Themes and Meanings
“The Cariboo Café” is a story of the terrible psychic wounds wrought by political repression and displacement. Two of its primary themes are the randomness of terror at the hands of powerful authorities and the banality of evil. Readers see the latter in the young guard with whom the mother pleads in El Salvador and in the hazy thoughts that lie behind the café owner’s actions. For Helena María Viramontes’s Latino characters, the world is a dangerous place. Racism is insidious: The café owner sees himself as a relatively good and generous man, but he feels no loyalty or connection to the Spanish-speaking workers who frequent his café. He can thus turn them in to the police without thinking and does not clearly understand the discomfort he feels as they are taken away.
In using two different settings for her story, Viramontes draws parallels between the kinds of repression experienced in the United States and in El Salvador. In Central America her characters are subjected to a reign of terror instigated by a totalitarian and corrupt military regime. In the United States undocumented Spanish-speaking residents live in poverty and in fear of relocation or reprisal from police acting in conjunction with immigration officials. Viramontes explores the terrible emotional consequences of such forms of repression and the intensity of the urban environment of poverty. The horror, loss, and bewilderment that her characters experience sharply contrast with their simple desire to live a decent life unencumbered by fear.