Volume XI, Number 1, Spring 2015


"Home(s) on Borderlands and Inter-American Identity in Sandra Cisneros’ Works" by Réka M. Cristian

Réka M. Cristian is Associate Professor and Chair of the American Studies Department, University of Szeged. She is author of Cultural Vistas and Sites of Identity: Literature, Film and American Studies (2011), co-author (with Zoltán Dragon) of Encounters of the Filmic Kind: Guidebook to Film Theories (2008) and general editor of AMERICANA E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary and its e-book division, AMERICANA eBooks. Email:

América, América. Feminine
first name, continent named
for him. América […]
En la sangre, en las espinas
De la Virgen de Santa Fe,
These names are written:
América Estados-Unidos, née
México. I name her
Flower of the Mountain,
Coatepec-Cihuatepec-Cuicatepec
Amor Silvestre
Terra Nova
Cuerpo de Mujer.

(Alfred Arteaga “Canto Primero”)

 

Introduction

This text focuses on the intricate issue of borderlands, a major paradigm often employed in various works of Chicana writers, by mapping its various extensions within and outside the literary texts of contemporary writer Sandra Cisneros with the aim of exposing diverse identity constructions depicted by the metaphor of home, the “master metaphor” of identity (Kaup 363), in her inter-American world.

Today, in the context of the Americas, the shift to transnational approaches in the area of American studies seems to naturally direct the practitioners of the continental field of study towards a rather obvious area, the inter-American realm; therefore, as a synecdoche of the transnational path, the inter-American approach becomes more central to any study centering on the Americas. To borrow from Shelley Fisher Fishkin’s “Crossroads of Cultures,” one has to focus more to “figures who have been marginalized precisely because they have crossed so many borders that they are hard to categorize” (30) and to pay attention to the “legal borderlands both inside and outside the United States” (31) by welcoming “investigations of the broad array of cultural crossroads shaping the work of border-crossing authors, artists, and cultural forms that straddle multiple regional and national traditions” and “studies that probe the cultural work of American literature outside the united States for insight into the non-U.S. cultures” (32). Right from the beginning of Fisher Fishkin’s article, the emphasis is on the versatile metaphor of home that is formulated and reformulated by the “proverbial immigrant who leaves somewhere called ‘home’ to make a new home in the United States” and who is subject to an “endless process of comings and goings that create familial, cultural, linguistic, and economic ties across national borders” (24).

As Sebastian Thies and Josef Raab observed, borderlands, with their inherent “rites of passage and tales of transgression, constitute a potent foundational myth of transnational or inter-American identities” (14), a myth that has been present through various modes in Chicana/o literature. In the following, I will consistently use the term “inter-American” tailored to the context of the Americas instead of the more general concept of the term “transnational.” While the latter has a more international, global connotation, the former has a peculiar, globalocal (relating to the whole world but with an impact and significance to a particular area) features pertaining to the Americas.

If there is a distinct place for the manifestation of globalocal, inter-American identities, then that is the border. By employing the dynamics involved in the concept, Gloria Anzaldúa defined borderlands as a vital site for those inhabiting and writing from this place because la frontera as such encompasses a peculiar geographical location and physical presence, a specific psychic landscape combined with a distinctive linguistic aspect that frequently uses difrasismo (the coupling of two elements to form a new word) and interlingualism (the space between languages consisting of a blend and juxtaposition, in this case, of Spanish and English) in its literary forms. In Anzaldúa’s seminal book, an eloquent example of an uprooted difrasismo linked with the concept of home is homophobia, where ‘home’ as such becomes a twisted wor(l)d. Anzaldúa quotes a New England lesbian student, who misinterpreted the word ‘homophobia’ by associating it with the apt expression of the “[fe]ar of going home. And of not being taken. […] of being abandoned by the mother, the culture, la Raza, for being unacceptable, faulty, damaged” (20). The idea of home, present in almost all Chicana/o body of writing involves in the North American context of borderlands a special kind of interlingualism also characteristic of a greater, Latina/o community. The Chicano poet and scholar, Alfred Arteaga―similar to many other writers and theorists―envisions the virtual birthplace and the fictive or real home of Chicana/o identity at the confluence of cultures, at borderlands, where this interlingualism contains “English, Spanish, calo (Chicano slang), and perhaps Nahuatl,” resulting in various textual and phonetic matters that “work out linguistically with thought what the border does culturally with the nation and what mestizaje does racially with the body” (10). Yet, this mestizaje is a blend of previous mixtures and thus a more sophisticated marker for the contemporary Chicana/o identity that defines itself through the la frontera reality:

