Sunday, October 07, 2012


Series Continues with a Novelist and a Poet

For those of you new to my blog:  In March 2012,  I began writing a series of reviews of famous books written by modern American Latinas. The series was designed for Jesus Trevino's outstanding blog, Latinopia ( With Jesus' permission, the reviews are then cross-posted here. We call the series "BOOK REVIEWS: MODERN AMERICAN LATINAS' ICONIC BOOKS."

These books are all award-winning, trailblazing books written in the 20th century, starting in 1974 and continuing into 1996. There will be a total of 12 reviews. The selected authors are highly regarded and have won numerous honors, most of them being recipients of the vaunted American Book Award, a prestigious prize. The books I review are considered to be modern-day classics in ethnic and American literature, many of them taught in schools across America. These Latina authors were pioneers in various ways, and they serve as role models, inspirers, and standard-bearers for millions of people across our nation and in many parts of the world.

On this blog you can read the first four of my reviews. These are as follows:
  • Nilda, by Nicholasa Mohr (published in 1974)
  • Rain of Scorpions and Other Writings, by Estela Portillo (1975)
  • Emplumada, by Lorna Dee Cervantes (1981)
  • Loving in the War Years, by Cherrie Moraga (1983).
Numbers #5 and #6 highlight a Chicago writer now living in Texas (Sandra Cisneros, author of the breakthrough novel, House on Mango Street) and Pat Mora, an El Paso native now living in New Mexico and the author of Borders.

Please feel free to leave a comment after each review. I hope you'll be stirred to read the books featured in this series and to learn more about each of these authors. (Books are available through your favorite bookseller or Also, please spread the word to your friends, colleagues, classmates, and neighbors about these inspirational women. Tweet, post to Facebook, or use any other social media...or good, old-fashioned conversations to bring attention to our authors.
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“La Sandra,” as Sandra Cisneros has sometimes been called by her fans, is perhaps the most famous American Latina writer alive today and possibly of all time. Her books have been translated internationally and are taught in grade schools and universities across our nation. As a multiple award-winner in her long, distinguished career, Cisneros has had a tremendous influence on the contemporary renaissance and evolution of Chicano/Latino literature in the United States.

Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros created stories and poems since elementary school. She knew early on that she wanted to be a writer and, as a young graduate student in the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop in the late 1970’s, already had a vision for her work: “to write stories that ignore borders between genres, between written and spoken, between highbrow literature and children’s nursery rhymes, between New York and the imaginary [Mexican] village of Macondo, between the U.S. and Mexico.”

This she wrote in her eloquent “Introduction” to the 25th anniversary edition of her break-out classic, The House on Mango Street. And this—all of this—she accomplished beautifully in her book.

A Book ‘Between Genres’

This book is difficult to categorize. It’s called a novel, but it’s a collection of tiny vignettes, many of them barely a page long, most of them a snapshot of someone who lives on Mango Street, someone whom the book’s narrator, young Esperanza Cordero, knows directly or indirectly. Mango Street is in a poor section of Chicago (modeled after Bucktown pre-gentrification, according to Cisneros). The houses are cramped and rundown, with peeling paint and little or no yards. The children play on porches and streets, amidst a motley crew of poignant, disgusting, endearing, and enigmatic neighbors and storekeepers who run the gamut from drunken bums to nuns.

Unlike a novel, the book does not have a plot in the traditional sense. The thread that holds this book together is the recurrence of various characters—most of them Esperanza’s peers and family—from section to section, though many characters appear only once. Cisneros calls this “story cycles” and purposely chose “little stories...connected to each other.” Each “chapter” (not traditional chapters either, but “a little story” instead) can be read as a stand-alone. The vignette may be as simple as a child’s description of clouds, or as complex as girls mocking a dying woman.

Cisneros states in her book’s Introduction that she wants to make her writing accessible to all, wants her readers to see themselves in her writing. The House on Mango Street is formatted to be read in one or two sittings and is something that Latinos/as can indeed relate to. It deals with issues at the heart of many adolescents’ evolution—gender roles, family dynamics, biculturalism, sexual identity, social responsibility, prejudice, domestic abuse, and poverty. The narrator, Esperanza, in the space of one year, learns about these issues either personally or through the suffering of friends and neighbors on Mango Street.

