Sandra Cisneros writes to honor her ancestors, because when that’s her motivation, ego gets out of the way. Angélica Paljor profiles the celebrated author of The House on Mango Street.
Sandra Cisneros has a tattoo on her left arm of “Buddhalupe”—Guanyin and the Virgin of Guadalupe fused together. The celebrated novelist identifies herself as a “Buddhalupista,” someone for whom the compassion of a bodhisattva and the Virgin of Guadalupe is the same. Or, as she puts it, her form of Buddhism “draws from the energy of the Virgin of Guadalupe and incorporates the indigenous goddesses as doorways to la luz [the light].”
Cisneros has received many accolades for her literary contributions, including the 2019 Pen/Nabakov Award for Achievement in International Literature and the 2016 National Medal of Arts, which was presented to her by then-President Barack Obama. The House on Mango Street is her best-known book, having sold more than six million copies in more than twenty languages. It sketches the tenuous time of coming of age for a Latina girl growing up in impoverished Chicago. It expresses so much of the beauty and trauma of the Latino experience that it was required reading in many American public schools for decades.
I try to use the sunrise and the sunset, depending on which one I see, as my mindfulness bell and practice.
How does Buddhism enter the life of a Latina writer like Cisneros? And how does her practice take into account the cultural context and history of the U.S. and Mexico, two bordering countries where life and literature have emerged and merged?
Cisneros was introduced to Buddhism in the same way many of us were: through a book. A friend gave her Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh. That led her to attend her first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh in Rhinebeck, New York, and later, another one at Deer Park Monastery in San Diego County, California. “I felt I had found my spiritual path,” Cisneros says.
She took lay vows and was given a dharma name in Vietnamese, which as she remembers it meant “Home of the Ancestors.” This brought tears to her eyes and the thought that this was “la Divina Providencia!”
Cisneros also found Pema Chödrön. She listened to Pema’s teachings while she was driving, and long after she’d parked in her driveway, she would stay put in her car so she could keep listening. She loved the humility and sense of humor that Pema Chödrön and Thich Nhat Hanh displayed. She made a mindfulness practice of forgiveness a constant act.
“That’s the thing I’ve learned the most from Thich Nhat Hanh. I try to use the sunrise and the sunset, depending on which one I see, as my mindfulness bell and practice,” she says. “Every time I see the sunset, I think of all the people I am working on forgiving, and I include myself.”
In her younger years, Cisneros had periods of depression and suicidal thoughts, which in her writing she calls “funkadelics.” Researching depression experienced by Latinas, people of color, and artists, and reading the works of Native American poet laureate Joy Harjo, Pema Chödron, and Thich Nhat Hanh—all of whom she considers her spiritual gurus—helped Cisneros to transform her thoughts and emotions.
“One of the greatest things that Thich Nhat Hanh taught me is that all of these things that I am feeling are clouds,” says Cisneros. “And if you wait long enough, they just roll away. That’s so nice to know.”
Sandra Cisneros was born and grew up on the immigrant side of Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s. The only girl among six brothers, she found solace in the library. Her father was an upholsterer who had served in World War II. Her mother was a keen finder of antiques in second-hand stores, who had wanted to be more than just a mother.
It took Cisneros nine years to write Caramelo, a novel focusing on her father and how he’d loved her unconditionally. Caramelo was supposed to be just his story, Cisneros says, yet as the writing unfolded, she felt compelled to look deeper into the lineage of his ancestors and the stories others told her in the process.
The novel is named after an unfinished rebozo (shawl) that was made by the narrator’s great-grandmother, Guillermina, just before she died. Cisneros wrote, “Even with half its fringes hanging unbraided like mermaid’s hair, it was an exquisite rebozo of five tiaras, the cloth a beautiful blend of toffee, licorice, and vanilla stripes flecked with black and white, which is why they called this design a caramelo. The shawl was slippery-soft, of an excellent quality and weight, with astonishing fringe work resembling a cascade of fireworks on a field of sunflowers, but completely unsellable because of the unfinished rapacejo [edging].”
In Caramelo, Cisneros pulls the words tight to create symmetry, space, and melody, and in the process, she braids eighty-six story strands into smooth, intricate plaits, bulging with color. Cisneros tugs together English and Spanish, and constructs and reconstructs, from very little fabric, the stories of so many people who came before her.
She writes, “Guillermina’s mother had taught her the empuntadora’s art of counting and dividing the silk strands, of braiding and knotting them into fastidious rosettes, arcs, stars, diamonds, names, dates, and even dedications and even before her, her mother taught her as her own mother had learned it, so it was as if all the mothers and daughters were at work, all one thread interlocking and double-looping, each woman learning from the women before, but adding a flourish that became her signature, then passing it on.”
The reader intuitively understands that in writing Caramelo, Cisneros is completing the shawl for Guillermina. In a sense, the novel preserves Guillermina’s art form, which is otherwise getting lost.
Cisneros is sensitive to the archeology of language. “All of our languages are built on the stones of a previous language or previous culture or previous community,” she says. “The way we construct sentences or look at the world, or say certain things that are very peculiar or particular to our family—it all comes from a legacy of other people and other communities.”
In addition to being a novelist, Cisneros is a gifted poet, and now a collection of her poems, written over the span of thirty years, is being published by Knopf and Vintage Español. Called Woman Without Shame, or Mujer sin vergüenza, it’s the voice of a mature, playful, and daring Cisneros, keen on taking off the robe of shame and being herself—as much as she can be.
“I have been working my whole life not to have shame,” she says when asked about the meaning of the title. “But I’ve been given shame for being poor. I’ve been given shame for not having the right clothes. I’ve been given shame because I don’t look like the beauty on the magazine cover. For us who are people of a certain class and color and gender—tanta vergüenza, tanta vergüenza [so much shame, so much shame]. I feel that all my writing has been an attempt to erase shame.”
