Sandra Cisneros as Young Poet

Marc Zimmerman Publicado 2015-04-01 12:38:07

From Bad Boys through Mango Street and on to her wicked ways


In Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, the final structure of transcendence is aesthetic; her book is her Mango Street house; it is also her alternative to that house — what Mango Street seems to make impossible, but what cannot happen without it. That final structure is also found in her first full book of poems, My Wicked, Wicked Ways; but here we have the transposition of structures brought about by the feminist perspective which while derived from the forces of chaos which threaten the axis mundi portrayed through absence in her more famous text, are also portrayed in Wicked Ways as essential to any victory over the forces of death that have penetrated the barrio world and made it a potential cemetery for all. Here we may find a shift between the Chicano “classics” (male works of the 1960s into the early 70s), and the newer works written by the successive generations and groups of writers which follow. For the sacred ground is also the ground of repression which must be violated if one is to forge a creative life.

The old order is no longer seen as feminine and matriarchal, but as a realm of patriarchy and repression. The series of erasures involved in creative living require an affirmation of culture which does not simultaneously affirm its negative dimensions. The Malinche must be resurrected and transformed; so too La Llorona, and all the repressed and distorted female deities which have lived under the sign of la chingada. So it is the repressed deities, the witches, both of Mexican and Anglo (Shakespearean) mythology who lead Esperanza to freedom. She will not wait by a window, locked into a Latino barrio house, waiting passively to be picked up and then dropped by some male. She will not “grow up tame like the others who lay their necks on the window sill”; she will be like the cruel woman in the movies who will not give away her power, who has begun her “own quiet war” on her culture and the female identity inscribed therein. She will be the wicked daughter, “the one who leaves the table like a man, without putting back the chair or picking up the plate.”

This is where Cisneros’ famous book leads and where her book of poems begins, though in fact what we have is an overlapping structure. My Wicked, Wicked Ways does not simply pick up where the other book leaves off. Rather it recapitulates The House on Mango Street and then goes on to deal with the departure and entry into the wider world — or the world of chaos, where identity has lost its traditional fixity and its barrio determinacy — a realm of freedom, perhaps, a realm of creativity where one will be saved or lost. What is involved is a voyage into the realm of sexual adventure which has tempted and destroyed many of the Mango Street women, and almost destroyed Esperanza as well. What has saved her has been her ability to internalize the negative definitions and possibilities of las mujeres to whom she dedicates Mango Street so she can learn from their mistakes. Nevertheless, the temptation persists, so that now our poet-protagonist throws off her Latina name “Esperanza” and her anglicized “Hope” and becomes the bad girl, the “Zeeze the X” she has fantasized. So our voyage is one in which the writer seeks to leave the barrio behind and also the child’s voice which we find again in the opening poems and which is shed as the sequence of poems progresses. (That voice will come back in Caramelo, but that indeed is another story.)

Here, before we explore that first full poetic text, it would be worthwhile to look more closely at the small chapbook, Bad Boys, which Cisneros produced even prior to Mango Street and the full poetry book which would follow the longer prose work. Seven of the eight poems in this text are included in Wicked Ways; isolated from the rest of the larger book, the poems in question show how, in its own small but wicked way, this text anticipates the larger patterns and movements which will be evident in the later, more advanced and mature works. Only, before Cisneros could project her wicked girls and women, she had to begin with her bad boys and men in a movement that would indeed take us through a cycle beginning with male abusive ways, leading to bad boys and that the naughty and near but never fully wicked or evil woman rebel (the loose woman, as her sly subsequent book of poetry will have itwho will emerge however reluctantly in the course of her development.



A Brief Look at Bad Boys

Before Cisneros wrote the poetic vignettes that were to constitute Mango Street, she had built a small but growing reputation (shall we call it a cottage industry?) as a poet. Indeed she had been publishing poems in several journals through the late 1970s and into the new decade. But in 1980, her first separate publication appeared, a tiny chapbook selected for publication as number 8 in the modest but prestigious Mango Chicano Chapbook Series in Northern California.

What Mango writer/editors Lorna Dee Cervantes and Gary Soto clearly saw in Cisneros’ work, and what so many others were to come to see, was the young poet’s remarkable capacity for lyrical evocation (her imagistic and sonoral powers) as applied to the often unlovely thematics that were central to Chicana urban life in Chicago and in much of the country. In a blog piece written in 2010, Raymundo Eli Rojas describes how he virtually rediscovered Cisneros’ chapbook and makes a series of comments which I have chosen to appropriate and modify here for my own purposes in attempting to shortcut an understanding of a young writer’s developing mode of writing.

