The experiences of Esperanza, the adolescent protagonist of The House on Mango Street, closely resemble those of Sandra Cisneros’s childhood. The author was born to a Mexican father and a Mexican American mother in 1954 in Chicago, Illinois, the only daughter of seven children. The family, for whom money was always in short supply, frequently moved between the ghetto neighborhoods of Chicago and the areas of Mexico where her father’s family lived. Cisneros remembers that as a child she often felt a sense of displacement. By 1966 her parents had saved enough money for a down payment on a run-down, two-story house in a decrepit Puerto Rican neighborhood on Chicago’s north side, where Cisneros spent much of her childhood. This house, as well as the colorful group of characters Cisneros observed around her in the barrio, served as inspiration for some of the stories in The House on Mango Street.
The author once remarked, “Because we moved so much, and always in neighborhoods that appeared like France after World War II-empty lots and burned-out buildings-I retreated inside myself.” Cisneros was an introspective child with few friends; her mother encouraged her to read and write at a young age, and made sure her daughter had her own library card. The author wrote poems and stories as a schoolgirl, but the impetus for her career as a creative writer came during her college years, when she was introduced to the works of Donald Justice, James Wright, and other writers who made Cisneros more aware of her cultural roots.
Cisneros graduated from Loyola University in 1976 with a B.A. in English. She began to pursue graduate studies in writing at the University of Iowa, and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing in 1978. Cisneros says that through high school and college, she did not perceive herself as being different from her fellow English majors. She spoke Spanish only at home with her father, but otherwise wrote and studied within the mainstream of American literature. At the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Cisneros found her true voice as an author. Compared with her more privileged, wealthier classmates from more stable environments, Cisneros’s cultural difference as a Chicana became clear. Though at first she imitated the style and tone of acclaimed American authors, Cisneros came to realize that her experience as a Hispanic woman differed from that of her classmates and offered an opportunity to develop her own voice. Cisneros once remarked, “Everyone seemed to have some communal knowledge which I did not have-My classmates were from the best schools in the country. They had been bred as fine hothouse flowers. I was a yellow weed among the city’s cracks.” The author began to exploring her past experiences, which served as the inspiration of many of her stories and distinguished her from her peers. Her master’s thesis, My Wicked Wicked Ways (Iowa, 1978, published as a book in 1987) is a collection of poems that begins to explore daily experiences, encounters, and observations in this new-found voice.
Cisneros has held several fellowships that have allowed her to focus on her writing full-time. These awards have enabled her to travel to Europe and to other parts of the United States, including a stint in Austin, Texas, where she experienced another thriving community of Latin American culture. She has also taught creative writing and worked with students at the Latino Youth Alternative High School in Chicago.