Part I of this paper can be found in issue n. 5 of The Dreaming Machine, here.
In Absentia: Necropolitical Ecologies and Voices of Resistance
in Helena María Viramontes’ “The Cariboo Cafe,” Part II
“He hopes they have disappeared.”
—Helena María Viramontes, “The Cariboo Cafe”
In Part I from “In Absentia,” I offered a critical reading of the dialectical operations of the bio-necropolitical order of power represented in Helena María Viramontes’ critically acclaimed short story, “The Cariboo Cafe,” from The Moths and Other Stories (1985). In that article, I discuss the ways in which the fostering of life emerges from (or, perhaps, is predicated upon) necropolitical mechanisms that expose racialized segments of the population to harm, injury, and death. Moreover, the story depicts the abusive mechanisms of racialized surveillance and punishment, deployed through the targeting of im/migrant bodies in public and private spaces, a governing technology that I refer to as “necro-elasticity.” In that article, I also consider the ways in which “The Cariboo Cafe” represents unforgotten voices that challenge the logic of letting die that is at once fundamental to the reproduction of national and cultural identity as it is to the fostering of politically relevant life. Moreover, the story depicts how such forms of violence are concealed or obscured through legitimated forms of making live, a form of governing that I refer to as necropower in absentia.
In Part II, I take a different, yet related, trajectory in which I discuss how the story represents the temporal extension of necropower in absentia. If necro-elasticity extends beyond sites of border enforcement (low-intensity conflict) as demonstrated in Part I of this essay, then we would do well to consider how such power simultaneously exists beyond the horizon of social and political perception or consciousness. In his keynote address at the 2019 MLA International Symposium in Lisbon, Portugal, Homi Bhabha reflects upon the temporal dimensions of dispossession in the context of transnational migrations in which a consideration of prolonged temporality—that sense of existing in a permanent state of liminality— encourages us to rethink our understanding of the “unhomely.” Forced de-territoriality and geographic dis-placement are but two, however crucial elements of dispossession, as the withdrawal or denial of time, particularly within that seemingly utopian trajectory of resettlement, constitutes a vanishing horizon where neither territorial rootedness nor temporal finality come to end that long night. Thus, the elasticity of the border, that is, necro-elasticity, is a condition that is at once territorial as it is temporal. This form of presentism not only situates or positions the dispossessed Central American migrant’s presence “out of context,” but, perhaps, more tragically, would appear to erase such context altogether.
Ground Zero Zero
I employ the figure of “ground zero zero” to unpack the various ways in which the Cariboo Cafe, that paradoxical site of refuge and detainment, constitutes a key historiographical location and artifact in which a presentist malaise and myopia gives way to multi-temporality via spatial convergence. Presentism, as deployed here, refers to the erasure of historical consciousness (i.e., non-contextuality), a crucial dimension of necro-elasticity. Though I do not discuss at length the causal relationship between necro-elasticity and non-contextuality, that is, questions regarding the possible ways in which necro-elasticity conditions and thus determines de-historicity and non-contextuality, and vice-a-versa, I do believe we can provisionally assume a dialectical relationship existing between these two distinct, yet related, processes. In considering the geographic or territorial expansion and extension of necro-elasticity, we must necessarily reflect upon how such spatial extension links to temporal collapse or implosion, a peculiar, if not uncanny, process through which the long history of colonial and imperial expansionism in the Americas, particularly in Central America, recedes from critical purview.
Our reading of “The Cariboo Cafe” necessarily points us to the importance of objects or artifacts represented in the story through which we come to read the past in the present. Drawing from Luarent Olivier’s investigation of archaeological time, I take into consideration how we might read Viramontes’ story in terms of how the “present has always been multi-temporal [. . .] never totally of the present.” If, as Olivier suggests, “fragments of the past are embedded in the physical reality of the present,” then, from a literary perspective, we would do well to consider the ways in which fiction confronts presentism by figuratively embedding such fragments through narrative structure. Moreover, if we seriously consider fragments of the past represented in fiction, often deployed through the use of vivid setting and, to a certain extent, figurative language, then to what extend might the cafe, the point of historical convergence, “reawake and reactivate in the present processes [that] which were thought to be over for good”?