The Simple Complexity of People

Like a deft artist, Cisneros paints pictures of her characters in tight, economical brushstrokes. She says little about them in restrained, simple language, and picks unobtrusive details to show us their essence. Darius the fool chases girls with firecrackers and sees God in cloud formations. Marin sells Avon, wears tons of makeup, and dances alone under the streetlights when her family goes to bed.

There’s Aunt Lupe, crippled and bedridden from a diving accident or a fall (nobody knows), who lives an abysmal life lying limp, head tossed back, blind, waiting to die, yet nurturing Esperanza’s writing ambitions. Through Lupe, Esperanza learns about compassion and the frailty of life.

The many characters who appear only once are amazingly memorable. Often females young and old, they endure indignities and abuse at the hands of males who restrict and dominate them. Yet Cisneros describes these females as an unbiased journalist would, without judgment or anger.

We see Esperanza’s Mexican great-grandmother, her namesake, only long enough to know she was kidnapped as a young girl and forced into marriage, living out her life in bitterness toward her husband, who squelched her individuality and potential. She serves the young Esperanza as a symbol of what not to be.

Then there’s Esperanza’s incredibly beautiful classmate, Sally, who is beaten cruelly by a domineering father who fears she’ll run away like his sisters did long ago. After a while, Sally, stoic despite her bruises, defiantly engages in sex, knowing her father’s rage awaits her. She chooses a desolate path as an escape, teaching Esperanza the urgency of forging her own identity before it’s too late.

The Primacy of Poetry

Those who didn’t know that poetry was a first love of Cisneros would guess this from the book’s imagery. The simplest things are endowed with little grace notes that surprise us, for Cisneros’ language is not what we ourselves would have invoked. Thus, the house on Mango Street has “windows so small, you’d think they were holding their breath.” Neighbor girls have “popsicle lips” and laughter “like shy ice cream bells.” A neighbor woman’s feet are described as “plump and polite, descended like white pigeons from the sea of pillow.”

But the most poetic portion of the book, near its end, is the chapter titled “Four Skinny Trees,” which is a prose poem from start to finish that symbolizes what Esperanza is and plans to become. A young woman about to embark on her own future, Esperanza describes “the four raggedy excuses planted by the city” thus: “Their strength is secret. They send ferocious roots beneath the ground. They...grow down and grab the earth between their hairy toes and bite the sky with violent teeth and never quit their anger. This is how they keep.” The young girl’s final analysis of the trees is a description of her own resolve to follow her dreams and succeed: “Four who grew despite concrete. Four who reach and do not forget to reach.”

Cisneros’ Place in Latina Literature

As this series about pioneering, modern-day American Latina authors has shown, Cisneros was not the first to be published. She was not the first to receive a coveted literary award. She was not the first to be acknowledged by non-Latinos as a writer whose work cut across cultural groups. Other Latinas whose books have been reviewed here—Nicholasa Mohr, Estela Portillo, Lorna Dee Cervantes, and Cherrié Moraga—beat Cisneros to those accomplishments.

But Sandra Cisneros was the first modern American Latina to be published by a major mainstream publisher. She is thus often credited with opening the door to other Latina/o authors’ acceptance by the mainstream. So it is her name which oftentimes pops up first on the topic of Latina authors. It is Cisneros whose work is widely anthologized in multi-cultural books, whose work is selected for literature curricula across American schools. It is Cisneros who embodies the melding of two cultures, the Mexican and the American. With many prestigious awards for her talent, Cisneros has set a standard of excellence that awes. She is, after all, “La Sandra.”

Her other books include the novel “Caramelo” (2002); the short story collection “Woman Hollering Creek” (1991); the poetry books, “My Wicked, Wicked Ways” (1987) and “Loose Woman” (1994); and the anthology of excerpts from her works, “Vintage Cisneros” (2004). Her website is .

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BORDERS, by Pat Mora

Pat Mora’s poetry book, Borders, sets its tone immediately, with the title poem placed alone just before the thematic sections of the book unwrap themselves. Mora makes a distinction between men’s and women’s communication right off the bat, citing a researcher who says, “ and women may speak different languages that they assume are the same.”

Thus, the first border is laid down by Mora: the line separating how the sexes communicate. “So who can hear/ the words we speak/ you and I, like but unlike,/ and translate us to us/ side by side?” the poet asks. She establishes a framework of contiguous separations—borders—where “like” is “unlike,” and we are “similar but different,” existing “side by side,” but still needing translations for comprehension. She’s speaking about all of us, of course.

