For nine years Sandra Cisneros kept busy writing poetry, short stories and
essays, but all along she was nurturing a longer project, one about a
family, spanning 100 years and three generations and taking place on both
sides of the Mexican border.
That book, a novel called Caramelo,
has just been published, and for Ms. Cisneros this constitutes a major
literary event. This is only her second novel; her first was the hugely
successful "House on Mango Street," published in 1984 by Arte Público
Press and reissued by Random House in 1991. The story of a
Mexican-American girl coming of age in Chicago, that novel has sold about
two million copies in 11 languages, making Ms. Cisneros one of the
best-selling Hispanic authors in the United States.
The Story of a 'Typical' Mexican Immigrant
But Ms. Cisneros, 47, was not hurried along by success. "Caramelo" (the
title refers to a color and to a type of rebozo, or shawl) developed
slowly and, she says, "organically" over nearly a decade. It grew out of
her desire to honor her father as he approached the end of his life (he
died in 1997) by telling his story. It is essentially the tale of a
Mexican who is not unlike the millions of other immigrants to this
country whose stories go untold.
"I never saw an upholsterer in American literature," Ms. Cisneros said.
Her father, Alfredo Cisneros, had an upholstery business in Chicago that
is now run by three of his sons. "He was such an example of generosity
and honest labor," she said. "I didn't want people to erase him."
Her father used to drive his family — his daughter, six sons and his
Mexican-American wife — from Chicago to his native Mexico every summer to
visit his mother. One summer, during an outing to a beach in Acapulco,
Ms. Cisneros got the idea for a short story she said she could never
"I knew too much about everybody," she explained. "I kept branching off
into other substories, other plots."
Partly Fact, Partly Fiction, Partly 'Telenovela'
So she ended up writing a novel more than 400 pages long, with a plot
like that of a telenovela (or soap opera), about her ancestors and their
progeny, including extra commentary in copious footnotes. It is partly
true, partly fiction, and written in "little pieces," Ms. Cisneros said.
"I have invented what I do not know and exaggerated what I do, to
continue the family tradition of telling healthy lies," she writes in her
book. She said she wrote intuitively, waiting to find the patterns,
meandering without being necessarily lost.
"I knew what I didn't want," she said. "I didn't want a typical linear,
conventional novel. I didn't want `The House on Mango Street.' I had done
that. I wanted something more challenging."
Ms. Cisneros did not settle on the structure of the narrative until three
or four years into the writing, when she heard a know-it-all voice, an
interior critic not unlike one of her brothers nagging her about a dress
she was wearing. In "Caramelo," that voice comes from her paternal
grandmother, or "the awful grandmother." The character is described with
humor from the point of view of Ms. Cisneros's own mother, "who didn't
get along" with her mother-in-law at all, and who interrupts the book's
storytelling with her own take on things.
While "Mango Street" found an almost cult following among young Latinas
and English teachers, "Caramelo" seems to be striking a chord among a
wider audience, particularly immigrants. A recent reading in New
Braunfels, a Texas town settled by Germans, drew a mostly older crowd of
women and men who, Ms. Cisneros found, identified with her description of
people as "walking libraries" and her attempt to capture some of their
knowledge in her characters.
"People to me are like walking Smithsonians," she said, "and when they
die, all this goes with them unless you document it."
The Story Includes Many Untranslated Words from Spanish
Ms. Cisneros's writing is often described by her readers as poetic yet
accessible, even when she sprinkles it with Spanish words that go
untranslated. (They make sense to English speakers in context.)
"Caramelo," published by Alfred A. Knopf in both English and Spanish, is
her seventh book. Her others include a short-story collection, "Woman
Hollering Creek and Other Stories"; a children's book, "Hairs/Pelitos";
and several poetry books.
"The House on Mango Street" has become part of the curriculum of many
middle schools, high schools and colleges and this year became Miami's
selection for its One Book, One Community program, fashioned after
similar programs in cities around the country. The project, which
features public readings and discussions, invites people to read the same
book at the same time.
Carol Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School in California
who wrote "Sandra Cisneros in the Classroom," a teacher's guide published
this year by the National Council of Teachers of English, said that "The
House on Mango Street" became a hit among teachers because it was "a work
of art" that was not very long and whose subject and language were
appropriate for teenagers in a classroom.
"It came at the right time," Ms. Jago added, "when so many of us were so
desperately looking for a Latino writer, to bring into our classrooms
more multicultural literature."
Ms. Cisneros is part of the early wave of Hispanic writers who helped
supply the books for the often controversial ethnic and women's studies
programs added to university curriculums in the 1970's and 80's, said
Nicolás Kanellos, director of Arte Público, a nonprofit imprint of the
University of Houston that first published "Mango Street" and is the
largest publisher of Latino writers in the United States.
Mr. Kanellos characterized Ms. Cisneros's work as part of a Latino
literary culture written in English dating back to the 1960's, whose
themes revolve around issues of identity, cultural conflict within the
United States and the place of women in society.
But Ms. Cisneros, he said, has been one of the few to break away as a
"front-list author" for a major publishing house. Although the market has
widened for Latino writers, Mr. Kanellos said, they are still largely
underrepresented among the big publishers and bookstore chains, which he
said were still doubtful that they could make much money on Latin-theme
books in English or Spanish.
"For 35 million people," he said of the Hispanic population in the United
States, "we still have a real lack of representation and opportunity to
reflect our lives through writing."
Yet if Ms. Cisneros's father had had his way, his only daughter, the
third oldest of his seven children, would have picked a more financially
secure profession or at least married.
"He thought I was just choosing to live in poverty," she said.
Ms. Cisneros, who was born and grew up in Chicago, graduated from Loyola
University and attended the Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa.
She returned to Chicago to teach but in 1984 decided to move to San
Antonio to be closer to the border that defines her bicultural identity.
Whose History Are We Talking About?
There she became embroiled in a widely publicized controversy when her
Mexican pride clashed with local sensibilities. In the late 1990's, when
she painted her house in the King William neighborhood a pre-Columbian
purple, city preservation officials deemed the color historically
incorrect and unsuitable for the Victorian neighborhood, and wanted it
"Depends on whose history you're talking about," was Ms. Cisneros's
response. "This is San Antonio, not St. Anthony's."
The house has since become a tourist attraction, although the dispute,
like the color in the Texas sun, eventually faded. Purple turned to blue,
and "the house is legal now," she said.
Ms. Cisneros, who shares her house with four dogs, three cats and a
parrot (a boyfriend, a filmmaker, lives in Austin), said she was hardly a
rebel. She is a Buddhist who believes in compassion, nonviolence and
"putting my writing to service," she said. She has a new tattoo on her
left arm that she calls "the Buddhalupe," the Virgin of Guadalupe in the
Her writing, at least for the near future, will most likely be more
poetry and short stories. Asked about her next novel, she said only
half-jokingly: "You know what? I feel like a dog that has just given
birth to 13 puppies. So don't talk about my next book right now. I'm
still panting here."