Themes of Identity, Gender, and Empowerment in Sandra Cisneros' Short Stories

Categories: The Piano Lesson


Sandra Cisneros' collection of short stories paints a vivid picture of the complexities of human relationships and the impact of various circumstances on them. These stories delve into themes of love, longing, desire, and the passage of time. Each narrative offers a unique perspective on these themes, showcasing Cisneros' ability to craft compelling stories that resonate with readers.

Bread and Desire in "One Holy Night"

In "One Holy Night," Cisneros masterfully explores the intricate web of desire and longing within the context of an unconventional relationship.

The story revolves around two individuals whose connection is marked by secrecy and passion. Through the symbolism of bread and music, Cisneros provides a window into their tumultuous affair.

The mention of bread as a central element in the story is not mere happenstance; it symbolizes the complexity of their relationship.

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The act of purchasing bread together becomes a metaphor for their forbidden desire. The bread, with its sensuous description, fills the backseat of the car and saturates the air with its aroma, mirroring the intensity of their passion.

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The reference to sourdough loaves shaped like a "fat ass" adds a layer of sexual undertones, emphasizing the physicality of their connection.

Furthermore, their devouring of the bread with their bare hands parallels their unrestrained indulgence in each other. The act of tearing apart the bread becomes a symbol of their desire to consume each other, both physically and emotionally. This merging of their longing for bread and for each other blurs the lines between these desires, highlighting the complexity of their relationship.

The role of music in the story further underscores the depth of their connection. The tango playing on the tape player is described as loud and intense, matching the intensity of their feelings for each other. This choice of music suggests that their bond is unique and passionate, as it can only be understood and appreciated by the two of them. It hints at the idea that they share a connection that transcends the boundaries of societal norms, suggesting that their relationship is far from ordinary.

However, it is important to note that the perspective of the two characters differs. While the female narrator is deeply immersed in their affair, the male character appears to view their past encounters with nostalgia and charm. He reminisces about the city's charm and the delightful moments they shared. In contrast, the female narrator's thoughts drift to darker memories, such as the death of a cousin's baby from swallowing rat poison. This contrast highlights the disparity in their perceptions of the past, suggesting that their relationship may have meant more to her than to him.

In conclusion, "One Holy Night" portrays a passionate and forbidden affair between two individuals, using bread and music as powerful symbols to represent their complex emotions and desires. While the story explores themes of love and longing, it also reveals the differing perspectives of the two characters, underscoring the multifaceted nature of human relationships.

The Joy of Imperfection in "Barbie-Q"

In "Barbie-Q," Cisneros explores the theme of finding joy in imperfection and the resilience of youthful imagination. The story revolves around two young girls who treasure their damaged Barbie dolls and celebrate their imperfect beauty. Through their simple yet profound perspective, Cisneros conveys a powerful message about embracing flaws and appreciating the beauty in imperfection.

The story is narrated by one of the girls, who expresses their excitement at finding two Barbie dolls at a flea market on Maxwell Street. Despite the dolls being damaged by water and smoke from a toy warehouse fire, the girls are overjoyed by their discovery. This joy stems from their ability to see beyond the imperfections and appreciate the dolls' unique charm.

Cisneros uses vivid imagery to describe the dolls lying amidst various discarded items, such as platform shoes, a fluorescent green wastebasket, and rusty nails. This juxtaposition of the damaged dolls with the other discarded objects reinforces the idea that beauty can be found in unexpected places. The dolls, despite their flaws, become treasures to the girls, demonstrating their capacity to see the world through a different lens.

The girls' excitement is further exemplified by their willingness to overlook the dolls' imperfections. They understand that these dolls may not be in pristine condition, but they choose to focus on the dolls' potential for imaginative play. The girls see the dolls as a canvas upon which they can project their creativity, dressing them in various outfits and inventing stories for them. This imaginative play serves as a form of empowerment, allowing them to assert control over their own narratives.

Cisneros also highlights the economic disparities present in the girls' lives. They mention receiving only one new outfit each for Christmas, highlighting their limited resources. However, the discovery of the damaged Barbie dolls provides them with a sense of abundance and the opportunity to engage in imaginative play without the constraints of financial limitations.

The story's title, "Barbie-Q," cleverly combines "Barbie" with "barbecue," suggesting a playful twist on consumer culture and the idea of perfection. The dolls, like the girls themselves, are imperfect but beloved. The story challenges conventional notions of beauty and consumerism, celebrating the girls' ability to find joy and creativity in the face of imperfection.

In conclusion, "Barbie-Q" portrays the resilience and creativity of two young girls who find beauty and joy in imperfect Barbie dolls. Through their imaginative play and ability to embrace flaws, the story conveys a powerful message about the value of seeing beyond surface appearances and finding happiness in unexpected places.

Love and Longing in "Tin Tan Tan"

"Tin Tan Tan" is a poignant and lyrical story that explores the depths of unrequited love and longing. Written as a heartfelt poem from Rogelio Velasco to a girl named Lupita, the narrative delves into the emotional journey of the narrator as he grapples with the pain of lost love and the weight of unfulfilled desires.

