Tú eres mi otro yo – Your Story is my Story. Caramelo: Strands of Memory Woven into a Universal Pattern

Julia Andres,

Bielefeld University

In 1973, Chicano playwright and founder of “El Teatro Campesino” Luis Valdez wrote the epic poem “Pensamiento Serpentino”. This complex “Serpentine Thought” encompasses his views on theater, the Chicano Civil Rights Movement and an individual understanding of life which draws on Mayan, Aztec and Christian beliefs. This particular worldview centers on a motto that Valdez repeats several times: Tú eres mi otro yo – You are my other self. Following Valdez, we, as human beings, are all parts of a larger whole, an intricate universe, and we do not only coexist, but are virtually one and the same:

because you that read this
are me
and I who write this am you (174)

Consequently, all actions affect other people as much as the actor and the way we treat others is simultaneously the way we treat ourselves. Only with sincere appreciation for every life can we fully appreciate our own life. Since Valdez understands human life as symbiosis, the ancient concept he refers to and interprets in a modern sense also provides the opportunity to increase self-awareness or self-respect through the relationships to other human beings and their attitudes, problems and gifts. According to Valdez, it is only a question of perspective:

Ni les busques faltas
Because the faults you find in them
Are not in them: ESTAN EN TI MISMO
That is why you can see them so clearly[…]
A teenager worried about pimples
Will spot another person’s pimples
A mile away. (191)

Hence, if we acknowledge shortcomings, imperfections and grievances as not only individual but as recurring phenomena, we can progress from being static and partial critics to dynamic and understanding members of social fabrics with the will to improve. It is interesting to note that this philosophy as put forward by Valdez – also in the mitos by El Teatro Campesino – is already in itself a fusion of diverging beliefs and is inspired by Christianity as well as by Mayan, Aztec and Native American spirituality (Yarbro-Bejarano 177). Valdez developed his idiosyncratic worldview as a means to thwart the human prevalence of categorization. According to Jorge Huerta, the prime source for Valdez and Pensamiento Serpentino was the Maya-Quiche origin myth El Popol Vuh with its for the western mind peculiar life-death continuum (35-41). Huerta backs his observation with a reference to Valdez using the Maya term mucnal which simultaneously means “to plant corn” and “to bury a body” (41). Thus, very bluntly reducing complex beliefs systems to their most basic principles leaves a seamless fusion of separate entities: life-death, old-young, man-woman, you-me. Taking such a holistic worldview as his point of departure for Pensamiento Serpentino, Yolanda Broyles-González assumes that it must have been Valdez’s intention “to counteract the human fragmentation and deformation” (87) by underlining the “fundamental unity or fusion of all human action and performance, […]; the fundamental unity of all living beings of all races” (94). Through its grass-roots democratic, community-supportive message, Valdez’s poem from the Chicano nationalist era is helpful for an interpretation of a novel by a Chicana author, written some thirty years later.

Sandra Cisneros’s latest work, the 2002 novel Caramelo, makes use of Valdez’s philosophy as befits Cisneros’s style and notion of writing: Cisneros ties and knots life stories together, imitating the intrinsic pattern of the eponymous caramelo rebozo, a traditional Mexican shawl which reappears as a motif throughout the narrative.

© Rick Hulbert 2007
©El Periodico USA 2008

Rebozos are multifunctional items, in Mexico they have been used as decorative shawls, headscarves, skirts, belts, aprons, bags and baby slings for centuries, and Caramelo is as multifaceted as the woven cloth that lends its name to it. Sandra Cisneros devotes one of the many footnotes that accompany her novel to the history of rebozos, delivered in a style so characteristic of her writing: it combines objective facts with subtle comments on the particular situation of mestizos and mestizas:

The rebozo was born in Mexico, but like all mestizos, it came from everywhere. It evolved from the cloth Indian women used to carry their babies, borrowed its knotted fringe from Spanish shawls, and was influenced by the embroideries from the imperial court of China […](Caramelo 96).

The rebozo then is both a powerful symbol for the various connections and cultural ties a person with a bicultural heritage is subject to and the central item the plot revolves around. In eighty-six loosely connected chapters, Cisneros lets Celaya Reyes, the youngest of seven siblings of Mexican-American parents, recount her family’s story, while embroidering the life-stories of such outstanding female characters as the Awful Grandmother and Aunty Light-Skin with imagined details, connecting fact and fiction, memory and imagination. The novel not only mingles voices and versions, but also individual with political history: Numerous footnotes add historical facts to the fictionalized lives and link the characters’ experiences to those of bygone celebrities; the Mexican empress Carlota and the dancer Josephine Baker, to name only two.

