I spent a year reading Caramelo.
Why would anyone take that long to read a book? Was it a thick tome requiring a substantial investment of time? Was it a difficult read with challenging vocabulary and/or deep philosophical concepts? Was it required reading for a class or job or book club? No. None of these apply.
I spent a year reading Caramelo because I didn’t want to leave the party.
The book has been described as having “all the energy of a riotous family fiesta” (The Washington Post) and “a book to read slowly and savor and if you can find a listener to read out loud” (Santa Fe New Mexican) and “Cisneros writes along the borders where the novel and social history intersect”; she gives the “voiceless ones a voice” and finds “the border to the past” (LA Times).
One can easily point to geographic borders on a map. But in this story the concept of borders is expanded to include not only physical places but places of the heart. Emotional borders separate people. Time, too, as delineated by the links that hold together past, present, and future, has its own distinct borders.
The narrative is told by Celaya Reyes, a young girl who is a keen observer of family life. The story skips across generations as it leaps the boundaries of time and place. In telling her grandmother’s life story Celaya also tells her own. At one time home is Chicago; another it’s Texas. But the true home of her family is always Mexico City, at least for the older generations of aunts and uncles and grandparents. Every summer the extended family packs the cars and makes the long trek from Chicago to Mexico City. Their journey is an exploration of history and family, love and lies — stories of lives that straddle the border and never feel entirely at home anywhere.
Caramelo refers to a cherished rebozo, a pretty caramel-colored shawl that has been passed down through generations of Reyes women. For Celaya it is also reminiscent of those wonderful goat-milk candies called cajeta that every Mexican grandmother makes. And the red clay of Mexican pottery. And the color of an Acapulco tan.
Cisneros has the unique gift of being able to say a lot in a few words and she bestows this quality on the young narrator…
“Spanish was the language to speak to God and English the language to talk to dogs.”
New immigrants from south of the border often find English to be strange and rude and to the point. They are surprised that, in this country, people rarely precede a request with “please” or ask if the other would “do a favor” or “be so kind as to….” To the ears of those who would not ask for anything without first offering a polite greeting, requests in English often sound more like commands. Every time I visit Mexico I have to keep this in mind and remember to say “please” before making a request. It’s a small thing, a small difference in customs, but it matters. I’ve traveled other places where any request or statement is expected to be preceded by a simple “good morning,” “good afternoon,” or “good evening.” Sometimes, in some places, if the pleasant exchange is skipped, the request is…well, not heard.
Caramelo is packed with other terrific one-liners. Here are a few favorites that could easily jumpstart a discussion about this book, any book, or life in general:
“Doubt begins like a thin crack in a porcelain plate.”
“I don’t know why people march into the disasters of the heart so joyously.”
“It’s no disgrace to be poor…but it’s very inconvenient.”
“Like the Mexican saying goes, he who is destined to be a tamale will find corn shucks falling from the sky.”
So, I spent a year reading Caramelo. No, this wasn’t the only book I read. I finished a whole bunch of others during that time. But I regularly returned to Celaya’s story, keeping connected to the characters and the daily goings-on, not wanting to let go – sort of like the same way I used to call home to catch up on Sundays before text messages and email made catching up quicker and easier and cheaper. Each reading session was a “visit” with characters so expertly drawn and so achingly authentic that days could pass with the book sitting idly on the shelf and I would not lose track of the plot. The plot here is secondary, in any case, to the rich development of character and family relations and the changing ways of looking at life over time.
The world changes us and we change our world for better or for worse.
A House of My Own: Stories from My Life by Sandra Cisneros, a wonderful compilation of nonfiction stories and other pieces, was published in October 2015.