About the Author
Her classic, coming-of-age novel, The House on Mango Street, has sold over six million copies, has been translated into over twenty languages, and is required reading in elementary, high school, and universities across the nation.
In addition to her writing, Cisneros has fostered the careers of many aspiring and emerging writers through two non-profits she founded: the Macondo Foundation and the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation. She is also the organizer of Los MacArturos, Latino MacArthur fellows who are community activists. Her literary papers are preserved in Texas at the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University.
Sandra Cisneros is a dual citizen of the United States and Mexico and earns her living by her pen. She currently lives in San Miguel de Allende.
Hometown:San Antonio, Texas
Date of Birth:December 20, 1954
Place of Birth:Chicago, Illinois
Education:B.A., Loyola University, 1976; M.F.A., University of Iowa Writers' Workshop, 1978
Read an Excerpt
Acuérdate de Acapulco,
de aquellas noches,
María bonita, María del alma;
acuérdate que en la playa,
con tus manitas las estrellitas
-"María bonita," by Augustín Lara, version sung by the composer while playing the piano, accompanied by a sweet, but very, very sweet violin
We're all little in the photograph above Father's bed. We were little in Acapulco. We will always be little. For him we are just as we were then.
Here are the Acapulco waters lapping just behind us, and here we are sitting on the lip of land and water. The little kids, Lolo and Memo, making devil horns behind each other's heads; the Awful Grandmother holding them even though she never held them in real life. Mother seated as far from her as politely possible; Toto slouched beside her. The big boys, Rafa, Ito, and Tikis, stand under the roof of Father's skinny arms. Aunty Light-Skin hugging Antonieta Araceli to her belly. Aunty shutting her eyes when the shutter clicks, as if she chooses not to remember the future, the house on Destiny Street sold, the move north to Monterrey.
Here is Father squinting that same squint I always make when I'm photographed. He isn't acabado yet. He isn't finished, worn from working, from worrying, from smoking too many packs of cigarettes. There isn't anything on his face but his face, and a tidy, thin mustache, like Pedro Infante, like Clark Gable. Father's skin pulpy and soft, pale as the belly side of a shark.
The Awful Grandmother has the same light skin as Father, but in elephant folds, stuffed into a bathing suit the color of an old umbrella with an amber handle.
I'm not here. They've forgotten about me when the photographer walking along the beach proposes a portrait, un recuerdo, a remembrance literally. No one notices I'm off by myself building sand houses. They won't realize I'm missing until the photographer delivers the portrait to Catita's house, and I look at it for the first time and ask, -When was this taken? Where?
Then everyone realizes the portrait is incomplete. It's as if I didn't exist. It's as if I'm the photographer walking along the beach with the tripod camera on my shoulder asking, -¿Un recuerdo? A souvenir? A memory?
Verde, Blanco, y Colorado
Uncle Fat-Face's brand-new used white Cadillac, Uncle Baby's green Impala, Father's red Chevrolet station wagon bought that summer on credit are racing to the Little Grandfather's and Awful Grandmother's house in Mexico City. Chicago, Route 66-Ogden Avenue past the giant Turtle Wax turtle-all the way to Saint Louis, Missouri, which Father calls by its Spanish name, San Luis. San Luis to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Dallas. Dallas to San Antonio to Laredo on 81 till we are on the other side. Monterrey. Saltillo. Matehuala. San Luis Potosí. Querétaro. Mexico City.
Every time Uncle Fat-Face's white Cadillac passes our red station wagon, the cousins-Elvis, Aristotle, and Byron-stick their tongues out at us and wave.
-Hurry, we tell Father. -Go faster!
When we pass the green Impala, Amor and Paz tug Uncle Baby's shoulder. -Daddy, please!
My brothers and I send them raspberries, we wag our tongues and make faces, we spit and point and laugh. The three cars-green Impala, white Cadillac, red station wagon-racing, passing each other sometimes on the shoulder of the road. Wives yelling, -Slower! Children
What a disgrace when one of us gets carsick and we have to stop the car. The green Impala, the white Caddy whooshing past noisy and happy as a thousand flags. Uncle Fat-Face toot-tooting that horn like crazy.
