Early Life and Education
Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago, Illinois on December 20, 1954, the third born of seven children.The only surviving daughter, she considered herself the "odd number in a set of men." Cisneros's great-grandfather had played the piano for the Mexican president and was from a wealthy background, but gambled away his family's fortune. Her paternal grandfather was a veteran of the Mexican revolution, and used what money he had saved to give her father, Alfredo Cisneros de Moral, the opportunity to go to college. However, after failing classes due to what Cisneros called his "lack of interest" in studying, Alfredo ran away to the United States to escape his father's anger. While roaming the southern United States with his brother, Alfredo visited Chicago where he met Elvira Cordero Anguiano, who would later become Sandra's mother. After getting married, the pair settled in one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods. Cisneros's biographer Robin Ganz writes that she acknowledges her mother's family name came from a very humble background, tracing its roots back to Guanajuato, Mexico, while her father's was much more "admirable."
Taking work as an upholsterer to support his family, Cisneros's father began "a compulsive circular migration between Chicago and Mexico City that became the dominating pattern of Cisneros's childhood." Constantly moving between the two countries necessitated finding new places to live and schools for the children, and eventually the instability caused Cisneros's six brothers to pair off in twos, leaving her to define herself as the isolated one. Her feelings of exclusion from the family were exacerbated by her father, who referred to his "seis hijos y una hija" ("six sons and one daughter") rather than his "siete hijos" ("seven children"). Ganz notes that Cisneros's childhood loneliness was instrumental in shaping her later passion for writing. Cisneros’s one strong female influence was her mother, Elvira, who was a voracious reader and more enlightened and socially conscious than her father. According to Ganz, although Elvira was too dependent on her husband and too restricted in her opportunities to fulfill her own potential, she ensured her daughter would not suffer from the same disadvantages
Her family made a down-payment on their own home in Humboldt Park, a predominantly Puerto Rican neighbourhood of Chicago when she was eleven years old. This neighbourhood, and its characters, would become the inspiration for Cisneros's novel The House on Mango Street. For high school she attended Josephinum Academy, a small Catholic all-girls school not far from her home. Here she found an ally in a high-school teacher who helped her to write poems about the Vietnam War; although Cisneros had written her first poem around the age of ten, with her teacher's encouragement she became known for her writing throughout her high-school years. In high school she wrote poetry and was the literary magazine editor, but, according to Cisneros, she did not really start writing until her first creative writing class in college in 1974. After that it took a while to find her own voice. She explains, "I rejected what was at hand and emulated the voices of the poets I admired in books: big male voices like James Wright and Richard Hugo and Theodore Roethke, all wrong for me."
Cisneros was awarded a Bachelor of Arts degree from Loyola University Chicago in 1976, and received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers' Workshop at the University of Iowa in 1978. It was while attending the Workshop that Cisneros discovered how the particular social position she occupied gave her writing a unique potential. She recalls being suddenly struck by the differences between her and her classmates: "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." She cast aside her attempt to conform to American literary canons and adopted a writing style that was purposely opposite that of her classmates, realizing that instead of being something to be ashamed of, her own cultural environment was a source of inspiration. From then on, she would write of her "neighbors, the people saw, the poverty that the women had gone through."
Cisneros says of this moment: "So to me it began there, and that's when I intentionally started writing about all the things in my culture that were different from them — the poems that are these city voices — the first part of Wicked Wicked Ways - and the stories in House on Mango Street. I think it's ironic that at the moment when I was practically leaving an institution of learning, I began realizing in which ways institutions had failed me." Drawing on Mexican and Southwestern myths, popular culture and conversations in the city streets, Cisneros wrote to convey the lives of people she identified with. Literary critic Jacqueline Doyle has described Cisneros's passion for hearing the personal stories that people tell and her commitment to expressing the voices of marginalized people through her work, such as the "thousands of silent women" whose struggles are portrayed in The House on Mango Street.
Five years after receiving her MFA, she returned to Loyola University Chicago, where she had previously earned a BA in English, to work as an administrative assistant. Prior to this job, she worked in the Chicano barrio in Chicago teaching to high school dropouts at Latino Youth High School. Through these jobs, she gained more experience with the problems of young Latino Americans.
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