Sandra Cisneros taught me to build “a house of my own” where I could finally hear my voice
Beloved author and poet Sandra Cisneros celebrates her birthday today, December 20th.
Solitude has always been a luxury for me. I grew up in cramped homes with too many bodies and not enough rooms. I didn’t have my own bedroom until I was twenty-one. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, a city characterized by permanent standstill traffic and endlessly moving parts. While there’s something truly spellbinding about such concentrated chaos—people creating and destroying, rejoicing and brooding in close proximity—I don’t think anything compares to finding moments of solitude and quiet in the midst of it all. When the world gets aggressively loud, being alone is the only way I can separate the noise from the sounds that I produce myself—the only way I can make sense of my place within the disarray.
I think that’s what Sandra Cisneros means when she talks about why being alone and having “a house of her own” is so important.
The bulk of Cisneros’s works are journeys in fiction, poetry, and things that lie somewhere in between. Her 2015 memoir, A House of My Own, was her first full-length work of creative nonfiction—and one I keep coming back to again and again. Perhaps it is because of my fascination with the intimate details of people’s lives, or perhaps it’s because I’ve never read anything quite like it. Together, her memories tell us what it’s like to be a writer, a vagabond, an agitator driven by the desire to create meaning for herself—all through a particular, unique voice I’ve never heard.
As the title would suggest, her stories take us to the times and places where she found home, whether it was in a physical space, an idea, a project, or a person.
“A house for me has been a lifelong dream. Owning one, having one, retreating to a space one can call one’s own, she writes in her 2015 memoir. “A house is the right to leave my hair uncombed, walk around barefoot, be rude. I don’t want to quedar bien, that terrible syndrome of las mujeres. I like the civility of incivility. If someone rings the doorbell, does that mean I have to answer it? If someone says hello, do I have to grin like a geisha?...A house is about the safety and privacy of doing what others might think odd, or eccentric, or wrong, and I live alone and there is no one to tell me 'You can’t do that!' It’s the richest indulgence I know next to writing.
For women like Cisneros, who grew up poor, surrounded by men (a father and six brothers), and with no desire to live her life on their terms, a house becomes so much more than a physical space. It becomes a place, sometimes physical and other times not, where the threads that her parents, community, and previous generations stitched for her are unraveled and stitched back together, this time with her own intention and say-so.
It’s all the places where Latina women decide to part with convention and rejoice in their “otherness,” whether that’s being queer, never marrying, not being “domestic,” not aspiring to be a mother, or simply demanding more from the men in their lives.
In A House of My Own, Cisneros writes about the importance of discovering and naming her otherness, and that’s why her writing is so monumentally important: “It is not simply enough to sense it; it has to be named, and then written about from there. Once I could name it, I ceased being ashamed and silent.” Her words have helped so many Latina girls and women name the things that haunt us, that eat away at our possibilities and corner us into compliance.
Her life has helped us reimagine the lives we’re capable of living, in pursuit of things far grander and far more magnificent than men, marriage, and propriety.
A House of My Own reignited my desire to find a home in writing—to turn to words when nothing else felt adequate. But my desire to resist began with Cisneros’s poetry collection, My Wicked, Wicked Ways. I was in high school when I read it, and I’m not sure that I can name many other experiences that shifted my worldview as much as her writing did at that particular point in my life. Before reading her poetry, I did not know that girls like me could grow up to be real writers who wrote books that people held in their hands and discussed in classrooms.
And it wasn’t her Latina identity—at least not in isolation—that made her so majestic to me. I had read works by Latina women before, like Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies and Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. But in many ways, their words felt distant. Cisneros’s poems tapped into emotions I had always felt but had never named: shame, guilt, desire. Shame for being poor, for existing in a chubby body. Guilt for being sexual far before my parents could even imagine it, for not believing in Jesucristo or La Virgencita. Desire to live a life completely different than that of my mother and to be loved by a person who in no way reminded me of my father.
When the house I grew up in began to feel strange, cold, I turned to women like Sandra Cisneros to model what building my own could look like.
Her literature provided the framework for me to examine the ideas I grew up with but did not believe in, to find ways to create meaning on my own terms. Her words taught me to shut out the noise, if only temporarily, and be comfortable in solitude. Only then could I really listen to my own voice.