A Historical/Biographical Approach to Sandra Cisneros's "Never Marry a Mexican"
Note: This is an academic exercise that takes a historical / biographical critical approach to Sandra Cisneros’s short story, "Never Marry a Mexican."
This is not intended to be a well-developed critical paper, but it should prove a useful tool for examining one aspect of Cisneros’s work. It should also serve to help students learn more about the use of the historical / biographical critical approach to literature.
Motivation in "Never Marry a Mexican" © Copyright 1999, Skylar Hamilton Burris
In "Never Marry a Mexican," the narrator, Clemencia, admits that she is "vindictive and cruel" (68). But the critic must explain why. The critic also needs to address Clemencia's motivation for fleeing her middle-class home, because it is by no means clear that she was prohibited from living there. A look at Sandra Cisneros's own life and words can help elucidated both of these questions. Sandra Cisneros shares with her narrator a sort of "schizophrenia" that develops from "straddling two" cultures (Aranda 66). Clemencia, as a Mexican-American, witnesses her Latino culture mixing with Anglo culture, and she herself engages in miscegenation with Drew. She is motivated by a fear of anglicanization that expresses itself in her decision to move to the barrio and in her vindictive treatment of Drew's wife.
The Latino and Anglo cultures mix when Clemencia's mother marries a white man. Clemencia reacts by fleeing from her home and attempting to cling to her Latino culture. Sandra Cisneros describes her own hatred for the term "Hispanic" by declaring that it is an "upwardly mobile type word" (Interviews Part I). The implication of this statement is that Latinos are not "upwardly mobile," or middle-class, types. By fleeing to the barrio, Clemencia attempts to regain her Latino culture, which was compromised by her mother's miscegenation with a middle-class white man.
At first, Clemencia thinks living in the barrio is "all romantic," perhaps because she connects it with her Latino culture, the barrio being a place where there were "more signs in Spanish than in English" (72). She romanticizes the barrio, saying it "looked cute in the daytime, like Sesame Street" (72). Cisneros has decried this view of the barrio (Satz 2), and Clemencia learns its falsity soon enough. Yet she does not return to her home, but remains in the barrio, because it is a way of escaping anglicanization:
Ximena would say, Clemencia, maybe we should go home. And I'd say, Shit! Because she knew as well as I did that there was no home to go home to. Not with our mother. Not with that man she married . . . My half brothers living in that house that should've been ours . . . When she married that white man, and he and his boys moved into my father's house, it was as if she stopped being my mother. Like I never even had one. (72-3)
There is no indication that the sisters were driven out of the house or asked to leave. The implication is rather that they felt out of place, that they could not bear the fact that their mother had married a white man, and that they did not care to share their home with their half-white, half-brothers.
So Clemencia clings to the barrio like Sandra Cisneros to her purple house. Cisneros may have had some of the same fears about becoming anglicized when she chose to live in San Antonio's King William District. But instead of clinging to her culture via a return to the barrio, like Clemencia, she painted her house purple and declared that consequent objections to the color were "not about [her] little purple house," but "about the entire Tejano community" (Lowry 2). Cisneros may have turned the objections to her purple house into an opportunity for insisting on her affinity with other Latinos. Her romanticizing of the issue of the purple house is not far flung from Clemencia's initial romanticizing of the barrio. Clemencia does not really believe the barrio to be like Sesame Street, but she remains because the alternative is to return home to her mother and white stepfather and to risk anglicanization. Likewise, Sandra Cisneros may not have been primarily concerned with painting her house a traditional Mexican color; after all, the purple "didn't even exist until Sherwin-Williams created it thirty years ago" (Lowry 3). Rather, Cisneros's true motivation may have been her desire to make a point that she had not deserted her culture by becoming anglicized, as this excerpt from the homeowners' board meeting reveals:
"Okay then," Cisneros came back. "If my house can't be purple, can I paint it another traditional Tejano color? Like the bright pink house at 312 Madison Street?"
Gossen looked at a fellow board member, who nodded. "Yes," he told Cisneros. "You can."
She looked startled, as if she were not prepared to dismount her soapbox so soon. "Okay," she answered in a tiny voice.
She paused and, summoning up her combativeness, said, "But I won't be happy until the board expands its vision to include the history and color palette of the Tejano people. My battle won't end until that happens." (Lowry 3)
Clemencia has more than one "purple house." First, in reaction to her mother's miscegenation, she flees to the barrio. Then, in order to deal with her own miscegenation, she assumes a vindictive attitude towards Drew's wife. An interracial relationship with Drew, especially when Clemencia has already condemned the miscegenation of her mother and Owen Lambert, is likely to create a sense of guilt. "I felt great guilt betraying that culture," says Sandra Cisneros. "Your culture tells you that if you step out of line, if you break [the cultural] norms, you are becoming anglicized . . . influenced and contaminated by these foreign influence and ideas" (Satz 3). Clemencia, fearing to appear anglicized through her relationship with Drew, downplays the influence of his Anglo culture and draws a clear line of separation between Drew's wife and herself.
