By Pablo De Sainz
December is almost here.
As soon as it arrives, many Mexican families living in the United States will begin their caravan down south for Christmas vacation: time to visit the family; time to relax; time to return to one’s or one’s parents’ place of birth; time for Chicano children to learn about their past and their roots.
All of this represents the classic trip to Mexico during Christmas. All of these traditions are present in Sandra Cisneros’s long awaited new novel, Caramelo (Alfred A. Knopf, 2002).
After almost 20 years since her The House on Mango Street, Cisneros returns with this novel that also narrates the world through the eyes and fresh voice of a young protagonist and narrator named Lala Reyes, whose family takes a trip to Mexico City every year to visit family. It is through Lala’s voice that the reader learns the history of the Reyes Family, of many women, of a country (Mexico), of a people (Mexicans in the United States), and above all, of Lala, a young Chicana growing up in Chicago in the ‘50s.
Cisneros spent almost a decade to write Caramelo. But her anxious fans’ patience paid off, and the fun-to-read Chicana writer has delivered a novel that, although it isn’t as spontaneous and fresh as The House on Mango Street, tells a story of self-exploration and acceptance of one’s environment and family.
Caramelo can also be considered an experimental novel in many levels. Fragmentation, common to Cisneros’s work, represents the form memories take when one tries to put them in order and make sense of them. There are 86 chapters in Caramelo, ranging from one single page to several pages. Also, the use of footnotes is another literary device that makes Cisneros’s novel more interesting. In these footnotes, Cisneros might explain why a character behaved in certain way, or might even toss a little history or cultural lesson. Of course, another aspect of experimentation is the long paragraphs written in Spanish, no translation provided. This, one can think, is a clear way to make non-Spanish readers feel left out. Perhaps it is Cisneros’s method to make readers who’ve never faced discrimination, feel marginality for the first time.
But even with all this experimentation, Cisneros does include themes that are constant in Chicana literature.
Family plays a central role in Caramelo. The Reyes Family is portrayed as Lala sees it. With villains like The Awful Grandmother and heroes like The Little Grandfather, the family is as real as many Mexican family: stories of oppressed women, of macho men, of Chicana children feeling trapped between two different cultures and languages.
Dorothy Allison, the acclaimed author of Bastard Out of Carolina, has said that “In Caramelo, Sandra Cisneros sings to my blood. (…) 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.”
Also, Mexican writer and translator of La casa en la Calle Mango, Elena Ponia-towska, said that “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.”
Born in Chicago in 1954, Cisneros is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Chicana mother. As a little girl, her family would take a trip to Mexico City every year. Caramelo is the result of those many trips.
Without a doubt, this December one of the yearly trips Mexican families take back to the motherland will serve as inspiration for a soon-to-be new Chicana writer to write her family’s own history, just like Sandra Cisneros has done in her new novel Caramelo.