Sandra Cisneros. Photo courtesy of Sandra Cisneros ©.
Sandra Cisneros. Photo courtesy of Sandra Cisneros ©.

The announcement about this year’s recipients of the National Medal of Arts earlier this month moved many of us to tears of joy. That President Obama would select so many people of color for this award and, more specifically, so many Mexican-Americans, two of them with strong San Antonio connections, defies the nightmarish tensions of persecution that we live with now on a daily basis.

Racism and discrimination have always been part of the American story. And for those of us who live in this part of Texas, that story is often presented in ways that omit painful truths of, for instance, the repeated practice of the lynching of native peoples and of Mexicans and Mexican-Americans as well as other overt forms of discrimination, other turpitudes swept under the rug, flung into a river that could have been a bridge but are instead, to so many, a breach.

When history isn’t omitting these horrific chapters about the Mexican-American experience, it is ginning up claims that the Mexican-American is “lazy” and a pox on this country’s past, present, and future, an unsightly dark blemish, so much wretched refuse on its teeming shore.

The ad populum fallacy that “we were here first” or that most Mexican-Americans are not immigrants is irrelevant. Immigrants and those whose families are from here as if sprouted from the earth some 300 years ago, before the United States conquered this part of the country and absorbed the 525,000 square miles of Mexican land, are stronger for being united and battling the same brands of hatred doled out with impunity.

Here I should add that I am not going to write the name of the person who for the last year has been given a forum on a daily basis, to baldly spew venomous diatribes full of fabrication and incite his legions of like-minded minions to acts of violence in rallies, in schools, and in every corner of life. It began with blanket claims about Mexicans after his descent on an escalator into the waiting arms of a mainstream media happy to report his candidacy and repeated false claims.

Unfortunately, the coverage has not abated, and with every passing day, this person moves to the next low of this deplorable behavior. The latitude he has been given has normalized his extremism and his “bully on the elementary school playground” rhetoric. So bereft of humanity is he that he could attack the suffering of the Khans, the family who in late July shared at the Democratic National Convention the story of the heroic, selfless actions of their son, a U.S. Army captain who died in Iraq in 2004. That candidate slandered this Gold Star family and has attacked everyone from former prisoners of war to the disabled.

Sandra Cisneros addresses the audience during her book signing luncheon. Photo by Scott Ball.
Sandra Cisneros addresses the audience during her book signing luncheon at the McNay. Photo by Scott Ball.

Someone else who served his country in the military was one Alfredo Cisneros del Moral. He is the father of Sandra Cisneros, one of the recipients who will be awarded the National Medal of Arts on Thursday, Sept. 22.

I first met Sandra in 2002. I was to interview her about her then long-awaited novel, Caramelo — the one she’d labored over for almost a full decade while enduring many losses, including the death of her father.

We had just met, but when our conversation went to that painful topic, we discovered we had lost our fathers the same year. Sandra was not the reserved writer, the one known for guarding her time. Soon she was recommending books she said would help me find a way through my own enduring grief.

After that, I had other opportunities to write about Sandra, to interview her, to write commentaries about her, her work, the voice she gives to so many of us who have been without a voice in the face of racism and discrimination.

As an undergraduate and graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s, I experienced acts of racism. Even in recent years, I’ve experienced such terrible harassment. Most recently I faced it again in July at a professional writers’ conference. My story, set in a fictional town on the U.S.-Mexico border, elicited an unkind remark, a flippant generalization about Mexican-Americans, dealt out casually. I felt the sting of the hurtful words all the more intensely because the person who said them was an author I’d long admired. I believe he was trying to silence the voices of my Mexican-American characters. And mine.

