New And Established Writers Redefine Chicano Lit

Many Mexican-American writers use their work to share stories of history, identity and discrimination. Sanda Cisneros, author of The House On Mango Street, and young adult literature author David Rice explain what their stories can tell readers about Chicano life in America.

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TALK OF THE NATION: small and red, with tight steps in front and windows so small you'd think they were holding their breath. Bricks are crumbling in places, and the front door is so swollen, you have to push hard to get in. The house has only one washroom. Everybody has to share a bathroom, a bedroom, Mama and Papa, Carlos and Kiki, me and Nenny.

"The House on Mango Street" became a classic and made Cisneros a pioneer, perhaps the best-known female Mexican-American writer.

David Rice grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and focuses his stories on the people and towns he's known all his life. Both writers provide Chicanos an opportunity to recognize themselves in the pages of books that address the highs and lows of both belonging and not belonging.

Today, Sandra Cisneros and author David Rice. Later, the mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro.

TV: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sandra Cisneros joins us from the studios of member station KSTX.

And nice to have you with us today.

SANDRA CISNEROS: Thank you for inviting me.

: And it's been almost 30 years since "The House on Mango Street." Do you think Esperanza's experience would be different now?

CISNEROS: Oh, I think the situation's gotten worse for Esperanza, I'm sorry to say.

: Worse. And how do you say that?

CISNEROS: I say that because, you know, when I wrote that book, I wrote it from someplace, a very optimistic young women in her early 20s, hoping things would get better in the United States for people of Mexican descent. But, you know, I could never dream what would happen post-9/11 and with the community being under siege as it is right now with Mexican people really being vilified at this time of American history.

: Mm-hmm. And so Esperanza, of course, means hope in Spanish. Might you have chosen a different name for your character?

CISNEROS: Yeah, I still am filled with hope. I'm 56 now, and I have a different kind of view of the world, but I'm still optimistic and filled with hope, or I wouldn't be here today.

: And you now live in San Antonio. You grew up in Chicago. Tell us a little bit about the differences between those two places.

CISNEROS: Well, you know, I grew up where you could get on a bus and hear someone speaking, you know, Russian and someone speaking Spanish and someone with a twang from the Appalachia - I mean, all these different languages and dialects going on.

And I just assumed that the whole world was very global in that sense, that, you know, communities might not get along, but they had to live with each other, like it or not.

And, you know, it's so different coming here to San Antonio, where it's predominately - the majority of people that live here have Spanish language as an inherited language. Maybe they are not that proficient, or some are. And, you know, so you see the Spanish language in more public spaces, on advertising, and you hear it in the next booth at the restaurant.

And even the people who aren't of Mexican origin know a little bit of Spanish or know quite a good deal about the culture, just from generations of living here. Because, obviously, this was Mexico before it was the United States.

: I want to ask you the same question we're asking our callers today: Are there places where - other than your own books, of course - you recognize your experience and people like you, in books and movies on TV?

CISNEROS: Are you asking me?

: Yeah.

CISNEROS: Well, I think I wrote "House" precisely because I wanted to give my truth, my version. At the time that I wrote "House," in the - around the end of the '70s and the early '80s, I was reading Chicano literature written by men. And a lot of the literature that was coming to me was written by people in the Southwest.

I didn't have the urban experience. If I read about the urban experience of Latinos, it might be the Nuyorican experience. And I felt that it was a very different world than mine, especially a different reality written by men. And I wanted to write about the woman's point of view of living in the barrio.

There seemed to be a glorification of the barrio by the men, and I felt that there was issues in the barrio that I wanted to bring to light, that I needed to bring to light - not only for my own story, but I was a high school teacher. I was a very powerless highs school teacher at an alternative high school, and the girls I was teaching, their stories resonated with me to such a degree that I had to do something so I could fall asleep at night.

And I started weaving their stories into a neighborhood I remembered from my past, and that's how "House" came about. I truly wanted to tell the stories of these young women and my point of view as a woman, too.

: Also with us from the studios of KSTX in San Antonio is David Rice, a Chicano writer and filmmaker based in Austin. He's the author of "Give the Pig a Chance" and "Crazy Loco."

