The Tortilla Curtain Novel by T.C. Boyle Essay

      The American Dream as generally defined is the idea of working one’s way up the ladder of life. It is the idea that an American can start with nothing or an immigrant can come here with nothing and with some hard work and determination, can have all the things he/she ever wanted. The American dream began as Horatio Alger story and ends up meaning suburbanites driving in their Lexus’s from their mansions.  What this means is that while immigrants came here for the “rags to riches” story, as we became acculturated, we began to want more and more.

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Making a good living was no longer enough, and the disease of “affluenza” took over, of never knowing when enough is enough.  Now, we don’t just need a lifestyle to support our families; we need the house in the suburbs (the more grandiose, the better), the fancy cars, the nannies, the private tutors, etc.  Immigrants who come here today see many families who simply make a good living, however; they also see many people who spend extravagantly on ridiculous things.

  These extremes make it even harder when the “common man” or the immigrant cannot achieve the lifestyles they have dreamed of.

      The dream is perceived differently by people who came here as opposed to living here. Kyra Menaker-Mossbacher and her husband have a definite sense of the American dream. She is a big shot realtor who spends her days showing mansions to clients, never thinking about homelessness or other real world problems. She lives the American Dream in her exclusive housing development, Arroyo Blanco Estates, with all her luxuries. Delaney comes from wealth and spends his days freelance writing for a nature magazine. The Mossbachers can spend their time worrying abut trivial things like dents in the hood of their car. However, this life is not enough for her; she still wants something better. On the other hand, just below this housing development, the Rincons struggle and struggle.

This Mexican family has come here illegally to strive for the American dream. Like immigrants before them, they believe the U.S. is the land of wealth (like the early Chinese immigrants who believed the streets were paved with gold, calling this country Gold Mountain). Maybe the United States is the land of wealth, but the doors to that vault of wealth are certainly not open to all. The Rincons find that no matter how hard they work, not only can they not achieve enough to have any sort of American dream, but also they cannot achieve enough to sustain life. They truly believe that in American society, “everyone, even the poorest [has] a car, a house, and a TV” (26).

They do not understand that there are many poor Americans as well. But as they work and work, their frustration grows with their inability to achieve. America Rincon (s symbolic name if there ever was one) will come to understand that her idea of an American Dream was just that, a dream, an illusion. America learns the heard way though, living outside in the open air with no clean water or sanitation while she is pregnant. They have neither insurance nor any means of getting insurance.

She is forced to do things she thought she would never do, like steal, for money. She and her husband are unable to defend themselves as their camp is trashed, and she is raped. Things are beginning to look up until Candido sets the valley on fire and burns up their savings. They are back to square one. The Mossbachers clearly represent the idea of the American Dream that the Rincons try to achieve.

      Have Kyra and Delaney worked harder than the Rincon family to achieve the American Dream? No, it is simply that the door is open to them. Kyra works hard and dreams of the Da Ros place, which is a mansion “in the style of an English manor house, comprising eleven thousand square of living space” (222). Even when this place is destroyed by fire, Kyra can replace her dream with another one while enjoying the comforts and luxuries of her life. She is sheltered from the cruel existence of the Rincons.

      It is very interesting and tragic to see and understand what happens when Kyra’s family bumps or crashes into the Rincons, and the two concepts of the American Dream collide. First, Delaney, who is a self proclaimed “liberal humanist” (13) runs into Candido with his car, he blames this illegal for being in the road and hands him $20. Delaney must feel that this is what an illegal immigrant’s life is worth. Other things begin to happen that make their parallel lives continue to collide, and Delaney begins to seethe with anger. The coyotes are attracted to the Rincon’s camp and end up taking Kyra and Delaney’s dog.

Then the Delaney’s luxury car is stolen, and the community begins to wall itself in from “the Salvadorians, the Mexicans, the blacks, the gangbangers, and taggers and carjackers…” (39). They are protecting their American dream while further stopping others from achieving it. Ironically, Candido and other illegals are the ones who build the wall. Delaney actually sort of opposes the wall at first because he will not be able to take his dog for a walk in the canyon without climbing a ladder. Kyra lobbies to stop the labor exchange where Candido and his friends are hired for day work, but is very worked-up about seeing a pet locked in a hot car. Delaney now wants vengeance and he goes to shoot Candido. Delaney ends up saving Candido in a mudslide but the baby dies.

      Delaney and Kyra have achieved at least part of their dream, but they want more and more. In achieving this dream, they have literally walled themselves off from the “less fortunate” people. They have no idea how the “other half” lives or the struggle that faces others. They are so angered when the coyote takes their dog, the dog that they probably spend more on than the Rincon family earns in a year. Delaney thinks of himself as a liberal until people start disrupting his own dream.

Then he becomes fearful and angry. Delaney writes in his column for a nature magazine, “One coyote, who makes his living on the fringes of my community, has learned to simply chew his way through the plastic irrigation pipes whenever he wants a drink” (212). Delaney summarizes with, “The coyote is not to blame—he is only trying to survive, to make a living, to take advantage of the opportunities available to him” (215). Delaney cannot, however, see the connection between Candido and this coyote in his own life. Delaney further concludes that “Trapping is utterly useless—even if traps were to be set in every backyard in the country” (217). Clearly, the answer for communities is not walls.

      On the other hand, the Rincon family is not at fault for wanting a better life. Yes, they are illegal but there is no way to come here legally. They have tried everything they can to achieve their dream, and after all their hard work, they’re probably worse off than when they started. They are world wise in that they have faced so many injustices and have lost their child. They face racism on a daily basis.

      The American dream, unfortunately, is becoming solely defined by materialism. Americans have the disease of affluenza where there is never enough, and yet, there are people starving on the streets. The novel The Tortilla Curtain does not come to any solution or resolution about the issue of offering freedom for all white protecting the interests and lives of the wealthy. What Boyle does do is expose the hypocrisy of the debate itself. While those who achieve the American dream live in luxury in their walled communities of wastefulness, the have-nots wrestle with dogs for food. The reader cannot really like any of the character as he/she is drawn into the very hypocrisy of the novel.

 Illegal immigration is wrong, but no one really concerns himself/herself with it until it causes problems in our own backyard, until it threatens the way people choose to live their lives. People may profess to be liberal about an issue until it bumps up against his/her own life. Most of us are like Kyra and Delaney in that we don’t get a chance to see the struggles of various groups of people in this country. We live in our isolated communities. Yet, we don’t like Kyra and Delaney at all in the novel. There is true hypocrisy. The dilemma or the conflict over illegal immigration comes face to face with the American dream, or the failure of the American dream, in The Tortilla Curtain.

Works Cited

Boyle, T. C., The Tortilla Curtain, New York, Penguin, 1995.

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