Although it was published in 1995, TC Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain could not be more relevant today. He tells parallel stories of affluent Americans seeking refuge from L.A. in the canyons beyond its perimeter and indigent immigrants also living in those canyons–but not in beautiful homes–while trying to make a life and a family on a day laborer’s wages and at the mercy of nature, which is not very merciful.
Cándido and América come from Tepotzlan, an enchanting town in Morelos not that far from Mexico City I happen to know fairly well. She is 17. He is in his early 30s. They have entered the U.S. with no formalities, are brutalized in passage, and barely survive on minimal food and in minimal shelter.
Delaney is a naturalist and his wife Kyra is a realtor. He’s a liberal environmentalist who gradually turns against what he, and others, feel is the endless invasion of what Donald Trump would call crooks, murderers, and rapists.
The canyons surrounding L.A. are not “better” than Tepotzlan. They are not more beautiful, welcoming, or special, but they are associated with American wealth, and that’s what draws Mexicans without visas to the U.S. Boyle describes Cándido and América’s plight poignantly, the insults to their dignity and their dreams,their desperation,imagination, and fortitude.
Boyle is less kind to Kyra and Delaney, self-absorbed and convinced of the rightness of their wealth and their commitment to pristine nature, far from L.A.’s freeways.
Quite skillfully Boyle engineers a plot that generates lots of truths about what both couples feel toward one another, but he tells a tale that is very difficult to resolve.
Today (November, 2015), we are witnessing the continuing migration of economic and political refugees from the Middle East, South Asia and Africa into Europe. Their circumstances,and Europe’s problems, are extreme, but anyone who knows the U.S.-Mexico border knows that our two countries have been experiencing extreme migratory difficulties for decades.
As a diplomat many years ago I had responsibility for certain aspects of U.S.-Mexican border relations. My mandate stretched from Tijuana to Brownsville. I watched Mexicans and others cross into the U.S. at night using infrared binoculars, I visited maquiladoras, universities, elementary schools, city halls, environmental disasters, and the searing, bleached wastes of the desert on which Trump says he will build a beautiful 2,000 mile wall. (This is really, really insulting to the intelligence of the American electorate, by the way. It’s shameless buffoonery.)
Boyle masterfully gets at all this in fictional terms. He depicts the resentments and struggles in his characters’ lives and circumstances with strong, vivid, accurate writing. In the process, he dramatizes the essentially unresolvable dilemmas of human migration between the Third World and the First.
What we see in Europe these days is mind boggling, but it is more or less a tenth of what has transpired between Mexico and the U.S for the last five decades. If it is true, and I really don’t know that it is, that we have 12 million non-citizen migrants in the U.S. from south of the border, think of how that would look should it make the nightly news on an ongoing basis. But unless a conservative, ill-informed and unrealistic (not to mention heartless) politician is out there throwing red meat to his equally conservative, ill-informed and unrealistic supporters, this wave of humanity is only sporadically covered.
Attitudes change in the border zone depending how close you are to the actual line of demarcation. People in Tijuana and San Diego don’t look at migration the same way that people in Hermosillo and Calabasas look at it. The same is true when you think of El Paso and Juarez in contrast to Monterrey and Austin. The border zone proper, 25 miles or so on either side, is a world unto itself, comes up with its own solutions, and begs for and seldom receives adequate resources from the federal government. Deeper in either the U.S. and Mexico, the migration phenomenon becomes more alien, spooky, and threatening. Delaney in Boyle’s novel does a marvelous job of totally misinterpreting Cándido. He’s constantly wrong, which is not to say Cándido really has any idea what he’s doing.
The problem is survival, it’s miscommunication, it’s cultural and linguistic differences, it’s need on the one side, surfeit on the other.
I think it’s best that novels do not try to propose policy solutions. Boyle avoids this. He looks at human quandaries and makes them real for the reader. Then it’s up to the reader to decide: is the way we run this world the right way?