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?
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.”
“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 other and riffed off each other there was Danny. He doesn’t get enough credit. He revitalized traditions like Day of the Dead, which now has become such a pura pachanga.”
Before she could continue, the young Latina from the nearby table approached us. “I’m so sorry to interrupt you,” she said, “but Ms. Cisneros, I just wanted to tell you how much I admire you.”
“Oh!” Cisneros beamed. “Well, make sure you tell him,” she said, gesturing to me. “He’s a journalist.” The woman smiled at me politely. “You did something for my parents,” she continued. “My family had a tortilla factory in Market Square. We had the gorditas. And you wrote the most beautiful article about us in the New York Times. We have it framed. And you know, I read that recent Current article about you, and it made me so upset. So I wanted to say thank you. It would be a shame if San Antonio lost you.”
The woman left, and Cisneros sat quietly for a moment, visibly moved by the encounter. I offered that this must happen a lot.
“In private,” she said. “But in public I feel underappreciated.”
The San Antonio Current story that the woman had referenced had been published in early 2012 at the end of a wave of Sandra-leaving-San Antonio stories. (For the record, she says that she is moving to Mexico and that she will keep her house, visit regularly, and return to San Antonio in one year, though it seems possible that she’ll move on after that.) News of her departure, which had first broken in November 2011, was initially greeted with lamentation. “Why does it feel like we just lost the Spurs?” a columnist for the Express-News bewailed. The Current countered with a gossipy story that challenged Cisneros’ status as a beloved local treasure by dragging forth two disgruntled former friends to air their complaints. The alternative weekly’s cover showed Cisneros under the line “So Long, La Sandra.” That was about the nicest part of it.
That Cisneros has made enemies was not news to her. “I offended a lot of people here,” she said, “but it was never intentional. Some of it is my way of talking. My mom’s family is from outside Guanajuato, and they were gente campesina. We’re very direct, very working-class. I had to learn how to be polite as an adult when I realized I was offending people.” Nonetheless, the Current story seemed to be emblematic of a kind of local meanness that clearly pained her. She called it “getting a pie in your face every time you go out.”
“Let’s return to the late eighties and early nineties, as this community of artists was coming together,” I suggested. “What was it like?” “It was magical. We felt like the whole world should be jealous of us. There was no need to go to Venice. You’d just go to Liberty Bar. Man, that was happiness. Every day was like live theater; you never knew what was going to happen. I used to tell people, ‘Liberty: it’s not just the name of the bar.’ Fun and fury and fights and creativity and the most intelligent humor. It was brilliant. People would come from out of town and say, ‘Wow!’ ”
“What about San Antonio today, twenty-five years later?”
“What happened is a lot of people with money moved here. And people with money are intolerant. So in King William, we’ve started to lose something beautiful.”
This called to mind a passage I’d read in Have You Seen Marie? It’s an unusual book for a writer whose work has been at turns bawdy, avant-garde, and politically trenchant. Entirely autobiographical, Marie is a short, illustrated story with a childlike tone about Cisneros searching the streets of King William for a friend’s lost cat while mourning the loss of her mother, who died in 2010. I read Cisneros the passage I’d thought of: “ ‘King William has the off-beat beauty of a rasquache, and this is what’s uniquely gorgeous about San Antonio as a whole.’ ”
She smiled. “Rasquache is when you make or repair things with whatever you have at hand. You don’t go to Home Depot. If you have a hole in your roof, you put a hubcap on there. Or you fix your fence with some rope. That’s rasquache. And then there’s ‘high rasquache,’ which is a term the art critic Tomás Ybarra-Frausto coined. He lives here. Danny Lozano knew high rasquache. He’d serve you Church’s fried chicken on beautiful porcelain and use Lalique crystal for flowers he’d cut from an empty lot.”
“And that was one of the qualities that drew you to King William?”
“Not just King William but San Antonio. A kind of elegance of found things. San Antonio has that soul. It’s not, ‘We gotta copy what we saw in New York.’ No! It’s going to come out of our own idea of what we think is beautiful.” She stared at me as if to make sure I understood. “But that’s also what’s getting lost. People feel like the city’s got to look like someplace else. Our mayor needs a stylist. He thinks he has to dress like a Republican. Pues, he’s Chicano! He’s got this gorgeous indigenous look, and he would look so cool if Agosto Cuellar, one of our local designers, dressed him, or someone like Franco, or Danny, or John Phillip Santos—he dresses totally San Antonio cool. He should do a style column for Texas Monthly.”
I allowed that Santos, who is a regular contributor to this magazine, does have singular style (the last time I saw him, in December, he was wearing a horsehair charro tie and ringneck python boots) but joked that there might be a preponderance of leather pants in his fashion advice. Cisneros waved the joke aside.
“Our problem is that we can’t recognize or celebrate what we have. We have this inferiority complex in Texas that we have to look elsewhere. Well, who knows more about inferiority than Chicanos? We grew up being ashamed because the history that is taught to us makes us ashamed. The whole colonial experience surrounding the Alamo is meant to make you feel ashamed.”
I asked her about the infamous incident involving the color of her house. In 1997 she wanted to paint her Victorian cottage on East Guenther Street a bright shade of purple, a color the city ruled out of bounds for the historic district. She had gone ahead and painted it anyway, and a massive furor erupted.
