Sandra Cisneros (born December 20, 1954) said that she writes about the memories that will not let her sleep at night—about the stories that are waiting to be told. Drawing on the memories of her childhood and her cultural identity—the run-down, crowded apartment, the double-edged sword of being American yet not being considered American, the sight of women in her community closed in behind apartment windows—Cisneros’s fiction avoids any romantic clichés of life in the barrio. Despite the sobering themes upon which Cisneros touches—poverty, sexism, and racism—she tells her stories with a voice that is at the same time strong, playful, and deceptively simple. Cisneros’s distinctive style is marked by the grace with which Spanish words and phrases are woven into her stories. Central to her stories is a preoccupation with the house, the community, and the condition of women. Her images are vivid and lyrical. She acknowledges that she was influenced in style by the mix of poetry and fiction in Jorge Luis Borges’s El hacedor (1960; Dreamtigers, 1964). Indeed, while Cisneros herself classifies her fiction as stories that read like poems, critics have not reached an agreement, labeling her works The House on Mango Street and Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories alternatively as novels, short-story collections, series of vignettes, and prose poems.
The House on Mango Street
The series of sketches in The House on Mango Street offers a bittersweet view of life in a Chicago barrio. Readers follow the young adolescent narrator Esperanza—whose name (as explained in the story “My Name”) means “hope” in Spanish and also implies too many letters, sadness, and waiting—as she makes the discoveries associated with maturing. She introduces the reader to her neighbors and her neighborhood, making them as familiar to the reader as they are to her. In the title story, Esperanza explains how her family came to live on Mango Street. The family had hoped that the house on Mango Street would be like the ones they had always dreamed of—with real stairs and several bathrooms and a great big yard with trees and grass.
Esperanza sadly explains, however, that their house does not fulfill this wish at all. She is ashamed of her red brick house, as she has been of all of her family’s previous dwellings. She succinctly describes the embarrassment that she experienced when the family was living on Loomis and she had to show her apartment to a nun from her school. She pointed to the family’s third-floor flat, located above a boarded-up laundry, and suffered the blow of the nun’s disbelieving response, “there?” From that moment, Esperanza knew that she had to have a house—one that she could show with pride to people as if it were a reflection of herself. She was sure the family would have such a house soon. Yet the house on Mango Street is not that house.
Bums in the Attic
Because Esperanza remarks that she wants a house “all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias. My books and my stories,” Cisneros has been read as creating a grasping and selfish protagonist. Yet the section titled “Bums in the Attic” dispels this notion of untoward individualism. In this sketch—which resembles one of Cisneros’s favorite children’s stories, Virginia Lee Burton’s The Little House (1978), in which the owners of a house on a country hill promise the house never to sell it—Esperanza speculates about the grand home on a hill that she will have someday. As much as she wants to leave Mango Street, however, she stresses that even in her country home she will not forget from where she came. She will not make her house a secured palace that locks out the world; she will instead offer her attic to the homeless so that they too will have a home.
Those Who Don’t
In “Those Who Don’t,” the young Esperanza discusses in a matter-of-fact tone the concept of being the “other” in society. She knows that people who happen into her neighborhood think that her community is dangerous, but she knows her neighbors by name and knows their backgrounds. Among her Latino friends she feels safe. Yet Esperanza can understand the stranger’s apprehension, for when she and her family venture out of the security of their neighborhood, their bodies get tense and their eyes look straight ahead.
Alicia Who Sees Mice
Cisneros’s concern for the place women hold in Latino society is evident in the powerful story “Alicia Who Sees Mice.” Alicia, Esperanza’s friend, must rise early every morning “with the tortilla star” and the mice in the kitchen to make her father’s lunch-box tortillas. Alicia’s mother has died, and, Esperanza remarks, young Alicia has inherited her mother’s duty as the family caregiver along with her “rolling pin and sleepiness.” Alicia has dreams of escaping this life of confinement and sacrifice, however, with a university education. She studies hard all night with the mice that her father says do not exist.With its precise imagery, “Alicia Who Sees Mice” is at once a criticism of patriarchal oppression of women and a beacon for those women who would struggle to break away from that oppression.