Nice to have you with us today.

DAVID RICE: Thanks for inviting me.

: And I wanted to ask you the same question we just put to Sandra Cisneros: Are there books, movies - you're a moviemaker and a writer, too, so we'll exclude yours for just a moment - that bring the people you know to life?

RICE: When I was a kid, there was no, that I read, Mexican-American literature or Chicano literature. And so I didn't know it existed until I was 23 years old. I'm 46 now. And I was in a plane on Southwest Airlines, flying, and I read an in-flight magazine that had Rolando Smith-Hinojosa's story about a snowman down in - down in the valley in Mercedes, Texas, where I'm close to.

And so that's the first time I saw that a Mexican-American could write a story about his or her home. And the Rio Grande Valley where I'm from, head count is only 2,000 people. It's a very small town 18 miles from the border. And so it was very rural.

And when I read that story, I realized, hey, you know, I could write about my home. And my home does have validation. Where I'm from is important.

And so that's what gotten me started writing that first story, and then, of course, reading other books. I read Sandra's books. I read Duguel's(ph) books, Gary Soto, Rudolfo Anaya, a bunch of other writers.

OF THE NATION: Hey, anyone can write, you know, and just had to sit down and do it.

: Well, not anybody could write as well as you do. But that's another issue completely. As you talk about it, though, I know you spend time going back to the Rio Grande Valley to teach kids in high school, to work with them, about how to write and how to tell stories about their own lives.

RICE: Well, you know, to be honest, I'm bored with my stories. And I'm bored with Sandra's stories, and I'm bored with Dago's(ph) stories. I'm bored with Mexican-American literature right now.

And I think that the new writers are coming up, and we have to - and I know Sandra goes to schools, a lot of them. I go to a lot of schools. And we're - we want kids to write their stories. We want them to realize that their family's important, that their culture's important. And they're out there.

: You know what? Your story's boring. I don't like it. And I go, really? That's great. I think that's - you know what? Let's hear your story.

And so I'm excited about these schools, you know, producing writers, and that's why I visit these schools, because I'm looking for these writers, and they're out there.

They're - we're in San Antonio, Texas, right now. They're all around us. They're all over Texas. And so while Sandra's right, we are right now having a tough time as Mexican-Americans in this country, we also have a real moment of showing that we have value - not just in our hard work, but in our storytelling.

: Sandra, would you agree?

CISNEROS: Well, I think it's a time where we're not having those opportunities to tell our story. What David is very optimistic about, but not telling you the truth that, you know, he's one, one person. I'm just one person that can go out to the schools, and the demand and requests from the schools is enormous.

There aren't enough of us published to go out. And the ones that are publishes are not getting distributed. So it's a difficult task. I feel it every day, that pull of the requests that come to me because the need is so great in the schools, especially since, recently, our Texas Board, you know, removed a lot of us from social studies. A lot of us are getting removed from textbooks. You know, and this is a community that you and I, David, we do this for free when we have time and aren't exhausted, and it never ends. So we need those other writers, but it's a difficult time.

We have a high dropout rate. We have young teens getting pregnant. You know, our communities are just hemorrhaging, and you and I are just a little Band-Aid on a corpus that is dying.

So we really need to create more writers. I try to do that at this stage in my life by working with professional writers who serve community. I do that with the Macondo Foundation. I bring together writers of all colors.

And there are so many of us who have been doing this our whole lives, because there isn't money for us to go out to the schools. There hasn't been money for a long time.

There hasn't been programs of poetry in the schools since maybe I was - you know, 25 years ago. And if it wasn't for money like the NEA, I would still be teaching in a high school writing "House on Mango Street" on Saturdays and during my vacation. If I hadn't gotten that NEA grant, I wouldn't have finished that book that now is required reading throughout universities, high schools and middle schools.

So I think that, you know, you're overly optimistic. I think it's a difficult, difficult time for publishing, period. It's difficult for writers of color. You and I do everything we can to go out to the schools. We work with younger writers.

