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Sandra Cisneros: Biography & Poems

Instructor: Jacob Erickson

Jacob has his master's in English and has taught multiple levels of literature and composition, including junior high, college, and graduate students.

This lesson will explore the life and poetry of Sandra Cisneros, a contemporary Latina writer. We'll consider her work, experiences, themes, and impact as a writer.

Introduction

Few contemporary writers are as interested in or as successful at producing art that has a direct impact on the world in which they live as Sandra Cisneros. After experiencing the difficulty of struggling to fit into dominant American culture, Cisneros has focused much of her work and career on addressing the issues minorities face. This aspect of her work, combined with her innovative and unique style of storytelling, has made her one of the most recognizable writers living today.

Life

Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954 and grew up as the only daughter among 6 brothers, a fact that often resulted in her feeling alienated from her family. Additionally, Cisneros's parents struggled to make ends meet, a quality that resulted in moving back and forth between Mexico and the United States throughout much of her childhood. These challenges resulted in her pursuing writing at an early age as a way to make sense of the isolation she encountered throughout her life.

After earning her bachelor's degree at Loyola University Chicago, Cisneros enrolled in the famous and prestigious Iowa Writers' Workshop. Although Cisneros produced a chapbook of poetry titled Bad Boys during the workshop, it was her first novel, The House on Mango Street (1984) that marked her transition into the literary scene. The novel, which innovatively connects various stories, has remained one of her most popular and respected works and introduced her readers to many of the issues that poor minorities face in America.

Many of the stories and poems Cisneros writes take place around Chicago.
Chicago Cisneros

Cisneros would go on to publish a collection of poetry titled My Wicked Wicked Ways in 1987 and a series of short stories titled Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories in 1991, further establishing her literary reputation. She has continued to produce other books, including Loose Woman (1994) and Caramelo (2002). In addition to the influence on her readers directly through her writing, Cisneros has held many positions in a variety of fields that address the problems faced by marginalized people. Moreover, she has worked to connect Chicano and Latina writers and helped encourage writing that speaks to often-ignored realities of American life.

Themes and Style

The experience of being a Latina in America is one of the most dominant themes throughout Cisneros's work. In fact, Cisneros has recalled that during her time in the Iowa Writers' Workshop convinced her that she should deliberately focus on her unique experiences as a way to help her develop an innovative writing voice. This conviction led her to attempt to employ a writing style that is not only distinct from other writers, but distinctly non-traditional. Her speakers, for example, tend to come from demographics that are rarely given that position in American literature.

The difficulty in distinguishing between American and Mexican cultures is a common theme in the work of Cisneros.
US Mexico border

In addition to being isolated from much of American society through her race, Cisneros also speaks to the alienation she's encountered as a result of her gender. More than simply reflecting the cultural differences between men and women, Cisneros explores the ways in which gender roles are particularly defined and explicit in Chicano culture. Her experience as the only daughter among six brothers is used as a common image to chart the ways that gender is practiced in different demographics in society. Often, these issues are presented through the themes of innocence and complexity as a way to illustrate how influential and violent these cultural norms can be.

Poetry

Cisneros's major poetry collections are My Wicked Wicked Ways and Loose Woman, both of which employ natural, conversational language and often include Spanish. My Wicked Wicked Ways, published in 1987, features many of the familiar themes in Cisneros's work. Consider the title poem, for example. In 'My Wicked Wicked Ways', Cisneros takes for her subject a daughter discussing her parents and their lives before she is born. She begins with her apparently simple, conversational language, saying 'This is my father, See? He is young, He looks like Errol Flynn' (1-3). Avoiding formal meter or rhymes, Cisneros develops the perspective of a child who has yet to be born to explore the ways that parents and their expectations have a tremendous impact on the identity and perspective of their children. The poem goes on to ponder who her parents were and how they evolved, eventually concluding with the line 'I will turn out bad' (31), emphasizing the fact that she feels that, even before she was born, the social conventions that define her were already in place.

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