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?

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

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