Reflected on her childhood when she was asked to write contributor’s note for an anthology.
Readers of Latina: Women’s Voices from the Borderlands. Readers with similar experiences as Cisneros.
PURPOSE: to show that the struggles of being an only daughter and her background as a Mexican American shaped how she became a writer.
SUBJECT: Being an only daughter in a home of many sons and seeking approval from her father.
TONE: determined and melancholy
from Latina: Women's Voices From the Borderlands. Edited by Lillian Castillo-Speed. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1995.
Once, several years ago, when I was just starting out my writing career, I was asked to write my own contributor’s note for an anthology1 I was part of. I wrote: “I am the only daughter in a family of six sons. That explains everything.”
Well, I’ve thought about that ever since, and yes, it explains a lot to me, but for the reader’s sake I should have written: “I am the only daughter in a Mexican family of six sons.” Or even: “I am the only daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican-American mother.” Or: “I am the only daughter of a working-class family of nine.” All of these had everything to do with who I am today.
I was/am the only daughter and only a daughter. Being an only daughter in a family of six sons forced me by circumstance to spend a lot of time by myself because my brothers felt it beneath them to play with a girl in public. But that aloneness, that loneliness, was good for a would-be writer— it allowed me time to think and think, to imagine, to read and prepare myself.
Being only a daughter for my father meant my destiny would lead me to become someone’s wife. That’s what he believed. But when I was in the fifth grade and shared my plans for college with him, I was sure he understood. I remember my father saying, “Que bueno, mi’ha, that’s good.” That meant a lot to me, especially since my brothers thought the idea hilarious. What I didn’t realize was that my father thought college was good for girls—good for finding a husband. After four years in college and two more in graduate school, and still no husband, my father shakes his head even now and says I wasted all that education.
In retrospect2, I’m lucky my father believed daughters were meant for husbands.
It meant it didn’t matter if I majored in something silly like English. After all, I’d find a nice professional eventually, right? This allowed me the liberty to putter about embroidering3 my little poems and stories without my father interrupting with so much as a “What’s that you’re writing?”
But the truth is, I wanted him to interrupt. I wanted my father to understand what it was I was scribbling, to introduce me as “My only daughter, the writer.” Not as “This is only my daughter. She teaches.” Es maestra— teacher. Not even profesora.
In a sense, everything I have ever written has been for him, to win his approval even though I know my father can’t read English words, even though my father’s only reading includes the brown-ink Estosports magazines from Mexico City and the bloody ¡Alarma! magazines that feature yet another sighting of La Virgen de Guadalupeon a tortilla or a wife’s revenge on her philandering husband by bashing his skull in with a molcajete (a kitchen mortar4 made of volcanic rock). Or the fotonovelas, the little picture paperbacks with tragedy and trauma erupting from the characters’ mouths in bubbles.
PERSONIFICATION: The house is being personified as throbbing to show that it was very busy and packed inside.
PERSONFICATION: The tamales are personified as hissing to show that the tamales are very hot. Allusion: Her family is being compared to a Fellini film to show how loud and busy it was. Allusion:
The allusion to Pedro Infante shows her father’s Mexican culture
y father represents, then, the public majority. A public who is disinterested in reading, and yet one whom I am writing about and for, and privately trying to woo5.
When we were growing up in Chicago, we moved a lot because of my father. He suffered bouts of nostalgia6. Then we’d have to let go of our flat7, store the furniture with mother’s relatives, load the station wagon with baggage and bologna sandwiches and head south. To Mexico City.
We came back, of course. To yet another Chicago flat, another Chicago neighborhood, another Catholic school. Each time, my father would seek out the parish priest in order to get a tuition break8, and complain or boast: “I have seven sons.”
He meant siete hijos, seven children, but he translated it as “sons.” “I have seven sons.” To anyone who would listen. The Sears Roebuck employee who sold us the washing machine. The short-order cook where my father ate his ham-and-eggs breakfasts. “I have seven sons.” As if he deserved a medal from the state.
My papa. He didn’t mean anything by that mistranslation, I’m sure. But somehow I could feel myself being erased. I’d tug my father’s sleeve and whisper: “Not seven sons. Six! and one daughter.”
When my oldest brother graduated from medical school, he fulfilled my father’s dream that we study hard and use this—our heads, instead of this—our hands. Even now my father’s hands are thick and yellow, stubbed by a history of hammer and nails and twine and coils9 and springs. “Use this,” my father said, tapping his head, “and not this,” showing us those hands. He always looked tired when he said it.
Wasn’t college an investment? And hadn’t I spent all those years in college? And if I didn’t marry, what was it all for? Why would anyone go to college and then choose to be poor? Especially someone who had always been poor.
Last year, after ten years of writing professionally, the financial rewards10 started to trickle in. My second National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. A guest professorship at the University of California, Berkeley. My book, which sold to a major New York publishing house.
At Christmas, I flew home to Chicago. The house was throbbing11, same as always: hot tamales and sweet tamales hissing in my mother’s pressure cooker, and everybody— my mother, six brothers, wives, babies, aunts,
cousins—talking too loud and at the same time. Like in a Fellini12 film, because that’s just how we are.
I went upstairs to my father’s room. One of my stories had just been translated into Spanish and published in an anthology of Chicano13 writing and I wanted to show it to him. Ever since he recovered from a stroke two years ago, my father likes to spend his leisure hours horizontally14. And that’s how I found him, watching a Pedro Infante movie on Galavisión and eating rice pudding.
There was a glass filled with milk on the bedside table. There were several vials of pills and balled Kleenex. And on the floor, one black sock and a plastic urinal that I didn’t want to look at but looked at anyway. Pedro Infante was about to burst into song, and my father was laughing.
I’m not sure if it was because my story was translated into Spanish, or because it was published in Mexico, or perhaps because the story dealt with Tepeyac, the colonia my father was raised in and the house he grew up in, but at any rate, my father punched the mute button on his remote control and read my story.
I sat on the bed next to my father and waited. He read it very slowly. As if he were reading each line over and over. He laughed at all the right places and read lines he liked out loud. He pointed and asked questions: “Is this So-and-so?” “Yes,” I said. He kept reading.
When he was finally finished, after what seemed like hours, my father looked up and asked: “Where can we get more copies of this for the relatives?”
Of all the wonderful things that happened to me last year, that was the most wonderful.
Source: Latina: Women's Voices From the Borderlands. Edited by Lillian Castillo-Speed. New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 1995.