Obviously, the manifold paths, tracks, traces and patterns the narrative takes up, connects, interrupts or reunites deserve a more appropriate label than the too often cited semi-autobiography and Caramelo’s diverse interpretations of remembering as a (sub-)conscious act a more in-depth analysis. Cisneros’s narrative strategy requires a tripartite agency consisting of author, text and recipient, with each part of this triangle contributing to the overall symbolic function of deconstructing essentialist discourse and ultimately essentialist thought.

In my paper I will argue that Caramelo most elaborately continues Cisneros’s approach to writing with a socio-political mission to democratize fiction by allocating narrative power to the disenfranchised and by rejecting traditional perceptions of womanhood and Latinidad. Her protagonist and first-person narrator, Celaya, exemplifies empowerment and encouragement via an increasing appreciation of her closely-knit ties to other human beings, so that towards the end of her story woven from strands of memory she realizes what Valdez in his poem calls: “Your faults are my faults,” your story is my story. Hence, a more appropriate and yet sufficiently vague label for Caramelo would be the flexible genre novela testimonial. While definitions of testimonio – or documentary fiction as Lucille Kerr calls it – already abound, it seems a hopeless task to differentiate testimonio from fictional first-person life narratives. The inherent challenge of testimonios, their hybridity, seems to be carried ad absurdum by fictional testimonios. Kerr provides a helpful approach to the problem: she suggests using:

the […] general term to encompass all those texts that purport to function as documents concerning the social, political, or historical realities they take as their referents, and which do so in ways that have been read as literary. (371).

Thus while critics such as Kimberly Nance see the testimonio as serving to inspire its privileged reader to take action on behalf of an oppressed group, with novela testimonial it is more an appeal to reconsider social, cultural, and individual classifications – for peers and non-members alike.

With regard to the function of memory for identity construction, Caramelo begins very fittingly with an introduction to the novel’s first part called “Recuerdo de Acapulco” (3). With a snapshot taken on a family trip as the starting point of her narrative, Celaya initiates the reader to the various (mis)uses of memory within her family: For the Reyes memorizing can be an act of creation, the event to be remembered is fictionalized, blurred or altered to create a more pleasant image: “[T]he Awful Grandmother holding th[e boys] even though she never held them in real life” (ibid.). In the same vein, memory is as much subjective as it is a choice. While the telltale adjective “awful” contradicts the affectionate gesture caught in the photo and consequently the Grandmother’s favored self-image, for Lala’s father Inocencio, this recorded piece of family history legitimizes the way he feels for his children: “We were little in Acapulco. We will always be little. For him we are just as we were then” (ibid.). Obviously, parts of memory can be modified to adapt them to the Reyes family members’ sense of subjectivity; remembering is highly personal and partial. The only daughter, Lala, is excluded from this practice: she is not in the picture, her family simply forgot about her. As the youngest she is singled out; she is not yet part of the web woven between her relatives and friends and has not yet been introduced to the elaborate art of memory construction. Still, Lala willingly accepts her outsider’s position and redefines her role as observer, recorder and narrator of all the “mentiras” – little lies or inaccurate memories – that are being circulated in her family. She compares herself to the photographer “walking along the beach with a tripod camera on my shoulder asking- “Un recuerdo? A souvenir? A memory?”” (Caramelo 4). The young narrative voice of Caramelo is also on a search for memories in order to comprehend herself and to develop a coherent identity despite the tensions and troubles within her family and her disorientation on being a teenage Chicana.

With the help of shared stories, Lala grows from a lonely child, alien to her own family, to a young woman who has come to terms with her familiar, cultural and sexual existence.

The bits and pieces collected in the first part support the notion of the individuality of memory: The reader accompanies the Reyes on one of their frequent trips across the border to visit the Awful Grandmother and the Little Grandfather, Lala’s paternal grandparents, in Mexico City. Though an early childhood memory, this episode is representative for the Reyes’ and millions of other bicultural families’ permanent struggles to successfully accommodate opposing cultures. In the novel, the ambivalence and tension almost unavoidable for a member of an ethnic group is illustrated with the Reyes’s highly palpable restlessness and the shifting notions of location and dislocation, as seen with the shuttling back and forth between Mexico and the US and the moving of houses from Chicago to Texas.

