Synopses & Reviews
The celebrated author of The House on Mango Street
gives us an extraordinary new novel, told in language of blazing originality: a multigenerational story of a Mexican-American family whose voices create a dazzling weave of humor, passion, and poignancy-the very stuff of life.
Lala Reyes grandmother is descended from a family of renowned rebozo, or shawl, makers. The striped caramelo rebozo is the most beautiful of all, and the one that makes its way, like the family history it has come to represent, into Lalas possession. The novel opens with the Reyes annual car trip-a caravan overflowing with children, laughter, and quarrels-from Chicago to “the other side”: Mexico City. It is there, each year, that Lala hears her familys stories, separating the truth from the “healthy lies” that have ricocheted from one generation to the next. We travel from the Mexico City that was the “Paris of the New World” to the music-filled streets of Chicago at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties-and, finally, to Lalas own difficult adolescence in the not-quite-promised land of San Antonio, Texas.
Caramelo is a romantic tale of homelands, sometimes real, sometimes imagined. Vivid, funny, intimate, historical, it is a brilliant work destined to become a classic: a major new novel from one of our countrys most beloved storytellers.
"A family saga with a zesty Mexican-American accent....Cisneros' keen eye enlivens descriptions of everything from Chicago's famed Maxwell Street flea market to a sun-stroked house on Destiny Street. Stylistically original....[Cisneros shows that] the only way to cope is with a robust sense of humor." Kirkus Reviews
"A lavish, richly textured meditation on family and culture." Ilan Stavans, The Nation
"Imaginative...charming....Cisneros weaves tales from her own childhood with fabulous fiction, whipping up the story of Lala and her eccentric Mexican and Mexican-American family. Guided by Lalas narration of her grandparents' and parents' histories, Caramelo engages in a kind of playfulness ('Tell me a story, even if it's a lie' is the quote that opens the book) that is utterly bewitching." Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Entertainment Weekly
"With Caramelo, her exuberant, overstuffed novel, Cisneros undertakes storytelling on a grand scale, detailing the struggles and joys of three generations of a family, evoking a subtle panorama of cultural shifts. Her characters leap from the page in all their flawed humanity, falling in and out of love, squabbling and making up, working hard and making do." Jane Ciabattari, Los Angeles Times
"It is Cisneros' unique use of language that lifts Caramelo from the category of a very fine novel and situates it among the great literature of our time." Margaret Randall, The Womens Review of Books
"Poet and writer Cisneros's sprawling, spirited Caramelo, her first novel since her hugely successful The House on Mango Street, revisits Chicago's Mexican-American community this time to retrace the story of the raucous, loving family of Lala Reyes, which stretches back through some tough years in San Antonio, Texas, to its roots in Mexico City...a tumultuous and eventful history. Vibrant and big-hearted like Lala herself, Cisneros's prose captures both the personal intimacies and the larger-than-life atmosphere of the Reyes family's passionate saga." Lisa Shea, Elle
"Writers tell secrets, and in so doing, reaffirm the truths of our lives, the strength of love, the marvel of endurance, and the power of generations. In Caramelo, Sandra Cisneros sings to my blood. Her words are sweet and filling, not sugar-driven but as substantial as meat on the bone. Hers is the kind of family I know well people who love and hate with their whole souls, who struggle and make over with every generation. She has done them justice on the page; she has given them to us whole." Dorothy Allison, author of Bastard Out of Carolina
"This book is a crowded train, a never-stop round-trip train going and coming back and going again between Mexico and the USA, across the frontiers of land and time: full of voices, full of music, made from memory, making life." Eduardo Galeano, author of Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World
"It's a crazy, funny and remarkable folk-saga of Mexican migrants told by a curious little girl who has the wisdom of an old grandma. Beginning on Highway 66, it's a salsified variant on the Joad family's odyssey, zigzagging from Chicago to Mexico City and back. It's all about la vida, the life of 'honorable labor.' It's a beautiful tale of all migrants caught between here and there. And it's a real lalapalooza!" Studs Terkel, author of Will the Circle be Unbroken
"Sandra Cisneros is like a bee that extracts new honey from old flowers. And Caramelo is like a Mexican candy that you suck slowly, savoring it under your tongue for hours; yet it is never sticky, never sugary nor sentimental. Cisneros possesses that most difficult ability to allow us to imagine that which never existed." Elena Poniatowska, author of Heres to You, Jesusa
The celebrated author of "The House on Mango Street" delivers an extraordinary new novel, told in language of blazing originality: a multigenerational story of a Mexican-American family whose voices create a dazzling weave of humor, passion, and poignancy--the very stuff of life.
