In New York City, a place I’ve longed to live since childhood, I wrestle with unattainability. One evening on my friend’s rooftop, I watched the sun set over the Manhattan skyline. How ecstatic I was to finally see this in the horizon. The scene felt almost scripted. Two girls sit on a rooftop and talk each other weak. They are both new to New York. Wrapped in fleece blankets, they raise their wine glasses to the skyline. The sky darkens and the city awakens.
It feels strange to attribute so much to one moment, but it was there on that rooftop, while aware of what I had, a peculiar desire for the homes I’d fled unfurled within me. I found that I didn’t want to leave and I didn’t want to stay. This ambivalence frightened me.
In her 2015 memoir, A House of My Own: Stories from My Life, Sandra Cisneros writes of flesh and shelter. These collected essays, written over the course of Cisneros’ life, are rooted in her desire for a house to call her own. A writer’s house shelters her interiority when the body is not enough. It wills her to create in solitude while providing a similar refuge to likeminded people. For Cisneros these people were relatives, friends, and the writers who functioned as both. These new and collected essays are ofrendas, offerings to her loves and influences, bits and pieces of a large life claimed, forming a rich mosaic of one compelling writer.
In the introduction to the collection, Cisneros writes, “We tell a story to survive a memory in much the same way the oyster survives an invading grain of sand. The pearl is the story of our lives, even if most wouldn’t admit it.” Through Cisneros’ writing I discovered that most stories blossom from a need to protect that hidden pearl of our lives.
In her essay “The House on Mango Street”, Cisneros recounts her journey of finding her voice as a young graduate student far from home. At twenty-one, Cisneros left her father’s house to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. Unmarried and Chicana, this departure was, at the time, a radical act. Cisneros said she lived her independence, her sexuality “like a white girl” in the then absence of Latina writer role models. Throughout graduate school, Cisneros was acutely aware of this “otherness” that distinguished her from her classmates. Ultimately, grad school taught her to write the book her classmates could not, allowing her most private idiosyncrasies to manifest in her writing.
She says, “Writing in a younger voice allowed me to speak, to name that thing without a name, that shame of being poor, of being female, of being not quite good enough, and examine where it had come from and why, so I could exchange shame for celebration.”
Born and raised in Chicago, Cisneros’ childhood home was crowded with television noise and siblings, of parents who didn’t know how to bring her out of her own head. She eventually moved to San Antonio, a city of stunning Mexican heritage, and Cisneros was able to connect with a home and identity that sustained her. “You can tell I’ve been poor,” she says. “I over-glamorize my body, my house. I take my house personally. I take my art collection personally, too.”
In the essay “¡Que Vivan los Colores!” Cisneros writes about the house she purchased in San Antonio. Believing that color speaks its own language, she painted the house periwinkle to evoke the color of Mexican jacaranda trees. When the paint faded to a dull lavender, Cisneros’ home rose to local iconography. The community dubbed her place “the Purple House” calling to mind Frida Kahlo’s La Casa Azul. The Purple House was a thing of play, an homage to the tenderness of spirit. It was also the place for Cisneros’ self-reinvention.
In the Purple House, Cisneros found artistic merit in simplicity and excess. It’s where she collaborated with notable Latina writers such as Carla Trujillo, Salima Rivera, Helena Maria Viramontes and many others. It’s where she founded the Macondo Foundation, a series of workshops designed for socially-conscious writers who view their work as an outlet for community building.
If Cisneros’ writing has taught me anything, it’s that there is no limit to self-reinvention. A girl raised dirt-poor in a Chicago brownstone becomes an award winning writer and patron. She grows into the art world and lives a life in fierce color.
A recipient of numerous awards including a MacArthur Fellowship and two National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowships, Cisneros now resides in San Miguel. She sold the Purple House, the house she swore she’d never sell, to seek spiritual refuge elsewhere. When she told her U.S. friends she was moving to Mexico, they asked if she was afraid. In the collection’s epilogue, Cisneros mentions she was asked the question again when her Mexican friends heard she was traveling to visit the U.S.
I suspect these friends’ fears have little to do with Cisneros’ destinations. Our fibers yearn for destination. It’s the search that mystifies. Cisneros’ search for a house of her own was manifold in its distinct effects on her. As a writer and homeowner, she lived it all: The joys and the headaches, the company and the isolation. Everything that rises when independence beckons us to fall heart-first for the very process of our lives. Home is about the path not the furnishings. It’s about story too. Our stories and the distances we are willing to go to tell them.
As the city darkened into its twinkling silhouette, I told myself I was living my truth. I didn’t know what that truth was, I still don’t, but I believed in the stories I told myself to get there. When I arrived in New York last year, I was certain I had found my place on this side of things. Yet, there on the rooftop, I felt misplaced, vaguely wounded. I realized I had discovered the trails of my own wandering heart and saw there was no end in sight. My real home is not planted. Much like the writer in Cisneros’ essays, I live to keep on searching.