[T]he “reality” of the border for Chicanos is similar to the “reality” of the Indian. Consider for a moment the identity “Chicano” and the homeland “Aztlan.” Chicano derives from Mexicano, which derives from Mexica, the name the Aztecs called themselves. “Chicano” recalls an older, original pronunciation. When Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztecs, the Spanish language still possessed the sound like the English “sh,” represented in Spanish by the letter “x,” so that the conquistador could approximate Meshica as Mexica. Eventually Spanish changed phonemically so that Meshico came to be pronounced Mehico (Mejico), and Don Quihote (Quijote), for another example, ceased to be Don Quishote (Quixote). The soft “ch” in Mexican Spanish approaches the “sh” of older Spanish and of Nahuatl, so that meshicano leads to mechicano and to chicano. In this manner, phonemically at least, Chicano signifies descent from the Aztecs. (Arteaga 9)

The syncretic experience of Chicana writers is reflected in the mestiza consciousness manifested, as Anzaldúa defined it, through “a constant state of mental nepantilism, an Aztec word meaning torn between ways,” in a fluid “state of perpetual transition” always facing “the dilemma of the mixed breed” (78). The mestiza, living in a border position, practices a nomadic thinking described by Walter D. Mignolo as “border thinking;” she descends from immigrants but is not an immigrant herself; she is one of those who did not move but around whom the world moved by shifting borders (Mignolo 72). Sandra Cisneros, born in Chicago, is one of these mestizas, with her various home(s) residing in various Nepantla (“in between”) zones.

Topologies of Home 1: Sandra Cisneros’s Narrative Homes

In the following, I will map various Nepantla homelands present in Cisneros’ narratives, her primary textual homes and testimonies of border thinking and inter-American identity. These include The House on Mango Street (1984), Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991) and Caramelo, or, Puro Cuento (2002). Cisneros’ work―apart from the previously mentioned three volumes, including also Hairs=Pelitos (1994), Bad Boys (1980), My Wicked, Wicked Ways (1987), Loose Woman: Poems (1994), Have You Seen Marie? Fable for Grown-Ups (2012) and the book of non-fiction entitled A House of My Own: Stories form My Life (forthcoming this year)―thrives on the limits of both private and public realms, has a conscious subjectivity and fits perfectly to the idea of the political writer described by another Chicana writer, Cherríe Moraga, in her “Foreword” to the second edition of This Bridge Called My Back entitled “Refugees of a World on Fire,” where she claims that the “political writer […] is the ultimate optimist believing people are capable of change and using words as one way to try to penetrate the privatism of our lives.” Cisneros’ narratives celebrate nepantilism and encourage readers to go beyond the borders of private and public, of natural and political realms, of gender and societal norms. As Inés Salazar writes, the narrator of Cisneros’s works “transgresses both against the norms for women that prevail within her community as well as against the myth of the American Dream, that cornerstone of bourgeois American individualism” (Salazar 393). Accordingly, the literary structures of Cisneros’ works, “multifaceted as her cultural identity” (Madsen 130), are assembled into particularly built, decentralized, fragmented, open narratives (Bollobás 2005, 714) that enhance multiple modes of transgression.

The textual site of one of these modes of transgression is The House on Mango Street. The protagonist of this 44-vignette book is Esperanza, who, in her impetus for a real house of her own, echoes Cisneros’ desires and aspirations and embarks on a “metaphysical journey, undertaken through her writing” (Salazar 394). In a recent interview with Nicole Thomson Akoukou, the author emphasizes this transgressive role by saying that “the questions that Esperanza was asking, I was asking” (Akoukou Thomson 2015). This sort of nepantilism goes all along the first vignette with the metaphor of the house in which the narrator lives, marking this identity caught at first between the family and society (“we”) and the young Chicana (“I”):

The house on Mango Street is ours. […] But even so, it’s not the house we’d thought we’d get [… ] They always told us that one day we would move into a house, a real house that would be ours for always we wouldn’t have to move each year. […]
You live there? There. I had to look to where she pointed – the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa nailed on the windows so we wouldn’t fall out.
You live there? The way she [the nun] said it made me feel like nothing.
There. I lived there. I nodded. I know I had to have a house. A real house. One I can point to. But this isn’t it. The house on Mango Street isn’t it. For the time being, Mama says. Temporary, says Papa. But I know those things go. (Cisneros 2004, 3-5)

Then in “Alice & I talking on Edna’s Steps,” the home of the narrator, a typical American building situated on Mango Street, a name bearing the cultural codes of Latinization, becomes the spot of negation, shame, and denial as if it was an almost illegal place of dwelling, resembling a no wo/man’s land between borders, an urban Nepantla situated at the fringes of both American and Mexican culture, still waiting to be identified and thus made “better.”