With Olivier’s notion of multi-temporality and the present in the past in mind, I deploy the concept “ground zero zero” to discuss how Viramontes’ story conceptualizes the spatio-temporal range of necropower that links disparate forms of domination across time and space. Viramontes’ figuration of the cafe challenges a presentist conception or perspective that can only perceive illegality and “alien” status in terms of a de-historicized present, a condition of (im)possible knowing, and, thus, a condition of (im)possibility for both “undocumented” and “citizen.” The power of this story in terms of challenging presentism or the de-contextualized present lies precisely in Viramontes’ rendering of the “double zero place,” which I refer to here as “ground zero-zero,” that peculiar zone of perception in which a presentist haze restricts historical visibility. While from a linear perspective the vanishing point constitutes the location at which receding parallel lines diminish, here at this point of convergence, that is, the Cariboo Cafe, the parallel lines in fact augment and intensify
…seethe and ignite.
They Have Disappeared
While previously I analyzed Sonya and Macky’s flight from the Polie through the lens of necro-elasticity, as both displaced children find temporary refuge in that unlikely sanctuary—the “zero zero place,” here I continue analyzing necro-elasticity but in terms of de-contextualization and historical erasure as a key temporal dimension of necropower in absentia. In doing so, I look specifically at Parts II and III from “The Cariboo Cafe” with particular emphasis on the shared histories and circumstances of two main characters—the Central American migrant woman and the cook and owner of the Cariboo Cafe—whose personal accounts of loss and displacement would appear, prima facie, dissimilar and unrelated. If the dispossessed Central American exile in search of her disappeared son constitutes the central figure of this story, certainly the focal point of Part III of the story, then why attend closely to the intrigues of the owner and cook of the Cariboo Cafe? How might the cook constitute a key figure in our discussion of the “tyranny of the present” and its relation to necro-elasticity?
To begin answering this question, we might first consider David Garland’s examination of Michel Foucault’s notion of genealogy and its relation to the present-day social practices that are at once taken for granted yet rendered unintelligible. “Genealogy is motivated,” writes Garland, “not by a historical concern to understand the past—though any historical claims it makes must be valid, verifiable ones—but instead by a critical concern to understand the present. It aims to trace the forces that gave birth to our present-day practices and to identify the historical conditions upon which they still depend.” In light of Garland’s statement, to what extent might the owner and cook of the Cariboo Cafe represent “a present-day practice” that is both taken for granted and unintelligible? To what extent might “present-day practices” of the cook and the Polie register the historical conditions upon which necro-elasticity and necropower in absentia emerge? Or, stated differently, how might Viramontes’ story depict, however indirectly or tangentially, the historical forces that underwrite “present-day practices” of domination inextricably linked to dispossession, displacement, and the unhomely?
Ironically, if not paradoxically, the cook assumes a differential attitude and identity in relation to the displaced and dispossessed Central American woman, a posture in which citizenship status and social privilege function as proxies for entrenched racism—“Already I know that she’s bad news because she looks street to me. Round face, burnt-toast color, black hear that hangs like straight ropes. Weirdo.” And while the cook surrenders to the idea that even as the “streets are full of scum,” he nonetheless serves “them,” because, as he puts it, “scum gotta eat too.” Racist and chauvinistic through and through, the cook comes to accept his position and purpose within a local economy in which his customers “bring their own lunches [and] order small cokes” on what meager wages they earn.
Repeatedly affirming his moral virtue—“cause that’s the sort of guy I am. Honest”—the cook, suddenly taken by surprise, notices from behind the counter the washerwoman entering the cafe with Sonya and Macky. In the hope of absolving his complicity with the apprehension and detention of undocumented workers from the surrounding factories, the cook confesses that he, like everyone else, has bills to pay and food to put on the table, and, therefore, “serve[s] anybody who’s got the greens, including that crazy lady and the two kids that started all the trouble” (emphasis added). Let us pause and consider the importance of this crucial phrase—the “crazy lady and the two kids that started all the trouble.” That the cook identifies the woman “wearing the shawl” as a “weirdo” and a “crazy” is unsettling and disturbing on its own; and, yet, he can neither recognize nor acknowledge the very conditions of possibility that, to borrow from the cook, “started all the trouble.” In this short, yet densely constructed scene, readers encounter what François Hartog conveys in a different, yet related, context as “a world so enslaved to the present that no other viewpoint is considered admissible.” The cook sees only what appears to the eye/I, a myopic sense of vision in which the displaced and the dispossessed exist only within a “mesmerizing present.”
