I was twenty-three the first time I read something written by Sandra Cisneros. It was December 2014, and I had been back in the Caribbean for a year and half after spending five years living in New Jersey. I remember feeling foreign at home. I didn’t have many friends in Puerto Rico, only the ones I had met back in high school and who now were all busy with university and life, as was I. That December in particular was very lonely. I was working on my bachelors in psychology at Carlos Albizu University, in Old San Juan. The school was tranquil and Old San Juan was a beautiful and culturally enriching place to study, but my heart was not connected to my new life in El Caribe.
Then my best friend, Arlene, who I met while working at Toys R’ Us in New Jersey, came to visit her family in Puerto Rico. She was from Newark but her family on both sides was Puerto Rican, and she had visited the island almost every holiday since she was a little girl. Her family was staying in the town of Villalba, up in the mountainous parts of Puerto Rico. When she came to my house in Bayamón, she stayed over for one night. We spent and entire day in Old San Juan, ate arroz con habichuelas y pernil at the restaurant Hecho en Casa, and drank piña colada to gather back our energies after a day of walking and talking under the tremendous heat of December. Before she left, she handed me a small, colorful book. This is my Christmas gift for you, she said. It was The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros.
She had written a beautiful note on the back of the cover: “Merry Christmas! Here’s my favorite novel. House on Mango Street has been a joy and an inspiration for me as an avid reader and writer. It is Hispanic, feminist, and full of wonder and hope (like the character named Esperanza). It is a testament to how writing about the most ordinary of things can be extraordinary.”
The novel was fragmented in vignettes. Tiny, powerful stories narrated by a young girl named Esperanza, who lived in a diverse neighborhood of Chicago with her Mexican-American family. Arlene was so right, this book wasn’t like anything I had ever read before. I didn’t know one could write like that. I didn’t know one could tell those stories. It was written in the most simple of words, and yet every single vignette was so meaningful and poetic.
My copy had an introduction written by Cisneros for the 25th anniversary edition. That essay in itself is full of magic, and I cannot recommend it enough, specially to young women writers. In one part, Cisneros explains that she wanted to write “a book that can be opened at any page and will still make sense to the reader who didn’t know what came before or after.” That line has always stayed with me. The life of Latinos, of immigrants, is fragmented, so it makes so much sense that she would want to write a book like this; a book so vivid it didn’t need a beginning or end to be understood. Cisneros wrote about her experience growing up as a Latina girl in Chicago, and by doing so she wrote about all of us. She made us feel smart, beautiful, visible. I felt so thankful towards my friend. You know you have picked the right friends when they gift you the miracle of reading anything written by Sandra Cisneros. And in particular, the miracle of reading The House on Mango Street.
Flash forward to a few months after that, I was about to finish my bachelors. I was supposed to pick a grad program related to psychology: clinical, social, industrial, anything. But I just couldn’t study psychology anymore. Something which had been sleeping inside of me woke up after reading Cisneros. I, too, wanted to write stories, but it wasn’t until reading that novel that I felt the courage to try. To at least try.
I remember telling my Spanish professor a few weeks before graduation that I was thinking about getting a masters in creative writing. It was the craziest of ideas, and just saying it out loud made me shake a little. What would you like to do with that degree?, she asked me. I want to write stories. Maybe even a novel. She looked at me surprised, a novel, she repeated, that takes a lot of work, are you sure that’s what you want? Then I also had to face my parents doubts, especially my father’s, who was too conventional and too obsessed with money to believe that one should waste it trying to be a writer. Thankfully, my mom did support me, and Cisneros had already convinced me of following what I felt was the right path for me. And when you have that kind of conviction, when you realize that any other choice would wretch you, it is impossible to change your mind.
That’s how I ended up studying Literary Creation in Barcelona, where many great things, and a few not so great, happened; some of which eventually led to the creation of my blog, Conquistadora Books.
But that’s another story. One that I plan to tell you all soon.
See you next time!