Showing posts with label sandra cisneros. Show all posts
Showing posts with label sandra cisneros. Show all posts

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Media Justice for Outlaws

cross posted from my Media Justice column

Ya’ll know I love snail mail.

And although I agree with many who critique “Hallmark holidays” I do send my parents mail for Mother’s day and Father’s Day. I started this piece with a different focus, but then I saw this interview of author
Sandra Cisneros (House on Mango Street, Loose Woman: Poems) by author Dorothy Allison (Skin, Bastard Out of Carolina) from 1996. As I prepare to teach two “special topics” courses this summer, one on women, art and culture and the other on sociology and human sexuality, and build my syllabi I found this interview. See the interview below (in English and right now I have not found a transcript).

Sandra Cisneros with Dorothy Allison, Conversation, 8 October 1996 from Lannan Foundationon Vimeo.

I am using Cisneros’ Loose Woman: Poems in the class I’m teaching this summer, so this video is very much of interest to me and I plan to include it in the class in some way. What struck me at first was Cisneros’ conversation about her mother and Allison’s discussion of her parents and their responses to their work. I wondered about how my work may be interpreted and impact my family. Cisneros talks about there being something embarrassing for her family to read some of her stories that are about sexuality, assaults, and healing while Allison shares similar experiences with her family as well.

Cisneros says that she thinks there may be some level of embarrassment for her parents regarding her work and I wondered: may my parents be embarrassed of my work? May parents of any sexual health educator be embarrassed? How do we reconcile this with the work we have been called to do? The authors talk a bit about parents not wanting to see their children as sexual beings.

I’ll admit I have my fair share of approaching the idea of
children being sexual beings and parents recognizing that as an important part in child development and parenting. As someone who is not a “traditional” parent (I believe I have provided a certain level of parenting, support, and mentorship with many young people in my life, especially a young woman who I’ve mentored for over 15 years), I kind of understand this. It was only this year (this week actually!) that I had the courage to ask one of my mentee’s what her experiences were with sex, sexuality and pleasure.

I realized after all the work I do, the trainings, my goals and hopes there remain some parts of me that are still very similar to, not only my parents, but to some social norms that still believe young people are not sexual beings. I’m more like my parents and I realize this each day and sometimes it terrifies me, but other times I realize I have been selected to embody and continue an amazing legacy. It’s such a overwhelming and affirming experience!

So I wonder, how many of us have talked to our parents about the work we do? What have been their reactions? Do we keep it secret? If so, why? Is there a reason connected to protecting ourselves? What are we protecting ourselves from? Disappointment? Critique? Support? Love?

My parents support me. Yet, I don’t share everything I do with them. I’ve shared that my parents are not too wired, so it’s not often that they read what I produce and share about my experiences, so in that way there is a level of “protection” for me and for them. This “protection” I’m writing about is more connected to anonymity, which is connected to safety and freedom to write on various topics. However, I’m not sure how much longer that may last, for many reasons. With age I realize my parents are important parts of who I am, support systems, and sexual beings on their own. But I also realize they will not always be here with me. I’m still “young” enough to have them in somewhat good health, but that is quickly changing and it’s a new form of terrifying!

Similar to Cisneros, my parents don’t talk too much to me about the work that I do, the classes that I teach, or details about them. When I won the 2010
Mujeres Destacadas award(Distinguished Woman) by El Diario La Prensa and they listed me as a “sexologist” my parents didn’t ask what that was or what it represented when I gave them copies. I can’t say if this is connected to embarrassment, but more to a larger communication about sex and sexuality in our family. I find many similarities to Cisneros. Although my parents were big hippies when I was born, and we embraced nudity and art, we didn’t discuss details to sexuality or sexual health. And that silence transmits so much!

