Genealogy rules Latino literature tyrannically. Is this as it should be? Among many of our authors, fiction is a device used to explore roots. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but a battalion of novels published within the past decade is about… what else if not multigenerational sagas, where ancestry becomes the clue to solving the mystery. You find it in the narratives of Victor Villaseñor and Cristina García, in Rosario Ferré and in the Chilean-cum-Latina Isabel Allende, and in scores of others too. How many more Buendía-like family trees are readers capable of handling? (Gabriel García Márquez, by the way, turns 75 this year, and the thirty-fifth birthday of his masterpiece, One Hundred Years of Solitude, has just taken place.)
Genealogical odysseys among Latinos are often called “magical realist” for lack of a better term. People, out of laziness, simply attach the exotic and the supernatural to the Hispanic imagination. Lewis Carroll had more magic than anything likely to appear in Juan Carlos Onetti’s mythical Santa María, but I’m afraid that doesn’t matter. Uruguay is a land of enchantment, isn’t it? By virtue of their mongrel self, minorities–ethnic, racial, linguistic–in the United States are propelled to rethink their status constantly. Who am I? How do I fit into this context, being infused, as I am, by another set of cultural motifs? And where on earth–literally and metaphorically–is home? Latinos are attuned to these questions in particular. El hogar, how might I define it? The answer, in fiction, comes in the form of transgenerational adventures: uno, dos, tres… sagas in every shape and form. Their ethos is different from the Macondo model’s, though. García Márquez’s Buendías are not, for the most part, migrants. They are born and bred in the exact same coastal corner of the world. In other words, the land was theirs before they were the land’s. In the literature of Latinos in the United States, the soil is not ours, at least not fully. Ours is a drive to make it our own.
Think of Elena Poniatowska, the famed Mexican journalist of Polish ancestry whose masterpiece on the Tlatelolco student massacre of 1968 is a classic. She has also produced a superb novel about a female criada, Here’s to You, Jesusa, as well as a multilayered novel about Italian photographer Tina Modotti. Poniatowska’s work is always political. Her characters exemplify the gender and class struggles that consume them, and their actions are at the crossroads where power and consent collide. A few years ago, Poniatowska explained to me the difference between a Chicana author and a female Mexican one: “The first one, Ilan, introduces herself thus: ‘Hola, mi nombre es Soila Fulanita. Soy chicana y lesbiana.’ The second one, instead, is rather naïve: ‘Hola, me llamo Dulce de Gracia.’ No national reference is given, no gender, no ideology.” The difference, Poniatowska insinuated, pertains to more than a mere how-do-you-do. It colors life in the United States altogether in shades of green, white and red, the colors of the Mexican flag. Thus, it also outlines the branches of the genealogical crusade.
Poniatowska’s norteña friend Sandra Cisneros recently published a long-awaited novel. It is a lavish, richly textured meditation on family and culture as perceived shrewdly by a Celaya “Lala” Reyes, the rebellious and verbose daughter of a middle-class Mexican clan in a condition–mental, physical–of constant mutation. Over the past decade, since Vintage reprinted her coming-of-age novella The House on Mango Street, Cisneros has become the favorite Latina author of her generation. Her life, her color preferences and her Frida Kahlo manners are the subject of legends, and also of heated debates. I’ve used the word Latina. Should I have used Chicana, instead? She is of a generation that struggled to break the semantic abyss between the two: Chicana (that is, Mexican-American, but with a political twist) by origin, Latina by the proximity to others whose ancestry is from the Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America. Caramelo emphasizes the universal by pointing to the particular. The book is dedicated, as its last sentence states, “a la Virgen de Guadalupe, a mis antepasados. May these stories honor you all.” There are scores of vírgenes in the Hispanic world, each with its mood and preferences. But all of them are the same, too: La Vírgen, the metaphor of metaphors–a vigilant Mother whose eyes never stop watching over her children. Likewise, the plot of Caramelo might be about a single Mexican clan, but Cisneros evidently aims it to be about the millions who “leave their homes and cross borders illegally” all over the world.