About the Author
Sandra Cisneros was born in Chicago in 1954. Internationally acclaimed for her poetry and fiction, she has been the recipient of numerous awards including the Lannan Foundation Literary Award and the American Book Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the MacArthur Foundation. Cisneros is the author of The House on Mango Street, Loose Woman, Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, and a children's book, Hairs/Pelitos.
Reading Group Guide
1. From the novels opening epigraph—“Tell me a story, even it its a lie”—to its end, the relationship between truth, lies, history, and storytelling is an important theme. Posits Celaya, “Did I dream it or did someone tell me the story? I cant remember where the truth ends and the talk begins” [p. 20]. And while she is assuring us, “I wish I could tell you about this episode in my familys history, but nobody talks about it, and I refuse to invent what I dont know” [p. 134], she also acknowledges, “The same story becomes a different story depending on who is telling it” [p. 156]. For example, clearly the Awful Grandmother is sugarcoating the truth about her marriage to Narciso [p. 171]. What other aspects of the novel are evidently “untruthful”? Is the reader to believe that Caramelo
is just a “different kind of lie” [p. 246]?
2. Celaya says, “Im not ashamed of my past. Its the story of my life Im sorry about” [p. 399]. Whats the difference?
3. The narrative transitions from one storytellers point of view, or voice, to anothers in different parts of the story. For example, in Chapter 22, Celaya as the storyteller engages in a dialogue with the Awful Grandmother about the way the grandmothers story is being told [pp. 91-123]. Then, in Chapter 29, Narciso begins to tell his own story of when he lived in Chicago [p. 137]. And later, in Chapters 37-45, the dialogue between Celaya and the Awful Grandmother returns. Celaya seems to find her own voice and point of view in Chapter 59. What does the author achieve by shifting the viewpoint from character to character? How does the tone change to reflect the voices of a poor Mexican orphan, a young officer in the Mexican army, an American teenage girl, and others? How does this narrative device affect the readers ability to sympathize or empathize with the characters?
4. Often elements of one persons life are echoed later in the story, in either the same characters life or in another characters. For example, Cisneros uses the same sentence—“And it was good and joyous and blessed”—to describe Grandmothers first sexual encounter with Narciso [p. 154] and later her death [p. 348]. And the argument between Mother and Celaya [p. 359] echoes the earlier argument between Aunty Light-Skin and the Awful Grandmother [p. 262]. Where are there other examples of this repetition within the novel? What themes does this structural repetition help convey?
5. The family history that forms the central story line of Caramelo is structured in part chronologically and in part by the relationships formed by different family members. As our narrator informs us: “Because a life contains a multitude of stories and not a single strand explains precisely the who of who one is, we have to examine the complicated loops that allowed Regina to become la Señora Reyes” [p. 115]. Does this nonlinear plot structure support the assertion that family and history are without beginning, middle, or end, but are, rather, a “pattern” [p. 399]?
6. How does the historical chronology at the end of the novel edify the Reyes family events that take place within the body of the narrative—and vice versa? In other words, since the reader probably read the story before the chronology, how do the fictional family events illuminate the factual chronology of United States and Mexican history? Is Caramelo like or different from other historical fictions, such as Alex Haleys Roots, with which the reader might be familiar?
7. The theme expressed in the following statement is reemphasized throughout the novel: “We are all born with our destiny. But sometimes we have to help our destiny a little” [p. 106]. For example, Viva tells Celaya: “I believe in destiny as much as you do, but sometimes youve gotta help your destiny along” [p. 345]. What exactly is the nature or power of the “destiny” that the characters seem to revere? Who or what is really in control of the lives and histories portrayed? How is destiny different for Celaya, her grandmother, her parents, and her friend Viva? Celaya says of Ernesto: “He was my destiny, but not my destination” [p. 399]. What is the difference?
8. How does the oft-repeated phrase “just enough, but not too much” [e.g., p. 29] describe the kind of person the Awful Grandmother is? What aspects, if any, of the Awful Grandmothers life story parallel Celayas life story? Are the Awful Grandmother and Celaya alike in character, and if so, in what ways? How does Celaya, who upon her grandmothers death “cant think of anything to say for my grandmother who is simply my fathers mother and nothing to me” [p. 350], ultimately come to feel that shes “turned into her. And [can] see inside her heart” [p. 424]? What does the Awful Grandmother teach Celaya about herself?