The story opens with a brief Spanish introduction, lamenting the abandonment suffered by the narrator due to his poverty and marital status. The sense of despair is palpable, setting the tone for the emotional turmoil that follows. The poem is structured into six paragraphs, each representing a stage in Rogelio's emotional journey.

In the first paragraph, Rogelio expresses his deep affection for Lupita, describing her as the "thorn in my soul" and the "jewel of my life." This passionate declaration underscores the intensity of his emotions, highlighting the profound impact Lupita has had on his heart. The use of metaphors like "pebble in my shoe" and "jewel" conveys the dual nature of love, which can be both a source of discomfort and a precious treasure.

As the poem progresses, Rogelio's emotions shift from longing and adoration to anger and frustration. He accuses others of trying to take Lupita away from him, suggesting that external forces have contributed to their separation. This transition reflects the complexity of love, which can be marred by external influences and societal pressures.

In the latter paragraphs, Rogelio's desperation becomes apparent as he contemplates the possibility of Lupita being with someone else. He laments the idea of her being loved by another, emphasizing his possessiveness and jealousy. This internal conflict further deepens the emotional complexity of the narrative, portraying love as a tumultuous and agonizing experience.

The poem concludes with a sense of resignation and acceptance of his unrequited love. Rogelio imagines Lupita remembering him in a fleeting moment, symbolized by a "bouquet of tears" she might offer at his grave. This final stanza encapsulates the enduring nature of his love, even in the face of heartache and separation.

In "Tin Tan Tan," Cisneros captures the essence of unrequited love, portraying it as a powerful force that can evoke intense emotions, ranging from adoration and longing to anger and despair. Through Rogelio's poetic expression of his feelings, the story explores the depths of human emotion and the enduring nature of love, even in the face of separation and loss.

Friendship and Childhood Innocence in "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn"

"My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn" is a heartwarming narrative that celebrates the innocence and simplicity of childhood friendships. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator, who holds a deep admiration for her friend Lucy. Through their adventures and interactions, Cisneros portrays the joy of youthful companionship and the significance of cherishing childhood memories.

The narrator's admiration for Lucy is evident from the outset of the story. She describes Lucy as a fun-loving and charismatic girl who exudes an irresistible charm. Lucy's allure is not tied to material possessions or wealth but is rooted in her vibrant personality, making her a magnetic presence in the narrator's life.

The narrative captures the essence of childhood innocence and the ability to find joy in the simplest of pleasures. The narrator's desire to emulate Lucy's physical attributes, such as her tanned skin, reflects the influence of friendship on one's self-perception during adolescence. The narrator's willingness to sit in the scorching sun to achieve Lucy's skin tone emphasizes the depth of her admiration and the willingness to go to great lengths to be like her friend.

The story also highlights the idea of sisterhood as the narrator expresses a longing to have sisters like Lucy. The desire to sleep alongside Lucy and her sisters symbolizes the narrator's yearning for a sense of belonging and companionship that transcends her own family dynamics. This longing for sisterhood underscores the importance of friendships that can feel like family bonds.

The narrative is filled with vivid descriptions of the girls' playful activities and adventures, from running home backward and forward to exploring hidden spaces beneath the house. These activities represent the carefree nature of childhood friendships and the unbridled joy that accompanies them. The girls' ability to find amusement in seemingly mundane actions, like peeling a scab or sneezing on a cat, highlights the magic of their companionship.

Through "My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn," Cisneros beautifully captures the essence of childhood friendships and the innocence of youthful connections. The story serves as a reminder of the importance of cherishing these early memories and the lasting impact of childhood companionship on one's life.

The Passage of Time and Regret in "Tepeyac"

"Tepeyac" is a reflective narrative that delves into the theme of the passage of time and the regret that can accompany it. The story is told from the perspective of the narrator, who fondly remembers her walks with her grandfather, Abuelito, in the neighborhood of Tepeyac. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that the relationship between the narrator and her grandfather holds both cherished memories and unresolved emotions.

The story begins with the narrator describing the market area and surroundings of Tepeyac, setting the stage for the nostalgic journey down memory lane. The market and the shop where Abuelito worked become symbolic of a bygone era, marking the passage of time and the inevitable changes that occur.

The heart of the narrative lies in the recounting of the narrator's walks with Abuelito. Each day, they would count the twenty-two steps up to their house, creating a ritual of connection and companionship. The act of counting these steps serves as a poignant symbol of their shared experiences and the constancy of their bond.

Throughout the narrative, there is a palpable sense of regret and longing. The narrator reflects on the days spent with Abuelito and the significance of their walks together. She recalls the simple pleasures of sopa de fideo and cafe con leche, as well as the comforting presence of her grandfather. However, as time passes, the narrator is filled with remorse for having left her home for a "borrowed country." Her departure and absence weigh heavily on her, and she grapples with the sense of abandonment she perceives in her grandfather's final moments.

The story concludes with a bittersweet reflection on the inevitability of change. The narrator revisits the neighborhood years later, only to find that their home has been sold, their store transformed into a pharmacy, and the rooms rented to strangers. This realization underscores the impermanence of life and the irreversible shifts that occur with the passage of time.

