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Carmelo, by Sandra Cisneros.

November 20, 2012

Carmelo, Sandra Cisneros. Knopf, 2002.

A delightful novel about four generations of a Mexican American family, a girl’s journey into womanhood and much more.

Sandra Cisneros is a fine writer, creative and eloquent.  In Carmelo, she gives us an epic story interwoven with a personal one, providing a sharp taste of life on both sides of the Mexican/US border.  Cisneros draws on her own family history, but openly changes it as she chooses among her memories. Clearly for her, truth is not what can be proven factually, but what is created.  Her book is full of humor and joy, and sprinkled with pain and sadness.

The narrator of the book is Celaya, whom we first see as a young girl from Chicago spending the summer with “the Awful Grandmother” and “the Little Grandfather.”  The whole family is there; Celaya, her parents and seven brothers as well as two uncles and their families who accompanied them from Chicago.  Celaya makes friends with another girl, whose significance we learn later in the book.

The girl Candelaria had skin bright as copper veinte centavos coin after you’ve sucked on it.  Not transparent as an ear like Aunty Light-Skin’s.  Not shark-belly pale like Father and the Grandmother.  Not red river-clay like Mother and her family.  Not the coffee-with-too-much milk color like me, nor the fried-tortilla color of the washerwoman her mother Amparo.  Not like anybody. Smooth as peanut butter, deep as brunt-milk candy.

She also sees the carmelo rebozo, a large scarf with stripes of carmelo, licorice, and vanilla, that her grandmother cherished because it had been made by her own mother.  Both the Grandmother and later Celaya would take refuge braiding and unbraiding the fringe of the unfinished rebozo.

In the next section, Celaya relates history from the period before she was born, a time when, as she explains, she was “dirt”—the dust to dust before and after life that she learned about in church.

When I was dirt is when these stories begin.  Before my time. Here is how I heard or didn’t hear them.  Here is how I imagine the stories happened, then.  When  I was sparkling and twirling and somersaulting happily in the air.

Here Celaya is primarily writing her grandmother’s story, but her grandmother doesn’t always approve of what she chooses to tell.  Their arguments about what the story should contain are sprinkled through the narrative, giving Cisneros a chance to explore the differences in the perspective of the person having lived a life and the one structuring it in a written narrative.

Celaya, why are you so cruel with me? You love to make me suffer. You enjoy mortifying me, isn’t that so?  Is that why you insist on showing everyone this…dirt, but refuse me one little love scene?
…I am not being filthy. And to tell the truth, you are getting in the way of my story.
Your story?  I thought you were telling my story.
Your story is my story.  Now, please be quiet, Grandmother, or I will have to ask you to leave.
…The less you tell me, the more I imagine. And the more I imagine, the easier it is for me to understand you.  No one wants to hear your invented happiness.  It’s your troubles that make a good story.  Who wants to hear about a nice person? The more terrible you are, the better the story.  You’ll see.

The long final section tells of Celaya as a teenager, angry at her parents and the grandmother who haunts her even after death.  Living for a time in San Antonio, she finds the Chicano border culture alien to her experience in either Mexico or Chicago.  Worst of all the other girls mock her for being white.  She struggles to define herself and to explore her sexuality.  In the end she finds joy in family surrounding her and realizes how her own face is the face of her father and her grandmother.  Finally realizing her own place in the family, she comments, “Maybe it is my job to separate the strands and knot the words together for everyone who can’t say them, and make it all right in the end.”   Thinking back on her childhood, Cisneros yearns for that time before puberty,”that bloody Rubicon,” “that red Rio Bravo you have to carry yourself over.”  For her childhood and Mexico, “these things, that song, that time, that place, are all bound together in a country I am homesick for, that doesn’t exist anymore.  That never existed. A country I invented.  Like all emigrants, I am caught between here and there.”

In addition to Cisneros’s layering of meanings,  her use of language marks her as unique. She shows little respect for standard English.  The text and the dialogue are full of incomplete sentences, many of them piling on each other as they try to say everything at once.  I don’t know if their rhythm is that of Spanish, only that whatever she does works to create a world both unfamiliar in its details and familiar in its humanity.  Celaya’s language changes as she matures, losing some of the breathlessness of her childhood.  Spanish words and phrases are used liberally, but Cisneros makes it easy for those of us who don’t know the language to follow along.  English words often repeat what has just been said in Spanish or the context offers guidance as to meaning. Some words are repeated so frequently that even I learned them.  And Cisneros makes it all seem easy and natural.

Another unusual feature of Carmelo is the way in which Cisneros grounds her personal and family story in historical facts.  Events of the Mexican Revolution and changes in Mexican culture are part of her family history. Historical notes at the end of chapters provide context for understanding the larger story.  They also comment on a mix of people and events in both Mexico and Chicago.  The book ends with an eclectic chronology of the Mexican and American history out of which her family came—starting with Cortez and ending with the 2002 canonization of Juan Diego, who may never have existed, and the death of a Mexican movie star.

I strongly recommend Carmelo to anyone who enjoys a well-written, often humorous, and original book, and to all who want a fresh perceptive on childhood, on migrants, and on those who cross the Mexican American border.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 20, 2012 7:11 pm

    I can say I never read a book about the life of a Mexican-American. Will read this!

    • November 22, 2012 6:12 pm

      Good. I think you will enjoy it. There are interesting differences and similarities with African Americans in Mexican narratives.

  2. November 21, 2012 7:39 pm

    I adore this book. I wrote part of my MA thesis on it. The humor is just so great!

    And Cisneros posted a link to your review on her Facebook page today! 🙂

  3. November 22, 2012 6:14 pm

    Thanks for telling that Cisneros linked to my review. I was curious why I suddenly had so many readers. And am flattered. What did she say? I couldn’t find anything.
    Good for you for writing about her in your thesis. I love to know what you said and who else you included. Any way I can find a copy and read it?

  4. lgwoodworth permalink
    December 3, 2012 10:34 am

    Marilyn,I would like to use your summary in a research paper but I need to cite your last name. Thank you! This is an amazing book!

    • December 5, 2012 9:21 am

      Thanks for citing me. Marilyn Dell Brady

      • December 8, 2012 10:16 am

        Did you get this? I hope so. Marilyn Dell Brady


  1. Recommended historical fiction, memoirs, and mysteries by people of color. | Me, you, and books

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