If we make it to Toluca, I'm walking to church on my knees.
Aunty Licha, Elvis, Aristotle, and Byron are hauling things out to the curb. Blenders. Transistor radios. Barbie dolls. Swiss Army Knives. Plastic crystal chandeliers. Model airplanes. Men's button-down dress shirts. Lace push-up bras. Socks. Cut-glass necklaces with matching earrings. Hair clippers. Mirror sunglasses. Panty girdles. Ballpoint pens. Eye shadow kits. Scissors. Toasters. Acrylic pullovers. Satin quilted bedspreads. Towel sets. All this besides the boxes of used clothing.
Outside, roaring like the ocean, Chicago traffic from the Northwest and Congress Expressways. Inside, another roar; in Spanish from the kitchen radio, in English from TV cartoons, and in a mix of the two from her boys begging for, -Un nikle for Italian lemonade. But Aunty Licha doesn't hear anything. Under her breath Aunty is bargaining,
-Virgen Purísima, if we even make it to Laredo, even that, I'll say three rosaries . . .
-Cállate, vieja, you make me nervous. Uncle Fat-Face is fiddling with the luggage rack on top of the roof. It has taken him two days to get everything to fit inside the car. The white Cadillac's trunk is filled to capacity. The tires sag. The back half of the car dips down low. There isn't room for anything else except the passengers, and even so, the cousins have to sit on top of suitcases.
-Daddy, my legs hurt already.
-You. Shut your snout or you ride in the trunk.
-But there isn't any room in the trunk.
-I said shut your snout!
To pay for the vacation, Uncle Fat-Face and Aunty Licha always bring along items to sell. After visiting the Little Grandfather and Awful Grandmother in the city, they take a side trip to Aunty Licha's hometown of Toluca. All year their apartment looks like a store. A year's worth of weekends spent at Maxwell Street flea market* collecting merchandise for the trip south. Uncle says what sells is lo chillante, literally the screaming. -The gaudier the better, says the Awful Grandmother. -No use taking anything of value to that town of Indians.
Each summer it's something unbelievable that sells like hot queques. Topo Gigio key rings. Eyelash curlers. Wind Song perfume sets. Plastic rain bonnets. This year Uncle is betting on glow-in-the-dark yo-yos.
Boxes. On top of the kitchen cabinets and the refrigerator, along the hallway walls, behind the three-piece sectional couch, from floor to ceiling, on top or under things. Even the bathroom has a special storage shelf high above so no one can touch.
In the boys' room, floating near the ceiling just out of reach, toys nailed to the walls with upholstery tacks. Tonka trucks, model airplanes, Erector sets still in their original cardboard boxes with the cellophane window. They're not to play with, they're to look at. -This one I got last Christmas, and that one was a present for my seventh birthday . . .
Like displays at a museum.
We've been waiting all morning for Uncle Fat-Face to telephone and say, -Quihubo, brother, vámonos, so that Father can call Uncle Baby and say the same thing. Every year the three Reyes sons and their families drive south to the Awful Grandmother's house on Destiny Street, Mexico City, one family at the beginning of the summer, one in the middle, and one at the summer's end.
-But what if something happens? the Awful Grandmother asks her husband.
-Why ask me, I'm already dead, the Little Grandfather says, retreating to his bedroom with his newspaper and his cigar. -You'll do what you want to do, same as always.
-What if someone falls asleep at the wheel like the time Concha Chacón became a widow and lost half her family near Dallas. What a barbarity! And did you hear that sad story about Blanca's cousins, eight people killed just as they were returning from Michoacán, right outside the Chicago city limits, a patch of ice and a light pole in some place called Aurora, pobrecitos. Or what about that station wagon full of gringa nuns that fell off the mountainside near Saltillo. But that was the old highway through the Sierra Madre before they built the new interstate.
All the same, we are too familiar with the roadside crosses and the stories they stand for. The Awful Grandmother complains so much, her sons finally give in. That's why this year Uncle Fat-Face, Uncle Baby, and Father-el Tarzán-finally agree to drive down together, although they never agree on anything.
-If you ask me, the whole idea stinks, Mother says, mopping the kitchen linoleum. She shouts from the kitchen to the bathroom, where Father is trimming his mustache over the sink.
