The Purple Passion of Sandra Cisneros

Did San Antonio’s leading Latina writer repaint her historic home to honor her heritage—or was it just a color scheme?

October 1997By Comments

AUGUST IS A TIME WHEN SAN ANTONIO likes to take the month off. But not this year. All through the desultory dog days, this normally sun-sedated city, so proud and protective of its image of bicultural harmony, suddenly found itself split along, of all things, color lines. Not black and white, or even brown and white, as one might expect in a city where the Anglo population is a minority. No, the color causing such consternation was a vivid, intense, in-your-face shade of purple, which appeared in late May on a house in the oh-so-dignified King William Historic District, on the southern edge of downtown. It wasn’t just the location of the house that made the color so controversial; it was also the owner. The Victorian cottage on East Guenther Street belonged to acclaimed Latina writer Sandra Cisneros, and her choice of color was, depending on your point of view, either a cultural declaration or a political provocation, maybe both.

Only in San Antonio could a purple house cause such a fuss. Symbolism matters here; after all, this is a city that was built around the Alamo, one of the most powerful symbols in the world. Inevitably, the purple house became a battleground too. The letters column of the San Antonio Express-News was full of little else. The argument transcended the indisputable fact that Cisneros’ chosen color violated the city’s rules for repainting homes in a historic district. This did not prevent Cisneros from branding the San Antonio Historic Design and Review Commission, which is charged with protecting the district’s authenticity, as narrow-minded and ethnically exclusionary. Never mind that just two years ago the board had come under fire for allowing the city’s new postmodern library to be painted an exotic shade known locally as enchilada red. Nor did it stop her retinue of ardent feminists, gays, artists, writers, and adoring fans—who came to be known as Sandranistas—from lauding her as a Latina Joan of Arc, a rebel with a cause. Others, just as ardently, called her a narcissist, a grandstanding publicity seeker, and an arbiter of bad taste. Still other observers merely pleaded for the purple plague to be over, to no avail.

Cisneros could not have picked a better place than King William to launch her cultural attack. Just a half mile down the San Antonio River from the Alamo, the venerable neighborhood was built by wealthy German merchants at the turn of the century. The late legendary architect O’Neil Ford called it a “museum of homes,” and in 1967 it became the first Texas neighborhood to be declared a national historic district. Today it is renowned for its Old World charm, its stunning mix of nineteenth- and twentieth-century architectural styles, and its equally stunning stew of local personalities—prominent professionals, artists, eccentrics, wannabes, and preservationists. Among its residents are HEB honcho Charles Butt and high-profile criminal defense lawyer Gerry Goldstein. Shaded by ancient cypress, oak, and pecan trees, this elite enclave is as different from the barrio setting and characters that Sandra Cisneros writes about as can be imagined.

A passage in her best-known work, The House on Mango Street, is eerily prescient about the events of this summer: “People who live on hills sleep so close to the stars they forget those of us who live too much on earth. …  They have nothing to do with last week’s garbage or fear of rats. Night comes. Nothing wakes them but the wind. One day I’ll own my own house, but I won’t forget who I am or where I came from.”

Cisneros, who is 42, grew up poor in the barrios of Chicago, the only daughter among seven children of a Mexican father and a Mexican American mother. She taught high school dropouts in Chicago, but she found the city cold in every way. Eventually she began spending more and more time in “San Antonio, Tejas,” as she calls it. In 1984 The House on Mango Street was published by Arte Público Press, a Houston-based press devoted to the work of Hispanic writers. Just 110 pages long, it consists of 44 vignettes told by a young girl of the barrio. The writing is spare and simple, and characters by the dozens appear and disappear without much development. The sum is greater than the parts, though, and the triumph of the book is its ability to evoke a sense of place, with regard to the barrio, that no writer had successfully captured before. Mango Street has sold more than half a million copies and is now part of the standard curriculum at institutions from middle schools to Yale and Stanford universities.

For the most part, the Anglo world remains in the background of Mango Street. The villains are not Anglos but Latino men. From the dedication (“A las Mujeres, “To the Women”) to the author’s biography (“she is nobody’s mother and nobody’s wife”), Mango Street is as much a feminist’s work as a Latina’s. Her male characters abandon their families, beat their wives and daughters, and make young girls feel ugly. One of the last vignettes, “A House of My Own,” is another portent of things to come. “Not a flat,” her main character says. “Not an apartment in back. Not a man’s house. Not a daddy’s. A house all my own. With my porch and my pillow, my pretty purple petunias.”

Her second major work, a collection of short stories called Woman Hollering Creek, was published by Random House in 1991, making her one of the few Mexican American writers to win acceptance by a mainstream publisher. She has also published volumes of flagrantly erotic poetry. But what propelled her to national fame was a $255,000 “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation in 1995. Once too poor to “buy a lightbulb,” Cisneros now commands $10,000 on the lecture circuit.

All of this has made the cigar-smoking author the most celebrated Hispanic figure around town since that other Cisneros (who is no relation) fell victim to the weaknesses of the flesh. Though she professes her love for San Antonio, she does not shrink from taking or giving offense. Of her new home state, she has said, “Texas still doesn’t recognize Chicana literature as Texas literature.” People are still talking about the time she was invited to read her work at an event celebrating the opening of the new San Antonio library and used the occasion to criticize its Hispanic literature collection and denigrate the work of another invited author. She once told a local reporter that her breakthrough book contract was her “green card” that might finally get her a teaching job in her adopted hometown.

