Latinx Heritage Month Spotlight: Sandra Cisneros
How Sandra Cisneros’ writing helped me, a Central American undocumented artist, find hope.
Sandra Cisneros saved my life. During the summer of 2008, I was homeless and undocumented, living out of my Jeep in the San Francisco Bay. I was a Salvadoran national with Temporary Protected Status, but due to a clerical error, my TPS had lapsed. As a consequence, Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theater program decided to part ways with me. I was 26. Losing my job left me broke, unable to collect unemployment insurance, and desperate.
As an actor, touring with Kaiser ETP and performing for kids K-5 all over Northern California, was a dream job. One that had slipped through my fingers. Amid the tailspin, I heard of an audition at the Mexican Heritage Plaza for a theater company in San Jose called Teatro Visión. They were mounting the Bay Area premiere of Sandra’s seminal work (The House on Mango Street), adapted for the stage by Amy Ludwig with translation by Elena Poniatowska, and called it “La Casa En Mango Street,” with the author’s blessing. The pay wasn’t spectacular, most non-union contracts aren’t, but I stood a chance of getting hired without having papeles.
I went to the open call and booked the gig. Despite the circumstances, I managed to pull off participating in the full production, playing eleven different characters for the widely successful project, alongside a talented ensemble cast. The rehearsal process was a physical grind, but while I fought the daily terror brought upon by displacement, it was the themes from Sandra’s novel that transcended from the pages of the book through the script. Her words created a home for me. A shelter from the hurricane of unfortunate events that pummeled my sandcastle existence.
The vibrant characters that populate Esperanza’s coming-of-age story were brought to dynamic life as my castmates and I danced, frolicked, and sang to our community with the gusto one brings to an endeavor when they are convinced of its magic. My fellow actors and I represented a colorful mosaic from all over Latin America, and each of us spoke in the Spanish dialect that felt most comfortable. The audience showed up en masse, night after night, thirsty for artful representation. Sandra’s work evoked a unified spirit. It fed our souls. As we all gathered together inside the beautiful theater, the play led us to a sacred place. One in which we could meditate on the shadow that consumes the lifeline for immigrants by enveloping them with its darkness. That opaqueness suffocates their screams, as legacies of abuse and trauma funnel from one generation to the next. Then, when things seemed at their most bleak, we found hope.
My path to citizenship was wrought with obstacles and disappointments, but there were many triumphs along the way. I experienced generosity from the most unexpected places. Total strangers, from all ends of the human spectrum, illuminated my path with their kind gestures. At every turn, the narrative of the good versus bad immigrant would find itself ensnared by the complexities of everyday life. It makes perfect sense now. In order to survive, undocumented people, facing the direst of circumstances, cling to hope in whatever form it comes. I know I did. No matter the format, we know great art is capable of healing our wounds when it can find us in the hiding places of our pain and remind us to breathe once again by making us feel seen. It comforts and guides, by helping us keep our eyes on the horizon.
I’ve never had the chance to openly thank Sandra for the world of possibility she set into motion with her breakthrough novel, and feel honored to do so during this year’s Latinx Heritage Month. Sandra, a Mexican American author, was one of the first Latin voices I was privileged to read, and one that didn’t exclude me, a young Salvi writer. Instead, the narrative opened up a window of opportunity from which I could climb out of that encouraged me to tell my Central American story, too. As I child of the diaspora caused by the Civil War, my journey through the belly of the beast was just as important. Because of her, I found my voice. For that, I’m eternally grateful.
Sometimes, I wonder if she could have possibly imagined how grand yet humble her legacy would become once ‘Mango Street’ was published in 1984 by Arte Público Press. Or how she would go on to win the Before Columbus Foundation’s American Book Award in 1985, and so many accolades, since. Earlier, this year, Sandra received the 2019 Pen/Nabokov Award presented to her by fellow Latina icon, Maria Hinojosa. Regarding her great accomplishments in an interview with the L.A. Times, Sandra said:
I always am the most surprised when I get any award, but I think at these heights, as we would say in Spanish, the most astonishing part is the “lifetime” part of the award. I truly don’t feel that I have arrived where I want to be yet. I feel like I’m just getting started.Sandra Cisneros
We certainly look forward to hearing more from one of our greatest living storytellers. You can watch her full remarks, courtesy of Pen America, below.