-Zoila, why do you insist on being so stubborn? Father shouts into the mirror clouding the glass. -Ya verás. You'll see, vieja, it'll be fun.
-And stop calling me vieja, Mother shouts back. -I hate that word! I'm not old, your mother's old.
We're going to spend the entire summer in Mexico. We won't leave until school ends, and we won't come back until after it's started. Father, Uncle Fat-Face, and Uncle Baby don't have to report to the L. L. Fish Furniture Company on South Ashland until September.
-Because we're such good workers our boss gave us the whole summer off, imagine that.
But that's nothing but story. The three Reyes brothers have quit their jobs. When they don't like a job, they quit. They pick up their hammers and say, -Hell you . . . Get outta . . . Full of sheet. They are craftsmen. They don't use a staple gun and cardboard like the upholsterers in the U.S. They make sofas and chairs by hand. Quality work. And when they don't like their boss, they pick up their hammers and their time cards and walk out cursing in two languages, with tacks in the soles of their shoes and lint in their beard stubble and hair, and bits of string dangling from the hem of their sweaters.
But they didn't quit this time, did they? No, no. The real story is this. The bosses at the L. L. Fish Furniture Company on South Ashland have begun to dock the three because they arrive sixteen minutes after the hour, forty-three minutes, fifty-two, instead of on time. According to Uncle Fat-Face, -We are on time. It depends on which time you are on, Western time or the calendar of the sun. The L. L. Fish Furniture Company on South Ashland Avenue has decided they don't have time for the brothers Reyes anymore. -Go hell . . . What's a matter . . . Same to you mother!
It's the Awful Grandmother's idea that her mijos drive down to Mexico together. But years afterward everyone will forget and blame each other.
*The original Maxwell Street, a Chicago flea market for more than 120 years, spread itself around the intersections of Maxwell and Halsted Streets. It was a filthy, pungent, wonderful place filled with astonishing people, good music, and goods from don't-ask-where. Devoured by the growth of the University of Illinois, it was relocated, though the new Maxwell Street market is no longer on Maxwell Street and exists as a shadow of its former grime and glory. Only Jim's Original Hot Dogs, founded in 1939, stands where it always has, a memorial to Maxwell Street's funky past.
Pouring out from the windows, "Por un amor" from the hi-fi, the version by Lola Beltrán, that queen of Mexican country, with tears in the throat and
a group of mariachis cooing, -But don't cry, Lolita, and Lola replying,
-I'm not crying, it's just . . . that I remember.
A wooden house that looks like an elephant sat on the roof. An apartment so close to the ground people knock on the window instead of the door. Just off Taylor Street. Not far from Saint Francis church of the Mexicans. A stone's throw from Maxwell Street flea market. The old Italian section of Chicago in the shadow of the downtown Loop. This is where Uncle Fat-Face, Aunty Licha, Elvis, Aristotle, and Byron live, on a block where everyone knows Uncle Fat-Face by his Italian nickname, Rico, instead of Fat-Face or Federico, even though "rico" means "rich" in Spanish, and Uncle is always complaining he is pobre, pobre. -It is no disgrace to be poor, Uncle says, citing the Mexican saying, -but it's very inconvenient.
-What have I got to show for my life? Uncle thinks. -Beautiful women I've had. Lots. And beautiful cars.
Every year Uncle trades his old Cadillac for a brand-new used
one. On the 16th of September, Uncle waits until the tail of the Mexican parade. When the last float is rolling toward the Loop, Uncle tags
along in his big Caddy, thrilled to be driving down State Street, the
top rolled down, the kids sitting in the back dressed in charro suits and
And as for beautiful women, Aunty Licha must be afraid he is thinking of trading her, too, and sending her back to Mexico, even though
she is as beautiful as a Mexican Elizabeth Taylor. Aunty is jealous of every woman, old or young, who comes near Uncle Fat-Face, though Uncle is almost bald and as small and brown as a peanut. Mother says, -If a woman's crazy jealous like Licha you can bet it's because someone's giving her reason to be, know what I mean? It's that she's from over there, Mother continues, meaning from the Mexican side, and not this side. -Mexican women are just like the Mexican songs, locas for love.
