Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 437

This story really sheds light on the plight of immigrants who come to the United States hoping for a better life for their families and, instead, are met with racism and more adversity than they likely expected. We might even say that it shows the American Dream to be a...

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This story really sheds light on the plight of immigrants who come to the United States hoping for a better life for their families and, instead, are met with racism and more adversity than they likely expected. We might even say that it shows the American Dream to be a fantasy, at least for groups which lack racial privilege. We see evidence of this when the narrator describes the rules that the main character, Sonya's, father teaches her. He tells her that she should "never talk to strangers," that "the police [...] should always be avoided," and that she must always have her key with her because "the four walls of the apartment were the only protection against the streets until" her father returned home. There is no safety for Sonya and her younger brother except for the confines of their family's tiny apartment. The police will not help them. Not even the hallway is safe, or the walk home, or school. In fact, Sonya is attacked by a boy at school, during which time she loses her key, and she and her brother are essentially kidnapped by a confused older woman, who also has a tragic story involving the brutal murder of her own son, and even she ends up getting shot.

The owner of the cafe is a racist, despite his belief that he is fair and honest, and his story conveys how insidious racism can be, especially among individuals who believe they treat everyone fairly and equally. The owner has his own sad story involving the loss of his son in Vietnam. The older woman and the owner have both lost children, and Sonya and Macky's father likely believes that he has lost his children, too, while they are msising, and it is clear that the loss of a child is a pain that is universal; it cuts across cultures and countries and time periods. The desire to protect our children unites people everywhere, and yet, we can become so blind to the needs of others who are only seeking to protect their children as well.

The story makes us feel deeply for these characters, even when we don't like them, such as the cafe owner, because even he, too, has his tragedy. It reinforces that idea that we never know what someone else is going through and so we ought to treat everyone with compassion. However, it is particularly salient when it comes to immigrant populations: the immigrants in this story are human beings, not "cockroaches," as the cafe owner imagines, and they are just as deserving of safety and satisfaction as anyone else.

Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 153

Carbonell, Ana Maria. “From Llorona to Gritona: Coatlicue in Feminist Tales by Viramontes and Cisneros.” MELUS 24, no. 2 (Summer, 1999): 53-74.

Lawless, Cecilia. “Helena María Viramontes’ Homing Devices in Under the Feet of Jesus.” In Homemaking: Women Writers and the Politics and Poetics of Home, edited by Catherine Wiley and Fiona R. Barnes. New York: Garland, 1996.

Rodriguez, Ana Patricia. “Refugees of the South: Central Americans in the U.S. Latino Imaginary.” American Literature 73, no. 2 (June, 2001): 387-412.

Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. Feminism on the Border: Chicana Gender Politics and Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Saldivar-Hull, Sonia. “Helena María Viramontes.” In Chicano Writers, Second Series. Vol. 122 in Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1992.

Viramontes, Helena Maria, and Maria Herrera-Sobek, eds. Chicana Creativity and Criticism: New Frontiers in American Literature. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

Viramontes, Helena Maria, and Maria Herrera-Sobek, eds. Chicana (W)rites: On Word and Film. Berkeley, Calif.: Third Woman Press, 1996.

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