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2015 LIFE@50+ MIAMI

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Enjoy fun in the sun during Life@50+, May 14-16, 2015

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Sandra Cisneros

The Joy of Words

Twenty-five years after publishing The House on Mango Street, the author is inspiring new writers.

Mangos and Cucumbers

Cisneros's face beams as she approaches Casa Azul, a blue-trimmed house across the street from her own. The space houses the Macondo Foundation (named after the town in Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude), an organization Cisneros incorporated in 2006 to promote literature through events and sponsorship of authors. The foundation's roots reach back to 1995, when Cisneros first gathered 15 socially engaged Latino artists in her kitchen. From that small meeting has grown an annual weeklong workshop with more than 120 participants. While these gatherings emphasize a sense of community, Casa Azul also is a place where writers can find solitude.

One such author is Erasmo Guerra, 39, a "Macondista" who recently spent three months as the writer-in-residence. The time allowed him to work on his essay collection. "I see Sandra as my literary madrina," he says. "She's the only one who has ever encouraged me as a writer." Guerra still remembers his first Macondo gathering, in 2000. "I kept thinking, 'Here's my literary idol and I'm in her kitchen!' After we workshopped our stories, she'd cut up mangos and cucumbers and make tea for everyone.

"The Writer's Refuge

Cisneros steps around her hybrid car that sits in the driveway. On its back window is a sticker, "No Hay Fronteras Donde Hay Amor" (there are no borders where there is love), and on the bumper, "Make Tacos Not War." She opens the gate and is greeted by her "herd" of eight dogs. Argus, her late mother's dog, hobbles along.

Her home and the detached yellow office next door are her writer's refugio. "I have to be a public person as an author, but the writer isn't. I like that my house gives me privacy," she says. "The mesquite tree hides me from passersby, and my terrace covers me up if I'm in my pajamas." Days she remains home in pajamas are often productive writing days, she explains. In fact, she's working on a book titled Writing in My Pajamas.

Privacy has been a necessity since 1995, when she received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship (known as the "genius grant") and was catapulted into the spotlight. "Chicano writers are like the illegal aliens of American writers, and the award made me legitimate to many people," she says. "Since I arrived in Texas, I had not felt welcomed and then, all of a sudden, I was their Sandra Cisneros. Texas claimed me; American letters claimed me."

She's grateful for the award, which allowed her to complete Caramelo, her second novel. She also took a year off to keep vigil for her dying father, to whom she dedicated the book. "I knew he'd die while I was writing it," she says. He'd always wanted her to marry and have children for family security, she says, but after she received the MacArthur he realized she'd be okay. Never one to rest on her laurels, in 1997 Cisneros began Los MacArturos, a collective of Latino and Latina MacArthur Fellows, with an aim to share their expertise with la comunidad.

The walls of her office are stacked floor to ceiling with books that share the space with a small bed, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Cisneros walks up a spiral staircase, dogs following, and onto a terrace with two large sun umbrellas. This is where she comes to enjoy the sunset, her favorite part of the day. After her mother's death, she says, she needed a way to battle depression and invited a yoga teacher to hold classes on the terrace. It is "spiritual treetop yoga," she says, "When the umbrellas are open, class is in session." Her dogs, now exhausted, are scattered like spilled laundry.

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