DECEMBER 8, 2015
SANDRA CISNEROS is best known for the coming-of-age novel The House on Mango Street, about Esperanza, a Mexican-American girl who turns to writing for solace from her chaotic Chicago family life. With her newest book, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life — a collection of nonfiction narratives arranged like a family photograph album — fans of Cisneros will finally find out whether Esperanza’s story was based on the author’s real experience. In a tone that is intimate and inviting — indeed, we feel we are sitting right next to the author as she sips tea (or chugs tequila) at her home in Mexico, and recounts her adventures with a laugh and a shake of the head: Ay Dios mio.
That is not to say Cisneros’s memoir is insular, accessible only to women, or writers, or those from immigrant backgrounds, though it does lean towards all of the above. Much of the book is focused on the hardships of writing — the loneliness, the sacrifices, the financial rollercoaster — and it is as much an ode to pursuing one’s passion despite all odds as it is a meditation on family, friends, and finding a home. After all, for Cisneros, home means picking up her pen. She makes this distinction early on in a chapter aptly titled “No Place Like Home.” Finding kinship between herself and the writers Betty Smith and Thomas Wolfe, she says, “we are branches of the same tree. Your people are my people, whither thou goest, me too.” This yearning to find her place among writers is what propels her to set out on her own; something, she points out, Mexicans don’t do “except by way of marriage.” As she further explains her status as a single woman, she was “a woman whom no one came for and no one chased away.”
It is this kind of push and pull between the heart and the mind, that fine line between faith and uncertainty, destruction and creation, that inspires a self-inflicted diaspora of sorts. First, she journeys to graduate school at the Iowa Writers Workshop, one of the most prestigious programs in the country. Though she studies poetry there, she finds herself squirreling away vignettes about her neighborhood, her culture and upbringing — what she calls her “otherness.” This sensation tugs on her sleeve like an annoying child. Of her protagonist in The House on Mango Street, she states that “writing in a younger voice allowed me to speak, to name that thing without a name, that shame of being poor, of being female, of being not quite good enough.”
After completing her degree, Cisneros flees to Greece to finish what will become her famous novel, and, “to please,” as she puts it, a man she calls “my Chicago nemesis,” because she “wanted him to admire me, instead of the other way round.” From here, we follow her on her quest for enlightenment, for worldliness, artistic substance, and a career to sustain her. What she finds along the way is much more, including poverty, war, loss, and a depression that nearly kills her. She also happens to come across a gaggle of colorful folk that in some way reinforce her resolve. These are her teachers: writers, brujas, ancestors, and friends — people who inspire her faith.
The book — stitched together like a kind of ceremonial huipil — pays homage to them all; the patterns arranged in no specific order, and sometimes overlapping, but cohesive in the author’s intention to assemble a picture of the mansion of the spirit. More often than not, her various guides appear in her dreams. Though the narratives sometimes echo too loudly of Mexican folklore and Day of the Dead, Cisneros is quick to remind us that, “writing is a resistance, an act against forgetting, a war against oblivion, against not counting, as women,” and that she is “listening to voices nobody listened to, setting their lives down on paper how many years later?”
Cisneros, who turned 60 last December, knows firsthand the struggle that comes with being female. Her lifelong quest to find strength and creative inspiration as a Mexican-American woman writer has been tough:
I’ve managed to do a lot of things in my life I didn’t think I was capable of and which many others didn’t think I was capable of either. Especially because I am a woman, a Latina, an only daughter in a family of six men.
In A House of My Own, she not only honors her womanhood, her “Mexicanness,” and the lives of other women, as being instrumental in her becoming a writer, but also the poverty she experienced as a child. She recounts those early years in Chicago as being “constantly broke.” Living in cheaply rented flat after flat, year after year, taught Cisneros and her siblings “to value what we worked for, to recognize others who, like us, didn’t have much, to be generous to others because we hadn’t had much.” These times (along with The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, a picture book that she and her brother borrowed from the library 17 times) spark a desire for a place to call her own.
Cisneros has definitely found a place in the world of letters, but longing for a home has kept her spirit restless. For a writer, a house not only means security and stability, but a place to work undisturbed. This house of her own, finally, she imagines might be “someplace to protect me from folks who want to interrupt my writing.” She is ready for a little privacy, “so I can wash under the sky and think and think. I want a house to take care of me.”
And yet, Cisneros’s preoccupation with the idea of home goes beyond a subject near and dear to her creative spirit. In post-9/11, financial breakdown, recession, and culturally divided America, the question of what home means is perhaps more loaded than at any other time. What exactly does it mean, now, to be an American, especially for a Mexican-American?
At age 58, Cisneros decides to ditch her home in San Antonio and move to Mexico. This move, partially attributed to gentrification in her American neighborhood and the battle over the color of her house in San Antonio, (she’d painted it periwinkle, and the Historic and Design Review Commission complained) prompts a deeper look into her reasons for living in the United States at all.
The border is locked in a passionate embrace of north and south, of desire and rage, and from this coupling a new culture has erupted. I was told that my house was “not appropriate to history” and that the issue was “not about taste” but about “historical context.” But my point is this: Whose history?
In this way, Cisneros seems to be taking a stand against racism in this country, though what she longs for is safety. Cisneros is a self-described miedosa, a scaredy-cat, and it’s the fear that “bliss might be interrupted by the last word sent through the window in a ball of fire” that sparks her to uproot. Still, she sums up being an expatriate as yet another reason to explore “the house of the self.”
Leaving the United States wasn’t easy for Cisneros. For more than two decades Cisneros has been busy helping others through her various creative endeavors like the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation, the Elvira Cisneros Award, and the Macondo Foundation, all of which work on behalf of Latino creative writers. Over time, her stake in their success morphed into something bigger, more personal, and perhaps, she worries, not entirely healthy. She comes to realize they’ve taken over. “I am not my house […] I can let go everything I’ve built, the art collections purchased to take care of painter friends, the office I created to please my mother, the foundations for fellow writers, the house I thought I would leave upon death.”
Though leaving the United States is a relief, it’s not as if she feels entirely comfortable on the other side of the border; she has neither a husband or children after all, and no family left in Mexico. On the Mexico side of the border, she is forced to confront some of the same issues as in the United States. At one point, she is surprised to be refused service in the main room of a fancy restaurant that caters to gringos. She realizes she has been mistaken for a local, and even after she makes it clear to the manager that she’s a writer and an American, he is none too apologetic. The snub is clearly felt. “Welcome to Mexico. México lindo y querido,” she states. Mexico, lovely and loved.
And so the question remains. What exactly makes a home? Is it four walls? The respect of one’s neighbors? The proximity of friends and family? If A House of My Own leaves the reader with no answers, it’s because there aren’t any. The reader might have expected Cisneros to feel a sense of home at last in her new house in San Miguel, surrounded by the old world — cobblestone streets and old churches — as much as the new one with its fancy restaurants and foreigners galore. But wherever she settles, even when she settles, she is Sandra Cisneros, a wandering spirit and creator of stories. “Stories without beginning or end, connecting everything little and large, blazing from the center of the universe into el infinito called the great out there.
Sandra Ramirez is a writer and a photographer. Her most recent work has appeared in Free State Review for which she received a notable mention in Best American Essays 2014. She is currently at work on a collection of poems about homelessness in America.