A House of Her Own
Sandra Cisneros is a writer and poet whose books include The House on Mango Street, Caramelo, and a memoir, A House of My Own. Her work has been lauded in many ways, including with a MacArthur "genius grant," the Texas Medal of Arts, the National Medal of Arts, and the PEN/Nabokov Award for international literature.
Krista Tippett, host: The House on Mango Street by the Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros has been taught in high schools across the U.S. for decades. She’s received a MacArthur genius award, a National Medal of Arts, and many other accolades. Sandra Cisneros grew up in an immigrant household where it was assumed she would marry as her primary destiny. I love how she strikingly, fiercely has given voice to the choice to be single — and single or not, to know solitude as sacred. It was a lovely and lively experience to bring her to our studio on Loring Park in Minneapolis with an audience that included many delighted first-generation Latina teenagers.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]
Sandra Cisneros: I think it’s very muddied in your 20s. I think the 20s is so hard, for women.
Tippett: I know. It’s so hard, and you get told that it’s the best years of your life.
Cisneros: It’s the worst!
Tippett: It’s just not true.
Cisneros: No, it’s the worst. But I always tell my students, “Don’t worry. It only lasts ten years.”
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. This conversation with Sandra Cisneros was held in honor of the non-profit Centro Tyrone Guzman, which supports the Latin-x community in Minneapolis. She’s a dual citizen, has lived in many places in the U.S., and currently makes her home in Mexico.
Tippett: So, Sandra, this work of conversation that I do, I feel like every time I start to prepare for a conversation, it’s just this adventure and this discovery to see what it will be interesting to pursue. And I have to say that it was so wonderful to really delve into your writing and also how you’ve written about your life, which you do —that your entire body of work, and the way you think and you write, is about the adventure of being alive. And one thing that occurred to me — so what I’m saying is, I always think about how I’m gonna organize a conversation, and with you, the idea that kept coming to me is, there’s this line of Annie Dillard, and I forgot to look it up, but it’s something like: “You are made and set here to give voice to your astonishments.” And I feel like, as I look at your body of work, it’s these varied astonishments that jump out at me, that are about your life but also about everybody’s life. And so that’s how I want to move through this, this evening — and see what happens.
But you had a reaction to that, so I’d love to hear it.
Cisneros: Well, I’m a little astonished by that statement. [laughs]
I think I’ve never given up feeling astonished by life. I think that artists are children that never grow up, and at 64 — I’m on the verge of turning 65 — I’m even more astonished by what has come my way just being here. And being your guest, when I see who has been your guest in the past, is a great honor, and I think of myself not with my awards and my accomplishments, but I think of my biography of failure. So when someone’s reading my accolades, I think, “Oh, but good thing they’re not mentioning my fifth-grade report card.”
But I think of myself as that person that I was, and I still am that person. And I’m always astonished that I’m given a microphone and a forum, and everyone’s come out in the cold to hear me, because I come from a big family, where everyone spoke at the same time and no one listened.
Tippett: Well, everybody’s going to listen to you tonight.
Cisneros: I know, but some part of me is still that child that didn’t get a chance to speak enough, or that was silenced in public spaces, or felt that she wasn’t intelligent enough or not the beauty or not the chosen one in class — the one that just was invisible. So the fact that you’re inviting me here is like, whoo-hoo! Great!
Tippett: Well, so you have written that your ancestors emigrated to the United States during the diaspora of the Mexican Revolution, crossing the border at El Paso and relocating several times; that they were migrant farm workers at first; and later, they worked on the railroad. And some of the places in this history of your family are El Paso; Flagstaff; Rocky Ford, Colorado; Kansas; ending up in Chicago. If I ask you about the spiritual or religious background of your childhood, however you would define that, what comes to mind?
Cisneros: My family has different kinds of spirituality. My mother was a spiritual person, but she was very suspicious of any organized religion. And that’s because she was the one child that took after her father. And my grandfather was raised by his grandmother, and she was suspicious of church and state. And there was a reason for this desconfianza, for this distrust, because at that time, before the revolution, the church was very wealthy and exploited the poor. And my grandfather and his people were landless workers on land that wasn’t theirs. And so my grandfather would tell my mother, “You don’t have to give any money to the church. Give it to the poor, directly.”
