A Common Thread
Let's face it. We all have family and friends who act like they just stepped off an episode of the sci-fi drama "The X-Files." But no matter how much we deny it, we are a part of them and they of us, thatched together in different colors, shapes and textures.
Sandra Cisneros, acclaimed Chicana author of The House on Mango Street, teaches us this in her latest novel, Caramelo, which has just been released in a newly updated paperback edition. The book follows the wild, chaotic and sometimes comedic travels of the Reyes family from the barrios of their home in Chicago to their roots in Mexico—with some self-examination thrown in the middle.
At the heart of the book is Celaya, the Awful Grandmother named Soledad, and the caramelo rebozo, or caramel-colored shawl, that stitches together the patterns of their family by layering story upon story, exploring every seam of their Mexican-American identity.
To understand the story, you must understand Cisneros' life. In the fusion of English and Spanish, in the intricately detailed prose, is the breath of her personality and history. Cisneros, an activist and teacher, traces her image in that of Celaya, a frustrated Mexican-American woman looking to find her status, not only in a family dominated by six brothers, but also in two distinct cultures. Celaya feels as if she is invisible to those around her, a portrait as incomplete as the one taken of her family, without her, on a trip to Acapulco.
It is only when the Little Grandfather, Narciso, shows the teenage Celaya Awful Grandmother's caramelo rebozo that she finds a way to mend the tangled knots inside her family's history and, eventually, herself.
A little over halfway through the novel, Cisneros explores Awful Grandmother's story. Ironically, she uses Celaya, who is constantly mocked by Grandmother, to delve into her mindset. It is not certain to whom Celaya is telling the story. It could be to the reader, it could be to herself, but one thing is certain: Grandmother is there to correct her, to make sure Celaya tells it the way she wants it to be told, to sweeten the pain of tragedy in her life.
Celaya figures out that no matter what part of the story is truth or fiction, she is her Grandmother. They both have dealt with the insecurities of love and the agonizing fight for respect in a male-dominated household, while being torn between two cultures.
In addition to being a color, caramelo is also a confectionery additive. From Celaya's father, Inocencio, working in decrepit conditions in Uncle Snake's upholstery shop, to her grandfather's affair with an island mistress, to an explosive family fight, to lost friends and lovers, to her parent's anniversary celebration, Celaya learns that when she untangles the knots, the figure-eight stitches, the double loops of events in her life, she uncovers the tender, sweet center of everyone and everything in this world, including her Awful Grandmother.