Once Aunty almost tried to kill herself because of Uncle Fat-Face. -My own husband! What a barbarity! A prostitute's disease from my own husband. Imagine! Ay, get him out of here! I don't ever want to see you again. ¡Lárgate! You disgust me, me das asco, you cochino! You're not fit to be the father of my children. I'm going to kill myself! Kill myself!!! Which sounds much more dramatic in Spanish. -¡Me mato! ¡¡¡Me maaaaaaaatoooooo!!! The big kitchen knife, the one Aunty dips in a glass of water to cut the boys' birthday cakes, pointed toward her own sad heart.
Too terrible to watch. Elvis, Aristotle, and Byron had to run for the neighbors, but by the time the neighbors arrived it was too late. Uncle Fat-Face sobbing, collapsed in a heap on the floor like a broken lawn chair, Aunty Licha cradling him like the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus after he was brought down from the cross, hugging that hiccuping head to her chest, murmuring in his ear over and over, -Ya, ya. Ya pasó. It's all over. There, there, there.
When Aunty's not angry she calls Uncle payaso, clown. -Don't be a payaso, she scolds gently, laughing at Uncle's silly stories, combing the few strands of hair left on his head with her fingers. But this only encourages Uncle to be even more of a payaso.
-So I said to the boss, I quit. This job is like el calzón de una puta. A prostitute's underwear. You heard me! All day long it's nothing but up and down, up and down, up and down . . .
Reading Group Guide
“Joyful, fizzy.... This is one of those novels that blithely leap across the border between literary and popular fiction.” —The New York Times Book Review
Sandra Cisneros, the award-winning author of the highly acclaimed The House on Mango Street and several other esteemed works, has produced a stunning new novel, Caramelo. This long-anticipated novel is an all-embracing epic of family history, Mexican history, the immigrant experience, and a young Mexican-American woman’s road to adulthood. We hope the following introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography enhance your group’s reading of this captivating and masterful literary work.
1. From the novel’s opening epigraph—“Tell me a story, even it it’s a lie”—to its end, the relationship between truth, lies, history, and storytelling is an important theme. Posits Celaya, “Did I dream it or did someone tell me the story? I can’t remember where the truth ends and the talk begins” [p. 20]. And while she is assuring us, “I wish I could tell you about this episode in my family’s history, but nobody talks about it, and I refuse to invent what I don’t know” [p. 134], she also acknowledges, “The same story becomes a different story depending on who is telling it” [p. 156]. For example, clearly the Awful Grandmother is sugarcoating the truth about her marriage to Narciso [p. 171]. What other aspects of the novel are evidently “untruthful”? Is the reader to believe that Caramelo is just a “different kind of lie” [p. 246]?
2. Celaya says, “I’m not ashamed of my past. It’s the story of my life I’m sorry about” [p. 399]. What’s the difference?
3. The narrative transitions from one storyteller’s point of view, or voice, to another’s in different parts of the story. For example, in Chapter 22, Celaya as the storyteller engages in a dialogue with the Awful Grandmother about the way the grandmother’s story is being told [pp. 91–123]. Then, in Chapter 29, Narciso begins to tell his own story of when he lived in Chicago [p. 137]. And later, in Chapters 37–45, the dialogue between Celaya and the Awful Grandmother returns. Celaya seems to find her own voice and point of view in Chapter 59. What does the author achieve by shifting the viewpoint from character to character? How does the tone change to reflect the voices of a poor Mexican orphan, a young officer in the Mexican army, an American teenage girl, and others? How does this narrative device affect the reader’s ability to sympathize or empathize with the characters?
4. Often elements of one person’s life are echoed later in the story, in either the same character’s life or in another character’s. For example, Cisneros uses the same sentence—“And it was good and joyous and blessed”—to describe Grandmother’s first sexual encounter with Narciso [p. 154] and later her death [p. 348]. And the argument between Mother and Celaya [p. 359] echoes the earlier argument between Aunty Light-Skin and the Awful Grandmother [p. 262]. Where are there other examples of this repetition within the novel? What themes does this structural repetition help convey?