Tippett: And when you say — you said, a minute ago, that everyone was always speaking at the same time, in your house. And you had six brothers. I think that must have tested your spiritual mettle.
Cisneros: Well, you know what it taught me? I never want to share a bathroom with a man again.
And another thing it taught me is, I learned how to be funny, thanks to my six brothers. I learned how to be self-critical, because they were always criticizing me. So I learned very early on to edit myself. But I also knew, if you could be fast and you could be funny, people would listen; it’s a way of getting people to listen.
Tippett: So you’ve written, “I became a writer, thanks to a mother who was unhappy being a mother,” and that your mother searched for escape routes, and she found them in museums, the park, and the public library. And I actually — I am also just such a deep lover of libraries, and I don’t think I’ve ever interviewed anybody where this jumped out. I’ve spoken with people about how museums, interestingly, are contemplative spaces, even in the midst of modern life, but libraries are, as well.
Cisneros: Libraries are spiritual houses. And if you come from a crowded house, where you’re sleeping in the living room or sleeping in beds with four people, to have a space that’s quiet is remarkable. And for me, the library wasn’t just a place to read, but it was a place to dream and to be quiet and look out the window, look at the trees, and just to feel calm, because I’m hypersensitive, as a writer. The one I went to was very beautiful. And, more than anything, it was just like a house to nurture your spirit. And when you’re poor, you don’t have a space of your own to go that’s quiet.
Tippett: You’ve also said that you spent so much time in the library, it was so important to you, but The House on Mango Street — that you understood, when you were writing it, that this was the book you couldn’t find in the library.
Cisneros: Well, what happened — when I was in sixth grade, we moved. And we were delighted by our new house. We were so thrilled that we got to go to another house, where you could turn on the faucets and water came out. You could flush away the waste. It was just a great improvement over our last place.
So that change was important, because it took me out of a neighborhood where there were 46 students in the class, where I had more than a dozen absent days. And in this new school, the teacher came up to me desk, and she plucked the paper I was drawing and took it to the front of the room, and my heart just did a backflip. I thought, oh, no. What did I do wrong? And she held it up and put a little pushpin through it and said, “Look what our new student has drawn. Look how beautiful this is.” I didn’t have any grades for art in this other school, so it was the first time that I was singled out for something I did that was good.
And I remember, that same year was also the year I started writing poetry.
Tippett: And so how old were you?
Cisneros: About sixth — whatever you are in sixth grade. What is that? 11, 12?
Tippett: 11, 12.
Cisneros: And I remember, that same year I went to the library, and I was looking through the card catalog, looking through for something, and I came upon this card that was dirty and raggedy, and I said, “Oh, this must be a good book.”
And then I imagined, then, “One day, I want my name on this card catalog.” And then I could see a book and the spine and my name, and I said — I couldn’t see the title, but I said, “This is what I want.” So I tell children, now, to see with that third eye and imagine what you want your future to be. In my case, I couldn’t tell anyone about it, because of the six brothers, and I wanted to protect this dream, not have it savaged, so I kept it a secret. But I tell children, “You don’t have to tell anyone, but I want you to see it and to walk towards that dream every day. And then you can say it aloud, when you are in a safe place.” But I think it’s important that we give children that permission to do that, at that age or younger. It’s too late, if you wait too many years after that.
Tippett: So this title, “A House of My Own” — of course, echoes Virginia Woolf’s A Room … — but I didn’t see you quoting Virginia Woolf on that, but you did — you have mentioned something she said, that “As a woman I have no country. As a woman, my country is the whole world.” And you said that you would rephrase that. And you would say, “As a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I am an immigrant in the entire world.” And I wanted to hear what you mean when you say that.
Cisneros: I had a postcard with that quote of Virginia Woolf when I was traveling on my first NEA grant, in my 20s, when I finished House on Mango Street. It was very important to me, that quote, as I was learning how to travel, because I’d never gone anywhere alone. But the more I traveled, the more I met women. And they befriended me, and they never asked for anything in return, the way that when men gave you something, there was always an ulterior motive, but not with women. And I just felt that, regardless where I went, I was experiencing my father’s immigrant experience — what it was like, for him, to come across and to feel uncomfortable and to find friends among strangers and to be alone and to be taken into people’s homes. You have gratitude, when you’re traveling and you don’t have a lot of money — or even if you do, if someone invites you to come into their home and share a meal. There’s a kindness in that.
