(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“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...

(The entire section is 1045 words.)


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In the first of the story’s three parts, a young girl named Sonya has lost the key to her father’s apartment that she usually keeps on a string around her neck. Her father works by day while she goes to school, and her brother Macky is tended by Mrs. Avila. Today Sonya has brought Macky home from Mrs. Avila’s house; she arrives at the apartment before she realizes that her key is missing. Street smart but young, she tries to guide her brother back through the ghetto area where they live to Mrs. Avila’s house but quickly becomes disoriented.

As they walk, Sonya observes various human examples of homelessness, poverty, and vice. She sees a man and innocently thinks he might be the father of a classmate at her school (because both schoolmate and man are African American). She considers approaching the man for help, when he is suddenly stopped, searched, and taken away by the police. Her father has taught her to fear the police—who work in league with immigration officials—so witnessing this incident confirms to Sonya that what he says about the authorities is accurate. She seizes her brother by the hand and they run into the unfamiliar warehouse district of the city. Tired and frightened as darkness falls, they head toward the lights of a café that Sonya spots in the distance.

The second part of the story is narrated by the owner of the Cariboo Café, who is in the process of rationalizing some of his recent actions and ruminating about his life. Something has recently happened in his café that makes patrons avoid it and that makes the man scrub stains off its floor. He tries to be fair to the odd assortment of people who enter his place, including the disabled and those down on their luck. He is especially kind to a man named Paulie, who has a drug or mental problem (which may stem from his experience in the Vietnam War), because something about him reminds the man of his own son, JoJo, who was killed in Vietnam. The café owner’s level-headed wife,...

(The entire section is 811 words.)