I know you've been very, very generous. But we do it all, you know, like the Peace Corps. Nobody even knows we're doing this. The president doesn't know we're doing it, and maybe Mayor Julian doesn't know we do this. We do it on our own.

And, you know, we get a lot of good karma, but it's very difficult for us to finish our work when we're out there as the foot soldiers. So I think it's important for us to - just like me, you know, I was helped by other writers. I help the younger writers.

There were older writers that helped me. There were grants available that are extinct or are going to be shortly extinct, and we have to help that next generation because, like you said, the stories are out there, but who's going to open the doors? You and I - people who love those writers.

: David Rice, you cockeyed optimist, you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RICE: Well, you know - you know, look. We can go on for hours about this, and Sandra's right. Because in the State of Texas, like in Arizona, there is an outright attack to eliminate Chicano studies, you know, from universities and from classrooms. And we're not in the canon.

So when you go to a high school, teachers often have to sneak in my book to be taught and Sandra's books or Dago's books, and the teacher themselves have to make this effort to bring the book to the classroom.

So it's not sanctioned by the State of Texas, nor by the school boards. So, yes, there is...

CISNEROS: Maybe one writer here or there, but, you know...

RICE: Si, uno, dos. Yeah, one or two. For the most part...

CISNEROS: But for the most part, we're the illegal aliens of American letters.

RICE: Well, in the classroom, for sure.

CISNEROS: Yes, absolutely, especially in communities where we need to be the most, like here in the Southwest.

RICE: Yes, no, I completely agree.

: David Rice and Sandra Cisneros, both Chicano writers. They're with us from San Antonio today in the studios of KSTX, Texas Public Radio. We want to hear from Mexican-Americans in our audience. Where do you see people you know, people like you reflected in literature, in books and movies, on TV shows? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. We're broadcasting today in partnership with KSTX, Texas Public Radio in San Antonio, and we're talking about the Chicano voice in the books we read, the movies and TV shows we watch, and we're talking with two people who help tell those stories.

Sandra Cisneros's books include - in addition to "The House on Mango Street" - "Loose Woman," "My Wicked, Wicked Ways," and others. David Rice is a writer and filmmaker. His books include "Give the Pig a Chance" and "Crazy Loco."

Mexican-Americans in the audience, we want to hear from you. Where do you see your life reflected accurately? Books, movies, TV? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go to Corina(ph), Corina with us, calling from Tucson.

CORINA: Yes, hello. I just wanted to share, it was very powerful for me to hear, to just come across this particular show. I love your show and especially a show of this subject.

Growing in Las Cruces, New Mexico, I'm 41 years old, I remember distinctly the power seeing the show "Que Pasa USA" on PBS, because for me, it was the first time I saw people who looked like me.

And mind you, they weren't speaking the same kind of Spanish or English, with the usage or the cadence that I used growing up in Las Cruces, but it was so powerful to see people like me and say, hey, you know, I could relate to that.

And it just filled me with a sense of pride that to this day, you know, it remains with me.

Now, of course, we have George Lopez, and we have so many other shows, and I think there is, there's such a dearth of our stories out there, and I'm glad that this show is being broadcast, because we do, we need to get a fire lit under all of our youth, Latinos, Chicano, Mexican-American, what you might call us, and share our stories.

: David Rice, did you grow up with "Que Pasa USA"?

RICE: I grew up with "Caros Lindas"(ph), and "Caros Lindas" was a program that was out of Keller U, PBS in Austin, Texas, and was shown in the Valley, and she's right.

When I was a kid and I saw that, when I saw a Mexican-American's brown skin on television, it really, it changed my perception, because I said, wow, we can be on TV. We can do this.

And so, you know, going back to this idea of going to schools, you know, we visit all these schools and talk to kids, and we never know. We just don't know. Sandra and I don't know, none of us know, what kid is going to take off. We just don't know. But if we don't go to those schools and put on those programs on television that show Mexican-Americans in a positive light, it won't happen.

CISNEROS: You know, I'm going to have to interject. I'm older than you and I have to say I wrote my books in a place of real powerlessness. But now that I'm in my 50s, those students come up to me now, and they say: I read your book when I was in middle school, and my counselor told me, you know, I wasn't college material; I'm finishing my degree at UCLA.

