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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288

In The Tortilla Curtain, T. C. Boyle satirically explores the physical and conceptual barriers that separate Mexican Americans and European Americans in Southern California. While numerous aspects of this situation have changed since its 1995 publication, many issues that Boyle considers remain current. By applying mordant humor to complex problems, Boyle helps the reader sees the serious side of an important dimension of American life.

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Boyle draws two contrasting characters who meet through a random event, when a wealthy white liberal, Delaney Mossbacher, accidentally hits with his car a poor working-class Mexican American, Cándido Rincón. Although the two live in almost adjacent neighborhoods, class, race, citizenship, and a highway separate them. For his silence, Delaney offers a few dollars to Cándido, who does not want to involve the police because he is undocumented. This chance encounter sets in motion a series of further coincidences that highlight the contrasts between them. Without documents and lacking money, Cándido and his pregnant wife are homeless and cannot even buy food, while Delaney and his wife occupy a luxurious condo in a new development.

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Not only do the two men occupy separate worlds but the gulf between them is also growing. Delaney’s liberal values are eroded by living among more conservative neighbors. When Cándido accidentally starts a fire that threatens Delaney’s development, however, the tables are soon turned and they become unlikely allies.

Boyle’s unique brand of American satire finds many subjects to lampoon in this multicultural urban world, but by exaggerating the stereotypes to the point of caricature, he makes it difficult for the reader to empathize with any of the characters. The novel often comes across as hollow mockery rather than meaningful satire.

The Tortilla Curtain

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1987

T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novels present conflicts between cultures and values: Englishmen in Africa and an African in Victorian England in Water Music (1982), marijuana growers and Northern California rednecks in Budding Prospects (1984), Dutch settlers of New York and Native Americans in World’s End (1987), a young Japanese and the American South in East Is East (1990), health crusaders and quick-buck artists in The Road to Wellville (1993). The Tortilla Curtain makes overt all that is implicit in these novels and several of Boyle’s stories.

The antagonists this time are illegal immigrants from Mexico and well-to-do Southern California suburbanites, though the antagonism is mostly one-sided, with the middle-class whites fearing that the invasion from the south is growing out of control. Another conflict occurs with nature, much less easy to manipulate and rationalize than human endeavors. Here Boyle combines the plight of the impoverished, materialism, racism, and natural forces to construct a blatantly didactic message. Taking his epigraph from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), Boyle presents another desperate journey toward hoped-for prosperity. Such an approach is unusual for Boyle, who is essentially a comic satirist, but World’s End was an even darker vision of human pettiness.

Boyle tells the story of two contrasting couples mostly in alternating chapters. The middle-aged Cándido Rincón had ventured into the United States before because of the lack of work in Mexico. This time he brings his pregnant seventeen-year-old wife, América. They plan to live in the open until Cándido earns enough money to find them a cheap apartment. Things fail to go according to this plan from the very beginning, when he is struck by a car and slightly injured.

The driver is Delaney Mossbacher, who lives in the posh Arroyo Blanco Estates with his second wife, Kyra, and her six-year-old son, Jordan. Delaney, a native New Yorker who writes a column for a nature magazine, loves where he lives because it is close to the wild. Kyra, a workaholic real-estate agent, loves Arroyo Blanco for its property values and will do anything to protect it. She is concerned that the Mexicans who gather nearby to look for work will drive down property values, and she turns against nature when a coyote leaps over a fence into her backyard to snatch one of her beloved Dandie Dinmont terriers. When Jack Jardine, president of the Arroyo Blanco Estates Property Owners’ Association, wants to have a wall built around the development, Kyra supports the plan, but Delaney is appalled at being cut off from nature and by the implied racism of the residents’ desire to live in a fortress.

