Immigrant Tragedy in The Cariboo Café by Viramontes
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.