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The Tortilla Curtain

February 11, 2020

IMG_3642 (1)In 1995, when T.C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain first came out, I wasn’t paying attention. I was reading picture books to a toddler and we were living in rural Ohio, where almost everyone looked like me. I never heard anyone say anything about immigrants, and the only controversy about immigration that I was aware of was stirred up by those who asserted that this country was supposed to be a “melting pot” and anyone who came here should learn to speak English.

What a sheltered life I led. So I’m one of the few people who could still possibly get anything out of trying to identify with the satirized protagonist of The Tortilla Curtain, “a liberal humanist with an unblemished driving record and a freshly waxed Japanese car,” who accidentally runs into a man crossing the road and then goes about the rest of his day as if nothing has happened, although he does think about the guy he hit: “he saw his victim in a book of stamps at the post office, reflected in the blameless glass panels of the gently closing twin doors at Jordan’s elementary school, staring up at him from his omelette aux fines herbes at Emilio’s in the shank of the evening.”

Although the novel opens with the protagonist, Delaney, denying the humanity of the person he hit by declaring “the man was Mexican, Hispanic” and closes with his victim, the second protagonist, affirming Delaney’s own humanity by grasping his hand to save him from a mudslide, the satiric exaggeration is toned down in the middle. The back and forth of point of view in each chapter invites readers to sympathize with the struggles of the second protagonist, Candido, and to see themselves in Delaney and their actions in his continual efforts to avoid conflict.

Delaney writes about nature for a living, so he is concerned about people littering, polluting, and setting fires in the state park near his house. When he sees the man he hit limp off in the direction of the park and realizes he must be camping there, he is “seething, ready to write his congressman, call the sheriff, anything—but then he checked himself. Maybe he was jumping to conclusions.”

It is Delaney’s neighbors, in a new subdivision called Arroyo Blanco Estates, who are the unreasonable ones, leaving food out for coyotes and other wildlife and worrying about “the Salvadorans, the Mexicans, the blacks, the gangbangers and taggers and carjackers they read about in the Metro section over their bran toast and coffee That’s why they’d abandoned the flatlands of the Valley and the hills of the Westside to live up here, outside the city limits, in the midst of all this scenic splendor.”

I have a new interest in the geography of the bedroom communities around Los Angeles, the ones described here, as my youngest has just moved to one of them. This novel, The Tortilla Curtain, was recommended to me by the mother of his girlfriend as they were driving her car out to the LA metropolitan area. After four years in rural Ohio, they’ve moved to an area where attitudes towards immigrants have been developing for years.

In the novel, Delaney’s neighbor Jack, who Delaney calls “racist,” asks him if he knows that “the U.S. accepted more immigrants last year than all the other countries of the world combined—and that half of them settled in California? And that’s legal immigrants, people with skills, money, education. The ones coming in through the Tortilla Curtain down there, those are the ones that are killing us.” Delaney counters that “immigrants are the lifeblood of this country—we’re a nation of immigrants” but Jack responds with “there’s a point of saturation.”

Later there’s an offhand remark from Delaney’s wife Kyra, who sells real estate, about how “since the riots” she’s met a lot of people who want to live outside LA. She must mean the 1992 LA riots ignited by the news release of the video of Rodney King being beaten by police. Evidently, what this meant in terms of buying houses in the LA area is that “they all wanted something out of the way, something rustic, rural, safe—something removed from people of whatever class and color, but particularly from the hordes of immigrants pouring in from Mexico and Central America, from Dubai, Burundi and Lithuania, from Asia and India and everywhere else in the known world.” Each time we hear this kind of thing, it’s from someone other than Delaney or Kyra, which is supposed to keep readers sympathizing with these characters.

Of course, we’re most sympathetic to the troubles of Candido and his pregnant wife America, who are living hand to mouth and being attacked and taken advantage of at every turn. And what symbolism in their names! America comes from the south to the north but is still America, and Candido seems to be continually searching for the good in a place he believes is the best of all possible worlds.

