For Latinas of Mexican descent, a few women have reached saint-like status. There’s Selena, obviously, but for the bookish among us, Sandra Cisneros is the Patron Saint of Chingonas. Widely known as the author of The House on Mango Street, which tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, a young Mexican girl growing up in Chicago, Cisneros’s was a needed voice—and her success surprising, given the whiteness of the literary world.
But the Chicago-born, Chicana writer was—and has always been—a fierce talent. No one writes like Cisneros, and for a long time, no one told the stories she did so masterfully in her poems and novels, the stories of Mexican people, of working class people. Perhaps most importantly, she wrote her life, a life many of us didn’t know was an option as “nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife.”
My first introduction to Cisneros came by way of Jessica Rodriguez, a big-haired, loud-mouthed, bespectacled Latina I met in middle school. She had the greatest cackle and left me long voicemails on my family phone, sometimes relaying her school day, sometimes belting out “Paloma Negra” in a way that would make Chavela Vargas proud. My friend of almost 20 years—and Cisneros herself—were my introductions to a feminism that wasn’t white.
Loose Woman was the first book I ever held in my hands by a Latina. I had no idea Latinas could write books, that they could be, as Cisneros says, women of letters. I didn’t know Spanish could so seamlessly be woven into literature, the way my father went back and forth in a single conversation or depending on who he was speaking to. I didn’t know I would ever get to read writing that so accurately reflected what it was like to be the only daughter of a traditional Mexican man. I didn’t know we could own our sexuality. I didn’t know there were poems written by brown women about being a brown woman. When I read “You Bring Out the Mexican in Me,” it was fucking over. My life changed forever, and I’m not the only one.
When I spoke to Cisneros this summer, she told me she never planned any of this, and there was no way to anticipate it. To this day, she has no idea where she got the idea to be a writer because she never met one growing up. But here she is, an international success, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, and the founder of two organizations that serve writers, the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation. She has also changed the literary landscape and—borrowing from Laverne Cox—become a “possibility model” to generations of Latinas who, for the first time, recognize their families and hear their own voices in the pages of books.
The author’s latest, A House of My Own: Stories From My Life, reads very much like a love letter to Latinas, though Cisneros says this wasn’t intentional. From how we dress (“Huipiles”) and how we mourn (“Vivan los Muertos”) to leaving the family home without a husband, A House of My Own is a compilation of true stories and non-fiction pieces that form a “jigsaw autobiography” of the author’s life. The thread that connects each story is the idea of home and all that means: building your own for the first time, belonging to two countries, and how our childhood homes shape us.
Cisneros is kind and warm and honest, everything you hope your literary hero will be. In August, she talked to me about how her feminism took shape, making Mexico her permanent home, and entering a new phase of her life.
In A House of My Own, you discussed how your “Chicana feminism” began with Norma Alarcón and that you arranged and diminished events in Mango Street as you came into your feminism. Tell me about your feminism. How did it take shape, what informed it?
I feel like the message of feminism has never been clear and part of the reason for that is because it’s filtered through media. Look at who is in the media, writing the stories. It’s filtered to such a degree that it’s not reflective of the real issues at hand. The feminism that people see today is from a white feminist mirror.
I came into feminism in my 20s, but I felt no connection to the women’s movement. I had no access to journals. Like a lot of people, everything I saw came from the media. Burning bras, really? I was so flat-chested, I wanted my bra! It wasn’t until grad school, through a coalition of Mexican and Native American students that I was exposed to a feminism that resonated with me. There was less than 12 of us, but it was the first time I felt at home on campus.
In A House of My Own, you talk about a pivotal moment in your life when Norma visits you. Can you talk about that?
