How many of you have read the book, The House on Mango Street by Latina novelist Sandra Cisneros?
I am sure many of you had it listed as a required reading in high school English class and for some–like myself– it was required reading for a college course I took on Chicano/a Literature. I vividly remember the first time I flipped through the pages, reading a few quotes and passages along the way in an attempt to understand the story. But, I had no such luck. It wasn’t until I sat down to read the book in its entirety that I realized what an impressive piece of literature I had in my hands.
Composed of only 100 or so pages, the book’s story and characters resonated with many of my own life experiences. It’s a difficult thing to do trying to discuss a book that has so much depth and scope. I recall discussing the book with my college classmates and they too were able to relate. After all, many of us had been raised in patriarchal households where the expectations of men and women were different. Not good or bad, just different. I remember one classmate said to me:
“Cynthia, you should read this book again next year. You will uncover so much more than you did the first time.” Then she added, “I read this book every year as I get older and each time, I find new meaning in the story. It never gets old.”
During that same class discussion, I realized the book was more than just words on a page. There were metaphors, symbolism’s and life lessons intricately woven throughout. Reading the book was merely scratching the surface of a greater, deeper novel that addressed the experiences of so many Latino families in a moving and powerful way. To say the least, it was a creative and colorful book that could certainly be thought-provoking to those who seek to find understanding from our collective experiences.
Fast forward a few years post college and I found myself browsing the shelves at Barnes and Noble and stumbled upon another one of Cisneros’s books entitled, Caramelo. I purchased it and in the following days, I got lost in the story. I laughed, I cried and again, I could relate. Who doesn’t have a grandmother in our Latino culture who is constantly telling us how life used to be and what decisions we should make regarding life, love and our professions within that context?
When I finished the novel, I was left with an unequivocal desire to meet this amazing Latina writer. So, you can imagine my excitement when I learned she would be visiting Fresno State (next week to be exact!) Since so many people love and admire her work, I decided to find out all the details of her visit for my faithful followers….
This is what I discovered: Alex Espinoza is an associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Fresno State. After graduating with a BA and MSA from UC Riverside, he came to Fresno in 2007 to teach fiction writing and literature. As a college student, he too was moved by the works of Sandra Cisneros– so much that he spent all of his summer vacations taking writers workshops through Cisneros’ Macondo Foundation. It was here; he honed his writing skills and was thoroughly inspired by her approach to writing. Prior to becoming a professor at Fresno State, he envisioned bringing her to the valley and wondered when it would be possible. Last year, he got the courage to ask, she accepted the invitation and in a few days, she will be in Fresno. Here is my interview with Professor Alex Espinoza on Cisneros’s visit and what we can all take from it…
Q: How long have you been working to bring Sandra Cisneros to the valley?
A: It’s been one full year. I started this venture last year when I saw her around this same time in Mexico at a writing conference. Last year, I applied for university grants and I was fortunate enough to receive one but it wasn’t enough to bring her to the valley. So, I visited various departments on campus and they were all on-board including Dean Peter McDonald from the Henry Madden Library; the Department of modern and classical languages and literature, the Women Studies Program, the Women’s Resource Center on campus and the Office of the Provost and the Dean of the College of Arts and Humanities. Everyone collaborated with me. It was really humbling for me because despite everyone’s budgets being so tight when I asked, I expected a ‘no’ answer. But, quite the opposite happened. They all asked how much money did I need and where could they sign up? The outpouring of support and the time and energy that have been put into helping me make this event successful is beyond words.
Q: What was your motivation to bring Sandra to Fresno?
A: If you look around the university and the demographics, we are 37% Latino so many students are first generation. Some are the sons and daughters of immigrants and I want them to be able to see someone like Sandra. Her writing is so relevant to their lives and experiences. I want the students to first and foremost listen to her and hear her experiences and know that their lives are worthy of being chronicled in literature and that their experiences are just as legitimate as anyone else. Secondly, I wanted to do outreach to the larger Latino community that struggle with the issues Sandra addresses in her work and lastly, I wanted to emphasize the university’s commitment to art and literature.
Q: What is your favorite Sandra Cisneros book?
A: The House on Mango Street has a special place in my heart. The first time I read it, I was a student at San Bernardino Community College and I realized ‘that’s me! My experience is on these pages’ and it was such an emphatic moment when as a struggling writer, I recognized that my voice was just as valid as anyone else’s. I also really like, Woman Hollering Creek because I really liked the range of voices she was able to capture.
Q: How has Sandra’s workshops helped you with your own writing?
A: First of all, I never thought of myself as a political writer and it wasn’t until I came in contact with Sandra that I recognized that I write for something bigger and I don’t do it alone. I represent the community that I write about and it’s my job to chronicle those stories and experiences that go undocumented. I see myself as a political writer that writes with an awareness of something bigger and with the goal of bringing attention to certain injustices so they can be brought to light. I think it’s important to validate the Latino experience in history through literature because often times, people like us are overlooked and she taught me this more than anything else.
Q: What makes Sandra Cisneros a famous writer from your perspective?
A: She doesn’t just write Chicano and Chicana stories- she writes human stories. And, the things she talks about are universal- they are not just Chicano experiences- they are human experiences. To want to find a home or a place- those are human yearnings and more than anything, Sandra understands that. Her characters happen to be Latino but the experience they have and the struggles they face are like everyone else and that is why her work has the ability to transcend borders, disciplines and ethnicities.
Q: Why should college students care about her visit?
A: She is the example of a living writer that is at the top of her game. The House on Mango Street is more popular now than it was when it was first released. It just celebrated its 25th anniversary. I want students to recognize that their experiences are valid and their lives are worth being honored through story and often times, we don’t’ put enough value on our own experiences. We are so quick to discount things and I think Sandra and her writing prove that even the smallest experience should be recognized and be validated through literature. Here is a person writing about her experiences with a lot of humility, love, good nature and eloquence.
Q: What can teachers learn from her?
A: They should know that literature has the capacity to change lives—that writing a story has the ability to produce thinkers. Literature provides opportunities for people to think about the world and question it. It also has the capacity to help students think about the world around them and to look at it differently.
Q: Does Sandra Cisneros know about Fresno and its literary community?
A: Yes, absolutely. She is also familiar with the importance that Fresno has played in the production of Chicano writing and I think more than anything, her visit reminds those of us that are here and writing—what we are writing for and how to be a part of it—that the experiences we write about and explore are relevant to the valley and are part of a larger conversation—a larger assemblage of literary cannon.
Q: What about the absence of Chicana writers?
A: We have seen a good deal of women from the younger generation coming up, but still not enough and that has to do with cultural expectations that as a Latino community we hold on to. The idea that Latina women should stay home and not be educated—those are parochial views that still remain and I think this is really telling of why we don’t see enough Latina writers –because of those old ways. I don’t know if it will change in our lifetime, but I hope so.
Q: I understand Sandra will be hosting a string of events next week including a book signing at the student union and a workshop for teachers. What should students and the rest of the community here in Fresno look out for?
A: Again, her work is relevant to the experiences of people in the valley. Many people here are immigrants, working class and I think those experiences are really strong in Sandra’s work; family and the importance of giving back to the place that you are from. There was a wonderful last moment in her work, The House on Mango Street when one of the characters ‘comes back for the one that cannot get out’ and I believe this means that it is important to give back to your community and to make it a better place for those who couldn’t escape and being the champion for them. That is really important for a place like this.
For more information on Sandra Cisneros’s visit to Fresno State, please contact:
Professor Alex Espinoza:
firstname.lastname@example.org or call office (leave message if not available): (559) 278-5833
Find the events on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/events/206781936077690/