Authors: Sandra Cisneros

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Writer and activist

December 20, 1954

Chicago, Illinois

Biography

Sandra Cisneros (sihz-NAY-rohs) was born in Chicago in 1954 to a Mexican father and a Mexican American mother. She grew up in a working-class family with six brothers; her family expected her to follow the traditional female role. Her lonely childhood growing up with six males and the family’s constant moving contributed to her becoming a writer. The family moved frequently—from house to house and from Chicago to Mexico City—which caused constant upheavals. She felt trapped between the American and the Mexican cultures, not belonging in either one. Understandably, Cisneros withdrew into a world of books. The family finally settled down in a Puerto Rican neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. This setting provided Cisneros with the inspiration for her first novel, The House on Mango Street, and the characters who appear in it.

Cisneros attended Loyola University in Chicago and graduated in 1976 with a BA in English. She was the only Hispanic majoring in English at the time, a unique situation that isolated her from her peers. During her junior year at Loyola, she came in contact with her cultural roots and the Chicago poetry scene, influences she would later appreciate and return to in her writings.

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Cisneros moved to Iowa, where she earned a master’s degree in creative writing at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1978. During her two years there, she felt lonely and displaced. A particularly unsettling experience occurred, one that ultimately helped her find her narrative voice and her writing subjects. During a seminar discussion of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1957), Cisneros discovered that his use of “house” as a metaphor differed radically from her understanding. She realized that Bachelard and her classmates shared a communal understanding of “house,” one that she did not possess. Recognizing her otherness, she decided to write about subjects and memories close to her life but foreign to her classmates: third-floor flats, fear of rats, drunk and abusive husbands, all unpoetic subjects. At the same time, she found her literary voice, one which had been there but she had suppressed. Cisneros began writing autobiographical sketches about her life experiences and continues to write about “those ghosts that haunt [her], that will not [let] her sleep.”

Bad Boys, Cisneros’s first published work, appeared in 1980. The series of seven poems depicts childhood scenes and experiences in the Mexican American ghetto of Chicago. In these early poems, Cisneros was more concerned with sound and timing than with content. Although Cisneros has written four volumes of poetry, it is her fiction for which she is best known. The House on Mango Street received the 1985 Before Columbus American Book Award. This work, which took her five years to complete, provides a feminine perspective on growing up. The collection of forty-four narratives relates the experiences of Esperanza Cordero, the Hispanic adolescent narrator. The sketches describe her experiences as she matures and discovers life in a poor Hispanic urban ghetto. The house on Mango Street symbolizes her search for self-identity as she yearns for “a house all [her] own.”

My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Cisneros’s third volume of poetry, which includes “The Rodrigo Poems,” is her revised and expanded master’s thesis. It collects sixty poems on various subjects, including encounters with friends, travels, amorous experiences such as the monologues by women romantically involved with Rodrigo, and the guilt associated with a Mexican and Catholic upbringing. Supported by a 1982 National Endowment for the Arts grant, Cisneros traveled through Europe and worked on poems describing brief encounters with men she met during her travels. The poems in this collection tell Cisneros’s own life story from a more mature voice. As the title suggests, the major emphasis is on the author’s dealing with her own sexuality and feelings of guilt associated with her “wicked” ways. Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories appeared in 1991. Its twenty-two narratives or cuentitos focus on Mexican American characters who live near San Antonio, Texas. Cisneros surveys the Mexican American woman’s condition, which is at once individual and universal. She addresses contemporary issues associated with stereotypical roles, minority status, and cultural conflicts.

Loose Woman consists of sixty love poems that verge on the erotic and cover a broad spectrum of emotions. The poems are organized into three sections: “Little Clown, My Heart”; “The Heart Rounds up the Usual Suspects”; and “Heart, My Lovely Hobo.” In these poems, Cisneros breaks loose from feelings of guilt and celebrates her womanhood.

Caramelo marked Cisneros’s return to long fiction, with a more conventional novelistic form than her previous works. The dominant metaphor for this multigenerational story is the rebozo, or traditional Mexican shawl, owned by the main character’s grandmother. As with all of Cisneros’s fiction, there is a strongly autobiographical aspect to her heroine, Celaya, who travels between her nuclear family home in Chicago and the extended family home in Mexico City, and who grows up to become a poet.

In her first adult picture book, Have You Seen Marie? (2012), Cisneros uses the tale of the search for a lost cat to explore the themes of grief and community. Three years later, she published her first work of autobiographical nonfiction, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, which consists of a collection of pieces meant to cover common themes and memories over three decades of her life and writing.

Before developing her career as a writer, Sandra Cisneros worked as a teacher, counselor, and arts administrator. She is internationally recognized for her poetry and fiction in which she intermingles English and Spanish. Her poetry and short stories, though not copious, have earned for her recognition as an outstanding Chicana writer.

