The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

Taking the Nature out of the Society is a fast way down the toilet

Although globalization has accelerated the process that colonialism began— integrating and importing different cultures and people into foreign lands— America remains foremost among the world as a nation of immigrants. The indigenous excepted of course, all Americans come from somewhere else. The ancestors that founded our American lines thus once upon a time endured a very brave journey to be here. There is no shortage of mythologizing these romantic origins and my family is no different. Collecting and adding up various stories of apocrypha, my great grandfather and progenitor of the American Lotmans was born in the Ukraine port city of Odessa. An army captain stationed in the Black Sea during the First World War, when the Russian empire collapsed into revolution, civil war and a pogrom against Jews, Captain Lotman went AWOL, gathering his wife and his brother’s family and fleeing the violence. It took nearly three years for them to walk across Europe—a Europe at the time devastated by war, revolution and the Spanish influenza— three years sleeping in barns and stealing chickens before they made it to the South of France where there was a little money and a ship to take them to New York and beyond, to Chicago, where they found refuge with a cousin running a tailor shop. Was this really how my American line was born or was it much more ordinary, bureaucratic, sanitized? I prefer to celebrate my great grandfather’s adventure regardless of disputations. As the famous line from the John Ford western advocates, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

a steep wall is erected to enclose the community to the exclusion of others: a fair enough metaphor for America itself and the futility of preventing the outside world from coming in Click To Tweet

Even the most hard-line, bigoted nativist waxes starry-eyed fables about the time his or her ancestors came over, glossing over the fact they were once aliens, maybe illegal, probably culturally and linguistically confused and likely despised for their efforts in trying to make a better life. The hatred reserved for Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians and the bulk of our South-of-the-border neighbors was once reserved for Wops, Micks, and Polacks. Immigration is one of those issues that will never go away. In 2010, the Arizona state government passed Arizona SB1070, legislation also known by its Orwellian double untruth, Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. The bill proposes police activism in interrogating suspected aliens regarding their papers and facilitating punitive measures for those in violation. Boosters of the bill deny any kind of racial profiling involved but it’s hard to imagine a white guy driving a Lexus being asked to provide proof of citizenship. Since then, five states, including Utah, Indiana, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina, have introduced copycat legislation. A popular wedge issue among phony populists, anti-immigration, remains one of the preferred methods of maintaining an invented us-and-them dichotomy.

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Way the Tortilla Crumbles

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Viking Press, 1995)

Even those sympathetic to our melting pot heritage have precarious loyalties in moments of national crisis. Just look at attitudes towards Germans during the First World War, the Japanese at Manzanar, and Middle Easterners and South Asians after the terrorist attacks on September 11th. In normal times as well fear has been the catalyzing agent for the proclamation of draconian measures. While it may be true that immigrants commit crimes, you could argue just as exhaustively that it is poverty, more than culture, that is the criminal’s genesis. What is nearly always missing from the talking heads bloviating from their bully pulpits is some compassion and desire to understand the roots of the problem. It does not require tremendous common sense to realize that a human being will seek out his best opportunities for food, shelter, and work. What’s a thinking man with a strong body to do when his country suffers forty percent unemployment and his country’s largest slice of GNP is work remittances from the United States? It’s a problem, all right, and always it seems the solution is the reflexive ‘kick ‘em out, build a wall,’ answer. Never mind that California and the whole Southwest was once Mexican territory until an imperialistic war of the 1840s saw it ceded to the U.S. for a paltry sum. Never mind that we’ve damned the Colorado River and built so many aqueducts that by the time the river reaches Mexico, it’s so small and insignificant farmers are going bankrupt by the thousands (leading, obviously, to mass emigration). Never mind that without illegals picking lettuce out in San Bernardino farms for three dollars an hour, we couldn’t enjoy the very cheap produce we love drenching our low-fat Ranch dressing over. Never mind all that. It’s their fault, not ours, that people are scared, starving and killing each other.

It is not the artist’s responsibility to put the issue in perspective, but he or she can dramatize it in such a way that creates a sense of powerful empathy. T.C. Boyle does this admirably in his novel, The Tortilla Curtain. Published in 1995, it feels as contemporary, relevant and urgent today as it did then. Compared favorably with John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a similar story of migrants, prejudice and their tragic trajectory, Boyle quotes Steinbeck’s character in the lead-in to his novel, “They ain’t human. A human being wouldn’t live like they do. A human being couldn’t stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”

Cándido, though clever, industrious, and diligent, is working in a cruel, violent world, which is one in which an individual, no matter how much his efforts, good intentions or small contributions to the local economy, runs the risk… Click To Tweet

Dehumanization is omnipresent in Boyle’s story, beginning when Delaney, a liberal white naturalist, runs over Cándido, an illegal alien crossing Los Angeles’s Topanga Canyon road at an inauspicious moment. Delaney doesn’t speak Spanish, the injured Cándido knows no English, and the unfortunate action is resolved by Delaney’s handing over twenty dollars to the battered Cándido. Explaining the resolution to his incredulous wife, Kyra, later, Delaney says, “I told you, he was Mexican,” as if that reduces the transaction into its simplest terms.

