The Tortilla Curtain
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In his novel, “The Tortilla Curtain” (1995), Thomas Coraghessan Boyle recounts about the American lifestyle, middle-class values, stereotypes and prejudices against the colored and poor people, as well as the American Dream. He touches upon the issue, which is at the forefront of the political debates, namely the problem of illegal immigration in the United States. The author depicts the collision of two alien worlds through the eyes of the people on both sides of the issue – the well-off Californians and the poverty-stricken Mexican immigrants. The author poignantly demonstrates a huge gulf separating them and dividing the society into irreconcilable clans with crowds of supporters and opponents.
The book generates controversy, which is ignited by the two main couples, namely Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, who are the residents of Arroyo Blanco, an exclusive and wealthy community in Los Angeles, and Candido and America Rincon, Mexican immigrants who settle in a makeshift camp at the bottom of Topanga Canyon. Throughout the novel Boyle scatters contentious statements like “immigrants are the live-blood of this country – we’re a nation of immigrants” (Boyle, 101), or comparing Mexicans to coyotes: “the coyotes keep coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where the living is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable” (Boyle, 214). Candido Rincon stands for all illegal immigrants that come to the United States in search for a better life. He is a poor Mexican who crosses the Mexican border accompanied by his young pregnant wife America. Boyle draws public attention to the issues of underpayment, malnutrition, terrible living conditions and exploitation of manual labor of immigrants. The writer is especially acute at describing the hardships of people who chase the American Dream. Some of them will never be able to realize it, despite all their efforts.
The final conflict of the novel is between Delaney and Candido like at the beginning of the story. Who will win in the confrontation of opinions, lifestyles and social statuses? The answer is ‘nobody’ and the last scene clearly demonstrates this. Delaney is seething with rage at Candido thus takes a gun and follows the Mexican to his shack. The wrath, grievance and contempt, which both men feel for each other, are washed away by the flood that rushes down from the mountains and destroys the Rincon’s lodging. The instinct to survive immediately replaces the racial and cultural conflicts. Candido and America realize that their daughter has drowned and that there are more important things in life than money and well-being. By characterizing theRincons and the Mossbachers, Boyle emphasizes on a wide chasm of hate, prejudice and misunderstanding that separate them. The writer definitely attempts to examine the opinions of both clans from different perspectives. His characters are divided along social and cultural parameters. Scott Spencer, a writer for the New York Times, states that “in “The Tortilla Curtain”, the drama, feeling and stylistic bravado, the emotional reach that Mr. Boyle brings to the story of the Rincons so profoundly exceed what he brings to the Mossbachers that the book itself ends up feeling as disunited as the society Mr. Boyle is attempting to portray” (1). The characters of Delaney and Candido are more realistic than fictional and, probably, that is why “The Tortilla Curtain” is a success. It is easy to relate oneself to one of the characters in the book, for the problems they face are extracted from everyday life. Their stories are convincing, their feelings are true, and their views are thought provoking. However, the gap between the rich and the poor is unbridgeable and Boyle’s characters validate this fact and mock the societal standards and stereotypes, which create this illusion.
The novel is split into three sections, which are subdivided into eight chapters each. Boyle uses the dual structure, shifting perspectives between two totally different lifestyles. The readers can have insights into two completely different walks of life, analyze their relationships and form their opinions towards illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty and environmental destruction. Although the writer denies it, in the core of the narration are social and political underpinnings. The book does not give any straight or easy answers with regard to Proposition 187. Complex issues do not have clear-cut solutions, and heated debates can either exacerbate or diminish racist tendencies. From the very beginning of the story, the danger of having the influx of immigrants to the United States is expressed by Jack Jardine, Jack Cherrystone, and Jim Shirley. These people are the representatives of the U.S. middle class population, who are concerned with safety issues in the first place and want to protect themselves by building the wall around Arroyo Blanco. Greater hatred towards illegal immigrants is expressed by the younger generation of Americans, showing that racism amplifies across generations.
Boyle draws an interesting comparison between the American and Mexican lifestyles. The former is characterized by ordered nature, stability and boredom. The writer underscores that the whole routine spins around the desire to maximize one’s profits, even at the expense of one’s family. Mexicans are attracted by the prospect of makiing steady money, but they are not ready to sacrifice their familial relationships and values. Family has always been considered as the cornerstone of the community’s stability. The nuclear patriarchal Mexican families retain traditional values, passing them on from one generation to another. The most significant role in the lives of Mexicans plays religion. Most of them are ardent believers and Roman Catholic or Protestant churchgoers. In fact, their views on life, politics, marriage, and education are largely influenced by religion.
Boyle encourages the readers to delve deeper into the issue of illegal immigration, underscoring that poverty, unemployment, and violence encourage thousands of Mexicans escape their motherland. The process of migration can hardly be stopped, in view of the fact that the U.S. economy exerts its influence far beyond the U.S. borders and Mexico, as well as various other countries, is strongly dependent on it. What is not overtly mentioned, but stands to reason is the implementation of NAFTA, which exacerbated the economic situation in Mexico, making the richest 10 percent of the population even richer and the poor became even poorer. The allure of a better life in the United States is so strong that Mexicans run the risk of apprehension, injury and even death without a second thought. The hardships that Mexicans experience living in the U.S.A., such as language barrier, economic issues, isolation, prejudices and discrimination stand in one row with the greatest challenge of all Mexican immigrants – the desire to preserve their national identity, which is widely labeled as “Chicano”. Chicanos are “stuck” between America and Mexico, living on the border of two cultures and worldviews, which will never mix, blend or mingle into a complete and harmonious whole.
The story narrated by T.C. Boyle is personal and general at the same time. Many readers and critics pinpoint that characters are shallowly described in broad generalities and are, therefore, stereotypical. On the other hand, the writer reveals the characters’ thoughts and reactions, making them realistic and believable. The geographical setting of the novel is beyond criticism, and many L.A. residents can recognize familiar places which help the readers to imagine the actual surroundings and better understand the characters’ deeds and feelings. The success of Boyle’s story is accounted for the topicality of the issue of illegal immigration, which still draws undivided attention of different stakeholders. He presents it through a dual perspective, which cannot leave anyone indifferent, encouraging to ally with one side or the other and, thus, being involuntary involved into the discussion.