Sandra Cisneros Crosses Borders And Boundaries In 'A House Of My Own'

Oct 6, 2015
Originally published on October 15, 2015 5:22 pm

For many students, Sandra Cisneros is required reading. She tells stories of working-class Latino life in America, particularly Chicago, where she grew up, and where she set her well-known book, The House on Mango Street.

The meaning of home has been a central theme in Cisneros' life and work. And in her new memoir, A House of My Own, she writes about leaving home, her parents' house — without getting married, which was a shock to her father.

"Unless you're exiled from your father's house for some transgression, you really are expected to live there," she tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "And if you don't marry, you're expected to stay there and take care of your parents. I'm an only daughter in the middle of six brothers. And I think I did things that were rather shocking if I had been a man."


Inteview Highlights

On her father, an upholsterer

My father was a craftsman, and I'm a craftsperson, too. And I have the same standards of making things — putting them together, and ripping the seams apart if they don't match. I think my father, as a tapicero, as an upholsterer, taught me a lot about mastering craft and taking the time to make something well if your name was going to be put on it. And, you know, I always admired that my father had this little business card that said "Cisneros Upholstery: Custom Quality Furniture." And my dream was to have a card that said: "Sandra Cisneros, Writer. Custom Quality Work." And I finally did it ... I showed it to my dad. And he was so — he looked like he was going to cry when he saw it.

On her mother, whom she describes as a "prisoner-of-war mother"

She was an unhappy camper. My mom really wanted my life and didn't realize that she was opening the path for me to follow my dream. And then at the end of her life, I think she felt so unhappy that she had wasted her life, that she hadn't achieved what she had aspired to as a young person. And that dissatisfaction and that person that used to exist before she became a mother — you know, I understood her better at the end of her life. I could understand who she wanted to be and how we came into the picture and kind of thwarted her plans. She didn't realize what she'd done. She could only see what she had not done.

On writing about women's lives and stories

You know, when I was a child, I always felt that I wanted to rescue my mom from the slights of her mother-in-law. She had a lot of pain that she opened up to me about as a little girl. And I always wanted to come to her rescue and, as I became a writer, to tell her story. But I felt always that my mother knew so little about her own mother and her own grandmother, and all of the women in the family just got erased, that I wanted to honor them as much as I could. Write about them, think about them, even though I didn't know their names, to somehow imagine their lives.

On crossing borders and boundaries

I guess I didn't realize I was gonna be crossing borders my whole life. Even in Chicago when I grew up — because I lived in the border zone between black and white communities. Usually in Chicago, it's so segregated, you have a brown corridor, to create a wall. And I didn't realize that growing up in Chicago, even then, I was living on the border lands.

Maybe my job is to be an amphibian so that the water people and land people can understand each other. And I think, especially in this time, climate of fear, who better to travel between these two worlds than those of us who are mixed race, or mestizos. We're the diplomats, the ambassadors, so to speak, during the age of susto [fear].

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Sandra Cisneros writes about working-class Latino life in America based on her childhood in Chicago. She's probably best known for her book "The House On Mango Street." Cisneros now lives in Mexico and the idea of home has been a central theme in her life and her writing. As a young woman, Cisneros left her parents' home without being married - a big break in family tradition. She writes about that in her new memoir that's out today. It's called "A House Of My Own." Our colleague Ari Shapiro asked her about taking that leap.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Unless you're exiled from your father's house for some transgression, you really are expected to live there. And if you don't marry, you're expected to stay there and take care of your parents. So imagine being the daughter - the only daughter - the favorite child and going out and saying, well, I've got to get my own apartment or now I want to move to Texas or I'm going to go travel to Greece. All of those things were heartbreaking for my father and worried him sick.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

And he was an upholsterer who worked with his hands.

CISNEROS: Yes, he was.

SHAPIRO: You were such a different creature working with words and ideas and stories.

