- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Sandra Cisneros is an author and a star. She has a personal trainer, a belly-dance instructor, a lavender house, cowboy boots and a license plate that reads AY-TU, Spanish slang for "aren't we special?"
Dark-haired and smooth-skinned, the petite writer looks at least 10 years younger than her 47 years and has the chipper, slightly singsong voice of a born entertainer. She performs as her own characters when giving readings and croons a Mexican ballad on her answering machine's greeting.
"You can't get famous in Texas," she writes in her new novel, "Caramelo," but Miss Cisneros shines coast to coast. "The House on Mango Street," vignettes about growing up in a barrio, has more than 2 million copies in print; "Woman Hollering Creek," a story collection, has more than 350,000 copies in print. "Caramelo," which means candy or caramel in Spanish, has a first printing of 150,000 in English and an additional 50,000 in Spanish.
This fall, Miss Cisneros toured the United States for the first time since 1994 to promote "Caramelo," her first full-length work in a decade. She also is a major reason why the publishing industry has come to care so much about the Hispanic market.
Over the past decade, superstore chains Barnes & Noble and Borders have added Spanish-language sections. Several publishing houses, including Random House and HarperCollins, have started Latino imprints. Scholastic Inc., a children's and educational publisher, has started a Spanish-language book club for children.
Insiders cite the 2000 census as a milestone. What had been anecdotal became statistical: The market was big and getting much bigger. The number of Hispanics had jumped by 58 percent over the previous decade to 35.3 million, drawing nearly even with non-Hispanic blacks as the largest minority group in the United States.
"We were completely invisible in the '90s, and yet our numbers had grown and grown and grown. We never had that marker to say, 'OK, this is who we are,'" says Rene Allegria, editor in chief of Rayo, the Latino imprint of HarperCollins.
Established writers such as Miss Cisneros, Isabel Allende and Julia Alvarez have enjoyed large followings in both English and Spanish. The industry also is aggressively seeking new Latino talent.
Over the summer, five publishers bid for "The Dirty Girls Social Club," by first-time author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez. St. Martin's Press won the auction and paid nearly $500,000 for Miss Rodriguez's novel about six women who remain friends after graduating together from college.
Publishers think the market could expand even more. There are dozens of Spanish-language stores around the country, but most readers don't know about them because the owners can't afford to advertise.
"It's a word-of-mouth business for them," Scholastic President Dick Robinson says.
Ann Messitte, editor in chief of Vintage Books, a Random House imprint that distributes books in both English and Spanish, says many English-language booksellers still don't understand the size and diversity of the Latino market. While Barnes & Noble features a substantial Spanish-language section, with titles ranging from self-help to mystery novels, others treat Spanish-language books as an isolated, intellectual market for fans of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other literary writers.
"It's a question of distribution and outreach. Until that happens, we're not going to scratch the surface," Miss Messitte says.
• • •
Miss Cisneros has long enjoyed both literary and commercial success, and her tour, covering 17 cities, reflected a bilingual, bicoastal marketing campaign. Along with stops at Borders and other traditional outlets, she read at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum in Chicago and the Inter-American Book Fair and Literary Festival in San Antonio.
She also appeared at Spanish-language bookstores in San Jose, Calif., New York and the District. Her novel was serialized in the Spanish-language magazines El Andar and Latina.
"It's the most aggressive campaign I've ever seen to appeal to the English and Spanish-language markets at the same time," says Adriana Lopez, editor of Criticas, a magazine founded recently by Publishers Weekly to cover the Latino market.
Miss Cisneros crosses borders in San Antonio, where she has lived for 10 years. "With San Antonio," she says, "I finally found a city that matches my life."
Here, Miss Cisneros would be famous if only for painting her house purple in 1997. Her choice of color enraged a neighborhood association, which complained that her house clashed with the more sedate homes nearby. Supporters hung purple ribbons on their trees, and the case was resolved two years later, when the city determined the color had faded to a permissible shade of lavender.
• • •
The only girl among seven siblings, Miss Cisneros is a Chicago native born to Alfredo Cisneros, an upholsterer who emigrated from Mexico, and Elvira Cordero Anguiano, a housewife and first-generation Mexican-American. Miss Cisneros was raised in a barrio that later inspired the settings in "House on Mango Street."
She has long seen life as a story and confides it in her books. "Everywhere I go, it's me and me. Half of me living my life, the other half watching me live it," she writes in "Bien Pretty," a piece from "The House on Mango Street."
Miss Cisneros majored in English at Loyola University Chicago, where she later served as a counselor for minority students. She then studied at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, from which she graduated in 1978.
"My father thought if I went to college, I would meet a nice professional and get married," she recalls. "I didn't know this until after I finished graduate school and was struggling. One day, my father looked at me and said, 'All that education, and she wasted it and didn't marry.'"
Her early publications came from independent presses. The poetry collection "Bad Boys" was released in 1980 by Mango Publications, based in San Jose, Calif. In 1984, "The House on Mango Street" was released by Arte Publico, a Houston-based publisher specializing in Latino books.
Word-of-mouth built for years, until a New York agent, Susan Bergholz, learned about "Mango Street" and shopped the manuscript to about a dozen large publishers. Only two, Miss Bergholz says, made an offer. Random House signed Miss Cisneros in 1991 for a "modest" advance.
"It was very difficult," says Miss Bergholz, who still represents Miss Cisneros and also struggled to find publishers for Ana Castillo and Julia Alvarez, both of whom have become best-selling writers.
"Caramelo" follows the journey of a Mexican-American family, from the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17 to modern-day Chicago and San Antonio. "Caramelo" a compliment about skin color is also the nickname of the title character and narrator, herself the only girl among seven siblings.
At more than 400 pages, "Caramelo" is by far Miss Cisneros' longest book and her most deeply researched. Footnotes even are provided, as the author includes detailed explanations of such cultural figures as ventriloquist Senor Wences, a frequent guest on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in the 1950s and '60s, and everyday items such as the rebozo, a traditional Mexican shawl.
Miss Cisneros based the family in "Caramelo" on her own, narrating their lives from romantic youth to disappointed middle age to contentious old age. Just as her own father died, of heart disease while she was writing the book her novel ends with father and daughter in a hospital room.
"I knew this book was going to be his. I knew he was living on borrowed time. I was just asking that he live long enough to know that I'm writing this book in his honor," says the author, who dedicated the book to her father.
"What he wanted was to walk me down the aisle, but I ended up walking him down the aisle, in a casket."

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