Caramelo is deliciously chewy, almost painfully sweet. But this book is not candy - more like an energy bar. It is tastiness with substance, good for you. There are so many perfect moments in this book, blocks of words that will make you laugh, cry, and most importantly, think. It will stay with
the reader for a long, long time. Anyone who has been involved in the Mexican-American culture will recognize the truth of this book. But then anyone who is human will, too. Although Cisneros has focused on one ethnic group, the appeal of this book, like any great story, is universal.
In the recollections of Lala Reyes, the baby and only daughter of the close-knit Reyes clan, Cisneros has captured the multiple struggles of growing up as a Hispanic girl with roots in two cultures and coming to terms with an imperfect family. Remember when you first realized your parents weren't perfect? That they had a life of their own that existed before and apart from you? Those are not easy revelations for anyone, and coming as they so often do while a young person tries to define their own role within the family and identity away from family, they can be overwhelming.
Originally from Mexico City, the three Reyes brothers have moved to Chicago where they run an upholstery shop, but
journeys to visit the woman Lala calls "The Awful Grandmother" and the rest of the family back home are an annual routine. Lala's childhood, like
that of so many Mexican-American children, is divided between "up here" and "down there". As soon as the border is crossed, the world transforms:
"Sweets sweeter, colors brighter, the bitter more bitter. A cage of parrots all the rainbow colors of Lulu sodas. Pushing a window out to open it instead of pulling it up. A cold slash of door latch in your hand instead of the dull round doorknob. Tin sugar spoon and how surprised the hand feels because it's so light…"
Yet the child is expected to conform to this strange and wondrous place. Are you
Mexican, or what?
So where does she fit it? Lala doesn't like "The Awful Grandmother." Over time, however, she comes to realize that she is very much like her. She inherits the caramelo rebozo, a candy-striped silk heirloom that was made by her great-grandmother, as well as the propensity to tell the family story, or what Cisneros calls "healthy lies." The Awful Grandmother is a bossy and stubborn female, yet wholly obedient to what her society expects of her. Don’t go walking alone, don't talk to strange men, don't, don't, don't. It's just not done. Lala wants more freedom than this. She wants to live alone, go to college, maybe have a career, but when she broaches the subject with her father, he tells her:
"If you leave your father's house without a husband you are worse than a dog. You aren't my daughter. You aren't a Reyes. You hurt me just talking like this. If you leave alone you leave like, and forgive me for saying this but it's true, como una prostituta. Is that what you want the world to think? Como una perra, like a dog. Una perdida. How will you live without your father and brothers to protect you? One must strive to be honorable. You don't know what you're asking for. You're just like your mother. The same. Headstrong. Stubborn. No, Lala, don't you ever mention this again."
Did The Awful Grandmother want more than she got, too? Was the pride, the braggadocio, the domineering nature that always put Lala off just a cover-up for hurt and sorrow, for lost opportunities and closed doors?
The characters in this book are so believable, you will get a déjà vu feeling, as if they were people you met long ago but had temporarily forgotten. The nicknames – Awful Grandmother, Aunty Light-Skin, Uncle Fat-Face, even Lala (short for Celaya) – are a great authentic touch. Cisneros clearly realizes that in the cultural reality of Mexican-American families, these descriptive terms are predominant. It is a rare child who is just Jesus, not Chuy or Flaco or Chango. Her language is beautiful, lyrical, humorous, tragic. But there is just no way a short review could highlight everything that is right about Caramelo; there's no use trying.