The only daughter of first-generation Mexicans parents, Cisneros struggled to forge a coherent identity — the lone female amid a house dominated by men (she had six brothers), she was a young woman trying to figure out how her Mexican heritage fit into an America shaken by the turbulence of the 1960s.
Poetry was her refuge. Following undergraduate work at Loyola University of Chicago, Cisneros headed to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. As ever, she struggled to fit in and to find her voice. Things changed when she decided to look inward and work from that place she knew best. She told the story of a young Mexican-American woman dealing with family and culture on the west side of Chicago.
“I wrote what would become The House on Mango Street on the side, not for my thesis but as a kind of life jacket to support me through a difficult graduate school experience,” Cisneros says by phone from her current home in Mexico.
“So even though I was in the poetry workshop and writing a poetry thesis, I began that book writing it just for myself. I was told very early on by my thesis advisor that it wasn’t poetry. And I agreed, because I was experimenting and trying to incorporate the two genres that I loved — fiction and poetry.”
Cisneros has written a number of diverse books since her debut, including last year’s A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, a memoir or sorts. But The House on Mango Street remains her best-known work.
“All these years later, I see it as the work of a young woman,” Cisneros says. “I’m pleased with what it’s done. I don’t feel upset with everybody loving that book because the reason why I wrote it was to find my own voice. Also, it was shaped and changed so much by my first job working as a high school teacher.”
Reading The House on Mango Street today, one can’t help but think of a certain Republican presidential candidate when taking in passages like this one from a chapter titled “Those Who Don’t”: “Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.”
Commenting on that observation, Cisneros says, “I think all politicians right now are operating from some place of absolute fear, especially the one you are naming (Donald Trump), but I wouldn’t say he is the only one. We don’t have anyone who’s comin from a place of calmness and wisdom. I don’t see it, and it’s frightening to me. The story that every politician tells is coming from a place of fear and not compassion, not listening and not working from a place of calmness.”
But, as ever, she sees literature as a salve.
“Stories are more and more important as I get older,” she says. “They may be delivered in different packages — maybe they don’t come covered between two pieces of cardboard anymore — but every day we’re just bombarded with stories. So I have to say that what we’re seeing, and what I’m seeing in my lifetime, is not the diminishing power of stories, but the growth of the power of the story.”
“I believe literature should change the world, it should change people’s lives, but I didn’t write it with that intent,” she says. “I wrote it to survive my own life. It has taught me a great spiritual lesson, and that is when you create things on behalf of others, with absolute love and no personal agenda, it will put us in a state of grace, and it will do the work of the spirit.”
SANDRA CISNEROS gives a literary non-fiction reading and the Taft Hispanic Lecture at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the University of Cincinnati’s Tangeman University Center. It is free and open to the public. More info: artsci.uc.edu.