Through this silence, that was often only presented through images of art (think paintings, sketches, some forms of music, after all it was still the 70s and 80s!), I had to find the type of representations that spoke to me, and much like Cisneros, I saw what I desired for myself in the representations of White men around me. The White men were seen as “independent” in a very particular way and could travel freely. I translated these two things as freedom, liberation. I interpreted this freedom and liberation and thought: what could it look like for me?

I knew long ago that just because a White man can do something that doesn’t mean a bushy-haired brown girl could. Yet, that restraint allowed me to dream bigger. The imaginative and creative attributes my parents fostered in me as a child were able to manifest into something more useful and life changing as a young adult. I imagined leaving my town, living in a world where I could do whatever I wanted without having too much responsibility to certain people and things, only responsible to the people and things I love (and yes this means no children or spouse which on it’s own is a anomaly even today!). Today, I think I’ve been able to reach a bit of that.

I think for these reasons, although I’ve selected a very “untraditional” route of work for myself as my parents’ daughter, as a person with US citizenship, and as woman of Color, I’ve still been able to find success in how I define it. That is one of the things I take away from this interview: defining success to our standards not to others.

When Cisneros and Allison talk about their parents questioning their sexual orientation because they are not married (more Cisneros) and wondering if academics and going to college is connected to that or ignoring it because Allison went to college, is something that really speaks to me. My parents have not questioned my sexual orientation, but they do question my desires and (in)abilities to partner. I do believe they wonder how/if my career choice may limit my options for partners: would a person want to partner with a woman who does the work that I do. More so, would a man of Color want to partner with me knowing I am working in the field of sexology?

Allison says to Cisneros at the 6-minute mark: “I think there is this common territory that independent, unmarried, women writers occupy. Particularly independent, unmarried, heterosexual, outside the acceptable definition of what a woman is supposed to do. That’s the, it’s the same niche lesbians occupy in this society where, we are in the outlaw territory. It’s a safer place for a writer.” Wow.

Cisneros states later at the 19-minute mark: “What are the options for a woman who wants to be a writer? And Latina? If I had been in a situation where I would have been married that could have killed my writing career. If I had been in some traditional relationship where I had children, I would never have been into books. So I think that destiny puts these situations in my life so I could be who I am now and have all these books. Now I feel like ‘ok I did all that now I may think about having a partner and all that’ I might have kids. I might not. I can afford now to make those decisions, but it’s different for a man.”

Although it’s an identity I’m not in love with, I am a writer. One of the reasons I’m not in love with such an identity is because I know of people who write for different reasons, reasons connected to surviving, to living. My writing is connected in the same way, but at the end of the day, if I had the chance to choose what to do, writing may not be the first thing on that list. I’ve felt shame with my identity as a writer, but I realize that I can’t and will no longer be ashamed, or hold my writing up to the same standards or goals as others. I will write because I can, because I want to, and because there is still so much to say and share. I realize now it is a gift and that I am writing and occupying in an outlaw territory.

I share this because it’s a process. Maybe some of you reading may have never found yourself in that space, maybe some have, either way it is all right. I think it’s important to share these experiences even if they still remain a struggle.

After doing some research, I found a great passage from Allison’s book of short stories
Trash, in her story “Muscles of the Mind” where she writes:
“We are under so many illusions about our powers,” I wrote, “illusions that vary with the moon, the mood, the moment. Waxing, we are all-powerful. We are the mother-destroyers. She-Who-Eats-Her-Young, devours her lover, her own heart; great-winged midnight creatures and the witches of legend. Waning, we are powerless. We are the outlaws of the earth, daughters of nightmare, victimized, raped, and abandoned in our own bodies. We tell ourselves lies and pretend not to know the difference. It takes all we have to know the truth, to believe in ourselves without reference to moon or magic. (pg. 140)
The idea and identity of being an outlaw is not new. Many authors have written about it from gender, race, and class perspectives. Unfortunately, it’s an ideology and discussion that often is transmitted mainly within certain (academic) spaces. Although outlaws are “wanted,” considered deviant, having broken the “law” or challenged social norms, they remain without any (legal) protection. This is many of us writing here at Amplify. Many of us working in the field of sexual and reproductive justice and we must create protections for ourselves within our community.

