Growing up the only daughter in a family of six boys on Chicago’s West Side, Sandra Cisneros describes her childhood as being defined by loneliness. Instead of responding to this loneliness with a downward spiral, however, Cisneros used it to her advantage and as an inspiration for writing. Decades later, Cisneros, now 62, has published dozens of essays and poems, as well as a handful of critically acclaimed novels, including “The House on Mango Street” which sold two million copies.
Cisneros spoke on April 26 to approximately 40 fifth grade students from Mountain View Elementary in a joint effort from the University of Utah Tanner Humanities Center and the Glendale Mountain View Community Learning Center. In her talk, she told students about her experiences growing up Mexican-American, something she describes as cultural hybridity.
To compete in the global economy, Cisneros advised students learn as many languages as they can while they are young. “You are the children of the new millennia,” she said. “If you speak two languages, you are one step ahead of others. If you speak three, you’re two steps.”
Cisneros does not see the benefits of multilingualism as being purely economic, however. “It’s wonderful if you have two because you have two ways of looking at the world. Each language is your different way of looking at the world.”
Born to a Mexican immigrant in a family that frequently moved back and forth between the United States and Mexico, Cisneros said she always felt like an outsider stuck in between cultures, a feeling another acclaimed Mexican-American writer, Gloria Anzaldúa, describes as “living on borders and in margins.”
Cisneros is proud of her cultural background and is thankful her parents passed traditions on to her during her childhood. “I think it was great because we knew our history, and so many children don’t know their history,” she told The Daily Utah Chronicle. “It doesn’t matter where you come from in the world, a lot of people have forgotten their histories, or they don’t their theory history or they know an incomplete history.”
She added she thinks “it’s especially important for children to know the story of their ancestors and the story of their cultures. It enriches their experience in the United States, it enriches everyone who comes into contact with them. That’s my message.”
Something else Cisneros told students is that “it’s okay to be alone.” “It’s okay to be by yourself because that’s the time for you to develop you. Later on, you can have a partner, but while you’re young do your studies, learn how to sing, take that tap dancing class,” she said. “You’ve got to focus on you.”
See a dream and walk towards it every day, Cisneros told the fifth-grade students. “Dream big and walk towards it every day.”
“You have to start now,” she said. “You can’t wait until high school or your twenties to imagine your future. You have to start now.”
Jen Carver-Hunter, a fifth-grade teacher at Mountain View Elementary School, said her students are part of a dual immersion program where they spend half the day learning in English and the other half in Spanish. When Carver-Hunter heard Cisneros would be speaking, she assigned “The House on Mango Street” to her students, the majority of whom come from Spanish-speaking homes.
“We thought it would be a really good idea for them to read something she has written,” Carver-Hunter said. “So we were able to start reading it, and look at some of the questions they asked.”
Students asked Cisneros dozens of questions about her upbringing, inspirations in writing and her hardest thing to overcome in life. “It’s amazing to me that they could engage on that level,” Carver-Hunter said. “They are really enjoying it.”
One struggle Hispanic students face is a lack of information about resources available to them, according to Luciano Marzulli, an outreach coordinator for the U’s Center for Latin American Studies.
“I think for students, sometimes, one of the biggest struggles is knowing where the resources are,” Marzulli said.
The Center for Latin American Students, which Marzulli said receives Title IX grant money from the Department of Education, works towards providing Latin American students with opportunities for education and professional development, as well as aiding teachers. “Through that grant we are able to do outreach to schools, as well as the community college and our own institution, to support teachers who are interested in teaching about Latin America, as well as experiences of Latinos living in the U.S.,” he said.
Carver-Hunter believes the talk from Cisneros will stick with students. “I think it was an inspiration for them, as much as anything,” she said. “To hear the aspirations of going to college from somebody else, somebody whose famous, but also to hear that [as Hispanic students} they’re a bridge. I always tell them: you are the ambassadors; it’s your job.”
One student, Madison Bennett, said she liked reading “The House on Mango Street” and meeting Cisneros. “I thought it was good,” Bennett said. “I thought about how she was talking about her life, how she said it wasn’t perfect because she had six brothers, and I think it’s cool that she tried to follow her dreams. She said, ‘No, I don’t need a boyfriend yet, I don’t need children yet. I don’t need to get married. I need to follow my dreams.’”
Bennett said her takeaway from the talk was “you can’t erase who you are, you can’t forget who you are.”
Cisneros, who also spoke at the Tanner Humanities Center on April 25, described to students the power of creativity as she sees it: to heal the soul. “That’s the power of art. All these things that hurt your soul, write them out. If it doesn’t stop hurting the first time, keep writing. Sometimes you have to write twenty times. That’s why we need art.”