And I just felt I understood my father’s life in a different way after I made that trip. So I think I’m still, at 64, trying to discover what’s good for me, and I’m still an immigrant, but now I have dual citizenship.
And I’m trying to cross many borders now in my life, both physical and spiritual, and I’m trying as best I can, because my time is running out. I don’t feel that I’ve done my best work. I don’t feel I’m as wise as I would like to be. And it seems like you’re just getting in the groove, and the party’s getting really good, and it’s like, “I gotta go.”
Why do I have to go? My father used to do that a lot when he was in his 50s and 60s; he’d say, “Mmm — ya me voy.”
And I would just tease him and say, “Where are you going? You just got here.” So I feel like I just got here. Pero ya me voy.
Tippett: So that’s something else that really is so striking: in your books — some of them, at least — there are a lot of photographs of you at different ages. And I feel like you — so I don’t know if you think about it — so what I started writing down in my notes is, the nature of time, I feel, is something that, whether you call it that or not, you’re always attending to. By which I also mean, the many people each one of us is in the course of a lifetime — the girl you were at 11 and the young woman at 25 and the woman at 64 — and how all of those people are in relationship, and they’re the same person, and they’re not. Is that something that you’ve been thinking about for a long time?
Cisneros: When I was 30, I wrote a poem that failed. And it was how I was 30, but I was also 29 and 28 and 27, and all the way till birth. And I never finished that poem. But I wrote a story called “Eleven,” and I use that idea in the story. And I still feel I’m 11, underneath all the years.
Tippett: You said 11 is what you basically feel — that’s your true age.
Cisneros: I’m still there. You know how you look at a tree, and there are some rings that had a lot of rain, and it gets really bigger, and they shrink? Well, we can think about our own years and what defined us or what happened to us in those years. But I’m still kind of like a kid. My father had this habit of staring at people, at things, and he would go around the block if he thought it was especially interesting. And then he would be startled when people looked at him, because I think he thought he was invisible.
And I’m like that, too, that — when you’re 11 and a girl, you are invisible. And after a certain age, women become invisible again. And that’s a wonderful thing. You can grieve and say, “Oh, nobody looks at me anymore.” You mean, men. Or you can say, “Oh, nobody looks at me anymore! It’s great!”
You don’t have to worry anymore. It’s so great. I feel like someone put a knife away. And I’m so thrilled, now, to be invisible again. I pay attention to other, older women, especially in the town I live in, because there’s a lot of señoras, muy señoras.
Tippett: You’re living in Mexico now, correct?
Cisneros: Yes, and las señoras se arreglan muy bien; they look really nice with their lipstick; they wear a nice dress. And nobody tells them they look nice. But I tell them, because I see them. And I think the nice thing about being older in México is that you get respect.
Tippett: As an elder.
Cisneros: As an elder, you get respect. When I come into the airport, the porters with their little carritos, little carts, come up and they say, “Madrecita, can I help you?”
So I’m “little mother,” and what could be better, in México, than to be called “the mother,” who — all mothers are revered in México, especially la Virgen de Guadalupe, the great mother. So, I’ve had no children, but I have ascended into …
Tippett: To be a mother. [laughs]
Cisneros: … to be a mother, yeah.
[music: “Kite Flying Society” by Mark Mothersbaugh]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the celebrated Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros.
[music: “Kite Flying Society” by Mark Mothersbaugh]
Tippett: This is kind of, again, moving backwards in time, but I was just thinking of something. You have a chapter in The House on Mango Street called “Hips.” This is about this moment where a woman — where your body changes, and something happens to you. You say: “One day you wake up and they are there. Ready and waiting like a new Buick with the keys in the ignition.”
But then you wrote, “Ready to take you where?” which is a question mark, because that happens to girls, but we’re not really told what to do with it.
Cisneros: Well, I think young girls, especially, want to look sexy, but they don’t realize what that brings, and the discomfort and the danger and the lack of being seen for who you are. It’s a lot of trouble. And I tried to write about it in a way that I could get past the censors, when I was writing that chapter. The original title was “Tits.” But I thought, if I write about that, that’s too easy, and maybe someone in a school will say, “We can’t use this book.” So I changed it and made it a little bit more challenging.
