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One Writer's Bicultural Blend

Poet Sandra Cisneros says her Mexican-American heritage provides two views of the world

SAN ANTONIO is "a place where the two parts of my self are not warring," says poet and author Sandra Cisneros.

Although she grew up in Chicago with her Mexican father, Mexican-American mother, and six brothers, Ms. Cisneros moved to San Antonio in the mid-1980s.

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"I can live with the two languages and cultures simultaneously," she explains. "It's two ways of looking at the world."

Cisneros arranged to meet for an interview at Torres Taco Haven, a neighborhood eatery in a gritty section of downtown San Antonio.

"It's sort of like my office," she said over the telephone. Before her recent success, the writer did her laundry at the Kwik Wash just across the street. Critical acclaim and a six-figure book contract have allowed this daughter of an upholsterer to purchase her own washing machine.

The day's specials at Torres Taco Haven include Huevos Rancheros with beans for 99 cents. The formica tables and counter stools are just beginning to fill up with locals.

Nearly 15 minutes late, the petite energetic author drives up in a bright red mini-pickup truck with colorful Mexican fabric on the seats and ball fringe hanging down from inside the windshield.

"I'm always on Mexican time," Cisneros says apologetically as she slides into her regular booth near the jukebox. She orders in Spanish - "dos tacos" - and launches into a discussion of herself, her work, and the need to nurture more writers from her community.

Cisneros - who is no relation to former San Antonio mayor and current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros - is one of a few Chicana writers to gain success on the American literary landscape.

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Her first book, "The House on Mango Street" (Vintage Books, 1989), reflects Cisneros's childhood bouncing back and forth between Chicago and Mexico. Through a series of vignettes, it tells the story of 11-year-old Esperanza.

In 1991, Cisneros published "Woman Hollering Creek," a collection of short stories. She is now at work on a novel and a new collection of poetry.

In December, Random House published a hardcover version of "My Wicked Wicked Ways," a collection of Cisneros's poetry originally published in paperback by Third Woman Press in 1987. The hardcover's first printing of 6,000 copies sold out, and it is now in its second printing.

As evidence of her growing clout in the literary world, Cisneros has insisted that the paperback rights for "My Wicked Wicked Ways" remain with Third Woman Press.

Cisneros often refers to the recent publication of her works by mainstream publishers as the literary equivalent of a green card. "Now I'm legitimate," she says, adjusting the tortoise-shell cat's-eye glasses atop her head. "It's like being invisible and then suddenly becoming visible."

"I am shocked," she continues, "that a book like `Wicked Ways' that is [originally] from a small press is being picked up and looked at in places now. When it was published at a small press, it was absolutely ignored."

Cisneros spent years living off odd jobs while she published her work through small presses. Now that she's being published by the big houses and has two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships under her belt, Cisneros is boldly bringing more of her political views out in the open.

Last year, she refused to be photographed by the acclaimed Annie Leibovitz for a Gap clothing advertisement because she felt the company wasn't doing enough for Latinos.

"I'm in the position right now where I can afford to say, `No, unless you do this.' I can't always make people do what I want.... All I can say is, `no,' and that's a form of protest."

It's not always easy to take such a stand, Cisneros acknowledges. "A part of me would like to go have my picture in a magazine because I was an ugly kid," she says. "But that's me personally. I'm no longer a person, I'm this collective. That's what's happened. It's not out of choice; it's out of circumstance."

THE collective Cisneros refers to includes the many Latino writers who she knows are out there struggling to make their voices heard.

"There are so many other writers who aren't being published. And their distributor consists of this," she says, reaching for an oversized shoulder bag. "You know, you do a [public] reading and you carry your book with you and sell it. That's how we used to distribute our books."

Now that she's in demand, Cisneros is bringing other Latino writers along with her. Recently the owner of a bookstore in north Texas invited her to come to his store for a reading. When she found out he had never invited another Chicana writer to read there, Cisneros refused to go unless the owner invited others to join her.

"It's real important to do that work so that we're reporting on ourselves instead of James Michener [author of `Mexico'] telling the world what a Mexican is," Cisneros says. "We don't need James Michener writing our stories anymore. We've got to be telling our own history."

To help the stories of her community find a wider audience, Cisneros goes into local schools to inspire young writers. She calls this "my guerrilla work."

Cisneros brings her own fifth-grade report card. "I show them that I really shouldn't have been a writer." The report card shows mostly C's and D's. "I had one B and it was for conduct," Cisneros says. "I tell the students that I don't remember being stupid in fifth grade - but there it is."

The point is to get the kids thinking in a different way about their own future. "You have to give them permission to have a dream," Cisneros says. "Certainly, I didn't have that."

The other side of her political work - the writing - is more subtly subversive. "Sometimes somebody will pick up my book and to them it's disguised as a children's book or an adolescent story, like `House on Mango Street,' she says. "All of a sudden, people who might not want to listen to what I have to say, if they knew what I was representing, are listening to me."

In many respects, Cisneros views herself as an ambassador between the Anglo and Latino worlds she lives in. "I'm very conscious that I want to write about us so that there is communication between the cultures," she says. "That's political work: Making communication happen between the cultures."

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