Feminism didn’t really make sense to me until I met Norma. In my 20s, I was trying to live the way only white women were living. I left my father’s house, I was taking lovers, I was working on being comfortable in my own skin, walking around nude. The first time Norma came to my apartment she looked around and said, “How did you do it?” It was the first time I felt like my accomplishment had really been seen and I felt so validated, and of course it was from another Chicana. Only she could understand how hard it had been to have a place of my own, to leave my father’s house without getting married, to write.
There was no model for us brown girls. I’d never known any women of letters. I was living like a white girl, that’s the only way I could characterize it because owning your sexuality, having a place of your own away from your family, that was so unusual for a working class Latina at the time.
I feel like that’s still relevant today for a lot of Latinas. Leaving home without a husband, pursuing creative work, those are still such accomplishments.
It sounds funny—and maybe it’s still this way, but the only way to get a place of your own was through banishment for your sexual transgressions. In our homes, Latinas get punished for owning their sexuality. That is very threatening to our families. It’s very similar to gay kids who get kicked out for coming out. In a Latino context, I see those experiences as very related. In my early days, I ran with a bunch Latinos from Chicago. When I made the move to the Southwest, I found a beautiful community of gay men that welcomed me and became my spiritual family. There was a kinship that came from having experienced similar things in life.
For some reason, I was very surprised to learn that you were actually closer and on better terms with your father than you were with your mother.
There’s no nice way to say it: My mom was mean, but because she was frustrated by life. She opened a path for me for a life that she would have liked for herself. It was a paradox; she opened this path, but at the same time she resented me for taking it. It took me a long time to understand all of this, my mother’s pain and frustration.
In terms of my father, loving me that much was a barbed wire fence I had to jump over. He allowed me to dream, even though he didn’t understand me, but I also felt so smothered. I was my father’s favorite child. I was hypersensitive and I needed a core of my father’s approval. I have a theory; I’ve asked the successful Latinas I know this question: Were you your father’s favorite child? They all said yes! I think there’s something to that. Even if our fathers don’t entirely understand us, being their favorite child somehow gives us this core of strength that helps us endure the beatings we receive from life.
The act of leaving your father’s house to live alone is so central to A House of My Own. Could you have written, become the artist you’ve become, gone on the adventures you’ve gone on, had you stayed in his house longer?
That’s hard to say. What I do know is that I would have had to lead a duplicitous life. I would have had to lie to my father. At that age, it would have been very hard for me because my approach was to clobber my parents with the truth. I did tell the truth, but I told as much as my father could handle – and that’s because I did so much that even his sons didn’t do.
It’s not a question of if I could have stayed longer. I didn’t think I could stand it any longer than I did because I hated not having a place for an exploration of myself not just as a writer, but as a young woman exploring her sexuality. Exploring my body and my writing was the same thing. At 60, I’m still discovering who I am in both senses.
When and why have you felt most at home in your body and in your home, are they one in the same, do they rarely overlap, do they always overlap?
They’re the same thing. When I feel safe in my home, I feel safe in my body and vice versa. I feel happiest in my home and my body when I allow myself to loaf around. A fabulous day is reading the paper, reading a delicious book in bed, and seeing no one. It’s a romantic day with me. I just want to be in a state of creating and having these kinds of days invite me to write. Loafing around is like enjoying a beautiful meal, it’s just pleasurable.
You must feel safe in your physical space. You have to have a state of safety and peace, safety from intrusion. You have to carve out private time to be your own confidant. This helps you see the beauty around you, and more importantly, it helps you write.
This collection touches on a lot of themes, but overarchingly, it feels like a love letter to Latinas. You touch on so many subjects that are so meaningful to so many of us, from the way we dress to how we mourn. You also highlighted the powerful friendships you’ve had with women. Was this intentional?
I never intend anything in life. It comes from the heart or I can’t be satisfied. When I started thinking about this collection, I didn’t even know the form it would take or the style. The metaphor that’s revisited continuously is the home. Home to me is very cloudy, especially as I live here in San Miguel. I began to feel less at home in the United States after 9/11—especially in Texas.