And I like that chapter. It was a lot of fun, because I was able to include something that girls know, and those are the jump-rope songs, the games that we play, clapping — part of what we learn as young women and gets lost in adulthood. So it was a way of interviewing people and saying, “What game did you play when you were a kid? And how did it go?” So it was fun to preserve that.
Tippett: So you wrote, for the 25th anniversary edition, you wrote this “A House of My Own” essay, which appears in other places, but this is the preface to the book. This is one place where there’s a picture of you — I don’t know — how old are you there?
Cisneros: I’m about 27, 28.
Tippett: I’m just fascinated with how you wrote this, so I just want to talk it through. You said — this is how it begins: “The young woman in this photograph is me when I was writing The House on Mango Street. She’s in her office, a room that had probably been a child’s bedroom when families lived in this apartment.”
And then there’s a place where, suddenly, the “she” turns to an “I.” It’s within a single paragraph: “The young woman’s teaching job leads to the next, and now she finds herself a counselor-recruiter at her alma mater, Loyola University on the north side in Rogers Park.” And then: “I have health benefits. I don’t bring work home anymore. My workday ends at 5:00 p.m. Now I have evenings free to do my own work. I feel like a real writer.” And I’m just so curious about that shift that you made between “her” and “I,” “she” and “I” and what changed. What happened inside that paragraph?
Cisneros: I think a writer has to come into her voice. I think a woman has to come into her voice, because everyone speaks for us. And for me, when I was asked to write the introduction, I was studying that photograph, and I knew —
Tippett: And you were studying your younger self —
Cisneros: I said, “That’s not who I am now, but that’s who I was when I was working on these pieces.” So I had to talk about her as a “she,” in the third person. And it seemed to me — I don’t really like the cover of House of My Own, because that’s the same age; that’s the same period; that’s the same photographer — it’s the same photo shoot as the photograph — because when I look at her, I say, “Qué tonta.”
You know? What an idiot I was. I had so much power, and I didn’t know. And I gave it away. And I just — well, I had to make all those stupid mistakes. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be who I am now. But it breaks my heart when I look at her, and I think how she was used and things that she allowed to happen to her and just the explosions that happen in our lives that — what I call the “exploding cigars of life” — you’re just having a wonderful smoke, and then [indistinct]
“How did that happen?” — like that.
Tippett: But this is something I’ve thought about a lot too, is, there’s also something in that about how we, women, are so merciless about our younger selves. And another thread that runs through your life is, there’s a lot of fear that goes along with being a woman, a lot of things to be frightened of.
Cisneros: I think that when you’re Mexican, it’s even worse, because you’re trying to imitate white women and trying to live like a white women’s feminism. And if you do that, it’s heartbreaking, because you have to break — the people you love the most, you have to break their heart, and you break your own heart because you’ve broken theirs. And see, like if I had been a white woman living in my apartment, that would’ve been perfectly fine, but I was a Mexican-American woman who had to go against the person I loved the most to have that space of my own.
Tippett: Your father.
Cisneros: My father. My brothers didn’t leave home until they married.
Tippett: You left home. They didn’t leave home.
Cisneros: I was the black sheep, so I — they had their own crimes, but they kept it under wraps.
Tippett: But this is what I’m saying; that younger you seized this bravery, found this bravery in herself.
Cisneros: I met people who were mirrors of who I wanted to become, and for better or for worse. I think we all do when we fall in love, no? We fall in love with who we want to be. And we don’t really see clearly that, oh, maybe that’s who you want to be, but you don’t have to be with that person. I think it’s very muddied in your 20s. I think the 20s is so hard for women.
Tippett: I know. It’s so hard, and you get told that it’s the best years of your life.
Cisneros: It’s the worst!
Tippett: It’s just not true.
Cisneros: No, it’s the worst. But I always tell my students, “Don’t worry. It only lasts ten years.”
[music: “Limoeiro do Norte” by Forro in the Dark]
Tippett: After a short break, more with Sandra Cisneros. You can always listen again, and hear the unedited version of every show we do on the On Being podcast feed — wherever podcasts are found.
[music: “Limoeiro do Norte” by Forro in the Dark]
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with the delightful Sandra Cisneros. She writes poetically in many genres. Her beloved novels include Caramelo and the iconic The House on Mango Street – this one is a favorite of many of the first-generation Latinx young people who were in our audience for this conversation at our studio in Minneapolis.