CISNEROS: Yes, but I work with my hands, too. And my father was a craftsman and I'm a craftsperson, too. And I have the same standards of making things, putting them together and ripping the seams apart if they don't match. And I think my father, as a tapiceros, an upholsterer, taught me a lot about mastering craft and taking the time to make something well if your name was going to be put on it. And, you know, I always admired that my father had this little business card that said Cisneros Upholstery - custom quality furniture. And my dream was to have a card that said Sandra Cisneros - writer, custom quality work. And I finally did it.

SHAPIRO: That's a beautiful connection.

CISNEROS: I did it.

SHAPIRO: You did it? You made that?

CISNEROS: Yes, I showed it to my dad and he was so - he looked like he was going to cry when he saw it (laughter).

SHAPIRO: And then there's your mother, who you say you became a writer thanks to her.

CISNEROS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: And you describe her as a prisoner-of-war mother banging on the bars of her cell all her life.

CISNEROS: Yes. My mom really wanted my life and didn't realize that she was opening the path for me to follow my dream. And then at the end of her life, I think she felt so unhappy that she had wasted her life, that she hadn't achieved what she had aspired to as a young person. And that dissatisfaction and that person that used to exist before she became a mother - you know, I understood her better at the end of her life. I could understand who she wanted to be and how we came into the picture and kind of thwarted her plans. And she didn't realize what she'd done. She could only see what she had not done.

SHAPIRO: You write in this book that - the way you put it is - you say in my family women are so anonymous their grandchildren don't know their own names.

CISNEROS: That's right.

SHAPIRO: And I wonder how much of your work is an effort to reverse that and to rescue the stories of these women and other anonymous people.

CISNEROS: You know, when I was a child, I always felt that I wanted to rescue my mom from the slights of her mother-in-law. She had a lot of pain that she opened up to me about as a little girl. And I always wanted to come to her rescue and, as I became a writer, to tell her story. But I felt always that all of the women in the family just got erased, that I wanted to honor them as much as I could, write about them or think about them, even if I didn't know their names.

SHAPIRO: One of the things I get from reading this collection of essays is the tension, the paradox between the deep connection you feel with your roots, your history, your family, and on the other hand, the need to move out of the house, to, you know, as the title of the book says, find a house of my own.

CISNEROS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: And there's a passage in this book where you talk about your connection to Mexico and the United States and the way people around you react to that. This is on page 368. Would you read this section?

CISNEROS: I'd love to read it.

(Reading) I think about what my Mexican friends and employees said recently when I told them I was traveling north to the United States. Aren't you afraid? This is exactly what U.S. friends said to me when I told them I was moving to Mexico. Aren't you afraid? Soon after 9/11 on a radio talk show in Mexico, a caller gave the United States a new name. Instead of Los Estados Unidos - the United States - he referred to it as (speaking Spanish) - the United States of fear. We are living in the age of susto - fear - on both sides, on all sides, on all borders across the globe. The paradox is this - fear unites us. Fear divides us. In a post-9/11 United States, with so much vitriol allowed in the media toward people who look like me, I no longer feel at home at home.

SHAPIRO: Hearing you read that makes me think about the way, in your writing and in your life, you have crossed so many boundaries, whether it is a literal border between the United States and Mexico or a border between life and death that you write about after your parents passed.

CISNEROS: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Or just a border between two cultures in an American city where you live surrounded by different people of different backgrounds.

CISNEROS: Yeah, I guess I didn't realize I was going to be crossing borders my whole life, even in Chicago when I grew up 'cause I lived in the border zone between black and white communities. Usually in Chicago it's so segregated you have a brown corridor to create a wall.

SHAPIRO: And does that idea of being a border crosser come back around to this idea of seeking a house of your own, that if you're crossing back and forth, maybe you're not entirely firmly securely content in one or the other?

CISNEROS: Maybe my job is to be an amphibian so that the water people and the land people can understand each other. And I think, especially in this time, climate of fear, who better to travel between these two worlds than those of us who are mixed race, or mestizos? We're the diplomats, the ambassadors so to speak, during the age of susto.

SHAPIRO: The age of fear.

CISNEROS: Yes.

SHAPIRO: That's Sandra Cisneros. Her collection of essays is called "A House Of My Own." It's been a delight talking with you. Thank you.

CISNEROS: Oh, it's a pleasure. Thanks so much. much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.