Sentimental Journeys

By Sandra Cisneros

439 pages, $24.

Mexican-American writer Sandra Cisneros’ sprawling new novel, Caramelo, is, like its title—the Spanish word for candy—occasionally cloying. But in spite of its excesses, this rich literary confection makes for a delightful read.

By far her most ambitious and profound work, Caramelo is the chronicle of a migration, a curious catalogue of Mexican historical events and pop culture, and the saga of a vast Mexican family, the Reyeses—a “family” that encompasses friends, acquaintances, cult figures, historical personages and—or so it appears at times—the entire population of Mexico.

As in her earlier writing—Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, A House on Mango Street, and some of her poems—Cisneros is concerned with identity, religion, the art of writing, love, and feminism. But she is not, she tells us, particularly concerned with reality: “If, in the course of my inventing, I have inadvertently stumbled on the truth, perdónenme.” Events are sometimes remembered, altered, or simply imagined. In the long run, Cisneros insists, the truth doesn’t matter. The story does.

If “truth” is unimportant, so is any sense of chronological sequence. Instead, each of her characters’ voices—in particular those of the young narrator, her father, and her grandmother—emerge and reemerge. Cisneros leaps back and forth from one to the other weaving a complex pattern of stories and narrative threads, and she uses every trick in the book: Imaginary conversations with her characters, dreams, flashbacks, fantasies, and interior monologues.

The book becomes her telar, her loom, in much the same way a candy striped caramelo rebozo, a family heirloom, will come to represent her Mexican heritage and the nature of human relationships. In the words of the narrator, Lala, short for Celaya—also Mexico’s candy capital: “Each and every person connected to me, and me connected to them… . Pull one string and the whole thing comes undone. Each person who comes into my life affecting the pattern, and me affecting theirs.”

The novel follows three generations of the Reyes family on both sides of the border and opens with—What else?—a family portrait: “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.” The “immediate” family includes Lala, her father Inocencio, to whom the book is dedicated, the Awful Grandmother, Inocencio’s two younger brothers, their wives, children, Lala’s mother, and Lala’s six older brothers.

But this is no 1950s sitcom family, tucked safe behind its white picket fence. This family struggles to survive and makes do. They bicker, lie, backbite, split apart, and then make their peace because nothing is more important than family. “Always remember,” Inocencio tells his daughter, “…the family comes first—la familia.” They may be combative, dysfunctional, and not very likable, but they are always credible. Few equal Cisneros in her ability to convey with humor and compassion the significance of the family in Mexican culture, a culture threatened by gringoization as the Big Mac takes the place of the taco, chain stores force families out of business, and sweat shirts replace rebozos.

Her fear that the Mexico she knew as a child is disappearing partly explains the amount of space she devotes to Mexico’s past. (Cisneros also includes a chronology of historical events.) Ultimately, she recreates a Mexico so authentic it’s difficult to believe that much of which she writes has, in the 10 years it’s taken to complete this book, almost completely disappeared.

A large chunk of that time must have been devoted to gathering information. While the bare bones of research often provide the writer with a point of departure, Cisneros begins with her own stories—often short, simple vignettes, similar in structure to those she employed in Mango Street. (The book is comprised of 86 generally short chapters—some as brief as sound-bites—with a pilón, a little extra, thrown in.)

With the help of footnotes—always informative and sometimes witty—Cisneros adds fat to her “bones” with references to bizarre incidents and outrageous personalities from Mexico’s past, to soap operas, magic mushrooms, comic books, the Mexican Air Squadron, folk medicine, song lyrics, and assorted miracles. She writes: “So many unbelievable things happened to the people of Mexico City they could only be true.” While peripheral to the story line, these asides add depth and a baroque exuberance to her work.

Although much of the book takes place in Mexico, the Reyes family lives in the United States. Like migratory birds or Monarch butterflies, Inocencio, his two brothers and their families are often on the move, crossing and recrossing the border each summer: “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 the Awful Grandmother’s house in Mexico City. Chicago, Route 66 … to Saint Louis, Missouri … to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to Dallas. Dallas to San Antonio to Laredo on 81 till we are on the other side. Monterrey. Saltillo. Matahuala. San Luis Potosí. Querétaro. Mexico City.”