5. The family history that forms the central story line of Caramelo is structured in part chronologically and in part by the relationships formed by different family members. As our narrator informs us: “Because a life contains a multitude of stories and not a single strand explains precisely the who of who one is, we have to examine the complicated loops that allowed Regina to become la Señora Reyes” [p. 115]. Does this nonlinear plot structure support the assertion that family and history are without beginning, middle, or end, but are, rather, a “pattern” [p. 399]?
6. How does the historical chronology at the end of the novel edify the Reyes family events that take place within the body of the narrative—and vice versa? In other words, since the reader probably read the story before the chronology, how do the fictional family events illuminate the factual chronology of United States and Mexican history? Is Caramelo like or different from other historical fictions, such as Alex Haley’s Roots, with which the reader might be familiar?
7. The theme expressed in the following statement is reemphasized throughout the novel: “We are all born with our destiny. But sometimes we have to help our destiny a little” [p. 106]. For example, Viva tells Celaya: “I believe in destiny as much as you do, but sometimes you’ve gotta help your destiny along” [p. 345]. What exactly is the nature or power of the “destiny” that the characters seem to revere? Who or what is really in control of the lives and histories portrayed? How is destiny different for Celaya, her grandmother, her parents, and her friend Viva? Celaya says of Ernesto: “He was my destiny, but not my destination” [p. 399]. What is the difference?
8. How does the oft-repeated phrase “just enough, but not too much” [e.g., p. 29] describe the kind of person the Awful Grandmother is? What aspects, if any, of the Awful Grandmother’s life story parallel Celaya’s life story? Are the Awful Grandmother and Celaya alike in character, and if so, in what ways? How does Celaya, who upon her grandmother’s death “can’t think of anything to say for my grandmother who is simply my father’s mother and nothing to me” [p. 350], ultimately come to feel that she’s “turned into her. And [can] see inside her heart” [p. 424]? What does the Awful Grandmother teach Celaya about herself?
9. Celaya writes, “On Sunday mornings other families go to church. We go to Maxwell Street” [p. 294]. Does she relate this cynically or humorously, or both? What religious beliefs does Celaya hold? How is her faith or religion different from Zoila’s, who is portrayed as having no faith at all [Chapter 62], or from the faith or religion of the Awful Grandmother [see, for example, p. 191]?
10. What is the role played in the novel by the various Mexican or Mexican-American figures of popular culture who have encounters with members of the Reyes family? How does Cisneros use these characters to convey both the individuality as well as the universality of the Mexican-American immigrant experience?
11. The characters in Caramelo make frequent observations about Mexicans. For example, Zoila asserts that “all people from Mexico City are liars” [p. 353], and Celaya comments “We’re so Mexican. So much left unsaid” [p. 428]. With what tone do the characters deliver these types of generalizations, and how are they to be interpreted? Why might these characters portray their native countrymen in this way? Do people of other cultures make similarly deprecating comments, and what purpose might making such comments serve for such people?
12. How does the Reyes family view the United States as compared to Mexico? How are the two countries portrayed in Caramelo on both political and social levels? Celaya observes that “[e]veryone in Chicago lived with an idea of being superior to someone else, and they did not, if they could help it, live on the same block without of lot of readjustments, of exceptions made for the people they know by name instead of as ‘those so-and so’s’” [p. 289–290]. Is this different or similar to how people from different classes or ethnicities (such as the Indians) in Mexico City treat or view each other?
13. The Reyes family members move fluidly throughout the book between Mexico and the United States. Does the ease of such movement diminish for each generation? How does the immigration of Inocencio and his siblings and first cousins reflect immigration between the countries in the middle part of the twentieth century, and how has immigration to the United States from Mexico changed today? How do the changes in immigration reflect the changes in the relationship between the countries? How does Caramelo reflect the immigrant experience generally for the middle part of the twentieth century, and how have changes within the United States both socially and politically affected the contemporary immigrant experience?
14. For the Reyes family members who immigrate to the United States, which elements of Mexico are preserved in America and which are lost in the process of assimilation? Is it necessary for an immigrant to lose something of his or her original culture in order to assimilate into a new culture and, once assimilated, are the old ways lost for good? Does being “American” mean something different for the first generation of immigrants such as Inocencio than for the American-born Zoila or their daughter, the American-born Celaya? How does Celaya reconcile her Mexican legacy with her American future, and does this reconciliation give meaning to the term “Mexican-American”? How do shifting external border relations between Mexico and the United States reflect or affect the characters’ internal conflicts between their Mexican and American identities?
