Sandra Cisneros (born 1954), an American writer, best known for her acclaimed first novel The House on Mango Street (1984) and her subsequent short story collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories (1991) which works I am going to analyze in this thesis.
Cisneros has gained numerous awards for her work, including a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and is regarded as a key figure in Chicana literature. As the writer she deals with the themes such as formation of Chicana identity, exploring the challenges of being caught between Mexican and Anglo-American cultures and experiencing poverty. For her insightful social critique and powerful prose style, Cisneros has achieved recognition far beyond Chicano communities –The House on Mango Street, for example, has been translated worldwide.
Cisneros’ writing is often influenced by her personal experiences and by observations of the people in her community. She grew up as the only daughter in a family of six brothers, which often made her feel isolated, and the constant migration of her family between Mexico and the USA instilled in her the sense of "always straddling two countries ... but not belonging to either culture." Literary critic Jacqueline Doyle has described Cisneros' passion for hearing the personal stories that people tell and her commitment to expressing the voices of marginalized people through her work, such as the "thousands of silent women" whose struggles are portrayed in The House on Mango Street. (Cisneros, 2011)
The literary style of Cisneros’ might appear simple at first reading, but this is deceptive. In fact, her narration is stylistically rich, alternates between first and third person, ranges from brief impressionistic vignettes to longer event-driven stories, and from highly poetic language to brutally frank one. Some stories lack a narrator to mediate between the characters and the reader; they are instead composed of textual fragments. This techniques challenge the readers to read between lines, to discover the characters' psyches and analyze their social background. In the end, the reader is provided with the complex information, often even bilingually, by the means of apparently simple characters and situations.
Cristina García, a journalist and a fiction writer, was born in 1958 in Havana to a Guatemalan father and Cuban mother. In 1961, when she was two years old, her family was among the first wave of people to flee Cuba after Fidel Castro came to power. They settled in New York City where she was raised. Her family, however, communicated at home in Spanish and shared many stories about Cuba during her youth, and she says that she has always thought of herself as Cuban. She earned a B.A. from Barnard College and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University. After her studies she served as a bureau chief and correspondent for Time magazine. She is the author of four novels: Dreaming in Cuban (1992), The Agüero Sisters (1997), Monkey Hunting (2003), A Handbook to Luck (2007).
The first of the list, Dreaming in Cuban, was nominated for a National Book Award and is going to be analyzed later in this thesis. In her interview with Scott Brown (249), García admits that the novel has originated as the certain kind of compensation for her personal losses caused by Cuban revolution. García, similarly as Cisneros, used her own experience to draw on as a writer: emigration, exile life, returning back to Cuba and meeting her family again, all those things are reflected in the novel. She used autobiographical elements, taking Pilar, one of the character, as her alter ego. In her writing, García intentionally focuses on women because “so much history is written by and about men” (250) and thus she provides remarkable exploration of a big political event.
The book itself has a form of a family saga, written from different point of view of each family member. Narrators are taking their turn across the time line, using their own level of subjectivity and perception of reality. Descriptive, realistic narration is combined with imagination and supernatural, obliterating the borderline between remotely possible and utterly impossible events. As I have already mentioned earlier, magical realism has its place in Hispanic literature since 1960s’ and according to García’s words , “magic represents the freedom of imagination and imagination represents revolution”. It is the tool to encourage Latin Americans to dare to imagine an alternative and thus more real version of their own history and identity.
Because of rather complicated structure of the novel as well as tangled relationship among the family members, it is worth to outline the basic plot and introduce the characters briefly: Central protagonist Celia del Pino, the supporter of Fidel Castro regime, lived in Cuba, while her husband Jorge left to the US to stay with their oldest daughter Lourdes. Lourdes had emigrated from Cuba with her husband Rufino and their daughter Pilar, and Lourdes settled her own business in New York. Javier, Lourdes younger brother, left Cuba to live in the Czech Republic and he came back home after his marriage broke down. The youngest Celia’s daughter , Felicia, married Hugo and they had three children: Luz and Milagro - the twins and Ivanito. The other important character in the novel is Gustavo, Celia’s former lover who was presented in the book just as the addressee of Celia’s love letters. It is essential to understand those familial relationship to understand all the consequences described in the novel. The novel itself begins with the family tree, to help the reader with basic orientation within the Pinos’ family. The family tree is also to be found in Appendix 1 to this thesis.
