Sandra Cisneros (b. 1954)
Contributing Editor: Lora Romero
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students generally find reading Cisneros a delightful experience. The brevity and humor of her stories help make them accessible even to those unfamiliar with the Mexican-American culture in which much of her writing is set. In fact, one of my colleagues taught Cisneros very successfully to students in Galway, Ireland.
One potential source of discomfort for students is Cisneros's manifestly feminist sensibility. Some students may accuse her (as they would accuse virtually any other feminist writer) of "man-bashing." When this issue comes up, I point out that, ironically, defining feminism in that way makes men the center of attention. Then I encourage students to talk about what they think feminism means and/or should mean. Sometimes students with more sophisticated definitions of feminism can convince their peers that feminism does not reduce to man-hating; in any case, giving the students a forum for talking through the issue is usually productive since it is one about which they will probably have strong (if unexamined and unarticulated) opinions.
The feminism of women of color, however, is complicated by ethnic identification. Some students will be assuming that ethnic authors should offer only "positive" images of minorities--which means, in effect, talking about sexism in minority communities is off-limits. I encourage students to interrogate their assumptions about ethnic authors' "duties." At the same time, I acknowledge that being both a woman of color and a feminist can be a difficult task since one of the stereotypes of Latino men (and non-white men generally) is that "they treat their women badly." Then I try to turn students' attention back to the text to see if they can find evidence that some tension between ethnic and gender identity is shaping the narrative.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Students may bring to Cisneros's work a conception of immigrant culture that is based on the model of European immigration to the United States. That model is not entirely appropriate; in fact, Chicanos have a saying: "We didn't come to the United States. It came to us." Before the Mexican-American War (1846-48), most of what is now the southwestern United States (including Texas and California) was part of Mexico. After the war, many erstwhile Mexicans automatically became U.S. citizens when it annexed the land where Mexicans had lived since the sixteenth century. Reminding students that national boundaries are often arbitrarily imposed should help deepen their understanding of national culture. In addition, most students will have only linear and unidirectional models of "assimilation" for understanding ethnic cultures, but the culture of Latinos living in the U.S. has been shaped by a very different historical experience. Anthropologists and historians have argued that the southwestern United States is really part of a much older, regional culture that includes Northern Mexico, and that this regional culture is constantly being reinvigorated by a continuous flow of population back and forth over the border.
One important theme in Cisneros's work is the heterogeneity of the Mexican-American community (as it is expressed through differences of class, gender, education, language use, politics, and so on). Cisneros is, typically, more interested in detailing the dynamics of her own community rather than representing conflicts between Anglo-Americans and Mexican-Americans. Conflicts between Anglo and Latino cultures are, of course, present in Cisneros's writing, but they often take the form of encounters between relatively assimilated Latinos and relatively unassimilated ones.
The shape of such encounters undoubtedly reflects personal issues in the sense that Cisneros, as an educated, middle-class intellectual, seems simultaneously committed to identifying with her Mexican-American characters and to never losing sight of her difference from them. Often in her stories, there is a narrator or character who seems to represent Cisneros herself: a Chicana artist who has done something to scandalize her community, who exists (as it were) on the border between Mexican-American and Anglo-American cultures, and who has an uneasy relation to both.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Cisneros's stories typically move in the direction of reconciliation of the Chicana intellectual with the Mexican-American community, but not all of her stories achieve that resolution. Cisneros's work thus provides fertile grounds for discussion of the politics of narrative closure. For this reason, it would be helpful if, before reading Cisneros, students had some sense of the conventions of the short story. Cisneros writes in a modernist narrative mode with both North American and Latin American precursors. Her stories do not typically center on a single consciousness or point of view; they are often populated by voices rather than characters; if there is an identifiable narrator, she is usually ironized.
In a more advanced class where you can assume some familiarity with modernist narrative, you could use Cisneros as a test case for differentiating between modernism and postmodernism. In addition to formal considerations, some topics crucial to such a discussion would include Cisneros's feminism, her ethnic identification, and her attitude toward mass culture.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
To encourage students to think about how ethnic feminist writers negotiate between their gender and their ethnic identifications, it would be worthwhile to compare Cisneros to writers like Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Louise Erdrich, and Helena María Viramontes. On the other hand, reading Cisneros in the context of contemporary Latin American women writers (for example, Claire Lipesector, Isabel Allende, Carolina María de Jesus) would put pressure on received categories of national/cultural identity. Including even one Latin American writer at the end of a course on what is called "American Literature" can be a useful way of getting students to think about the ethnocentrism of the term and the politics of cultural study more generally.
For contrast as much as comparison, Cisneros might also be placed in the context of nonfiction writings by lesbian Chicana writers like Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. The comparison/contrast helps bring attention to the specifically heterosexual nature of Cisneros's feminism: How does the fact that Cisneros is heterosexual (and hence unable to declare herself simply "independent" of men) shape her articulation of feminism and illuminate the particular erotic dilemmas faced by her female characters? In order to highlight the question of class, pairing Cisneros with Tomás Rivera works well because--although Cisneros has certain stylistic affinities with Rivera--his work is more obviously compatible with the version of Chicano identity constructed by the Chicano movement.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
"Little Miracles, Kept Promises" appears to be a compilation of voices with no authorial intervention; as students are reading, encourage them to think about Cisneros's agency by noticing what kinds of voices she includes and which she excludes, if some voices seem to speak with more authority than others, and which voices (if any) represent the authorial perspective.
Cisneros's House on Mango Street has already generated a number of critical responses, including: Ellen McCracken, "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence" in Asunción Horno-Delgado et. al. (eds.), Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings (1989); Julián Olivares, "Sandra Cisneros' 'The House on Mango Street' and the Poetics of Space" in María Hererra-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes (eds.), Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature (1988); and Ramón Saldívar, Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference (1990) and Alvina E. Quintana, Home Girls: Chicana Literary Voices (1996). There is also a growing body of work on Woman Hollering Creek. Particularly interesting studies of language, identity, and authenticity can be found in Katherine Rios, "'And you know what I have to say isn't always pleasant': Translating the Unspoken Word in Cisnreos' Woman Hollering Creek" in María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes (eds.), Chicana (W)rites on Word and Film (1995); Jean Wyatt, "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); and Harryette Mullen, "'A Silence between Us Like a Language': The Untranslatability of Experience in Sandra Cisneros's Woman Hollering Creek," MELUS 21 (summer 1996). One study of Woman Hollering Creek in the context of inter-American feminism is Sonia Saldívar-Hull's "Feminism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics" in Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar (eds.), Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology (1991).