“Caramelo“ is a lush, romantic saga, as rich and inviting as its name. The term also refers to the traditional, striped Mexican rebozo shawl, and much like that, weaves together a mix of fate, fantasy, fiesta, and food that could only come from the textured, colorful backdrop provided by the Mexican-American culture.
This is Cisneross long-awaited second novel since the acclaimed “The House on Mango Street“ in 1984. It deserves all the hype that surrounded its release. Big and vivid in every regard, it sings with the joy of life. Its hard to imagine someone not enjoying “Caramelo,“ and the scope of its story and characters virtually guarantee appeal to a wide range of readers, from youth to seniors.
The narrator of “Caramelo“ is young Lala Reyes, who shares three generations of her familys adventures, drawing comparisons to the rebozo because “the universe is a cloth and all humanity interwoven... one string and the whole thing comes undone.“ We learn early on that the Reyes clan, including their Awful Grandmother, make a yearly pilgrimage from Chicago across the border to Mexico City, which they see as the “Paris of the New World.“ Here, Cisneros sets the stage for the sharing of memories that will never fade:
“1. Verde, Blanco, y Colorado
Uncle Fat-Faces brand-new used white Cadillac, Uncle Babys green Impala, Fathers red Chevrolet station wagon bought that summer on credit are racing to the Little Grandfathers and Awful Grandmothers house in Mexico City. Chicago, Route 66 -- Ogden Avenue past the giant Turtle Wax turtle -- all the way to Saint Louis, Missouri, which Father calls by its Spanish name, San Luis. San Luis to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Dallas. Dallas to San Antonio to Laredo on 81 till we are on the other side. Monterrey. Saltillo. Matehuala. San Luis Potosí. Querétaro. Mexico City.
Every time Uncle Fat-Faces white Cadillac passes our red station wagon, the cousins -- Elvis, Aristotle, and Byron -- stick their tongues out at us and wave. -- Hurry, we tell Father. --Go faster!
When we pass the green Impala, Amor and Paz tug Uncle Babys shoulder. -- Daddy, please!
My brothers and I send them raspberries, we wag our tongues and make faces, we spit and point and laugh. The three cars -- green Impala, white Cadillac, red station wagon -- racing, passing each other sometimes on the shoulder of the road. Wives yelling, -- Slower! Children yelling, -- Faster!
What a disgrace when one of us gets carsick and we have to stop the car. The green Impala, the white Caddy whooshing past noisy and happy as a thousand flags. Uncle Fat-Face toot-tooting that horn like crazy.
If we make it to Toluca, Im walking to church on my knees.
Aunty Licha, Elvis, Aristotle, and Byron are hauling things out to the curb. Blenders. Transistor radios. Barbie dolls. Swiss Army Knives. Plastic crystal chandeliers. Model airplanes. Mens button-down dress shirts. Lace push-up bras. Socks. Cut-glass necklaces with matching earrings. Hair clippers. Mirror sunglasses. Panty girdles. Ballpoint pens. Eye shadow kits. Scissors. Toasters. Acrylic pullovers. Satin quilted bedspreads. Towel sets. All this besides the boxes of used clothing.
Outside, roaring like the ocean, Chicago traffic from the Northwest and Congress Expressways. Inside, another roar; in Spanish from the kitchen radio, in English from TV cartoons, and in a mix of the two from her boys begging Uncle for Italian lemonade. But Aunty Licha doesnt hear anything. Under her breath Aunty is bargaining... Uncle Fat-Face is fiddling with the luggage rack on top of the roof. It has taken him two days to get everything to fit inside the car. The white Cadillacs trunk is filled to capacity. The tires sag. The back half of the car dips down low. There isnt room for anything else except the passengers, and even so, the cousins have to sit on top of suitcases...To pay for the vacation, Uncle Fat-Face and Aunty Licha always bring along items to sell. After visiting the Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother in the city, they take a side trip to Aunty Lichas hometown of Toluca. All year their apartment looks like a store. A years worth of weekends spent at Maxwell Street flea market collecting merchandise for the trip south. Uncle says what sells is lo chillante, literally the screaming. The gaudier the better, says the Awful Grandmother.“
Lala is the only daughter of Inocencio (Grandmothers beloved son) and Zoila, and just as she inherited the rebozo from her grandmother, she is made the keeper of the familys tales. And what stories they are. Some are laugh-out-loud funny, some are heartbreaking, and some mere slices of life drenched with color and detail, but throughout, Cisneros provides page-turning material that almost always delights and surprises.
The riffs and tangents are many and constant, be they tortillas, Woolworths, the Roaring ‘20s, smoking, or family rituals and the necessary “heathy lies“ they create, to name just a few of the scores that surface. Still, Cisneros writes with such fluidity and confidence, that the narrative threads are often woven together while were looking the other way, dazzled by all the humor, hope, and heart.
This surely must be autobiographical in nature, but there is such universality in the themes of family that are presented thats its not difficult to juxtapose ones own extended clan onto the Reyes.
But none of this is to dismiss the sheer power of the writing here, which has rightfully earned a reputation as being one of those rare books that is equal parts literary classic and great summer beach read., not to mention its deft dancing across gender and culture lines. “Caramelo“ is a spirited kind of treasure, wise and curious and boisterous and intimate, all at once. Its greatest triumph, though, may be in the way it reaffirms the power of love and family, and does so in a manner that makes it seem new and wondrous. Something tells me it wont be long before I find myself picking this one up again.