As the initial episode with the photograph already points out, the feeling of homelessness and exclusion is especially strong for the youngest. While Inocencio is eager to get back to his native city, Lala anticipates the summer trip with insecurity and nervousness. The girl is intimidated by her grandmother and the alien culture, values, norms and language she stands for. Born in the United States with English as her first language, Spanish feels unnatural to Lala and yet it is the only accepted mode of communication in her grandparents’ house. Her imperfect command of the language embarrasses her and supports the Awful Grandmother’s feeling of contempt for her gringo grandchildren:

[A]nd the Awful Grandmother herself has seen how these children raised on the other side don’t know enough to answer, – ¿Mande usted? to their elders. – What? We say in the horrible language, which the Awful Grandmother hears as Guat? What? We repeat to each other and to her. The Awful Grandmother shakes her head and mutters, – My daughters-in-law have given birth to a generation of monkeys. (Caramelo 28)

In his essay “The Politics of Translation in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo,” B.J. Gonzalez states that Lala’s idiosyncratic use of Spanish and English and especially her odd, too literal translations of Spanish sayings illustrate the critical differences within the Mexican-American community and interrogate repression and exclusion operating within the hybrid culture rather than indiscriminately preserving homeland tradition (4).

Gonzalez’s observation is supported by Lala’s feeling of uneasiness and distance that overwhelms her when they approach the border and she delivers another subjective, painful memory. Conjured up by the sight of a street sign, she remembers how the Grandmother had Lala’s long braids cut off during a trip to Querétaro, leaving the girl feeling ugly and frustratingly powerless. The mere thought of the humiliation brought to her by her grandmother makes her shudder and sparks off memories of further events which cause her to compare the Awful Grandmother to the witch in Hänsel and Gretel (Caramelo 23). The significant introduction of the Grandmother as an unlovable and unsympathetic character marks the novel’s effort to render stereotypes invalid. B.J. Gonzalez writes that, “she seems to have been dreamt up specifically as a perverse inversion of the myriad lovable and saintly grandmothers who so often seem to personify Tradition in literature” (3).

Reading Soledad as an archetypal Mother in C.G. Jung’s sense proves especially expedient for an interpretation of Caramelo: Jung’s description of the archetype Mother is inherently contradictive; its connotations are simultaneously positive and negative. While Mother can be a symbol of life, birth, protection, nourishment and growth it can also signify death, destruction, suffocation and inhibition (Jung, Die Archetypen 80-1). The concept is ambiguous and yet coherent, unifying seemingly mutually exclusive features. Jung refers to Roman mythology and the fates to illustrate how ambivalent the category Mother=Goddess can be: the three fates create, maintain and destroy human lives. This brings to mind Cisneros’s call for a reappropriation of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue as an icon for women with her fierce and terrible powers over life and death. Coatlicue, “She of the Serpent Skirt,” also known as Toci, which translates into “Our Grandmother,” is for Cisneros the necessary complement to the idealized, meek and submissive Virgin of Guadalupe:

[…] I was angry for so many years every time I saw la Virgen de Guadalupe, my culture’s role model for brown women like me. She was damn dangerous, an ideal so lofty and unrealistic it was laughable. […] When I look at la Virgen de Guadalupe now, she is not the Lupe of my childhood […] La Virgen de Guadalupe is also Coatlicue, the creative/destructive goddess. […] I think of a woman enraged, a woman as tempest, a woman bien berrinchuda, and I like that. La Lupe as cabrona. Not silent and passive, but silently gathering force. (Goddess of the Americas 48-50)

It is therefore only consistent that Cisneros invents with Soledad an “awful” – that is terrible and powerful in Jung’s terms – grandmother much like Coatlicue alias Toci alias “Our Grandmother.” Since the archetype Mother can also represent the homeland, a haven or a shelter, one can reason that the “perverse” grandmother will prove to be Lala’s main source of information about her history, culture and tradition and will be the ultimate catalyst for her development. Again, Jung’s theory seems strikingly relevant:

Die Zweckmäßigkeit dieser Überleitung ist besonders einleuchtend, wenn an die Stelle der Mutter die Stadt tritt: die infantile Verhaftung (primär oder sekundär) bedeutet eine Beschränkung und Lähmung des Erwachsenen, wogegen die Bindung an die Stadt seine Bürgertugenden fördert und ihm zumindest eine nützliche Existenz ermöglicht. (Symbole der Wandlung 270)

In other words, as long as Lala is caught in her feelings of homelessness and exclusion and haunted by her private fears embodied by the Awful Grandmother, an accommodation in her homeland culture is impossible. The Awful Grandmother is thus the destructive, terrible dark force Lala needs to cope with in order to be sheltered in her “home” – a process which is only possible at an advanced point of the narrative.

