BUILD­ING HER OWN HOUSE

CIS­NEROS

Pasatiempo - - IN OTHER WORDS - Jen­nifer Levin — from “Ten­emos Lay­away, or, How I Be­came an Art Col­lec­tor” in A House of My Own: Sto­ries From My Life by San­dra Cis­neros © 2015 by San­dra Cis­neros; pub­lished in the United States by Al­fred A. Knopf, a di­vi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House LLC

A house de­cides its own name. Once I thought of bap­tiz­ing my home “Ran­cho Ahí Te Wa­cho,” but no mat­ter how hard I imag­ine it, she’s no ran­cho. Com­mu­nity and lo­cal scan­dal have dubbed her “the Pur­ple House.” “The Pur­ple House” is fine by me, though she’s more laven­der than pur­ple, a morn­ing glory in the morn­ing glory, a faded work­shirt blue in the hard Texas mid­day light, a throb­bing ul­tra­vi­o­let when day dis­solves into dusk.

I think of the Pur­ple House, and it makes me think of that other house, la Casa Azul, the Blue House of Frida and Diego. And though I ad­mire Frida’s house, and Frida’s paint­ings, and Frida’s clothes and fur­ni­ture and toys, though not Frida the mar­tyr, the Blue House is too se­ri­ous a com­par­i­son. My house is more Pee-Wee’s Play­house than Frida’s Blue House. I love the Play­house’s crazi­ness; say the se­cret word and ev­ery­one jumps up and down yelling — yayyy! I like its joy, its whimsy and in­ven­tive­ness. I don’t re­al­ize how much it’s inspired me un­til af­ter I take a good look at my house with its niches and cup­boards peo­pled with plas­ter saints and clay putas, its shelves of Mex­i­can toys, its sense of hu­mor jux­ta­pos­ing high and low art, its op­er­atic over-the-top drama and tongue-in-cheek camp.

I say my style of home dec­o­rat­ing is inspired by the in­tense still lifes of Terry Ybáñez, who in turn says she is inspired by my al­tars. Vir­gen de Guadalu­pes hud­dled with Bud­dhas. A pre-Columbian Coatlicue next to a Cantin­flas toy. Mango walls next to a Ver­acruz pink.

San­dra Cis­neros loves North­ern New Mexico so much she has con­sid­ered mov­ing here. “I re­mem­ber my friend, the poet Levi Romero, show­ing me all around dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties — Santa Fe, Cor­rales — that I might con­sider re­lo­cat­ing to, but it didn’t oc­cur that way,” she told Pasatiempo. In­stead, three years ago Cis­neros moved from her long­time home in San An­to­nio, Texas, to San Miguel de Al­lende, Mexico. It was sup­posed to be a tem­po­rary stay for the ac­claimed writer of The House on Mango Street, Caramelo, and mul­ti­ple col­lec­tions of short sto­ries and po­ems, to al­low her the time to fin­ish a new book, but she had a change of heart. “Within the last year and a half, I’ve de­cided I’m not sup­posed to be in New Mexico or Port­land or Tuc­son. This is where I’m sup­posed to be.”

This month, Cis­neros vis­its Santa Fe for a bit of rest dur­ing her pub­lic­ity tour for A House of My Own:

Sto­ries From My Life (pub­lished by Al­fred A. Knopf/ Pen­guin Ran­dom House). But out of af­fec­tion for Santa Fe, she’s added a read­ing to her va­ca­tion sched­ule, at Col­lected Works Book­store on Mon­day, Oct. 19, where she will sign copies of her new book and par­tic­i­pate in a ques­tion-and-an­swer ses­sion.

A House of My Own isn’t a memoir, short fic­tion, or a col­lec­tion of tra­di­tional es­says, but it does trace the paths, both lit­eral and sym­bolic, down which Cis­neros has ven­tured in search of be­long­ing and a place to cre­ate. Most of the pieces were orig­i­nally penned for news­pa­pers, jour­nals, and public pre­sen­ta­tions. The sub­jects are wide-rang­ing — fam­ily, mem­ory, artists and writ­ers, Mexico, and the many places Cis­neros has lived and vis­ited. Cis­neros’ earnest but ca­sual voice res­onates through­out, rich with hu­mor and a sense of ur­gency. Each se­lec­tion in­cludes an in­tro­duc­tion that gives con­text for where, why, and when it was writ­ten. She chose to com­pile an au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal nar­ra­tive in this fash­ion in or­der to save her dis­parate non­fic­tion pieces from the dust­bin of time,

but un­til she put them all to­gether, she didn’t re­al­ize just how of­ten she re­turns to themes of home and place. “I had all these loose es­says like but­tons in a jar. It was my way to clean out the cup­board.”

