Style and Technique
In its sensitive treatment of the themes of social marginality and alienation, “The Cariboo Café” recalls the work of Carson McCullers. Viramontes uses narrative and characterization techniques similar to those of McCullers’s novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940). These include revolving points of view, the presentation of overlapping personal realities, and the use of projection as a device. In “The Cariboo Café” both the woman and the café owner project an identity onto the figure of the inarticulate little boy that is based on their own deprivations and inner needs—much as McCullers’s characters do with the deaf mute at the center of her novel.
Using a nonlinear structure to great effect, Viramontes creates a kind of kaleidoscope of human pain and longing in which many details go unmentioned and from which the reader must sort out meaning. She tells events out of sequence and from multiple standpoints, ending the story in the midst of conflict, without revealing exactly what happens to the children and the woman. The story first jumps between the different characters’ consciousness, revealing their inner motivations, choices, and perceptions, and then brings them together in a tragic web of misunderstanding that apparently leads to the El Salvadoran woman’s being shot by the police. Although Viramontes never makes it explicit, one suspects when the story ends that what the café owner had to scrub off the floor was the distraught mother’s blood.
In the Cariboo Café’s neon sign all the lights are burnt out except those forming what the characters read as the double “zeroes.” The place that gives the story its title is thus the site of negation. It is a point of encounter for people whose lives are deemed worthless by others—lives that seem to add up to nothing when measured by fate.
In bringing her protagonists together at the café, Viramontes makes essential use of irony. Privy to the inner thoughts of the characters, the reader knows that there are commonalities between the café owner who has lost his son and wife and the mother who has lost her child, but each character’s true reality remains unknown to the other. Instead, they face each other as if over an abyss, and the harm, trauma, and loss that has brought each of them there adds up to fatal consequences.