Sandra Cisneros writes a book about a complex family trying to fit within a set of predetermined societal and cultural rules while trying to uncover the truth’s of the past. Caramelo is an ethnic-cultural novel about identities and the homeland.
Celaya Reyes (“Lala”) is the main character of this story. She is the youngest of seven children, the only girl, and the favorite of Inocencio Reyes, her father. The latter leads to resentment from her mother and grandmother, who both vie for Inocencio’s love and attention. Throughout the book, Celaya narrates stories she has heard from her father or other members of her family, and with each story, she understands a little more about herself and her life. Her main revelation is that her mother and grandmother do not hate her simply for being herself, rather they belittle and insult her because they are jealous. They simply want to be loved the way she is.
Major Themes of Caramelo
One theme that the writer conveys in Caramelo is the way Mexican women are sheltered. She depicts a Mexican society that believes it is best to give as little information to women as possible, because the less they know the better off they are. It is a culture, according to Cisneros, that wants to protect its women from the world, and instead of educating girls about their bodies and sexuality, families are letting young girls fall into womanhood with no preparation at all.
Elders tell the girls to take care of themselves. This is often understood literally, but what the girls don’t know is that taking care of themselves means to protect their virginity. In the book, Celaya wonders if this means to wash her hands, wash and brush her hair often, take care of her clothes, and a number of other things that she knows about. She wonders why there is such a constant focus on taking care of herself and even wonders if she isn’t washing herself enough to warrant such constant unwarranted advice.
Parallels between the Women Protagonists in Caramelo
There is one major parallel between the three main female characters in the book. They are all square pegs jammed into round holes. They are trying to mold themselves into what society needs them to be, and they are all miserable. Soledad, the grandmother, wanted to fit into society’s mold. Even her name, which means “loneliness” portrays this empty feeling. Zoila, Laya’s mother, is very domestic and pissed off by her wife and mother roles. She wants more than what life has handed her.
Celaya is on her way to becoming bitter and upset like her mother and grandmother, but is unique. She has opportunities they do not, living in a different time amidst two worlds. Growing up as a part of the family’s new life in Chicago, she balances 1920s Mexico with 1950s Chicago, using the combination of the traditional and the modern cultures to help her mold herself into someone she desires to be.
The book is written in a clever way that reflects the genius of the writer. One of the main images of the book is a caramel-colored shawl that the Awful Grandmother’s mother began weaving, but left unfinished. This illustrates the point that the writer wants to convey, that life is often an unfinished story that can be unraveled and woven back together again, but never in the same way. Stories are told, and retold; sometimes outright lies prevail over the truth; and life remains a mess of stories and lies that people try to sort out. This book comes together wonderfully in the end, where it is left open-ended by the author. The message she conveys is that there is more to life than clean and perfect structure. The best part of life is like the fringe of a shawl, a beautiful tattered mess.
Caramelo was chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Tribune, and the Seattle Times. The book was awarded the 2005 Premio Napoli and nominated for several other prestigious literary awards.
Cisneros, Sandra. 2003. Caramelo. Vintage Books. ISBN 9780679742586. Paperpack. List price $14.95.
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Sandra Cisneros: Caramelo