A house on Mango Street. Sounds exotic, doesn’t it? Turns out the house and street are not so exotic, but the story’s poetic form and intimated possibilities are.
I begin with The House on Mango Street because you’ve probably read it, or at least heard of it. It’s an enduringly popular coming-of-age book, written by Sandra Cisneros and published in 1984.
This story of Esperanza, a chain of vignettes, a lengthy poem that sings a familiar song, tells a universal, timeless story. This seemingly simple, but sophisticated little book captivates those from middle school to college. Innocence challenged in the twelfth year of Esperanza’s life, heavy topics, including sexual assault, keep this book banned in some locales.
Cisneros deliberately wrote this book to be accessible to as many readers as possible. She imbued it with a fluidity that makes it hard to put down, one story swaying into the next and the next until Esperanza is your best friend: she is you.
In the introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of House, speaking of herself in the third person, Cisneros says,
“It’s true, she wants the writers she admires to respect her work, but she also wants people who don’t usually read books to enjoy these stories too. She doesn’t want to write a book that a reader won’t understand and would feel ashamed for not understanding…She thinks stories are about beauty. Beauty that is there to be admired by anyone, like a herd of clouds grazing overhead. She thinks that people who are busy working for a living deserve beautiful little stories, because they don’t have much time and are often tired. She has in mind a book that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who doesn’t know what came before or what comes after” (xvii.)
In Esperanza’s voice, we hear, “My great-grandmother. I would’ve liked to have known her, a wild horse of a woman, so wild she wouldn’t marry. Until my great-grandfather threw a sack over her head and carried her off. Just like that, as if she were a fancy chandelier. That’s the way he did it.
“And the story goes she never forgave him. She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all the things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window” (11).
The lines blur between Esperanza and Cisneros, but it’s safe to say that neither inherits a place by the window.
Stories like Alicia Who Sees Mice, inspire and warn:
“Alicia, whose mama died, is sorry there is no one older to rise and make the lunchbox tortillas. Alicia, who inherited her mama’s rolling pin and sleepiness, is young and smart and studies for the first time at the university. Two trains and a bus, because she doesn’t want to spend her whole life in a factory or behind a rolling pin. Is a good girl, my friend, studies all night and sees the mice, the ones her father says do not exist. Is afraid of nothing except four-legged fur. And fathers” (32).
Cisneros, like her character Esperanza, is going to make it despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges of class, gender and ethnicity.
Cisneros’s father, Alfredo Cisneros de Moral, was born in Mexico, crossing the border as a young man to escape his father’s wrath and becoming a US citizen after fighting in WWII. He married a Mexican-American, Elvira Cordero Anguiano, and they made their home in Chicago, in a Hispanic neighborhood where they raised seven children, all boys except for Sandra.
Every summer the family made the trek to their other home, crossing the border to their grandparents in Mexico. It was a marginalized existence as a Latina in American culture, as Cisneros expressed in a 2015 interview, “I’ve always felt displaced and was made to feel by American culture as if America wasn’t mine” (Santos).
Traversing Cisneros’s creations, poetry, short stories, novels, memoir, and her latest chapbook, Puro Amor (2018), which includes her own drawings, is tagging along on her journey, from place to place, house to house, on her trek toward identity as a Latina, a woman, a writer, an activist.
I fell hard for her memoir, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. Where Virginia Woolf spoke of a room, Sandra Cisneros speaks of a house. Progress, wouldn’t you agree?
One of the stories in the book is entitled Huipiles. A huipil is a beautifully embroidered cotton blouse often worn by women in Mexico and Central America.
“Maybe the women of my family wove on a backstrap loom hooked to a tree in the courtyard, or maybe they embroidered in the shade, after their housework was done. And instead of writing books, which they could not do, they created a universe with designs as intricate and complex as any novel. These things I think because I can’t imagine my literary antecedents writing any other way than with a needle and thread, weft and warp.
“I wear this textile as a way for me to resist the Mexiphobia going on under the guise of Homeland Security. To acknowledge I’m not in agreement with the border vigilantes. To say I’m of las Americas, both North and South. This cloth is the flag of who I am” (65).
Cisneros explains that as a writer, she had no role models, no one to look to for guidance and support, “But there were no other examples to follow until you [Norma Alarcon] introduced me to Mexican writers Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Elena Poniatowska, Elena Garro, Rosario Catellanos. The young woman in the photograph [the black and white one] was looking for another way to be – “otro modo de ser,” as Castellanos put it” (xxiv).
Along with a lack of role models was enormous pressure, especially as the only daughter, to marry and have many children. The struggle is evident in the following excerpt from her poem, My Wicked Wicked Ways, which, included in her memoir, is also the name of one of her books of poetry:
willing to invent herself
at twenty-two or twenty-nine
do? A woman with no who nor how.
And how was I to know what was unwise.
I wanted to be writer. I wanted to be happy.
What’s that? At twenty. Or twenty-nine.
Love. Baby. Husband.
The works. The big palookas of life.
Wanting and not wanting.
Take your hands off me. (103)
In another story, I Can Live Sola and I Love to Work, Cisneros shares some of her realizations, what she does and does not want:
“As a Latina, I don’t want to inherit certain legacies. I don’t want to inherit mothers laying down their lives like a Sir Raleigh cloak and asking everyone to step all over them. I don’t want to inherit my mother’s fear of doing anything alone or her self-destructive anger. I don’t want to inherit my paternal grandmother’s petty jealousies and possessiveness. I don’t want to inherit my maternal grandmother’s silence and passivity. I don’t want to quedar bien, be nice, with the men around me at the expense of my own dreams and happiness. I don’t want to be the mother of twelve children, seven, five, even one, but I do want to write stories for one child, five, seven, twelve, a million children.
“I do want to inherit the witch in my women ancestors – the willfulness, the passion, ay, the passion where all good art comes from as women, the perseverance, the survivor skills, the courage, the strength of las mujeres bravas, peleoneras, necias, berrinchudas. I want to be una brava, peleonora, necia, berrinchuda. I want to be bad if bad means I must go against society – el Papa, el Papa, the boyfriend, lover, husband, girlfriends, comadres – and listen to my own heart, that incredible witch’s broom that will take me where I need to go.
“I do want to create art beyond rage. Rage is a place to begin, but not to end. I’m not as wise as my work, but I know if I take the writing deep enough, something larger and greater than myself will flash forth and illuminate me, heal me. I do want to devour my demons -despair, grief, shame, fear -and use them to nourish my art. Otherwise they will devour me” (138).
To read Cisneros’s memoir is to be invited into her house. I didn’t want to leave, so I bought my own copy of this book.
Living in Mexico now, continuing to travel, sharing her wisdom and writing, mentoring others through her foundations, maintaining a place at the big table, at sixty-three, Cisneros is on fire.
She sees herself more as a bridge these days, “Now, I’m feeling like I’m from Las Americas, not one America. Especially now, I feel a spiritual mission to be a bridge between communities that are living in susto (in fright)” (Santos).
Tune into PBS’s Overheard with Evan Smith, to catch Cisneros’s interview which aired on November 29, 2018: http://www.overheardwithevansmith.org/episode/sandra-cisneros/
Sandra Cisneros is a #NastyWomenWriter.
Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Vintage Books: New York, 2009.
Cisneros, Sandra. A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. Alfred A. Knopf, 2015.
Cisneros, Sandra. Interview with Richard Z. Santos. 8 October 2015.