15. Aunty Light-Skin proclaims: “Because that’s how los gringos are, they don’t have any morals. They all have dinner with each other’s exes like it was nothing. ‘That’s because we’re civilized,’ a turista once explained to me. What a barbarity! Civilized? You call that civilized? Like dogs. Worse than dogs. If I caught my ex with his ‘other’ I’d stab them both with a kitchen fork. I would!” [p. 273]. What system of morality do the Reyes abide by? Does this code of morality reflect a more Mexican, more American, or a Mexican-American way of thinking? What cultural differences between Mexicans and Americans does Aunty Light-Skin’s proclamation illustrate?
16. “There is nothing Mexican men revere more than their mamas; they are the most devoted of sons perhaps because their mamas are the most devoted of mamas...when it comes to their boys” [p. 128]. What explains the strength of the relationship between Inocencio and the Awful Grandmother? Is the relationship between Zoila and Toto equally strong? Why or why not? How can mothers and daughters, such as Aunty Light-Skin and the Awful Grandmother, or Celaya and Zoila, successfully relate to each other in the face of such strong mother-son relationships? Is the favoritism these mothers show for their sons unique to Mexican culture? How does the bond between a son and his mother compare to the relationship between Celaya and Inocencio?
17. How does the fact of Candelaria’s parentage affect each of the family members differently—Zoila, the grandmother, Celaya? Does the information that Candelaria’s father is Inocencio change relationships between or among any of the Reyes family members?
18. Celaya says, “Life was cruel. And hilarious all at once” [p. 30]. And when things seem to have reached a low point in her life, she proclaims, “Celaya. I’m still myself. Still Celaya. Still alive. Sentenced to my life for however long God feels like laughing” [p. 357]. What attitude does Celaya have toward her own life? What keeps her going?
19. Inocencio tells Celaya: “Always remember, Lala, the family comes first—la familia” [p. 360]. Does her needy call home to Papa after her episode with Ernesto in Mexico City prove her father right [p. 390]? How does Celaya reconcile her father’s statement about family with her own vision of her future as an independent woman?
20. The first time the word “caramelo” appears in the book is when it is used to describe Candelaria’s skin tone [p. 34]. The second time is to name the color of the Awful Grandmother’s uncompleted rebozo [p. 58]. How are the two events connected? Why might Cisneros have chosen Caramelo for the title? What does the caramelo rebozo mean to Celaya the storyteller? To Celaya the Reyes family member? [See pp. 426–430.]
21. Cisneros employs elaborate and vivid food metaphors, such as “Regina was like the papaya slices she sold with lemon and a dash of chile; you could not help but want to take a little taste” [p. 117] and “Have you ever been that sad? Like a donut dunked in coffee” [p. 274]. Is taste the strongest sense her metaphors invoke? How does she also invoke the senses of smell, sight, and sound? What does Cisneros achieve stylistically or thematically by invoking these senses?
22. In Chapter 66 (“Nobody but Us Chickens”) the Grandmother gets sick—then, before Celaya reports to the reader her grandmother’s fate, she relates in Chapter 67 (“The Vogue”) how she and Viva got caught shoplifting. Why might Cisneros have juxtaposed these two chapters? Celaya also sets up family mysteries and delays solving them until much later in the novel. For example, the mystery of why Celaya is missing from the photograph on the beach is answered later. Are there other examples of such mysteries, and how does Cisneros use these mysteries to structure the plot and move it along?
23. Does Celaya betray her father by telling the story? Is Inocencio right that the family portrayed in Caramelo appears “shameless,” as he cautions Celaya [p. 430]? If not, how might one describe the family portrayed in Caramelo?
24. How does Caramelo push the stylistic boundaries of a traditional novel? Does the author’s use of footnotes; different voices; repetition; Spanish language, songs, and poetry; as well as other stylistic devices alter the definitions of form and structure? How do such stylistic devices reinforce the themes of the novel?