Hoping to put the issue of Cisneros’ house to rest for good, her hometown’s historic review board met on August 6. Five TV crews showed up, as did reporters from papers in Houston and Los Angeles. Most of Cisneros’ supporters came festively attired in purple. But Cisneros herself was dressed in a telegenic Tex-Mex costume consisting of a short ruby-red dress, a lime-green shawl, and cowboy boots. The board wanted to know why she hadn’t obeyed its previous decision that the color was “too vivid and modern” for its geographic and historical context. She answered that she thought that getting written permission from her immediate neighbors was all she needed. Her contractor, she said, had failed to make it clear that that wouldn’t suffice. (Robert Louis Alvarado, the contractor, was living in another town at the time, but a few weeks later, he ran into Cisneros and her friend Terry Ybáñez, the Latina artist who came up with the color, at a party. “I was talking to Terry, and Sandra was listening to our conversation,” Alvarado told me. “When the subject of the color scheme came up, I said, ‘You know I wanted Sandra to submit other color schemes.’ And Terry said, ‘That’s right. I’m the one who said, “Screw ’em! Go ahead and paint your house any color you want to.”’”)

Cisneros had sent a long and eloquent research paper to the board in which she made her case for using the brighter colors of the border (which is 150 miles away) in this mostly Germanic neighborhood. But the board’s conditions for altering the color of a home’s exterior are clear. You may use any color that (1) at one time graced the home; (2) appeared on at least one other home in the historic district; or (3) can be shown to have been in general use during the era of construction of the historic district. Board member Ron Gossen pointed out that Cisneros had been unable to find a single reference to a purple house anywhere in this area. As for the neon-bright Corsican Purple paint that Cisneros used on her home, it didn’t even exist until Sherwin-Williams created it twenty years ago.

Cisneros tried to turn the lack of evidence against the board. She railed against San Antonio’s failure to keep adequate records of the shanties and tract houses of the poor. “We are a people sin papeles [‘without papers’]!” she said. “We don’t exist. This isn’t about my little purple house. It’s about the entire Tejano community.” The board was unmoved. “It sounds to me,” said Gossen, “that your only real argument for painting your house purple is that you want it to be purple.”

“Okay then,” Cisneros came back. “If my house can’t be purple, can I paint it another traditional Tejano color? Like the bright pink house at 312 Madison Street?”

Gossen looked at a fellow board member, who nodded. “Yes,” he told Cisneros. “You can.”

She looked startled, as if she were not prepared to dismount her soapbox so soon. “Okay,” she answered in a tiny voice.

She paused and, summoning up her combativeness, said, “But I won’t be happy until the board expands its vision to include the history and the color palette of the Tejano people. My battle won’t end until that happens.”

Less than three weeks later, however, Cisneros seemed to be seeing purple more than thinking pink. On a sweltering morning, the local media and a CNN news crew had converged on her home as if a hostage were being held inside. Seated on her lawn in a purple chair, Cisneros was dressed in a long purple dress and a purple shawl, and her pet pooch sat beside her in a purple bandanna. Just before the cameras started rolling, a Greyhound tour bus rolled up, and its driver bounded out, just inches from a “We Love Trolleys” sign. The sign, a nose-thumbing gesture to Cisneros’ many neighbors who are up in arms about the sight-seeing trolleys that come through King William, as well as about her purple house, was painted by Terry Ybáñez. “My tourists all think your house is great!” the driver assured Cisneros. Could they hop out and take some pictures? The proud owner beamed. “Of course, if you’ll all take one of these petitions”—she pointed to a ream of purple pages on a clipboard affixed to her gate—“and mail them to the mayor.” The petitions were dutifully passed out. “It’s not about my house,” she shouted. “It’s about history!”

The cameras started rolling in earnest when CNN correspondent Maria Hinojosa began asking questions. This was not exactly a hardball interview. Hinojosa didn’t ask why someone renowned for chronicling life in the barrio, a champion of her fellow Tejanos, chose instead to live in King William. Regrettably, I was not allowed to ask this or any other questions. On the morning I was supposed to talk with her, Cisneros had her New York agent call me to cancel the interview, explaining that her client’s principles precluded her from cooperating with a magazine that printed so few works by Hispanic writers. (In 1995 she agreed to be interviewed for a profile in this magazine only if she could handpick a Latina author to do the story. When that condition was not agreed to, the article went unwritten.) So I stood in the homicidally hot sun, kept at bay by Spanish dagger plants and prickly pear, and thought of other questions that were going unasked. Wasn’t Cisneros aware that when you choose to live in a historic district, there are rules that you have to abide by? Don’t residents agree to give up a smidgen of individual rights for the greater good of preserving their area’s charm and character—to say nothing of some of the highest property values in San Antonio?

Ten days after the CNN photo op, Cisneros arrived at a meeting where she was scheduled to present her new pink color scheme. She was “uncooperative,” in the view of Ann McGlone, who is on the staff of the city’s Office of Historic Preservation. Cisneros came with two male allies, but without her new palette, and tape-recorded the proceedings. One of the men with her again charged the board with ethnically biased color suppression, and she rejected the alternate colors offered by McGlone as too bland. So at press time, the house remained as resolutely purple as ever, rivaled in brightness only by the blazing South Texas sun.

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