9. Celaya writes, “On Sunday mornings other families go to church. We go to Maxwell Street” [p. 294]. Does she relate this cynically or humorously, or both? What religious beliefs does Celaya hold? How is her faith or religion different from Zoilas, who is portrayed as having no faith at all [Chapter 62], or from the faith or religion of the Awful Grandmother [see, for example, p. 191]?
10. What is the role played in the novel by the various Mexican or Mexican-American figures of popular culture who have encounters with members of the Reyes family? How does Cisneros use these characters to convey both the individuality as well as the universality of the Mexican-American immigrant experience?
11. The characters in Caramelo make frequent observations about Mexicans. For example, Zoila asserts that “all people from Mexico City are liars” [p. 353], and Celaya comments “Were so Mexican. So much left unsaid” [p. 428]. With what tone do the characters deliver these types of generalizations, and how are they to be interpreted? Why might these characters portray their native countrymen in this way? Do people of other cultures make similarly deprecating comments, and what purpose might making such comments serve for such people?
12. How does the Reyes family view the United States as compared to Mexico? How are the two countries portrayed in Caramelo on both political and social levels? Celaya observes that “[e]veryone in Chicago lived with an idea of being superior to someone else, and they did not, if they could help it, live on the same block without of lot of readjustments, of exceptions made for the people they know by name instead of as ‘those so-and sos” [p. 289-290]. Is this different or similar to how people from different classes or ethnicities (such as the Indians) in Mexico City treat or view each other?
13. The Reyes family members move fluidly throughout the book between Mexico and the United States. Does the ease of such movement diminish for each generation? How does the immigration of Inocencio and his siblings and first cousins reflect immigration between the countries in the middle part of the twentieth century, and how has immigration to the United States from Mexico changed today? How do the changes in immigration reflect the changes in the relationship between the countries? How does Caramelo reflect the immigrant experience generally for the middle part of the twentieth century, and how have changes within the United States both socially and politically affected the contemporary immigrant experience?
14. For the Reyes family members who immigrate to the United States, which elements of Mexico are preserved in America and which are lost in the process of assimilation? Is it necessary for an immigrant to lose something of his or her original culture in order to assimilate into a new culture and, once assimilated, are the old ways lost for good? Does being “American” mean something different for the first generation of immigrants such as Inocencio than for the American-born Zoila or their daughter, the American-born Celaya? How does Celaya reconcile her Mexican legacy with her American future, and does this reconciliation give meaning to the term “Mexican-American”? How do shifting external border relations between Mexico and the United States reflect or affect the characters internal conflicts between their Mexican and American identities?
15. Aunty Light-Skin proclaims: “Because thats how los gringos are, they dont have any morals. They all have dinner with each others exes like it was nothing. ‘Thats because were civilized, a turista once explained to me. What a barbarity! Civilized? You call that civilized? Like dogs. Worse than dogs. If I caught my ex with his ‘other Id stab them both with a kitchen fork. I would!” [p. 273]. What system of morality do the Reyes abide by? Does this code of morality reflect a more Mexican, more American, or a Mexican-American way of thinking? What cultural differences between Mexicans and Americans does Aunty Light-Skins proclamation illustrate?
16. “There is nothing Mexican men revere more than their mamas; they are the most devoted of sons perhaps because their mamas are the most devoted of mamas...when it comes to their boys” [p. 128]. What explains the strength of the relationship between Inocencio and the Awful Grandmother? Is the relationship between Zoila and Toto equally strong? Why or why not? How can mothers and daughters, such as Aunty Light-Skin and the Awful Grandmother, or Celaya and Zoila, successfully relate to each other in the face of such strong mother-son relationships? Is the favoritism these mothers show for their sons unique to Mexican culture? How does the bond between a son and his mother compare to the relationship between Celaya and Inocencio?
17. How does the fact of Candelarias parentage affect each of the family members differently—Zoila, the grandmother, Celaya? Does the information that Candelarias father is Inocencio change relationships between or among any of the Reyes family members?
18. Celaya says, “Life was cruel. And hilarious all at once” [p. 30]. And when things seem to have reached a low point in her life, she proclaims, “Celaya. Im still myself. Still Celaya. Still alive. Sentenced to my life for however long God feels like laughing” [p. 357]. What attitude does Celaya have toward her own life? What keeps her going?
19. Inocencio tells Celaya: “Always remember, Lala, the family comes first—la familia” [p. 360]. Does her needy call home to Papa after her episode with Ernesto in Mexico City prove her father right [p. 390]? How does Celaya reconcile her fathers statement about family with her own vision of her future as an independent woman?
