Straw Into Gold: The Metamorphosis of the Everyday

Sandra Cisneros

When I was living in an artists’ colony in the south of France, some fellow Latin-Americans who taught at the university in Aix-en-Provence invited me to share a home-cooked meal with them. I had been living abroad almost a year then on an NEA grant, subsisting mainly on French bread and lentils so that my money could last longer. So when the invitation to dinner arrived, I accepted without hesitation. Especially since they had promised Mexican food.

What I didn’t realize when they made this invitation was that I was supposed to be involved in preparing the meal. I guess they assumed I knew how to cook Mexican food because I am Mexican. They wanted specifically tortillas, though I’d never made a tortilla in my life.

It’s true I had witnessed my mother rolling the little armies of dough into perfect circles, but my mother’s family is from Guanajuato; they are provincianos, country folk. They only know how to make flour tortillas. My father’s family, on the other hand, is chilango from Mexico City. We ate corn tortillas but we didn’t make them. Someone was sent to the corner tortilleria to buy some. I’d never seen anybody make corn tortillas. Ever.

Somehow my Latino hosts had gotten a hold of a packet of corn flour, and this is what they tossed my way with orders to produce tortillas. Así como sea. Any ol’ way, they said and went back to their cooking.

Why did I feel like the woman in the fairy tale who was locked in a room and ordered to spin straw into gold? I had the same sick feeling when I was required to write my critical essay for the MFA exam—the only piece of noncreative writing necessary in order to get my graduate degree. How was I to start? There were rules involved here, unlike writing a poem or story, which I did intuitively. There was a step by step process needed and I had better know it. I felt as if making tortillas—or writing a critical paper, for that matter—were tasks so impossible I wanted to break down into tears.

Somehow though, I managed to make tortillas—crooked and burnt, but edible nonetheless. My hosts were absolutely ignorant when it came to Mexican food; they thought my tortillas were delicious. (I’m glad my mama wasn’t there.) Thinking back and looking at an old photograph documenting the three of us consuming those lopsided circles I am amazed. Just as I am amazed I could finish my MFA exam.

I’ve managed to do a lot of things in my life I didn’t think I was capable of and which many others didn’t think I was capable of either. Especially because I am a woman, a Latina, an only daughter in a family of six men. My father would’ve liked to have seen me married long ago. In our culture men and women don’t leave their father’s house except by way of marriage. I crossed my father’s threshold with nothing carrying me but my own two feet. A woman whom no one came for and no one chased away.

To make matters worse, I left before any of my six brothers had ventured away from home. I broke a terrible taboo. Somehow, looking back at photos of myself as a child, I wonder if I was aware of having begun already my own quiet war.

I like to think that somehow my family, my Mexicanness, my poverty, all had something to do with shaping me into a writer. I like to think my parents were preparing me all along for my life as an artist even though they didn’t know it. From my father I inherited a love of wandering. He was born in Mexico City but as a young man he traveled into the U.S. vagabonding. He eventually was drafted and thus became a citizen. Some of the stories he has told about his first months in the U.S. with little or no English surface in my stories in The House on Mango Street as well as others I have in mind to write in the future. From him I inherited a sappy heart. (He still cries when he watches Mexican soaps—especially if they deal with children who have forsaken their parents.)
My mother was born like me—in Chicago but of Mexican descent. It would be her tough street-wise voice that would haunt all my stories and poems. An amazing woman who loves to draw and read books and can sing an opera. A smart cookie.

When I was a little girl we traveled to Mexico City so much I thought my grandparents’ house on La Fortuna, number 12, was home. It was the only constant in our nomadic ramblings from one Chicago flat to another. The house on Destiny Street, number 12, in the colonia Tepeyac would be perhaps the only home I knew, and that nostalgia for a home would be a theme that would obsess me.

My brothers also figured greatly in my art. Especially the older two; I grew up in their shadows. Henry, the second oldest and my favorite, appears often in poems I have written and in stories which at times only borrow his nickname, Kiki. He played a major role in my childhood. We were bunk-bed mates. We were co-conspirators. We were pals. Until my oldest brother came back from studying in Mexico and left me odd woman out for always.

What would my teachers say if they knew I was a writer now? Who would’ve guessed it? I wasn’t a very bright student. I didn’t much like school because we moved so much and I was always new and funny looking. In my fifth-grade report card I have nothing but an avalanche of C’s and D’s, but I don’t remember being that stupid. I was good at art and I read plenty of library books and Kiki laughed at all my jokes. At home I was fine, but at school I never opened my mouth except when the teacher called on me.

When I think of how I see myself it would have to be at age eleven. I know I’m thirty-two on the outside, but inside I’m eleven. I’m the girl in the picture with skinny arms and a crumpled skirt and crooked hair. I didn’t like school because all they saw was the outside me. School was lots of rules and sitting with your hands folded and being very afraid all the time. I liked looking out the window and thinking. I liked staring at the girl across the way writing her name over and over again in red ink. I wondered why the boy with the dirty collar in front of me didn’t have a mama who took better care of him.

I think my mama and papa did the best they could to keep us warm and clean and never hungry. We had birthday and graduation parties and things like that, but there was another hunger that had to be fed. There was a hunger I didn’t even have a name for. Was this when I began writing?
In 1966 we moved into a house, a real one, our first real home. This meant we didn’t have to change schools and be the new kids on the block every couple of years. We could make friends and not be afraid we’d have to say goodbye to them and start all over. My brothers and the flock of boys they brought home would become important characters eventually for my stories—Louie and his cousins, Meme Ortiz and his dog with two names, one in English and one in Spanish.
My mother flourished in her own home. She took books out of the library and taught herself to garden—to grow flowers so envied we had to put a lock on the gate to keep out the midnight flower thieves. My mother has never quit gardening.

This was the period in my life, that slippery age when you are both child and woman and neither, I was to record in The House on Mango Street. I was still shy. I was a girl who couldn’t come out of her shell.

How was I to know I would be recording and documenting the women who sat their sadness on an elbow and stared out a window? It would be the city streets of Chicago I would later record, as seen through a child’s eyes.

I’ve done all kinds of things I didn’t think I could do since then. I’ve gone to a prestigious university, studied with famous writers, and taken an MFA degree. I’ve taught poetry in schools in Illinois and Texas. I’ve gotten an NEA grant and run away with it as far as my courage would take me. I’ve seen the bleached and bitter mountains of the Peloponnesus. I’ve lived on an island. I’ve been to Venice twice. I’ve lived in Yugoslavia. I’ve been to the famous Nice flower market behind the opera house. I’ve lived in a village in the pre-Alps and witnessed the daily parade of promenaders.

I’ve moved since Europe to the strange and wonderful country of Texas, land of polaroid-blue skies and big bugs. I met a mayor with my last name. I met famous Chicana and Chicano artists and writers and políticos.

Texas is another chapter in my life. It brought with it the Dobie-Paisano Fellowship, a six-month residency on a 265-acre ranch. But most important, Texas brought Mexico back to me.

In the days when I would sit at my favorite people-watching spot, the snakey Woolworth’s counter across the street from the Alamo (the Woolworth’s which has since been torn down to make way for progress), I couldn’t think of anything else I’d rather be than a writer. I’ve traveled and lectured from Cape Cod to San Francisco, to Spain, Yugoslavia, Greece, Mexico, France, Italy, and now today to Texas. Along the way there has been straw for the taking. With a little imagination, it can be spun into gold.


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