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."
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].