The Tortilla Curtain
A Powerful Satire: How The Tortilla Curtain Effectively Exposes Hypocrisy and Racism in Our Society
T. C. Boyle, author of The Tortilla Curtain, stated in defense of his harsh depiction of characters Kyra and Delaney Mossbacher that, “If it’s satire, it has to bite somebody, has to have teeth in it, otherwise it’s useless” (Penguin Group). This comes as a response to critics who argue that the Mossbacher’s characterizations are flat caricature and that Boyle’s tone is not one of daring satire but of hollow contempt and sarcasm. The reason Boyle depicts the Mossbacher characters as being extremely harsh, is for them to stand out. If they did not stand out, they would not serve their purpose in helping the overall satire expose the main theme. Therefore, the critics of Boyle’s text are only supporting Boyle’s view on a good satire. Recognizing how much the characters stand out proves how effective Boyle’s strategies are. Also, the critics acknowledge that Boyle uses sarcasm, which is an element of a satire that works to reveal the main theme. Therefore, the harsh and critical depiction of some of the characters and the sarcasm used are reasons why The Tortilla Curtain is in fact an effective satire, exposing the hypocrisy and racism in our society. Before delving into the main theme of The Tortilla Curtain and how it is exposed through satirical writing, we should first explore the argument that the work is not a satire. The Tortilla Curtain is a work that confronts the controversial issue of illegal immigration by illustrating two families which are the Mossbachers, a wealthy couple living in a gated community, and the Rincons, illegal immigrants that camp in a ravine near the Mossbacher’s home. One may argue that Boyle attacks those who are racist and insensitive to illegal immigrants by portraying the Mossbachers in such a harsh light. However, a publication is not a satire just because it attacks something or points out the negatives in a society. Also, as stated, the Mossbachers are seen as insensitive and ignorant and their hypocrisy can be satirical. Yet, a work containing satirical elements does not necessarily declare that work to be a satire.How then can we argue that The Tortilla Curtain is not just a satire, but an effective one? The answer may be found in the prior argument that the work is not a satire. First, let us look at the initial description of the dictionary definition. Webster’s reads that a satire is “A literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn” (Agnes 551). Couldn’t we perceive ridiculing and scorning to be attacking something? There are many instances in The Tortilla Curtain in which the author attacks racism and opposition to immigration. He does this by depicting the Mossbachers in a harsh and critical light with many follies such as insensitivity. For instance, when Delaney Mossbacher hits Candido Rincon with his car he does not get a doctor or call for help. There was no medical attention, or any kind of attention for that matter, given to Candido. No, the only thing Delaney does is give Candido twenty dollars. True, Delaney had some guilt, but only for a brief moment. Soon, “he felt his guilt turn to anger, to outrage” (Boyle 11). Why was he angry? He automatically assumes that Candido is illegal, a “criminal”, polluting the environment, and felt that he did not belong in that ravine or on that road in the first place. These would not be the thoughts of someone that isn’t insensitive or discriminatory after they brutally strike a man with their car. Someone of sensitivity would feel sadness and guilt and do anything to help the poor man. Therefore, because the novel uses Delaney’s character flaw of insensitivity to illegal immigrants to attack racism, it can be considered a satire. Another human folly illuminated in The Tortilla Curtain that ridicules and scorns those who discriminate is ignorance. For the sake of consistency, let us continue to examine the character of Delaney. One example of Delaney’s ignorance occurs when graffiti appears on the wall surrounding the Mossbacher’s neighborhood. Delaney automatically believes it was the Mexicans that did it. When he sets up a video camera to catch the delinquents, he expects that he would be helping the police capture them and giving them “a one-way ticket back to Tijuana” (Boyle 320). However, Delaney never saw with his own eyes anyone defacing the property. He is ignorant to believe that all Mexicans are criminals and because he has seen Mexicans in the area, it was Mexicans that committed the crime. Once again, this illustrates a folly of Delaney’s, criticizing discrimination in our society. Here, we see that to create a satiric effect and to fully illustrate a major social issue, Boyle’s choice of character traits for Delaney is exceptionally forceful. Now, let us consider the second given definition for “satire” in Webster’s Dictionary: “Trenchant wit, irony, or sarcasm used to expose and discredit vice or folly” (Agnes 551). To fully probe this, we must understand the last part of the definition. What vice or folly is being exposed and discredited? Boyle is attempting to expose and discredit the theme of hypocrisy and racism, which are vices and follies, of our society. Now we can consider how irony and sarcasm are engaged with Boyle’s theme. Boyle utilizes his characters, Delaney in particular, to add irony to his novel. Isn’t it ironic that Delaney writes for a nature column and is in a wildlife foundation member yet on the other hand he wanted to move right onto the space where animals live? This form of irony depicts Delaney as being a hypocrite. Another example of Delaney’s ironic thoughts and behaviors is evident with