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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

"The Cariboo Cafe" by Helena Maria Viramontes is a famous, albeit somewhat confusing, short story told in three primary parts. The first part focuses on a protagonist named Sonya. She is a young girl that is taking care of her younger brother Macky. They live with a man who is...

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"The Cariboo Cafe" by Helena Maria Viramontes is a famous, albeit somewhat confusing, short story told in three primary parts. The first part focuses on a protagonist named Sonya. She is a young girl that is taking care of her younger brother Macky. They live with a man who is referred to as her Popi (which can be assumed to be her father); he is not often home and she is forced to take care of her younger brother. One day after being held down and nearly stripped by a boy named Lalo, she loses her house key and is unable to get her and her brother into their home.

Part two is told from the perspective of the owner of the Cariboo Cafe. The owner details the events of a day or so, in which a man overdosed in the bathroom, and the investigating officers cast suspicion on the owner himself. He also describes a woman who comes in with two little children, who the reader is able to recognize as Sonya and Macky. The owner feels an affection for Macky because the young boy reminds him of his son JoJo, who was killed in Vietnam. The owner begins to refer to Macky as "Short Order," but doesn't like the distrustful look that he is given by the boy's sister, Sonya. After the woman and the children leave, three illegal immigrants run into the cafe and hide in the bathroom. When the police arrive, the owner tells them where to find the three men and the men are taken away. The owner sees a news report about the two children from before, but doesn't tell the police he has seen the missing kids. The next day, the woman comes in with the kids again and part two ends.

Part three is told partly from the perspective of a third person omniscient narrator, and gets very confusing. The first part focuses on the older woman who has Sonya and Macky with her, and details the events of her earlier life. She suffers from the loss of her son. Geraldo, who was abducted by Contras when he was a child. In part three we find out what happened to him. The trauma of the terrible loss causes her to leave their home and go to the United States. The entire experience has caused her to become delusional, and when she discovers the two children she believes that the young boy, Macky, is her son. She takes the two children into her care, bathes them and feeds them, and they stay the night in her place.

The story then shifts back to the cafe, and continues with the same omniscient narrator. The woman brings the children back to the cafe, and the owner recognizes them. He grows nervous and calls the police, trying to maintain his composure until they arrive but the situation causes him to begin to cry over the familial losses he has suffered in his own life. The police arrive and the woman, believing the police are the Contras coming to take Geraldo away from her again, attempts to flee with Macky. When she can't get away, she throws a pot of hot coffee on the officers, thinking she is protecting her son. She pleads with onlookers for help, and then begins to fight the officers. In the final paragraph the story shifts to her perspective and the reader is able to see the true level of her delusion as she is either knocked out or killed while thinking "I'll never let go. Because we are going home. My son and I."

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1045

“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.

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