While most consider New York or Paris as more conventional havens for the artistically-inclined, the truth is San Antonio, a city rich in history and culture dating back to precolonial times, has long been a refuge for artists heavily influenced by the Mexican, Native American, and Spanish customs that are still present in many aspects of the city today.
San Antonio has been “home” to writers, painters, chefs, activists, musicians and other inspired individuals for centuries. And, for more than 20 years, Chicago-born Chicana poet, author, and activist Sandra Cisneros was one of them.
Through her art, which mostly consists of poetry and fiction, Cisneros has given a voice to millions of Latinas like myself who consider her work to be highly reflective of the Latina experience in the U.S.
Her most recent book, a memoir called “A House of My Own: Stories from My Life,” is a compilation of some of her many lectures, presentations, and reflections she’s collected over her more than 40-year literary career.
For a while, Cisneros said, she didn’t even realize the book — her first official nonfiction work — was a memoir.
“Somebody told me (it was a memoir) and I was kind of shocked,” she told me over the phone one morning, while sitting in her house located in the thriving colonial-era artist community San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico.
Having never thought of herself as a nonfiction writer, Cisneros often found writing special pieces for presentations and lectures, which were typically about her own real life experiences, “terrifying.”
“I was not used to speaking as myself, so when I put (the pieces) together and saw how many pages, I had no idea it was going to be that many,” she said. “I just didn’t realize that I had been doing these all along.”
Even over the phone, Cisneros’ warmth and unapologetic authenticity easily comes through. In our casual conversation, she unsurprisingly seemed to be the same person — an impassioned, and at times quirky, storyteller — as she is in the pages of her books.
Compiling the body of work for “A House of My Own” gave Cisneros the opportunity to revisit many moments in her life; she punctuated each chapter with a reflective introduction of the piece, and added notes throughout some of the texts to give explanation or corrections, and sometimes to express disagreement with past statements she’s made.
The book is a true portrayal of Cisneros’ ongoing journey to satisfying what she called a “hunger for something missing,” which stayed with her for most of her life.
“I think I needed a house of my own without knowing it,” she said. “But I didn’t know exactly what that was.”
Cisneros got her first big break with “The House on Mango Street,” a fictional coming-of-age book that has become a staple in contemporary literary education, and has since published several other critically-acclaimed books. Her work has taken her far and wide as an educator, mentor, and activist, eventually landing in San Antonio in the late 1980s, an ideal base for a bilingual writer with fond memories of visiting her abuelitos in Mexico City, and a yearning to more deeply explore her identity as a Chicana.
“One of the great things for me living in San Antonio was the architecture, the food, the sky, the plants all made me feel like I was in Mexico,” she said. “Once I started living there, (it was a) miracle; I could start going over the border much easier, so I was very happy.”
For someone who has risen to high literary acclaim, receiving awards like the MacArthur Fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, and the Texas Medal of the Arts, Cisneros uses her status to advocate for and uplift rising poets, writers, and artists alike, as well as the organizations that nurture their talents.
In 1995, she founded the Macondo Foundation, an association of socially-engaged writers based at the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, and in 2000, she founded the now defunct Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation, a grant-giving institution for Texas writers named after her late father.
While Cisneros will not be participating in the San Antonio Book Festival in April, she will be paying a visit to the city at the end of this month in support of the local nonprofit literary center Gemini Ink as part of the organization’s Autograph Series.
On Saturday, March 26, Cisneros will give a free public reading followed by a Q&A and book signing at 7 p.m. at the Palo Alto College Performing Arts Center, 1400 W. Villaret Blvd.
Additionally, a ticketed author luncheon with Cisneros will take place on Monday, March 28 at the McNay Art Museum, 6000 N. New Braunfels Ave. To purchase individual tickets for the event, which cost $75, click here.
Cisneros has experienced firsthand the difficulties of maintaining consistent funding in programs like Gemini Ink and the Macondo Foundation, which still hosts the annual Macondo Writers’ Workshop for rising writers, but is “barely” sustaining life.
“There’s so much need for the arts to be supported especially in south Texas,” she said. “If you don’t support these organizations, then you will lose the quality that makes San Antonio a great town to live in.”
Terry Ybanez, local artist and activist, met Cisneros when she first arrived in San Antonio, and illustrated Cisneros’ children’s book “Hairs/Pelitos.” After years of friendship and working together in the local art community, Ybanez continues to admire Cisneros’ generosity that has “opened the door” for many artists, including herself.
“Sandra always supported so many artists in the community, whether it was financially or booking gigs for musicians or getting contracts for artists to do illustrations; that is her nature,” Ybanez said. “The only thing she ever expected back was the success of that artist.”
Cisneros’ own success didn’t come easily. The stories in “A House of My Own” reflect her at times difficult journey as a young writer who, along with periods of financial insecurity and instances of betrayal by friends, has struggled with feeling “displaced” for most of her life.
Growing up the only daughter in a family of six brothers, with a Mexican father and Mexican-American mother, she felt trapped by traditional gender norms and expectations that threatened her feminist beliefs. As an unmarried woman asserting her independence, Cisneros continually sought her father’s approval.
“I remember making a selfish prayer wishing my father could be old enough to get what I was doing, so he could understand that I didn’t need to have a husband, I had an agent; I didn’t need a man to work around the house, I had a handyman, and I paid for it all with my pen,” she said. “He kind of got it at the end when he saw that I could earn from my art … and we came to understand each other.”
Perhaps her ability to gain clarity and peace after such experiences and adversity inspires her to encourage others to do the same.
“Despair is part of the process, but it’s not the destination,” she said.
Especially in a time of stark political polarization, racism, and fear in our world, the world is in need of more leaders “coming from a place of wisdom, of courage, of compassion,” she said.
As for her future, Cisneros will continue doing what she does best: telling the stories of others.
“I really think I was put on this planet to do service, and my service in San Antonio was done. Now it’s time for me to be here and to be of service on the more international level,” she said, adding that the work of a certain group of madrecitas, or nuns, in her neighborhood has piqued her interest.
“They make tamales and cookies and feed the poor and the immigrants, and they don’t look down on them,” she said. “I want to help these nuns; I have to tell their story.”
*Top image: Author and poet Sandra Cisneros in front of her altar for La Virgen de Guadalupe. Photo by Ernesto Espinoza, courtesy of Sandra Cisneros ©.