The Tortilla Curtain Since its very beginnings, the United States of America has been idealized as ‘the land of the free,’ full of new opportunities for people from all around the globe. In The Tortilla Curtain, written by T. Coraghessan Boyle the reader gets an up close view of the border between Americans and Mexican immigrants. Boyle uses satire to confront many trends in modern America today about immigration and separation of class.
These problems are highlighted through the books four main characters, Delany and Kyra Mossbacher; rich, well-to-do, upper middle class are paralleled to Cadido and America Rincon; social outcasts, Mexican immigrants living in poverty. Boyle juxtaposes these two couples to address social ills in the modern America of today and open the eyes of his readers to understand how close their contact is, yet the contrasting lives both live. Even though our country was created by immigrants, as a people, our laws often reject newcomers.
With newcomers from another area Americans can become uncomfortable. The “white” race often feels threatened by the “other” unable to define it as friend or enemy. The “other” is unknown and represents danger and lack of control. If one is not fully aware of the “other” and its customs, they have no control over them. From Toni Morrison’s essay Playing In The Dark she writes, “Power- control over one’s destiny- would replace the powerlessness felt before the gates of class, caste and cunning persecution. ”(1794).
Here she is making an insight to the relief felt by immigrants who come to the United States from the Old World, yet it is still a valid point for today’s immigrant. Many come to the United States as destitute, looking for some kind of opportunity, for a way to accomplish their goals. Another important quote from Morrison states, “To all of these people, the attraction was of the “clean slate” variety, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity not only to be born again, but to be born again in new clothes, as it were: the new setting would provide new rainments of self…vision of a limitless future…”(1793).
Such is the case in this book for Candido and his new wife America, whose ironic name symbolizes the hope they have as a couple trying to make it in this country. Although this is a land of supposed “equal opportunity” it is often not that at all for Candido and America. Throughout the text immigrants are shown in an inhuman light. They are treated like animals and even described as “wild-eyed. ” Delany believes himself to be a sympathetic America somewhat on the side of immigrants, but even in the first few pages we see his hypocrisy.
In the first section of the book, Delany speaks on the phone to his wife, he has hit a man passing on the road, “No, listen, Kyra: the guy’s okay. I mean he was just…bruised, that was all. He’s gone, he went away. I gave him twenty bucks. ‘Twenty-? ’ (Kyra) And then before the words could turn to ash in his mouth, it was out: ‘I told you-he was Mexican” (15). This lack of human sympathy shows the reader a harsh disregard for a Mexican life. The man is somehow dehumanized by this ethic category; he doesn’t count, even if he was left almost for dead.
He couldn’t sue due to his legal status; Delany could remain in his own bubble untouched by the “other. ” The situation was under control. Boyle focuses on a specific region, southern California, for its diversity among the social-economic classes and its closeness to the border. Few places in America are so rich with the immigrant and class divide like this part of California. In the novel, Boyle deliberates southern California as the mirror coating the rest of America and its prestigious land.
The Tortilla Curtain is a novel that projects an in depth analysis of the social unbalance in southern California, in all aspects. Boyle examines factors as immigration, racism/discrimination and ethnic classes and their effect on society, as they tend to misconstrue a simple misunderstanding of the common ground they share and the American dream they aspire. In this novel Boyle tackles the immigration issue that stretches beyond the vertical and horizontal natural borders.
Boyle makes use of situational irony, on the where bouts of wanting to kick them out of the country for crossing the borders and its gates, yet these same immigrants get paid for building those borders and gates; which will keep out their own people.. Furthermore, Boyle carries on the notion of how Americans despise illegal immigrants, more specific Mexicans, for being in their “American” country, with “American” values, and simply an “American” lifestyle. In the essay On Whiteness in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain, Heather Hicks brings to light the significance of the coyote in the novel. Yet within the context of the novel’s focus on immigration, the coyote’s transgressions of domestic borders also must be read allegorically for immigrants’ transgressions of national borders. Indeed the coyote functions as an especially powerful symbol of Mexican immigrants, because ‘coyote’ is the term Americans and Mexicans alike use to refer to those who illegally shepherd Mexicans across the border. ” (47). The coyote is critical to the plot of the story. First it is seen when Delany states to the man at the car dealership he believes he may have hit a ‘coyote,’ which is a lie, but it also compares the Mexican to an animal.
