Because we got a late start for Hispanic Heritage Month, (it actually started September 15), we are going to spend this whole week, the final week of this particular celebration, featuring Hispanic authors, scholars, educators, and speakers. Next week we’ll get back to celebrating LGBT and Philipino American History.
Sandra Cisneros is an activist poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist and artist. Born in Chicago, she was the only daughter in a family with six brothers. The constant migration of her family between Mexico and the United States instilled in her the sense of “always straddling two countries … but not belonging to either culture.” She continues to be a dual citizen of Mexico and the United States.
Cisneros wrote her first poem at age 10. She describes much of her initial writing as trying on other voices, copying authors she admired. She didn’t discover her own unique voice until working on a MFA degree in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. It was in this workshop that she discovered how her particular social position and cultural experience made her unique.
It wasn’t as if I didn’t know who I was. I knew I was a Mexican woman. But I didn’t think it had anything to do with why I felt so much imbalance in my life, whereas it had everything to do with it! My race, my gender, and my class! And it didn’t make sense until that moment, sitting in that seminar. That’s when I decided I would write about something my classmates couldn’t write about.
Even though she has been writing for over 50 years, she’s also done many other things as well. She’s worked as a teacher, a counselor, a college recruiter, a poet-in-the-schools, and an arts administrator, and has maintained a strong commitment to community and literary causes.
Cisneros’s numerous awards include:
- NEA fellowships in both poetry and prose
- the Texas Medal of the Arts
- a MacArthur Fellowship
- several honorary degrees
- both national and international book awards
- the Ford Foundation’s Art of Change Fellowship
- Chicago’s Fifth Star Award
- the PEN Center USA Literary Award
- the Arthur R. Velasquez Award from the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago
- Loyola University’s Arts & Science Damen Award
- the 2015 National Medal of Arts, presented to her by President Obama at the White House
- the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s 2017 CHCI Chair’s Award in Washington, D.C.
Cisneros is best know for her first novel, The House on Mango Street, a coming of age story that has sold over six million copies and been translated into more than twenty languages. Literary critic Claudia Sadowski-Smith has called Cisneros “perhaps the most famous Chicana writer,” and Cisneros has been acknowledged as a pioneer in her literary field as the first female Mexican-American writer to have her work published by a mainstream publisher. At the ceremony where President Barack Obama presented Cisneros with a National Medal of Arts, he said Cisneros was being honored “for enriching the American narrative. Through her novels, short stories, and poetry, she explores issues of race, class, and gender through the lives of ordinary people straddling multiple cultures. As an educator, she has deepened our understanding of American identity.”