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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Search for Identity Sandra Cisneros (b. 1954)

[6394] José Guadalupe Posada, Altar de la Virgen de Guadalupe (1900), courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [PGA-anegas, no. 127 (AA size)].

Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago but spent most of her childhood and youth moving back and forth between Chicago and Mexico. By addressing themes of identity, poverty, and gender in lyrical and sensual language, she has become one of the nation’s most well known and respected Chicana authors. Nonetheless, her vibrant style has not always been welcome, as she faced a battle with her San Antonio neighbors when she painted her historic King William District home purple. A Houston Chronicle article quoted the city commissioner as saying, “If you, because of your heritage, are allowed to paint your house purple, then we have no rules.” Cisneros eventually agreed to paint her Victorian-era home in an approved, “authentic” color combination: pink with red trim.

Like many of the writers in this unit, Cisneros uses fiction to point out how some Americans actively exclude or passively forget to include people unlike themselves when they define what it means to be American. Cisneros has stated that while she refuses to make concessions to Anglo readers, such as translating all Spanish language words in her texts into English, she nonetheless wants to open doors so that readers of any background can appreciate her stories and their implications for one’s understanding of “Americanness.”

By creating a voice and style uniquely her own, Cisneros tells stories that reflect her interests as well as those of her community. Cisneros’s novel The House on Mango Street modifies stories that she heard throughout her life, especially those she witnessed firsthand while working as a counselor for inner-city high school children in Chicago. The novel’s innovative style–it is a collection of short, poetically phrased vignettes–allows her to depict urban life in a unified way while representing the varied influences that shape the feminist consciousness of her main character, Esperanza.

Much of Cisneros’s writing asks how women have been complicit in permitting the perpetuation of their own oppression. She writes frequently about sex and relationships between men and women, focusing on the dangers incumbent in many women’s hyper-romanticized notions of sex, love, and marriage. If our girls play games in which they practice fighting over men, Cisneros seems to ask in “Barbie-Q,” then why are we surprised when they grow up and make men the centers of their lives? It is impossible to separate the Chicana and feminist elements in Cisneros’s work, and many readers believe that one of her greatest contributions has been to bring more attention to the needs of women of color, who have sometimes been overlooked by women’s movements. Cisneros’s works include two books of poetry, My Wicked Wicked Ways (1987) and Loose Woman (1994), and a collection of short stories, Woman Hollering Creek (1991).