the issue of the new gate around the community. Delaney was opposed to a gated community and felt that there was no justification for “locking yourself away from the rest of society” (Boyle 101). Yet, it is ironic that he then gives into his neighbors plans to have a wall built around the neighborhood. Finally, consider how Delaney is a firm believer in his liberal humanist ideals, as evidenced by his weekly environmentalist column. He holds a stance that “immigrants are the lifeblood of this country” and everyone has a duty to respect the dignity of others who wish to enter the country (Boyle 101). However, paradoxically, he believes Mexicans are a threat, assumes it was Mexicans that caused the fire and the graffiti, and eventually seeks to send Candido to prison, based on the fact that he is Mexican, when he takes a gun and follows Candido to his shelter. All of these examples of irony are used by Boyle to expose the theme of hypocrisy. After studying examples of how the novel is a satire that effectively exposes the theme of hypocrisy and racism, we must consider the critics’ opinion that the Mossbachers are written as flat caricatures. Actually, the critics are correct. Boyle’s characters are a little stereotypical and predictable, but it is also true that this is exactly what this satire needs to present the issue. Boyle’s characters, Kyra and Delaney, have to be hollow in order for the satire to be effective, otherwise it would be been too soft and would not help point out the theme or the fact that there needs to be a change in society. Like Boyle stated, a satire has to “bite somebody.” The Mossbacher characters have to be exaggerated to put the point across and that is why they are flat caricatures. One instance of this exaggeration of character is how the Mossbachers do not just attempt to eat healthy when they can, they strictly only eat wholesome foods. Focusing on Mrs. Mossbacher now, Kyra, whose character remains consistent throughout the novel, could be categorized as the racially intolerant, self-centered upper-middle class female stereotype. She fails to demonstrate another side to her character with continuous acts of prejudiced behavior, including her supporting of gating of the community and helping the removal of the labor exchange in order to reduce the amount of Mexicans in her real estate area. A more rounded character would not have as deep of an impact. If Boyle would have accurately portrayed the life of a real suburban, liberal family, the story would be boring, would not be a satire, and it would not serve its purpose to expose hypocrisy and racism in our society.We have seen how T. C. Boyle harshly depicts Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher in The Tortilla Curtain in order to effectively pinpoint the issues of hypocrisy and racism, which characterize many Americans, to shape his satire and affect his readers. While Boyle scorns Kyra and Delaney for their insensitivity, ignorance, and discrimination, these characters are not entirely hollow, and their situation is crucial to the author’s powerful commentary and satire. Boyle intends for his readers to empathize with the main characters’ position and to realize the similarities between the Mossbachers’ reality and their own. Before the incident where Delaney hits Candido with his car, only to leave him with nothing more than twenty dollars, many readers may have thought Delaney to be one of their own; an upper-middle class family living in a private gated community. Yet, once the reader thinks about their similitude to the Mossbachers, Boyle turns the reader against the Mossbachers by portraying them as flat and harsh. Hence, in the end the reader realizes their own faults and those of society. Overall, Boyle creates a satire to make comments about society in order to provoke change. Thus, by casting the Mossbachers in such harsh and obviously racist light, Boyle makes the reader criticize his or herself. Works Cited1. Boyle, T.C. The Tortilla Curtain. New York: Penguin Group, 1995. 2. Penguin Group (USA). Penguin Putnam Inc. 2006
Satire in Tortilla Curtain
The issue of immigration and American attitudes towards it are the object of satire in T.C Boyle’s novel ‘Tortilla Curtain’. Boyle uses sarcasm to attack what he sees as the self-obsessed nature of middle-class America and their naïve view of the world. He laments the extent to which the United States seems out of touch with problems in the rest of the world. The author’s use of irony depicts a breakdown of human society fuelled by fear and jealous materialism, but the continuing interdependence of human beings is also portrayed throughout the novel.The self-absorbed nature of modern American society is depicted through Boyle’s use of sarcasm. The character Celaney, who epitomises liberal middle-America, magnifies his own problems out of proportion. This can be seen in the tone of disbelief when Delaney, a “liberal humanist with… a freshly waxed Japanese car…” (p1) hits a Mexican. The tone turns to one annoyance as he asks: “Why did this have to happen to him?” (p6). Boyle’s sarcastic tone when describing Delanye’s troubles clearly shows how Delaney bemoans his own problems whilst ignoring that of the Mexican. ‘Tortilla Curtain’ depicts American society as desiring a secure view of the world. On many occasions in the novel, the liberal middle-class residents of Arroyo Blanco avoid addressing complex social issues, as can be seen in Delaney’s desperate enthusiasm for clear-cut issues and morality: “This was what mattered. Principle… an issue as clear-cut as the on/off switch…” (p152). The simplicity of this view reflects Boyle’s belief that the world is actually very complex. Also suggested is the