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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.

En español | Sandra Cisneros dips her feet into the cool water as sunlight shimmers on the San Antonio River. "This, to me, is the best part of San Antonio," she says, pointing out a monarch butterfly, circling hawks, and a white crane skimming over the water.

The quiet spot, just a short walk from her house, is where the Mexican American writer comes to clear her head or walk her many dogs. Born and raised in the barrios of Chicago, Cisneros, 54, is now at ease in San Antonio's historic and affluent King William neighborhood, her home for the past 22 years.

She greets friends as she strolls, giving an observer the impression that, wherever she is, Cisneros carries herself with confidence and grace, the same qualities that have helped her become an influential activist, teacher, and literary icon. She's celebrated for her compelling Chicana perspective on issues such as identity, gender, sexuality, bilingualism, and class struggles.

On this, the 25th anniversary of her acclaimed first novel, The House on Mango Street, Cisneros recalls a time during its writing when, living out of boxes and working as a high school teacher and counselor, she questioned the direction of her life. "It seemed that literature didn't save anyone and was flimsy compared to the struggles of my young students," she says of those who were pregnant, in abusive relationships, or facing even worse problems. "I wondered if I should have done something more practical, like teaching these young women how to control their fertility."

And she continued to ask: how else can I help? The answers came in The House on Mango Street, whose stories were not only dedicated to her students, but were sometimes about them and their troubles. The book has had a lasting effect on many of Cisneros's students.

Social worker Margarita Lopez Perez, now 47, was one of those young women. "I had a child when I was 15, was getting beat up, and was trying to get through school when Sandra brought hope into my life," she says. "That's what I now try to bring to those I counsel by teaching them to let go of trauma through telling their stories."

Today, Perez's three college-graduate daughters recall their mother reading Cisneros's book to them when they were children. Perez's youngest daughter, Evita Castro, 24, who clearly remembers the chapter "Minerva Writes Poems," even though she didn't know it was based on their mother's own life, says: "When I was [a child], I only felt that the story was so sad. In high school, I reread it and thought, 'This was us; that was my mom!' Sandra captured it perfectly: Ma writing poems on folded pieces of paper, the man who almost killed her, the pancake dinners—it made me appreciate my mother's struggles."

Now Cisneros is inspiring a new generation. Just before Christmas 2007, she received 150 letters and poems from Kimberly Coggin's English classes at Houston's Alief Taylor High School—prompting her to visit the school. The students had read her poem "Loose Woman" and wrote their own poetry in response. "That poem gave [the students] the means to see they aren't the only ones who are stereotyped and labeled," says Coggin, 29.

One of the students, Cynthia Rivera, 16, wrote: "You've inspired me to speak my mind through writing. After reading your poem, I knew my voice could finally be heard." And the voices Cisneros heard from the students arrived at crucial time for her. In an e-mail that she wrote to Coggin, Cisneros said that the letters and poems "were medicine for my soul. They come at an especially poignant time because my mother has recently died. Your students remind me why I write and, more importantly, for whom."

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