BUILDING HER OWN HOUSE
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.”