I’m ashamed to say it, but in my high school days, I thought the only “good” books were written by white male writers. My view of what a “good” book is has changed drastically since then, but at the time, most of what I read for class was written by a white male, so that’s what was ingrained into my reading habits. I had no exposure to any other literature, and I was too naive to seek for more diverse writers on my own. I deeply regret it and even more so after having read Sandra Cisneros’ “Caramelo.”
This is one of those books without a linear plot, which are actually some of my favorite books. “Caramelo” is structured in a way that is reminiscent of the rebozo, or shawl, that is at the centerpiece of the book. There are intertwining stories, as there are intertwining threads, and each story goes from one generation to another, just as the rebozo’s journey from one woman to another. For this reason, summarizing the plot is not exactly the best way to talk about this book. Instead, I am going to jump right into some of the book’s themes and Cisneros’ writing.
Celaya “Lala” Reyes, our narrator and protagonist, has varying relationships with her family members, which is why family is a major theme in this book. Her relationship with grandmother, Soledad (aka the Awful Grandmother), and her father, Inocencio, are particularly special. The Awful Grandmother and Lala’s relationship is rocky; she constantly belittles Lala and the way she carries herself. Any little thing Lala does can set her off. In other words, Lala’s Americanness bothers her grandmother, but I suspect it is mostly because it reminds her of the fact that her son lives in Chicago, which is far far away from Mexico City.
The Awful Grandmother makes a narrative cameo in a wonderful back-and-forth exchange with Lala as she tells her grandmother’s life story. The exchange reveals much about these two characters and how, although they are very different from each other, they also share a lot of the same traits, including their love for Inocencio. The Awful Grandmother also follows Lala around even after her death as a constant reminder of how similar they really are.
Lala’s father constantly reminds her that no one will ever love her like her papá. Their relationship, although full of love and admiration, is not free of complications. Lala is Inocencio’s favorite, and not just because she’s the only girl and the youngest of her siblings. He holds her in a special place because he realizes how special it is to have a daughter in his life, since, as we later find out, he does not have the same relationship with the daughter that resulted from an affair he had in Mexico.
Their relationship is also complicated because of the way Lala wants to live her life, a way which goes against the traditional Mexican woman’s path in life. Lala wants to be independent, to make her own money, to live in another city away from her father’s house. She takes this a little bit too far when she runs away with her boyfriend to get married, only to regret the hurt this causes her father. The book explores this internal struggle of Lala both wanting to please her father and have her way with such honesty that it’s hard not to feel both Lala’s and Inocencio’s concerns for one another.
Cisneros knows how to weave the whimsical and wonderful aspects of life with the brutal, harsh realities. Lala’s narration is not only a form of storytelling, but a way of digging into her own thoughts and experiences and how they relate to everything else around her. In this way, Lala’s story perfectly captures the complications of being a Mexican girl in America. The expectations of how a Mexican girl should behave and what is expected of her at a certain age differ greatly from generation to generation, especially when one of those generations resides on the northern side of the border. A lot of what makes a Mexican family Mexican and a Mexican girl Mexican is challenged in this book. Ultimately, Lala does not forgot where she comes from or who her family is and is still her own person.
On a personal note, I don’t think I’ve ever related to a book this much. I wish I would have read this book sooner than I did. For these reasons and many more, “Caramelo” has become the latest addition to my favorites shelf on Goodreads. Do I even have to say it? Five out of five!