The structure of the novel isn’t innovative. It begins on Route 66, on a family trip to Acapulco, and it ends in another trip, one of reminiscence. Transitions, transitions… Lala’s consciousness is explored through pop-cultural references. Chapters are suffused with references to and quotations from songs, movies and stars famous and infamous, telenovelas and, less frequently, historical events and figures. Marlon Brando, Pedro Infante, Libertad Lamarque, Emilio “El Indio” Fernández. All inspire a passing comment, an insight into aesthetic and historical trends. Raquel Welch, for instance, who, as it happens, was Raquel Tejeda, parades through the pages, “and she’s Latina.” (Cisneros argues: “We would’ve cheered if we’d known this back then, except no one knew it except Raquel Tejeda. Maybe not even Raquel Welch.”) Lala takes pride in commenting on the cultural galaxy of gods and goddesses. Their abundance might feel obsessive, but therein, I think, lies the point. The protagonists are alive in that ethereal homeland that is the consumerism of ethnic culture. Where else might one be at home, en casa, if not in these referents?
As Caramelo progresses, the reader is brought into the awareness not only of Lala but also of her forefathers and foremothers, and the door is open for us to witness domestic feuds. At times it feels as if we’re keeping company with a contemporary, upwardly mobile version of Steinbeck’s Joads. Whereas they started in a farm near Sallisaw, Oklahoma, and end up outside Tulare, in the center of California, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, the Reyes family is more peripatetic: Chicago to San Antonio to Mexico City (described by one, in an affront to Buenos Aires, as “the Paris of the New World”). Their journey covers far more miles, for they aren’t transients but, instead, veritable migrant souls. This is not, as in The Grapes of Wrath, a struggle between destiny and conviction. Cisneros isn’t interested in large philosophical questions. Still, the Reyes family is equally at the heart of the American Dream–a dream deferred, no doubt; a different dream.
Curiously, the pages of Caramelo are nearly devoid of literary references. No connection is forged between Lala, ever an iconoclast, and the universe of intellectuals. Instead, it is music and the silver and small screens that become the fountainhead of imagery. Garrison Keillor once observed that the generation that matured in the 1970s and ’80s replaced personal memories with TV notes. If so, Lala is sublime proof. The scenes that build the story line have a fabricated feel to them, albeit by contrivance. This is because, as in the case of Ana Castillo, one of Cisneros’s sources of influence, the soaps, the ubiquitous telenovelas, represent a storytelling paragon. In a footnote, Cisneros even points out that
a famous chronicle of Mexico City stated Mexicans have modeled their storytelling after the melodrama of a TV soap opera, but I would argue that the telenovela has emulated Mexican life. Only societies that have undergone the tragedy of a revolution and a near century of inept political leadership could love with such passion the telenovela, storytelling at its very best since it has the power of a true Scheherazade–it keeps you coming back for more. In my opinion, it’s not the storytelling in telenovelas that’s so bad, but the insufferable acting.
The Mexicans and Russians love telenovelas with a passion, perhaps because their twin histories confirm la Divina Providencia the greatest telenovela screenwriter of all, with more plot twists and somersaults than anyone would ever think believable. However, if our lives were actually recorded as telenovelas, the stories would appear so ridiculous, so naïvely unbelievable, so preposterous, ill-conceived, and ludicrous that only the elderly, who have witnessed a lifetime of astonishments, would ever accept it as true.
Unquestionably, Lala sees herself as a present-day Scheherazade, and Caramelo is her Thousand and One Nights. The plot is rather unremarkable: a father’s extramarital affairs, his accidental conscription of a relative; a mother’s endless rages, the arts of upholstery and, more important, of rebozo-making; food and vacations and more food. The rebozo is the traditional Mexican shawl made in a custom that harks back to Andalucía. Caramelo means “caramel.” It is also a striped type of rebozo. In Cisneros’s novel it is a leitmotif across generations and object-cum-allegory that pushes toward the conclusion of the narrative.