“I did it because I love Mexico and the light here is Mexican. And so I thought everybody would love it. But I got crucified. People thought I was flaunting some power I didn’t even know I had. I love Mexico and I thought this was a place that would embrace everything Mexican. But that’s not true. San Antonio looks like Mexico, but it’s ashamed of being Mexican.”
“You don’t think that’s changing?”
I told her that one of the things Mondini-Ruiz had said, emphatically, was that Cisneros had helped his generation reclaim its Mexican identity and wear it proudly.
She shrugged. But the mention of her old friend gave her an idea. “Have you been to his house?” she asked. “We call it the Versailles of the West Side.” I told her I had not. “We must go!” she said, whipping out her phone and dialing his number. Within a few minutes we were in my truck, bouncing over the bridge to the West Side and heading down Commerce Street, pointing out examples of rasquache, of which there were many. Soon we arrived at Mondini-Ruiz’s house, which was itself a perfect embodiment of the concept. At the end of a modest cul-de-sac, behind a phalanx of tiki torches, he has transformed an old family bungalow into a sprawling complex of living and work spaces that resembles nothing so much as the interior of his own frenzied and creative mind.
“This is my house!” he shouted with glee, as we entered a dark front hall crammed with art. “There is a constant dialogue of objects in here,” he said. He began moving so quickly I could barely keep up. “This is my piñata museum. This is something Sandra bought for me twenty years ago. I bought this in Laredo.” He turned at the door to the kitchen. “It’s the Virgen de Guadalupe day. We must have champagne. Don’t say no!”
Outside, workers buzzed everywhere, hammering and sawing, building art and sculpture or simply maintaining the grounds. Peacocks wandered around and birdsong from the aviary mixed with the sounds of Mexican music. We inspected a large gazebo-like structure made of salvaged wood and masonry from old buildings by the Texas architect O’Neil Ford. Mondini-Ruiz, who is known for giving his pieces whimsical titles, had named it Another Mexican With an Old Ford in His Yard.
We spent the next hour or so wandering through his world, finally arriving at the top of a circular iron staircase, on a kind of sleeping porch. He and Cisneros threw themselves on the bed and fell to reminiscing.
“The world was our cupcake,” she said. “Life was so glamorous.”
“It really was,” Mondini-Ruiz sighed. “Even the skeptics of the time are saying now that that was a golden age. Like Dwight [Hobart, owner of Liberty Bar]. Remember how Dwight just rolled his eyes at us, threw me out of the restaurant when I said, ‘Sandra Cisneros deserves tablecloths!’ ” I laughed. “What? It was a snub! She had just won the MacArthur grant!” They both sat up a little bit and began talking animatedly over each other.
“Franco taught me how to live high rasquache,” she said.
“And an older gay generation taught me. My dad was an immigrant, my mom was working-class. They were scared, they were strict, and I really didn’t know you were allowed to enjoy your life until I was about twenty-seven. And then . . .”
“Franco used to dare everyone to flash their tits at passing cars.”
“I had all this pent-up happiness. You know, you asked what is going to happen next? Well, my fantasy would be that more artists would prosper and we’d find each other and regroup and give San Antonio a chance again. This is a baroque city, as opposed to Dallas or Houston. It’s seventeenth century. And it’s very polite, very self-congratulatory.”
“Franco once said it’s like Gilligan’s Island.”
“Yeah, like, you know, ‘Mary Ann’s performing tonight!’ ”
“But you know, one of the things that gives San Antonio soul that Austin doesn’t have is la gente mas humilde de San Antonio.”
“Yes! And it’s like Nights of Cabiria: just when I’m about to give up, something magical happens. Just when you think it’s the most unsophisticated place, you go get tacos and you see a working-class Mexican family with their drag queen son with them. And it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s cosmopolitan!’ ”
The sun was getting lower in the sky, and Cisneros and I began to leave, a process that took an hour or so and involved more champagne and an abbreviated drag performance by Mondini-Ruiz. “Goodbye, my love!” he shouted to Cisneros as we climbed into the truck.
She was quiet on the way back, happy, it seemed, to have drifted into the dreamtime of days gone by. She suggested we drive along the route she used to take home from her job at the Guadalupe, on her bike. We turned up South Frio and cut under the interstate on El Paso and crossed the river on Arsenal over a beautiful iron bridge.
“This is one of my favorite spots in San Antonio,” she said. “When I hated my job and felt like crying every day, I used to go down under this bridge and just get nourished by these trees.” She pointed upstream. “Look at that postcard view of town.” We began rolling through the wide streets of King William. “I lived all over this neighborhood, in apartments on Madison and on Adams and on Mission. Cheap apartments. And I really enjoyed this neighborhood. Make a right up here.” We turned a corner and stopped in front of a yellow Victorian. “My last apartment before I bought my house was behind this house. And next door was Danny Lozano.” We passed Liberty Bar, crossed Alamo, and headed down Adams. She pointed out another landmark. “I lived here when I wrote Woman Hollering Creek. I never believed that I would be able to own a house. So I have great gratitude for San Antonio for allowing me to dream beyond my dreams and buy a house. Because I didn’t just buy a house. I bought a house.” We came to the T where Barbe hits Guenther. Directly ahead of us was a light pink Victorian (she repainted it in 2001) with a charming yard of plants and sculpture. The tin roof shone in the late afternoon sun. She smiled. “And there it is.”