The Buddhalupist:
The Spiritual Life of Sandra Cisneros

By Jorge Chino
Photos by Avra Goldman


I’m just a baby Buddhist. I don’t know a lot of things,” says Sandra Cisneros, who has been called “the most visible Chicana in mainstream literary circles” by Cynthia Tompkins of Arizona State University West.

“El budismo es una mezcla de muchas filosofías. It is not a religion to me but a philosophy. You can be a Buddhist and you can be a Jewish,” Sandra says while walking in downtown San José, California, the heart of Silicón Valley, “It incorporates whatever your culture is, and it doesn’t obliterate it. It almost makes you return to your center.”

This is not the Sandra Cisneros I met a few years ago.

“Lépera, mal hablada,” my mother would have said of someone like Sandra Cisneros. She is one of those women who are frank and irreverent, mujeres who say bad words, and speak about sex and religion in public: sin pelos en la lengua. Chavela Vargas, Lucha Reyes, La Malinche, soldaderas, Juana de Arco, Elena Poniatoska, María Félix; en fin, mujeres de paso fuerte.

This is how I used to think of Sandra Cisneros: irreverent, challenging, daring, passionate, a flamenco dancer with a curl hanging on her forehead.

This time was different. This time I encountered a woman muy amable y paciente. My grandmother would call her “una santa,” a woman who tries to do good without expecting anything in return.

Sandra Cisneros is both of these things: A Mother Theresa and a Madonna Ciccione. A Virgen of Guadalupe and a María Félix. A Buddha and a Malinche.

Sandra and I are walking from the Inca Gardens restaurant to a presentation which had already started without the author of “The House on Mango Street.” But before we can reach the Morris Daily Auditorium at San José State University, a group of male high school students starts screaming, “Somos sus admiradores. La estábamos esperando para saludarla.” Amazing to see those kids from a rural town called Gilroy, waiting, dying to see and shake hands with a writer! “Creíamos que iba a llegar con guradaespaldas y todo,” they say, eager to be photographed next to a Chicago-born Chicana.

“Desde que llegué no me han dado ni un minuto para andar debajo de un árbol, ni tiempo para orinar,” Sandra was saying before coming across her admiradores. She had a busy schedule in San José as part of the “MacArturos Reunion,” the third annual gathering of Latino and Latina fellows who’ve been recognized for their creative genius by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

“The MacArturos is a way in which we can assist each other, and by group effort impact our community,” Sandra says. This year the MacArturos visited San José after a trip to Los Angeles. The event’s theme is “ofrendas del alma, del corazón y de la mente,” — Sandra’s idea, one born in San Antonio, Texas where she lives. The project’s goal is for the MacArturo fellows to share their talents and achievements with community members.

Among Sandra’s fellow MacArturos are Luis Alfaro, a poet, performance artist, and playwright; Baldemar Velásquez, a labor organizer from Texas and president of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee; María Varela, a rural planner and community organizer; Hugo Morales, co-founder and director of Radio Bilingüe; Amalia Mesa-Bains, an independent artist and creator of altar installations; Hipólito Roldán, a community developer; John Jesurún, a designer, writer and theater director; Joaquín Avila, an attorney advocating for voting rights; the famous border brujo Guillermo Gómez-Peña, and Alma Guillermoprieto, a writer and journalist

Out of the auditorium and on our way to her next presentation, Sandra talks again about her spiritual life. She admires Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who practices a form of Buddhism for social change.

“I tell people that I am a ‘Buddhalupist.’ I have to invent it and take parts of the Catholic religion that work for me, like the Virgin of Guadalupe, and toss out the parts that I don’t,” Sandra says, before getting in a car that would take us to the newest and largest Latino cultural center in Northern California, Mexican Heritage Plaza.

“For me, who had walked away from the Catholic Church, it just brought me back to parts of myself,” she says. “The amazing parts about Buddhism is that is taking me back to my culture and my family spirituality. Buddhism for me is a way of helping to guide my life work. It focuses on serving humanity. When I was a young woman, I was looking for some way to integrate my politics and my art.”

“Buddhism has been a search for the two parts of myself: the artistic and the political. It is about service,” says the only daughter of seven children.

Next to her fellow MacArturos, Sandra’s opinions on role models, art and community stand out. Young people, especially young Latinas, seem to be fascinated by her words and her irreverent opinions. Sandra, who is working on a novel, “Caramelo,” which she says will be published during the first months of 2000, does not stop talking about brujas, virgins, and Buddhism. Her admiradores line up to get her autograph at the end of her presentations.

Sandra’s recato, comments and aura of wise woman make me wonder about her past. The next day, on the phone, I ask her what had attracted her to Buddhism. “When I was 33 I saw a güera bruja. She was an spiritual bruja. She told me things that started my spiritual life. She told me I was going to be famous and successful in my work. She also told me that I was going to be working with small groups,” Sandra tells me from a room at San José’s Fairmont Hotel.

“Cuando tenía 28 años gane el premio de the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), y con ese dinero me compré un boleto y quise vivir y viajar como los escritores. I felt very provincial, and with this NEA grant I traveled. I wanted to go south to Latin America but was afraid and went to Europe instead. I came back with ‘The House on Mango Street’ under my belt but I was penniless. I took a job in Texas and I quit. And I couldn’t find a job again,” she says, recalling the darkest hour of her life.

“The only one who would hire me was a woman who was the head of the English Dept. at CSU in Chico, California,” she says. “Even though my book was a small press book, this woman saw it as a real book, unlike other places. I didn’t really want to teach at the university because I felt frightened. I felt like a fraud. I had to borrow money. I had the worst classes. I thought I was the worst teacher in the world that is why I had such horrible students. I felt I was stuck in Chico, California.”

That was when she tried to kill herself. But Sandra called a suicide prevention service, and decided not to go through with it.

And once again the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship would come with another grant for her to continue work as a fulltime writer. Sandra realized that her main purpose in life was to write. Her agent sold an unfinished manuscript to Random House, a manuscript that later became one of her most successful works: “Woman Hollering Creek and other Stories.”

“Los fracasos se quedan como espinas en el corazón. Writing is a way to get those espinas out,” says Sandra Cisneros.

© 1999, 2000 El Andar Magazine























Artwork by Fransico Letelier