A coyote is an animal which lives in the wild, it is a beast, again it comes into view again when it trespasses the gate in Delany’s yard, it trespasses on his property and attacks one of the beloved family pets. This animal has hurt Delany and has harmed his family. Yet this can be read for much more than face value. The Mexican or coyote, are one in the same. They have disturbed his peace, his view of the calm beautiful mountain side. Whether making it dangerous, like the Mexican with the baseball cap, or trashing it with their beer cans.
Delany and Kyra have settled in a beautiful home where they will both feel connected to the wild, yet secure in their own community. Peter Freese dedicates a large part of his essay The Tortilla Curtain: A Case Study in the Genesis of Xenophobia, to the topic of ironic borders and the use of Mexican influence in a life these upper-middle class Americans lead. “This deceptively straightforward description is full of ironic implications, since although the ‘white’ (blanco) Anglo community is heavily guarded against Mexican intruders, its very name betrays that it is erected on land that was once Spanish and then Mexican.
Moreover, the Anglo masters have not only built their houses in the “Spanish Mission style” of their dark servants, and with “Navajo trim” (30) to boot, but the people to whom they delegate their manual work, like erecting new fences are of course the Mexicans…” (223). Workers such as Candido and America both find jobs that relate to this community. At one point America is working as a maid in a gringo’s house and passes the sign as they enter his community. This emphasizes the control the ‘whites’ have over the Mexicans, they are allowed to enter their sectioned off neighborhood, through proper access.
The ‘whites’ control which Mexicans can get in and what purpose they have on this land. Another important quote from Freese’s article which helps associate the book with reality is, “The in social climate in which the Mossbachers live is dominated by a steadily growing concern about what has been dubbed ‘Browning of America,’ the dramatic change in the composition of the American population as brought about, among other factors, by the ongoing invasion from the South.
Consequently, the inhabitants of Arroyo Blanco are not really worried about wild animals…but the human intruders from the other side of the ‘Tortilla Curtain’”(225). The mere fact that Freese uses the word “invasion” is not coincidence. It is used here to demonstrate the feeling of ‘white’ Americans towards those who may challenge their jobs and land ownership, but most importantly their peace of mind. Later in the story Delany is once again confronted by the Mexican and through his description seems somewhat scared of the unknown, the “other. “Delany was reaching for the keys when the altercation swept toward them, and now he stood poised over the trunk of his car, groceries pressed like a shield to his chest, keys dangling limply from his fingers, looking on numbly as the dark man got shaky on his feet, muttering apologies in his own dark language. The Mexican seemed dazed-or maybe deranged” (105). Again the Mexican is seen as a negative figure, he has stumbled his way up the mountain looking for his wife and does not want trouble, but as a victim of racism, is threatened on his way towards the market.
And once again is face to face with the man who put him in this horrific condition. This book overflows with hypocritical speech from upper middle class white people. At a meeting about the gate a man states, “I’d like to open my arms to everybody in the world, no matter how poor they are or what country they come from; I’d like to leave my back door open and my screen door unlatched, the way it was when I was a kid, but you know as well as I do, those days are past…L. A. stinks. The whole world stinks…I say that gate is as necessary, as vital, essential and un-do-withoutable as the roofs over our heads…”(44).
This is an obvious contradiction. There are gangs that have terrorized certain people in the neighborhood, but the gate is much more than this. It means control. It will allow the upper middle class to form a barrier between themselves and the unknown outside world. They will be segregated from the poor where they will not have to feel any sympathy or emotion that will disturb their daily lives. Again another harmful statement is made in the supermarket between Delaney and Jack, it questions the need for immigrants at all. “The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us.
They’re peasants, my friend. No education, no resources, no skills-all they’ve got to offer is a strong back, and the irony is we need fewer and fewer strong backs every day because we’ve got robotics and computers and farm machinery that can do the labor of a hundred men at a fraction of the cost” (101). This quote brings to life a true reality of immigration. With the newer technology whites have less and less need for manual labor. They are becoming an unnecessary part of society, yet daily their population is still increasing.
The quote is extremely important because it encompasses the majority of what Boyle portrays as the white middle-class frame of thought regarding Mexican immigrants: encroaching, dirty peasants who provide more danger than they do resourcesCandido and America are faced with bad situation after bad situation. When living in the canyon and unable to work, because of his injuries, Candido is now terrorized by the newer generation of racists. “After a moment he got up and waded into the stream to try to recover his things, and it was then that he noticed their parting gift, a message emblazoned on the rocks in paint that dripped like blood.