Cisneros’s talent for succinct, impressionistic imagery is well recognized. The stories in the collection Woman Hollering Creek, as well as those in The House on Mango Street, which is barely 100 pages long, are all brief. They are also intense, compression being one of her hallmarks. To read a 440-page volume by Cisneros, then, is a shocker. Somehow, in the sweeping chronicle that covers more than a century of history, she manages to remain concise. Caramelo is composed of chapters so condensed, so meteoric, they feel like snapshots arranged in a family album. Symptomatically, the book concludes with an eccentric chronology that starts with Hernán Cortés and Moctezuma and ends with the canonization of Juan Diego in Mexico City by Pope John Paul II, followed by the death of silver-screen goddess María Félíx and a reference to the fact that her funeral cortege caused pandemonium. As Lala struggles to understand herself and her family tree through profiles of her parents and grandparents, it is evident that what she is after–and what Cisneros is driving toward, it appears–is a need to find the foundation of her culture. The Spanglish term rootas is apt: It is at once roots and routes.
Frequently, Caramelo includes footnotes like the one quoted above. Toward the midpoint of the story, as Lala looks back into her family past to offer the tale of her grandparents, one of her grandmothers, impatient with the tone of the tale, attempts to take control of the material. Lala is forced to negotiate with her. Are the footnotes a way to show that the author, Sandra Cisneros, is also a usurping power? In the end, the reader might ask, Whose story is this: Lala’s? Her grandmother’s? The family’s? Or is it the author’s, and hers alone? Postmodern play aside, the novel is a semiautobiographical crónica: Like Sandra, Lala is her father’s favorita, she lives in Chicago and San Antonio, she travels to Mexico City, etc. In the end, of course, who cares who is the one in narrative control?
The book’s alternate title is Puro Cuento, an expression in south-of-the-Rio-Grande Spanish that means simultaneously “only stories” and “untruthful tales.” Just as we read the conclusion, we come to the realization that Lala’s journey–her identity–is made of pure blah-blah-blah. Everyone around her talks, talks, talks, and she does too. Talking (in Yiddish, or perhaps Yinglish: schmoozing) is at once the characters’ joie de vivre and their raison d’être. These French terms might seem clichéd, but Caramelo is about clichés, about the art and act of turning them into truth. Lala herself reaches that conclusion:
And I realize with all the noise called “talking” in my house, that talking that is nothing but talking, that is so much a part of my house and my past and myself you can’t hear it as several conversations, but as one roar like the roar inside a shell, I realize then that this is my life, with its dragon arabesques of voices and lives intertwined, rushing like a Ganges, irrevocable and wild, carrying away everything in reach, whole villages, pigs, shoes, coffeepots, and that little basket inside the coffeepot that Mother always loses each morning and has to turn the kitchen upside down looking for until someone thinks to look in the garbage. Names, dates, a person, a spoon, the wing tips my father buys at Maxwell Street and before that in Mexico City, the voice that gasped from that hole in the chest of the Little Grandfather, the great-grandfather who stank like a shipyard from dyeing rebozos black all day, the car trips to Mexico and Acapulco, refresco Lulú soda pop, taquitos de canasta hot and sweating from a basket, your name on a grain of rice… All, all, all of this, and me shutting the noise out with my brain as if it’s a film and the sound has gone off, their mouths moving like snails against the glass of an aquarium.
It is at this level that Caramelo is most memorable. If nothing else, its inventive, irreverent use of the English language is something to reckon with. The Reyes family goes back and forth from Spanish to English. They also live in translation, so to speak. Hear them talk, and you’ll be mesmerized by the way they think in one language but use another:
The old proverb was true. Spanish was the language to speak to God and English the language to talk to dogs. But father worked for the dogs, and if they barked he had to know how to bark back. Father sent away for the Inglés Sin Stress home course in English. He practiced, when speaking to his boss,–Gud mórning, ser. Or meeting a woman,–Jáu du iú du? If asked how he was coming along with his English lessons,–veri uel, zanc iú.
