Tortilla Curtain Essay

On any list of issues of concern to the Hispanic community, immigration must rank at the top. Not only does it affect the largest number of interest groups, but it is also by far the hardest problem to solve. The U.S.—Mexican border may well be the world’s most porous. The legal two-way flow of people across what some call the “Tortilla Curtain” is almost 160 million a year—nearly twice that through the U.S.—Canadian border.

The discussion of “Mexicans” reminds us of T.

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C. Boyle’s novel about a gated community in southern California. T. Coraghessan Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain (1996) is set in a hill-top gated community in Southern California and offers a thought provoking account of the starkness of California’s socio-spatial divide told through the contrasting lifeworlds of wealthy liberals Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher and the Mexican illegals Candido and America Rincon.

In one passage the protagonist is arguing with the president of the home-owners association about a decision to add gates to their walled suburban housing development:

“…the gate thing is important, probably the single most important agendum we’ve taken up in my two years as president.

“You really think so? To me, I say it’s unnecessary-and, I don’t know, irresponsible somehow…. I lean more to the position that we live in a democracy…. I mean, we all have a stake in things, and locking yourself away from the rest of society, how can you justify that?”

“Safety. Self-protection. Prudence. You lock your car, don’t you? Your front door?… I know how you feel…but this society isn’t what it was-and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”

“That’s racist, Jack, and you know it.”

…”Not in the least-it’s a question of national sovereignty. Did you know 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.

Does Boyle capture what we are feeling? Is he showing local attitudes about immigration and the permeable boundary between Mexico and Texas?

The lives of Cándido and América, his wife, immigrants from Mexico, seeking the good life but continually thwarted by circumstance, the malevolence of others, racism, and bad luck is instructive here. T. C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain (1995) is rich with irony and contingency as he creates a contrapuntal narrative of two families—Cándido and América and the Mossbachers, quintessential and well-to-do southern Californians who live on the hills above the canyon where Cándido and América live and hide from immigration officials.

Cándido and América have been through innumerable trials, disappointments, Herculean efforts to get work, and physically brutal experiences. Now América is pregnant, due any day (their first child), and suddenly in the canyon—their home—a fire leaps “to the trees like the coming of the Apocalypse” (p. 274). They struggled to get away from the thermal torrents of this rapidly spreading inferno. Eventually they found a haven, a shed, behind the house of the Mossbachers, under the rolling smoke and momentarily away from the flames:

It was hot. It smelled bad. She was scared. She couldn’t believe she was having a baby in a place like this, with the whole world on fire and nobody to help her, no midwife, no doctor, not even a curandera. And the pain. Everything was tight down there, squeezing in, always in, when it should be pushing out. She was in a shed, floating in a sea of rustling plastic sacks of grass seed, the sweat shining all over her like cooking oil and Candido fussing around with his knife—sharpening it now on a whetstone—as if he could be of any use at all. …

Outside, beyond the tin skin of the shed the inferno rushed toward them and the winds rattled the walls with a pulse like a drumbeat … She could barely move and the pains were gripping her and then releasing until she felt like a sharp rubber ball slammed against a wall over and over.

And then, in the middle of it all, with the terrible clenching pains coming one after the other, the animals suddenly stopped howling … América heard the fire then … and then a thin mewling whine that was no howl or screech but the tentative interrogatory meow of a cat, a pretty little Siamese with transparent ears that stepped through the open door and came right up to her as if it knew her. She held out her hand, and then clenched her fist with the pain of a contraction, and the cat stayed with her. “Gatita,” she whispered to the arching back and the blue luminous eyes, “you’re the one. You’re the saint. You. You will be my midwife.” (pp. 282–83)

Their troubles do not end here. But imagine some distant day how these perilous adventures, heart-stopping moments, the fortuitous appearance of the gatita will be folded into the evolving narrative of their lives together, including the improbable life of their beloved Socorro (their daughter—born in fire and later that very day saved from perishing in water).

Culture makes a difference, not only in the incidence of the risk but how it is understood and handled. Cuban and Mexican teens are more prone to use pregnancy as a step toward marriage or at least long-term relationships in which obligations to the child are strongly felt. After the accident, Cándido’s problems deepen but he remained devoted and caring toward pregnant América.

Living in a gated community represents a new version of the middle-class American dream precisely because it temporarily suppresses and masks, even denies and fuses, the inherent anxieties and conflicting social values of modern urban and suburban life (Low 11).

It transforms Americans’ dilemma of how to protect themselves and their children from danger, crime, and unknown others while still perpetuating open, friendly neighborhoods and comfortable, safe homes. It reinforces the norms of a middle-class lifestyle in a historical period in which everyday events and news media exacerbate fears of violence and terrorism (Low 12). Thus, residents cite their “need” for gated communities to provide a safe and secure home in the face of a lack of other societal alternatives.

Gated communities are different from other exclusive suburban developments, condominiums, cooperatives, and doorman apartment buildings found throughout the United States. At the level of the built environment, the walls and gates are visible barriers that have social and psychological as well as physical effects. In practical terms, gated communities restrict access to streets and thoroughfares that would otherwise be available for public as well as for private transportation. And in some cases, gated communities limit access to open space and park land donated by the developer to the municipality or town in exchange for building higher-density housing than allowed by local zoning. Such land is designated as in the public domain, but is available only to people who live within the development.

For wealthy suburbanites, the gated community offers a haven in a socially and culturally diverse world, offering a protected setting for their upper-middle-class lifestyle. Desire for safety, security, community, and “niceness,” as well as wanting to live near people like themselves because of a fear of “others” and of crime, is not unique to this family, but expressed by most residents living in gated communities. The emergence of a fortress mentality and its phenomenal success is surprising in the United States, where the majority of people live in open and unguarded neighborhoods.

Thus, the rapid increase in the numbers of Americans moving to secured residential enclaves invites a more complex account of their motives and values (Low 45). Like other middle-class Americans, residents of gated communities are looking for a place where they feel comfortable and secure, but this seemingly self-evident explanation reflects different underlying meanings and intentions. And collectively, their individual decisions are transforming the American dream of owning a suburban home in a close-knit community with easy access to nature into a vision that includes gates, walls, and guards.

The cross-cultural and historical analysis of the meaning of danger parallels the argument developed in the study of Daniel James: danger has many meanings, including, but extending far beyond, the incidence of crime. Danger encompasses the fear of the stranger, the morally reprehensible, disorderly, or culturally alien person, and the anonymous member of a hostile and threatening social category.

In Topanga, California, as in the large industrializing cities of the nineteenth century, groups appear dangerous not only because they commit crime but also because they are hostile and potentially disruptive. A sense of danger springs from antagonisms between groups that emerge from both class and cultural differences. The historical examples portray danger arising primarily from class conflicts, but in each case the class antagonisms are reinforced by cultural differences. In Tortilla Curtain, group conflicts stem primarily from cultural differences, but are buttressed by economic rivalry.

Works Cited

Boyle, T. C. The tortilla curtain. New York: Penguin Books, 1995.

Low, Setha. Behind the Gates: Life, Security, and the Pursuit of Happiness in Fortress America. Routledge: New York, 2003.

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