The letters were crude and the words in English, but there was no mistaking the meaning:. This racism suffered by Candido has unfortunately held him back and now it has been passed on through the gringo’s children. He is unable to live in peace just like his counterpart Delany. They both have a mutual fear of the “other. ” Although the “other” normal signifies the darker skinned individual, in Candido’s place, the ‘other’ is Delany. A man who in Candido’s eyes seeks to harm him and rob him of what little he has.
From the advice of his father, Candido gains his first interpretation of the white men. “In times of extremity, his father said, when you’re lost or hungry or in danger, ponte pared, make like a wall. That is, you present a solid unbreachable surface, you show nothing, neither fear nor despair, and you protect the inner fortress of yourself from all corners. That night, cold, wet, hungry and afraid, Candido followed his father’s advice and made himself like a wall” (169).
He continued to follow his advice even in the canyon in which he camped, but the ‘other’ seemed to always have a way to get to him, breaking through his makeshift and natural boundaries. This advice is something he keeps in mind when confronting difficult situations. Candido has clearly followed this advice for his entire life, hardening himself to the world so that he can focus on bowing his head and working hard. However, the phrasing of this advice is what is particularly interesting. The idea of a wall is a major theme throughout the novel, and here we see that it has affected Candido’s entire life profoundly.
He has taught himself to figuratively build a wall between himself and the rest of the world, and that is how he has managed to push through all of the misfortune that he has suffered. In the end of the novel, Boyle’s theme comes through full circle, the borders, the animals, the ‘other. ’ When Delany has become obsessed without any other resource, he feels compelled to investigate this Mexican on his own, he must confront him, and force something out of him; although he is unsure of what it is he wants from the man, one thing is very clear, he wants control. He is sick of feeling guilt and anger, he must take control of himself. He didn’t care about the hazard, didn’t care about the other drivers or the wet road or his insurance rates-all he cared about was this Mexican, the man who’d invaded his life like some unshakable parasite, like a disease” (332). This obsession has taken control of Delaney. It creates in him a kind of savage beast, the piece of the ‘other ‘ that lies within the ‘white’ man, “Delany’s feet slipped out from under him…and he was down on his hands and knees before he’d gone twenty steps. Rain whipped his face, the chaparral disintegrated under the frantic grasp of his fingers…Time meant nothing.
The universe reduced to the square foot of broken sky over his head and beneath his muddy hands. ” (347). This image is key to the ending of this story. This is a white savage man, climbing up the side of the mountain like a dog, or better yet, a coyote. He has fully lost control of his prim and proper ‘white’ self. He is outside the gate and has become, one of them, or has he? He actually is much more savage than the supposed Mexican savage. Candido only focused on himself and his family is rudely interrupted by this ‘white’ savage who seems ready to kill.
Then as the plot comes to its climax, we see the pain and anguish of Candido, in one simple quote. “All he wanted was work, and this was his fate, this was his stinking pinche luck, a violated wife and a blind daughter and a crazy white man with a gun, and even that wasn’t enough to satisfy an insatiable God: no, they all had to drown like rats in the bargain. ” (353). In the midst of the mudslide and rain, Candido has lost as ability to see the brighter future. This was the life, the wretched life, that awaited them in America. It was not the one they dreamt of for years, it was one full of pain and truggle. Yet there was his wife, a symbol of hope once again at the end of this novel, “She didn’t answer, and he felt the cold seep into his veins, coldness and a weariness like nothing he’d ever known. The dark water was all around him, water as far as he could see, and he wondered if he would ever get warm again. He was beyond cursing, beyond grieving, numbed right down to the core of him.
All that, yes. But when he saw the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles, he reached down and took hold of it. (355). This last paragraph of the novel leaves the reader with sorrow for a lost baby, hope for the immigrant couples future, and an act of kindness that crosses all boundaries. It speaks to that ‘inner self’ Candido’s father had taught him to hide away. It takes us full circle in the theme of struggle and the hope for future. In the end this novel connects very deeply with the essay by Anzaldua La conciencia de la mestiza: Towards a new Consciousness, to help us heal together and cross the borders that have been created within our society. We need to say to white society: we need you to accept the fact that Chicanos are different, to acknowledge your rejection and negation of us. We need you to own the fact that you looked upon us as less than human, that you stole our lands, our personhood, our self-respect…transferring the “negative” parts onto us. ” (1855). This essay asks it’s readers to pull together and look past problems of race, class, and immigration, which I believe is the entire theme of the novel, The Tortilla Curtain.
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