Writers from Chicago – Sandra Cisneros

Growing up a fairly privileged kid in the Western Suburbs, it wasn’t until my sophomore year of high school that it became very clear my experience was not the norm. In grade school my teachers were always talking about how bad off people had it in other countries (the common refrain was, “Eat your food, don’t you know people are starving in Africa?”) but never mentioned how rough life was for so many people in these United States, not to mention right in Chicago.

The first book I read that opened my eyes to this was Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. (Shout out to Mrs. Jarowski at DGN for assigning it). Reading about the experiences of Esperanza Cordero growing up in Chicago changed my view of the city, which, up till then, had been the tourist view of museums, Wrigley Field, and the skyline. I’m glad to have left my naive view behind, and I have Cisneros, in part, to thank for that.

Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros’ family traveled back and forth between Chicago and Mexico City during her childhood. When she was 11 they got a house in Humboldt Park, which Cisneros used as inspiration for Mango Street. She attended Josephinum Academy, an all girls Catholic high school in Wicker Park, where she worked on the literary magazine, becoming editor. From there she got her BA in English from Loyola and MFA from the University of Iowa. Afterwards, she returned to the city and taught at Latino Youth High School.

She has had great success as a poet, short story writer, novelist, essayist, performer, and artist. In 1991, with her book Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, she became the first Chicana author signed to a major US publishing house. She’s earned many awards and has worked to foster aspiring writers through her own non-profits.

Cisneros left Chicago prior to the publication of Mango Street but it continues to come up in her work. In 2016 her prose poem about the city, “Notes of a Native Daughter,” was published in Chicago Magazine. In it she goes into detail about growing up in Humboldt Park, and it’s not a pretty picture. The piece was inspired by a run-in with then Mayor Emanuel when he was awarding her a Fifth Star award. During the exchange, she says, he wouldn’t listen to her and shut her down, leading her to swear off returning.

Whether she returns or not, it seems Chicago will always be with her in one way or another, for as she told Chicago Magazine in 2019, “I don’t eat meat very often, but I make an exception for Chicago hot dogs. I’m kind of snobby about it. It’s gotta come wrapped in paper, and you have to eat it standing up. No french fries? No poppy seeds? That’s not a hot dog.”

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