can find evidence that some tension
between ethnic and gender identity is shaping the narrative.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Students may bring to Cisneros's work a conception of immigrant culture
that is based on the model of European immigration to the United States.
That model is not entirely appropriate; in fact, Chicanos have a saying:
"We didn't come to the United States. It came to us." Before
the Mexican-American War (1846-48), most of what is now the southwestern
United States (including Texas and California) was part of Mexico. After
the war, many erstwhile Mexicans automatically became U.S. citizens when
it annexed the land where Mexicans had lived since the sixteenth century.
Reminding students that national boundaries are often arbitrarily imposed
should help deepen their understanding of national culture. In addition,
most students will have only linear and unidirectional models of "assimilation"
for understanding ethnic cultures, but the culture of Latinos living in
the U.S. has been shaped by a very different historical experience. Anthropologists
and historians have argued that the southwestern United States is really
part of a much older, regional culture that includes Northern Mexico, and
that this regional culture is constantly being reinvigorated by a continuous
flow of population back and forth over the border.
One important theme in Cisneros's work is the heterogeneity of the Mexican-American
community (as it is expressed through differences of class, gender, education,
language use, politics, and so on). Cisneros is, typically, more interested
in detailing the dynamics of her own community rather than representing
conflicts between Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Conflicts between
Anglo and Latino cultures are, of course, present in Cisneros's writing,
but they often take the form of encounters between relatively assimilated
Latinos and relatively unassimilated ones.
The shape of such encounters undoubtedly reflects personal issues in
the sense that Cisneros, as an educated, middle-class intellectual, seems
simultaneously committed to identifying with her Mexican-American characters
and to never losing sight of her difference from them. Often in her stories,
there is a narrator or character who seems to represent Cisneros herself:
a Chicana artist who has done something to scandalize her community, who
exists (as it were) on the border between Mexican-American and Anglo-American
cultures, and who has an uneasy relation to both.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Cisneros's stories typically move in the direction of reconciliation
of the Chicana intellectual with the Mexican-American community, but not
all of her stories achieve that resolution. Cisneros's work thus provides
fertile grounds for discussion of the politics of narrative closure. For
this reason, it would be helpful if, before reading Cisneros, students
had some sense of the conventions of the short story. Cisneros writes in
a modernist narrative mode with both North American and Latin American
precursors. Her stories do not typically center on a single consciousness
or point of view; they are often populated by voices rather than characters;
if there is an identifiable narrator, she is usually ironized.
In a more advanced class where you can assume some familiarity with
modernist narrative, you could use Cisneros as a test case for differentiating
between modernism and postmodernism. In addition to formal considerations,
some topics crucial to such a discussion would include Cisneros's feminism,
her ethnic identification, and her attitude toward mass culture.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
To encourage students to think about how ethnic feminist writers negotiate
between their gender and their ethnic identifications, it would be worthwhile
to compare Cisneros to writers like Toni
Morrison, Maxine Hong
Kingston, Louise Erdrich,
and Helena María
Viramontes. On the other hand, reading Cisneros in the context of contemporary
Latin American women writers (for example, Claire Lipesector, Isabel Allende,
Carolina María de Jesus) would put pressure on received categories
of national/cultural identity. Including even one Latin American writer
at the end of a course on what is called "American Literature"
can be a useful way of getting students to think about the ethnocentrism
of the term and the politics of cultural study more generally.
For contrast as much as comparison, Cisneros might also be placed in
the context of nonfiction writings by lesbian Chicana writers like Gloria
Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. The comparison/contrast helps
bring attention to the specifically heterosexual nature of Cisneros's feminism:
How does the fact that Cisneros is heterosexual (and hence unable to declare
herself simply "independent" of men) shape her articulation of
feminism and illuminate the particular erotic dilemmas faced by her female
characters? In order to highlight the question of class, pairing Cisneros
with Tomás Rivera
works well because--although Cisneros has certain stylistic affinities
with Rivera--his work is more obviously compatible with the version of
Chicano identity constructed by the Chicano movement.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
"Little Miracles, Kept Promises" appears to be a compilation
of voices with no authorial intervention; as students are reading, encourage
them to think about Cisneros's agency by noticing what kinds of voices
she includes and which she excludes, if some voices seem to speak with
more authority than others, and which voices (if any) represent the authorial
Cisneros's House on Mango Street has already generated a number
of critical responses, including: Ellen McCracken, "Sandra Cisneros'
The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and
the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence" in Asunción Horno-Delgado
et. al. (eds.), Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings
(1989); Julián Olivares, "Sandra Cisneros' 'The House on Mango
Street' and the Poetics of Space" in María Hererra-Sobek and
Helena María Viramontes (eds.), Chicana Creativity and Criticism:
Charting New Frontiers in American Literature (1988); and Ramón
Saldívar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference
(1990) and Alvina E. Quintana, Home Girls: Chicana Literary Voices
(1996). There is also a growing body of work on Woman Hollering Creek.
Particularly interesting studies of language, identity, and authenticity
can be found in Katherine Rios, "'And you know what I have to say
isn't always pleasant': Translating the Unspoken Word in Cisnreos'
Woman Hollering Creek" in María Herrera-Sobek and Helena
María Viramontes (eds.), Chicana (W)rites on Word and Film
(1995); Jean Wyatt, "On Not Being La Malinche: Border Negotiations
of Gender in Sandra Cisneros's 'Never Marry a Mexican' and 'Woman Hollering
Creek,'" Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, 14 (fall 1995);
and Harryette Mullen, "'A Silence between Us Like a Language': The
Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering
Creek," MELUS 21 (summer 1996). One study of Woman Hollering
Creek in the context of inter-American feminism is Sonia Saldívar-Hull's
"Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics"
in Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar
(eds.), Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature,
Culture, and Ideology (1991).