These are all forms of media I believe. Media that nurtures us and is vital to the work we do. Forming a message, constructing it in the way we choose and sharing it, that’s media!

So, how does this change the relationship I want to forge with my family, to have a response? Some protection? I too, like Dorothy Allison, am hungry for my family’s response to my work. Here’s my plan of action, if you have one, or are thinking of one, please share! I really do believe we learn from sharing and from one another.

Action Plan

• Tell my parents. Perhaps print out a piece I’d like to share with them, mail it, and ask them to read it when they can and be proactive about finding their opinions. This means doing a lot of reflexive work to prepare for that conversation. I think I’ll have to prepare myself for critique, questions, having to explain things in new ways, and being ready to accept love and support.

• Ask myself what does it mean if I am choosing not to share certain pieces with my parents and be honest about those responses.

• Be clear in what my parents may be able to offer me and be ready to receive it or to find it elsewhere.

• Expand my ideas and definitions of “family” to include my community.

• Make sure my community is one that can provide me with the support and is present for me in the ways that are healing and supportive.

• Make sure I can reciprocate what my community offers me.

• Do it all over again.


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Latino Heritage Month Meets Reproductive Justice & Sexual Health: Focus on Sandra Cisneros

cross posted from my RH Reality Check blog

For Latino Heritage Month I’d like to try to expand our understanding and conversations about Latino sexuality during this month. Read previous people highlighted: Gloria Anzaldúa, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Rigoberta Menchú Tum and Gwen Araujo.



Sandra Cisneros
Author, Poet

You’ll hear a lot about Sandra Cisneros during Latino Heritage Month. I hope you hear even more about her every other month too! Cisneros has made a name for herself through her writing, storytelling, poetry, and testimonies. For many of my friends of various ethnic backgrounds, Cisneros’ poems and literature has affirmed many of our identities and choices we have made for ourselves.

I’ll admit, that when I read House On Mango Street I was much younger and did not appreciate the text upon first or second read. Her text was a part of a US Latino literature course and I remember thinking “why are all the authors Chican@ and only two authors from other countries?” This was a very usual space for me to occupy: trying to find myself represented in the texts we were reading. Yet, there were no LatiNegr@ authors on the syllabus at that time.

Not until I read >Loose Woman: Poems did my love affair with Cisneros begin. When I knew I was to do this work in the sexual science field, I was very much alone. There were so many people who made assumptions about the work I wanted to do and how I wanted to create change within our communities. As I began to read Cisneros’ poems in Loose Woman, I realized that the stereotypes and questioning of my intentions was nothing new, but had occurred for generations to women, especially women of Color who challenged the ways we were socialized to examine and understand our sexuality.

There was power that I found in reading about the ideas, and the forms of resistance that Cisneros' presents through her poetry. It was as if her words were a new weapon in my arsenal towards becoming the radical sexuality educator I desired to evolve into. Aside from having her books translated in over 10 languages, Sandra Cisneros represents resistance through creativity and spirituality, many things Anzaldúa wrote about creating.

Cisneros approaches the ideas of assimilation from a very different perspective than we hear about usually. The idea that any group of people is “better off” or more successful assimilating to a dominant culture, or a different culture (whatever it may be), is overwhelming. Almost all the research I’ve read that connects teenage pregnancy, STI rates, and sexual violence mention assimilation. This is especially true for Latin@s living in the US. This data always left me with the questions of: what about youth who grew up like me? What about youth who grew up to 4th and 5th generation families who are not Chican@?

