Last Updated September 5, 2023.
T.C. Boyle's 1995 novel The Tortilla Curtain takes place in the Los Angeles area, a part of the United States famous for both its wealth and its Mexican population. Both of these elements come together dramatically in this novel as the plot follows the lives of two couples who live in very different circumstances in Topanga Canyon, a suburb of Los Angeles. One couple, Cándido Rincón and his pregnant seventeen-year-old wife América, are homeless as they try to make a better life for themselves as illegal Mexican immigrants; the other couple, Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, are American, white, and wealthy, enjoying a privileged life in an exclusive gated community called Arroyo Blanco.
Cándido and América work to survive the landscape, camping in Topanga Canyon in the hills above the mansions and the pricey boutiques of Malibu, where they can hide safely under the cover of nature. In contrast, the Mossbachers have chosen to live in Topanga, believing that their gated community brings them closer to the beauty of the natural environment. The Mossbacher's fantasy evaporates when one of their dogs is killed by a coyote, an emotional point in the novel that reveals the fragility and foolishness of this out-of-touch Angeleno couple. The resilience and hardiness of the Mexican couple, who live in a shack behind the Mossbacher home, are juxtaposed against Kyra and Delaney Mossbacher, who live somewhat removed from the 'real world.'
The lives of the two couples become intertwined when Delaney accidentally injures Cándido, hitting him while driving and disabling Cándido so he is unable to work. Neither man wants to involve the police so Delaney, a self-professed liberal, gives Cándido twenty dollars, a paltry sum compared to the physical damage Cándido has sustained, but appropriately symbolic of Delaney's regard for Mexicans. After this confrontation early in the novel, both men and their families begin to experience trouble. Cándido's psychological state suffers as he finds himself unable to provide for his family, and Delaney and his neighbors feel vulnerable as their community bands together to keep "undesirables" out of their suburb.
When the two men meet again, their problems have intensified to a level that can only lead to tragic ends. Cándido has inadvertently set a fire that damages the Mossbacher home, and the wall that has been built to protect Arroyo Blanco has also been damaged. Delaney becomes fixated on finding out who did what. América delivers her baby, whom she suspects is blind as a result of a sexually transmitted disease she may have contracted from her rapist. In the final moments of the novel, Delaney, Cándido, América and the infant are all swept away by a river, swollen and violent due to a landslide in the canyon. Delaney is able to rescue Cándido, but they lose the baby, a tragic end to a powerful novel about prejudice and the pursuit of the American dream.