Helena María Viramontes Critical Essays

Helena María Viramontes American Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In most of her fiction, Viramontes focuses on the struggles of Latina characters within the family, their culture, and the larger society. All of these institutions can be seen as oppressive, usually retarding the growth of the central characters. In “The Moths,” for example, it is the family unit from which the young protagonist must break free; in “The Cariboo Café,” it is poverty, racism, and abusive governmental policies; and in Under the Feet of Jesus, it is economic, familial, and social injustices in the Central Valley of California. Viramontes’s stories, in short, communicate the overwhelming trials that Latina mothers, wives, and daughters face as they attempt to grow up, raise families, and discover their own identities, but her dual focus is always on the cultural and social values by which these women attempt to live as well. The narrative technique in these fictions is not always easy to follow, and the writing can be dense with poetic imagery. Viramontes uses shifting points of view, and it is sometimes difficult to reconstruct the temporal sequence of actions within the rapid changes in narration (as in “Cariboo Café”), but characters define themselves by their speech and thought in vivid and revealing ways (not only Latina protagonists such as Estrella in Under the Feet of Jesus, but Anglo characters such as the café owner in “Cariboo Café” as well), and in language that is often personal and poetic. Viramontes’s focus on the larger social and cultural context that her characters inhabit resembles the viewpoint of many contemporary Latina writers: Viramontes’s “Miss Clairol,” for instance, is a harsh indictment of consumer culture and its underpinning of the American Dream for Latinos and it reminds readers of stories by Sandra Cisneros, such as her often-anthologized “Barbie-Q.” As with most Latina writers (including poets like Cherrie Moraga and Lorna Dee Cervantes), Viramontes is never far from the social reality that Mexican Americans and other immigrant cultures have experienced in the twentieth century—not only the economic injustices, but also the discrimination and prejudice that often follow. On the other hand, her young women characters are capable of spiritual acts which carry her fiction to another, often mystical level. Her fiction has created a unique voice in American literature.

“The Cariboo Café”

First published: 1985 (collected in The Moths, and Other Stories, 1985)

Type of work: Short story

Illegal immigrants and other disoriented characters collide violently in a city diner.

“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...

(The entire section is 2650 words.)