- Mexican Chicago in Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo:Gendered Geographies
We imagine our places of belonging while living and traveling, within the city and between cities.—Néstor García Canclini (137)
The initial scenes of Caramelo, or Puro Cuento: A Novel (2002)—Sandra Cisneros’s sprawling, multithreaded, epic novel that collects and coordinates the transnational stories and histories of the Reyes family—highlight the relationship between place and memory for Celaya (Lala) Reyes, the daughter/principal narrator, as she struggles to make sense of where and how she belongs. In the prologue, Lala stands in a bedroom and describes the photograph that hangs above her father’s bed. Her narration traces how a traditionally intimate and private space opens up toward the public, family history:
We’re all little in the photograph above Father’s bed. We were little in Acapulco. We will always be little. For him we are just as we were then.
I’m not here. They’ve forgotten about me when the photographer walking along the beach proposes a portrait, un recuerdo, a remembrance literally. … It’s as if I didn’t exist. It’s as if I’m the photographer walking along the beach with the tripod camera on my shoulder asking,—¿Un recuerdo? A souvenir? A memory?(3-4)1
The photograph and the bed point us in two different directions, geographically and temporally.2 The photograph holds the past, located in Acapulco and frozen in family dynamics at a particular moment when “[w]e will always be little.” The bed sits in the present, in a place undefined within the vignette itself, although later events clarify that it must be located in the family’s Chicago home. Lala’s narrative focus on the photograph foreshadows how place and temporality will function in the novel: the father’s bedroom, a private place in Chicago, serves as a conduit to semi-public, half-remembered family histories in Mexico, ones in which Lala has an uncertain, tangential role.
The opening chapters reinforce the way in which contemporary Chicago provides access to a remembered Mexico. A brief first chapter depicts the Reyes [End Page 97] brothers and their families in their red, green, and white cars on the road to Mexico from Chicago through St. Louis, Tulsa, Dallas, Monterrey, and Saltillo until they reach Mexico City. Chapter 2 returns to the intimate domesticity of Chicago and the trip preparations while “outside, roaring like the ocean, Chicago traffic from the Northwest and Congress Expressways. Inside, another roar; in Spanish from the kitchen radio, in English from TV cartoons, and in a mix of the two from [Aunty Licha’s] boys begging for,—Un nikle for Italian lemonade” (6). Echoing the photograph’s temporal and geographic function, Lala suggestively describes Chicago’s function as an uneasy present-day conduit for cyclical migratory paths between national places. The simile between Chicago traffic and the ocean gestures toward the way that Mexico, metonymically present through Acapulco’s waves, emerges within public Chicago landscapes; similarly, the red, white, and green cars of her family’s caravan draw the sign of the Mexican flag within US territory. Domestic Chicago also conducts and hybridizes sound, allowing Spanish radio and English cartoons to create a “roaring” background within which the children’s bilingualism easily emerges.
At the same time that Mexico surfaces in Chicago through Lala’s metaphors and memories, the roar of this particular Chicago traffic firmly locates the Reyes family’s stories temporally and geographically in the Near West Side in the early 1960s, before the Northwest Expressway was renamed to honor John F. Kennedy in 1963 but after both expressways were built in the late 1950s as a result of Mayor Daley’s modernization and urban redevelopment plan that “deformed the neighborhood by excising thousands of residents” (Fernandez 106). Placing the Reyeses at the intersection of these two expressways serves to embed their stories in the larger context of Chicago as an “urban space [that] reflect[s] and reinforce[s] the city’s polarized racial relations and inequalities” (4) but also in the Near West Side’s particular history as a neighborhood targeted for an urban renewal process that...