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Purple Passions Swirl About Texas Abode

Home: 'Color is a language,' Latina author says; it's too loud for some.

August 11, 1997|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN ANTONIO — Sandra Cisneros' books are filled with the rich colors and lyrical textures of the border. They have won her great acclaim.

Sandra Cisneros' house is painted in the rich colors and lyrical textures of the border. It has run her afoul of municipal code 35-7200, San Antonio's historic-design ordinance.

The city says it's too purple.

"Color is a language, and either you are bilingual or not," responds the 42-year-old Mexican American writer, one of the literary world's most celebrated Latina voices. "Either you understand the color, or the color needs translation."

In San Antonio, a city that normally revels in its bicultural heritage, some people are seeing only red. Neighbors have complained that Cisneros' paint job is inappropriate for the stately 19th century mansions in her corner of town, once home to elite German merchants and now officially designated as the King William district. Code enforcement officers have ordered her to tone down the glowing periwinkle hue (technically, Sherwin Williams' Corsican Purple) or else face stiff fines in court.

"It's not about taste," the city's preservation director, Ann McGlone, said. "It's about historical context."

But the author of "Woman Hollering Creek" and "The House on Mango Street," whose sensually poetic prose was rewarded with a $255,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant in 1995, wants to know whose history is being preserved.

"Colors that I consider Mexican and beautiful, they consider Mexican and garish," said Cisneros, whose Victorian cottage was the color of pale custard until this summer. "This is really a story about the absence of color--about the absence of Mexican people when you talk about history in this part of the world."

The politics of purpleness came to a head here Wednesday, when Cisneros was called to defend her unauthorized palette before the city's Historic and Design Review Commission, a body more comfortable with the minutiae of sidewalk easements than with the impassioned rhetoric of cultural inclusion.

Keen to the theatrical possibilities of the moment, the appellant arrived in a ruby dress with matching lipstick, a lime serape draped from her bare shoulders down to the prickly pear cacti etched on her black and aqua cowboy boots. When she took the microphone and intoned her name--"SAHN-dra sees-NAY-rohs"--several dozen purple-frocked partisans in the audience broke into applause.

"I love San Antonio, Tejas," she declared.

The Chicago-born daughter of a Mexican father and Mexican American mother then launched into her argument, noting that she chose this city as her home in the early 1990s precisely because of its duality. "This is not Mexico, but it's not the U.S. either. It's a nether world of neither and both, a spiral, a helix, one contained inside the belly of the other," she explained in a written history of her house, which was submitted to the commissioners (and which she hopes to publish as an essay).

Her house, her first, had been a rental property for most of its 94 years, never dolled up like some of King William's more opulent Victorians. When she bought it in 1992, she began crafting her own vision of a showcase--replacing the front lawn with native plants, rebuilding the buckled walkway with Texas limestone and, ultimately, repainting the structure in what she calls colores fuertes, the intense spectrum of a people who have had to behold joy where they can find it.

"We don't have beautiful showcase houses to tell the story of the class of people I come from," Cisneros told the crowded City Hall chamber. "But our inheritance is our sense of color--and it's something that has withstood a conquest, plagues, genocide, death, defeat. Our colors have survived."

After settling on purple (she prefers to think of it more as a metastasizing blue a la Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo) trimmed by hyacinth and turquoise, Cisneros last fall applied to the Historic and Design Review Commission for a "certificate of appropriateness."

Her father, however, had fallen gravely ill and she was forced to spend the next several months caring for him in Chicago. Back in San Antonio, her contractor went bankrupt and her painter disappeared. Sketchy reports from them had left her with the impression (naively, she now concedes) that the commission would approve of her colors so long as none of her immediate neighbors objected, which none did.

But change doesn't come so easily in the King William district, part of which is a national landmark and featured in city tours. Approval for a new coat of paint hinges on at least one of three prerequisites--that the proposed color actually graced the house at some time in the past, that it can be found on other houses in the neighborhood, or that it was in general use during the historic era being preserved.

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