Clemencia does not dwell long on Drew's Anglo features. Although his skin is pale, at least his "hair [is] blacker than a pirate's" and he "look[s] like a Cortez with that beard of" his (74). He may speak English, but he speaks to her in Spanish, and she says, "I liked when you spoke to me in my own language" (74). She insists that she is not being influenced and contaminated by Drew's Anglo culture. Rather, it is she who influences him. "You're just a smudge of paint I chose to birth on canvas," Clemencia says of Drew. "And when I made you over, you were no longer a part of her, you were all mine" (75).
Clemencia probably feels the need to insist that Drew is not a part of his white wife in order to distinguish herself from the white woman. If Drew were influenced by his wife, then Clemencia's relationship with him might mean her own anglicanization. But if she can claim Drew as a sort of creation of her own, she can separate herself from the white woman. Indeed, Clemencia insists on their differences. "While [Drew's wife] lay on her back laboring [in] birth, [Clemencia] lay in [her] bed making love to" Drew (75). This vindictiveness on Clemencia's part is in direct opposition to the white woman's polite nature. When Clemencia calls Drew in the middle of the night, and his wife answers politely, Clemencia laughs about it for weeks. It seems to give her pleasure, because she knows that "[n]o Mexican woman would react like that" (77). Clemencia can be reassured that she is not becoming like a white woman even though she loves a white man, because she herself would never have reacted like Drew's wife.
Clemencia, like Cisneros, claims no "allegiance with upper-class white women" (Interviews Part II). She insists that she cannot relate to this "redheaded Barbie doll in a fur coat" (79). Just as Cisneros confesses that in Texas she "started getting racist toward white people" and had no "white women friends"(Interviews Part II), Clemencia admits that if the wife were "a brown woman like me, I might've had a harder time living with myself, but since she's not, I don't care" (76). Indeed, since the woman is white, since she is not, as Clemencia says, "my sister," Clemencia not only fails to regret her cruelty, but she relishes it (76). "It's always given me a bit of crazy joy," she says, "to be able to kill those women like that, without their knowing it" (76-7).
Clemencia experiences another sort of "crazy joy" by committing a strange and seemingly inexplicable act. She goes around the house and leaves a trail of gummy bears in places she is sure Drew's wife will find them (81). This may seem a silly action on the surface, but for Clemencia, it is very meaningful. She is diverting her guilt, her fear of anglicanization, into a bizarre attack on the white wife. True, the gummy bears may seem silly to the reader, but they satisfy a need in Clemencia much as the crusade for the purple house seemed to do for Cisneros. The mysterious placement of the gummy bears is perhaps no sillier than Cisneros's dressing entirely in purple and sitting in a purple lawn chair, declaring before TV cameras, "It's not about my house . . . It's about history!" (Lowry 3). Likewise, Clemencia's action isn't about hiding gummy bears for Drew's wife; it's an expression of her fear that she is becoming anglicized, and it is her way of lashing out against that anglicanization. "I got a strange satisfaction," she says, "wandering about the house leaving them in places only she would look" (81). It gives her a sense of power and self-assurance to replace the baby in the wife's Russian baby doll with a gummy bear: "All through dinner I kept reaching in the pocket of my jean jacket. When I touched [the baby], it made me feel good" (82). This may be akin to the sense of importance Cisneros herself felt when she shouted: "It's not about my house. It's about history!"
According to Cisneros, "many of [her] stories come from dealing with straddling two cultures" (Satz 3). "And it's very strange," remarks Cisneros, "to be straddling these two cultures and to [find] some middle ground so you don't self-explode" (Aranda 66). In "Never Marry a Mexican," Clemencia has trouble finding that middle ground. She seems to feel guilty about her interracial relationship, but instead of surmounting that guilt, she displaces it into a hatred for Drew's wife. She insists on her own Latinoness by moving to the barrio and by using cruelty to create a chasm between herself and Drew's polite, white wife. Her story is an example of the hatred that can breed within someone if she doesn't, as Cisneros says Mexican-Americans must, find "some way . . . to say: 'Alright, the life I'm leading is alright. I'm not betraying my culture. I'm not becoming anglicized'" (Aranda 66). Cisneros may have used this story as a way of confessing and dealing with her own fear of anglicanization. By writing, she says, "you make your peace with those ghosts. You recognize . . . [t]hey're part of you and you can talk about them" (Aranda 67).
Aranda, Pilar E. Rodríguez. "On the Solitary Fate of Being Mexican, Female, Wicked and Thirty-three: An Interview with Writer Sandra Cisneros." The Americas Review. 18.1 (1990): 65-75.
Cisneros, Sandra. "Never Marry A Mexican." Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. New York: Random House, 1991. 68-83.
Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World. Mississippi: Oxford UP, 1992. Online. Internet. 26 January 1999. Available http://ww.smpcollege.com/experience_literature/fiction/cisneros.htm
Lowry, Kathy. "The Purple Passion of Sandra Cisneros." Texas Monthly. 25 (1997): 154-50. Online. Wilsonweb. Internet. 1 February 1999. Available http://vweb.hwwilsonweb.com/cgi-bin/webspirs.cgi
Satz, Martha. "Returning to One's House: An Interview with Sandra Cisneros." Southwest Review. 82 (1997): 166-85. Online. Wilsonweb. Internet. 1 February 1999. Available http://vweb.hwwilsonweb.com/cgi-bin/webspirs.cgi