Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Intersections: When Languages Collide

Detail from the cover of Cisneros' book <I>The House on Mango Street</I>. Her stories are inhabited by characters with a distinct language of their own, English that somehow also sounds like Spanish.
Detail from the cover of Cisneros' book The House on Mango Street. Her stories are inhabited by characters with a distinct language of their own, English that somehow also sounds like Spanish.
<i>Caramelo</i>, Cisneros' latest book.
Caramelo, Cisneros' latest book.

For novelist and poet Sandra Cisneros, language is not just a means to communicate, it's a medium textured by words and sounds. Cisneros grew up in a multilingual home: She spoke to her mother in English and her father in Spanish. When she was a little girl she didn't realize they were two separate languages. To her ears, all the sounds meshed together. What mattered was where the words took her. For Intersections, a series on artists' influences, Cisneros talks with NPR's Felix Contreras about how the collision of languages helped shape her voice as a writer.

Cisneros grew up in Chicago, the only daughter in a Mexican-American family that included six brothers. Her family frequently traveled to Mexico to visit her father's relatives. Cisneros says that, as a child, she was uncomfortable with her Chicago neighborhood, in what she describes as a poor part of town without nature or beauty. She found her escape in books -- fairy tales, to be precise.

"I liked the books I read that said things like 'I shan't'," Cisneros says. "I would try to find a way to say in my life, to reply, 'I shan't do that, mother.' That was so far away from my barrio world. "

The first book she owned was Alice In Wonderland. Its highly stylized storytelling, along with that of other fairy tales, made lasting impressions.

"I thought that strange syntax was the language of story books," she says. "I didn't realize those were poor translations... English from Edwardian times… I just knew that they were different [from] the English I heard every day."

Her literary escapes prompted Cisneros to begin writing her own stories and poems. Though she dreamed of becoming a writer, she decided to pursue a more realistic career: becoming an English teacher.

While she was in graduate school, the fairy tales, popular culture from both sides of the border and her life experiences combined to create a distinct literary voice, first heard in her 1984 novel The House on Mango Street. Cisneros' stories -- about ethnic identity, poverty and other aspects of her bicultural world -- sprouted characters with a distinct language of their own. Using the rhythms and cadences of immigrant voices, Cisneros crafted a language to open windows into other worlds -- not for escape but to invite readers in.

"I wasn't aware that House on Mango Street was so influenced by Spanish until after I finished," Cisneros says. "Somebody will exclaim 'What a barbarity!' and we know she's saying 'Que barbaridad.' ...I created some of those structures, word choices and syntax to communicate that we were listening to dialogue in Spanish. I wanted the readers to know that even though I wrote in English, the characters are speaking Spanish."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit

Felix Contreras is co-creator and host of Alt.Latino, NPR's pioneering radio show and podcast celebrating Latin music and culture since 2010.