Ringing the Bell
An interview with poet and author Sandra Cisneros on writing, sexuality, and “Buddhalupe”
Since its 1984 publication, Sandra Cisneros’s book The House on Mango Street has been read in more than 20 languages by millions of readers around the world, and in the United States it has been studied by students at every level, from elementary school to graduate college seminars. Today, Cisneros’s oeuvre includes poetry books, a short story collection, a volume of essays, and the novel Caramelo. She has received a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature, and in 2016, President Barack Obama honored her with the 2015 National Medal of Arts.
Before I knew any of this, however, I knew the girls on Mango Street. I had never read a book narrated by a young Latina like myself from a working-class immigrant home. I had also never read a book that was poetry, short story, and novella all at once and that wove political commentary into the magic of its sentences. I began reading Cisneros’s other works too. Day after day, I boarded the New Jersey Transit bus to my first publishing job with a Cisneros book in my hands, and while an old man next to me snored and a middle-aged woman across the aisle stared wistfully out the window, I dove into prose and poetry so stunning and alive it made me cry.
I discovered Cisneros’s creative work at the same time that I found Buddhism, and in a way both broke me open. Both invited me to look at myself and the world as it was in the present moment. I could listen to my mother scrubbing her rage into another pan and the sirens of ambulances careening around the corner, and while Buddhism taught me that I could sit with all of this, Cisneros taught me that I could write about it.
Years later, when I attended Macondo, a writer’s workshop Cisneros started in 1995 in San Antonio, Texas, the organizers handed me the “Compassionate Code of Conduct.” A little longer than a page in length, the text underscores the spiritual dimensions of the creative community Cisneros was creating with other writers: “Mindfulness is a spiritual cornerstone derived from Macondo’s Buddhist, Feminist, communal, and activist roots. It is a practice motivated by having witnessed marginalization in our communities, and it is a compassion applied with the resolve to treat each other better.”
I almost yelped: Sandra’s a Buddhist?! But I tucked away my astonishment and even acted like I had known it all along—and maybe in a way I had. Cisneros’s books created art from the lives of ordinary people and did so with compassion. She had marvelous images in her books, yes, but she also had a voice that said: I see you. I love you.
Cisneros calls herself a “Buddhalupista,” a term for her spiritual life that honors both the Buddha and Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of the Americas and a powerful symbol of Mexican identity on both sides of the border. A tattoo on her left arm depicts the Virgin in the lotus position, her right hand pointed toward the sky in the mudra of blessing and protection.
A Chicago native and longtime resident of San Antonio, Cisneros now makes her home in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where the Covid pandemic returned her to poetry in life and on the page, resulting in her newest book, Woman Without Shame. Many of the poems in this collection speak to love—loves made, loves lost, loves turned away, loves witnessed. And yet there are poems here that also address the brutal realities of people’s lives in the United States and Mexico, offering verses as spiritual balm. The poem “El Hombre” creates a chorus from the lines “Mándanos luz. Send us all light.” After several stanzas, I found myself repeating these words as a prayer, a mantra, a hope.
How did you first encounter Buddhism? It came to me by way of a friend who I think of as a spiritual sister, Jasna, from Bosnia. She was visiting me when I was living in Berkeley, and one day we went to Old Wives Tales [a feminist bookstore in San Francisco] on Valencia Street. We would always buy each other little gifts, so she had this little bag and she goes, “Here, this is for you.” And it was Being Peace [by Thich Nhat Hanh]. I thought, Oh, no, she’s getting me a religious book. So I didn’t crack it open. This was 1988, and then I didn’t open the book till she was lost in the Bosnian War, maybe four or five years later, when I was asked to give a speech for International Women’s Day. I thought I was going to write something just sweet and tender about my friendship, but what came out was an essay called “Who Wants Stories Now,” motivated by reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book, which literally fell off the shelf when I was looking for something to inspire my speech. It was the first time I read it, the day before the speech, and I was transformed. My way of battling was changed. I realized that I could speak, that I had the power to speak and I had the power of words.
After the speech, I organized a peace demonstration, an hour of peace, in San Antonio in front of the San Fernando Cathedral. I had women who usually showed up, but that day no one showed up but me. I was holding signs about what was happening in faraway Bosnia—a country most Texans couldn’t place on a map—but it’s difficult to demonstrate when you’re all by yourself. I went home dispirited and sad, and I dug my hand in the mailbox, and there was a letter from my friend who had been incommunicada for years! It had been handed from one journalist to another and sent to me. So I believe in that power of shifting from nonaction to making action. It’s how I found that my friend was alive.
