So thirty years have now passed since the publication of The House on Mango Street. Its success has been remarkable, and there would seem to be no end in sight … Thirty years and more if we think about when she began the book, one day in the early 1980s…
I can still remember when, new in Chicago and in my job as Coordinator of UIC’s Latino student center, I went on a visit to Latino Youth Alternative High School in Pilsen, only to be introduced to a perky young Latina who, I was told, was a fine teacher and a promising community poet. “Oh,” she said, when I gave her my name, “I went to your presentation about Nicaraguan poetry last month at the Newberry Library.” “And did you enjoy it?” I asked. “Not really,” she answered. “I came to find out about the poetry and the poets and all you talked about was politics and revolution.” “Sorry,” I said. “Maybe I can make it up to you some day.” “Well I hope so, since you’re a doctor in Literature and you’re supposed to know about such things.”
Somehow, in spite of her initial rebuke, we became sometime friends, going together to poetry readings in different parts of the city, listening to music as it rained in Grant Park at the Chicago Jazz festival, hanging out at a blue club or coffee shop with Reggie Young, Beatriz Badikian, Carlos Cumpián, Diana Solís, Leonard Ramírez and other friends. I remember when we got some of her poems for our first issue of the Center’s Latino journal, Ecos; and I recall going to, to see how Sandra was doing as she led her city-funded City Songs Workshop every Saturday at the Ruíz Belvis Center on Milwaukee Avenue in Wicker Park. I remember some of those who attended: Salima Rivera, Chicago’s key Puerto Rican woman poet, now gone; Margarita López, our first Mexi-Rican writer—whatever happened to her?—and another Loyola U. Latina graduate, Migdalia Galarza who came in the door and talked to me while the workshoppers workshopped. I remember Sandra’s apartment, where I brought her some Mexican music only to have her tell me, “Sweets for the sweet, right?” And I remember her boy friend at the time, he of the Rodrigo poems in My Wicked, Wicked Ways, who happened to be a friend of mine. I remember when she urged me to date a Puerto Rican friend of hers who she felt should meet some one like me—that we’d be “good for each other,” she said—whatever that meant (Sorry Sandra, it just didn’t work out.)
I remember going to her readings, and yes, sometimes going with her and other friends to her presentations, at Crosscurrents, at a cultural center on the Southside and so many other places. I remember one of her first readings from her book-in-progress—were they just poetic vignettes or somehow part of a novel? (Carlos Cumpián and I laughed at first at the childlike voice, but then we realized we were hearing something pretty special—indeed remarkable). I remember the party at Guild Books just after she finished her manuscript before she and Beatriz left for Europe. And then she was gone.
She came back, her book came out, and I remember readings here and there. I remember how once she came to my freshman Latino Cultural Studies class when I was teaching the book and she sat in the back, pretending to be a student, on purpose raising some silly questions or interpretations, until her classmates realized she was not really their classmate but the young Chicago Chicana who had in fact written the book they were reading. Soon after that, she was gone from the city, only to come back on visits.
Of course I would hear about her from time to time, as her book and she grew famous. Years later, I remember finally meeting up with her at a Chicano Studies conference at UC Santa Barbara, she already an established star, asking me, as a bunch of us were huddled in a van tearing down the freeway back from the town’s Fisherman’s Warf, to explain deconstructionism to her (I don’t think she liked my brilliant two-second explanation). I remember calling her in San Antonio trying to recruit her for a teaching position in English and Latino Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago (I blew this too, I’m afraid). I remember her reading her sexy, scandalous poems from Loose Woman at the Duncan YMCA. I remember her and Beatriz coming into my wife’s handicraft store, Collage, to say hello—but we couldn’t stay to talk, because we were running out the door for a snowy night at the opera. That was my last meeting with her—though, yes, I remember going to her reading before a huge audience of young Sandra-crazed Latinos in Houston, she now so famous that I (who was certainly much published and somewhat known among Latino and Latin Americanist scholars) felt too timid, awed and generally overwhelmed to even say hello.
I remember the first negative critiques of her book (by Juan Rodríguez, Julio Cañero and others) as conformist and individualistic, lacking genuine community commitments. I remember Ramón Saldívar’s critique in his otherwise brilliant book on Chicano literature, where, in an essay which is also excellent, he nevertheless reifies his own knowledge of southwest barrios and thus he fails to note the Chicago difference—how Mango Street is not a Mexican barrio, but a new Latino neighborhood which is as much Puerto Rican and over all Latino, rather than anything else. Then too, I remember the wonderful articles that began to appear about Mango Street—one by Julián Olivares, analyzing her use of Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space archetypes as a key to her book, another by my friend Ellen McCracken showing how so many things could be explained by an application of Stuart Hall’s cultural studies theories.
I remember many other critiques, feminist, Marxist, structuralist and deconstructivist, including several essays collected in one of those many critical readers of classic texts edited by the world-famous Harold Bloom. I even remember Bloom’s introduction where, unwilling or unable to say much about Cisneros’ famous book, he spends his time summarizing Octavio Paz’s words about la Malinche as la chingada, etc. in a way that parallels some of my own perceptions of Cisneros’ appropriation of Mexican mythology.