While the Mossbachers worry about invaders, the Rincóns are concerned with surviving. They find some work—América cleans statues of Buddha—and see their meager savings grow, but América is assaulted, and Cándido is beaten and robbed. After they have accumulated another nest egg, Cándido is given a turkey for Thanksgiving, but when he begins cooking it, he sets Topanga Canyon on fire. The blaze, which almost reaches Arroyo Blanco, consumes the Rincóns’ savings, which had been buried in the ground in a jar. On the run from the fire and the authorities, América gives birth to a daughter, Socorro. After Cándido steals the materials to make his family a crude hut, rains cause a mud slide that washes it—and the baby—away.

The Rincóns’ misfortunes are presented in ironic juxtaposition to those of the Mossbachers. Delaney’s Acura is stolen, Kyra’s other dog is also taken by a coyote, and her cat goes missing in the fire. (It and other pets are eaten by the desperate Rincóns.) Delaney’s liberalism erodes, and he comes to see the Mexicans as the cause of all of his troubles.

Boyle presents Cándido and América as noble sufferers but tries to make them believably less than perfect. América is intolerant of her husband’s failures and longs for the same material comforts that the inhabitants of Arroyo Blanco desperately want to protect. When she and Cándido first lose their money, she experiences a nervous breakdown and does not speak to her husband for days. Even the Job-like Cándido once loses his temper and strikes his pregnant wife.

Cándido’s quest is for more than work, money, food, and shelter. He needs to acquire an ordinary way of life to restore his sense of dignity, as well as América’s respect for him. (His wife’s ironic name works on several levels.) More than anything, he longs for América’s admiration and is willing to endure anything for her. The money he earns through long hours of construction jobs becomes a symbol of his love.

Despite one setback after another, Cándido cannot give up:

He couldn’t go back to Mexico, a country with forty percent unemployment and a million people a year entering the labor force, a country that was corrupt and bankrupt and so pinched by inflation that the farmers were burning their crops and nobody but the rich had enough to eat.

He is outraged at in the injustice of a society that forces him to break the law simply to obtain work:

They lived in their glass palaces, with their gates and fences and security systems, they left half-eaten lobsters and beefsteaks on their plates when the rest of the world was starving, spent enough to feed and clothe a whole country on their exercise equipment, their swimming pools and tennis courts and jogging shoes, and all of them, even the poorest, had two cars.

Boyle’s didacticism is, unfortunately, this blunt throughout the novel.

América, who never wanted to leave her meager comforts in Mexico, blames herself for bringing all these troubles on her husband. She is less judgmental about El Norte than Cándido and is dazzled by all it holds tantalizingly before her, as when she passes by a furniture store: “If she could have done it, she would have moved right into the store and slept on a different couch every night and it wouldn’t have bothered her a whit if the whole world was looking in at the window.” (She is amazed that even in this world of plenty, white Americans such as a drug addict she encounters compete for lowly jobs with illegal immigrants.) Cándido is both repelled and attracted by the materialism that América craves:

These people sanitized their groceries just as they sanitized their kitchens and toilets and drove the life from everything, imprisoning their produce in jars and cans and plastic pouches, wrapping their meat and even their fish in cellophane—and yet still the sight and proximity of all those comestibles made his knees go weak again.

Their economic conditions are made worse by the prejudices they encounter, narrow-mindedness embodied by the residents of Arroyo Blanco. When Delaney tries to defend the immigrants from what Jack Jardine calls the Tortilla Curtain, Jack argues that the manual labor that immigrants perform is becoming irrelevant because of automation and, besides, they cost too much: “The illegals in San Diego County contributed seventy million in tax revenues and at the same time they used up two hundred and forty million in services—welfare, emergency care, schooling and the like.” Another of Boyle’s representative racists makes even more blatant generalizations: “The more you give them the more they want, and the more of them there are.”

Kyra’s business is based on people’s fear and resentment of what they consider invaders, not only from Latin America but from Asia and the former Communist Europe too. Her customers want “something out of the way, something rustic, rural, safe”—and ethnically pure. When Kyra’s most prized property goes up in flames because of the fire that she knows Mexicans started, her resentment explodes: “They were like the barbarians outside the gates of Rome, only they were already inside, polluting the creek and crapping in the woods, threatening people and spraying graffiti all over everything, and where was it going to end?”