What was so empowering about reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book? I think what happened for me was that I was waiting for other people to do something, and one of the things that book taught me was that, no, maybe I couldn’t go in there [into the war in Bosnia] with a helicopter or an AK-47 and rescue my friend like Rambo. But I could talk. And I could make peace with people in my town, people in my family. And I could be peace. Instead of talking about peace and holding up a sign for peace, I had to be peace, which is really hard.
You grew up visiting the basilica in Mexico devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Talk with us about your relationship with Guadalupe and about “Buddhalupe,” this fusion of the Buddha and the Virgin. I grew up in the shadow of that basilica. That was my playground. When I was a little kid, my grandmother, who was very devout, would take my brothers and me along. While she was in the church, she’d say, Go over there and play. And we would run up and down the little hill where the Virgin had appeared. I had no idea that was going to play such a central part in my life. I feel very fortunate that she is an icon that’s so personally relevant to me, not only as a Mexican, a woman with Mexican roots, but especially with my mother’s indigenous roots. I really don’t see Guadalupe as being a diosa [goddess] or a Catholic mother. She’s more like an energy.
“Instead of talking about peace and holding up a sign for peace, I had to be peace.”
Thich Nhat Hanh said in one of his retreats that we had to return to whatever our spiritual roots were and incorporate that into our Buddhism. So that’s what I did. I have the Buddhalupe [a tattoo] right here on my arm. I wanted this so that I could tell people, “This is my spirituality,” and it’s a blend of all the goddesses, and Coatlicue [the Aztec earth goddess] is there, and Guanyin.
You’ve also written that your interest in Guadalupe was very tied with the silences that Latinas have about sexuality, and your new book of poems embraces our bodies and our sexiness across the years. How do you understand the relationship between spirituality and sexuality? People think we don’t have sexual desires in our sixties. I still feel sexy. And I still want to look sexy, and I still have sexual desires. Our society tends to view us as being invisible, especially as women. I don’t like that you’re supposed to look a certain age, you’re supposed to dress a certain way. You’ve got to cut your hair and, like, defeminize yourself and look neutered. There are some weird things about aging that I don’t agree with.
I always felt like sex took me to a spiritual door. I always thought sex and spirituality were super connected in the sense that you discover parts of yourself and you discover vulnerabilities and strengths about yourself. To me, it was a cosmic door. I was just really freaked out and thought, This is so powerful! They don’t want women to have this. There is a reason why men are controlling it, because it’s really powerful. I think if more women were not ashamed of their sexuality and their sexual needs, we probably would be less likely to have to look for Mr. Right. We would realize, I’m here! I don’t have to find another human being necessarily.
A number of people come to Western Buddhism because they are grappling with some form of nonacceptance. Your new book is titled Woman Without Shame. What did working on this book teach you about shame? I learned that it’s an every-day practice. Even though I might release some shame, there’s a new one that comes up. So maybe I got rid of a shame of being poor, having ugly shoes, or being the only Latina in the room, or shame about sex, and now I have other things that I’m ashamed about—now that I’m 67! Now, I eat any old thing and I’ve got to run to the bathroom because it upsets me. That’s shameful, that your digestive system is not like it used to be fifty years ago. [Laughs] Everything’s changing, and you think, Why didn’t anyone tell me about this?
Your body is aging, and it’s reacting to things it didn’t react to before. Or like your neck suddenly gets this drapery. Remember Nora Ephron, who wrote about hating her neck? I don’t want to be ashamed about my neck. I want to show it off and say “This is what 67 looks like.” I feel like I’m a role model for other women. I don’t want to get plastic surgery. I don’t want other women to get plastic surgery. I want to be a role model in saying, “You know what? My body is transforming itself.” I want to watch this transformation with as much fascination as when I watched myself morphing into the woman-body.
In a conversation with the novelist and scholar Ruth Behar, you said that you advise writers to open their hearts for the writing to come, and you spoke about this as the process of getting “very empty.” How do you empty yourself for the writing? We have this idea when we write, akin to I want to drive to Cincinnati, but what if your writing takes you to Taipei instead? I think we have to get out of the way, and the way to do that for me is to put the intention of honoring my ancestors with my writing and writing something that makes them proud. If I honor my mother and father in the work I’m doing, then Cincinnati’s not that important. I repeatedly say this: Just do it on behalf of those you love con puro amor and amor puro, and it will always turn out better—better than what we could plan. And that flushes out your ego. It takes you to a higher intention. That’s what I’ve found.
Are there works of literature or poetry that you feel are Buddhist that you find yourself turning to? The Japanese poets—Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa. And Joy Harjo, who is not Buddhist, but her writing is very Buddhist, don’t you think? I go to Joy Harjo when I’m a little bit lost. I think that those are the writers who are the most nourishing when I’m feeling impotent and just a little discombobulated. They’re the ones that help get me back on course.