I’ve always taught Cisneros’ book Loose Woman: Poems in my Women, Art & Culture and in my Human Sexuality classes. Not only does she give voice to lived experiences that are often demonized in some Latin@ communities, but also among communities that have socialized women to desire monogamous partnerships and marriage. Her poem "Old Maids" is one I reread often as a reminder that the choice I have made about partnering and marriage. She writes:

But we’ve studied
marriages too long—

Aunt Ariadne,
Tía Vashti,
Comadre Penelope,
querida Malintzín,
Señora Pumpkin Shell—

Lessons that served us well
Pg. 10 [italics in the original]


This poem speaks to choice, expectations, and wisdom. It is rare when critiques consider how observation may play a role in the choices some people make, especially women, in their choice to not partner in traditional ways. Cisneros discusses women from Greek mythology (Ariadne and Penelope), women from the Old Testament (Vashti), Nahua women from Mexico (Malintzín), and discussed in popular nursery rhymes (Pumpkin Shell) as people she and her cousins have observed.

Other poems I adore from this text include “You Bring Out The Mexican In Me” where her line “I am evil. I am the filth goddess Tlazoltéotl./I am the swallower of sins./The lust goddess without guilt” (p. 6). Her poem “Full Moon and You’re Not Here” I’ve literally recited to potential lovers as an important example of women of Color "controlling the gaze" and controlling our own sexuality. She ends the poem: “You’re in love with my mind./But sometimes, sweetheart,/a woman needs a man/who loves her ass” (p. 55).

I recall reciting the poem “Down There” about menstruation and claiming how “I’m artist each month” (p. 83) at a Latino Heritage Month event 7 years ago. The room was silent. What I most adore about Cisneros is her metaplasm, or word play, on names. In her poem “Loose Woman” she declares “By all accounts I am/a danger to society./I’m Pancha Villa” (p. 113). She feminizes the iconography of Pancho Villa, Mexican revolutionary, by claiming herself “Pancha Villa.”

The many ways Cisneros has made a space for herself in US Literature is something folks usually hear about. The many ways she’s moved conversations about sexuality, Latin@ sexuality, and our bodies as women of Color are often overlooked or a side or footnote. Yet, for many of us doing this work around reproductive justice, she gives us a form of art in amazing forms that represent, appreciate, support, and transmit culture. A culture where Latina sexualities are not dichotomies, centered in pleasure, expected and celebrated. This is my kind of party!

foto credit:© Ruben Guzman via Random House, Inc.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A Review of FLOW: A Cultural History of Menstruation

Cross Posted from RH Reality Check.

Growing up with hippie parents I was exposed to books such as Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Joy of Sex at a very young age. I’d like to think that my parents owning these books helped shape the sex-positive ideologies I embrace today. When my homegirl Nilki contacted me about an upcoming book focusing on U.S. women’s bodies, menstruation, marketing, and myths I was instantly sold and eager to read the book. FLOW: A Cultural History of Menstruation arrived at my home for review and I was instantly impressed.

A hardcover sturdy book with a pin-up image on the cover appealed to the femme in me. The pages are glossy and bright and almost every page had an image of some sort to break up the text on the page. My initial thought was that the book was accessible, which is always pleasant for books of this sort. At the same time, when I read the title I had some assumptions. As a child of immigrants, and a woman of color, the term “cultural” triggers many images/ideas for me. Basically, I expected to see myself represented at some point in the text. As an interdisciplinary professor, I know the term “culture” and “cultural” have various definitions, yet I still immediately think in an inclusive way with the term.

I noticed that with the exception of one image on page 96, that all of the images in the book were of racially White women and written in English. A majority of the images are of marketing ads geared towards women regarding tampons, sanitary napkins, and “cleansing” products. I found, and still find it, extremely odd that images in the early 80s to the present were not included to represent women of Color. After all Serena Williams is the latest spokesperson for Tampons®, and there is what I would consider a “racially ambiguous” woman on the Moon Cup advertisements. Neither of these are included.