In taking a genealogical approach to this question, rather than seeking a singular point of origin, Viramontes invites us into that realm of complex, discontinuous histories that produce the present moment, the now of the Central American migrant’s detention and execution that is both an interrogation and an indictment of the historical contingencies or conditions of possibility that structure and determine her execution. That she died at the hands of the Polie is to say that she died at the hands of INS agents, which is to say, at the hands of the Death Squads in Central America, that is, at the hands of U.S. interventionism during the Central American civil wars of the 1980s, that is, in the hands of colonial and imperial power, that is, . . .
If the owner and cook of the cafe “hopes they have disappeared,” we might consider the extent to which he has “disappeared” the memory of his lost JoJo, his dead son, “crumpled up” in some part of Vietnam, a casualty of U.S. military interventionism during the War in Vietnam, like that other secret war in Central America, caught in the raging tides of the Cold War. “He can’t believe it, but he’s crying. For the first time since Jojo’s death.” For the first time since . . .
JoJo, Geraldo, and Macky return at last from that long night.
As the point of convergence, the cafe constitutes the site or space where historical forces violently collide and collude in the most deceptive and insidious ways, as the cafe represents sanctuary and betrayal, multiplicity and entanglement. “The concept of linear and irreversible time,” writes Victoria Fareld, “is challenged by experiential categories of multilayered or entangled temporalities, informed by an idea of the persistence of the past, whether in terms of memory, trauma, mourning, or spectrality.” As the metaphorical point of convergence, the cafe is the site where conditions are reduced to zero, so to speak. “Zero-zero” designates that peculiar site of zero visibility, that is, “zero-zero” denotes a form of visibility that “is effectively zero in both horizontal and vertical directions” (OED 2020). However, more than simply a site of refuge or detention, the cafe represents both temporal stasis and, more importantly, historical potency.
Coda: Some Preliminary Afterthoughts
Though in a different context, Rosemary Hennessey suggests that the abstraction of material history constitutes a “way of seeing,” which, I believe, offers insights into the problems of presentism, especially with respect to the notion of multi-temporality represented in Viramontes’ “The Cariboo Cafe.” In Profit and Pleasure, Hennessey focuses on issues of visibility, or, more precisely, reified visibility, in which historical and social complexities are flattened under the influence of capitalist relations maintained through the tyranny of the immediate. Consistent with Fredric Jameson’s concept of the reified atomization of capitalist social life, Hennessey adds, “[this] atomizing perspective comprises the very scaffolding of bourgeois visibility and is played out in a host of strategies that fragment components of social life: in the separation of consumption from production, private from public life, market from household, individual from collective, and culture from political economy.”
We might think of this concept in terms of “decontextualization” or “decontextuality,” which generally means to remove something or someone from context. The verb “to decontextualize” often means to treat something in isolation from its proper context. Similarly, “decontextualization” signifies the activity or result of displacing and/or erasing something from its proper context. Here, we pay particular attention to “existing out of context” and “treating something in isolation from its context” when considering the following term/concept: Out of Context. The omission of the “of” in “Out of Context” signifies more than simply being “out of context.” Let us call it “non-contextuality.” While “decontextuality” and “non-contextuality” overlap in obvious ways, I draw a distinction between both terms by emphasizing the omission of that seemingly trivial and innocuous preposition, “of”—“a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause” or “a class of words used to express spatial or temporal relations or mark various semantic roles” (emphases added). I draw attention to the omission of the proposition “of” in order to mark the erasure of spatial, temporal, and relational structures and phenomena, as if the emphatic “Out of Context!” literally performs that seemingly unassailable command to purge or to expunge any notion of context altogether—“Out, Context!”
However, we should also note that “Out Of Context” signifies the feigning of historical contextuality, that is, if offers spatio-temporal immediacy resulting in the erasure of multi-temporality, thus generating semantic obscurity and incomprehensibility. Perhaps, the greatest danger lies not in speaking and perceiving out of context, but rather speaking and thinking in that seemingly impossible space in which there no longer exists an historical context from which to speak and perceive. When Viramontes writes, “He hopes they have disappeared,” the cook at once hopes that the displaced and the dispossessed finally disappear from sight/site as much as from historical existence, that is, to have never been. And yet, under Viramontes’ skillful hand, the cook’s yearning for disappearance echoes the tragedies and horrors of the U.S-backed dirty wars in Latin America, a form of sovereign power that at once attempts to instill fear and dread as it also attempts to rip from the pages of history the existence of civil disobedience and resistance (though it could never silence the memories of trauma).