You’ve written about people who want to ban your books, and you’re even interested in your books being banned. Why is that? I have a chapter in [A House of My Own]—it’s a letter to a woman who wanted to ban The House on Mango Street. I did something very Buddhist there, and that is I spent an entire week writing and rewriting a letter to someone who doesn’t believe what I believe. I knew that she was getting frightened and not understanding my book. So I wrote it as if I was writing it to someone I disagreed with but whom I love: my father. I imagined that my father was this woman wanting to ban my book. And it allowed me to write with so much respect and gentleness. And I was able to convince her and make her understand that she didn’t need to ban the book.
I wish we would have conversations with people we don’t agree with. We haven’t had conversations. We’ve just had conflagrations. And this is a time in history when people are so polarized. I don’t think that we’re always going to agree. In fact, it’s very unlikely that we will agree. But I think the problem is we haven’t been able to hear one another.
“Poetry is about a moment for me. It’s about time standing still and examining something very deeply.”
There’s this practice in Tibetan Buddhism of imagining your relationship with your mother as this ultimate creation of gratitude within yourself. Your meditation was a letter to your father. I often disagreed with him, but I loved him. And I knew ultimately that he had unconditional love for me. And vice versa. So to me it’s a way that I hope to talk to people who don’t understand me or who are at odds with me, and to come to them from some loving place. I’m not always ready to do that right away. It takes a little time and work. That’s why I say I’m a baby Buddhist, because I think if I lived 150 years, I would still be a baby Buddhist. I’ve got a long way to go.
What does your spiritual community look like now? I just am so exhausted from the public work I do as an author that when I come home, I don’t want to be part of community. I have to detox from people overdose—“people overexposure” is what I call it. But I think I have a community of ants and hummingbirds and trees and dogs and clouds that I’ve been very much in touch with, especially since the pandemic. They’ve been my teachers, and I write about and post photos of them a lot. And then I think of my writing and the hours and hours of work I do as a very intense sitting meditation.
Since writing is a spiritual practice and home for you, how was poetry helpful to you during these first years of the Covid pandemic? Poetry is about a moment for me. It’s about time standing still and examining something very deeply. And poetry did that for me. During that time, it made me wake up to all the gurus that I had around me. The ants who evicted me from the shower, who were very proud. But you know, I learned a lot about their character. Another time I put my nose to a beautiful peach rose, and then a very, very striking chartreuse green spider came out, like: “What are you doing?” I wondered if he chose that home because he looks so beautiful against the peach. It was just things like that, that I wouldn’t have noticed, that made me think, How extraordinary and how lucky that I got to see that green spider come out of that peach rose!
I think of poems as being like bells, like the Buddha bell [the temple bell that summons monks to prayer]! It rings, and it just resonates and leaves this very deep vibration in your being. Attending to that vibration and paying attention and transforming that vibration is the poet’s job.
Calendar in the Season of the Pandemic
the ants have
for the garden
at long last
At Fifty I Am Startled to Find I Am in My Splendor
These days I admit
I am wide as a tule tree.
My underwear protests.
I like myself best
without clothes when
I can admire myself
as God made me, still
divine as a maja.
Wide as a fertile goddess,
though infertile. I am,
as they say,
in decline. Teeth
worn down, eyes burning
yellow. Of belly
bountiful and flesh
beneficent I am. I am
silvering in crags
of crotch and brow.
I am a spectator at my own sport.
I am Venetian, decaying splendidly.
Am magnificent beyond measure.
Lady Pompadour roses exploding
before death. Not old.
Passé? I am but vintage.
I am a woman of a delightful season.
El Cantarito, little brown jug of la
Solid, stout, bottom planted
firmly and without a doubt,
filled to the brim I am.
I said the brim.
From Woman Without Shame: Poems by Sandra Cisneros, © 2022. Reprinted by permission of Knopf.Daisy Hernández is the author of The Kissing Bug: A True Story of a Family, an Insect, and a Nation’s Neglect of a Deadly Disease, coming June 2021 from Tin House Books. She is also the author of A Cup of Water Under My Bed: A Memoirand coeditor of Colonize This! Young Women of Color on Today’s Feminism. She is an assistant professor at Miami University in Ohio.
A brave new collection of poems from Sandra Cisneros, the best-selling author of The House on Mango Street.
It has been twenty-eight years since Sandra Cisneros published a book of poetry. With dozens of never-before-seen poems, Woman Without Shame is a moving collection of songs, elegies, and declarations that chronicle her pilgrimage toward rebirth and the recognition of her prerogative as a woman artist. These bluntly honest and often humorous meditations on memory, desire, and the essential nature of love blaze a path toward self-awareness. For Cisneros, Woman Without Shame is the culmination of her search for home—in the Mexico of her ancestors and in her own heart.