You live right here, 406 Mango, Alicia says and points to the house I am ashamed of.
No, this isn’t my house I say and shake my head as if shaking could undo the year I’ve lived here. I don’t’ belong: I don’t ever want to come from here. You have a home, Alicia, and one day you’ll go there, to a town you remember, but me I never had a house, not even a photograph … only one I dream of.
No, Alicia says. Like it or not you are Mango Street, and one day you’ll come back too.
Not me. Not until somebody makes it better.
Who’s going to make it? (106-107)

Although the real Chicana home appears as a promise of a “home in the heart” in “Elenita, Cards, Palm, Water (64), later on this fictive place of habitation is projected into the visible world of everyday objects in “Lineoleum Roses:” Sally’s “pillows and her plates” (101). Moreover, in “No Speak English,” the word “home,” repeated as a sacred chant, has a massive sentimental content with extended visibility, transcending into the visible world from the invisible domain of feelings and becomes “a house in a photograph, a pink house, pink as hollyhocks with lots of startled light” with Mamacita sighing “for her pink house, and then I think she cries” (77)―still holding a considerable potential for emotions. As Maria Antónia Oliver-Rotger pointed out in Battleground and Crossroads. Social and Imaginary Space in Writings by Chicanas, the domestic arena paired with interiority, feelings and inwardness becomes a hybrid physical and mental space where Chicana identity is shaped by specific spatial configurations (82). Furthermore, the gendered spatial imagery of the borderlands in Cisneros’ work is in tandem with the metaphor of the home that reflects “complex realities that are often at variance with dominant representations of spatial relations” (83).

In The House on Mango Street, home is also the metaphor of hope [Esperanza―coinciding with the name of the protagonist] with the narrator voicing the wish that “your feet would one day keep walking and take you far away from Mango Street, far away” to “stop in front of a house, a nice one with flowers and big windows and steps for you to climb up two by two steps to where a room is waiting for you” (Cisneros 2004, 82). The book of vignettes holds this room of desire representing the Nepantla of Chicana identity. With the intertwining connotation of the attic as a space of potential liberation from the time-worn cult of domesticity―discussed in depth by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in Madwoman in the Attic and later by Betty Friedan in The Feminine Mystique (1963)―and the role of this small room, ático, used for servants in Latin America and representing subordination, in the “Bums in the Attic” the narrator voices her determination to own not only an attic or a room of her own but an entire house belonging to her only, meanwhile not forgetting “who I am or where I came from” (Cisneros 2004, 87). When she describes this new residence, marker of her inter-American identity, as later specified in “House of My Own,” this goes beyond the limits of personal liberation, over the boundaries of class and race, past the barriers between the rich and the poor, and well beyond confined gender roles, Chicano patriarchy or Anglo American culture. This is “[N]ot a flat. Not an apartment in the back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s…” with everything in between negations becoming Nepantla. In this context, the vignettes of this volume are bricks building up a new home made of words imported from both worlds and cultures, both already hybrid. To use Salazar’s words, Cisneros’ “appropriation of aesthetic practice as an instrument to remake the self” results in a novel that “supports the viability of its individual agency” (395) and successfully traces the rims of her inter-American identity.

In the thirteen stories contained in Woman Hollering Creek, the metaphor of the house and home has wider connotations and is present as more or less abstract mundane pieces or people scattered in the chain of the volume’s stories such as orange Popsicles friends split so they could be sisters and Lucy, the narrator’s friend “who smells like corn” (Cisneros 1992, 5), Barbie’s MOD’ern cousin, Francie, in her new Prom Pinks outfit, whose left foot is melted a little in the short story entitled “Barbie-Q,” “runaway balloons” marking the age of the protagonist in “Eleven,” religious objects in “Anguiano Religious Articles Rosaries Statues Medals Incense Candles Talismans Perfumes Oils Herbs” and “Little Miracles, Kept Promises;” all identity tags building the greater picture of the Chicana identity living in the textual Nepantla of Woman Hollering Creek. Furthermore, the inter-American identity is also laconically defined by a truncated word imported from the vernacular speech, “Merrican,” instead of the all-encompassing American: “We’re Mericans, we’re Merricans” (20). Being “Merrican” is another tag for the mixed fringe identity in which Mexican and American can both melt, as Barbie’s left foot.

