photo by Adrian Becerra
In the novel “The Tortilla Curtain“ by T.C. Boyle there are a lot of different themes, motifs and symbols. The coyote is a recurrent motif throughout the novel, and at the same time one of the strongest symbols of immigrants in the book. First the author shows the real animal when the Mossbachers lose their dog, Sacheverell, to a coyote. The family is outraged and in order to keep out any other wild animals, they put up an even higher fence around their yard. But soon after that another coyote jumps over the fence again and eats their second dog, named Osbert. This event makes it clear to the Mossbachers that a fence is not effective at all and that there is not much else they can do against coyotes. At the same time this shows that coyotes are willing to do anything to survive including entering unknown territory. Meanwhile there is a neighbourhood debate whether or not a gate should be installed, not to keep out coyotes, but “the Salvadorians, the Mexicans, the Blacks, the gangbangers, and taggers and carjakers […]”(p.39). Just as the Mossbachers try to keep out the coyotes, the neighbourhood also tries to keep out illegal immigrants. But as much as higher fences do not protect the Mossbachers’ dogs against coyotes, a gate or a wall may not protect the development against illegal immigrants.
Other arguments that the coyote resembles illegal immigration are found in Delaney’s column for a nature periodical. In this column he mentions his own experiences with coyotes and their way of life. “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 to drink.”(p.212). That is a definite parallel to Cándido, the illegal immigrant. Later on in the story, Cándido does the very same thing as the coyote. He sneaks into the development and steals basic necessities such as water to support his family.
In the same column Delaney also says that, “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" (p.215). Although Delaney writes about the coyote, his statements could also be applied to Cándido’s lifestyle. In the course of the plot, Cándido becomes an opportunist and takes what he can get, e.g. when a turkey is offered to him. In order to provide for his family’s livelihood Cándido is willing to do anything, even if this means stealing. Thus it becomes clear how Cándido has adapted to his environment, just as the coyote.
Moreover Delaney says, ” Trapping is utterly useless—even if traps were to be set in every backyard in the country—as countless studies have shown.” By changing the wording a little bit, Delaney could have been referring to the problem of border protection between the United States and Mexico. Altogether, it is quite obvious that in this novel the coyote is a definite symbol of illegal immigration.
In addition, the coyote resembles some of the characters’ behaviour and their way of life, too. As already mentioned, there is Cándido, whose life parallels that of the coyote. They both live off the land to survive. Cándido does not even own a house but camps in a canyon and in the end he sleeps in a self-made shack. Furthermore, he does not find a job which forces him to dig into garbage cans searching for food. Later on, he also intrudes on other people’s property to provide for his wife and baby. This is exactly like the coyote’s behaviour in the beginning. Perhaps, the strongest parallel between the two of them is that neither of them is welcome in the city, and they are “hunted”.
Another character in the novel that resembles the coyote is José Navidad. José plays the role of the “bad guy” in the novel who rapes women and intrudes on other people’s property as well. For instance, even Cándido feels that José intrudes on his space, ”Now he had to worry about this stinking crack-toothed pendejo nosing around down in the canyon, as if he did not have enough problems already”(p. 90). In addition, José and a friend intrude on the Da Ros property which is part of the real estate Kyra tries to sell. José seems to intrude for the purpose of advantage. In contrast to that, Cándido is nearly forced to enter others people's property to provide for his family. Therefore José’s overall behaviour shows that he does whatever pleases him, and these activities resemble those of the coyote. That is why the coyote can also be compared the “bad character” José in the novel.
Another central metaphor is the construction of walls. A wall is, of course, a physical barrier keeping people and cultures apart. There are two “real” walls mentioned in the novel. Firstly, there is the Mossbachers' yard surrounded by a fence to keep out coyotes. But as it becomes obvious that the fence cannot fit its purpose well enough, they put up an even higher fence which turns out not to work either. This can be directly applied to the illegal immigration problem in the US. As the coyotes keep entering the yard, also the illegal immigrants will keep finding their way across the US-Mexican border.
Secondly, a wall is constructed around the whole Arroyo Blanco housing development. A stone wall and a gate are installed in order to protect the community against immigrants, criminals and so forth. But, as the example of Cándido shows, it does not efficiently protect the neighbourhood from intruders. Cándido seeks a way to get in, and finally he is successful and takes as much as possible from the people living in Arroyo Blanco. From that it can be inferred that a physical barrier obviously does not keep out unwanted animals or people. Thus the wall becomes a symbol of increasing Caucasian anxiety about immigrants.