In her delivery of the English style, Cisneros infuses the language with a flair that is enlightening. “Vamos al Más-güel,” a character states when announcing a trip to church on Maxwell Street. Or “May I trouble you to ask for what time is?” states one character, marked by the Spanish, ¿Puedo molestarlo con preguntar qué hora es? These automatic translations mark the entire volume. They made me think of the best parts of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ingenious yet unsatisfying Everything Is Illuminated: loose renditions, in neither Spanish nor English, and yet both at the same time. Throughout Caramelo, Cisneros also invents a system of dialogue that borrows from the Spanish. Rather than use the customary quotations, she uses dashes. The strategy might seem at first confusing, even clumsy, but it ultimately enables her to frame the Reyes family in a linguistic context that stands on its own. This is an achievement, for, more than anything else, son lo quer dicen y cómo es que lo dice: They are what they say and how they say it.
This, in short, is a work that displays maturity. Whereas The House on Mango Street was more about form than content and underdeveloped in approach to character, Caramelo is brave, kaleidoscopic and ambitious. Its length allows Cisneros to move in different directions at once, and to bring life to her creatures. These creatures do not always feel well-rounded, nor are they invariably interesting. But the effort that has gone into modeling them is a leap from Mango Street, and also from the concerns of an earlier group of Chicano writers who used the family saga. The oeuvres of Tomás Rivera, Rolando Hinojosa and Rudolfo Anaya are characterized by an attachment to the soil that is decisive. The genealogical epic in their work is also infused by a type of folklore, in the case of Anaya, that is found in religious rites and legends. Rivera’s And the Earth Did Not Devour Him is a series of interrelated vignettes about migrant life in Texas. These writers were succeeded by a generation defined by the civil rights era, particularly by the Chicano movement. Their tone was belligerent, their work a journey of self-definition in political terms–equality, justice and affirmation–and the literature they produced, at least in its early stages, was in the form of protest. A few of these authors moved on to a more introspective mood, but their activism still defines them. Cisneros inherited from them her confrontational ethos, but her connections to los Unaited Estaits are more abstractly put forth in her work.
In Caramelo her explorations of the labyrinthine dialogue between the United States and Mexico are sophisticated. They champion an erasing of borders, even as the border, in and of itself, is on its way to becoming a mere totemic barrier. Cisneros, like Poniatowska, is always ideological. But politics per se were relatively absent in her previous fiction, and in Caramelo they emerge in the form of reflections on America and, even more instructively, in comments on the precariousness of intraethnic relations. She sprinkles her narrative with sharp, arresting comments on Mexicans north and Chicanos south of la frontera: “Something happened when they crossed the border,” Cisneros writes. “Instead of being treated like the royalty they were, they were after all Mexicans, they were treated like Mexicans…. In the neighborhoods she could afford, [Lala’s grandmother] 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.” Elsewhere, her father, always ranting and raving about Chicanos, described them as “exagerados, vulgarones, zoot-suiting, wild-talking, mota-smoking, forgot-they-were-Mexican Mexicans.”
What does a single novel teach? Everything and nothing. Caramelo does not wean us from the genealogical tyranny that has become endemic in Latino letters. It is occasionally self-indulgent and does not always investigate archetypes under the freshest light. It does, however, present an opportunity to rethink the marriages of literature and society and of language and the novel in Latino letters. To what extent does pop culture replace individual memory? And what is the fate of English in our hands? Cisneros, by surfing on the obsessions that define her own generation, challenges us to go beyond. Through verbal ingenuity, through the unrepentant border-crossing of her imagination, her novel is as much Mexican as it is American. Might literature like Caramelo make Poniatowska’s distinction between Chicana and Mexicana vanish into thin air?