Her book goes on to evoke and explore borders large and small, known and unknown, old and new, faint and glaring. The poet draws on her lifetime of living on and near borders, beginning with her birth in El Paso, Texas, her home for most of her life before moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico. The granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, Mora has straddled the border between cultures and languages, has navigated the “like” and “unlike” for her entire life. As her book depicts, borders can be cruel or innocuous, but they ultimately reveal us to ourselves.

Cruel Borders of Hardship

Her book is filled with snapshots of people from all walks of life, people identifiable for their hardships as much as for their triumphs. Mora starts with the famous pioneering author and university leader, Tomás Rivera, whose hands “knew about the harvest,/ tasted the laborer’s sweat” but also “gathered books at city dumps...began to hold books gently, with affection.” Then, his hands “wrote the books/ he didn’t have, we didn’t have,” and hugged “the small brown hands” of children gathered round in admiration, “his hands whispering his secret/ learn, learn.” Rivera was the consummate cross-over, a migrant child of illiteracy who won prizes for his books and inspired legions of modern Latinos/as to demolish obstacles. Again, Mora establishes her framework with this, the second poem in her book, showing us how inhumane borders can be erased.

Other people, however, struggle with the limitations and discrimination imposed by borders. In “Immigrants,” Mora describes the lengths immigrant parents go through to “Americanize” their children, as they “wrap their babies in the American flag,/ feed them mashed hot dogs and apple pie.” Always, the fear of rejection and marginalization haunts them. In “Echoes,” the poet practically speaks through clenched teeth as she recounts how a party hostess insisted that her guests “just drop the cups and plates/ on the grass. My maid/ will pick them up.”

In “The Grateful Minority,” the poet describes Ofelia “scrubbing washbowls.../ mopping bathrooms for people/ who don’t even know your name.” The poem’s narrator cannot understand how Ofelia, as well as other “brown women,” can “whistle while/ you shine toilets, smile gratefully/ at dry rubber gloves, new uniforms,/ steady paychecks...content in your soapy solitude.” These women “bloom/ namelessly in harsh countries.” Perplexed, the poem’s speaker says: “I want to shake your secret/ from you. Why? How?”

The Subtle Borders of Life

But other borders—symbolic, emotional, or spiritual—are more subtle and often less painful. Section II (untitled) of Mora’s book speaks of family love, of the generations, and the passage of time. In “To My Son,” the border between childhood and adolescence is symbolized by the worn-down swing set, now sitting silent in the backyard, abandoned years ago. The border between doting affection and tough love is embodied in the word “no” repeated like a litany in “The Heaviest Word in Town.” The border between security and fear strikes the poet in “Waiting Room: Orthopedic Surgery,” as she waits nervously for her broken child to be made whole again.

Some borders transcend time, and Mora, particularly fond of elders, captures these poignantly. In “Pajarita,” the “small, gray Mexican bird/ brittle of bone, flutters at ninety/ through the large American cage/ all the comforts/ except youth.” The saintly grandmother straddles life and death as each day passes. In “Los Ancianos,” the poet describes an old couple holding hands as they traverse the plaza, “both slightly stooped, bodies returning to the land.” Walking the fine line between the present and eternity, “They know/ of moving through a crowd at their own pace.”

Our Individual and Collective Borders

Since borders are demarcations, there are always two sides, and marginalization is unavoidable. There is “us” and “them,” “their way” and “my way.” With this duality, prejudice and stereotypes become fact, and it takes concerted efforts on each person’s part to blur the borders traversing our lands and our interactions, so people can become simply one huge expanse of humanity.

Pat Mora’s heartfelt, spiritual book is a paean to how these borders imbue our lives, but how hurtful borders can be eased, or removed, when we embrace how everything is interwoven and we are, ultimately, one. Mora the poet is the sum total of her parts. As she has said in interviews, she cherishes her cultural heritage and often imbues her writing with it. Her writing is her attempt to facilitate communication and understanding among diverse peoples. She communicates with evident warmth, love, and compassion.

Known nationally for more than 30 books of poetry, essays, and children’s writings, Mora has received numerous literary awards, including the National Hispanic Cultural Center Literacy Award, the Southwest Book Award (4 times), Premio Aztlán Literature Award, and the Pellicer-Frost Bi-National Poetry Award. She has also received two honorary doctoral degrees and is best-known for instituting the nationally-celebrated event, “El día de los ninos/El día de los libros” (“The Day of the Children/The Day of Books”). Advocacy for children’s literacy is an abiding passion of Pat Mora. Her website is  .

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