Teaching Tips

  • Some students may have very fond memories of playing with Barbie dolls as children. This may make them both especially resistant and especially attracted to “Barbie-Q.” Use your students’ memories of childhood play to help steer conversation toward two ideas that Cisneros seems to be questioning: (1) Barbie dolls themselves as models for women, and (2) the sorts of modeling young children see that encourages them to play in certain ways, e.g., having their dolls fight over men.
  • Along the same lines, you might bring a Barbie doll to class (or ask students to bring one of their childhood Barbie dolls) to compare Barbie’s physical dimensions with an actual woman’s (some analysts have claimed that no real woman could exist with Barbie’s dimensions). Also, you might note that in 1998, the Mattel toy company introduced new Barbie dolls, some of which had wider waists and hips, flatter chests, thinner lips, and flatter feet than the traditional Barbies. Why might the company have introduced these new dolls?
  • Ask your students why Cisneros might use stories about children to tackle very adult themes: same-sex desire, sexism, and racism. You might also want to discuss the challenges of writing from a child’s perspective. Do your students think Cisneros does a good job of capturing children’s “voices” through her child narrators? Why or why not?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: Why does the narrator of “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn” want her skin to “get so dark it’s blue where it bends like Lucy’s”? Why does she like Lucy so much?
  2. Comprehension: The narrator asks a series of questions in the final paragraph of “Barbie-Q.” For whom does the narrator speak? Who is the audience of these questions? Is Cisneros directly challenging the reader?
  3. Comprehension: In “Mericans,” why does the narrator call her relative the “awful” grandmother?
  4. Context: Compare the writing style and punctuation in “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn” to Diane Glancy’s in “Jack Wilson.” Why might these writers independently choose these similar styles? Or, why might they choose not to write with textbook grammar and punctuation?
  5. Context: In “Barbie-Q,” why do the children make their Barbies act in certain ways (e.g., fighting over a nonexistent man, the missing Ken doll) and wear certain clothes? If the girls are modeling behavior that they’ve witnessed, who are the models?
  6. Context: In “Mericans,” the grandmother and narrator visit a Catholic church, where the narrator describes icons that have survived attacks: “La Virgen de Guadalupe on the main altar because she’s a big miracle, the crooked crucifix on a side altar because that’s a little miracle.” What does this statement mean? Compare these descriptions of the church and its altar (see archive item [6394]–“Altar de la Virgen de Guadalupe”) to the picture. What are the most significant similarities and differences? Why have an altar in a home in addition to one in a church?
  7. Exploration: In “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn,” it seems like the narrator fantasizes about a woman-only utopia when she envies Lucy’s all-girl family: “There ain’t no boys here.” What is appealing about Lucy’s family community? Why does the narrator want to be one of the sisters? What does it mean to be sisters?
  8. Exploration: “Barbie-Q” presents, in doll form, many different “types” of women by listing different Barbie dolls and outfits: “mean-eyed,” “bubblehead,” “Career Gal,” “Sweet Dreams,” “Bendable Legs.” You can find other “types” by visiting the doll aisle in a toy store. Is Cisneros criticizing the makers of dolls such as Barbie or the culture that buys into these images of women? What is she saying about the importance of clothes in constructing identity?
  9. Exploration: Are the girls in this story weak or crybabies? Do they go along with the boys’ games so as not to be left out? Consider the comment, “I’d rather play flying feather dancers, but if I tell my brother this, he might not play with me at all.” Why are the girls always the sidekicks in these games? Does Cisneros seem to blame the boys for imposing their games on the girls, or the girls for going along with the boys? Is she also critiquing gender conditioning in American society–are boys and girls “trained” to act a certain way?
  10. Exploration: At the story’s end, the children have become a spectacle–a tourist attraction for out-of-place visitors who want to take pictures as souvenirs. The tourist is surprised when she learns that the young Chicano children can speak English. Why does she think they are not Americans and cannot speak English? What is Cisneros saying about what it means to be an American? What does an American look like, sound like, do? Consider these questions in relation to archive items [6525] (La Familia mural) and [6528] (We Are Not a Minority mural).

Selected Archive Items

[6394] José Guadalupe Posada, Altar de la Virgen de Guadalupe (1900), 
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division [PGA-anegas, no. 127 (AA size)]. 
This print, on fuschia ground-wood paper, shows an image of la Virgen de Guadalupe on an altar surrounded by potted plants and candles. In Sandra Cisneros’s “Mericans,” the narrator visits a Catholic church with her grandmother and describes the “big miracle” of La Virgen de Guadalupe.

[6502] Lorraine Louie, Cover: The House on Mango Street (1984), 
courtesy of Random House/Vintage Contemporaries Books. 
Sandra Cisneros spent her childhood moving with her parents and six brothers between Chicago and Mexico City. In her most widely read novel, The House on Mango Street, Cisneros draws on this background to explore the experience of growing up in Chicago’s Mexican American community.

[6525] Wayne Alaniz Healy and David Rivas Botello, “La Familia” Mural (1977), 
courtesy of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). 
This mural shows a Chicano family standing in the center of a starburst, surrounded by images of life in Mexico and in the United States. Many Chicanos and Chicanas have struggled to understand their hybrid identity within the dominant white culture. Sandra Cisneros writes primarily about the experiences of Chicanas growing up in the United States.

[6528] Mario Torero, We are NOT a minority!! (1978), 
courtesy of SPARC (Social and Public Art Resource Center). 
Mural depicting a billboard. A young Chicano man points at the viewer in the typical “Uncle Sam” recruitment pose, with lettering that reads, “We are NOT a minority!!” Writers, including Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros, strive to give a voice to the Chicano/a experience.

[6638] Dana Tynan, Sandra Cisneros After an Interview (1991), 
courtesy of the Associated Press (AP), AP/Wide World Photos. 
Sandra Cisneros spent her childhood moving with her parents and six brothers between Chicago and Mexico City. In her most widely read novel, The House on Mango Street, Cisneros draws on this background to explore the experience of growing up in Chicago’s Mexican American community.

Series Directory

American Passages: A Literary Survey

Credits

Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. 2003.
  • Closed Captioning
  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6

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