Do you feel at home in San Miguel?
I feel more at home than I have in a long time. This is my oasis. This is a place that attracts eccentrics, which is why, in part, I feel at home. But its not just the people, really; it’s the land. It’s the culture and the architecture. I’ve never lived in a place where all of these things were integrated into community life.
For The House on Mango Street’s 10th anniversary, you wrote about how in Iowa City in your early 20s, you felt the “otherness” deeply for the first time. Can you still be made to feel this otherness, even after attaining your level of success?
Of course! I feel it every day. The difference is I’m not afraid of it anymore. That’s the place to write from. You eventually get to a place where otherness can be a gift. I don’t see it as a disservice anymore. It’s something to explore.
Does it ever make you feel insecure?
Sometimes. I’m very shy with other writers. I feel less myself around them. I’m so used to being in my head and on the page, but when I come out of my shell around other authors I realize it’s not a big deal. No one really cares. It’s all in my head.
In San Miguel, I don’t yet have the identity of “author” that follows me in the US. Here, I’m just a person, like any other.
Mostly, my insecurity comes from other things these days. I’m not as eloquent. I don’t know as much as I’d like. My Spanish isn’t up to par. I feel these expectations when there’s a mic in front of me and in Mexico, it’s like starting a new school and being the new kid in class.
What have you learned about yourself living in Mexico?
It’s not like I have never been here. I’m come my whole life, starting when I was a child. I guess I’ve learned what it’s like to feel alive again. It took coming here to realize how numbed I was by everything in the US—the air conditioning, the Kardashians, which are like a never-ending US telenovela.
I’m also really understanding how ridiculous it is when Mexico is characterized as “violent” by the US. There’s a race war in the US, black people are being killed. Brown people are being detained—and Mexico is the place that’ volatile? I’m not saying racism doesn’t exist here, not at all. It’s just as insidious, especially in this community. This is not paradise in that way, but with my dual citizenship I’m able to see the realities of both countries.
I’m sure you hear this a lot, but the fact that you exist as a writer has been inspirational to generations of Latinas and your level of success has enabled us to dream bigger. Do you ever feel any pressure surrounding that, of holding that much importance to so many?
Every time I hear anything like that, it means the world to me—and honestly, I’m still looking for my own role models. There are few other Latina writers who can tell me what it’s like to be 60 and in this place professionally. I spent a lot of time learning about women in the history of the arts, women from all over the map like Zelda Fitzgerald and Maria Callas. I focus on women who blazed their own path because I’m in need of models.
I see myself as intuitive, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have doubts about my path, my decisions, my choices. I’m always looking for books to guide me. I’m always looking for women to give me direction.
At this age, I’m also very interested in books that will help elevate myself into a spiritual being. Not religious writing, but writing that makes me more aware of who I am and how I graduate to the next class. I don’t live to write; I live to grow. I’m interested in the sacred and spiritual.
I strongly believe my next phase will be the most important of my life. I’m not looking to compete or to complete projects; I’m looking at the time I have available, the time I have left to figure myself out.
Do you ever long for youth?
I think the pain of youth pushed me to write, but I’m happy where I’m at. I don’t think of the past in those terms. I don’t feel I missed anything to long for. The true objective that went hand-in-hand with writing was being happy in my own company—and I am.
People always ask me, “Don’t you feel like you’re missing something not having kids or a husband?” I also get, “Have you found love?” I’m not missing anything; I don’t feel deficient or devoid of anything. I’m not missing love. I’m still as much of a sexual being as I ever was, perhaps even more so, but I no longer need another being to fulfill my sexuality.
People in the past kept me from things, from my work and myself, people who often made me unhappy or didn’t understand me. I don’t have time to put up with payasos, and I don’t need to. I’ve become more sensual and sexual and the whole world is my lover. It might sound absurd to some people, but I don’t care. I’m happy every day. Every day, I feel so alive.
Image via AP