I remember realizing how the list of housing moves in the opening paragraph parallels and is a continuation of the migrant path that took the Cordero family further and further away from any Mexican or Texan town. I remember the trauma of the different moves on the part of a people whose beliefs and image structures were primarily based on and seemingly tied to a fixed sense of identity related to a given geographic space. I remember the comparisons with Huckleberry Finn and Catcher in the Rye, with Rudolfo Anaya and Virginia Woolf. I even remember pointing out the perhaps more profitable comparisons with the fragmented, male-centered narrative of Tomás Rivera’s or the female narratives of such Puerto Rican writers like Nicholasa Mohr or Esmeralda Santiago. Though the book is as simple and deep as could be, stilI I could even find Midwestern parallels—with Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or (why not?) with a Chicago Mexican story collection by Hugo Martínez-Serros, or Saul Bellow’s Chicago Jewish-American Adventures of Augie March or the mis-adventures of the Chicago Irish-American Studs Lonigan. Then too, Mango Street, and above all the book’s parable of the trees reminded me of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and so many texts centered on something growing in the most difficult circumstances.
Perhaps above all, I remember a night when I saw the first play version of the book at the Teatro Latino just down the block from my home in Wicker Park, and there was Sandra’s mother sitting in front of me, totally engrossed. “Is that what it was like?” I asked her at the end of the show. “Exactly,” she assured me. And yet I knew it wasn’t quite so, because I knew that Sandra had woven in narratives based on those written by her students in the same school where I’d met her in the early 1980s—woven those stories into a novel centered on a young girl’s one-year passage from childhood to adolescence in the 1960s—was the mayor she sometimes mentions the old Daley or Jane Byrne? And I knew too that the Mango Street she portrayed had nothing to do with any particular street or neighborhood (though it was more like 1500 N. Campbell than probably anywhere else)—that hers was a book with at least a doubled time structure, taking place in a composite locale—with each vignette a somewhat contradictory fragment that fails to fit over-neatly into a fixed coherent pattern or given historical moment. No wonder some sticklers have complained of inconsistencies when the layering of times and places and perspectives really meant a richer multi-valent text which, while concretely capturing dimensions of Chicago Mexican and Latino life, could also speak more readily to a variety of other times and places. And this in a text that sparkles with its similes and metaphors, a text whose imagistic and sonoral texture (the voice of Esperanza and the other voices of the girls and the women—las mujeres—to whom the book is dedicated) cinched its place as one of the essential Chicano and yes, Latino, narratives to yet emerge.
One additional observation which always became a point of discussion in my UIC classes—how in spite of Esperanza’s constructed differences from the youth of the real life Sandra Cisneros, the feminism which emerges in this book and persists in her writing is less radical, militant and separatist than what we would find in Gloria Anzaldúa, Alicia Gaspar de Alba, Cherríe Moraga, and other Chicana writers, if only because of her primarily positive and affectionate relationship with her own father and other admittedly patriarchal and limiting males.
Some years ago, Sandra bought her own home in San Antonio, and fought with the locals over her right to paint that house a color that affirmed her sense of ethnic identity. She led other Latina writers—above all, “las girlfriends” in defending Ana Castillo against poet Ray Gonzalez for attacking So Far from God as work which supposedly cow-towed to an Anglo establishment vision of what a new wave Latina novel should be. Sandra set up her foundation, led her San Antonio writing workshop helping even seasoned writers (Arturo Madrid for one) in writing even better. She joined Chicago-to-Houston transplant Tony Díaz in his Librotraficante fight for Latino books and Latino Studies in the Southwest. Meantime, she kept on writing, and her fame grew from text to text, reading tour after reading tour.
Chicago became a place she traveled to in order visit friends and family and give readings, including “freebees” in support of what is now Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art; it is also where she came to when her parents reached their end. Still, in her departure and returns to Chicago, and especially now as we join in celebrating the thirty-plus years of Mango Street, we should evoke words she included in her telling introduction to a recent re-edition of her book:
I no longer make Chicago my home, but Chicago still makes its home in me. I have Chicago stories I have yet to write. So long as those stories kick inside me, Chicago will still be home. (2009: xxiv).
Marc Zimmerman. Professor Emeritus Latin American and Latino Studies (LALS), U. of Illinois at Chicago. World Cultures & Literatures-Modern & Classical Languages (WCL-MCL), U. of Houston. Director Global CASA/LACASA Books.
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Author Sandra Cisneros will discuss her career and award-winning writings in the DePaul Student Center – 2250 N. Sheffield, at DePaul’s Lincoln Park campus. Hosted by the School for New Learning, the event will begin with a reception 8:30 a.m., after which, Cisneros will give a talk and sign books. The event is free and open to the public to RSVP and stay up to date on event details please email email@example.com