Boyle draws numerous parallels between these invaders and the natural order of things. Delaney compares the immigrants to migratory animals “and how one population responded to being displaced by another. It made for war, for violence and killing, until one group had decimated the other and reestablished its claim to the prime hunting, breeding or grazing grounds.” When Delaney writes a column about how coyotes have killed his dogs, he tries to make clear—though many of his readers think otherwise—that the suburbanites, not the animals, are responsible for creating the conditions that drive coyotes onto their properties. Boyle intends to make a similar point regarding illegal immigrants.

Kyra and Delaney are depicted as the opposite of the Jack Jardines: intelligent, compassionate, reasonable people capable of seeing more than one side to an issue. Kyra chastises herself for her grief after her first dog is killed: “There were people out there going through Dumpsters for a scrap to eat, people lined up on the streets begging for work, people who’d lost their homes, their children, their spouses, people with real problems, real grief. What was wrong with her?” What is wrong, according to Boyle, is that she is caring and liberal only in theory; when a crisis develops, she thinks only for herself and her kind.

Boyle portrays Delaney as an Everyman, enlightened but weak, who allows events to dictate his behavior. Labeled a “liberal humanist” at the beginning of the novel, Delaney is a nature writer seemingly because he is much more at ease in the wild, away from “the sad tarnished state of the world,” than in the civilization he only thinks he comprehends. Like Kyra, his initial response is self-serving. When he hits Cándido, he worries about damage to the Acura before he thinks about the pedestrian. While Kyra hides from life’s complexities in her work, Delaney retreats into a daily routine, feeling disoriented when it is disrupted, sensing security only in “the womb of language.” He believes that he asserts his individuality by opposing the wall around Arroyo Blanco, yet he will not join a neighbor in actively fighting it. He resembles his more virulent neighbors in the intense desire that nothing intrude upon his privacy.

Boyle is usually an adept satirist, but his anger and compassion seem to blunt his wit in The Tortilla Curtain. The Mossbachers’ neighbors are gross caricatures, mindless conformists playing with their expensive toys inside plastic cocoons. Boyle’s vision of the American suburb is too obvious, not far removed from what less imaginative writers were producing in the 1950’s. His technique of having parallel catastrophes befall his couples—relatively minor ones, naturally, for Delaney and Kyra—helps unify the novel but also makes it too predictable. Here Boyle keeps not only his humor but also his stylistic flourishes in check, writing more simply than in his previous novels. The Tortilla Curtain is also less literary, less allusive, than his earlier works, despite the fire and rain that evoke T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922). The plethora of pain inflicted on the Rincóns—their baby is blind—almost becomes so excessive as to be laughable. Such defects show how anger and compassion can cloud a usually clear artistic vision.

Sources for Further Study

Kingsolver, Barbara. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. The Nation, September 25, 1995, 326-327.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 24, 1995, p. 4.

New Statesman and Society . VIII, November 10, 1995, p. 39.

New York. XXVIII, October 9, 1995, p. 85.

Rifkind, Donna. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. The Washington Post Book World, August 20, 1995, 3, 8.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 10, 1995, p. REV9.

Skow, John. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. Time, September 4, 1995, 68.

Spencer, Scott. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. The New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, 3.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 27, 1995, p. 25.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 82

Sources for Further Study

Kingsolver, Barbara. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. The Nation, September 25, 1995, 326-327.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 24, 1995, p. 4.

New Statesman and Society . VIII, November 10, 1995, p. 39.

New York. XXVIII, October 9, 1995, p. 85.

Rifkind, Donna. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. The Washington Post Book World, August 20, 1995, 3, 8.

San Francisco Chronicle. September 10, 1995, p. REV9.

Skow, John. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. Time, September 4, 1995, 68.

Spencer, Scott. Review of The Tortilla Curtain. The New York Times Book Review, September 3, 1995, 3.

The Times Literary Supplement. October 27, 1995, p. 25.

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