First, in “Velorio” a woman narrator remembers herself as a young girl playing with her friends even as a Mexican-style wake is under way for a baby girl who’s just died and is on display “in a satin box.” The baby girl is the narrator’s sister, who watches her mother’s tearless but all the more painful upheaval as she tries to maintain a Christian attitude that could somehow make sense of what has happened. In the face of this experience of death, pain and confusion the narrator senses that her ankles (a synecdoche, like the hips in Mango Street) showing raw and red are signals to one and all that she and her friends have been doing something inappropriate or downright wrong, and have somehow maimed or desecrated this ritual of mourning. As another poem in Wicked Ways spells out, Cisneros herself was an only daughter — the loss of a sister signals perhaps her own situation as a girl among six male siblings and her need to free herself from the role such a positioning implies all too emphatically. You have to be bad, perhaps wicked, if not quite evil. To achieve this, you have to transcend all guilt trips — indeed all your trips and flights, poetic or real, might be considered as rebellions against gender-imposed guilt feelings.

“Joe” portrays the more common narrative of a male trip gone bad. In this poem, a lazy single male is holed up in a room in his mother’s house, where he lies day after day listening to Beatles songs and smoking who knows what, as he trips out on the collection of “naked lady pictures” with which he’s covered his walls, showing them to his buddies or the young girls he invites over hoping to whet their carnal desires until one day he leaves his room only to die (was it really fate? What could have been done to stop it from happening?)

under the wheel
on the road to St. Charles
which everybody knows
was Gods will. 

“Arturo Burro” tells how the girl-narrator’s father has hidden her brother Arturo in his car and smuggled him across the border, inculcating her in the process of how necessity and indeed love demand a new kind of arithmetic (and morality) for future memory and practice among the offspring of poor Mexicans, with the further complication that it is the patriarchal figure, who with a sense of responsibility, authority (but also love), works out and holds the kids to the math:

Papa makes us promise to lie
3 kids we got remember it
but we got Arturo inside. 

In one of her most famous Chicago-centered poems, “South Sangamon,” that could easily appear as a chapter in Mango Street, Cisneros writes of an abusive husband trying to force his way into the apartment where his wife and daughter are sleeping and where the daughter realizes that she may become as much a victim of violence as her abused mother:

We wake up
and it’s him
banging and banging
and the doorknob rattling open up.
His drunk cussing
her name all over the hallway
and my name mixed in 

In “Traficante,” a poem whose narrative line is reminiscent of “The Use of Force” (1938, republished in Doctor Stories 1984) by one of Cisneros’ favorite writers, a master in the U.S. literary mainstream, whose latinidad has only emerged in recent years, William Carlos Williams (1984), a girl tries to hide her infected hand, until her teacher notices it and hurries her to a drugstore. But how has the hand become infected, and why have the parents not treated it? And why is the girl hiding her hand? What are we to make of the wound, infection and possible remedy in the midst of a scene marked by poverty and shame?

“Good Hotdogs” portrays children letting themselves go hungry at lunch time in order to have the money for an after-school treat that seems to imply their seduction into the American way of life in all its steamy, pungent power. Finally, “The Blue Dress” depicts a man’s subway ride and his time with a very white and pregnant woman whose “curve of the belly” makes her dress itself seem to wave goodbye. The man feigns love for the woman, buying her flowers to win her compliance. She seems to be a visitor in the city, but she “knows the subways now/as if she were a native.” Nevertheless, she talks about distant locales, “of towns you know/names you don’t” making the poet-narrator wish to go places far away from the reality she is learning all too well.

Ironically, while Rojas comments on seven of the eight poems that constitute Bad Boys, the one he oddly leaves aside, “Roosevelt Road,” is precisely the one that Cisneros herself signaled out as the Ur-Poem of the chapbook, her fiction book and her first complete book of poems. Written in the summer of 1977, this poem all but compelled Cisneros to face the poverty and shame with which she had lived her early years and yet find in her circumstances the very the wealth of resources — the Chicago Latino sensorium of images, smells, sounds and emotions — that she could draw upon for her subsequent creative work. Seemingly without embellishment or indications of any strained search for striking images or fine figures of speech, the poem presents the ups-and-downs tenement world the poet-child experiences on Chicago’s near southside.

A milkman delivers his wares going up the stairs while noise travels down to an alley of disease and rape, repugnance and dread, with the child taking in all the admonitions and fears that are perhaps to some degree (but how often? how effectively?) countered by some kind act or by flowers clambering up a stone wall — but this in the midst of an overall gestalt that would seem adverse to their fully redemptive capacity.