She also hopes to cor­rect some false im­pres­sions peo­ple have about her. “I wanted to rep­re­sent my­self in an ac­cu­rate way, which is why I chose to in­clude such pre­cise in­for­ma­tion, like street ad­dresses, in some of the pieces.” For in­stance, she said, con­trary to pop­u­lar belief, she did not have a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship with her fa­ther, an up­hol­sterer from Mexico. “I was my fa­ther’s fa­vorite. It was ac­tu­ally my mother with whom I had a dif­fi­cult re­la­tion­ship.” Her mother, a Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can born and raised in Chicago, was moody and in­tel­lec­tu­ally dis­sat­is­fied, con­stantly seek­ing out ful­fill­ment in trips to li­braries and mu­se­ums. “I un­der­stand my mother a lot bet­ter now [since her death], and re­ally feel great love and sad­ness for her loss. She was such an in­tel­li­gent woman. She opened that path for her chil­dren with­out re­al­iz­ing she was open­ing paths, sim­ply be­cause of her own hunger.”

Cis­neros, the only girl in a fam­ily of seven chil­dren, left her home­town of Chicago in the mid-1970s to earn a master’s de­gree in po­etry at the Iowa Writ­ers’ Work­shop at the Univer­sity of Iowa, known as the old­est and most pres­ti­gious cre­ative writ­ing master of fine arts pro­gram in the United States. “I re­ally dis­liked my time there,” she said, “but I do want to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween the univer­sity and the Writ­ers’ Work­shop. The prob­lem I had was with the Writ­ers’ Work­shop.” She loved liv­ing in Iowa City be­cause it was the first time the kid from the mean streets of Chicago was able to ven­ture out alone at night to movies and con­certs with­out hav­ing to con­sider her safety. But in class she found that her ideas and con­cerns were met with awk­ward stares or even de­ri­sion. “It’s some­thing you in­tu­itively feel when you are made to feel Other, not some­thing you can name. It caused me to be­come silent for the two years I was there, and those who know me well know I’m not silent. It was my way to sur­vive dur­ing a pe­riod in which, when I spoke, I was made to feel like what I said was lu­di­crous, stupid, and ig­no­rant.” She con­sid­ered quit­ting but per­se­vered with the sup­port of a few friends, in­clud­ing class­mate Joy Harjo, and a quickly de­vel­op­ing rage. She wrote The House on Mango

Street dur­ing that time as a kind of se­cret re­bel­lion. Be­cause it was fic­tion, it didn’t count to­ward her the­sis work in po­etry, so she re­ceived no aca­demic credit for the book that even­tu­ally be­came re­quired read­ing in mid­dle- and high schools all across the coun­try.

In con­ver­sa­tion with Pasatiempo, Cis­neros talked at some length about her feel­ings about be­ing a writer and per­son of color in the United States. “We never feel wel­comed or at home. You never feel like the Statue of Lib­erty has opened its arms for you. You feel con­flicted about the Pledge of Al­le­giance, be­cause it’s not for you. There was one day I felt at home in Amer­ica, and that was the day the Twin Tow­ers fell. I re­ally felt the pain, and I felt Amer­i­can.” She dis­played an Amer­i­can flag out­side her house for the first time that day, af­ter a life­time of feel­ing that the flag rep­re­sented the su­pe­rior at­ti­tude many Amer­i­cans take to­ward other cul­tures and coun­tries. “In 24 hours, there were signs around San An­to­nio say­ing ‘God bless Amer­ica,’ and I knew that meant ‘God bless us and not you,’ so I took the flag down. I got a ban­ner made that said ‘God bless ev­ery­one.’ ”

Cir­cling back to her love for New Mexico, Cis­neros ad­mit­ted the real rea­son she de­cided not to move here. “I read a book about be­ing Mex­i­can in Es­pañola, and I found out that peo­ple there don’t like Mex­i­cans — that North­ern New Mex­i­cans don’t like Mex­i­cans. Well, I’m Mex­i­can. I can visit you but I can’t live there,” she said, giv­ing voice to an is­sue that is known to many in the re­gion but rarely dis­cussed in a public fo­rum. “Can you put in the ar­ti­cle that this is some­thing I want to talk about at my read­ing?” she asked. “Put that ‘San­dra Cis­neros re­ally wants to talk about why it’s so wrong to be Mex­i­can in New Mexico.’ It’s okay if it’s con­tro­ver­sial. I don’t mind.”

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