RAY SUAREZ: The book is "Caramelo," the author is Sandra Cisneros, an award-winning poet and writer. This is her second novel. It's the story of the three Reyes brothers, of a family, like many Mexican families, with members and memories made on both sides of the U.S. border. The story of family lore and tradition is told from the perspective of one of the grandchildren, the young Lala Reyes. Sandra Cisneros, welcome.
SANDRA CISNEROS: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: A lot of years went into this book.
SANDRA CISNEROS: That's right. ( Laughs )
RAY SUAREZ: What, about nine, ten?
SANDRA CISNEROS: Nine. Nine, yeah.
RAY SUAREZ: And this is one family's history, but there's also a lot of Mexican history in there.
SANDRA CISNEROS: Yeah. You know, I didn't think I was going to be writing a history book, I thought I was writing a story about my father, based on my father's life. But in telling my father's story, I had to place him in time and history, and then I had to go back and look at how he became who he was. So I had to invent my grandmother's story and how she became who she was, so next thing I knew, there was a lot of tributaries from my main story, and footnotes, chronologies, and things like that, that I didn't anticipate when I began.
RAY SUAREZ: If the story of Innocencio Reyes and his family is at least drawn on your father, is there a lot of Lala in you?
SANDRA CISNEROS: I didn't want to write about me, because invariably, when ever I write about anyone, as I did in "House on Mango Street," people take what I write as autobiography, and I'm aware of that much more now. So I tried to create her in some image that didn't physically look like me, but she's emotionally me.
RAY SUAREZ: But there are things that no matter where you grew up, if you grew up in the last 40 years, you're going to be able to identify: Some long car trips...
SANDRA CISNEROS: Yeah.
RAY SUAREZ: ...Families trying to sort of stay together and get where they're going in one piece.
SANDRA CISNEROS: Yeah, that's right. Something about growing up in Chicago that many Latino communities, or Anglo communities, aren't aware of is that how they consider Mexico as a commuter suburb, you know, that back and forth from the Midwest to Mexico. And that's something I hadn't tapped on when I wrote "House." I wanted to draw on that in this book.
RAY SUAREZ: How long does it take to make that drive?
SANDRA CISNEROS: Well, it depends on how many car stops you have to make, and whether your father is willing to drive all night or pay the extra money to stay in motels; that really depends on how many drivers you have.
RAY SUAREZ: (Laughs) And this Mexican history, and this family history, reaches all the way back into the 19th century. Did you learn a lot yourself, or was this that you are been collecting all of this time?
SANDRA CISNEROS: You know what's happened, Ray, the older I get, even though I'm a daughter, people are beginning to tell me things. Generally if you're a daughter in a Mexican family, no one wants to tell you anything, they tell you the healthy lies about your family. But the older I got and the more people recognized me as the writer, family stories started getting passed to me, memoirs, a little bit of gossip, this and that. And I found myself drawing from families' memorias, their memoirs, as well as doing some research by doing interviews with the real people, the walking Smithsonians as I like to put it, sitting down and talking to people, and then doing the research to add to that.
RAY SUAREZ: These stories, whether true and based on your own family, or whether invention, are done from the point of view of the young Lala without judgment, with a tremendous amount of affection even when people are not at their best-- the way that we love to see our family.
SANDRA CISNEROS: Yeah, you know, I wish I could be... say that was me, but I'm very judgmental and I make all kinds of quick assessments. And the nice thing about writing a novel is you take your time, you sit with the character sometimes nine years, you look very deeply at a situation, unlike in real life when we just kind of snap something out. And it allowed me to be more generous than me the person. The author is always much more compassionate than Sandra Cisneros the human being.
RAY SUAREZ: But also done from the point of view that these events, whether we like them or not, happened and made us who we are today.
SANDRA CISNEROS: That's right. Well, I'm Buddhist, Ray, and so part of my Buddhism has allowed me to look a little more deeply at people and the events in my life that created me. And I think a lot of that Buddhism comes out in the world view in this novel.
RAY SUAREZ: (Laughing) Even with its heavy devotion to the Virgin of Guadeloupe?
SANDRA CISNEROS: Ray, you can be Buddhaloupist, as I am, you see, where you're a devotee of Guadeloupe and Buddhism, and that's the nice thing about Buddhism, it allows you to look at the jewels of your own culture and incorporate that into your Buddhism.
RAY SUAREZ: And along with pop tunes both from Mexico and the United States, comic books from both sides of the border, you were able to sample the best of what was both cultures had to offer.
SANDRA CISNEROS: Yeah, you know, I think that my father since he was a great devotee of the Famile Boron comic books in Mexico, and photonovelas and telenovelas -- my mom was a devotee of great literature, so I had high and low in English and Spanish. I got both in my home.
RAY SUAREZ: Yeah, you better tell people who don't follow these news what photonovelas and telenovelas are.
SANDRA CISNEROS: Photonovelas are kind of like brown ink comic books with little bubbles. But, you know, they're made for adults, they're comic books for adults. And telenovelas are, of course, the soaps that go on for a period of months or years, they don't go on forever like the U.S. ones.
RAY SUAREZ: And does your own family read a work like this? Have you gotten some... perhaps your cousins or your younger members of the family into this, and ready to look at you in a new way?
SANDRA CISNEROS: You know what's funny is, they never talk to me about my work. Usually when I come home it's like, "When are you going to clean the refrigerator?" -- or things like that. You know, they never talk to you as the author. But with this book, because it's based so much on real people that they knew, on my father, on aunts and uncles, grandparents, there's a different interest in it, and they're reading it now. Some of them have finished it, some of them have not. And I'm very curious to hear their response. My mom is halfway through, but she doesn't say whether she likes it or not.
RAY SUAREZ: And is the Reyes character something new that America's going to have to come to terms with: This person made up by two strands of modern life; very much American and made by America, but also very much Mexican at the same time?
SANDRA CISNEROS: Well, you know, it's curious people reading this book, regardless of where they're from, are finding that it reminds them of their family. And I've heard that from readers that are Anglo or Iranian or Mexican. You know, even though it's specific to my family, people of all cultures are coming into the book and reminded of their own home.
RAY SUAREZ: Anybody who ever rolled their eyes at their father, I guess, would identify?
SANDRA CISNEROS: (Laughs) I think so.
RAY SUAREZ: Sandra Cisneros, good to see you.
SANDRA CISNEROS: Thank you, Ray.