Tippett: I feel that the world that you see and that you care about and are curious about is, in many ways — not in every way, but in many ways it’s a world that is quiet and mighty at once, kind of like libraries; people who are leading, as we say, real lives, but lives that defy the loudness. An example is somebody you write about, Maria Luisa Camacho de López …
Cisneros: Oh, yes.
Tippett: … also known as Mrs. Eddie López. So talk about her. Somebody like that is in the world, and for you, that’s also the story of the world.
Cisneros: Well, these are the people I love, people I know who aren’t history, and they won’t be in a history book, or they won’t get in a museum.
Tippett: Right. That’s what I mean by quiet.
Cisneros: And they’re great, and they’re doing selfless work. Mrs. Camacho de López was my mentor in textiles and in Mexican folk art and in Mexican customs. And I met her at a friend’s wedding, because she came in como una reina, like a queen, wearing a Mexican huipil and a big flower in her hair. She was a big woman, but she was beautiful. And we looked and said, “Who’s that? Who, who is that?” And we went up to her and said, “Con permiso, we would like to meet you.” And she said, “Oh, soy la Señora Camacho de López.” And we just loved her. We adored her, instantly. And she was very generous and kind. She turned out to be like the walking Smithsonian of Mexican culture in her little neighborhood. And she would teach people how to say the prayers for the rosary. She would tell you how you set up the Day of the Dead altar. And she was like the gran bruja, the shamana that comes in, of light. And I just learned from her so much, and I think one of the great things in my life was the story she gave me that became Caramelo. She was the daughter of a rebozo maker, a shawl maker, and I borrowed that to create my character, the awful grandmother.
But more than anything, she had such a pride in being who she was. And her husband was a San Antonian of Mexican descent, and this couple, their house became a cultural center. Anybody who wanted to come in and learn something — it was a very tiny little house next to the H-E-B grocery store — and everybody would come in. They were just people of great spirit. And I think that those are kinds of people that we need to remember, and we need to tell their stories, we need to record their lives; otherwise, they don’t count. They’re not history. And everybody knows people like that. If we don’t tell their story, then Ken Burns will write about it and miss them completely.
Tippett: It’s so important to just say aloud, as often as possible, that most of the interesting and important people who are, in fact, changing the world are not famous and will never be famous.
Cisneros: And they’re not MacArthur Geniuses, and they never got an NEA.
Tippett: Not like you. You have struggled with depression. And that’s something that you write about; it’s been —
Cisneros: I talk about it, too.
Tippett: And you talk about it.
Cisneros: I’m not ashamed of it or proud. But it just is. And I think it’s something that, before I knew what it was, I was so ashamed. And I don’t want people to be ashamed and go through near death, as I did.
Tippett: You did. You talk about — was it in 1987? It was a “ten-month period of the dark night of the soul.”
Cisneros: Yes, very dark. And it’s because I already had House on Mango Street out, but people don’t realize, that wasn’t an overnight success. The book — I finished it in 1982, got published two years later, and then I went through a really dark period where I realized, even though I’m good at creating writing that people love, I can’t pay my rent with that. And I don’t know how to sustain myself. I can’t earn a living with my writing, so what good is that? And, of course, when you can’t find a job, and then you find one that you feel you’re a failure at, you spin into a deeper depression.
I never wanted to teach at the university, because I didn’t feel comfortable there as a student, and I felt obligated to, in that year. Someone opened a door for me, and I couldn’t find a job in Texas, and I was forced to go to California and take a job that I was terrified of. So, of course, when you come in as a guest writer, they give you the classes that nobody wants and reluctant students, the students that are not necessarily interested in English. So I had a very hard time. And all of that failure just kept building and building until I just felt I couldn’t go on.
Tippett: And you describe yourself now, spiritually, as a Buddhi-Lupist.
Cisneros: A Buddhalupista, that’s what I am.
Tippett: Buddhalupista. And it sounds like — you have said there was this conversion that was subtle over time, not some moment, and that living with depression and working through that —
Cisneros: Well, when you go through a near-death experience, as I did, you keep thinking, “Oh, my. What if I’m successful and destroy myself next time around?” So I consciously sought teachers, women, books about women and depression, books about women in the arts, books about working-class people in the academy. And I sought out a therapist, and I found an intuitive, and I started — I guess I started finding that self I would’ve found if my grandmother, the one that knew things, had been alive; she could’ve guided me. So I started discovering intuitives and slowly realizing, oh, I have those gifts, too.
