Hello, and welcome back to another edition of Belle Lettres! The Belle for the month of May is Sandra Cisneros. Cisneros is a poet, novelist, and short story writer. Her writings explore subjects that are based on her personal experiences growing up, such as economic inequalities and forming one’s identity between two cultures. Her coming-of-age novel, The House on Mango Street, is her most acclaimed work and has been translated into many languages.
Sandra Cisneros was born on December 20, 1954, to Alfredo Cisneros de Moral and Elvira Cordero Anguiano in Chicago, Illinois. The third of seven children, Cisneros and her family moved constantly between Chicago and Mexico to visit her paternal grandfather and because of her father’s job as an upholsterer. Between being the only girl in the family and not feeling stable, Cisneros felt isolated growing up. Interestingly enough, it was this same feeling of loneliness that turned Cisneros to writing. Her mother also played an important role in developing her writing interest since she was an avid reader herself.
Thanks to a teacher’s encouragement, Cisneros began to write poetry and was the literary editor for her high school newspaper. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Loyola University in 1976, and she received her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. While attending the workshop, Cisneros realized how important it was for her to use her own voice and experiences in her writing instead of trying to be like the mostly male and white voices in the literary canon.
In 1980, Cisneros published her first book: a chapbook of seven poems called Bad Boys. Cisneros published her most well-known debut novel, The House on Mango Street, in 1984. Drawing from different aspects of her childhood, The House on Mango Street is a coming-of-age story about a young Latina girl named Esperanza. Esperanza, who lives in a Latino neighborhood in Chicago, often feels alienated and dreams of having a whole house so she can carve out a space for herself.
The characters in The House on Mango Street are based on the people that Cisneros knew in her neighborhood growing up. In a interview with NPR, Cisneros stated that the creation for Mango Street began when she attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop: “And I realize now that I was creating something new. I was cross-pollinating fiction and poetry and writing something that was the child of both. I was crossing borders and didn’t know it.” The House on Mango Street has been on reading lists for schools across the country, and it won the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation in 1985.
In 1987, Cisneros published her first full collection of poetry called My Wicked, Wicked Ways. In this collection, Cisneros continues the themes of finding one’s self between two cultures and of women finding their sexuality. Split into four different sections, she writes about living life as a woman without the expectations that comes with it: being a wife and a mother. Cisneros’ incorporation of Spanish words into her writing is used to punctuate certain emotions that she feels wouldn’t be conveyed with English words.
Cisneros published a short story collection titled Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories in 1991. Divided into vignettes, she once again challenges the societal expectations of women being married when the main character becomes independent through her relationships with other women. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories won Cisneros the following awards: PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction, Lannan Foundation Literary Award, the Quality Paperback Book Club New Voices Award, and the 1993 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award.
Besides using writing to connect with others, Cisneros also uses writing as a way of giving back to others. Cisneros founded the Latino MacArthur Fellows that focuses on community outreach. She is also founder of the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation, which is a grant-based institution for Texas writers.
In 2002, Cisneros released her second novel, Caramelo — which was selected for Book of the Year awards by publications such as the Chicago Tribune and the New York Times. Vintage Cisneros, a compilation of various works by Cisneros, was released in 2003. Cisneros’ memoir, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, was recently published in October 2015.
Now residing in San Antonio, Texas, Sandra Cisneros is viewed as a major figure in Chicana literature. Cisneros explored the importance of women building relationships with one another, of challenging sexist attitudes toward women, and of finding your own place between two cultures where you feel like you don’t belong.