In the early phase of her story, Lala’s memories of Mexico are primarily sensuous and physical. She cannot recall hard facts, but the immediate reactions to impressions that influence a child’s understanding of the world, such as strong and basic emotions, colors, smells and tastes. With the help of the multitudes of stimuli bombarding her, she tries to grasp the intensity of the border crossing: “Sweets sweeter, colors brighter, the bitter more bitter. […] Every year I cross the border it’s the same – my mind forgets. But my body always remembers” (Caramelo 17-8).

For Lala it is difficult to distinguish episodes she experienced herself and anecdotes told so often among her family members that she believes herself to have witnessed them. Still, when her grandfather allows her into the grandparents’ bedroom and she finally gets to see the mysterious items locked in the forbidden armoire, it is a piece of personal, cherished memory. Following the narrative pattern of knotted thoughts and events, several other stories are tied to the central action. Thus the Little Grandfather not only informs Lala of his individual interpretation of lying “healthy lies” (Caramelo 56), he also teaches her a lesson about love and Mexican culture and he presents some items from his own, mostly sad past. Hence, it is more than appropriate that Lala discovers the eponymous caramelo rebozo in this moment of tightly-knit stories and legends and its function is immediately explained: “This was your grandmother’s rebozo when she was a girl. That’s the only recuerdo she has from those times, from when she was little” (Caramelo 58). Sheltered in personal and cultural memory, the rebozo is introduced as the epitome of memory, unique and intrinsically related to others at the same time.

The leitmotif of woven and braided stories brought about with the silky candy-colored fabric is intensified in the second part of the narrative, called “When I was dirt.” Significantly, Lala as narrative voice now recounts the lives of her grandparents from before she was born, a time “when I was sparkling and twirling and somersaulting happily in the air” (Caramelo 88), unscathed by the challenges life has in store for the only girl in a culturally dislocated family.

Throughout this part of the novel, the narrative is essentially a dialogue, since Soledad, the Awful Grandmother, interrupts, comments or corrects Lala’s account, once more trying to convey a happier, more likeable version of her personality and her life. The two generations of story-weavers lend a more literal meaning to the above mentioned motto “Tú eres mi otro yo” when they compete for narrative control and therefore deliver the proverbial two sides to a story: “You were telling cochinadas. – I was not being filthy. And to tell the truth, you’re getting in the way of my story. – Your story? I thought you were telling my story? – Your story is my story” (Caramelo 172).

Once more, memory is shown as manipulable and constructable with Lala narrating the story of Soledad as a poor and lonely girl from a dynasty of reboceros who only got married to Narciso because she was pregnant and Soledad desperately trying to rescue the dreamt up images of a loving relationship: her makeshift memories:

Don’t you think we need a little love scene here of Narciso and I together? ¬– Why? – Just something in the story to show how happy we were? […] – All I’m asking for is one little love scene. At least something to remind people Narciso and I loved each other. […] And isn’t it important to understand that Narciso and I were in love, really, I mean before he met the so-and-so? Especially after his fling with the little tramp in Chicago. (Caramelo 170-1)

In her efforts to keep up appearances, Soledad reveals her inner self to her granddaughter. It is in these passages of intimate conversation told in meta-narrative style that Cisneros leads Celaya to a deeper understanding of her grandmother and her sense of female devotion. These episodes as well as the multitude of others gathered in Caramelo are told for the benefit of others, for Lala as fictional recipient and ultimately for the reader, who gets to share the lessons about love and life taught by the Reyes family. Through this, the novel has distinct parallels to the politically instrumental literary genre testimonio, multifaceted first-person narratives with more than forty years of history primarily in Latin America. Testimonios use communication as audible rebellion against oppression which puts the reader under an “obligation to respond,” as John Beverley puts it (1).

According to Beverley, testimonios spread power democratically and insist that every life-story has representational value, making a positive affirmation of the speaker’s identity possible. This function is similar to Cisneros’s intention to give a voice to the disempowered and underrepresented, who might then draw strength from common grievances accounted from an insider’s first-person point of view.

Cisneros employed this technique already in her most widely-known first novel The House on Mango Street and she identifies it as the only mode of writing available and meaningful to her. Virginia Brackett quotes Cisneros in “A Home in the Heart – The Story of Sandra Cisneros” saying “[a]ll fiction has basis in truth” (44) and that as a writer “[y]ou do other work to help other people control their destinies” (45).