I think, if we had been raised with our Indigenous grandmothers, that we would know that, yeah, everybody flies around when they’re sleeping, and you come back gently. And sometimes we can problem-solve when we’re dreaming, and some of us have gifts of visiting the dead, and the dead come to visit us. And everybody has that potential. It’s not like someone’s greater than someone else. It’s just, we have to learn how to develop it.
Tippett: And would you talk a little bit about how you work with all the things that happen to one in a lifetime, and the different people you are, and the stages you go through.
What is that noise?
Cisneros: Is it your heating system?
Tippett: No, no, it’s in the speaker.
Cisneros: Oh, I had a house like that, and the radiator would go on. It was like some crazy neighbor, banging on that metal.
Tippett: Well, while we’re waiting for that, how many tattoos do you have?
Cisneros: I’m sorry?
Tippett: How many tattoos do you have?
Tippett: Because you’ve written so interestingly about your tattoos. Coming back to this idea of time travel, because it’s something that joins you with a younger generation …
Cisneros: I didn’t know that. I just did it to be subversive, because when one of my books came out — I don’t know which one — Hispanic magazine wanted to put me on the cover. And my agent knows how I feel about that word, so she said —
Tippett: How you feel about what?
Cisneros: I don’t like it.
Tippett: You don’t like being on the cover?
Cisneros: I don’t mind being on the cover; I just don’t like the word “Hispanic.”
Tippett: Oh, you don’t like the word “Hispanic.”
Cisneros: “An Hispanic.” But some people feel they are, and that’s fine. I don’t. And I have my reasons.
Tippett: So what word do you like?
Cisneros: I’m a Latina, a Mexican American; I’m American; I’m Mexican; I’m from las Americas north and south. That’s what I feel I am. But, to me, it was just a word that — you know how, one day, you went to sleep, and the next day, all over town, there were these little machines that said USA Today? That word came up like that, overnight. And it wasn’t something that was organic from my community, so I felt a resistance to it. It’s different from “Hispano,” but I didn’t use “Hispano.” That was not a word from my community.
But anyway, we have issues with that word; my agent knew I had that issue. And then we had an opportunity to be on the cover, and she said, “What do you think we’re gonna do?” And I said, “We will be on the cover, but I’ll figure out a way to make it work for me.” So I thought, maybe I’ll wear a hat, and it’ll say “Latina.”
But then I thought, no, that could get cropped. And then I had someone paint a tattoo on my arm, and it said — I think it said “pura Latina,” I think. But I liked it so much, I said, “Oh, I’ll get a real tattoo there.” The issue isn’t about “Latina,” the issue is something that is permanent and that is important in my life now. And for me, the Virgen de Guadalupe is important, and Ester Hernández, the Chicana artist, designed it, blending Guadalupe with Guan Yin, and blending her with other goddesses. So, she’s kind of a composite of several diosas. But my mother didn’t like it. She, one day, looked at me and said, “That’s the dumbest thing you ever did.”
I said, “Ma, having eight kids was the dumbest thing you ever did.”
Tippett: And a lot more work.
Cisneros: She left the room after that comment.
She had eight live births; seven survived. And she lost a child when it was over a year old, so it was devastating to her. And I just kept telling her, “Ma, why didn’t you — you were in the hospital so many times, why didn’t you just say, ‘Tie up those tubes while you’re at it’?” But she never did. She was a product of her generation, so it wasn’t something that one did at that time.
Tippett: It’s such an act of rebellion, for you, to not only not marry, but be alone, be …
Cisneros: Well, you know what? It took me a long time to realize that it’s more lonely to live with someone, sometimes, than it is to be alone. Took me a long time to figure that out. And I live alone now, but I’m not lonely. And I feel very loved by …
Tippett: Right, it’s a choice.
Cisneros: … by the universe and the trees and the clouds and the sky and the sunsets and my dogs and the people who are in my life and my students. I don’t feel lonely. There’s a lot of women in my town who are always looking on the horizon for that next guy that’s coming around the bend, but I don’t feel that. I feel a sense of contentment and joy. And it’s hard to live with somebody. It’s hard to live alone, but it’s easier to live alone.
