The Tortilla Curtain is a novel by American author, T.C. Boyle, which addresses middle-class values, illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty, the American Dream and entitlement. This month The Tortilla Curtain was the selected title for a Norwich book club.
Taking place in our own backyard, the SALSA Collective decided to join the group in reading the novel and even attended the group’s discussion of the book. Here are some of the musings from that Monday evening when a group of 15 people got together to discuss one book.
What is the Tortilla Curtain? The Tortilla Curtain references both the physical wall, or border, between Mexico and the United States and the more figurative wall, or cultural barrier that has developed between the people of these two nations. Published in 1994, at the height of the U.S.’s militarization of the U.S.- Mexico border, Boyle’s book highlights the politics of national borders and national identities while intimately connecting his readers to his characters.
As a novel that deals with immigration, borders and national identity it is bound to have resonance with contemporary attitudes in the UK—a nation currently undergoing its own issues of national identity as it negotiates the open border policies that come with membership to the European union. Acknowledgement of this parallel sparked a very thoughtful, emotive and self-reflective discussion for the book group as it explored the very complex line between citizen rights and human rights and our own wavering perspectives between the two. Which one is more important? Your right as an American or British citizen or your right as a human being? Is it always in your own hands to decide? Does the context matter?
Although written very much within an American context, the book club members could not help but feel as if they were looking at a mirror of their own nation. They talked about America’s ‘open secret’ of relying on immigrant labour while simultaneously demonizing them for taking away American jobs: ‘it’s the same thing over here’, one member admitted, ‘it is an ‘impossible immigrant experience, one that criminalizes desperation.’
Boyle’s writing style has a lot to do with the reader’s ability to invest whole-heartedly in the novel. This is something that was widely echoed by the group who thought Boyle’s novel was ‘tremendously written’ with a ‘strong sense of character development.’ With the narrative voice switching with each chapter, readers are forced to engage with a variety of—and sometimes conflicting—perspectives. As Eilidh so poignantly recognized, the book not only forces you to engage with diverse perspectives but also ‘forces you to see yourself from very different perspectives—sometimes painfully so.’
Despite being twenty years old The Tortilla Curtain continues to hold contemporary resonance within the United States as well. With Mexican Americans now making up the largest and fastest growing ethnic group within the United States the issue of immigration and national identity continues to press the American psyche and political scene and the boundaries of citizenship are continually redrawn; sometimes very literally as in with the building of walls, borders and gated communities but also figuratively with the building of cultural walls and barriers in order to keep a specific idea of the American identity in and a specific one out. With that, we leave you with a few more questions to ponder: What does it mean to be an American? Has this always been the same thing?
Book Synopsis: The Tortilla Curtain follows the lives of two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a white upper-middle class liberal couple who live in a gated community on the outskirts of Los Angeles; and Cándido and América Rincón, two Mexican illegal immigrants in desperate search of work, food and shelter. A car accident brings Cándido and Delaney into intimate contact and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy of error and misunderstanding.
If you’re interested in any of the topics discussed here and are local to Norwich, the SALSA Collective co-jefas, Becky and Eilidh will be giving papers on similar topics next month in the Millennium Library. Their lecture is titled: Cultural Translations: Latino Identities in the USA and will be held June 12th at 6:30pm. See here for full details.