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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Sandra Cisneros
(b. 1954)

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.

The 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.

In 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.”

Cisneros’s 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 even forgotten.

Cisneros’s 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.

In 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.”

Lora Romero
Stanford University

James Kyung-Jin Lee
University of Texas at Austin

In the Heath Anthology
Eleven (1991)

Other Works

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Interview with Sandra Cisneros

Conducted by Reed Dasenbrock and originally published in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World.

Las Mujeres
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.

Secondary Sources