Tippett: And I do love that your father, who always — it just sounds like he couldn’t have imagined that a daughter wouldn’t marry, when you were a child, but that eventually there came a point where he actually was so — he took in your independence and how complete you were.
Cisneros: Well, the first thing he did when he came in my house that I bought with my PEN, he jumped up and down and said, “Look: the boards creak.” And he just found fault with everything. And then, eventually, he saw I had a housekeeper, I had a gardener; that I had an assistant, I had people that helped me. And he said, at the end of his life, that I had done well. We made our peace with one another. And I had this selfish prayer that my father would live long enough to understand why I had lived the way I did, why I had made those sacrifices, why I had slept on the floor for ten years and lived out of boxes and moved and traveled so much, following jobs so that I could support the writing. The writing became the spouse. It was a difficult spouse — and still is.
It still is a difficult spouse. But it’s a very faithful spouse. And there’s some times that we don’t speak to each other …
… and some times that I just don’t understand that spouse. But it’s a union for life.
[music: “Lullaby [Instrumental]” by Wes Swing]
Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with the celebrated Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros, in a room full of Latina teenagers.
[music: “Lullaby [Instrumental]” by Wes Swing]
Tippett: Let’s open this up.
Audience Member 1: My name is Ciclali, and I’m thankful that you’re here.
Cisneros: Thank you.
Audience Member 1: And I’m also thankful that all of you guys are supporting el Centro. One question I have is, why did you choose poems and books? How did it inspire you?
Cisneros: Why did I choose the form of poetry? In which books?
Audience Member 1: Yeah.
Cisneros: In all my books? Oh, well, do you write poetry?
Audience Member 1: I love poetry. [laughs]
Cisneros: Good. Well, then you know we need to write poetry. Poetry’s the most difficult, to me, of all the literary genres, and the most important, especially right now, when we’re going through so much pain. I think the poets are in the profession of transforming grief to light. They’re like our chamánes. And they’re also in the profession of telling the truth, because you can’t write a poem unless you tell your truth. It isn’t a poem if it isn’t a truth. And we’re living in a time of so much confusion and lies and counter-lies and people saying “that’s fake” and “that’s true” that there’s so much confusion about what’s true. So the poets are in the forefront right now, doing important business. This is a great time for poetry. I think we’re living in a renaissance of poetry, and we need the poets right now, to help us illuminate the path in a time of confusion.
And for me, poetry is illumination, especially when my spirit is clouded and I don’t have the language. I try, when I write fiction, to write each line as beautiful as if it was a poem. The direction and the process is a little different, but I try to marry the two, prose and poetry. And I think poetry is medicine that we need right now, at this time — this dark time that we’re living in the United States.
Audience Member 2: Thank you for being here with us …
Cisneros: Thank you.
Audience Member 2: … a woman of the Americas. What words of wisdom will you give to our young people these days?
Cisneros: I would tell the young people to earn their own money.
Most important. You can’t follow your dream if someone else is giving you your money. Two: Control your fertility. No excuses, men and women. You can get thrown off your brilliant careers because of an unwanted pregnancy. And so that’s important. Number three: Solitude is sacred. We tend to think that we have to have a partner, or we have to be out every night. But the time that you’re alone or when you think that you’re unpopular — you don’t have a date, or you’re at home — that time is for you to nurture you. So think about what a gift it is when you’re alone, because that’s your time to nurture you.
So earn your own money; control your fertility; solitude is sacred. That’s the advice I give young people.
Audience Member 3: Hi, I’m Coco. Speaking of using your book in the school, we just read your book as a final project for the end of the quarter, and we had — at the end of the book, we had a 45-minute discussion about the book. But we spent the majority of it trying to figure out why you didn’t use quotations in the book, because a lot of kids were like, “Oh, my God, this is so hard to read. I don’t understand why we didn’t do it —”
Cisneros: Wait a second. Wait a second. I’ve read your papers; you don’t use quotation marks, either.
Audience Member 3: [laughs] So I was just wondering why you didn’t use …
Cisneros: I know. I’ve taught in the schools. But let me tell you. The reason — I’ll tell you why. I’m just being funny with you. I didn’t use quotation marks, because I wanted the sentences to work like poems. And if I had quotation marks, you had to read it one way. But if the quotation mark isn’t there, then you can use it — you can read it and understand it in more than one way. And because they’re so small, I wanted flexibility with each sentence.