Analogous to the borderlands, home in this collection of stories is also a place of blunt contradictions: of longing, of crossing over the limits, of internalized dissent, of assertion but also of hopeless homecoming made impossible for the humiliated woman, who does not obey Chicano patriarchy anymore and runs away from her (husband’s) house to find a safe haven in a paradoxically similar place:

Sweet sweet homecoming … Wrinkle in the brain crumpling to a crease. … Sometimes she thinks of her father’s house. But how could she go back there? What a disgrace. What would the neighbors say? Coming home like that with one baby on her hip and the one in the oven. (50)

A particular identity facet of Cisnero’s women characters in Woman Hollering Creek, according to Deborah L. Madsen, is “divided between a celebration of the power of a demythologized feminine sexuality” combined with “a powerful awareness of misogyny and the control of women through the control of their sexuality” (117). Moreover, “the effort to negotiate a cross-cultural identity” is further “complicated by the need to challenge the deeply rooted patriarchal values of both Mexican and American cultures” (108), leading to a redefinition of the place called home. As Anna Marie Sandoval remarked, the concept of “homeplace” described in 1990 by bell hooks as a site of resistance has “gendered connotations that perpetuate the association of women with the domestic realm” (291) that is gazed upon and guarded as a border crossing by the (patriarchal) surveillance system. Therefore in Cisneros’ work “the evocation of spaces of intimacy is tied to a sense of individual freedom that is inextricable” from the collective needs (292) of her own group but also that of a larger (inter-)nation. Home becomes, occasionally, an interchangeable concept with marriage or with voluntary single motherhood (for example, as the one described in “Eyes of Zapata”); coupled with the shift of home from the traditional to an unusual one (as in “Never Marry a Mexican” where there is “no home to go home to”) it can be best described by the term of migrant homelessness. Cleófilas, the protagonist of the title story, is one of these migrants caught in an idiosyncratic Nepantla: she crosses the border between Mexico and the United States with her husband, in hope of a better life she equates with those seen daily in telenovelas. However, after crossing the legal border, the life en le otro lado does not grant her salvation: she is still abused and lives in poverty. Hence, after several traumas, her homeplace is mentally relocated in a natural setting, a creek, bearing the mythical subtext of the La Gritona or La Llorona, a mythical feminine figure cursed to haunt water places, who weeps for her dead children and seeks to punish men for her suffering, by emphasizing the paradox behind its name: “La Gritona … Such a funny name for a creek so pretty and full of happily ever after” (47). The weeping woman, the name giver of the arroyo, inherited the complex, controversial identity traits of the Nahua Malintzin or La Malinche and that of the Virgin de Guadalupe embodying the sexualized figure of the Aztec vendida woman, la puta, who keeps weeping for her lost children, merging with the sacred figure of a syncretic, mestiza Virgin Mary in the blended image of a Hollering Woman, a mestiza Stabat Mater exhibiting her threefold nature of lover, mother and saint and letting her voice out at the crossroads of cultures.

Caramelo, or, Puro Cuento is―according to its subtitle ―based on a true story. As Maria Alonso Alonso writes, it is the “autobiography of the author, with added fictionalisations” (16). As Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, Celaya (Lala) Reyes is also an outcast character that willingly-unwillingly deconstructs the concept of house and home through her multiple journeys across the Mexican-American border. Celaya’s perennial displacement, the yearly travels from her real and imaginary homelands, ranging from the Chicago family house through the rarely opened “storage rooms” of her Awful Grandmother’s [abuelita] home in colorful Ciudad de México to their new family home in San Antonio, Texas, put her in a constant play of (re)constructing her own identity. Celaya emphasizes that each year when she crosses borders “it’s the same – my mind forgets. But my body always remembers” (2013) and wonders about the location of her real home in trying to find her own place within this: “Home? Where’s that? North? South? Mexico? San Antonio? Chicago?” (2015). Her Mexicanness as well as her Americanness unveil an admixture of home and homelessness that lead her to ceaselessly remodel her subsequent Mexican and American identity into a new, inter-American one. As Alonso Alonso aptly put it, the house and the home as

[T]erritory and language are important issues which are present in most Chicana writing and in particular in Caramelo. These are usually ambivalent concepts ruled by exclusive binary codes. History has divided territories or moved borders from one place to another, which means that Chicanas/os are doomed to a constant search for a particular identity in order to reconcile their Mexican origin with their everyday life in an Anglo environment. Second- and third-generation Chicanas/os like Celaya find themselves in this situation and consequently struggle to find their own individuality. (25)

Topologies of Home 2: Sandra Cisneros’ Extra-textual HomeWorks

The House on Mango Street, Woman Hollering Creek and Caramelo, or, Puro Cuento have opened a special literary window of transgression for various articulations of inter-American Chicanisma in Cisneros’ narratives. Apart from these texts, the identity construction in Cisnero’s non-narrative world operates in pluralistic modes on manifold levels, including the extradiegetic shift of homes and homelands in various spaces where identity is negotiated by alternating across the boundaries of fiction and reality. Such spaces of creative transaction include, besides her poetry, children’s book and picture book, the author’s official homepage, a number of recent documents in the media concerning the disputes over her real-life home and Cisneros’ 2015 installation of her mother’s room at the Smithsonian National American History Museum, Latino Center.