lack of moral direction that lies behind a desire to see the world in simple terms. This disconnection with reality can also be seen in Boyle’s attack on the ‘highbrow’ interests of the affluent. Through ironic symbolism, Boyle denounces the affluent as hypocritical and out of touch in their support of ‘liberal’ views. An example of this can be seen in the issue of the coyote, which symbolises environmental conservation, but is also allegorical of Mexican immigrants. It is ironic when Delaney, who progressively becomes anti-immigration, declares: “The coyote is not to blame… he is only trying … to make a living… “ (p214). Astonishing to the reader is the way Delaney sympathises with the wild coyote but cannot do the same with his fellow man.Satirical attacks of other liberal interests can also be seen in Delaney’s encounter with Candido. Confronted with the badly-injured Candido, Delaney is helpless. He cannot even communicate as Candido is speaking Spanish, to which Delaney’s “… four years of high school French…” give him “…little access.” (p8) The irony that American schools would teach French, widely considered the language of sophistication, but not Spanish is not wasted on Boyle who uses it to reflect America’s lack of interest in Mexico and its problems. This satirisation of the liberal middle-class can be seen to be part of Boyle’s commentary on trends in modern society and the persistence of cultural barriers and prejudices.The novel expresses Boyle’s concern at the growing disconnectedness and fragmentation of community in modern society. The affluent residents of Arroyo Blanco are often wary of society as a result of jealously guarding their wealth. The irony of their fears and actions can be seen when Delaney instructs the workmen to shut the gate: “we wouldn’t want any of the neighbourhood kids wandering in…” (p243). Even as the wall is constructed to make the Arroyo Blanco community safer, the apranoia of the residents is undiminished; they turn on each other, as implied above. This trend in society is diagnosed by Boyle to be part of a shift towards materialism.’The Tortilla Curtain’ promotes the view that societal breakdown is due to increasing materialism. This can be seen in Boyle’s parody of the community organisation: “Arroyo Blanco Property Association”. This is a meeting where no-one seems to know anyone else. Moreover, consumeristic tendencies can be seen in the name: the residents are not united through friendship but through the ownership of property.Despite the problems the novel highlights, Boyle’s use of satire also reminds readers of humanity’s interdependence. Amidst all the anti-Mexican sentiment perpetuated by Arroyo Blanco residents, Boyle notes that Candido “… go work once… hauling rock for a wall some lady was building around her property.” (p181) The statement shows, heavy with irony, that immigrants have a practical and valuable place in society. In addition the ending of the novel depicts Candido saving Delaney from drowning. When taken in combination, these passages promote the author’s view that human beings are dependent on each other, practically and emotionally and that this dependence transcends both race and class.’The Tortilla Curtain’ as a satire is scathing in its attack on contemporary American middle-class values which Boyle sees as individualistic, puerile and ‘avant-garde’. Readers look on with concern at the novel’s portrayal of the modern world’s ‘broken society’; fragmented through pursuit of material wealth and the fear of losing it. This dystopian vision is however tempered by the depiction of human interdependency which Boyle believes will overcome the social and economic divides of the present. By satirizing of the issue of United States immigration Boyle has identified many contemporary societal problems. His ridicule of the conflict between rich and poor, illegal and citizen is applicable not only to United States’ society but to Western society in general.
The Entitled White Man of ‘The Tortilla Curtain’: Analyzing Delaney’s Responses to Society
In the Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, we are introduced to two very different main characters,Cándido Rincón and Delaney Mossbacher. When the novel first begins, Delaney is described as a “liberal humanist” (Boyle 1) who supports immigrants despite the anti-immigrant mentality that surrounds him. In spite of the novel constantly depicting the negative aspects illegal immigration, specifically in 1990’s Los Angeles, there are times where Delaney stands up and even advocates for everyone’s right to migrate regardless of race or origin. However, as the novel unfolds, it sets up a confusing understanding of Delaney’s persona. His views and beliefs start to vary, he’s constantly jumping back and forth from racist to immigrant rights advocate and he becomes internally conflicted. At the end of the novel, the bigotry and xenophobia seem to be the only explanation to Delaney’s transformation because they overcame the “liberal humanist” (Boyle 13) values that Delaney expressed at the beginning of the novel. The ugly belief that the United States should only belong only to people who look like him (white) becomes transparent and even leads him to make terrible decisions. Delaney’s internal suffering and eventual transformation embodies the idea that the Tortilla Curtain criticizes an ideology of white entitlement that is deeply rooted in American society and is protected behind racialization and racism. While the novel is not necessarily trying to excuse Delaney’s behavior, it is evident to see that his actions are driven by the society he inhabits which is what leads him to ultimately perceive himself as a victim of his surroundings.
