In TC Boyle’s novel, The Tortilla Curtain, the wall serves as an important metaphor in both a positive and negative context in relation to society. While a wall can symbolize shelter for something or someone and provide protection from enemy threats, a wall can also become a metaphor for a self-absorbed attitude and withdrawal from the outside world similar to how the inhabitants of the Arroyo Blanco Estates attempt to separate themselves from the rest of the world. Additionally, walls also represent how a fear of outside influences and culture can result in distrust and ignorance.
Physical barriers are a major element in Boyle’s novel. In the scene depicting Candido and Rincon’s illegal crossing of the United States and Mexico border, both illegal immigrants discover that the United States does not offer the kind of safety that they were expecting. Due to their illegal status and the different culture in the states, both travelers were viewed as invaders who should not be accepted into American society. This section of Boyle’s text shows how many Americans view immigrants as a detriment to society since they do not fit into the perceived landscape of an ideal, traditional American culture. In addition to their inability to fit into a new society, the lack of employment opportunities that are capable of providing for a family (even when Candido finds a job). This element of the book shows that the American Dream is not available for all citizens which illustrates the inequality in American society. The inability of Candido and Rincon to find employment is also represented by their living location-Arroyo Blanco Estates can be found in a distant canyon which is a constant reminder of how far away the American Dream truly is.
Society’s conflict with walls and barriers in Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is also noticeable in the depiction of Delaney’s life in a gated neighborhood and his reluctance to accept the situations that illegal immigrants face in the United States in contrast to Candido’s struggle to realize the authenticity of the American Dream. While both characters come from different economic and social situations, both Delaney and Candido live their lives defined by a physical barrier.
In addition to a portrayal of the effects physical barriers have on society, Boyle also examines family dynamics and the importance of having a strong work ethic. The character, Candido, represents the traditional male head of a household which resonates with many working class American families. While Candido is an illegal immigrant and has a different culture, I was especially able to relate my own upbringing to this element of the novel since I was raised in a middle class household with a stay at home mother and a father who worked to provide for us. Candido’s desire to provide for his family is his work ethic. Through this character, Boyle successfully blurs both the racial and societal divide between illegal immigrants and American citizens.
The depiction of racism and intolerance in TC Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain is very relatable to another course that I am currently enrolled in at Keene State College. To complete my degree in English Literature, I am taking an upper level literature and theory course called “Insiders, Outsiders, Strangers” taught by Dr. Emily Robins-Sharpe. During my analysis of the course readings, I have learned how the cultural and societal marginalization of foreign individuals or societal “outsiders” is often overlooked. Boyle’s novel especially reminded me of Citizen by Claudia Rankine which depicts the societal prejudice toward African Americans that is still present in contemporary society. Using poetry and images, Rankine paints a vivid depiction of how intolerance affects African American citizens. For example, Rankine writes, “I knew whatever was in front of me was happening and then the police vehicle came to a screeching halt in front of me like they were setting up a blockade….Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. Then I just knew” (Rankine, 105). This passage from Rankine’s work depicts the fear that accompanies marginalized minority or outsiders.
The concept of societal “outsiders” in Rankine’s novel is definitely relatable to the portrayal of illegal Latino immigrants in the United States. Similar to the African Americans depicted in Rankine’s poetry anthology, the characters in Boyle’s novel face the same fear of racial prejudice and the struggle to find their place in an intolerant, “insider”, society. Both works question whether the idealist American Dream is still present today.
Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. 2014. Graywolf Press. Print.