T. Coraghessan Boyle writes a magnificent story of how racism and discrimination affects the lives of people living in a privileged society. He reinforces that a prosperous community such as Topanga Canyon (Los Angeles) has ecological instability between its inhabitants and illegal foreigners. The Tortilla Curtain focuses on two separate cultures, the white and financially stable race, and the poor, undocumented immigrants of Mexico.
Although they both reside in the land of the free, the white race reigns supremacy while the lighted-colored citizens south of the boarder struggle for equal rights and survival. The story of The Tortilla Curtain revolves around two families living in southern California. The families contradict one another based upon societal standards in the United States of America. In a community housing-development, Delaney works writing columns about nature while his wife is a successful realtor. For the most part they live a safe and peaceful life.
However, Kyra (Delaney’s wife) and the members of their community would feel safer if all the Mexican were deported. Boyle describes Delaney as a liberal humanist for he is not bothered by Mexicans trying to work and make a living in his country. The opposing main character to Delaney is Candido. Candido is a thirty year-old man hailing from Mexico. With hardly any money at all, he camps out in the mountains of Topanga Canyon with young, pregnant wife America. Candido must compete with other undocumented citizens at the day-labor-exchange in order to work and provide for his wife.
Then, tragedy strikes. This unleashes a multitude of discrimination on behalf of women as well as, victimization between people cast at the bottom of society. Candido was crossing a state highway when he was suddenly struck by an oncoming car. The driver of the car, Delaney, left the undocumented citizen badly injured. The price paid was an injured leg, arm and indented cheekbone. Delaney was however kind enough to provide the man twenty bucks for his troubles. Reality hit hard for Candido and his wife America. The injuries sustained put Candido out of commission for work.
America would try her luck landing a job at the labor exchange but not till after a few choice words from Candido. In this scenario, Boyle emphasizes the discrimination among women in the Mexican culture. A man’s obligation in life is to provide for his wife. If he cannot, than he is a worthless human being. One day as America was going up the hill to the labor exchange Candido did anything he knew to prevent her from going. His insults cut deeper than physical torment when she questioned him on their next meal.
She threw it all at him, angry, hurt, terrified; and then he rose up off the blanket and slapped her. Hard. Slapped her in the pale rocky dawn of the ravine till her head snapped back on her like one of those rubber balls attached to a paddle. “Don’t you tell me,” he growled through his teeth. “It’s an insult. A kick in the ass when I’m down. ” He spat at her feet. “You’re no better than your sister, no better than a whore. ” (80) As an American citizen I’ve had the luxury of working with many intelligent and capable women. Yet in this situation I am an outsider looking in.
I find this to be unjust as the potential of a female worker is being scrutinized. The cultural lifestyle of many Mexican families, as it was during the 18th, 19th and partial 20th century in America, was that women were to cook, clean and take care of the children while the husbands generated the source of income. It is an imbalance of equality that women have to bare. Even in the age of today women are hard-pressed to find stable jobs that fit their needs. Women are being forced out of the workplace because of the higher demand for flexible hours, sick days and maternity leave.
Not to mention the highly controversial payment discrepancies where men make more money. Even in the story Candido is considered lucky to make six dollars an hour. America generates only half that much and she worked with hazardous chemicals. Candido and America had one goal when crossing the border; live the American Dream. They wanted desperately to own a house and a car and raise their child as a legal citizen of the United States. Yet they struggled to eat twice a day and create a fund for an apartment. Candido was a misfortunate individual.
Although he was afraid of the INS agents in their puke-green cars, it was his Mexican brethren he feared most. They targeted weaker peers and robbed them of their money, merchandise and dignity. Both Candido and America had fallen prey to this victimization. America was sought out because she was female. Two men committed a heinous crime through beating and raping this seventeen-year-old girl. Months later after this incident, Candido had saved around 300 dollars. Their camp became a hot-zone of INS agents and they were forced to find shelter within the city.
Candido needed a room for the night so he put his faith in a man saying he had one. Upon the walk to inspection the place he was bludgeon in the head and stripped of his 300 dollars. Truly misfortunate. Left with no cash and a splitting headache, Candido had to do whatever it took to feed and shelter his wife. This was the first time America tasted desperation…literally. Boyle directly intended to show the duality of society using Delaney and Candido as examples. It is difficult to look at both men and their personalities without showing favoritism or empathy.
I felt pity for Candido and the insurmountable odds he had to overcome. He was cheated, degraded, wronged, oppressed, and for what? The sad but true answer was because he is an undocumented alien. Delaney on the other hand was a white male. He was part of the dominate race in society. In addition, he can be adequately placed in each level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. All he worries about is a little graffiti and a coyote getting over the fence every now and again. Damn shame. But in the end, Boyle puts everything about humanity and morality into perspective.
To summarize the event, a torrential downpour has broken the heat wave. Delaney spots Candido and demands justice for stealing objects out of his neighbor’s yards. In doing so Delaney creates a car accident and Candido escapes back to his makeshift shack. Determined to avenge the wrongdoing of Candido and the Mexican race he stands for, Delaney grabs his shotgun and tracks him down. Upon entry to the shack where Candido, America and their baby reside, a flash flood sweeps away the hut and hurls all of them into a stream.
America is the first one out followed shortly after by Candido. “Where’s the baby? ” She didn’t answer, and he felt the cold seep into his veins, a cold-ness and a weariness like nothing he’d ever known…. He was beyond cursing, beyond grieving, numbed right through to the core of him. All that, yes. But when he saw the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles, he reached down and took hold of it. (355) An incredible act of kindness was shown when Candido helped rescue this white man.
The book has come full circle. They were brought together by a car accident in the beginning and came together through the very same incident. This time however, twenty dollars would not have saved Delaney’s life. It goes to show that no race, ethnicity, color or creed is superior to another. Every individual has to ability to be noble, moral human beings if they can see past the walls of stereotypes and discrimination. Delaney’s description of the coyote is more than just describing a creature in nature.
Though the coyote is an outcast, it “keeps coming, breeding up to fill in the gaps, moving in where the living is easy. They are cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable. (215)” It is symbolic to human spirit. We as people, no matter what status or label strive to survive in the attempt at living a successful and prosperous life. Candido believed in this. This book emphasizes the political gaps toward undocumented citizens and the little rights they have. If immigration is a crime, then we as Americans are guilty; for generations before us imported to this land without documentation.