In the Spanish language, caramelo is a candy made of melted sugar, milk and butter—a caramel, in other words. In parts of Mexico, a caramelo is a kind of chewy cheese quesadilla. You can find the dish in Michoacán, and, for that matter, in Chicago, where the largest population of Mexicans outside of Mexico and the American Southwest is to be found.
And everywhere in Mexico, a nation as obsessed by ethnic gradations as any other, a caramelo is a person of a particular coloration, “smooth as peanut butter, deep as burnt-milk candy.”
Now, if the word caramelo can carry so many shades of meaning, the permutations of family, familia, are infinite. The father of Celaya Reyes, the wide-eyed, lovable center of Sandra Cisneros’s 2002 novel Caramelo, has skin “pale as the belly side of the shark,” while her uncle, the unfortunately named Fat-Face, is “small and brown as a peanut.” Other men and women of various physiognomies orbit at various distances around the vortex that is the Awf ul Grandmother’s house in Mexico City, the destination for a drive from El Norte 2,000 miles long. There’s Aunty Light-Skin, for one, whose nickname speaks volumes, and Uncle Snake, and Licha, and Fina, and Tarzan, and Aristotle….
That drive is the occasion, as one might expect, for tension but also of plenty of mischief and fun. Yet, Caramelo takes plenty of serious turns, too. Celaya, or Lala, as she’s affectionately called, and the Awful Grandmother never quite see eye to eye, and in time, this fact throws her into a dither when the old woman dies before they’ve had a chance to mend things. Lala’s journey through space then becomes one through time, as she explores the accidents of fate that brought such unlikely people together in the first place, stories set against the background of revolution and unrest, of migration and the heartfelt need to belong, and always of the primacy of family—“the only country I need,” as Papá says.
There are episodes with ghosts and witches, of riots and ventriloquism run amok, of the perilous straits of adolescence in the labyrinthine halls of a San Antonio (“Is hell San Antonio?”) vocational tech school meaningfully named for Davy Crockett. It’s a novel of noise, swirling dust and kaleidoscopic color. What calm there is to be found in it, and in Lala’s family life generally, comes from meals, glorious repasts of “lentil soup; fresh-baked crusty bolillos; carrots with lime juice; carne asada; abalone; tortillas,” the list stretches on.
And it comes from quiet evenings staring at the stars, wondering at the past and why things are the way they are, so that when Lala discovers that the mysterious caramelo girl she has met in Mexico is closer to her than she knew, and when she girds herself in a prized heirloom garment that just happens to be a certain color, she understands everything.
Sandra Cisneros, whose most recent book, Have You Seen Marie?, is a tale of grief, loss and, yes, of family, turns 60 this week. Having feasted on Caramelo, we look forward to more bounty from her pen in the years to come. ¡Feliz cumpleaños!
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.