Transferred to the fictional plane of Caramelo, remembering and storytelling as a means to construct individual and cultural identity enable Lala to appreciate her ambivalent, bicultural family and to reappropriate her own position within this fabric. While the novel’s beginning shows Lala as an outsider, a collector begging for memories to help her cope with her existence, during the dialogue with Soledad she emancipates and moves from the margin to the heart of her family. She gets to be “the fortunate bearer of these rich stories to guide her into adulthood,” as Susan Carlile puts it (1). Lala defends her narrative control, and since all the loose strands meet in her hands she grows to be of vital importance: “Only you have heard this story, Celaya, only you” (Caramelo 119).

Even before Lala understands the interrelatedness of all human life-stories herself, Cisneros points her readers towards this philosophy with the help of the footnotes, which freely link biographies and historical events to the characters’ lives and also comment on the reasons for doing so: “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 […]” (Caramelo 115).

Accordingly, to complete the picture and endow Lala with self-consciousness and self-esteem, the novel’s third part is necessary, called “The Eagle and the Serpent,” telling the story of Inocencio and Zoila, Lala’s parents. The family is reconciled in Mexico City after the death of the Little Grandfather and Lala is further initiated into her family’s story with Aunty Light-Skin’s tale of love and suffering. Later she gets to witness her mother’s care for the Awful Grandmother whom Zoila has despised all her life and who now lives with them in the U.S. However, the strong bonds between her and the women in her family and ultimately to all other human beings only become strikingly apparent to Lala when she elopes to Mexico City with her boyfriend Ernesto. Overwhelmed by what they have done, Ernie leaves her, alone in the strange and yet so familiar capital and in the midst of her anger and grief Lala realizes that she has heard stories like this before, “just like Aunty Light-Skin said” (389). Wrapped in her grandmother’s rebozo, Celaya has an epiphany:

The universe a cloth, and all humanity interwoven. Each and every person connected to me, and me connected to them, like the strands of a rebozo. Pull one string and the whole thing comes undone. (Caramelo 389)

With the help of testimonies, memories and stories Lala has constructed a patchwork-like identity that best fits the incoherent influences and opposing cultures surrounding her, she has found what Ilan Stavans calls “the foundation of her culture” (1).

Only after these troublesome experiences and the slow initiation to the complex practices, relations and attitudes in her family is Celaya able to finish her narrative in a friendly, pensive and slightly nostalgic tone with an account of the 30th wedding anniversary celebration of her parents. In a finishing touch, Cisneros unites all the names dropped throughout the novel in this last scene and puts Lala at the center, wearing her grandmother’s rebozo.

With the event itself a tribute to memory and a life spent together, Caramelo starts and ends with a family scene, but Lala’s attitude has changed decidedly. The angry outsider, the “ugly wolf-girl” (22) despising herself, her family and her cultural dislocation has gradually accepted her controversial roots and learnt to appreciate her role as the next generation of Reyes’ women, walking in the shoes of her grandmother, mother and aunt, but not imitating their lives and repeating their mistakes. All the pieces and patches built up to the last comment by the Awful Grandmother, whose words echo in Lala’s head even after her death:

Why do you insist on repeating my life? Is that what you want? To live as I did? There’s no sin in falling in love with your heart and with your body, but wait till you’re old enough to love yourself first. […] Ay, Celaya, don’t wind up like me, settling up with the first man who paid me a compliment. You’re not even a whole person yet, you’re still growing into who you are. (Caramelo 406-7)

Advice as explicit as this is only possible at this final point of the narrative with Lala eventually planted in native, family soil, surrounded by faces living and dead and supported by ties too powerful to ignore. She is as much “tethered to a memory” (Caramelo 117) as the people in the stories she has been told and can explore and expand her identity in line with Valdez’ observation “Somos espejos para cada uno – We are mirrors to each other” (191).


1.The term “ethnic group” is an admittedly weak alternative for the politically and emotionally charged but nevertheless widely used label “minority.” Because of the almost arbitrary assignment of a minority status to social groups on account of race, class and gender and the inevitable vilification as a consequence, “minority” will be avoided here despite the definite lack of an equally applicable term.

2. While the infantile obsession with the mother results in a paralyzed adult life, exchanging “mother” for “town” and attaching to the latter makes a meaningful existence possible (my translation).

Works Cited

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Yarbro-Bejarano, Yvonne. “From acto to mito: A Critical Appraisal of the Teatro Campesino”. Modern Chicano Writers. Sommers, Joseph/ Ybarra-Fausto, Tomas (eds.) Englewood Cliffs:Prentice Hall, 1979.