We lived on the third floor always
because noise travelled down
The milkman climbed up tired everyday
with milk and eggs
and sometimes sour cream.
Mama said don’t play in alleys
because that’s where dogs get rabies and
bad girls babies
Drunks carried knives
but if you asked
they’d give you money.
How one time we found that dollar
and a dead mouse in the stone wall
where the morning glories climbed.... 

Clearly “Roosevelt Road,” contains in its few lines, a portrayal of male violence in the context of urban poverty, the rationale for every nasty, wicked or even evil action that Cisneros can conjure up in her subsequent writing; in this sense it stands as the heart of the heart of the matter in Cisneros’ opus. And yet, mysteriously anticipating Rojas’ exclusion, she herself omits the poem from Wicked Ways, as the perhaps absent center configuring and somehow determining the narrative progression and “deep structure” of the poems and the volume as a whole. Within the poem resides the question that will haunt all her early work: to what degree can the very environment which damns the lives of young Latinos also provide at least some possible seeds for transcendence?

In this matter of exclusion as in other ways, Rojas seems much on target with his overall conclusion of his blog entry, especially when he notes that Bad Boys is “a short, but discreet beginning, involving poems of nostalgia, notions of space, domestic violence, and childhood immaturity.” In fact, the poems of Bad Boys are not only about boys or even mean men who were once bad boys, but also girls who wish to end being victims and become as free, if not freer, as bad, if not worse, (as loose if not looser) than the boys and men they have come to know in their urban world. So seen, Bad Boys is a virtual prelude to the struggle of urban identification and transcendence that will be central to The House on Mango Street, and, what concerns us next, her first full book of poetry.


My Wicked, Wicked Ways

In a Southwest Review interview, Cisneros told Martha Satz the following:

I think that growing up Mexican and feminist is almost a contradiction in terms. For a long time — and it’s true for many writers and women like myself who have grown up in a patriarchal culture, like the Mexican culture — I felt great guilt betraying that culture. Your culture tells you that if you step out of line, if you break these norms, you are becoming anglicized, you’re becoming the malinche — influenced and contaminated by these foreign influences and ideas. But I’m very pleased to be alive among the current generation of women. Many writers are redefining our Mexicanness and it’s important if we’re going to come to terms with our Mexican culture and our American one as well . . . I think many of my stories come from dealing with straddling two cultures, and certainly it’s something I’m going to deal with in future stories. (Cisneros in Satz 1997: 84)

Of course, Cisneros was to deal with the same theme quite frequently in poetry as well, and no less often than in My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Here, let us sketch the trajectory of the larger collection of poems, on and through the Mango Street world in and beyond to the realm of freedom toward which her novel seeks to project. The first two sections consist of poems mainly drafted prior to the Mango Street vignettes, and give us some illuminations with respect to the writer’s life and work.

The first section of the volume, “1200 South/ 2100 West,” including seven of the Bad Boys poems, traces a pattern of childhood internalizations, which ultimately point out toward the external world. By the section’s end, the protagonist has found a private interior space and she will not submit to the imperatives of her gender, culture, family and class. She might even try to dance the cultural dance, but cannot quite do it, is punished for her failure but then turns that failure into a victory over rejection:


Mexican Hat Dance 

Crash the record came down on your head.
You were trying to dance the Mexican hat dance.
The black disc on the floor and your shiny feet
tapping this way and then over that.
So you missed. So you’re a lousy dancer.
Your mother, never amused by your jokes,
besides, it was her favorite record — Lucha Villa,
the lady who sings with tears in her throat,
picks it up and cracks it over your head.
Come out of that bathroom.
No, I’m never coming out!

Of course, Cisneros will come out, but not as the conventional daughter or cultural performer (nor as a liberated homosexual, as in the usual connotation of “coming out”); her submissive Mexican side will be repressed, as the individualized self-creating (but indeed heterosexual) daughter emerges. This aspect, and her special, positive tie to her masculine, permissive father, he who even reminds her of Errol Flynn (perhaps the source of her heterosexuality) is emphasized in the second part of the book, where we move through a child and adolescent barrio universe out toward not the father’s nor even Errol Flynn’s “wicked, wicked ways,” but those of the young poet.[1] Cisneros is the swan (or cisne) who is nevertheless “earthbound” and one-winged, who (we would suggest) is able to most realize herself not in freely soaring, but (as wicked city poet) in dealing with the very realities, codes and situations she seeks to transcend. The woman poet, alive to erotic experience, fantacizes her life as a femme fatal (“I the Woman”), as a “wicked nun” alive to abandon. She is “born under a crooked star,” her father says, like the wicked women who haunt the family past, the whores and criminal women. But she has already told us another truth: she is the daughter who has left home and who, in between “stray lovers,” is left to her own devices and who, like Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, “must write poems.”