Also, I didn’t like that it would clutter up the way it looked, so I tried to make it as clean as possible. But I read a lot of experimental writers when I was a young woman, and I wanted to write a book that wasn’t like the books that I had seen. I later would discover there were other writers that were doing story cycles, but when I started mine, I didn’t know about them. But I thought if I moved the punctuation and make it as minimal as possible — of course, you have to use punctuation, but I tried to make it as minimal as possible — there would be more ways that one could read that sentence. OK?
Audience Member 4: Hi. My name’s Gaby. I’m from Detroit, so I came all the way here to see you.
Cisneros: Oh, thank you.
Audience Member 4: I love your writing, so thank you for being here. My question is — so I grew up with two brothers, and I totally get where you’re coming from; you kind of have to scream to be heard and just be quick, because that’s how you just get heard. So my question to you is, how different do you think you would be, or your life would be, if you grew up either with sisters or if you were just a solo kid?
Cisneros: My sister that passed away as a baby, I often wonder how my life would’ve been different, had she lived, because I had my father’s attention. I was my father’s daughter, and I was treated very special by my father. So I often wonder about that, if it would’ve been a space I would have to share with my sister. I don’t know how that would be, but I have women in my life who are my sisters — my friend Jasna in Sarajevo and my cousin Licha, who appeared in House on Mango Street as my cousin Licha, and then she got younger and younger and became Nenny. On the other hand, maybe I wouldn’t have become a writer, because the writing came from my loneliness as an only daughter. And I also spent a lot of time talking to trees, and that allowed me to become a poet. I think people who talk to trees are destined to become artists.
Tippett: I meant to say this when we began to speak — if you just feel called to read anything, a poem or a piece of your writing — you don’t have to, and it’s kind of late, but …
Cisneros: Well, I do want to say something. I feel that it’s very important for all of us to speak in this time. I hope that my speaking tonight will motivate each of you to right the planet, to do something positive, even if that only means treating everyone you meet, tonight and tomorrow and the day after, as human beings.
Tippett: I think I might read something, some words of yours.
Cisneros: Adelante, I would love to hear you.
Tippett: Which follows on that, and I cannot remember where I found this, but you said, “I don’t know anything, but I know this: whatever is done with love, in the name of others, without self-gain, whatever is done with the heart, on behalf of someone or something, be it a child, animal, vegetable, rock, person, cloud, whatever work we make with complete humility, will always come out beautifully, and something more valuable than fame or money will come. This, I know.”
Cisneros: Yes. House on Mango Street taught me that, and I share it with everyone. It’s true. Some people do it with their students, some people with their children, but I wrote House when I was in a moment of powerlessness, and I think we feel that way now, but that’s always a sacred time. When our heart is being broken, we’re in a state of grace. We’re being open to feel things deeply. And I think the United States is living with its heart split in two right now. And maybe — the Sufis say, “God breaks the heart again and again until it stays open.” So maybe we’re living that time.
Tippett: Sandra Cisneros, thank you so much for your work and for being with us tonight.
Cisneros: Thank you for this opportunity.
Tippett: Sandra Cisneros’ books include The House on Mango Street, Caramelo, and a memoir, A House of My Own. Her work has been lauded in many ways, including with a MacArthur Genius award, the Texas Medal of Arts, the National Medal of Arts, and the PEN/Nabokov Award for international literature.
[music: “Hunnybee” by Unknown Mortal Orchestra]
Special thanks this week to Roxana Linares, Natty Bibiana Hels, Cherolyn Fischer, and all of the staff and community at Centro Tyrone Guzman. Also Monica Vega, the wonderful artist who transformed our space and created our Day of the Dead altar.
Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Marie Sambilay, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Zack Rose, Serri Graslie, Nicole Finn, Colleen Scheck, Christiane Wartell, and Julie Siple.
Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.
On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.
Our funding partners include:
The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.
Kalliopeia Foundation. Dedicated to reconnecting ecology, culture, and spirituality. Supporting organizations and initiatives that uphold a sacred relationship with life on Earth. Learn more at kalliopeia.org.
Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.
The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.
And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.