| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Born in Chicago, Sandra Cisneros spent much of her
early life moving between various homes in the United States and her father’s
family home in Mexico City. As a student at the Writers’ Workshop at the
University of Iowa in the late 1970s, Cisneros drew upon her bicultural
experience to write “the stories that haven’t been written to fill a literary
void.” Since then, she has made the border state of Texas her home and the
bicultural site in which much of her work is located.
National Endowment for the Arts, the University of Texas, the University of
California, and the MacArthur Foundation have acknowledged Cisneros’s border
aesthetic by awarding her fellowships, grants, and visiting appointments. Yet
it is this same successful career trajectory that has generated some
controversy among her literary peers. Her first book, a collection of poetry
entitled Bad Boys, appeared in 1980 as part of a series of Chicano chapbooks.
Like most Chicana/o literature, Cisneros’s early work was distributed by small
presses specializing in Latina/o literature. But the interest generateed by her
first collection of fiction. The House on Mango Street (1986) enabled Cisneros
to break into the world of major New York publishers. Her crossover appeal
during the late 1980s and early 1990s facilitated a larger movement of Chicana
writers, whose commercial and critical success has generated greater mainstream
appreciation of Chicana/o literature as well as some anxiety about their uneven
reception. No one can understand recent history of Chicana/o literature without
making Cisneros a central figure in that reading.
Mango Street Cisneros adapted the experimental form used by a number of other
Chicana/o writers: the collection of related stories and sketches. Mango Street
recalls Tomás Rivera’s ... y no se lo tragó la tierra/And the Earth Did Not
Devour Him (selections from Rivera’s novel appear elsewhere in this authology)
inasmuch as it uses a central protagonist to give short prose pieces coherence.
About a young girl living in a segregated neighborhood in Chicago during the
1970s, Mango Street concludes with the Chicana artist’s withdrawal from her
community and, in a Joycean gesture, commitment to return. “I have gone away to
come back,” read Mango Street’s closing lines. “For the ones I left behind. For
the ones who cannot out.”
second collection of poetry, My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987), also invokes a
developmental narrative; only here the narrative is ironic. The “bad girl” of
the opening section develops into the “evil woman” of the next two sections, an
artist whose escapades include adultery and a sexual romp through Europe.
Cisneros’s female speakers are complex, as they represent both defiance and
fulfillment of cultural expectations. Her terse poety evokes and ironically
venerates the archetypal Chicana/Mexicana evil woman: La Malinche, the Indian
mistress of Hernán Cortés, the “whore” who is said to have sold out her people
to the conqueror. Like other Chicana feminists, Cisneros attempts to recover
and revise La Malinche’s tarnished reputation. Her project of mythic
reclamation revises Chicana/o cultural archaeology and bears the urgency of
remembering everyday women whose lives would otherwise be anathermatized or
feminism is even more evident in Woman Hollering Creek (1991). The first
section contains a series of sketches told through the juvenile perspective
familiar to readers of Mango Street. The rest of the book explores in greater
detail the “wicked” woman of Cisneros’s verse: the sultry seductress, perceived
in her own culture as a sellout not just because of her sexuality but also
because of her relative assimilation into Anglo-American culture. If Mango
Street tries to solve the problem of the ethnic intellectual’s estrangement
from her community through a promise of return, Woman Hollering Creek
demonstrates that making good on that promise creates another set of problems,
negotiations, and anxieties.
1994, Cisneros published a book for children, using excerpts from Mango Street.
Hairs/Pelitos illustrates the cultural diversity that takes place even within
families by describing the different types of hair among members of Cisneros’s
own family; the book conveys a portrait of a family living in “heterogeneous
harmony.” With illustrations by Terry Ybanez, Hairs/Pelitos is written,
appropriately, in both Spanish and English. Also in 1994, Cisneros published
her third book of poetry, Loose Woman, in which the much-maligned “wicked
woman” brashly expresses a vision of history, sexuality, and community that
celebrates poems that “fart in the bath” as much as it lambasts
“politically-correct-Marxist-tourists/voyeurs.” The poems are to date the best
at capturing Cisneros’s sense of outrageousness always made funnier, stronger,
and deeper when shared with another as in her poem, “Las Girlfriends”: “Been to
hell and back again/Girl, me too.”
James Kyung-Jin Lee
University of Texas at Austin
In the Heath Anthology
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Interview with Sandra Cisneros
Conducted by Reed Dasenbrock and originally published in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World.
A biography and words from the author on her literary goals.
Modern American Poetry
Provides an essay on her career and a biographical note.
Voices from the Gaps
A biography, criticism, a list of primary and secondary sources, and some links.