The Cariboo Café
The Cariboo Café” First published: 1985 (collected in The Moths, and Other Stories, 1985)
Type of work: Short story
Illegal immigrants and other disoriented characters collide violently in a city diner.
“The Cariboo Café” is a powerful short work that is representative of many of Viramontes’s fictional concerns and techniques. The story is complicated by a shifting point of view, which moves from past to present without explanation, and readers may have some difficulty following the plot initially. However, this technique is exactly what Viramontes wants the reader to feel in order to experience the kind of displacement and alienation that her characters share. The first section of the three-part story is told from somewhere within six-year-old Sonya, who is supposed to be taking care of her younger brother, Macky, after she comes home from school. Sonya has lost the key to her apartment, however, and does not notice the loss until after she picks up Macky from Mrs. Avila, who watches him during the day. Sonya and her brother are immigrants, both their parents work to support the family in this adopted country, and the story portrays powerfully the dangers of this new life. Sonya decides to walk back to Mrs. Avila’s to wait for her parents to return, but she only knows the route the other way, and she and her brother are easily lost in the garment district of Los Angeles. When the police stop a man on the street, Sonya and Macky — following their parents’ iron rule — run and hide and are further lost in “a maze of alleys and dead ends, the long abandoned warehouses shadowing any light.” Across some railroad tracks, Sonya sees “the zero-zero place” and drags Macky toward it.
Part 2 of the story moves to the perspective of the owner of the Cariboo Café where the story’s action will take place, a run-down diner whose sign has been reduced to “the double zero” of its original name, a symbol which comes to stand for all the losses in the story. The café owner describes himself as “honest” and “fair,” but readers hear the anger and bitterness in his voice. Like all the characters in this story, he is oppressed by the conditions of his life and blames the outcasts and misfits, the “scum” around him, with whom he shares more than he admits.
Beneath this recital of his woes, readers learn what has happened in his café. A woman has brought the two children into the place for something to eat. (Readers assume that the three met outside in the interstice between the first two parts of the story.) The owner does not like the watchful Sonya, but he is immediately attracted to her brother, whom he dubs “Short Order,” and he brings hamburgers for them all. He later learns from the television news that the children have been reported missing by their parents, but he does nothing except drink beer and fall asleep. The owner had a son himself, “JoJo,” who was killed fifteen years before in Vietnam, and thus his attraction to Macky. A drug addict overdoses in the café bathroom the next morning, and the police swarm in — further reason, the owner explains, why he never told them about the woman and the missing children. A few hours later, three other illegal immigrants run into the café to hide from the immigration authorities in the bathroom, but the police find them. After they are arrested, the woman and the two children return to the café, and part 2 ends.
The last third of the story is narrated from several shifting perspectives. The first part comes from within the old woman who, it turns out, is herself an illegal alien from Central America who has come to the United States because her young son was taken by the military authorities. Part 3 is, if anything, murkier than the first two parts, because this narrator has become unhinged by recent events in her life and moves between past and present with no transitions. She clearly confuses Macky with her five-year-old son Geraldo (the same way, ironically, that the café owner confuses the boy with his dead son JoJo). She has left El Salvador because, “Without Geraldo, this is not my home; the earth beneath it, not my country,” and now she sees Macky as a returned Geraldo. She takes the children back to her hotel room, bathes Macky, and watches both children sleep.
With no break (except a new paragraph), the narrative shifts back to the consciousness of the café owner. He cannot believe how the three have cleaned themselves up this morning, but he takes their orders and goes into the kitchen to prepare the meal. There, suddenly, “For the first time since JoJo’s death, he’s crying” — in anger for his son, for his wife Nell who apparently left after JoJo was killed, even for the old woman who is going to bring more trouble on him. “Children gotta be with their parents, family gotta be together, he thinks.” At this point, he apparently calls the police.
Again with no noticeable break, the story shifts back to the deranged woman as two black-and-white police cruisers pull up to the café, and officers enter, guns drawn. She grabs Macky, thinking that she is reenacting the terror in her home country when Geraldo was taken. She throws hot coffee on the police, but the story ends when she hears “something crunching like broken glass against my forehead and I am blinded by the liquid darkness.” Still, she will not release Macky/Geraldo’s hand; “you see, I’ll never let go. Because we are going home. My son and I.” Evidence in the beginning of part 2 indicates that she has been shot and killed.
The story has been anthologized often, including in one of the most popular college literary surveys titled The Heath Anthology of American Literature, and for good reason, as the story not only raises a number of relevant social issues but at the same time is representative of the concerns of many Latinos living in the United States. U.S. authorities are seen as threatening collaborators with those in Central America, immigration becomes a dangerous choice, and all the characters are victims of exploitation and oppression. Sonya and the old woman are the focus here, but even the male characters — Macky, the café owner, the drug user — share the oppression and alienation.