Part III, “Other Countries,” now fully takes us beyond the world of Mango Street, and also beyond “her own country, ... the homeland given her by her mother’s womb.” Here the Latina woman left behind, we have a series of travel poems, sometimes meditative, sometimes playful, dealing with the freedom of being away, uprooted, wandering “in darkness like a man” — a city poet who loses hereself “one night in crumpled poppies./ ... Odd for such a city poet like me / to find such comfort in the dark.” In her new manish freedom, this bad boy grown up wicked woman goes to France, Italy and Yugoslavia playing Zee-zee the X, making passes at men, using them as objects, laughing at the desire she arouses, their simplicity, their stupidity, her casual sexual encounters, her approaches and avoidances. Finally she ends the section by alluding to two love affairs of struggle and pain in which she asserts her independence even at the cost of loneliness. True, there is also a sense of regret, moments when she is “drunk and sentimental, ... willing to admit/a part of me, crazed and kamikaze/ripe for anarchy, loves still.”

It is this projection not toward the pole of freedom (Part III), but of the woman who loves, to the point of risking all her vaunted freedom and perhaps her creativity as well, who is portrayed in the last section, “The Rodrigo Poems.” By token of a projection of a new paradigm, of a realm of unmarked freedom, the structure of the volume seems to go astray, for the realm of freedom would seem to emerge in Part III, only to collapse into the poet’s focus on one character, one love, who virtually causes her to lose her freedom. The poet ends by falling into the role of love-enslaved woman who only frees herself really because she is rejected. Perhaps she has been too divided to give herself fully enough to lose her identity completely, too torn, too much in between worlds, too much committed to her private self and her one-wingedness to fly off with love or a writing uprooted from origins. The Rodrigo poems are marked by guilt, by recrimination. He is to blame, she is to blame. How can she have fallen into this trap, she the woman who has supposedly broken free?

Her poem “New Year’s Eve,” suggests a victory over the love-rejection as she reduces Rodrigo to “a common male.” Towards the very end of the volume, she provides a transition out of the European frame in a poem about Bastille Day, July 14 — a poem not in the French of Zee-zee, but in English, though titled in Spanish and referring not to bohemian Paris, but supposedly repressive Mexico. Here her meditation on her relationship comes to be one she measures ultimately in relation to a Mexican identity, in relation to a bravery in love that is possible in the Mexico she has feared, where “a man kisses a woman ... in direct opposition to Church and State ... /oblivious to the consequence of sorrow. ... Every day little miracles like this occur.” She reflects on her own love and the things that kept them apart, admitting to the limitations of love and her own unwillingness to risk all: “I who timidly took and timidly gave — /you who never admitted a public grace./We of the half-dark who were unbrave.”

Clearly the failure of this love may be her salvation, but the last poem in the volume, significantly enough written in Spanish, points to how torn she is by the antinomies of freedom and loneliness, creativity and isolation. Does the poem mark her unwillingness or inability to leave her culture behind? Is it an expression of a defeat of the feminist project as a plunge too far into freedom/chaos and now a return to cultural homebase, the mother-tongue? Or is the necessary recognition (the Icarus fall from hybris, as in Ken Serritos’ Icarus poem) which will make the next phase of her life possible?

In an essay which she also entitled “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” Cisneros (1985: 4) cites Norma Alarcón’s view (1985: 87) of “the Chicana’s dilemma [as] that of a character caught in the tug-o-war of two antagonists, the past and the future”:

Mexico represents the past, the origin, while the future lies in a nebulous Anglo-American world full of obstacles to her self-determination. Given her sexual awareness, an unquestioned Mexican and Chicano male culture represent a past that may lock her into some crippling traditional stereotypes, while the future has been represented within an Anglo-American feminist promised ... a dream derived from what to a Chicana is an alien culture...” (cited by Cisneros 1985: 4).