I often joke that my time in graduate school made me too critical of research and theories, as that is how we are trained when engaging with various texts. Yet, I’ve tried to get out of that graduate school mode and understand that not every book can do every thing. Sometimes this is difficult to remember, especially when there are huge gaps in a narrative. Yet, we still live in a society where creating a text that is supposed to be inclusive of all women really isn’t and this is a problem. One of the ways I’ve appreciated some authors approach this issue is to say explicitly in their introduction what their text does, who it includes, how they know their scope is limited. I often admire when authors are aware of how this can help prepare readers for their text.

One of the many soapboxes I have is that the bodies of women of Color are not valued in the same way the bodies of other women are in this country. The text clearly showed how color-free and exclusive early marketing was for menstrual products. I wondered how the “flow” out of the bodies of women of Color were stigmatized, celebrated, seen as a rite of passage and those perspectives were not present in the text. Actually, I can recall two specific instances when they were presented, but they were done so in a way that “Othered” them/us. The examples were of women outside the US, especially in Africa, and how “primitive” the experiences of young women can be challenging in such “oppressive” environments.

This continues when the authors, Elissa Stein and Susan Kim, mention international women of Color in examples as they discuss their text. For example, in their interview on The View Susan Kim discusses various terms and phrases people have used to reference and name their menstrual cycle. See a short clip below



Watching this short clip made me very uncomfortable (and not because I’m menstruating and can’t joke about some things). There’s also something about these examples in the clip that strike me as a form of name-calling that is inappropriate and perpetuates stereotypes. “Walking like an Egyptian,” was that really necessary? And to evoke that Egyptian people walk differently just makes me want to give them a reading list of texts by Nawal El Saadawwi. Was I surprised to hear this from the authors after reading the book? Not really, especially when there are sentences such as these in the text:

“…unless you belong to some kind of cult, chances are you are not bearing and breast-feeding babies every second of your entire reproductive life" (page XXII).

"(And we're sorry no matter what any 15 yo tells you, vulgarity alone does not count as honest discourse)” (page 2).

“In a small study of women in New York City, 61 percent said they had had a period when they weren’t expecting it…and we bet the others were lying” (page 188).


As someone who has a belief system that is not part of an organized religion, which has been called a “cult” this wording really turned me off because it was extremely offensive. It clearly isolates women who do not fall into a specific value and/or belief system, women outside the US, women with a different perspective on their spiritual connection with various deities/spaces/texts/etc. The statement about youth and vulgarity really irks me. As one of my favorite bloggers, cripchick, once said (and I’m paraphrasing): “language is one of the only things youth have” to express themselves and we, as adults, often take that away from them.

Now, I know that my opinion and cripchick’s may be unpopular, however I find that things such as graffiti writing, use of slang, and fashion are forms of media that youth create. They are media makers and when we attempt to censor them it’s not the most effective way to build and gain their trust. It also reeks of class and age discrimination. On the age tip, there were also quotes by women discussing their experiences with their cycles, and the youngest was 37 years old. I wondered why women younger than 37 were not quoted in the text. Were we even included?

To be clear I’m not advocating that youth are not introduced to and learn the scientific or what others may call “proper” terminology for our body parts and genitals. I think this is important, I just don’t think because a young person is more comfortable code switching that they are not capable of being engaged in “honest discourse.” Positive youth development is essential. So is affirming identities. Language has power and I’m not comfortable debunking the power in the language young people use to express themselves.

Then the idea that the authors will “bet” that some women in a small study were lying if they did not remember or recall experiencing an unexpected period; defeats the entire purpose of the book which I read as: trust women. There is also the issue that “women” only refers to cisgender women. There is no discussion of trans communities. At all. In the discussion regarding how menstruation is constructed in US society, there is nothing regarding how transgender men may experience their menstrual cycle, and this may not always be something that is celebrated. At the same time, there is no discussion about how conversations and values of menstruation exclude transgender women. How does menstruation confirm rigid ideas of gender and gender identity? I thought this type of discussion could have fit nicely in the list of questions the authors identify on page XXIII. Even to simply ask the questions is a sign that they recognize the term “woman” and “women” are often used in an exclusive context.