Besides these “real” walls there are also metaphorical walls appearing in the novel. One wall is constructed between the Arroyo Blanco community, representing the white population of the southern US, and the Rincóns, representing illegal immigrants. This becomes clear when one remembers where the different characters live. The community lives on top of a hill, whereas the Rincóns live in a canyon beneath the hill but still fairly close to Arroyo Blanco. The difference in elevation resembles a wall which separates these two groups from each other. However, it does not just divide these two cultures physically, it also reflects their different status in society. The Rincóns as illegal immigrants are at the bottom of society, and the Caucasian community is in the upper half of society. Thus it draws still another parallel to today’s reality by showing people's real perspective in life. The white population literally has a great perspective regarding many aspects of life, e.g. concerning higher education or simply an elementary and secondary education as well as having a well-paid job. Whereas the immigrants' opportunity of improving their social status and getting out of the “canyon” and "up the hill” in order to improve their social status is very low.
The Mex(Amer)ican way of life
Other metaphorical walls which support the separation between immigrants and citizens as well as between the Mexican and American lifestyles are less easily visible, but recurrent motifs nevertheless. One of those motifs is food. Which type and how much food can the different people afford? Therefore the author contrasts the dining habits of the protagonists’ families. The Mossbachers, resembling the American society and culture, have a choice as to food. They can decide whether they want to eat out, e.g. go to an Asian restaurant (see p.???) or stay home and cook dinner. This motif culminates in Jordan's choice between three different kinds of high fiber breakfast bars (p.???). In contrast to that, there are the Rincóns. Because of their unemployment, they do not have enough money they can spend on food and therefore lack the opportunity of choosing between foods. They are forced to eat cheap, unhealthy food like snacks, rice, and tortillas. In the end their situation becomes even worse when they lose their money because of a fire which compels Cándido to seek for food in garbage cans. In conclusion, the motif of food demonstrates the constant battle for survival of one family and the abundance of food that is at the disposal of the other family.
In addition, another motif that carries the same message as the food one is the motif of housing. On the one hand there are the Mossbachers owning a house with a garage and a yard, and yet Kyra, who works as a real estate agent, still dreams of owning a much larger house like the Da Ros place. On the other hand there are the Rincóns camping in a canyon and later living in a self-made shack. Their ultimate goal is saving enough money to rent an apartment because then all their problems can be solved. Even though the Mossbachers’ and the Rincóns’ live styles are completely different, and they are separated by several walls, this motif and the idea of housing brings them a little bit closer together.
Immigration and the American Dream
There are a lot of different themes within the novel such as immigration, racism, and the American Dream. Obviously, illegal immigration is one theme because the plot of the novel deals with the illegal immigration problem in Southern California and several conflicts between immigrants and American citizens are shown. Furthermore, it is partly written from the view of an illegal immigrant. Therefore immigration is one of the main themes.
Another theme in the novel is the American Dream. Originally, the American Dream is the myth widely held in the United States that everybody can make it from rags to riches, and that everybody can achieve prosperity through hard work, courage and determination. The expression marked the American economic upturn in the first half of the 20th century and was coined by James Truslow Adams (The Epic of America, 1930). The American Dream was one of the reasons for millions to migrate to the US during that time.
This idea of the American Dream is also portrayed in the novel, namely by the Rincóns and by contrasting them to the Mossbachers. América, as her name already indicates, truly believes in a better life and the manifestation of the American Dream. In her mind, the American Dream consists of an apartment, a gas range, a refrigerator, and running water. She is strongly convinced of her dreams, thinking once they have got an apartment, everything will be alright for them. Cándido has already been to the US working as an immigrant worker and knows of the advantages of the US lifestyle. Their reasons for migrating to the US are quite simple. They look for a better standard of living than they had in Mexico and try to earn some money. Particularly in Cándido's case there was nothing holding him back because he had broken with his family and also with his former wife. He only cares about América and convinces her to give it a chance by promising her a much better life. Even though they were shocked when they had been caught by the border patrol the first time, they held on to their dreams tightly and tried it again. This shows how bad their situations must have been in Mexico. In the course of the novel they are thrown back several times by unfortunate events, and in spite of that they still hold on to their dream. However, it turns out that they cannot fulfil their American Dream.
