The Tortilla Curtain
Apart from today, the 1990’s were perhaps the most disputatious time for immigration in America. Ronald Reagan had signed a controversial amnesty bill in 1986, and in the nineties, Bill Clinton commissioned a study of the immigration problem chaired by former Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordon. Immigration was at the forefront of the national conversation. Against this backdrop, T. C. Boyle wrote The Tortilla Curtain (Penguin, 1995).
The story juxtaposes the lives of two people: Delaney, a white suburban middle-class California writer, and Candido, an illegal immigrant with his pregnant wife. The two lives cross paths when Delaney hits Candido with his car on a winding California canyon road. Candido is seriously hurt but refuses medical attention, as he is illegal and subject to deportation. Delany gives him a $20.00 bill as compensation for almost killing him.
The book is quaint in some ways, prescient in others. It takes place at a time when the term “wetback” was still used in polite conversation; before sanctuary cities, before MS13, before the Wall, before the movie Sicario, when immigrants were actually “in the shadows,” forced to hide from the law and doing stultifying and often dangerous odd jobs for slave wages to scrape by.
Though Boyle has a knack for laying out both sides of the argument, there is no doubt where his sympathy lies. There’s no mistaking the allusion to Madonna and child, as Candido and his pregnant wife wander around the California canyons seeking shelter. Instead of a barn, she has her child in a tool shed. Candido is more Job than Joseph, as nearly all his efforts to support his wife are either fruitless or end in catastrophe.
While Candido and his pregnant wife dig for food in dumpsters, Delaney is planning his sumptuous Thanksgiving meal. Meanwhile, his neighbors complain about the Mexican invasion. They even build a wall to insulate themselves while at the same time leaving out food for the coyotes who eat their neighbor’s dogs and cats.
Through a series of coincidences Delaney and Candido cross paths several times, ending in a final cataclysm where Boyle seems to be saying that no matter our differences, we are joined by a common humanity.
The book is a sobering reminder that, as anyone who has recently watched a re-run of All in the Family knows, even after a quarter of a century we are still arguing about the same things.