Everyone in the novel would like to be safe from the real villains of the area, two men whose campsite Delaney discovers while on one of his nature walks. He saw “a blackened ring of stones to the immediate right of the sleeping bags and a moth-eaten khaki satchel hanging from the low branch of a tree. And refuse. Refuse everywhere. Cans, bottles, the shucked wrappers of ready-made sandwiches and burritos, toilet paper, magazines….The first thing he felt wasn’t surprise or even anger—it was embarrassment, as if he’d broken into some stranger’s bedroom.” After that initial reaction, though, Delaney gets angry. He thinks maybe he should “bundle the whole mess up and haul it back to the nearest trash can.” Then he thinks he should “call the Sheriff’s Department. Let them handle it.”

In the last half of the novel, the characterization of Delaney and his family and neighbors descends into caricature. There’s a (now typical, in 2020) episode where he and Kyra are satirized for being more concerned about an animal left in a hot car than about people starving and homeless. Even here, though it seems like we get a warning about what happened in the 2016 election, when a lot of people seemed to want the issues to be simple: “this was what mattered. Principles. Right and wrong, an issue as clear-cut as the on/off switch on the TV.”

The people who live in Arroyo Blanco estates become a gated community despite Delaney’s opposition and when he says to them “Isn’t the gate enough? Next thing you’ll want to wall the whole place in like a medieval city or something” he sees that that is indeed what they intend to do. And even though Delaney realizes at one point that this is not the way he wants to raise his stepson, he eventually gives in to the repeated warnings about the dangers immigrants present. He becomes a crazed version of himself, pulling a gun on Candido and America and their newborn baby, who has already been damaged by her mother’s circumstances before birth and will not grow up in the country her parents thought would provide the opportunities they could find nowhere else.

Reading this 1995 novel in 2020 made me think about time in Auden’s poem “As I Walked Out One Evening.”

As I walked out one evening,
Walking down Bristol Street,
The crowds upon the pavement
Were fields of harvest wheat.

And down by the brimming river
I heard a lover sing
Under an arch of the railway:
‘Love has no ending.

‘I’ll love you, dear, I’ll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

‘I’ll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

‘The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
‘O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

‘In the burrows of the Nightmare
Where Justice naked is,
Time watches from the shadow
And coughs when you would kiss.

‘In headaches and in worry
Vaguely life leaks away,
And Time will have his fancy
To-morrow or to-day.

‘Into many a green valley
Drifts the appalling snow;
Time breaks the threaded dances
And the diver’s brilliant bow.

‘O plunge your hands in water,
Plunge them in up to the wrist;
Stare, stare in the basin
And wonder what you’ve missed.

‘The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.

‘Where the beggars raffle the banknotes
And the Giant is enchanting to Jack,
And the Lily-white Boy is a Roarer,
And Jill goes down on her back.

‘O look, look in the mirror,
O look in your distress:
Life remains a blessing
Although you cannot bless.

‘O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbour
With your crooked heart.’

It was late, late in the evening,
The lovers they were gone;
The clocks had ceased their chiming,
And the deep river ran on.

Can we learn to love our crooked neighbors and sort out the complications of our crooked hearts anytime soon? The recent Brexit vote in the country of Auden’s birth doesn’t seem to me to bode well for the direction this country is headed.

Here are three cats of different colors getting along. They don’t always.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 11, 2020 1:15 pm

    I read this around the time it came out and I realise I’ve forgotten almost everything about it. I’ll add it to the re-read pile. Nice cats 🙂 I wish my two would get along…

    • February 13, 2020 1:07 pm

      These three cats don’t often get along, so I photograph the moments when they are tolerating each other.

  2. February 11, 2020 4:39 pm

    I had an 8 year old in 1995 and, like you, thought little of immigration. Having been a legal immigrant in France for a few years and being the granchild of immigrants, I know first hand what it’s like to not be accepted in the country you live in. This book sounds like it’s well done.

    • February 13, 2020 1:08 pm

      It was well done for the time, but now the satiric exaggeration of the characters seems like it should be either more or less. Satire often doesn’t age well.

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