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.
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