75 pages 2 hours read

Sandra Cisneros


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


Caramelo (2002) is a multi-generational family epic by American-Chicana author Sandra Cisneros. The novel follows the coming-of-age stories of Soledad Reyes; her son, Inocencio Reyes; and her granddaughter, Celaya “Lala” Reyes. The narrative takes place as the family moves among Chicago, Mexico City, and San Antonio. Written in a unique bilingual English and Spanish voice, Caramelo features themes of memory, Mexican-American heritage, female strength, and the search for a “home” between and beyond national borders.

In interviews, Cisneros has explained that much of Caramelo is semi-autobiographical, drawing from her own memories and emotions following the death of her father. Cisneros is also widely known for her debut novel, The House on Mango Street (1984), which helped bring Chicano-American stories into the mainstream of American culture.


Caramelo opens with the entire Reyes family making their annual summer drive from Chicago to Mexico City to visit “the Little Grandfather” (Narciso Reyes) and “the Awful Grandmother” (Soledad Reyes). In three separate cars, they’re a boisterous group of aunts and uncles, cousins and nephews, mothers and fathers. The novel’s narrator is Celaya “Lala” Reyes, the youngest of seven siblings and the only girl.

Both Lala and her mother, Zoila, struggle to navigate the sour temperament of Soledad, the Awful Grandmother, who openly expresses her dislike of them. By contrast, Soledad raises her son—Lala’s father, Inocencio—on a pedestal, often proclaiming that, while wives come and go, everyone has but one mother. Lala is a keen observer of family life. She notices arguments between family members, paying particular attention to their mistreatment of the maid, Candelaria. The denigrating comments she hears about Candelaria’s mixed heritage (part Native Mexican) and the color of her skin confuse Lala. She wonders how anyone can dislike someone with skin the color of a caramelo.

Even though everyone refers to Soledad as “Awful,” Lala admires the vibrant stories her grandmother tells. Through these stories, Lala senses her grandmother’s tenderness and appreciates the struggles she has experienced.

Part 2 of Caramelo follows Soledad’s coming-of-age story, narrated from Lala’s authorial perspective—with frequent interruptions from Soledad, who objects to the way Lala is telling her story. This section takes place in Mexico City during the beginning of the 20th century. Soledad descends from a family of rebozo (shawl) makers. When her mother dies, she leaves behind a partially unfinished caramelo rebozo: a beautiful striped silk shawl dyed the colors of a caramelo candy. The unfinished caramelo rebozo is passed on to Soledad, and it is her most cherished material possession. This rebozo is later passed down from one generation of Reyes women to the next, absorbing the smells, textures, and emotional weight of their experiences as they wear it.

As Lala reflects on her grandmother’s stories, she begins to understand where many of her own perspectives and personality traits come from. She is also increasingly empathetic toward her grandmother. Her grandfather, Narciso, showed great cruelty to Soledad through their years of marriage. He selfishly embarked on numerous affairs, from a long-term romance with a cabaret singer to a lifelong secret love of a medicine woman named Exaltacion Henestrosa.

Part 3 of Caramelo returns to present-day narration, following Soledad’s move-in with Lala’s family after the death of her husband. Soledad dislikes the bitter, cold winters in Chicago, and thus helps Inocencio buy a house in the much warmer San Antonio. When Lala’s family arrives in San Antonio, however, they find that the house is far from the pleasant home described by Soledad and Inocencio. Soon after the move, Inocencio struggles to pay the rent on his shop space, putting the family into dire financial straits.

Lala attends a Catholic school, where her parents obtain free tuition because of their financial hardship. As Lala grows into a young woman, she finds the strict moral rules of the Catholic Church confining and depressing. She befriends a loud and vivacious classmate named Viva, who helps her explore the world with greater confidence. She also has a heated affair with a boy named Ernesto, which ends once his Catholic guilt becomes too much for him to bear.

Soledad passes away, but her spirit continues to “haunt” Lala as she grows into womanhood. After her relationship with Ernesto dissolves, Lala is “visited” by the voice of her grandmother, who proclaims, “It’s you, Celaya, who’s haunting me. I can’t bear it. Why do you insist on repeating my life? Is that what you want? To live as I did?” (406).

The narrative then jumps a decade into the future to an anniversary party for Zoila and Inocencio. Lala attends this family gathering with the caramelo rebozo wrapped around her shoulders. At this party, she learns a long-guarded family secret: that Candelaria was her father’s illegitimate child, and much of the tension between Soledad and Zoila revolved around this knowledge. At the party, Lala’s father makes her promise never to tell this family secret. She agrees, ironically, at the end of a novel that reveals and details numerous family secrets.