I remember writing a letter to my dear friend away at college, telling her I had just read the most fantastic book The House on Mango Street. It made me want to learn Spanish. It gave me a feeling of understanding, just a little bit better, my neighbors and schoolmates who were first generation Americans, who lived in (at least) two languages. As a white, US-born reader raised in a multilingual neighborhood of immigrants, I was hungry for books that beckoned me toward deeper understanding. A door opened wide to the work of Sandra Cisneros, a gifted writer whose birthday we celebrate today, December 20.
The power in the story of The House on Mango Street has led to its adoption for teaching in numerous high schools and colleges. On several occasions it has been challenged as “unsuitable for age group,” and it was banned as part of a significant censorship case in Arizona in 2010. Under Arizona House Bill 2281, more than 80 other books were banned in the state’s public schools. The law was aimed at dismantling or undermining programs that taught Mexican-American cultural studies, and prohibited courses that “promote the overthrow of the government.” In other words, studying the Mexican-American experience was framed as un-American. After a significant public response, the ban was overturned in 2017.
In multiple interviews, Sandra Cisneros has spoken about the challenge of avoiding self-censorship when writing. “We censor ourselves before we can even think,” she said in the Houston Chronicle. How does she step around her inner censor? Through poetry–there is something miraculous and freeing in the form–and hard work. “I work deliberately to get out of my own way and to do this I have to ask for humility. And courage.”
Sandra Cisneros actively supports social change in the communities where she lives, in both Mexico (her current home) and Texas, where she established two non-profit foundations. In 2017 she received an Art of Change fellowship from the Ford Foundation. For her project, she is interviewing people on both sides of the US-Mexico border, listening to voices who usually do not get to speak. Eloquently describing the need to help one another and be part of solutions in any way we can, Sandra Cisneros has said, “The world is a house on fire, and we know that address, and people we love are in that house.”
Her most recent publication, Puro Amor (2018), is a bilingual short story that she illustrated herself. The author of two full-length books of poetry, a children’s book, and other works, her artistic expression also includes performing with collaborators and designing textiles.
In her beautiful acceptance of the 2019 PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, Sandra Cisneros shines a light on her passions and commitments:
Lisa M. Rand is a librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania and serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. She has worked in a youth services in public libraries, with a special interest in creating safe, welcoming, inclusive spaces for teens. In May 2021 Lisa will complete her MLIS at Kent State University. Her research interests include library services for culturally diverse communities, LGBTQ+ literature for youth, and international questions of equity and access to information.