Early Years and Education
Sandra Cisneros was born December 20, 1954, in Chicago. Although she grew up mainly in Chicago, the family often visited her father's relatives in Mexico, and Cisneros would later say that she felt "displaced" during her childhood. In 1987, Cisneros would tell an interviewer in Texas that she had never felt a strong sense of connection to Chicago. Nevertheless, her book The House on Mango Street is set there.
To the same interviewer, Sandra Cisneros expresses a little annoyance at readers who assume that she is her Mango Street protagonist, Esperanza Cordero — that the book, in other words, is autobiographical. (In a later interview, she calls it "an invented autobiography.") The difference between writing factually about one's own life and writing imaginatively out of one's experience can be subtle, of course, and there are undeniable similarities between the fictional Esperanza and Cisneros, who grew up during the 1950s and 1960s in a working-class Latino family. One obvious difference between them is that Esperanza has three siblings, a sister and two brothers; Cisneros, on the other hand, grew up as the only sister to six brothers. One imagines that her mother must have been pleased to have a daughter among so many sons. And, unlike some women in similar situations, Cisneros' mother did not insist that Sandra spend all her time helping with the traditional "women's work," but encouraged her to develop her intellect and imagination by reading. In this respect, certainly, Cisneros' childhood resembles that of her character Esperanza, whose reading as reported in Mango Street has included such children's classics as the Alice books by Lewis Carroll and Charles Kingsley's The Water-Babies. Although her published fiction (to 2000 at least) is firmly realistic, Cisneros conveys a sense of wonder and magic that reveals a grounding not only in folklore but also in these grand old literary fantasies.
Educated in Catholic schools and at Chicago's Loyola University, where she took a B.A. in 1976, Cisneros was admitted to the prestigious Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa and was awarded the M.F.A. degree in 1978.
Career and Writing
Most of Cisneros' classmates at Iowa were people from more materially privileged backgrounds than Cisneros', descendents of European immigrants to the U.S. Initially, Cisneros attempted to use their kinds of subjects, characters, and settings in her own writing. Unhappy with the results, she then made an important decision: She decided to "rebel" by writing about the neighborhoods in which she had grown up, the people who were her relatives and friends and neighbors. The House on Mango Street was begun.
Cisneros did not complete the book for several years, however; meanwhile, she taught high school and served as a college recruiter and minority student counselor. In 1982-83, after winning a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, Cisneros went to Greece to work on her fiction. After serving as artist-in-residence at Foundation Michael Karolyi in Vence, France, she returned to the U.S. and, in 1984, found a publisher for Mango Street: The University of Houston's Arte Público Press. During the following few years, Cisneros held a variety of university positions, always continuing to write both poetry and prose. With the Random House publication in 1991 of "Woman Hollering Creek" and Other Stories and the reissuing in the same year of The House on Mango Street, the writer became widely known; her books, enthusiastically reviewed, quickly found their way onto reading lists from middle school to university literature classes.
As of September, 2000, Cisneros has published (in book form) no more fiction except for a bilingual expansion for very young readers of a short section from Mango Street: Hairs: Pelitos, illustrated by Terry Ybanez and published by Knopf. Her books of poetry include Bad Boys (Mango Publications, 1980); My Wicked, Wicked Ways (Third Woman Press, 1987); and Loose Woman (Knopf, 1994). She has contributed to a variety of periodicals, including Contact II, Glamour, Imagine, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Revista Chicano-Riquena, and Village Voice.
Recognition and Awards
Cisneros' awards include two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships (1982 and 1988); the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, for The House on Mango Street (1985); the Paisano Dobie Fellowship (1986); first and second prizes in Segundo Concurso Nacional del Cuento Chicano, sponsored by the University of Arizona; the Lannan Foundation Literary Award (1991); an honorary doctorate from the State University of New York at Purchase (1993); and a MacArthur fellowship (1995).
Sandra Cisneros' work has been praised by critics for many reasons, from the authenticity of her characters' voices and experience to the marvelous simplicity of her style. Perhaps more important than critics are ordinary readers, who find Cisneros' writing to be moving, funny, direct, and true on the most basic of human levels. Her fiction, in The House on Mango Street and "Woman Hollering Creek" and Other Stories, is often compared to poetry — or even identified as poetry. The two books will be treated in the following pages as fiction; yet, like the best of poetry, these books can bring new discoveries, insights, and surprises with each rereading.