In contrast to that, there are Delaney Mossbacher and his wife Kyra who are not satisfied with their lives, even though they are a well-situated family. Kyra is a real estate agent and Delaney writes columns for a nature periodical. They live in an exclusive house on top of a hill in a suburb of Los Angeles, instead of in a self-made shack as the Rincóns do. They can afford to own two dogs, a cat and a couple of cars. However, the Mossbachers are still not satisfied with their achievements and seek for even more wealth, e.g. Kyra dreams of owning the Da Ros place. This shows their materialistic attitudes which appear to the reader as absurd and unfair towards people like the Rincón’s. Their materialistic attitude is also shown in other instances, e.g. Delaney always wears the latest hiking gear. The Rincóns do not own any property themselves and are glad when they have enough to eat while Kyra and Delaney are stunned over trivial problems, such as a dent in the car’s hood. This indicates that from the viewpoint of the Rincóns the Mossbachers would have already fulfilled their American Dream.
Both couples have their own vision of the American Dream and in the end both realize that their dreams were just illusions. Even though both couples live close together, they are worlds apart. Thus the Mossbachers represent the American Dream which the Rincons are trying to achieve.
Racism is another important theme in the novel and is displayed by quite a few persons including Delaney Mossbacher. He is, besides Cándido, the protagonist of the novel and goes through a change as the story continues. In the beginning he is described as an environmentalist and liberal who believes that “everyone deserves a chance […] immigrants are the lifeblood of this country” (p.101). But there is also an early discrepancy shown to the fact that he is more worried about the world’s resources and suffering environment than about starvation in the world and holds the world's five and half billion people responsible of ”chewing up resources of the planet like locusts” (p.82). His attitudes are challenged for the first time when he hits a Mexican with his car. Already in this sequence some of his real character is shown, since he worries more about the bump in his car and higher insurance rates than about the victim. Frightened he might get sued, he pays the victim off with a twenty dollar bill (see p.13). Then Delaney feels bad for Cándido living in a “cramped room” (p.10) in Los Angeles, but when he realizes that Cándido lives in the canyon he is outraged, “That was state property down there, rescued from the developers and their bulldozers and set aside for the use of the public, for nature, not for some outdoor ghetto” (p.11). Soon after the accident Delaney tells his wife that a lawyer is unnecessary because the man he hit was “Mexican” (p.??). At this point his changing attitude towards Mexicans becomes already obvious and it culminates in covering Jack Jardine Junior by destroying photographic evidence that proves that Jack Jardine Jr. and not Cándido blemished the wall.
Another person who has also strong anti-Mexican views and who has a great impact on Delaney’s opinion is Jack Jardine. Jack is a neighbour, a friend and even the Mossbachers’ attorney and therefore closely related to them. This is shown when Delaney discusses his problems with him, e.g. after he had hit Cándido. Jack is a great supporter of the gate and the stone wall showing his racist attitude towards Mexicans and his fear of them. He also tries to convince Delaney of his views in order to gain his support for the gate, “You want another crazy Mexican throwing himself under your wheels hoping for an insurance payoff?” (p.102).
Who is the lucky star?
Besides the motifs of food and house, there is still another important motif which the author also employs several times. This is the motif of luck which becomes a more and more important for some characters, in this case for both protagonists, Delaney Mossbacher and Cándido Rincón because in their eyes it is the only logical reason for their many setbacks. At the same time the book’s irony becomes again obvious when the reader understands the different meanings of luck for Delaney and Cándido. For instance, when Delaney hits Cándido with his car, Cándido feels that this is just another setback in his life, “Any way you looked at it, he couldn’t work, not for the time being – hell, he could barely stand, and that was his bad luck […]” (p.24-25). The consequences of this event are very unfortunate, since Cándido relies on his physical condition in order to provide for his family. For Cándido it seems he is simply haunted by his bad luck which in the course of the novel appears quite understandable, for the reader witnesses the many different accidents befalling Cándido. As already mentioned, luck is also a recurrent motif in Delaney’s life, although he does not blame bad luck for his problems from the beginning, e.g. when his dogs are killed by the coyotes, he blames other residents for feeding the wild animals. However, as the novel continues, his attitude towards luck changes, e.g. when his car is stolen, he thinks of having had bad luck for the first time.
Nevertheless, a comparison of both’ ideas of luck shows that on the one hand both regard bad luck the reason for their problems, but on the other hand they do not see luck the same way. Cándido’s bad luck incapacitates him and lets him be robbed, whereas Delaney’s bad luck takes away his car that he simply replaces. However, both do not see the chance that their bad luck could eventually turn into good luck.
Written by ARNE BECKER
T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain. Hrsg.: Petersen Taschenbücher Classics, London , 2004, 4.Auflage
Altx press (14.02.05)
MultiCultural Review (14.02.05)
Tippecanoe County Public Library (14.02.05)