Caramelo Summary

Sandra Cisneros


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Caramelo Summary

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Caramelo (2002) by American-Chicana author, Sandra Cisneros, follows the only daughter of a large family as she comes to embrace her heritage while traveling between Chicago and Mexico City. The novel is semi-autobiographical and also considered a family saga. Cisneros is best known for her debut novel, The House on Mango Street (1984), which brought Chicano-American stories to the mainstream of American culture. In interviews, Cisneros said she turned to exploring the family sage in-depth after the death of her father.

The novel’s themes include discovering one’s voice, the humor and cruelty of life, and the threads between generations. The novel has eighty chapters and is nearly five hundred pages. Cisneros was praised for her skilled use of “Spanglish” in several scenes with extended dialogue.

The Reyes family is driving from Chicago to Mexico City to visit “Little Grandfather” and “Awful Grandmother.” In three separate cars, they’re a boisterous spectacle, including aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews, mothers and fathers. It is the late 1950s, and it’s tradition to visit their elderly family members every summer.

Lala (full name: Celaya) Reyes grows up a bit lonely and misunderstood by her family. Though she’s one of seven siblings, she’s the only female and also the youngest (which is also true for the author, Cisneros). However, she is (for reasons she doesn’t entirely understand just yet) the favorite child of Inocencio Reyes, her father. As the novel proceeds, it’s clear that Lala and Inocencio have a similar temperament: they’re both romantics.

Lala often butts heads with her mother, Zolia Reyes. Lala’s willful nature earns her comparisons to Soledad, or “Awful Grandmother.” Zolia and Lala fight over what to purchase at a thrift store; Lala wants something more memorable (and costlier) but the ever-practical Zolia forbids it.

Zolia hates her mother-in-law. In fact, the opening scene is of “the Awful Grandmother” relaying a secret story about Inocencio that is meant to embarrass Zolia. Soledad also likes to say that while wives come and go, everyone only has one mother. Zolia encourages everyone to detest Soledad, and her sons (for the most part) follow through by showing a strong preference for Narciso, “Little Grandfather.”

Lala is a keen observer of family life. She records arguments between Soledad and Inocencio. She observes how everyone treats the maid, Candelaria, with nervous energy; eventually, she realizes that Candelaria is Inocencio’s illegitimate child, and thus her half-sister.

Even though everyone refers to her Grandmother as “Awful,” Lala finds that she has the best stories. She senses that there is far more to her grandmother, including some tenderness and experience with betrayal than her “awful” exterior presents. When she returns to Chicago and explores Maxwell Street flea market, she will find great comfort thinking about her grandmother and realizing how her story helps her understand her own place in the world.

The narrative then switches to the second person. It is the 1920s. It soon becomes clear that this second person voice is that of “the Awful Grandmother.” The reader learns that Soledad descends from a family of shawl makers. The caramelorebozo (“stripped shawl,” rebozo for shawl) is the one material object she owns in the world with the most personal meaning. The special shawl made from silk has been passed down from one generation of Reyes women to the next; during their life, each woman added something to reflect their own life in the shawl.

One day, her grandmother invites Lala to work on completing the rebozo with her. As they go on extending the cloth, they relive their heritage and honor the ancestors who preceded them. At one point, Lala plays a game with her grandmother: she asks to retell her grandmother’s stories to her grandmother in an attempt to know why and how she became “awful.” As Lala recites what she knows about her grandmother’s teenage years, her marriage and move to the U.S. shortly after the Mexico Revolution ended in 1917, Soledad listens and interjects pertinent information.

As Lala reflects over her grandmother’s stories, she begins to understand herself. She is also increasingly empathetic toward her grandmother. The reader learns that Narciso, “Little Grandfather,” isn’t as nice as he claims to be. In fact, he showed great cruelty to Soledad through their years of marriage. This includes a long-term affair he had with a cabaret singer. He served some time in the Mexican Army but deserted.

Back in the U.S., Lala attends a Catholic school. Her parents got her free tuition after saying they couldn’t afford the move to San Antonio, Texas, where life would be easier for them and their business would more likely prosper. The priests felt sympathy for the family and allowed Lala to attend for free if she agreed to do housework around the church grounds part-time.

As Lala grows into a young woman, she finds the strict moral rules of the Catholic Church confining and depressing. When she meets Viviana Ozuna (nickname: Viv) she has a loud, confident friend to explore the world with. She has a heated affair with Ernesto that ends once his Catholic guilt becomes too much for him to bear.

The narrative jumps a decade into the future. Soledad has since passed, along with Narciso. Lala has appeared at the family gathering with the shawl around her shoulders.  At one point, she tastes it, instantly feeling a strong connection to all of the people she’s connected to, as well as her future descendants.