I have those young women and young men that come up to me now, and they always are with tears in their eyes. And so I cry too, because, you know, that just goes to show you the power of art. And when you make it with your corazon, and when you don't have your ego, your fixed agenda, and you just get out of the way and you do it with light and with love for other people (Spanish spoken) it always comes out good, any work that we do for others with love.

And so I know that art makes change, and those artists that don't know that, they need to go out in the community and volunteer and do some really hard work. Roll up your sleeves.

Maybe the NEAs ought to be given to people who do community work or to(ph) artists willing to community work, and maybe everybody would be happy about the arts going out because they really are an investment.

And I can tell you, I want to give a testimony and an amen, you know, that I have lived long enough and am blessed in my lifetime to see those very many young people, many, come up to me that say this book changed their life.

: Corina, thanks very much for the phone call, appreciate it.

CORINA: Thank you.

: Bye-bye. Let's go next to Guillermo, Guillermo with us from Oakland.

GUILLERMO: Yes, thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to say congratulations (technical difficulties). My teacher, when I came to this country, my teacher taught us how to learn English with your book and how to write, how to speak, also helped us to graduate.

: You're talking about "The House on Mango Street"?

GUILLERMO: Pardon me?

: You're talking about "The House on Mango Street"?

GUILLERMO: Correct. And I have to say that it encouraged me, give me more hope. It is a way that you can move forward to make your dreams come true. So it helped us (technical difficulties) graduate as a landscape architect and I start my own company. And here I am. (Spanish spoken)

CISNEROS: Bravo, bravo. That's a beautiful testimonial. I love to hear these stories.

: Guillermo, thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you.

GUILLERMO: Thank you.

: It's interesting. Sandra Cisneros, I know you've written about how, I guess unconsciously, some of the patterns of - the vocal patterns and the verbal patterns in you books replicate Spanish. I think it might be easier for people, Spanish-speaking people, to help learn them - teach them to speak English by reading your books.

CISNEROS: Yes, it's helped quite a few people. And it's also a big hit not just here in the United States but in China and in Germany and in - even in Iran. You know, so many different cultures have been reading the book, and I just think anytime we do any work that we do with our corazon, that we do with our heart, you know, we just stand back.

I'm just - had no idea it was going to have that kind of impact globally, and I'm so happy because I feel especially powerless right now at this time in history. I'm looking for my direction. David, you and I know how much work is needed out there, and we're always looking to see how can we be of service, how can we help these communities that are so polarized right now in the United States come to some place that they can hear each other?

I think art is that opportunity for communities that are frightened to come together and to be inside each other's skin.

: Let's go next to - this is - let's go next to Mario(ph), Mario with us from San Antonio.

MARIO: Hi.

: Go ahead, please.

MARIO: My name's Mario Cervantes(ph). Thank you for taking my call. Hi, Sandra. I met you. I go to Our Lady of the Lake University. And I met you I think twice or two times. I'm a dyslexic writer. I write. I've been writing since I was in middle school. And seeing George Lopez on TV has inspired me a lot because he's dyslexic, and it encouraged me to chase after my dreams.

And Cisneros's books have also encouraged me to chase after my dreams and never stop believing in myself.

: And...

CISNEROS: That's wonderful.

: That's - congratulations, Mario, and who do you read, other than the guests we've got in the studio there?

MARIO: I read other books like (unintelligible) I'm really a poem writer. So I read a lot of poems, more than books.

: Okay, all right. Thanks very much for the call. And continued good luck.

MARIO: Thank you.

: Here's an email we have from Laura(ph) in Austin: I publish Latinas Magazine, the first digital magazine made by and for young Latinas. How powerful figures like David Rice and Sandra Cisneros are to those girls, whose voice is probably least heard in the U.S.

The kids are hungry to talk about their culture. We need these forums, and we teach these kids about how to be that voice.

And I wonder, David Rice, new kinds of forums - you were talking about the difficulties of getting published earlier, are - does the Web provide new opportunities?

