Critical Essays Themes in Cisneros' Fiction


Love as Power

One way of reading Sandra Cisneros' fiction is to examine some of the central themes it seems repeatedly to deal with, several of which inform both The House on Mango Street and "Woman Hollering Creek" and Other Stories. Three of the most striking are sexual love as an exercise of power; alienation and displacement; and conflicts between the individual and cultural/familial tradition. These themes seem to be interrelated in that the first and second named grow directly out of the third.

The theme of love as power is most apparent in some of the "Woman Hollering Creek" stories, but it appears even in Mango Street, in the lives of Esperanza's acquaintances and in her own youthful experience. Rafaela, Minerva, Mamacita, and Sally — after her marriage — are all overpowered by their husbands, physically or otherwise, as a matter of course. Whatever the relationship between her own parents, it seems that Esperanza sees a normal love-and-marriage relationship as one in which the man holds and exercises complete power over "his" woman. The only alternative, she believes, would have the woman holding complete power. In "Beautiful and Cruel" she decides that she prefers that option, but a possible relationship in which power is held equally by both partners, a more-or-less equal give-and-take relationship, or even one in which power is not a major factor (or weapon) seems not to occur to her. Interestingly, the love-equals-power relationship is figured here in several instances as visual gaze: Boys stare at Marin, and she boldly returns the gaze; Sire looks at Esperanza, and she affects not to be frightened; women who have been disempowered (or who have never had any power) look out through a window at what they cannot have.

In the "Woman Hollering Creek" stories the love-equals-power theme is further explored, with Juan Pedro in the title story seeing Cleófilas, taking her from her father, and beginning to hold complete power over her. Other women protagonists, however (and one man, Tristán in "Remember the Alamo"), exercise the "beautiful and cruel" option, keeping power in their own hands and in their gaze — even, in the cases of Clemencia in "Never Marry a Mexican" and Lupe in "Bien Pretty," extending that power by "possessing" their men in their art and in effect distributing it to others who look at the men's images in their paintings.

Alienation and Displacement

Another important theme in both books is the individual's feeling of alienation or displacement. Esperanza in Mango Street expresses the feeling often, saying she does not "belong" where she is and that she wishes she were from somewhere else — although Alicia assures her that she "is Mango Street" and will carry it with her when she leaves there. In the "Woman Hollering Creek" stories, various characters' express similar feelings: the speakers in "'Mericans" and "Tepeyac"; Cleófilas in the title story, who first longs to get away from her hometown to Seguin, Texas, and then longs to be away from Seguin; and all the characters who feel alienated from each other and even from themselves. These last named include Clemencia, Lupe, and especially Tristán, who is so self-alienated he has created a new identity for himself, refers to himself (by his new name) in third person, and wishes to separate himself completely from the person he was in the past.

Individualism vs. Cultural Traditions

Both of these themes — that of love-as-power and that of alienation — seem to proceed from the third and larger theme of the individual's conflict with a tradition that is both cultural and familial. Almost every female character in both books experiences the intensely potent force of this tradition influencing her to follow her Latino family tradition into marriage, when she would cease to "belong" to her father and begin to "belong" to her husband. Most of those who do not resist this force are portrayed as unhappy in the world they inhabit, from Esperanza's mother, who is "self-alienated" to the extent that she has not been able to utilize her artistic gifts and interests, to young women like Sally, Minerva, and Cleófilas, who are trapped in marriages to brutal men.

Those who do resist it are likely to remain partly (and unhappily) within the tradition, in that their relationships with the opposite sex are still power struggles. To the extent that they are successful in their resistance, they remain unhappily alienated from their own cultural roots and the feelings of loyalty they cannot eradicate. One such woman is Inés in "Eyes of Zapata," who left her father for Zapata and later gained a kind of independence from him (at least in a material sense, mostly because he ignored her for long periods), but who is still tied to her lover in their love-as-a-power-struggle relationship. Another is Clemencia, who heeded her mother's advice not to follow tradition, but who then became alienated from her mother and involved in a long, obsessive "love" affair with a married man (who, ironically, is attracted to her cultural identity as a "Mexican" but would never divorce his wife and marry her because of that identity). Tristán, of course, is separated from his cultural tradition by his homosexuality; he clings to what he can of it in his art, as a performer of traditional dances, and he both mocks and pays tribute to tradition by utilizing a kind of male "drag" — an exaggeration of the masterful, powerful, intensely masculine Latino persona.

The only characters who seem to be able to avoid the double-bind of love-as-power and/or alienation are those who find a strength within their tradition that allows them to exist as self-respecting individuals. One such is "Ixchel" in "One Holy Night," who has become (in her own mind) sort of an embodiment of the ancient mythos into which her lover — himself deeply alienated, to the point of probable insanity — initiated her. Raised in a very traditional household and apparently happy there, she easily made the transition into an older tradition — and is saved, by her lover's physical and effectively complete disappearance from her life, from having to reconcile the myth with mundane existence. "Ixchel" achieved independence, power, and a sense of centeredness, of being where she belongs, by in effect going into tradition and coming out the other side. Another apparently fortunate character is Chayo of "Little Miracles, Kept Promises," who has discovered a link between her familial/cultural tradition and a broader world-mythos that allows her to participate in the power of the virgin/mother goddesses (including, as she sees it, the Virgin of Guadalupe/Mother of Christ) and to be both independent and centered in her own place.

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