27 pages 54 minutes read

Sandra Cisneros


Fiction | Short Story | YA | Published in 1991

A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides with detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, and more.

Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “Eleven”

Eleven by Sandra Cisneros was originally published as part of Cisneros’s 1991 short story collection, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories. The collection won a number of literary awards, including the 1991 PEN Center West Award for Best Fiction. This collection primarily relays stories of Mexican American, or Chicana, women and how they relate to the world around them as minorities in a majority-culture system. Cisneros is known for incorporating elements of Mexican culture into her stories by use of imagery, language, and references to the family structure. While Cisneros’s works are not autobiographical, she draws heavily from her own lived experience as a Mexican American woman who grew up in Chicago.

Eleven tells the story of Rachel, a young girl who finds herself in a difficult situation on her 11th birthday. The situation reflects Rachel’s thoughts on how she doesn’t feel a year older—the marginalizing events of the story make her feel much smaller. Eleven is written in first person as a short-form narrative that often veers into stream-of-consciousness to emphasize the narrator’s youthful perspective and her overwhelming emotions.

The story begins with Rachel reflecting on “what they don’t tell you about birthdays” (Paragraph 1). She has never felt older on her birthday and believes that this is because a person is never one single age; rather, they are always all the ages they have ever been, “kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one” (Paragraph 3). She supports her belief on aging with an example of her own mother, who sometimes feels sad and as if she needs to cry. In such moments, Rachel likes to tell her mother that “maybe she’s feeling three” (Paragraph 1). Most importantly, Rachel notes that a person is not bestowed with the wisdom of a given age immediately on their birthday. She concludes that she won’t feel “smart eleven” until she is nearly 12 (Paragraph 4).

These considerations bring Rachel to her current situation. She is sitting in class, sincerely wishing that she held the wisdom of someone not merely age 11 but much older—perhaps 102. Rachel’s teacher, Mrs. Price, is searching for the owner of a mislaid red sweater that was in the classroom’s coat closet for a month. The sweater does not belong to Rachel, and moreover, she is extremely stressed at the prospect of being saddled with such an ugly, “raggedy and old” sweater (Paragraph 8). Rachel suspects the sweater is “maybe a thousand years old” and notes, “even if it belonged to me I wouldn’t say so” (Paragraph 7). She is repulsed by the sweater, which serves as a symbol of poverty and ostracization.

Rachel’s anxiety grows when Mrs. Price becomes certain the sweater belongs to her. A classmate described as “that stupid Sylvia Saldivar” proposes that the sweater belongs to Rachel (Paragraph 8). Rachel notes that Sylvia did this out of malice toward her, as she dislikes Rachel. Rachel is very shy and struggles to stand up for herself, feeling as if she has reverted to a younger version of herself. Although she feebly insists that the sweater does not belong to her, Mrs. Price decides that she has seen Rachel wearing it and places it on her desk. Mrs. Price then returns to the lesson, leaving Rachel feeling sick.

Rachel clings to the notion of her birthday to try and make herself feel better, remembering the celebrations with her family to come—her parents, the cake, the happy birthday song. However, the sweater remains on her desk, “sitting there like a big red mountain” (Paragraph 13). She creates as much physical distance between herself and the sweater as possible, planning to get rid of it during lunchtime. This plan is foiled when Mrs. Price reprimands Rachel in front of the entire class, forcing her to put the sweater on, which leads to such visceral horror that Rachel starts to cry, “like [she’s] three in front of everybody” (Paragraph 19).

When the bell finally rings for lunch, another classmate named Phyllis Lopez, identified as “even dumber than Sylvia Saldivar” (Paragraph 20), finally remembers that the sweater belongs to her. Rachel removes the sweater and gives it to her, and Mrs. Price does not acknowledge her error.

Rachel thinks about her family and her birthday, but the thought provides no comfort. The events in class have irrevocably spoiled her birthday. She desperately wishes to be any age but 11, and for the day to be far in the past, “like a runaway balloon” (Paragraph 22).