20. The first time the word “caramelo” appears in the book is when it is used to describe Candelarias skin tone [p. 34]. The second time is to name the color of the Awful Grandmothers uncompleted rebozo [p. 58]. How are the two events connected? Why might Cisneros have chosen Caramelo for the title? What does the caramelo rebozo mean to Celaya the storyteller? To Celaya the Reyes family member? [See pp. 426-430.]
21. Cisneros employs elaborate and vivid food metaphors, such as “Regina was like the papaya slices she sold with lemon and a dash of chile; you could not help but want to take a little taste” [p. 117] and “Have you ever been that sad? Like a donut dunked in coffee” [p. 274]. Is taste the strongest sense her metaphors invoke? How does she also invoke the senses of smell, sight, and sound? What does Cisneros achieve stylistically or thematically by invoking these senses?
22. In Chapter 66 (“Nobody but Us Chickens”) the Grandmother gets sick—then, before Celaya reports to the reader her grandmothers fate, she relates in Chapter 67 (“The Vogue”) how she and Viva got caught shoplifting. Why might Cisneros have juxtaposed these two chapters? Celaya also sets up family mysteries and delays solving them until much later in the novel. For example, the mystery of why Celaya is missing from the photograph on the beach is answered later. Are there other examples of such mysteries, and how does Cisneros use these mysteries to structure the plot and move it along?
23. Does Celaya betray her father by telling the story? Is Inocencio right that the family portrayed in Caramelo appears “shameless,” as he cautions Celaya [p. 430]? If not, how might one describe the family portrayed in Caramelo?
24. How does Caramelo push the stylistic boundaries of a traditional novel? Does the authors use of footnotes; different voices; repetition; Spanish language, songs, and poetry; as well as other stylistic devices alter the definitions of form and structure? How do such stylistic devices reinforce the themes of the novel?
Sandra Cisneros, the award-winning author of the highly acclaimed The House on Mango Street and several other esteemed works, has produced a stunning new novel, Caramelo. This long-anticipated novel is an all-embracing epic of family history, Mexican history, the Mexican-American immigrant experience, and a young Mexican-American woman's road to adulthood. We hope the following questions, discussion topics, and author biography enhance your group's reading of this captivating and masterful literary work.
Born the seventh child and only daughter to Zoila and Inocencio Reyes, Celaya Reyes spent her childhood traveling back and forth between her family's home in Chicago to her father's birth home in Mexico City, Mexico. Celaya's intimidating paternal grandmother, adored and revered by Celaya's father, dominates these visits, and Celaya dubs her the Awful Grandmother. Celaya's story begins one summer in Mexico when she was just a little girl, but soon her girlhood experiences segue back in time-to before Celaya was born-to her grandparents' history. Celaya traces the Awful Grandmother's lonely and unhappy childhood in a Mexico ravaged by the Mexican revolution of 1911, her meeting and ultimate union with Celaya's grandfather, Narciso Reyes (the Little Grandfather), and the birth of their first and favorite son, Celaya's father, Inocencio. Inocencio Reyes moves to the United States as a young man, and soon meets Zoila, a Mexican-American woman, with her own colorful mixed-Mexican parentage. Celaya develops the portrait of her parents' love-based, but volatile, marriage and the growth of their own Mexican-American family. After the Little Grandfather's death, the family moves the Awful Grandmother up to the United States with them, first to Chicago, then to San Antonio. Soon afterward, the Awful Grandmother dies, leaving her teenage granddaughter to struggle with her unresolved relationship with her late grandmother. Through her grandmother's history, Celaya discovers her own Mexican-American heritage, enabling her ultimately to carve out an identity of her own in the two countries she inhabits and that inhabit her-Mexico and America.
As the family's self-appointed historian, or storyteller, Celaya's tale weaves Mexican social, political, and military history around intimate family secrets and the stormy and often mysterious relationships among multiple generations of family members. The marvelous, often riotous cast of characters that march through time and across the North American continent ranges from close family members to Mexican-American icons of popular culture that have random encounters with the Reyes family. (Remember Senor Wences with his painted talking hand (p. 224)? The spirited, likeable characters, while at times mythological in their characteristics, are always intensely human in their flaws and emotions. While each character can claim equal footing in the Reyes web of family and history, each holds a role of differing significance in Celaya's personal odyssey of connecting to her roots and carving her future.