And even as particular characters from “The Cariboo Cafe” practice de- and non-contextuality—the cook, young (counter-) revolutionary soldier, and police/INS—Viramontes opens a critical space that destabilizes that presentist gaze that only views the now in terms of an unremitting and infinitely extending present. The cafe opens up to history, or, should I say, the long histories of colonization, imperialism, feminicide, fratricide, and genocide converge at the “zero zero place.” The cafe represents more than simply a peculiar, if not uncanny, vanishing point marked by historical erasure. Rather, it too signifies that historical point of convergence characterized by augmentation and intensification that seethe and ignite in praesentia.
 Homi Bhabha. 2019. “Human Rights and Human Deaths: On Migration and Dignity.” MLA International Symposium, “Remembering Voices Lost.” Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Lisbon, PT. Plenary 1, 23 July.
 Laurent Olivier. “The past of the present: Archaeological memory and time.” Archeological Dialogues, Vol. 10, No. 2 (2004), p. 205.
 ibid., p. 209
 Helena María Viramontes. 1985. “The Cariboo Cafe.” The Moths and Other Stories. Arte Público Press, p. 68.
 David Garland. “What is a ‘history o the present?’ On Foucault’s genealogies and their critical preconditions.” Punishment & Society Vol. 16, No. 4 (2014), p. 373.
 Helena María Viramontes. “The Cariboo Cafe.” The Moths and Other Stories. Arte Público Press, p. 69
 ibid, p. 68
 ibid, p. 69
 ibid, p. 69
 François Hartog. Regimes of Historicity: Presentism and Experiences of Time. Columbia University Press, 2015, p. xiii
 ibid, p. xv
 Helena María Viramontes. “The Cariboo Cafe.” The Moths and Other Stories. Arte Público Press, p. 77
 Victoria Fareld. “History, Justice and the Time of the Imprescriptible.” The Ethos of History: Time and Responsibility. Berghahn Books, 2018, pp. 54-55.
 In thinking about the cafe as the figurative point of historical convergence and the cite of multiple spatio-temporality, I’ve attempted to draw attention to how presentism, that form of historical (un)consciousness in which multi-temporality erodes in the wake of an incessant present, affects an understanding of the present delinked from the past, a present that dangerously verges on the point of non-contextuality. One of the objectives of this short essay is to consider the extent to which “The Cariboo Cafe” represents multilayered and entangled temporalities. Further consideration on multilayered and entangled temporalities in Viramontes’ oeuvre may lead to greater discussions about the representational strategies that challenge conceptions of homogenous, linear, if not irreversible, time. On this matter, Victoria Fareld is instructive when she writes, “whether in terms of memory, trauma, mourning or spectrality [. . . ] current changes not only influence our understanding of what it means to stand in a historical relation to the past, but [how] they also affect our sense of the present” (“History, Justice and the Time of the Imprescriptible,” 54-55).
 Rosemary Hennessey. Pleasure and Profit: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism. Routledge, 2000, p. 95.
 “of.” Oxford English Dictionary. April 10, 2020. https://www-oed-com.ezproxy.mnsu.edu/search?searchType=dictionary&q=of&_searchBtn=Search.
 Helena María Viramontes. “The Cariboo Cafe.” The Moths and Other Stories. Arte Público Press, p. 77.
Edward A. Avila holds a Ph.D. in Literature and Cultural Studies from the University of California, San Diego. He is Assistant Professor of English at Minnesota State University, Mankato and teaches Multiethnic Literature of the U.S. with an emphasis on Chicanx and Latinx literature and film in the context of coloniality, border enforcement, and im/migrant policing under contemporary neoliberalism. His research includes his dissertation “Conditions of (Im)possibility: Necropolitics, Neo-liberalism and the Cultural Politics of Death in Contemporary Chicana/o Film and Literature” (2012); “Some Imagined Victory: The Specter of Reification in Caridad Svich’s Guapa (2014); “The Maquila Complex: Reification, Disposability, and Resistance in Maquilapolis: The City of Factories” (2015), and is currently working on a book project entitled In Absentia: Border Rhetorics, Necro-elasticity, and Re-membering Voices Lost in Latin@x Literature and Film.