Sandra Cisneros’ debut novel from 1984, The House on Mango Street tells the story of a working-class Mexican girl growing up in inner-city Chicago. It sold more than two million copies, has been translated into twenty languages, and is required reading in schools across the country. Her work since then deals with themes such as identity, race and class, and feminism. After winning the $500,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant” in 1995, she, along with some fellow writers, created The Macondo Foundation. Cisneros believes that good writers must implore their conscience – that the way to become a good writer is to become a good person.
On October 21, 2014 at UNC Chapel Hill, Sandra Cisneros was awarded the Thomas Wolfe Prize. This annual event features a southern author who has made significant contribution to writing and whose work benefits the scope shown by Thomas Clayton Wolfe (UNC class of 1920).
After the ceremony, Sandra took the podium and read three essays about “home.” Two longer ones written specifically for the night’s event and one she read because she had time to spare. The house was packed with overflow attendees sitting on the stage. Before she began, Cisneros offered her front row seat to anyone who needed it. She said, “Someone please take it, I won’t need it anymore. I’ll be up here.” Nobody took it.
Cisneros’ essays about home took us back to her childhood as her family bounced back and forth between Chicago and Guanajuato, Mexico. She shared her childhood fascination for books and the library, even admitting to her plot to “steal” a favorite one and pay the lost book fine with her saved allowance money. She shared her dapper father’s love for jazz and nightclubs, his sharp suits and outward displays of affection; his love for the macabre, specifically the Mexican magazine “La Alarma” which his wife made him keep hidden beneath his mattress. The one headline she accidentally saw said, “Wife kills husband, serves head in tacos.”
She spoke of her mother’s hard-working and frustrated bravado, her inability to display much feeling. Cisneros told us that she was in the room when her mother died and felt a warm and gentle energy come over her. She knew right then that this was the essence of her proud mother, and she tried to desperately cling to it as it was something elusive and inaccessible during her lifetime. Cisneros encouraged us to celebrate El Día de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, saying we can’t forget the people we who left before us. They still need our love.
I gathered that her parents’ love grew more and more jaded as time passed. And isn’t that what love does? Cisneros described photos of her young parents dancing, the look of love in their eyes. But she said her father’s terms of endearment such as mi vida (my life), mi cielo (my sky/heaven), and mi amor (my love), turned to mi vieja (my old lady) – an address that would set her mother on fire, banging pots around the kitchen.
Cisneros’ idea of “home,” she admitted, might seem sticky and ill-defined. But she assured us that home need not be a geographical location. It doesn’t require walls and certainly doesn’t need to be passed down through generations. She said that she finds that feeling of “home” in other writers’ work. Over time, she’s witnessed love through images rather than words. Her father’s bouquet of dandelions, her mother’s Sunday morning pancakes, eating popcorn out of tiny bowls in the living room with her family. These things became the language for things that couldn’t be said.
She joked that she’s done her best to make her San Antonio home a place where both Mexico and America can exist together. Even going so far as to paint her house purple with pink trim, albeit to the chagrin of her housing association.
Sandra Cisneros challenged all of us, as writers, to travel. To let a foreign place be a mirror to our true self, a tool for us to identify similarities and differences and then celebrate them, as such. Here we’ll also find “the other” in the self.
She said our differences are our gifts. We should make a list of ten ways we are different from our family, our friends, our colleagues. She told us that it is in these ways we can identify the things that make us most special.
The Q&A at the end was a series of forgettable questions until the final one. Someone asked how she started writing. A generic question, for sure, but Cisneros’ response was anything but. With a snicker in her voice she said, “I started writing out of loneliness, then I got good at being lonely. Now I am condemned to a lifetime of solitude.”
The goodness in her filled the room. We all left feeling like we’d just spent some quality time together. At home.