RICE: Well, yeah. Well, that's a good question. Well, yes, it does, of course, right. The blogs and what have you and the short-story contests, and you can have your own book online, with classmates of your school.

But, you know, the thing is to get these kids to write. You know, there was a poster some years ago with Hemingway sitting on a beach, and he's reading a book. And it says: Get caught reading.

OF THE NATION: Get caught writing. You know, start writing because, yes, you know, Sandra's right. We have limited access to publishing houses. There's a few out there, but we need more.

But these kids have to start writing. They have to start really reading and writing. And yes, they'll form their own magazines and their own blocks. Latinas Magazine, by the way, is a very good publication.

And so, yeah, but you've got to create your own format. You've got to create your own chat books. And then you begin from there. So while there might be some blockades, you know, put there on purpose or not, to keep Mexican-American kids from writing their stories, we have to keep on insisting that they write their stories, because we can then overcome the blockade.

CISNEROS: You know, David, the whole process of reading and writing, it's like, you know, when you fall in love. I always want young people to fall in love with a book, and it's so hard for the teachers. They have to teach for testing. And there isn't, like, opportunities for young people to get in contact with our books. When I was a small press book, it was a very difficult for readers to find me or to find our books.

And I think that the whole process of reading and writing, it's like falling in love. You've got to go out there where people will hang out when you want to fall in love, and you've got to go out there and hang out with the books, go to the library.

And, you know, you have to also feel comfortable about picking up a book and finding one where you see yourself. That's why it's so important for us to support the up-and-coming writers so that we can have a variety of stories and voices.

You're right, I can't tell everybody's story. You don't tell my story, I don't tell yours. We need other writers publishing alongside with us. And young people need to see themselves in the story, imagine that they can speak and tell a story that is acceptable because most of them feel as if they are not articulate, that the lives they're leading aren't interesting, that they are not valuable.

And what I found when I was working with high school dropouts is that they were great oral storytellers but they were intimidated by the page. And it's about people like you and me that go into those schools and transfer that energy of speaking a tale and getting it on paper and giving them permission to tell it the way they talk it.

: Let's go next to Andrea, Andrea with us from Davis, California.

ANDREA: Hi. The only person that I feel I still connect with is the work of America Ferrera. She is a movie producer and, of course, did "Ugly Betty."

: Mm-hmm.

ANDREA: Literature-wise, I grew up reading Sandra Cisneros. I - my dad is from Mexico and he raised me to connect with that culture of mine through Chicano literature. But since I've been in my 20s, I don't feel that connection anymore to literature. I don't feel my stories. I don't see the people that I recognize or my story even as someone who's grown up in primarily a white culture in Illinois. My story isn't out there, but I still can reach back through the work of Sandra and Rudolfo Anaya and connect through that.

: Is there - are they places you go to look for those stories? Or - you know, obviously, we expect, to some degree, the media to bring them to us, but we can be proactive as well.

ANDREA: I've tried every once in a while. But I keep seeing the same - there's a lot of, you know, border literature that I find. But as someone who didn't live there, I grew up around South Dakota and Minnesota. That's not something that I know very well. So I don't see - most Chicano literature kind of steps around that. I haven't seen a really - a growth in the past decade that I've been trying to connect with that literature. I just haven't been able to find it.

: Well, David Rice says...

CISNEROS: Okay, the books are there, but it's a matter of the distribution. A lot of the writers like Belinda Acosta, who comes from Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places, the Chicano writers from the Midwest have anthologies. But they're usually efforts that are created by the writers themselves, and that's always an issue of distribution.

ANDREA: Yeah. Well, I look forward to looking for that.

: Thanks very...

CISNEROS: Well, I'll try to mention it on my Web page.

: Okay.

ANDREA: Wonderful. I'll look it up. Thank you very much.

: Andrea, thanks very much for the phone call. This is an email from Nicole in San Antonio. I am not Mexican-American. I am Arab-American. And I want to stress the importance of writers like Sandra Cisneros in paving the way for other brown writers. The Mexican community, in general, has paved the way for other minorities in the United States. So another testimonial there.

