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The Home as Autobiography

The Home as Autobiography

    Sandra Cisneros, born in Chicago to a Mexican father and Chicana mother, is one of the most influential Latina writers of the twenty-first century. Cisneros’s writing most significantly highlights the Latina experience in the United States. The intersectional narratives outlined in her novels and short stories have earned Cisneros the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship (1995), Texas Medal of the Arts (2003), and the National Medal of Arts (2016), among others. Her bestselling novel, A House on Mango Street, depicts the coming-of-age of a young Latina girl struggling with class and cultural differences while living in a poor neighborhood in Chicago.

Cisneros’s most recent book, A House of My Own, presents a collection of memoirs, framed through the context of the various homes she has lived in. Each home comes with its own unique stories, and offers the reader a glimpse at who Cisneros is at the time she lives there. She writes, “All my life I’ve dreamt and dreamed about a house the way some women dream of husbands (541).”

More than a building, “home” to Cisneros is belonging, freedom and independence. More than a location, she yearns to be rightly placed in a specific position. While wandering from Greece to France, former Yugoslavia to Mexico, and throughout the United States, Cisneros wrote the essays and stories gathered in A House of My Own, spanning thirty years of a constantly writing life.

While Cisneros centers her memoir around the necessity of home in a writer’s life, a living space to call one’s own and to feel belonging in one location, she also focuses intensely on familial ties. Her (deceased) parents, Elvira and Alfredo Cisneros, are reconstructed from memory.

Yet acknowledging potential inaccuracies in her writing due to either age or changed perspective she calls her anthology, “the truth told slant” (27).

As such, her parents are drawn as caricatures, strong in their wisdom and resilience, as any child views their parents. Elvira is described as a fiercely capable “prisoner of war,” raising seven children and caring for her household (462). Alfredo, an upholsterer, fosters appreciation for textiles in Cisneros, prompting a story revolving around the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum’s upholstery.

In the chapter “Un Poquito de Tu Amor,” Cisneros recalls her father’s kindness to a family who is consistently late in paying rent. Although her mother protests, Alfredo reminds her of how much ten dollars used to mean to them. Though her family rose through classes because of Alfredo’s upholstery business, she never ignores the differences apparent in every society she encounters. With each location Cisneros calls home, she also examines racism, injustice, and selfhood. From the Serbo-Croatian conflict to social inequalities in the United States, Cisneros’s heartfelt discussions touch on the influence of society on community—friends and family, as well as herself. Her ofrendas, tributes for each parent, intersect with her search for home, portraying what may seem like a conventional “immigrant story” in newer, softer light.

One of the homes Cisneros most values is in Texas, a cottage on East Guenther Street in San Antonio. Although it was located in a historic district, and thus protected from historically inaccurate alterations, Cisneros repainted her home periwinkle-purple and turquoise, traditional tejano colors—a political statement. To her, “color is a language,” and her statement, lost in translation (285). In the end, Cisneros leaves her San Antonio home for one in Mexico. She now resides “in between lives and in between houses” (32). A poignant analysis of a writer’s life, A House of My Own combines the voices of young and old, bitter and sweet, into a compelling, seamless autobiography. Cisneros leaves her audience with the simple offering of a story, an invitation to the reader: to awaken the sleeping self. The responsibility rests on us to recognize her personhood and the struggles accompanying it, as well as transform the definition of home.

 

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