Minerva Writes Poems
The theme of education and writing as a means whereby women can escape from the barrio is also found in “Minerva Writes Poems.” Minerva is only a bit older than Esperanza, “but already she has two kids and a husband who left . . . and keeps leaving.” Minerva’s husband reappears sporadically, but their reunion usually ends in violence and abuse. Minerva cries every day over her bad situation and writes poems at night. In an act of artistic and sisterly solidarity, she and Esperanza read their poems to each other, yet at this point, Esperanza feels helpless, unable to stop the beatings. In her reply, “There is nothing I can do,” there is a sense that Esperanza is inciting Minerva to take action for herself as well as implying that society itself must change its attitudes.
This sisterly support for fulfillment through learning is echoed in “Edna’s Ruthie.” The title character is a talented but damaged woman who returns to her mother’s home when she can no longer care for herself. Her own fondness for books—for hearing and telling a good story—inspires Esperanza in her own creative endeavors. Ruthie is moved to tears by Esperanza’s recitation of children’s stories, a response that conveys to the young girl the power of the word.
Esperanza’s passage into adulthood is not without setbacks. In “Red Clowns,” she goes to the amusement park with her friend Sally. When the sexually precocious Sally abandons Esperanza to slip away with a boy, Esperanza is molested and possibly raped by an older boy who tells her, “I love you Spanish girl, I love you.” She is angry and sad and confused over the loss of her innocence. She cannot understand why everyone told her that sex would be so wonderful when, in fact, she found nothing pleasant about the perpetrator’s dirty fingernails and sour breath. She wants to forget that degrading experience; she does not want to speak its horror. She yells at her friend Sally for leaving her, but she also directs her anger at a society that is partner to such an awful lie.
The Three Sisters
The fundamental conflict that besets Esperanza is resolved in “The Three Sisters.” Although Esperanza has repeatedly voiced her desire to escape the barrio and its double bind of racism and sexism which snares many women, she nevertheless loves her community and cannot come to terms with deserting it. Then three wise, eccentric, and decidedly feminist sisters settle the issue. Young Esperanza is strong, talented, and destined to “go very far,” they tell her. Their encouraging words sanction her flight, yet the sisters remind her as well of the need for loyalty:
When you leave you must remember to come back for the others. A circle, understand? You will always be Esperanza. You will always be Mango Street. You can’t erase what you know. You can’t forget who you are.
Young Esperanza can finally look to a life beyond the confines of her repressive environment.
Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories
Likewise, Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories offers a glimpse into the lives of Chicanas who must confront daily the triple bind of not being considered Mexican, not being considered American, and not being male. Cisneros said that while the pieces ofWoman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories function individually, there is a single, unifying thread of vision and experience that runs throughout the collection of twenty-two narratives. Although the names of the narrators change with each work, each narrator retains a strong, determined, rebellious voice.
In “Eleven,” eleven-year-old Rachel’s birthday prompts her to consider what it means to grow older. The wisdom of her eleven years has taught her that the years “underneath” the birthday, like the rings inside a tree trunk, make one a certain age. When people want to cry, she reasons, it is the part of them that is three that brings on tears; when they are scared, it is the part in them that is five that registers fear. For this reason, Rachel explains, she was not able to act eleven years old today in school when her teacher wrongly accused her of forgetting an ugly red sweater that had been in the coatroom for a month. All the years were welling up inside her, preventing Rachel from telling everyone that it was not her sweater. Instead, she was silent. She tries to be happy and remember that today she is eleven and that her mother will have a cake for her when she goes home. The part of Rachel that is three, however, comes out in front of the class instead. She wishes she were anything but eleven.
One Holy Night
The narrator of the chilling “One Holy Night” is an adolescent girl who sells fruits and vegetables from her grandmother’s pushcart. She meets a wanderer named Chaq who tells her that he is a descendant of a long line of Mayan kings. Intrigued by his story, the young woman begins to follow Chaq to his little room behind an automobile garage after she has sold each day’s produce. Chaq spins mystic tales of the past and future greatness of his family’s lineage as he entices the girl into her first sexual experience. She returns home to her grandmother and uncle a changed woman, barely able to contain her excitement. The young woman’s secret, however, is soon discovered: She is pregnant. The family, in total disgrace, attempts to locate Chaq, who has since left town. Her uncle writes a letter in hope of finding the man who could correct his niece’s ruined life. A response arrives from Chaq’s sister. She explains that her brother’s name is actually Chato, which means “fat-face”; he is thirty-seven, not at all Mayan, and not at all royal. The girl’s family sends her to Mexico to give birth and to avoid disgrace. It is later learned that Chato has been captured and charged with the deaths of eleven women. The girl appears unfazed by the news, however, and continues to plan her dreams of children. She becomes indifferent to love.