Sandra Cisneros is our guest. She's a Chicano writer based in San Antonio. The books include "The House on Mango Street," "Caramelo," "Hairs/Pelitos," "Loose Woman," "My Wicked, Wicked Ways" and others. David Rice, he's based in Austin, Texas now, author of "Give the Pig a Chance" and "Crazy Loco." They're both with us at KSTX in San Antonio.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Gene(ph). Gene with us from Fresno.

GENE: Hello, everyone. I love your work. Thank you very much. I appreciate it. My question to you as an educator and as a Chicano is what particular works do you read right now who are actually - fiction or non- fiction who are addressing the idea of all the discrimination that's going on towards Hispanics in the United States?

: David Rice, I wonder if you'd start with that.

RICE: There's a really good short story by Langston Hughes who's African- American. And he wrote a story called "One Friday Morning." It's really, really pretty powerful, and it's about a young woman who wins an art contest. And she's not sure whether she won it because she's an artist or because she has - because she's black. So that story really, to me, you know, really jumps out at telling kids that, you know, you can win no matter what your skin color is. And whenever that story - and I taught high school for a while. And I had 35 stories that I would use, and that was one of them. And then Gary Soto's story, "Being Mean," was another one that I used.

But because you got to start - when you work with kids, you just can't throw stories at them. There has to be a certain way of difficulty, like start with this story, then this story, then you build up and you build up and you build up.

And so Langston Hughes' "One Friday Morning" is, you know, a three-page story but really touched a lot of issues and - to me, that story can be used in almost any classroom. And then from there, you jump on to Chicano lit or whatever else. But I like the story a lot.

GENE: Yeah. One particular comment: I noticed that several of the works that I'm using in some of my classes are from Japanese-Americans who experienced, you know, the discrimination in the 1940s when they were imprisoned in the United States and their families. So I think much of the same thing is going on in this country right now, when we have whole families who are being taken back to Mexico and their children are being left here. And that's incredibly unfortunate and, you know, horrific. But if I could hear Sandra's response.

CISNEROS: Well, there is lots of writers that I like. I'm been rereading stories of Christopher Isherwood, "The Berlin Stories," because to me what he's writing about reminds me too much what's happening in the United States because we're in a state of fear. Communities are in a state of fear. And rereading "The Berlin Stories" is haunting for me because I hope we're not going to go in the direction that Germany went to in the '30s.

So I read lots of people globally. I am in love with many, many different kinds of writers. I have a Web page where I name the writers that I'm looking at. And sometimes, they're Chicano writers and sometimes they're not, because I think it's a global issue that we're talking about. So we're looking for writers globally that are also writing about similar situations.

I'm very fond of the work of San Antonio writer John Phillip Santos. Denise Chavez has also written beautiful books about the experiences in New Mexico. Julia Alvarez, who's a Dominicana, Juan Felipe Herrera, the poet. And I'm a big, big fan of the writing of Louis Rodriguez from East L.A. And he writes extraordinarily beautiful stories about situations of the Mexicans that are - is very current. There are just so many.

And, unfortunately, most people don't find it at their bookstore. And unless you know the title, you don't know when you go online where to look for these writers. So I think it's important for David and myself, you know, to put those lists on our Web page so that we can say, these are the writers we recommend and help your independent bookstore by ordering it from your local independents so they don't go under. They're the ones that supported me when I was a chapbook writer in a small press. And they're the ones I want to support now.

: We'll end with this email from Linda(ph) in San Antonio. Mexican- American female, where I saw myself on TV and sums up my experience, the best mirror of my life from the film, "Selena," where Edward J. Olmos, who plays the father, is driving the bus and speaking with Selena. He says, in paraphrase, it's hard to be a Mexican-American. You have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans in Mexico, and more American than the Americans. It's exhausting.

So we'll end with that. Sandra Cisneros, thank you so much for your time to day.

CISNEROS: Thank you.

: Sandra Cisneros joined us from KSTX in San Antonio. And thanks as well to David Rice, who was also there. David, appreciate your time today.

RICE: Thank you, Neal.

: Coming up next: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro. He is young, said to be on the radar in Washington - like many other mayors, faces some difficult challenges, talk about the budget.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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