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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."

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.

Cisneros admires her garden below and wonders who will live in her house and what her legacy will be. "I always want to give back to the community, to elevate writers to another level, to teach people to honor their stories," she says softly.

The story doesn't end here...

Read the full Q and A with Sandra Cisneros, where she discusses the pivotal role her novel played in the acceptance of Latino culture, her years as an academic migrant, and how her views have evolved in the 25 years since its publication.