Cisneros is at her home in the Mexican town of San Miguel de Allende, and as the afternoon light flows through glass doors rimmed in a shade of nopal-green, she remembers the Hill of Tepeyac.
When Cisneros was a child, she played on that cerro in the northern part of central Mexico City with her brothers and cousins during family vacations. Then she returned as an adult and saw Tepeyac with the eyes of a pilgrim. Its legacy as sacred ground revealed itself to her.
For the indigenous Nahuatl-speaking people in pre-Columbian times, Tepeyac was the sacred site of the fertility goddess Tonantzin, “Our Mother.” Later Spanish colonizers converted the Aztecs by force and appropriated the temple of Tonantzin. Yet the belief system that would arise from worshiping La Virgen de Guadalupe is considered a faith intrinsically tied the Mexican identity, where aspects of the indigenous faith have survived and in some aspects thrive today.
In 1531, on Tepeyac, the Virgin Mary allegedly appeared before an indigenous man named Juan Diego and instructed him—in the Nahuatl language—to ask the local archbishop to build a chapel there in her honor. But the archbishop wasn’t sure he believed Juan Diego, so the Virgin appeared again, and this time she miraculously supplied Juan Diego with roses and an image of herself on his cotton tilmahtli. This convinced the archbishop of the legitimacy of the petition, and the chapel was constructed.
Today on Tepeyac, near the site of the original chapel, stands the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, where Juan Diego’s tilmahtli is displayed. The Aztecs’ devotion to the feminine aspect of the divine didn’t disappear; rather, aspects survive and thrive in its current form. With the passage of time, Tonantzin became the Virgin of Guadalupe.
For Cisneros, the Virgin has been an important part of her life since the early nineties. At that time, she was establishing herself as a Chicana writer. The House on Mango Street had been published in 1984, but was not yet recognized as a significant piece of American literature. Now, suffering from writer’s block, she was struggling to write her collection of stories Women Hollering Creek. In search of aid and inspiration, Cisneros decided to visit the shrine of the folk saint and curandero (healer) Don Pedrito Jaramillo in the south Texas valley region. There she saw, alongside braids, baby pictures, and crutches, prayers written by ordinary people.
They were, Cisneros says, “little notes all folded up like fortune-cookie notes. I started reading them and realized, ‘What an ego you have thinking you can write for everybody when everybody is already writing their own stories in these little prayers.’
I was so moved by the power of humility and need coming from the community that I returned to the church to do more investigation on these little notes and I made a promesa. I said, ‘If so many people are making promesas to Don Pedrito, I could make a promesa to Virgen de Guadalupe. You know, she’s my person in my neighborhood.’”
Months later, Cisneros entered one of the two basilicas at the foot of Tepeyac to make good on her promise and visit the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12, the Mexican national day when thousands of pilgrims visit her. As Cisneros describes it, she herself was not faith-driven, but the faith of the people there moved her.
Around the same time, Cisneros was also attending retreats with Thich Nhat Hanh. Which one came first, her studies in Buddhism or her Guadalupanismo? She does not remember. But in various ways, her writing, her faith in the Virgin of Guadalupe, and her study of Buddhism interfaced with one another, the way clusters of strands are woven into a pattern on a loom. How did that transformation happen? “No sé,” Cisneros says, “I just felt a weight lifted off my heart.” Her writing started to flow after she requested the Virgin help with her writer’s block, and in return she visited the Virgin.
One cool, drizzling night in April, Sandra Cisneros was giving a talk at Bard College in Upstate New York for a National Endowment of the Arts Big Read event. She was speaking sometimes first in Spanish and sometimes first in English, but almost all of what she said was equally translated, so that whoever understood her in both languages felt as if they were listening to two sides reflected in a mirror.
Cisneros was weaving the story of her own trajectory—from the young woman who wrote The House on Mango Street to the poet who would soon publish Woman Without Shame. They are two different women but the same one, exploring the cultural associations of words and fusing them in places like an artful welder. In spoken or written word, Cisneros plaits together identity, ancestry, and culture, which in Latin America is permeated with indigenous, African, and Christian symbolism.
Her audience was focused on The House on Mango Street, so once more the sixty-seven-year-old storyteller looked back at its twenty-two-year-old writer. “I suspect that the reason why the book has had such a long life is because I didn’t write it for myself,” she said. “I didn’t write it to win an award or to get famous. I wrote it to stay alive when I was dying, on behalf of the people I loved. That’s the difference: when we make something for those we love and we don’t do it with a personal agenda, siempre sale bonito—it’s always going to turn out well. That’s what House on Mango Street taught me.”
Cisnero’s honesty about the depression and self-destruction she lived through as a graduate poetry student helped the audience understand the egoless leap she managed to make when creating the Mango Street vignettes. But what about afterward, once success showed up at the door, and suddenly there was a readership with expectations of her?
The Ethiopian writer Dinaw Megestu, also among the first published writers to represent his community to an American audience, was sitting next to her. He asked, “How do you feel that you have to navigate those expectations?”
Cisneros explained how the fear of having to represent her community and to think of the reader almost cut her tongue out. But, she continued, “If I write to honor my ancestors, then my fear gets out of the way because when you do something to honor someone your ego gets out of the way, and you are just working to cumplir, to fulfill that obligation. That’s the work that we do.”
For Cisneros writing is not an easy act. It is a spiritual practice. She considers writing to be her sitting meditation. Writing, she said at Bard, “is sacred work, as sacred as a nun or a monk who meditates for days or hours—that’s how I see it.” And, she added, “If you ask your ancestors to help you get your ego and your fear out of the way, they come. It works, try it!”
Tonantzin Guadalupe must be smiling.