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
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
- 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
- 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,
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
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
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 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.
author of The House on Mango Street gives us an extraordinary new
novel, told in language of blazing originality: a multigenerational story
of a Mexican-American family whose voices create a dazzling weave of humor,
passion, and poignancythe very stuff of life.
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 Lalas possession. The novel opens with the Reyes annual
car tripa caravan overflowing with children, laughter, and quarrelsfrom
Chicago to the other side: Mexico City. It is there, each
year, that Lala hears her familys stories, separating the truth
from the healthy lies that have ricocheted from one generation
to the next. We travel 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 Twentiesand, finally, to Lalas own difficult
adolescence in the not-quite-promised land of San Antonio, Texas.
is a romantic tale of homelands, sometimes real, sometimes imagined. Vivid,
funny, intimate, historical, it is a brilliant work destined to become
a classic: a major new novel from one of our countrys most beloved
born in 1954, is the daughter of a Mexican father and a Mexican American
mother. She grew up in the poor neighborhoods of Chicago, where she attended
public schools. The only daughter among seven children, Cisneros recalled
that because her brothers attempted to control her and expected her to
assume a traditional female role, she grew up feeling as if she had "seven
fathers." The family's frequent moves, many of them between the United
States and Mexico to visit a grandmother, left Cisneros feeling alone
and displaced. She found refuge in reading widely and in writing poems
received her B.A. from Loyola University in 1976 and her M.F.A from the
University of Iowa Writers' Workshop in 1978. This workshop marks an important
turning point in her career as a writer -- the frustrations she encountered
at the Writer's Workshop inspired Cisneros' realization that her experiences
as a Latina woman were unique and outside the realm of dominant American
culture. Thus, Cisneros decided to write about conflicts directly related
to her upbringing, including divided cultural loyalties, feelings of alienation,
and degradation associated with poverty.
honors are fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the
MacArthur Foundation. She has taught many colleges and universities, including
the University of California, University of Michigan, and the University
of New Mexico. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.