Last reviewed: June 2017
Writer and activist
December 20, 1954
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.
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.