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A Story Woven From the Heart

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a painted Mexican trunk upstairs in her bright violet house in San Antonio, Sandra Cisneros, the godmother of Chicana literature, keeps her Mexican scarves rolled on broomsticks to prevent wrinkling. These woven treasures, known in Spanish as rebozos, provided the central image for her new epic novel, “Caramelo,” to be published Sept. 24 in English and Spanish by Knopf.

The caramelo is a candy-striped rebozo, but the word in Spanish also describes skin tone, one of the book’s many underlying themes. Cisneros spent nine years writing the book, a mosaic of storytelling, destiny, Mexican culture and immigration. Her collection of 30-some-odd rebozos, Mexican kitsch, journal writings and her own family history inspired the 433-page novel.

“Everything got thrown in the pot. It became an hommage to my father’s life. I hope ... it changes the way you look at people, at Mexicans and Mexican Americans,” Cisneros said by telephone.

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“Caramelo” is a multigenerational saga of the Reyes family, descendants of weavers who crafted rebozos to be used as shawls, baby slings and tablecloths. The story weaves back and forth between Chicago, where Cisneros grew up, and Mexico City, where her father was raised. He often grew homesick for his native country and Cisneros fondly remembers the car rides in a family caravan between the two countries in the summers.

Her father, Alfredo Cisneros del Moral, died in 1997. Cisneros was the only girl in a family of seven children. “My father was a Mexican who had a great love of Mexico. That gave me a great deal of knowledge about Mexican pop culture. My mom was more cerebral, more artsy. She listened to opera records.”

Surrounded by men in her family, Cisneros, 47, dreamed of being an economically independent woman, free to choose her own lifestyle. She now lives alone in the historic King William District, where her choice of house paint caused controversy some years ago. She has a boyfriend who lives in another city.

With elements of autobiography, “Caramelo” is narrated by Celaya “Lala” Reyes, a young girl whose Mexican parents frequently travel to Mexico from their home in Chicago. The story moves through different times in Lala’s life, pinning together the story of her great-grandparents, grandparents and parents, of U.S. immigration, the Mexican revolution and women in history. Repeatedly, Lala’s “awful grandmother” interrupts her storytelling to complain she’s not being truthful.

“They’re not lies. They’re healthy lies. So as to fill in the gaps. You’re just going to have to trust me,” Lala tells her.

Cisneros wanted to make it clear that Lala has control over the family’s story. Speaking in an aside to readers, Lala explains, “You are the author of the telenovela of your life. Comedy or tragedy? Choose.”

Latinas “are not in control of our lives,” said Cisneros. “Our cultural structure doesn’t give us control. I was trying to make Latinas more proactive.... We have inherited a lot of baggage from our religion and the culture of our society.”

Cisneros adds historical footnotes in which she explains the backgrounds of characters brought in for cameo appearances. Some come directly from Mexican folklore. “I didn’t want it to be dismissed as just fiction,” she said. “I am concerned about history and how these characters are affected by fiction. I was trying to write a story embedded in history, but history books leave out wonderful stories.”

Women in History

The legendary children’s singer Cri Cri, the renowned healer Maria Sabina, ventriloquist and Ed Sullivan guest Wenceslao Moreno, better known as Senor Wences, and dancer Tongolele are given roles in the Reyes family story. Mexican trivia also pops up, such as the fact that Mexicans began to name their dogs after Woodrow Wilson after he authorized a Marine invasion there in 1914.

The book ends with a four-page chronology of important historic events that begin with the Spanish conqueror Hernan Cortes meeting Aztec ruler Montezuma in 1519. Cisneros also tosses in facts such as the 1926 recording of “Jurame” by Jose Mojica, the Mexican Valentino, and the beginning of the bracero program, which gave 5 million Mexican laborers work permits for 20 years beginning in 1942.

Such footnotes are rare in fiction, said Renee H. Shea, a professor of English and modern languages at Bowie State University in Bowie, Md., but Cisneros used them well. They “were hilarious. There was such a sassiness about it. On the one hand, they seem random. On the other hand, they seem almost didactic. She is trying to connect a lot to popular culture,” trying to introduce Chicanos to performers from several decades ago.

Reviewers, too, seem pleased with the work. Booklist magazine wrote, “Cisneros combines a real respect for history with a playful sense of how lies often tell the greatest truths.” Publishers Weekly said the book’s “hilarious accounts of family gatherings and pitch-perfect bilingual dialogue make this a landmark work.”

A Solid Following

Cisneros gained legions of fans with her 1984 novel, “The House on Mango Street,” which sold 2 million copies. With its analysis of ethnicity and gender, that book soon became a staple of both middle-school and college curricula in American literature, women’s studies and multicultural studies. Cisneros’ subsequent books of poetry and short stories offered a provocative Latina voice as well.

“Caramelo” addresses race and class issues as certain characters try to distinguish themselves as whiter or richer than their neighbors or family members, in Mexico and in the United States. Lala’s grandfather, Narciso, tries to highlight his Spanish roots. Narciso’s family members “preferred to think of themselves as one of las familias buenas, whose coat of arms had once adorned the doors of these colonial buildings. After all, Senor Eleuterio was from Seville, as the family like to remind anyone and everyone.”

Later in the story, Lala explains that “something happened when [Mexicans] crossed the border. Instead of being treated like the royalty they were, they were, after all, Mexicans, they were treated like Mexicans, which was something that altogether startled Grandmother. In the neighborhoods she could afford, she couldn’t stand being associated with these low-class Mexicans, but in the neighborhoods she couldn’t, her neighbors couldn’t stand being associated with her.”

The story of Lala’s father, Inocencio Reyes, whom Cisneros has made an upholsterer like her own father, is one of a man trying to improve the lot of his family while keeping a toehold in his native land. Page after page there are poetic salutes to Mexico and to the barrios, analogies that alternately evoke sighs and peals of laughter.

Cisneros hopes the story has general appeal that will attract those who know little about Latino culture. “My book was written to protest xenophobia and the attitude against immigrants. I hope this is going to be a way to look at ‘the other’ more humanely,” she said. “This is a story about Mexicans and Mexican Americans, but it is an American story.”


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