Sandra Cisneros: Border Crossings and Beyond

Article excerpt

For readers and writers of Chicana literature, the 1980s signalled the emergence of voices of power and pain which many previous decades of racism, poverty and gender marginalization had suppressed. Breaking a silence that had run long and deep, writers such as Lorna Dee Cervantes, Denise Chavez, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga and Sandra Cisneros converted the unyielding forces of gender and ethnicity which had historically bound and muted them into sources of personal and stylistic strengths. Before the literary explosion of the '80c--excluded from both the mainstream and from ethnic centers of power--the Chicana had been an outsider twice over. Sandra Cisneros derived inspiration from her cultural specificity and found her voice in the dingy rooms of her house on Mango Street, on the cruel but comfortable streets of the barrio, and in the smooth and dangerous curves of borderland arroyos. In her work, she charts new literary territory, marking out a landscape that is familiar to many and unfamiliar to many more. And yet, resonating with genuineness, testifying to the ability of the human spirit to renew itself against all odds, Cisneros's voice carries across and beyond the barriers that often divide us.

Born the only sister into a family of six brothers, Sandra Cisneros "dreamed [her]self the sister in the `Six Swans'" fairy tale. Cisneros elaborates: "She too was an only daughter in a family of six sons. The brothers had been changed into swans by an evil spell only the sister could break. Was it no coincidence my family name translated `keeper of swans?'" (1987, 71). Cisneros was born on December 20,1954, "the year of Rosa Parks." A year and a half later, her mother gave birth to another girl child who died in infancy, leaving Cisneros the "odd number in a set of men." That her birthplace and family home is Chicago characterizes the convergence of rootlessness and love that has shaped her family history. Her great-grandfather, whose family "boasted railroads and wealth," played the piano for the Mexican president at his mansion in Mexico City. The fortune, lost at the gambling tables, was half-cloaked in secrecy by the time her father was born. Cisneros writes: "Our ancestors, it seems, were great gamblers...but this is never mentioned out of politeness, although I have disinterred a few...for the sake of poetry." Her paternal grandfather, a military man who "survived the Mexican Revolution with a limp and a pension," had put enough aside to send Cisneros's father, Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral, to college. She writes: "Since my father had a knack for numbers, he intended to pursue an accounting career. However, he was not very interested in his books that first year, and when he failed his classes, my father ran away to the United States rather than face my abuelito's anger."

Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral and Cisneros's "vagabond uncle" wandered the Eastern Seaboard and spent a "naive few weeks in the South," unsure about whether they belonged in the front or the back of its Jim Crow buses and eating eggs morning and night because it was "the only English word they knew." Planning to "cut across country and head to California, because they heard there were many Mexicans there, and New York was beginning to get too cold," the brothers decided to stop in Chicago for one day to see what it was like. On that Autumn day, a chance meeting with Cisneros's mother, Elvira Cordero Anguiano, was to change the course of Alfredo's life. One day became a month and then a lifetime as love caused dreams of California to fade when Alfredo, "who liked children and wanted a large family," married Elvira and set up housekeeping, for the time being at least, in a run-down house in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.

Although Elvira Cordero's family history is "blurred and broken," rooted in a town in Guanajuato whose name Cisneros doesn't know, she recognizes that her "mother's family is simple and much more humble that that of [her] father's, but in many ways more admirable. …