Sandra Cisneros, America’s most-read Latina, utilizes the rebozo, the traditional Mexican shawl, as her primary metaphor throughoutCaramelo, the author’s first novel since her celebrated The House on Mango Street (1984). The eight-foot-long rebozo represents Mexico’s ultimate mestizo, or mixed article. Spanish in origin, it also enculturates native Indian influences and, in addition to protection from the cold, acts as an apron, a baby carrier, a tablecloth, and can even designate the marital status of a woman. Much like the time-honored rebozo, which features an intricately woven, multifaceted fringe, Cisnero’s autobiographical novel elaborately portrays a complicated pattern of family turmoil, tenacity, betrayal, love, and forgiveness that spans three generations.
Every summer Celaya Reyes, an American girl and the youngest of seven, travels in a family parade of cars from Chicago to Mexico City, crossing the border in Texas to “the other side.” It is in Mexico City that the young girl first encounters Awful Grandmother Soledad’s caramelo (striped) rebozo in the family home on Destiny Street. Caramelo, from which the novel takes its name, is the most highly prized rebozo due to its candy-striped pattern. Awful Grandmother, descended from a renowned clan of shawl makers, has carefully wrapped away her mother’s unfinished striped shawl in the family walnut armoire. Only in the glorious cloth’s silky embrace does the old woman find comfort, as she remembers her fairy-tale past. When young Celaya, otherwise known as Lala, spies the wonderful cloth, she asks immediately whether she can own it, but she has to wait until Awful Grandmother dies to make it her own. During this visit, the young American girl also meets Candelaria, the daughter of Awful Grandmother’s washerwoman. A poor, slightly older girl, whose caramel skin color represents the intermingling of Mexican cultures, the child is carried on her mother’s shoulders on three buses to Awful Grandmother’s house to wash the family’s dirty clothes. At Awful Grandmother’s quixotic insistence, Candelaria accompanies the family on an outing to an Acapulco beach but the trip ends miserably in family squabbles. Zoila, Lala’s mother, in a fury, insists on being left out of the car and Candelaria disappears. The hazily remembered events of this trip will come to play a meaningful role later on in Lala’s life.
The Americanized Lala and her brothers clash with Awful Grandmother, finding her cold, domineering, and detached. Lala soon realizes that Awful Grandmother loves only Little Grandfather and her son Inocencio, Lala’s papa, and disregards her other two sons, Uncle Fat-Face and Uncle Baby, and her daughter, Aunty Light-skin. In addition, she hates her daughter-in-law Zoila for stealing her favorite son. After Little Grandfather dies, Awful Grandmother moves north with her sons but, finding the Chicago winters intolerable, buys a house and sets up a furniture upholstery business for Inocencio’s family in warmer San Antonio, Texas. After making her daughter- in-law’s life even more miserable, Awful Grandmother suffers a stroke and soon after dies. However, she is hardly out of Lala’s life. Suffering great adolescent angst, Lala, who never has had a room of her own, suffers from lack of privacy as well as harassment at the hands of high-schoolers who despise her American ways, especially her correct use of English. The youngster does not know where she belongs. Abandoned on the freeway one afternoon after a beating by Cookie Cantu and her desperadas, Lala hears Awful Grandmother’s voice calling her and guiding her through the oncoming traffic. A pick- up truck changing lanes barely misses her. Because of her vicious ways, it seems, the old woman remains stuck between Earth and the afterlife. She must repent, make amends, and gain the forgiveness of those who suffered at her hands—and, Lala must be the medium through which this feat will be accomplished.
Awful Grandmother’s voice becomes louder and louder inside Lala’s head as she advances through her teenage years. At fifteen, she falls in love with Ernesto, her brother’s geek friend who arrives to rescue Lala, in fairy- tale prince fashion, in his white pick-up truck. The young couple runs away to Mexico City in an effort to force her family to approve their marriage. After a week of bliss, Lala’s lover comes to favor his Catholic upbringing over her own atheist ways and abandons her. Like her grandmother before her, Lala finds comfort in the caramelo rebozo she took time to pack. However, Awful Grandmother coaxes Lala through...
(The entire section is 1887 words.)