Immigrant Tragedy in The Cariboo Café by Viramontes
Length: 1479 words (4.2 double-spaced pages)
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Helena Maria Viramontes grew up in Los Angeles where relatives used to stay and live with her family when making the transition from Mexico to the United States. This is where she got her first taste of the lives of immigrants in this country within the urban barrios. Viramontes's writing reflects this theme along with expressing her political opinions on the treatments of immigrants, especially Chicanos and Latinos. In her short story "The Cariboo Café," Viramontes brings these ideas to life through three sections narrated by different individuals tied into the story.
"The Cariboo Café" is a story of Chicano immigrants and a Central American refugee. Along with these characters is the owner of the Cariboo Café, who comes in contact with the others. The story progresses in three short sections. Each section involves a different scenario and is told from the point of view of a different narrator. The three separate settings do not fully come together until the end of the last section. This approach makes the story initially very complicated to understand and difficult to connect the sections as a coherent stream of events. However, it is possible that this was Viramontes's intent. Perhaps the situations presented in the story were ones that posed this amount of confusion and frustration in real life to those who lived through them. Maybe Viramontes needed to convey in her story that what really happened in the urban barrios of Los Angeles never really made sense to anyone.
The opening section of this story is a third person narrative. The narrator immediately introduces a poor Chicano family with two young children. A few initial facts that the reader picks up in the opening paragraph are that both parents have to work, the children often play by themselves in back allies and carry their own keys, and the father has warned the children to always avoid the police.
Viramontes sets a disconcerting tone by introducing that it is night time and Sonya, the young girl, has lost her key and cannot let her younger brother, Macky, and herself into their apartment. The first few paragraphs succeed in showing that Sonya is responsible and protective of her brother despite her age as she chases after him to keep him out of the street.
Sonya wants to find a safe place with food to bring Macky while they wait for a parent to come home and let them into the apartment. She has the idea to go to the home of Mrs. Avila, the women who watches Macky until Sonya picks him up each day. However, the reader finds foreshadowing when the narrator states "She scratched one knee as he tried retracing her journey home in the labyrinth of her memory. Things never looked the same backwards and she searched for familiar scenes." This premonition that the children will get lost becomes true. Danger fallows when they encounter the police of whom they have been warned to stay away from. Running off into allies, Sonya encounters a familiar place which she calls the "zero zero place." This is where she and Macky seek shelter.
The second section begins at this same place, "the double zero café." However, the voice of the narrator is noticeably different. It takes a turn to the first person as opposed to third person. In addition, the reader quickly discovers that this is the voice of a middle aged man who owns the café. As opposed to the speaker in the previous section, this man is slightly crude, curses often, and uses slang. For example, the fifth paragraph opens like this:
I swear Paulie is thirty-five, or six. JoJo's age if he were still alive, but he don't look a day over ninety. Maybe why I let him hang out cause he's JoJo's age. Shit, he's okay as long as he don't bring his wigged out friends whose voices sound like a record at low speed. Paulie's got too many stories and they all get jammed up in his mouth so I can't make out what he's saying. He scares the other customers too, acting like he is shadow boxing, or like a monkey hopping on a frying pan.
This passage gives one a taste of how this character speaks. It also introduces new people: Paulie a man who frequently visits the café, and JoJo, his son, who the reader understands has died.
The speaker also talks of Nell, his ex-wife. Though there were things that annoyed him about her, he still speaks fondly of her. For instance, he remarks, "That's why Nell was good to have round. She could be a pain in the ass, you know, like making me hang those stupid bells, but mostly she knew what to do." This allows the reader to see that the loss of his family has had a deep impact on him. He misses his wife and son and speaks of how families should be together, though his never will be again. This is what provokes him to do what he did next.
The speaker sees a young sister and brother come into the Cariboo Café with their mother. He also sees this same woman and children on T.V. with the report that the woman kidnapped these children. He states that he does not ordinarily get involved in affairs like these; however, when the police show up at the café, he points them toward the bathroom where the woman and two children are.
The third section changes speakers once again. The reader is now getting a first person narrative of a Central American refugee woman. In the first paragraph she speaks of her son, Geraldo, who has been taken away from her and put in the detainers. Her voice is much less harsh than the previous speaker. Hers is softer and pleading. Her tone is one of desperation, desperation for losing her only child. She pleads,
It is such delicate work, Lord, being a mother. This I understand, Lord, because I am, but you have snapped the cord, Lord. It was only a matter of minutes and my life is lost somewhere in the clouds. I don't know, I don't know what games you play, Lord
Later into the section, the speaker believes she sees Geraldo. She expresses joy for being with him. She talks of bathing him again and watching him sleep along with the young girl who watches over him. Soon they change scenes and are in the café with the bells jingling and the cook watching them. The cook recognizes the children he has seen on occasion before. The police show up and Geraldo is once again taken away from her, causing the woman to become hysterical.
This scene is the most complicated to comprehend in the entire story. It is very difficult to decipher how the two children, the cook, the women, and Geraldo all connect to each other. However, it is in this ending that the reader begins to see that they are all one story, not three separate ones.
Throughout the confusion of the final page it begins to become apparent that Geraldo is not really Geraldo. In actuality it is Macky. This woman who is going mad from the loss of her son spotted Macky in the Cariboo Café the night the he and his sister got lost. In her delusional state of mind, she mistook him for her own son and took him home. Of course, Sonya was unwilling to part with her brother and she followed them. Therefore, this woman inadvertently kidnapped these two young children, and the cook at the café turned them in to the police.
The situation is not clear to the reader at first. The incoherent nature of the story requires a few rereads before the truth begins to unveil itself. The confusion represented in the format that Viramontes presents is reflective of the confusion in the refugee woman's state of mind. Reality has become unintelligible for her and the words of the story often seem the same.
Overall, the story takes a political stand against the treatment of immigrants in the United States. It displays the tragedies brought about within the urban barrios and the dangers that exist there. The reader clearly sees a more violent and sad image than is usually portrayed of life in America.