I lick that wound like I’ve done all the others with a sorrowful  but no less steely resolve to keep on writing about my Mexican-American experience, my life on the border, my own challenges in nearly every sphere of life I have ever had to enter — as a woman, a mother, a teacher, a writer. For me now, one way to keep living beyond the unkind remark made at the writers’ conference is to keep writing those border stories about discarded, forgotten characters, the ones who fall in love, who suffer mental illness and other diseases, the ones who see hope in the faces of their children. The ones who never stop working, never stop fighting. I learned that from Sandra Cisneros.

My students have recently come to me to express their fears about living in the U.S. as people of color, a group targeted by the person, that candidate, who so deplorably belittled U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel for being Mexican. They, too, have been an unwilling audience to the wall-to-wall network news coverage of what is now a daily show of brazen lies and attacks from a flag-draped pulpit.

I’ve been a teacher for 27 years – more than half my life. I had never before had students come to me to express such concerns. They say they are afraid just for being people of color, “just for being Mexican-American.” What they fear even more than just that is that seemingly millions of people in our country support this candidate because of or in spite of his bigotry.

My own daughter is a college student now. She has these concerns, too. While I experienced overt acts of racism when I was her age and a freshman in college, I hadn’t considered over the intervening three decades that my daughter and my dear students would live in fear.

Recently one student asked me if Mexican-American studies classes will be eradicated if this person wins office. I didn’t have an answer for her. I don’t know.

The worst thing we can do is to become inured to feelings of either fear or hopelessness. Here at Our Lady of the Lake University (OLLU), our Westside university, one built from the sheer will and compassion of the Sisters of the Congregation of Divine Providence, whose mission it is to serve the underserved, we believe that love always wins.

Buildings of Our Lady of the Lake University stand tall in the distance during the Westside ceremony. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.
Buildings of Our Lady of the Lake University stand tall in the distance during the Westside ceremony. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.

For now, all we can do is keep working hard. We take up our books again. We discuss and read and think and write and seek and share knowledge. We open our minds to the story of others that people like Sandra Cisneros can bring to us.

On May 6, 2008, a four-alarm fire ravaged the Main building at OLLU. The devastation to this majestic edifice, the loss of our classroom spaces, offices, dorm rooms, and personal belongings affected us all deeply. Many of us consider the space our home. This city rallied.

Sandra Cisneros herself came forward to offer help and became the first ever writer-in-residence at our university. Yearly, she participated in free readings and the Lake’s High School Day events. She did that for an incredible five years.

When she approached us about doing a bilingual reading of her memoir A House of My Own on our campus in October, we were thrilled. We prize multilingualism and multiculturalism.

The free readings in English and Spanish with Sandra Cisneros will take place in OLLU’s Thiry Auditorium on Wednesday, Oct. 5 at 7 p.m.

It is not lost on me that Sandra first penned the now classic work The House on Mango Street as a consequence of the absence of houses and neighborhoods like hers in the canonical works she read while in her creative writing program. The new memoir now published in paperback and in Spanish (translated by Liliana Valenzuela), seems symbolic of coming full circle – just as the three sisters prophesied in that earlier work.

With his selection of so many Mexican-Americans for this award, is President Obama taking some parting shots at the blatant bigotry we’ve all had to stomach in the last year? I wouldn’t think so. Sandra Cisneros is one of the greatest writers in American literature.

Sandra Cisneros explores and writes about the lives of people long persecuted in this country. To do so is an act of empowerment and of giving voice to those so long rejected and silenced.

In Mango Street, Esperanza says, “I put it down on paper and then the ghost does not ache so much.” Oh, such wisdom from this Mexican-American girl.

Top image: Author and poet Sandra Cisneros. Photo courtesy of Sandra Cisneros ©.

Related Stories:

Three Guadalupe Veterans to Receive National Medals of Arts at the White House

Sandra Cisneros Breaks Into Nonfiction World, Advocates for Local Literary Causes

Sandra Cisneros: Collector of Creative, Inspirational Friends

New Guadalupe Executive Director is ‘Right Person at the Right Time’

Yvette Benavides is a professor of English at Our Lady of the Lake University.