“For several Chicanas, then,” Cisneros concludes, “writing becomes a medium to reevaluate these two conflictive forces (Cisneros 1985: 19-20.)” My Wicked, Wicked Ways would seem to confirm a view by which Cisneros remains suspended between Latina dependency and Anglo freedom, between Spanish and English, oral and written cultures, etc. But what if that structure is a falsified one? What if the genuine, construct makes the Rodrigo sequence a last fling and surrender, before a journey out into the wider world of untraditional roles and new forms of being, now without the baggage of rebellion that characterized her first journey? The re-evaluation becomes a mediation of contradictions, a resolution of the disappearance and reassertion of Mexican and Chicano space through Chicano writing conceived as the only resolution. The future of this writing, it would seem, does not lie in the touristic freedom of Part III, but in an unwritten Part V in which, potential dependence confronted and transcended, the writer coordinates new possibilities out of a hard-won but ultimately privileged critical perspective that is between many worlds and able to conjugate innumerable relations among them.

It may be significant to note that Cisneros’ barrio world was not strictly Mexican, but was Puerto Rican as well, so that Cisneros had other, alternative female Latina options from the beginning. Also, from the beginning, one of the few Latin American literary models she had was the Puerto Rican Luis Palés Matos; and, as noted, one of her favorite “American” poets was the famous American poet who people are finally realizing was a Puerto Rican/Afro-Caribbean (William Carlos Williams) and not simply some Anglo poet going somewhat Against the Grain of the Pound-Elliot-Stevens high modernist mainstream dominating U.S. letters. We should not assume that her only model for liberation was U.S.-style feminism. Now, French, African-American and other models may compete in her imaginary. The passive Mexican woman and the betraying Malinche are polarities she has tried to leave behind. Rather than sitting at home, the mujer abandondada, the crying, abandoned llorona (“the lady who sings with tears in her throat”), she moved on from Chicago to San Antonio in 1982 perhaps exploring and living through her Mexicana/Chicana options as much as possible (of Texas, she says it “brought Mexico back to me”), developing a story about a woman who hollers, but doesn’t cry — a loose, hollering woman or gritona — forging a future not fixed in a particular space, oscillating between the Southwest locus mundi of her roots and other worlds beyond, but clearly making a new place for herself in a literature whose sense of space and whose overall sound and orientation she has helped to forge.


Works Cited

Alarcon, Norma. 1985. “What kind of lover have you made me, mother?:

Towards a Theory of Chicanas’ Feminism and Cultural Identity through Poetry,” in Women of Color: Perspectives on Feminism and Identity, ed. Audrey T. McCluskey. Bloomington, IN. Women’s Studies Program, Occasional Papers Series #1: 8

Cisneros, Sandra. 1980. Bad Boys (Mango Chiano Chapbook Series #8). San José, CA.

____. 1982. The House on Mango Street. Houston. Arte Público Press.

____. 1985. “My Wicked, Wicked Ways: The Chicana Writer’s Struggle with Good and Evil or Las Hijas de la Mala vida.” Paper presented at the MLA. December.

____. 1987a. My Wicked, Wicked Ways, Bloomington, IN: Third Woman Press.

____. 1987b. “A Writer’s Voyages,” in The Texas Observer. Jan. 1. Issue 79: 19.

____. 1991. Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York. Random House.

____. 1994. Loose Woman: Poems, New York. Knopf.

____. 2002. Caramelo, or, Puro cuento, New York: Knopf.

Flynn, Errol, with Earl Conrad (1959). 2002. My Wicked, Wicked Ways. Intro. Jeffrey Meyers. New York. 1st Cooper Press.

Rojas, Raymundo Eli. 2010. “Retro Review: Sandra Cisneros’ Bad Boys. Sandra Cisneros, often forgotten work is a small gem.”Thursday, November 04. cisneros-bad-boys.html.

Satz, Martha. 1997. “Returning to One’s House: An Interview with Sandra

Cisneros,” in Southwest Review, Vol. 82, No. 2, Spring: 166-85.

Williams, William Carlos. 1984. “The Use of Force,” in Williams, The Doctor Stories. Compiled with an introduction by Robert Coles and afterword by William Eric Williams. New York, NY. New Directions.



[1] Here I allude to the source of the title, directly repeating the title of the dashing Australian actor’s autobiography (1959). I have not been able to find any reference explaining the double use of “wicked,” which is quite frequent in English.



Marc Zimmerman is author of U.S. Literature (1992), Defending their own in the Cold: the Cultural Turns of U.S. Puerto Ricans (2011); he has edited volumes on Latin American/Latino transnational processes, Latinos in U.S. cities and Chicano art in Mexican Chicago. He is currently developing essays on Chicago Latino writers and artists, as well as stories on his Latino and Latin American experiences.




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