5 Woman as a wife
Historically, Mexican society has been established as patriarchal with the predestined scheme of social roles. According to the traditional gender-based norms, men have authority over women, not only in wife-husband relation, but also as brothers to sisters, and father disposes ultimate authority over the whole family matters. Mexican males have been stereotyped, throughout the history, as violent, reactive, hot-blooded, passionate and prone to emotional outburst. Their female counterparts in order to accomplish the gender dichotomy within the community remain docile and domestic. It might be assumed that traditional Mexican family is strictly hierarchical in its structure and asymmetrical in social and gender relations. Women were predominantly depicted as a subject to sex, race, and class discrimination and to the ill treatment of machos, while in relation to the surrounding world they remain isolated and ignorant. 4
The Chicana is generally perceived as a submissive, passive woman, typically under the command of the Chicano. Her identity is defined by the role of mother and wife, typically confined in domestic field limited to taking care of children and household. This let the inferiority complex grow and pass it to coming generation as a feeling of worthlessness and self-hatred for what it means to be a woman and a Chicana.
As Rivera claims in his essay, to belong to Chicano community bears to be traditional and to exist solely within given family structure. A Chicana must serve as a daughter, a wife, and a parent, and must place the needs of family members above her own. She is the foundation of the family unit, treasures as a self-sacrificing woman. Rivera also points out the influence of catholic belief which solidifies this image within the community, and thus expect Chicana to follow dogma as to be religious, conservative and traditional. Rivera further claims that these deep-rooted stereotypes obstruct the progress and mobility of Chicanas. (502)
The literary portrayal of Chicana in literature has been developing in accordance with the changing attitudes of the society towards women: originally, they were depicted in Anglo-American literary works as colorful but negative contrast to white women. Early Chicano writers in effort to adjust this antipathy, set women into their traditional role, and thus created the idealized symbol of womanhood. Later generation of Chicano writers however presents their characters in complex relationship to show their role in the context of contemporary society.
Institution of marriage has been re-evaluated in modern Chicana writing. The question of psychological and physical abuse within marriage has been launched; women protagonists were seeking their economic independence as the way to deliberate themselves since in their view “to be feminine doesn’t necessarily mean to be weak” and “a woman has to hold her own whenever the occasion arises.” (Petra Myers in Victuum, qtd. in Parr and Ramírez, 106)
With progressing feminist movement in the course of the 20th century, Chicanas became more and more responsible for themselves. Chicana’s feminist writers express the need to participate in literature domain as the first step to destroy pathological stereotypes within the society, however as Poniatowska (1996) points out, their position is far from straightforward:
To be a Chicano is not easy, but to be a Chicana is even harder. To be a writer in Mexico is not easy, but to be a woman writer sometimes makes no sense at all. A Chicana writer in the United States gets the worst of both conditions: being a woman and a Chicana aspiring to become a writer.
After 1975, the year designated as International Women’s Year, several female writers published their works as a response to the portrait of Chicano women created by male writers. This feminine perspective has changed the stereotypical image of Chicana, mainly by developing their female protagonists. Issues such as male-female relationship, physical victimization, sexual abuse or psychological and economic exploitation by traditional society, ceased from being taboo anymore.
In number of modern literary works we will find the person of La mala mujer which has been created as the opposite to above mentioned traditional gender roles. La mala mujer represents an archetype of a “bad woman” who does not conform to the traditional female ideal and assumes male attributes such as the independence of the macho.
Moreover, concerning the questions of sex, both male and female needs are taken into account. Woman is not the tool to fulfill men’s demands any longer but she became an equal human being to be respected. The most revolutionary feminist writers of that period stated the right of self –determination as the freedom for women to decide about the number of their children. Such an idea raises the question of woman’s deliberate choice for or against an abortion as well as criticism of forced legal sterilization of women after the delivery of the baby.