Never Marry a Mexican
The title “Never Marry a Mexican” sums up the advice that the protagonist Clemencia was told as a young girl by her Chicana mother who regretted marrying a Mexican. Her mother’s words ultimately consign Clemencia to cultural and social marginality. Clemencia scorns the working-class Latino men in her life and refuses to consider any of them as potential husbands. However, ironically, the white men whom she favors follow the same advice her mother has instilled in her: They will become sexually involved with a Chicana, but they will not marry outside of their own race.
Caught uncomfortably between cultures, Clemencia attempts to make the most of her difficult status. She prides herself on remaining unattached, a seductress who beds white, married men while their wives are in the throes of childbirth. Yet her pain and loneliness are palpable. She nurses affection for one white married lover for eighteen years, eventually gaining revenge on him by entering into a sexual relationship with his son. For Clemencia, the unhealthy relationship yields and yet perverts what she ostensibly disavows: marriage and motherhood. Sexual intercourse with the young man, she believes, links her to his father and mother’s marital relations, of which he is the product, and her lover’s relative youth allows her to “mother” him.
Woman Hollering Creek
The collection’s title story is one of its strongest. It is a story of Cleófilas, a woman reared in a small town in Mexico not far from the Texas border. Cleófilas dreams of the romance and passion of the soap operas that she watches at her girlfriend’s house. She believes her fantasy is realized when she meets Juan Pedro, a Texan who wants to marry her right away, “without a long engagement since he can’t take off too much time from work.” Cleófilas is whisked away across the border to Seguin, Texas, a town like so many others, with nothing of interest to walk to, “built so that you have to depend on husbands.”
Life on “the other side” is, at first, a blessing for Cleófilas. Texas is the land of Laundromats and dream homes. Running behind their new house is a creek that all call Woman Hollering. Cleófilas wonders if the odd name is connected to tales of La Llorona, the tragic mythical figure known to wail after drowning her children. Her enthusiasm for her new life ends quickly, however, with a slap to her face by Juan Pedro. That slap will start a long line of abuse and cause Cleófilas to think flatly, “This is the man I have waited my whole life for.” Although she had always promised herself that she would not allow any man to hit her, Cleófilas, isolated at home, not allowed to correspond with her family, hindered by not knowing English, and afraid of Juan Pedro’s rage, stays with him. When she begins to suspect that Juan Pedro is unfaithful, she thinks about returning to her native town but fears disgrace and does not act. Cleófilas had always thought that her life would be like a soap opera, “only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief.” She becomes pregnant with their second child but is almost too afraid to ask Juan Pedro to take her to the clinic for prenatal care. Once at the clinic, Cleófilas breaks down and tells her plight to a sympathetic doctor who arranges a ride for her and her son to the bus station in San Antonio. The morning of their escape, Cleófilas is tense and frightened. As they pass overWoman Hollering Creek in a pickup truck, their spirited female driver lets out a Tarzan-like yell that startles her two passengers. On her way back to her father’s home, Cleófilas catches a glimpse of what it is to be an autonomous woman.
Other major works
Children’s literature: Hairs = Pelitos, 1984. novel: Caramelo, 2002.
Miscellaneous: Vintage Cisneros, 2004.
Poetry: Bad Boys, 1980; The Rodrigo Poems, 1985; My Wicked, Wicked Ways, 1987; Loose Woman, 1994.
Brady, Mary Pat. “The Contrapuntal Geographies of Woman Hollering Creek, and Other Stories.” American Literature 71 (March, 1999): 117-150.
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.
____________. “Sandra Cisneros: Conveying the Riches of the Latin American Culture Is the Author’s Literary Goal.” Interview by Jim Sagel. Publishers Weekly 238 (March 29, 1991): 74-75.
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, 1997.
May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.
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.
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
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.