Caramelo: Or Pure Cuento : a Novel
1. From the novel's opening epigraph–'Tell me a story, even it it's a lie.' –to its end, the relationship between truth, lies, history, and storytelling is an important theme. Posits Celaya, 'Did I dream it or did someone tell me the story? I can't remember where the truth ends and the talk begins.' (p. 17) And while she is assuring us, 'I wish I could tell you about this episode in my family's history, but nobody talks about it, and I refuse to invent what I don't know' (p. 136), she also acknowledges, 'The same story becomes a different story depending on who is telling it' (p. 159). For example, clearly the Awful Grandmother is sugarcoating the truth about her marriage to Narciso (p. 174). What other aspects of the novel are evidently 'untruthful'? Is the reader to believe that Caramelo is just a 'different kind of lie' (p. 250)? 2. Celaya says, 'I'm not ashamed of my past. It's the story of my life I'm sorry about.' (p. 410). What's the difference? 3. The narrative transitions from one storyteller's point of view, or voice, to another's in different parts of the story. For example, in Chapter 22, Celaya as the story-teller engages in a dialogue with the Awful Grandmother about the way the grandmother's story is being told (pp. 99—126). Then, in Chapter 29, Narciso begins to tell his own story of when he lived in Chicago (p. 139). And later, in Chapters 34—45, the dialogue between Celaya and the Awful Grandmother returns. Celaya seems to find her own voice and point of view in Chapter 58. What does the author achieve by shifting the viewpoint from character to character? How does the tone change to reflect the voices of a poor Mexican orphan, a young officer in the Mexican army, an American teenage girl, and others? How does this narrative device affect the reader's ability to sympathize or empathize with the characters? 4. Often elements of one person's life are echoed later in the story, in either the same character's life or in another character’s. For example, Cisneros uses the same sentence ('And it was good and joyous and blessed') to describe Grandmother's first sexual encounter with Narciso (p. 157) and later her death (p. 355). And the argument between Mother and Celaya (p. 371) echoes the earlier argument between Aunty Light-Skin and the Awful Grandmother (p. 268). Where are there other examples of this repetition within the novel? What themes does this structural repetition help convey? 5. The family history that forms the central story line of Caramelo is structured in part chronologically and in part by the relationships formed by different family members. As our narrator informs us: 'Because a life contains a multitude of stories and not a single strand explains precisely the who of who one is, we have to examine the complicated loops that allowed Regina to become la Se–ora Reyes' (p. 119). Does this nonlinear plot structure support the assertion that family and history are without beginning, middle, or end, but are, rather, a 'pattern' (p. 411)? 6. How does the historical chronology at the end of the novel edify the Reyes family events that take place within the body of the narrative–and vice versa? In other words, since the reader probably read the story before the chronology, how do the fictional family events illuminate the factual chronology of United States and Mexican history? Is Caramelo like or different from other historical fictions, such as Alex Haley's Roots, with which the reader might be familiar? 7. 'We are all born with our destiny. But sometimes we have to help our destiny a little' (p. 109) is a theme emphasized throughout the novel. For example, Viva tells Celaya: 'I believe in destiny as much as you do, but sometimes you've gotta help your destiny along' (p. 353). What exactly is the nature or power of the 'destiny' that the characters seem to revere? Who or what is really in control of the lives and histories portrayed? How is destiny different for Celaya, her grandmother, her parents, and her friend Viva? Celaya says of Ernesto: 'He was my destiny, but not my destination' (p. 411). What is the difference? 8. How does the oft-repeated phrase '[j]ust enough, but not too much' (e.g., p. 98) describe the kind of person the Awful Grandmother is? What aspects, if any, of the Awful Grandmother's life story parallel Celaya's life story? Are the Awful Grandmother and Celaya alike in character, and if so, in what ways? How does Celaya, who upon her grandmother's death 'can't think of anything to say for my grandmother who is simply my father's mother and nothing to me' (p. 357), ultimately come to feel that she's 'turned into her. And [can] see inside her heart' (p. 439)? What does the Awful Grandmother teach Celaya about herself? 9. Celaya writes, 'On Sunday mornings other families go to church. We go to Maxwell Street' (p. 301). Does she relate this cynically or humorously, or both? What religious beliefs does Celaya hold? How is her faith or religion different from Zoila's, who is portrayed as having no faith at all (Chapter 61), or from the faith or religion of the Awful Grandmother (see, for example, p. 196)? 10. What is the role played in the novel by the various Mexican or Mexican-American figures of popular culture who have encounters with members of the Reyes family? How does Cisneros use these characters to convey both the individuality as well as the universality of the Mexican-American immigrant experience? 11. The characters in Caramelo make frequent observations about Mexicans. For example, the Little Grandfather claims that being Mexican means loving as intensely as hating (p. 56; and p. 282), Zoila asserts that 'all people from Mexico City are liars' (p. 360), and Celaya comments that Mexicans 'leave much unsaid' (p. 442). With what tone do the characters deliver these types of generalizations, and how are they to be interpreted? Why might these characters portray their native countrymen in this way? Do people of other cultures make similarly deprecating comments, and what purpose might making such comments serve for such people? 12. . How does the Reyes family view the United States as compared to Mexico? How are the two countries portrayed in Caramelo on both political and social levels? Celaya observes that '[e]veryone in Chicago lived with an idea of being superior to someone else, and they did not, if they could help it, live on the same block without of lot of readjustments, of exceptions made for the people they know by name instead of as 'those so-and so's' ' (p. 297). Is this different or similar to how people from different classes or ethnicities (such as the Indians) in Mexico City treat or view each other? 13. The Reyes family members move fluidly throughout the book between Mexico and the United States. Does the ease of such movement diminish for each generation? How does the immigration of Inocencio and his siblings and first cousins reflect immigration between the countries in the middle part of the twentieth century, and how has immigration to the United States from Mexico changed today? How do the changes in immigration reflect the changes in the relationship between the countries? How does Caramelo reflect the immigrant experience generally for the middle part of the twentieth century, and how have changes within the United States both socially and politically affected the contemporary immigrant experience? 14. For the Reyes family members who immigrate to the United States, which elements of Mexico are preserved in America and which are lost in the process of assimilation? Is it necessary for an immigrant to lose something of his or her original culture in order to assimilate into a new culture and, once assimilated, are the old ways lost for good? Does being
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Acapulco Antonieta Araceli Aunty Light-Skin Awful Grandmother beautiful body boys brothers Candelaria caramelo Celaya chairs Chicago courtyard dance dark door dress Eleuterio Enrique Ernesto everything eyes face Father says feel forget funkadelics girl Grandmother's hair hands head hear heart hell hurt Inocencio inside Juchi kids kiss kitchen La-Z-Boy Lala Lalita laugh Leandro Valle Licha Little Grandfather live Lolo look Mama Maria Sabina married Maxwell Street Memo Mexican Mexico City Mother says mouth movie Narciso Reyes never night Ninfa's Pedro Infante Petenera Pine-Sol Rafa reboio Regina remember San Antonio Senor shoes shouts sleep smell Soledad Soledad Reyes someone Spanish story sweet talk tamales telenovela tell there's things thought Tongolele tortillas Uncle Baby Uncle Fat-Face Virgen de Guadalupe Viva walk watch wearing What's woman Zoila