The title "Tepeyac" holds a significant cultural and historical reference, as Tepeyac is the hill in Mexico where the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared to Juan Diego. This adds a layer of cultural significance to the story, as the neighborhood's name connects it to a larger cultural narrative.

In "Tepeyac," Cisneros skillfully explores the theme of time's passage and the complex emotions tied to memories and regret. The narrative serves as a poignant reminder of the importance of cherishing moments with loved ones and the lasting impact of those connections even in the face of inevitable change.

Coming of Age and Gender Roles in "Eleven"

In "Eleven," Sandra Cisneros explores the themes of coming of age and the complex nature of identity through the lens of an eleven-year-old girl named Rachel. On her eleventh birthday, Rachel grapples with the idea of age and identity, wishing she could shed the layers of her past years and be anything but eleven. Cisneros cleverly uses the metaphor of an onion or tree rings to convey the concept of growing older, where each layer represents a year of experiences and emotions.

Rachel's reflections on age highlight the notion that one's sense of self is not defined solely by their current age but is a culmination of past experiences and emotions. She describes moments when her younger selves, the "stupid" and scared parts, resurface in her actions and reactions. This narrative technique effectively captures the idea that one's past selves continue to coexist within them, influencing their thoughts and actions.

The central moment of the story occurs when Rachel is forced to wear a red sweater mistakenly attributed to her by her teacher, Mrs. Price. This episode serves as a microcosm of Rachel's struggle with identity and the pressure to conform to societal expectations. Her emotional response to the situation, including tears and frustration, mirrors the internal conflict that many individuals face when confronted with external perceptions of who they should be.

The story's irony lies in the fact that Rachel's distress intensifies as she tries to reclaim her true identity and assert herself. Her inability to articulate her feelings to Mrs. Price and her classmates reflects the powerlessness she feels in the face of societal expectations. Cisneros uses this situation to illustrate the dissonance between one's internal sense of self and the external roles and expectations placed upon them, particularly in the context of age and gender.

Ultimately, "Eleven" underscores the idea that growing older is not a linear progression but a complex amalgamation of past experiences, emotions, and the ongoing struggle to reconcile one's authentic self with societal pressures. The story resonates with readers of all ages, as it speaks to the universal theme of identity and the complexities of coming of age.

Feminism and Female Empowerment in "Woman Hollering Creek"

Sandra Cisneros' "Woman Hollering Creek" is a story that delves into themes of feminism, female empowerment, and the struggle against patriarchal norms. The narrative follows the journey of Cleofilas, a Mexican woman who leaves her homeland to be with her husband, Juan Pedro, in the United States. Her marriage, marred by abuse and oppression, becomes the focal point of the story as Cleofilas confronts the harsh realities of her situation.

The story begins with Cleofilas' recollection of her father's parting words, emphasizing the bond between parents and children. This theme of familial love and support contrasts sharply with Cleofilas' experiences in her marriage, where her husband's abuse and control dominate her life. Cisneros skillfully portrays the dichotomy between the unconditional love of parents and the complexities of romantic relationships.

Cleofilas' journey to the United States symbolizes the pursuit of the American Dream, which often promises a better life but can come at a significant cost. Her initial excitement and anticipation give way to the harsh reality of her marriage, where Juan Pedro's abusive behavior and his mistress, Felice, underscore the limitations of her freedom and agency.

Felice serves as a symbol of female empowerment and rebellion against patriarchal norms. She challenges societal expectations by driving a pickup truck and defying traditional gender roles. Her exuberance, independence, and refusal to conform to societal norms contrast sharply with Cleofilas' constrained existence, highlighting the choices available to women within a patriarchal framework.

The story's title, "Woman Hollering Creek," carries symbolic significance. Cleofilas is introduced to the creek by Felice, who hollers when they cross it. The act of hollering becomes a metaphor for women's voices breaking free from silence and oppression. It represents a reclaiming of agency and power as Cleofilas takes the first steps toward liberation.

As Cleofilas leaves her abusive husband and returns to her father in Mexico with her son, the story culminates in an act of empowerment and self-discovery. The narrative highlights the importance of recognizing and confronting oppressive relationships, even when societal expectations and cultural norms perpetuate them.

In "Woman Hollering Creek," Cisneros offers a powerful critique of gender roles and societal expectations, highlighting the need for female empowerment and self-determination. The story resonates with readers by portraying the journey toward self-discovery and the courage required to break free from oppressive relationships.


Sandra Cisneros' collection of short stories showcases her ability to explore complex themes such as coming of age, gender roles, feminism, and identity with depth and nuance. Through her skillful storytelling, she invites readers to reflect on the intricacies of the human experience and the societal forces that shape individuals' lives. Cisneros' narratives serve as a compelling exploration of these themes and provide a rich tapestry of perspectives and experiences.

Updated: Nov 09, 2023
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Themes of Identity, Gender, and Empowerment in Sandra Cisneros' Short Stories. (2016, Jun 19). Retrieved from

Themes of Identity, Gender, and Empowerment in Sandra Cisneros' Short Stories essay
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