The Artist and the City

For thirty years, when she wasn’t writing books or winning genius grants, Sandra Cisneros has been pushing and prodding San Antonio to become a more sophisticated (and more Mexican) city. Now she’s leaving town. did she succeed?
Jeff Wilson

This winter, I met Sandra Cisneros for lunch at Liberty Bar, the new Liberty Bar, which moved in 2010 to the King William District after 25 years in a ramshackle building near the Pearl Brewery. The new Liberty has yet to acquire the ambience of the old one, which made it an appropriate setting for a conversation about, among other things, how San Antonio has changed since Cisneros first moved here, in 1984. Back then she had just published The House on Mango Street , a book that would fundamentally alter the course of American fiction by knocking down doors for Latino writers. A Chicago native, she moved to the city for a job as the literature director of the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center, a job that, for various reasons, would not hold her for long. The city itself was a different story. Though she has had a sometimes contentious relationship with the place, it has been her home ever since. During that time Cisneros won a MacArthur Fellowship (or “genius grant”), founded the internationally renowned Macondo Writing Workshop, and emerged as perhaps the most significant Chicano writer in the country. This month, after nearly thirty years, she is leaving San Antonio.

I arrived early and sat waiting for her, listening as the hum of English and Spanish grew louder in the dining room. She arrived wearing a blousy white dress with Mexican embroidery and carrying a small briefcase, looking remarkably fresh after a twenty-city, months-long tour to promote her newest book, Have You Seen Marie? On the way across the room, she stopped to talk to state representative Mike Villarreal, who was having lunch with a local blogger. At a table near ours, a young Latina in business attire chatted with an older Anglo man. From time to time she eyed Cisneros.

“I had no idea what San Antonio was about when I came here,” Cisneros told me, after I’d asked her about her early days in the city. “I knew it took two days to drive across Texas and there were bugs on the windshield and it was hot. The first place they took me was the Alamo. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do with it. So I touched it. Later on when I brought my brother to the Alamo, he took out his charge card and said, ‘You’re supposed to charge the Alamo.’ ”

Cisneros has a disarmingly high voice and an extremely intent manner, even when ordering food. She opens her eyes wide and looks directly at whoever is talking to her, her face a mix of innocence and seriousness. She is likably hyperbolic. In 1984, she said, she was the only human being in San Antonio riding a bike. “I would wear a headset, and I would listen to Cyndi Lauper singing ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun,’ and I would cry as I was riding to work at the Guadalupe,” she said. It was a hard job.

“What were you trying to accomplish there?” I asked.

“I had a dream to create an alternative to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I had gone to graduate school. [Poet] Gary Soto was my first publisher, and we would always have this fight. He thought there was a lot of bad Chicano writing, and I would say, ‘I don’t think it’s bad, I think it’s unfinished. We don’t have a place where people can critique each other.’ And I had an idea that I could do that at the Guadalupe, but it didn’t turn out that way.”

“Why not?”

“I was at a stage in my life where if you said don’t do something, then that’s what I was going to do. A lot of people saw me as the enemy or the usurper, which I can understand because Tejanos have a history of everything that they’ve fought for being taken away. So there was this xenophobia of my coming in from outside. San Antonio is a tribal town. The first question anyone asks you here is ‘What high school did you go to?’ I’ve never lived anywhere where people ask you that. It means that they’re trying to figure out where you’re from economically. I lived in a little garage apartment in King William, and people would say, ‘Oh, she doesn’t deserve to be director of the Guadalupe if she doesn’t live on the West Side.’ Well, I grew up on the West Side, my West Side, in Chicago. People who have lived in a neighborhood like that don’t want to go back. Except maybe Henry Cisneros.” (The former mayor is no relation.)

Our food arrived and she thanked the waiter warmly. As we ate, I mentioned that I had spoken the previous day to Franco Mondini-Ruiz, an artist and close friend of hers, who had suggested that the group Cisneros fit into most easily was the gay community, a process he’d described as “the queen bee finding her drones.”

“Oh, yes,” she laughed. “The people who welcomed me in were the gays. Especially the Latino gays. They took me in because they were like me—we both embraced our Latino roots but we had to revise that heritage because otherwise it would kill us. So we were very in love with an invented Mexico. We couldn’t embrace it as it exists without some revision for our own survival. Did you ever see the movie Paris Is Burning ?”

“The one about drag queens?”

“That was a very relevant film. There were ‘houses’ in that movie: the House of Chanel, the House of Whatever. In San Antonio you have houses too. I belong to the House of Guadalupe. Tienda Guadalupe was a little Mexican folk art store run by Danny Lopez Lozano that became a literary and artistic salon for a lot of the bohemios, the hipsters. Danny was a Tejano gay man who, like all of us, was enamored of an invented Mexico. He was our mother. Before all of us met each

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