It's July 11 and it's Elvira Cisneros' birthday, the mother of writer Sandra Cisneros. When Sandra answers my phone call she is surprised. “I put the interview on her birthday so I would remember. I remembered it was her birthday, but I forgot about the interview,” she said, explaining that she had just finished her breakfast and was sitting with her coffee, so it was still a fine time to talk, even if the interview blindsided her. Cisneros is the author of 11 books, each a touchstone of Chicana literature. The title most immediately reach for is The House on Mango Street. Now required reading in nearly all middle and high schools, the books tells the story of Esperanza Cordero, exploring what it means to be a young, female Mexican-American in an urban barrio. The themes of the book remain vital after more than 30 years and resonate with readers regardless of background. I read this book for the first time as a captivated 15-year-old and returned to it recently to find that the themes of empowerment, community and home had only evolved, iterating new meanings, not losing an ounce of the magic I found all those years ago.
That magic is translated into new mediums at the National Hispanic Cultural Center's (1701 Fourth St. SW) The House on Mango Street: Artists Interpret Community, a traveling exhibition from the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago. Featuring artists of various backgrounds and locales, the works detail the trying experience of finding and maintaining community. Sandra Cisneros will be in Albuquerque to lead a tour of the exhibition along with Tey Marianna Nunn, the Director of Museum and Visual Arts Program at the NHCC, on Wednesday, July 27 and will do a reading and a book signing the following day. The exhibition itself runs until September 25. On her mother's birthday, Cisneros took the time to expound on the journey to find her power and her sense of home.
Alibi: I have to say, every time I turned a corner at the exhibit at the NHCC, I was surprised and impressed with the diversity of the work in the exhibition.
Cisneros: Especially for the times we're living in the show is very prescient … I was really moved to see that it went beyond a Latino art exhibit, that it crossed cultures so that everybody could explore what community means for them. … The work explores the themes that The House on Mango Street explores. It's very inclusive. I'm so happy to see that. I think the timing is crucial, when we're still so wounded by all the violence we've seen. I hope it's good medicine for everybody. I hope people feel as spiritually uplifted as I did by the show.
How does it feel to have this really expansive show rallying around your singular piece of work?
We create art out of such an isolated, private place, our private pain. I wrote The House on Mango Street when I was in my twenties! I'm 61 now. I wrote it during a different time … things are more difficult for people of color now than ever. We've always lived with the idea that things were going to get better. I never expected things would be where they are now for people of color. Never. I always had this optimism. … I think that artists need to rise up and be our leaders, because you can't depend on [the] media and politicians. I think when you're younger, you're looking for that leadership in other places. You don't feel like you can do it yourself. I was very moved to see how political the work was and how spiritual. It came from such honest and deep places. I feel so honored to be a part of this show or an inspiration for it.
The themes of the book remain vital after more than 30 years and resonate with readers regardless of background. I read this book for the first time as a captivated 15-year-old and returned to it recently to find that the themes of empowerment, community and home had only evolved, iterating new meanings, not losing an ounce of the magic I found all those years ago.
The current climate can seem so toxic and scary and full of negativity. This is a bright spot.
And there's nothing to give us direction! To say where we go from here. I think that certainly the message of The House on Mango Street is one of asking yourself, who is going to make things better for this community? That question is always asked—who's going to do it? It always comes back to yourself.
A lot of the artists in the show are young and the content and cultures represented are so varied—it is a very empowering show.
I think people are looking for solutions, but living in a state of fear … people feel powerless and impotent to make change. It's a wonderful exhibit for showing that art can and does make change. If it changes one person—if one person reads my book or sees this show—and learns something, or finds an alternative to … violence [then that creates change]. I try to write my books in a way that leads people to look at alternative ways of solving problems, in a nonviolent way.
The book has been contextualized as being about a young girl coming in to her power. Can you talk about what that experience was like for you—finding your voice as a writer? And why it is so important for other women to discover their power?
We're living in such a time that we're censored as communities—as working class communities, as people of color, as women. It is important for women to have a voice … without people telling them how to think. Especially right now, politicians and father figures in our lives are censoring our paths to independence. [When writing The House on Mango Street] I was a young teacher. Just a young artist. Writing the book at that time helped me to define who I was. I try to tell people to read the book as being written by a teacher, a young woman in her twenties searching for her political direction because that's what I was. I used a younger voice … to ask questions that I was facing … because I really didn't know how I was going to make any change, how I was going to change myself or create change with the women I cared about, which were my students at that time.
Can you talk more about the process of writing the book?
I really felt like the most powerless human being in the world. I felt anguished. I felt depressed. I felt lost. I looked around the class, I saw my students, young men and women who had grown up with difficult lives. I think I just wrote from a very pure place. One thing that life has taught me is that if you're writing from a pure place of service for others with no self agenda, no ego involved, that whatever work you do is going to open you to your highest self. ... [Then] we're working in a state of grace. That is what happened with me when I was writing The House on Mango Street. … I was trying to find my own path, looking at my colleagues and their political beliefs … [and] they didn't take me seriously, and the worst part of it was that I didn't take myself seriously, either. I didn't feel very capable of having a political direction, but I was looking for it. Writing this book, I had no idea it was going to open paths for others, to open the path for me. I am Esperanza, but I am not her. I wasn't as smart at that age.
Did you ever lose confidence while you were working on the book?
Everyday! … But you don't come at [writing] with this victorious attitude, like you're slaying the dragon. You come at it meekly, not with a machete, but with a butter knife. … It's most important to ask the questions. You don't have to have the answers.
Is the idea of home different from the idea of community for you?
I never felt at home in Chicago. Even my house didn't feel like home. I had a wonderful family, a good relationship with my mother and father … [but] the home you're born into isn't necessarily one that is home to your spirit. I was very loved and I was fed and clothed, but I needed something more than that. … I went looking for a spiritual world whether that was art or music or trees or looking at a cloud. I would've been very happy if I had become a monk or something … I was always looking for some place quiet and you don't have those places very much in a crowded apartment. For me it's always been a search for home and a place for … creating a nurturing space for the imagination. That's what I found in Esperanza. That was a homecoming for my imagination.