Author Works Long Fiction: The House on Mango Street, 1984 Caramelo, 2002 Short Fiction: Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories, 1991 Poetry: Bad Boys, 1980 The Rodrigo Poems, 1985 My Wicked Wicked Ways, 1987 Loose Woman, 1994 Children’s/Young Adult Literature: Hairs = Pelitos, 1984 Bravo Bruno!, 2012 Miscellaneous: Have You Seen Marie?, 2012 Nonfiction: A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, 2015 Bibliography Brady, Mary Pat. “The Contrapunctal Geographies of Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories.” American Literature 71, no. 1 (March, 1999): 117-150. Particularly interesting essay outlines Cisneros’s work not just as Hispanic literature but also as American literature. Brady’s point seems validated by Cisneros’s support of specifically Texan writers through the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation (created in honor of her father). Chávez-García, Miroslava. "Revealing Ourselves to Ourselves." Women's Review of Books, vol. 33, no. 1, 2016, pp. 25–26. A review of Cisneros's nonfiction work A House of My Own: Stories from My Life. Cisneros, Sandra. “On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked, and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros.” Interview by Pilar E. Rodríguez Aranda. The Americas Review 18, no. 1 (1990): 64-80. In an enlightening interview, Cisneros discusses her identity as a Chicana, her development as a writer, and her use of poetry and modern myth in her fiction. The interview focuses on the collections My Wicked, Wicked Ways and The House on Mango Street. Cruz, Felicia J. “On the ‘Simplicity’ of Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street.” Modern Fiction Studies 47, no. 4 (2001): 910-946. Studies the varieties of representation in Cisneros’s novel. Doyle, Jacqueline. “More Room of Her Own: Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.” MELUS 19, no. 4 (Winter, 1994): 5-35. Discusses the complexity of the issue of multiethnicity within Hispanic literature, given the different perspectives of first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants. Asserts that recognizing generational differences is key to understanding Cisneros’s depictions of family life and family relationships. Griffin, Susan E. “Resistance and Reinvention in Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek.” In Ethnicity and the American Short Story, edited by Julie Brown. New York: Garland Publishing, 1997. Discusses the role that Mexican popular culture and traditional Mexican narratives play in limiting women’s sense of identity. Focuses primarily on the negative effects of popular romances in Mexico and televised soap operas. Madsen, Deborah L. Understanding Contemporary Chicana Literature. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2001. A close study of the work of Bernice Zamora, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Denise Chavez, Alma Luz Villanueva, and Loma de Cervantes. Includes an extensive bibliography. Matchie, Thomas. “Literary Continuity in Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street.” The Midwest Quarterly 37 (Autumn, 1995): 67-79. Discusses how The House on Mango Street uses Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884) and J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951) as literary models of adolescents growing up in a culturally oppressive world. Like Huck and Holden, Cisneros’s protagonist is innocent, sensitive, and vulnerable, and she grows mentally in the process of the narrative. Miriam-Goldberg, Caryn. Sandra Cisneros: Latina Writer and Activist. Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow, 1998. A biography in a series on Hispanic writers. Mullen, Harryette. “‘A Silence Between Us Like a Language’: The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek.” MELUS 21 (Summer, 1996): 3-20. Argues that Spanish as a code comprehensible to an inside group and as a repressed language subordinate to English are central issues in Woman Hollering Creek. Olivares, Julian. “Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street, and the Poetics of Space.” The Americas Review 15, nos. 3/4 (1987): 160-170. This essay is an in-depth analysis of the stories of The House on Mango Street in terms of Cisneros’s distinctive use of the metaphor of a house situated in a Latino neighborhood. Contains bibliographical references pertinent to The House on Mango Street. Sagel, Jim. “Sandra Cisneros: Conveying the Riches of the Latin American Culture Is the Author’s Literary Goal.” Publishers Weekly 238 (March 29, 1991): 74-75. In this informative interview, Cisneros speaks about the influence that her childhood had on her writing. The interview touches upon the personal side of the writer and includes a brief description of the genesis of the collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. Saldívar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Valuable resource places Cisneros within the context of Latina literature. Addresses Cisneros’s works as political statements concerning not just ethnicity or gender but also the separate aims of different Hispanic generations. Sanborn, Geoffrey. “Keeping Her Distance: Cisneros, Dickinson, and the Politics of Private Enjoyment.” Publications of the Modern Language Association 116, no. 5 (2001): 1334-1348. Analyzes Cisneros’s use of a poem by Emily Dickinson in The House on Mango Street as a means of evoking the pleasures of withdrawal from face-to-face sociality. Thomkins, Cynthia. “Sandra Cisneros.” In American Novelists Since World War II, Fourth Series, edited by James R. Giles and Wanda H. Giles. Vol. 152 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit, Mich.: Gale Group, 1995. Concise, clearly written discussion of Cisneros’s life and works provides a good starting point for a student beginning research on the author. Includes a list of additional sources to which students can go for further information. Thompson, Jeff. “‘What Is Called Heaven?’ Identity in Sandra Cisneros’s Woman Hollering Creek.” Studies in Short Fiction 31 (Summer, 1994): 415-424. States that the overall theme of the stories is the vulnerability of the female narrators. The vignettes should be read as symptomatic of a social structure that allows little cultural movement and little possibility for the creation of an identity outside the boundaries of the barrio. Tokarczyk, Michelle M. Class Definitions: On the Lives and Writings of Maxine Hong Kingston, Sandra Cisneros, and Dorothy Allison. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 2008. Discusses the lives and work of the three authors, focusing on their shared traits as working-class writers, as evidenced by their concern with providing a voice for the voiceless. Includes a previously unpublished interview with Cisneros. Wyatt, Jean. “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): 243-271. Discusses how the stories describe the difficulties of living on the border between Anglo-American and Mexican cultures and how the female protagonists of the stories struggle with sexuality and motherhood as icons that limit their identity.

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