It’s quite ironic that Delaney finds himself feeling like a victim when he lives of life many dreams to have. He lives in “the subdivision known as Arroyo Blanco Estates. It was a private community, comprising a golf course, ten tennis courts, a community center and some two hundred and fifty homes, each set on one-point-five acres” (Boyle 30). The description of Delaney’s neighborhood is used to demonstrate how luxurious his life is and to exaggerate the comfort that he lives in. Delaney’s days consist of taking care of Kyra, his second wife, and her son Jordan because his wife was “chief breadwinner” (35) and he was essentially the one who took care of things at home. While this setup might lead the reader to believe Delaney might not particularly enjoy this lifestyle, he was content with the life he had “so long as he got his four hours day at the keyboard” describing the aspects of nature many don’t have the time to examine. Analyzing and writing about nature were Delaney’s outlet to whatever miniscule problems he has because he doesn’t really have to worry about whether or not they will have food for tomorrow’s dinner. There is no worry that derives from the access to healthcare or basic necessities. The privilege that Delaney has builds comfort and stability, a luxury that numerous people don’t have. This was the case of the immigrant that Delaney accidentally hits with car, Cándido Rincón.
The constant juxtaposition between the two characters allows us to see how privileged Delaney life is. Cándido Rincón lives on the side of the road towards the bottom, where the trees and small river allows him and his pregnant wife, America, to camp in hiding. Cándido is portrayed as one of many immigrants who have no choice but to come illegally to the United States in search for work with the hope of building a better life. Unfortunately, the encounter between him and Delaney’s car leaves him injured which forces his pregnant wife to be the one to search for work in order for them to survive. The couple don’t have the option of eating the same pretentious diet that Kyra enforces upon her son because they don’t know if they’ll even have food for dinner that night let alone the following day. Medical services aren’t even in the realm of possibilities for them. The novel consistently puts these two families side to side to demonstrate how easy the Mossbachers must have it.
Boyle states, “on this particular morning, the morning that Cándido Rincón began to feel he’d lost control of his wife, Delaney was up at seven, as usual, to drip Kyra’s coffee, feed Jordan his fruit, granola and hi fiber bar” (30). This quote does a great job at capturing the fact that although these two characters are experiencing the same moment in time, they are experienced completely different due to the fact that they live very distinct lives. Delaney is playing housewife while Cándido is trying to get a hold of his life. The novel puts their struggles side by side to see that they don’t compare. Yet, Delaney always seems to be the victim in his mind.
The incident between Delaney’s car and Cándido’s body is what sparks Delaney’s internal conflict. After hitting Cándido and sending him off with a mere $20, Delaney began to reexamine the situation he was just put in. At the beginning, he apologizes and even offers Cándido a doctor. But when he leaves, Delaney’s mind begins to wonder what the man was doing out in the street like that when it hits him that “he was camping down there, that’s what he was doing. Camping. Living. Dwelling. Making the trees and bushes and the natural habitat of Topanga State Park into his own private domicile, crapping in the chaparral, dumping his trash behind rocks, polluting the stream and ruining it for everyone else” (11). It’s interesting the emphasis that certain words in this part of the text carry. Delaney believes Cándido is “dwelling” and has made this specific area “private” when to Cándido and his wife, it is nothing but a relatively safe place to stay as they attempt to improve the stability of their lives. They don’t have the luxury of living in a community such as Delaney’s and Kyra’s and they constantly have to be aware of the danger of la migraor other immigrants harassing them.
