Lala Reyes’ grandmother is descended from a family of renowned rebozo, or shawl, makers. The striped caramelo rebozo is the most beautiful of all, and the one that makes its way, like the family history it has come to represent, into Lala’s possession. “Caramelo,” a novel by Sandra Cisneros, is a romantic tale of homelands, sometimes real, sometimes imagined. It tells the story of a multigenerational Mexican-American family whose history travels from the Mexico City that was the “Paris of the New World,” to the music-filled streets of Chicago at the dawn of the Roaring Twenties. Cisneros discusses her book, with author Louise Erdrich (“The Master Butcher’s Singers Club”), who selected the March book club selection, on “Today.” Read an excerpt below.
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 yelling, — Faster!
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 waving.
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 . . .
Excerpted from “Caramelo” by Sandra Cisneros. Copyright© 2002 by Sandra Cisneros. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.