To a great extent, Caramelo is about immigration. And immigrants, regardless of their destination or country of origin, inhabit the same hostile universe. Most, in their quest for a better life, will experience poverty, fear, uncertainty, and prejudice. Among Cisneros’ greatest strengths is her ability to communicate the immigrant’s sense of dislocation and to capture the uniqueness of Mexican immigration.

Mexico’s proximity to the United States makes it far easier to leave one’s country but also far easier to return. (Your feet may cross the border, but your heart and head remain back home.) As a long-time American resident of Mexico, my experience is similar to that of the Reyes family, but in reverse. I also know what it’s like to straddle two different worlds. Consequently, my response to Caramelo, as to life in general, is split down the middle: The Mexican in me loved this book; the American—the part that reads and writes in English—had her reservations.

Like many native English speakers, I find that language that might work in Spanish tends to come across as maudlin—or as my mother would have said, schmaltzy—in English. The first part of Caramelo, in particular, is written in a little girl voice. It frequently employs such infantile expressions as “I have sleepy,” or “a sweet stinky,” and the continual usage of the double adjective—”white, white,” “quickly, quickly,” “black, black” and so forth. All of these expressions are examples of direct translation from Spanish to English. I’m not sure what effect Cisneros was trying to create, but it doesn’t work. (Peruvian writer Alfredo Bryce Echenique used similar techniques in A World for Julius. It didn’t work for him either.) After a while the line between charming, whimsical, and just plain sappy wears thin.

In the case of some Latin American writers, such excesses can be blamed on the translation. But not here. Cisneros was born in Chicago and writes in English. Yet much of the book reads as though it had been conceived in Spanish and literally translated into English. (Which, to some extent, I imagine it was.) For example, “Who opens the door is a crooked branch ….”

“Who opens the door,” replicates the Spanish syntax. I have no objection to such usage when it effectively communicates something that could not be communicated otherwise, but in this context, what is gained by the distortion? Or the use of “Estás deprimed” for “you’re depressed,” (from the Spanish word deprimida); or using “family of category,” a literal translation rather than the correct one, for a “classy family.” Such language tends to be artificial and distracting.

Granted, when used selectively and in moderation, replicating syntax and incorporating foreign words can add another dimension. After all, much is lost in translation. But not always. Sometimes using the foreign word is just the easy way out.

When questioned about her use of language (Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, University of Missippi Press), Cisneros explained: “The readers who are going to like my stories the best and catch all the subtexts and all the subtleties, that even my editor can’t catch, are Chicanas.” (And Chicanos? What about them?) She adds, “I think that incorporating the Spanish, for me, allows me to create new expressions in English, to say things in English that have never been said before. And I get to do that by translating literally.” However, I can’t help but believe that one of the reasons these expressions “have never been said before” is because they either don’t communicate meaningfully or there’s already a perfectly good English equivalent.

In addition, Cisneros often fails to convey the meaning of a word or phrase in context and refuses to use a glossary: “I’m not going to make concessions to the non-Spanish speaker,” she has said. (Shucks, if Umberto Ecco or Ezra Pound can get away with recondite allusions and scholarly Greek phrases, why shouldn’t she get away with Spanish slang, literal translation and word play?) I also believe she enjoys the irony implicit in writing in English for a previously neglected audience of Spanish speakers.

However, along with the irony, I sense a deep-seated resentment against—What? “The Establishment”? I can’t be sure, but in Spanish we would say that in her insistence on “not making concessions to the non-Spanish speaker” she’s being necia, that is, pigheaded. As the creator of a body of work, it’s her prerogative to write exactly as she likes, but in the end, she sabotages her writing and does herself a disservice.

And yet her readers are still well served. Despite its flaws, this is a remarkable book. The author has a real knack for dialogue and for developing characters we can’t help but care about. That, combined with her ability to create a sense of place, tell a gripping story, and transmit her unique vision of life in Mexico (and life in general), make Caramelo worth reading.

Diana Anhalt is a poet and writer in Mexico City. She is the author of A Gathering of Fugitives: American Political Expatriates in Mexico 1948-1965 (Archer Books).

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Published at 12:00 am CST