However, this encounter amplifies Delaney’s thoughts of perceiving himself as a victim. After realizing Cándido must have been camping down in Topanga Park, “Delaney felt his guilt turn into outrage” (11) and perhaps it could be because the immigrants who camp in such habitats ruin it. But the shift in attitude seems to derive from the feeling of entitlement that Delaney and his community members to that certain piece of land and the rest of the United States. After all, it was hisancestors that colonized and claimed a right over America. Those feelings of entitlement have passed through generations of many American families that consequently have produced an ideology of white supremacy still very deeply rooted in today’s time. This ideology has produced bigots and racists who reinforce this American ideology that justify their beliefs and actions through victimization, mostly white. This is the mentality that surrounds Delaney and it manages to take over his mind and overcome those “liberalist humanist” views he seems to constantly be at war with. While this was the first example of Delaney’s internal conflict of morals, it doesn’t take over him yet. The encounter definitely allows the novel to unfold the contrast between Delaney’s occasional racist thoughts to his actions.
The wall proposition around his neighborhood leads him to argue with his wife Kyra, but more importantly it allows the novel to showcase how bad Delaney’s community stinks of xenophobia. He tells Kyra, “’This isn’t about the coyotes, don’t kid yourself. It’s about Mexicans, it’s about blacks. It’s about exclusion, division, hate. You think Jack gives a damn about coyotes?’” (Boyle 220) While Jack, Kyra and the rest of the community claim that they need the wall for protection from crime and coyotes, Delaney knows this is just an excuse to hide their racism against people who don’t look like them. They want to “protect” a community that is already private to them, an area that is already secluded and inaccessible to most. Delaney knew a wall would only add onto to the exclusivity his community has, a community “where children grew into bigots” (Boyle 225). However, as the novel unravels, so does Delaney’s transformation into full-blown bigot.
The occasion where Delaney witnesses an immigrant crossing the Cherrystones’ lawn showcases his ugly transformation that overcomes the morals he began with. Delaney question what this person was doing in his private domicile and he threatens to call the police when suddenly,
“the Mexican’s expression had changed. The mocking grin was gone now, replaced by something harder, infinitely harder. He’s got a knife, Delaney thought, a gun and he went cold all over when the man reached into the satchel, so keyed up he was ready to spring at him, tackle him, fight to death…but then he was staring into a flat white sheet of Xerox paper crawling with print. ‘Flies,’ the man spat at him. ‘I deliver these flies’” (Boyle 229).
It is evident to see the type of person Delaney has succumbed to at this point in the novel. His views that anyone should be allowed to enter this neighborhood have finally been disregarded by his actions and displays of xenophobia. He was quick to believe the man is carrying some kind of weapon in order to cause him harm because he wants to be seen as a victim. The novel never explicitly explains what Delaney’s feels a victim of, but it certainly alludes to the idea that he is a victim of a society who hides behind bigotry and xenophobia, an ideology that seems to be prominent in American culture.
This ideology that the novel attempts to critic was also expressed in the movie Falling Down, which premiered around the same time that Boyle’s novel was published. The main character, William Foster, shares the same frustration towards illegal immigration in the Los Angeles county. In a way, the two characters parallel each other because they are attempting to restore America back to how they imagine it to be, before desegregation and immigration. In the movie however, Foster’s approach differs from Delaney. He explicitly goes out and marginalizes people who don’t look like him (immigrants, people of color etc.). The movie consistently portrays him as a victim of his surroundings, much like Delaney, but also a vigilante. While Delaney’s actions aren’t as explicit as William Foster’s, he perpetuates a similar mentality which proposes a concept of America is or should be like. At an early point on in the novel, Delaney’s thoughts state, “when he did make a major purchase he felt good about it, good about himself, the future of the country and the state of the world. That was the American way. Buy something. Feel good” (Boyle 149) illustrating the view that Delaney has toward the United States, the same view that leads both him and Foster to make terrible, ugly decisions. Both the movie and the book end with each character hiding behind a gun, with the sole purpose of harming those who have caused them trouble. Both works do a great job at depicting the white people victim narrative the United States finds comfort in.
Boyle’s novel proposes a puzzling portrayal of Delaney’s character because it is never explicitly stated why Delaney turned ugly despite him having morals and humanist beliefs half the time. However, the text does insinuate that Delaney is a subject of an American society. A society in which people support an ideology that believes America should be restored to its days of segregation and discrimination toward non-whites. This ideology expresses not so subtle hints of white supremacy in a sense, and it is one that will always portray whites as the victim instead of calling out their xenophobia and prejudice. American society does not carry all the responsibility of Delaneys’ or Fosters’ actions because at the end of the day, each character knew their acts were displays of racism. The text states, “he felt like a victim” (Boyle 149) in regard to Delaney. Nevertheless, he knew was he was doing the entire time and he subjected himself to living in a community filled with ugliness. While American society carries much of the blame, it does not justify the ugly transformation of Delaney.