Nevertheless, their lives are herein interwoven and Boyle adroitly switches chapters between his characters without ever losing momentum. Delaney and Kyra represent the wealthy liberal’s contradictions. They live in a gorgeous, secluded enclave named Arroyo Blanco. The neighborhood (which owes its name and architectural style–Spanish Mission–to the culture of the undesirables it aspires to keep out) decides to put up a security checkpoint and when that doesn’t seem far-reaching enough, a steep wall is erected to enclose the community to the exclusion of others: a fair enough metaphor for America itself and the futility of preventing the outside world from coming in. Kyra, a hotshot realtor, is particularly sensitive to the clustering of Mexican day laborers in certain convenience store parking lots and its inverse relation to property values. Although she must be aware such an action will have dire repercussions for those doing what they can to eke a living, she makes a phone call to immigration to “clean up” the streets. She doesn’t even feel guilty about this nor does she appreciate the choice of language. For Delaney, whose sympathies are always with the natural world he writes about, it doesn’t take much— a stolen car, a piece of graffiti, a low rider with tinted windows and rumbling bass speakers ominously encountered— before his feelings towards illegals are destabilized so that a personal vendetta develops in his mind between himself and the man he hit to a degree that violence becomes a rational solution.

As interesting as his psychological descent may be, what makes Tortilla Curtain so powerful is Boyle’s compassionate portrayal of Cándido and his young, pregnant wife, América. Cándido has been coming to El Norte for years to do backbreaking work, from Idaho’s potato fields to West Hills landscaping, never managing to secure that elusive tarjeta verde. América has come with him on the premise of a better life, which in her estimation is as little as a small apartment and three meals a day, not the stuff of Horatio Alger riches, but then Cándido, though clever, industrious, and diligent, is working in a cruel, violent world, which is one in which an individual, no matter how much his efforts, good intentions or small contributions to the local economy, runs the risk of deportation and the loss of everything accumulated and saved.

T.C. Boyle, Photo by Milo Boyle 2006

T.C. Boyle, Photo by Milo Boyle 2006

Cándido is a victim of bad luck and the capacity of human beings for greed, thoughtlessness, and self-absorption. Promising América a better life, he is ripped off in Tijuana, humiliated at the border, reduced to squatting homeless in a creek bed, hit by a car, robbed in Canoga Park, and when things are finally beginning to improve for him and his pregnant wife, Cándido unwittingly sets off a catastrophe that not only ruins everything he’s worked for but nearly kills him. It is not for a lack of effort that prevents Cándido from getting ahead but a complex social structure that despises him for his efforts:

“Cándido was a sinner like any other man, sure, but no worse. And here he was, half-starved and crippled by their infernal machines, bounced from one to another of them like a pinball, first the big jerk with the Elvis hair and then the pelirrojo who’d run him down in the road, the very one, and his gangling tall awkward pendejo of a son who’d hiked all the way down into the canyon to violate a poor man’s few pitiful possessions. It was too much. He needed to go to confession, do penance, shrive himself somehow. Even Job would have broken down under an assault like this.”

Of course, there is some symbolism suggested in the choosing of a character’s name such as Cándido; a point is being made, an apologue being wrought and an interesting one at that. His namesake, a character created by a secularist in pre-Revolution France, leaves his native village behind in order to discover if it is true as his mentor Dr. Pangloss teaches, that this is the best of all possible words. Like Job, like Cándido, he discovers it to be a violent, soul-stricken place. In the end, the Candide of the French imagination returns home reassured that though the world may be horrible one can run a clean, lovely garden— your joys and ambitions will not fail you if they remain small scale. The big difference between the Candide of French literature and the Cándido in America is that our Cándido doesn’t need philosophy or its gratuitous hypotheses—his goals have always been a small home, food, maybe some house plants, and a woman and children to love. Of course these humble dreams are not uniquely Cándido’s own but remain a universal value to nearly every brave, hardscrabble immigrant who has ever strode boldly into the unknown world.