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Literature as an Act of Peace

By Caroline Tory
A version of this post also appeared on the Aspen Institute’s Aspen Ideas blog

“If you are always with people [who] think like you, how are you going to grow?” Pioneering Latina author Sandra Cisneros posed this question to an audience gathered for Aspen Words’ final event in its annual Winter Words author series last week.

Throughout her career, Cisneros has written stories and explored communities in which two or more different cultures face a challenged coexistence. It is from her experience as a young Latina immigrant growing up in the poor Humboldt neighborhood of Chicago that she wrote her bestselling debut novel The House on Mango Street. Her latest book, A House of My Own, explores the many intersecting communities that have defined Cisneros as a writer over the past three decades, taking readers from Chiapas, Mexico to San Antonio, Texas and the Chicago neighborhoods of her youth.

Wearing a beautiful embroidered tunic, Cisneros began her presentation by reading an essay titled Huipiles, named for the indigenous garments worn for millennia in Mexico.

“I wear this textile as a way for me to resist the mexiphobia going on under the guise of Homeland Security. To acknowledge I’m not in agreement with the border vigilantes. To say I’m of las Americas, both North and South. This cloth is the flag of who I am.”

The essay is included in her new memoir, and feels as relevant in today’s political climate as it did in 2007, when Cisneros wrote the original piece for the San Antonio Smithsonian Museum to accompany an exhibit featuring local collections of huipiles. She acknowledged the irony that these tunics, made by artists who go barefoot in Mexico, are now coveted fashion items for some of the most privileged women in North America.

Cisneros’ ability to illuminate different cultures in her writing was also evident in her second reading, from a piece that has only appeared in print once for the Washington Post Magazine’s 2015 Fiction Issue. Titled Puro Amor, the story’s protagonist is Missus Rivera, a character based on Mexican self-portrait artist and feminist icon Frido Kahlo—something Cisneros had never revealed to an audience before her Winter Words appearance. The inspiration to write about Frido Kahlo come from Cisneros’ mentor, Mexican journalist, advocate and author Elena Poniatowska, who revealed Kahlo’s alternate identity as Missus Rivera at a National Museum of Mexican Art lecture that Cisneros attended several years ago. She plans to include the story in her next book, which will feature seven extraordinary people who are often in the footnotes of history.

As a lifelong advocate of the arts, Cisneros reminded the audience that working towards harmony in divisive times can be as simple as reading a book or attending a literary event like Winter Words. “You don’t know it, but [by being here] you’re doing an act of peace in violent times,” she said. “You are ambassadors for communication and understanding of people unlike yourselves.”

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