The negotiation of identities―here, across the borders of fiction and reality―depends on the performativity of the subject involved. As Enikő Bollobás writes in They Aren’t Until I Call Them. Performing the Subject in American Literature, performativity “has the ability to signal the borderline, ambivalent and receding between the text and outside it” significantly contributing “to the understanding of the constructedness of the real and the reality of the constructed world and how we can know, if at all, where the boundaries are” (2010, 202). Performativity in the context of Cisneros’ extra-textual world, includes the side of performance, which is „a particular mode of performativity, characterized by a mimetic replaying of norms and the replaying of ruling ideologies when constructing the subject” intrinsically connected with the performative aspect, whichrefers to another mode of performativity characterized by a resistance to ruling ideologies and the bringing about of new discursive entities in subject construction” (2010, 21).

Cisneros’ webpage bears one of her foremost blueprints of Chicana identity. An idiosyncratic assembly, both performance and performative, her homepage links Cisneros’ literary texts and off-texts that are combined to form the metaphoric unity of the home she has been constructing in her narratives and outside of them. Its architecture, made of eight major clusters as rooms in a house (Home, Letter, About, News, Books, Events, Favorites, Guestbook), envisage the function of a real residence open to anyone―regardless of borders. It is transnational by function; however, by design and content is more Nepantla and inter-American. So was her Tejano-colored American heritage house in San Antonio, which had a story of its own, too. As Candace LaBalle noted, in 1995

Cisneros achieved what many consider to be the height of artistic success when she was awarded the MacArthur Genius Fellowship. Its $225,000 purse allowed Cisneros to finally realize her childhood dream—a house of her own. She bought a large Victorian home in a historic district of San Antonio that she painted a bright neon purple. The local historic board promptly challenged her color choice saying it was not a historically accurate color. Not one to sit idly by while decisions are made for her, Cisneros clad in purple held news conferences on her lawn. She passed out petitions on purple paper. She declared the color a part of her Mexican heritage and accused the board of bias against Hispanic culture. “We are a people sin papeles [without papers]!” she was quoted in Texas Monthly. “We don’t exist. This isn’t about my little purple house. It’s about the entire Tejano community.” (2002)

Two years later, the board withdrew its objections and Cisneros’s purple house retained its ethnic color. She could have her own purple house―finally. In “My Purple House―Color is a Language and a History,” Cisneros equated this process with a fictive happening by saying that it resembled a telenovela, one that was heavily mediatized: “One day I painted my house tejano colors; the next day, my house is in all the news” (1997). This house―as the records of mySA show―was sold not long ago, in January 2015 (Olivo 2015). According to the information on her webpage, Cisneros lives today “with many creatures, little and large, in central Mexico” publishing her work across the border in the U.S.; moreover, her new book―not surprisingly entitled―A House of My Own: Stories from My Life will be released in October 2015.

Through her textual and extra-textual performativity, Cisneros continuously reshapes the codified limits of her identity and continues to thrive, as her characters do, in an interstitial place of “borderlands between Mexico and the US as sites of imagined common culture” (Salazar 397). And, while complying with a set of norms, Cisneros, also goes against the grain in building her versatile homeplace and her house, “one of the great powers of integration for the thoughts” (Bachelard 6) that “guides and encloses” her (and her characters’) earliest dreams (239). The conflation of the social and the imaginary at the borderlands of her literary and non-literary texts/works result in an additional, composite process of inter-American identity construction of the author of fiction and non-fiction and the real life person, who expands the boundaries of her home across the globe through the digital wording of her books and homepage and who, unlike her protagonists of her narratives, finally owned a house and even builds an inter-American, transgenerational identity through the museum installation made for and in memory of her mother, Sandra’s first ever home, Elvira Cordero Cisneros (1929-2007), in a canonized space of American culture. This is “My Mother’s Altar,” a room installation in the tradition of Dia de Muertos at the Smithsonian National American History Museum, Latino Center (open from October 31, 2014 through September 7, 2015).

 

Note: This article is an expanded version of the keynote speech delivered at The Third International Conference on English Studies: English Language and Anglophone Literatures Today 3 (ELALT 3) on March 21, 2015 in Novi Sad, Serbia.

 

Works Cited

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