Author Sandra Cisneros Tells Her Story To Latino Schoolchildren

CHICAGO - Sandra Cisneros has a voice like Tinker Bell's, smokes Fidel-style cigars and packs a Mexico-sized disdain for Chicago.

Spare her the admonitions of her Latina childhood: "Mexicans want to be liked. Our fathers tell us, `Now, be nice.' "

Today she says what she wants and gets away with it.

An increasingly hot property in mainstream publishing circles, the 38-year-old Mexican-American writer who grew up in Humboldt Park returned to Chicago recently bearing a childhood report card full of C's and D's - her brand of inspiration to Latino schoolchildren - and this declaration:

"If I'm an artist, it's despite Chicago, not because of it. Why is the Poetry Center of Chicago only now discovering me? I hope it doesn't take them another 500 years to discover the next Latina."

The audience was a standing-room-only crowd in the auditorium of the School of the Art Institute. They had come on a recent evening to hear her read a selection from her newly reissued poetry collection, "My Wicked, Wicked Ways."

She also spoke to 300 pupils at Seward School, 95 percent of whose students are Latino, in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. It was there that she held aloft her lackluster 5th-grade report card from St. Callistus School as proof that bad grades don't necessarily mean a bad mind.

Last year five 8th-grade girls at Seward had become so entranced with Cisneros' collection of stories titled "The House on Mango Street," about growing up Latina, that they wrote her at home in San Antonio, Texas, and invited her to visit the school.

One of the girls, Alejandra Garibay, 14, said, "I was able to relate to the book and her dreams of becoming a writer. It made me feel good that she put people like me in the book."

And the group taped a reading of the stories to play for other students.

Cisneros, recipient of two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts - for poetry and fiction - had said of St. Callistus in an earlier interview:

"It was a very racist Catholic school. There were a lot of Italian kids, and Latinos were the minority. When we moved, I was enrolled in another school, St. Aloysius, run by the Sisters of Christian Charity. They recognized that I was doing all this reading outside of class and that I was smart."

Cisneros speaks frequently to school groups, especially in San Antonio, where she said she fled from Chicago to get professional recognition.

A tiny woman with cropped hair, she was wearing an ankle-length brown crushed velvet dress and black suede boots, and puffing on a cigar.

"I was a little press writer when the National Endowment for the Arts came to my rescue and gave me an award," she said. "I couldn't buy a light bulb. Almost more than the money, the awards are important because they show that someone believes in you.

"I've been publishing for 15 years. One press account said I was an overnight success. I thought that was the longest night I've ever spent."

The only girl in a family of six boys, Cisneros came from a working-class family that owned two books. One was a Bible her mother bought with S&H Green Stamps, the other, a dogeared copy of "Alice in Wonderland" bought in the bargain basement of a Sears.

Now her work is included in textbooks used nationwide.

Cisneros' work is an amalgam, drawing in part on the experiences of her family, headed by her father, a Mexican immigrant who still makes his living as an upholsterer. Her mother is Mexican-American.

Her books reflect the inner tug of war of a young girl who rebelled against and embraced a culture that smothered the dreams of women in babies and housework yet offered a warm sense of family, a determined work ethic and a rich language and cuisine.

She graduated from Josephinum High School and got her undergraduate degree from Loyola University before attending the renowned University of Iowa Writers Workshop. She found the last to be a cold, aggressive, elitist environment with scant appreciation for writing that didn't reflect the rhythms of conventional white society.

Cisneros labored long before getting what she calls her "green card in literature": acceptance by a major New York publisher.

Last year, Random House published her newest fiction collection, "Women Hollering Creek and Other Stories," and simultaneously reissued "The House on Mango Street," originally published by Arte Publico Press, a Hispanic publisher.

"There are many Latino writers as talented as I am, but because we are published through small presses our books don't count," she said. "We are still the illegal aliens of the literary world."