Straw Into Gold: The Metamorphosis of the Everyday
When I was living in an artistsí 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 didnít 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 Iíd never made a tortilla in my life.
Itís true I had witnessed my mother rolling the little armies of dough into perfect circles, but my motherís family is from Guanajuato; they are provincianos, country folk. They only know how to make flour tortillas. My fatherís family, on the other hand, is chilango from Mexico City. We ate corn tortillas but we didnít make them. Someone was sent to the corner tortilleria to buy some. Iíd 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. AsŪ como sea. Any olí 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 examóthe 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 tortillasóor writing a critical paper, for that matterówere tasks so impossible I wanted to break down into tears.
Somehow though, I managed to make tortillasócrooked and burnt, but edible nonetheless. My hosts were absolutely ignorant when it came to Mexican food; they thought my tortillas were delicious. (Iím glad my mama wasnít 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.
Iíve managed to do a lot of things in my life I didnít think I was capable of and which many others didnít 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 wouldíve liked to have seen me married long ago. In our culture men and women donít leave their fatherís house except by way of marriage. I crossed my fatherís 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 didnít 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 soapsóespecially if they deal with children who have forsaken their parents.)
My mother was born like meóin 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 grandparentsí 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 wouldíve guessed it? I wasnít a very bright student. I didnít 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 Cís and Dís, but I donít 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 Iím thirty-two on the outside, but inside Iím eleven. Iím the girl in the picture with skinny arms and a crumpled skirt and crooked hair. I didnít 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 didnít 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 didnít 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 didnít have to change schools and be the new kids on the block every couple of years. We could make friends and not be afraid weíd 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 storiesóLouie 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 gardenóto 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 couldnít 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 childís eyes.
Iíve done all kinds of things I didnít think I could do since then. Iíve gone to a prestigious university, studied with famous writers, and taken an MFA degree. Iíve taught poetry in schools in Illinois and Texas. Iíve gotten an NEA grant and run away with it as far as my courage would take me. Iíve seen the bleached and bitter mountains of the Peloponnesus. Iíve lived on an island. Iíve been to Venice twice. Iíve lived in Yugoslavia. Iíve been to the famous Nice flower market behind the opera house. Iíve lived in a village in the pre-Alps and witnessed the daily parade of promenaders.
Iíve 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 polŪticos.
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 Woolworthís counter across the street from the Alamo (the Woolworthís which has since been torn down to make way for progress), I couldnít think of anything else Iíd rather be than a writer. Iíve 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.
Straw Into Gold
1. What do you still want to know about Cisneros after reading this essay?
2. How would you interpret the essayís subtitle, ďThe Metamorphosis of the EverydayĒ?
3. It is characteristic of most American writers that they turn to their childhoods for subject matter. How do you explain Cisnerosís interest in her childhood experiences?
4. Describe the tone of Cisnerosís essay. Do you think it is appropriate for the subject matter?
5. Describe in your own words the kind of writer that Cisneros believes she has become. What qualities as a writer has she developed from the raw material of her personal experience?
6. What do you think Cisneros means when she says she found herself ďdocumenting the women who sat their sadness on an elbow and stared out a windowĒ (page 5 of the essay)?
7. Identify some fresh images and figures of speech in the essay that reveal Cisneros as an accomplished writer. How would you describe her style?
8. The title of the essay includes an allusion to the folk tale about Rumpelstiltskin. In the essay itself, how does Cisneros use that magical story as a metaphor for her writing? What do you think of the metaphor?
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