Finally, the book is an interesting, yet color-free and limited history of menstruation in the U.S. I was intrigued by chapter two “Where Are We Today” with discussions of menstruation and connections to current and future birth control methods. People of Color are mentioned in chapter seven which focuses on religion. Unfortunately, almost all of the examples from a religious space are negative. “Scent of A Woman” is the title for chapter nine and the advertisements focusing on scent and menstruation are overwhelmingly heterosexist. Almost all of them discuss pleasing a husband, which I found very interesting and troubling. Chapter 10 has the most discussion of rites of passages among women outside the U.S. and specifically in Africa and the Philippines, yet these examples are one’s I learned about over 15 years ago when I took an introduction to Anthropology course.

The list of resources and bibliography at the end of the text was not what I expected and were a pleasant surprise. There were limited citations on some of the research that was presented (except for the Kinsey Reports and such) and a majority of the citations were online. I see the author’s inclusion of these resources as useful and important from a historical perspective. They are also great examples on how to reference a website, which surprisingly not too many students know how to do these days. I’m saddened that there was no reference to some of the amazing forms of art that have been created regarding menstruation, contributions to popular culture if you will. Sandra Cisneros’ poem “Down There” in her book Loose Women Poems comes to mind, Ani DeFranco’s song “Blood In The Boardroom.” I agree with Cisneros, “I find the subject charming,” and hope that there is a second part to this text that will be more inclusive to the “culture” aspects the authors implied in the book.

At the end of the day, I expected to see myself in this text, have my experiences affirmed, and my community represented. This did not occur, however, to be fair this rarely occurs in books that come out in the field of sexuality and reproductive health unless the text is specifically devoted to communities of Color. As they said in their text “Femcare has been so long monopolized by manufacturing, medicine, advertising, and religion that any fresh, individual voices seem like cool water in a blazing desert” (p. 251). That’s right, fresh, individual voices. Klein and Kim started the work and there is still a lot more to complete.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sandra Cisneros Is My Heroine!

Sandra Cisneros has updated her website! She's also shared her perspective on pregnancy prevention and sexuality for Latinas in this interview below:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Latina Sexuality in Poems

I've started teaching my class Women, Art & Culture. Today we read our first poem from the book Loose Woman Poems by Sandra Cisneros.

It's funny how some poems come back to you. I've been teaching this class for over five years and always go back to reread them. This poem spoke to me this time around for many different reasons. Often I'm an "outsider" when reading some poems, other times it's as if poems capture exactly what I'm experiencing.

Our first poem is "Perras" which I've provided below:

I can't imagine that goofy white woman
with you. Her pink skin on your dark.
Your tongue on hers. I can't
imagine without laughing.
Who would've thought.

Not her ex-boyfriend--
your good ol' ex-favorite best buddy,
the one you swore was thicker than kin,
blood white brother, friend--
who wants to slit you open like a pig
and i don't blame him.

Isn't it funny.
He acting Mexican.
You acting white.

I can't imagine this woman.
Nor your white ex-wife. Nor any
of those you've hugged and held,
so foreign from the country we shared.

Damn. Where's your respect?
You could've used a little imagination.
Picked someone I didn't know. Or at least,
a bitch more to my liking.

p. 58

Monday, April 20, 2009

Sunday Night Common Sense

If you don't know, this past week was the 25th anniversary of the book The House On Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros.

I've decided to use a quote from an interview with her a few years ago. You can read the full interview here. Cisneros responds to a question about the "women’s idealization of white American or Mexican upper class standards of beauty and success."

I don't see any kind of mirror of power, male power, that is, as a form of liberation. I don't believe in an eye for an eye. I don't believe this is truly freedom. Revenge only engenders violence, not clarity and true peace. I think liberation must come from within. But you’re asking me now at 45 not 25 when I wrote the piece.