T.C. Boyle

A Story of Our Times

The Tortilla Curtain is a life-changing book – a story that will put you in the shoes of people we see every day – but don’t really see. The book follows two parallel stories – one of a poor, illegal immigrant couple who have landed in Southern California in desperate search for a better life. The other is that of a comfortable, white couple thriving in the suburbs. What is most interesting as these stories unfold is the disparity between what each couple worries about and struggle with on a daily basis.

The Tortilla CurtainFor the immigrant couple the daily worry is in finding safe shelter, food, employment; security of any kind and survival on the most basic level. The suburban couple worries about getting a bigger commission, what material to use for their kitchen counters, saving the environment and where they should eat out for dinner – the pressures do not revolve around survival, but rather around maintaining – and expanding – their level of comfort and luxury.

This is a tale of our times.

The story is not told in a manner that condemns the suburbanites – but, instead, demonstrates that this is who they are, how they have been raised culturally – they are a product of our mad dash to the security of a white-picket fence in the suburbs – the result of isolation, cut off from the real suffering of others, making these things seem less real, less human.

One must ask – why do we worry more about stray animals and trees than the suffering of people in our own nations and around the world? Is it because we have cut ourselves off from their need – because it is too painful to witness and we feel too helpless in changing their circumstances? Or are we so safe in our hermetically sealed communities that we forget that others are not doing so well.

Immigration is not a new challenge to our nation. We have never, truly done a good job of assimilating new arrivals – they have often been discriminated against and discouraged by any means from thriving. We all fear, this is not new, that our nation cannot possibly hold another soul – or that this new group will work for less and take our jobs. The irony is, that our jobs are being sent overseas – much of the work done by immigrants is work we feel is beneath us – menial.  But, honestly, that is neither here nor there.

Our failure, on so many levels, is in not recognizing every one of these people as just that – people. They are fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers – doing everything they can to survive. Many of us, if we go back a couple generations, have a plumber, farmer, factory worker or mechanic in our family tree. Go back a couple more and new probably have some newly arrived immigrants – lost in a new world trying to make a better life.

Do we know where we come from? Do we know what our ancestors experienced – the discrimination and struggle – that has resulted in our comfortable lives? They wanted a better life – the question is – do we know when we have arrived (gotten what we came for), or is it always a pursuit for more?

Reading this book made me uncomfortable. It made me feel ashamed for the dissatisfaction I have felt for my car, my TV or my cell phone – I realized how much I have to be grateful for and that my comfort should be utilized to help others – not create ever more luxurious comforts.

The Tortilla Curtain reminded me a great deal of Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko,  Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, Food, Incand Lone Star, all of which do a tremendous job of portraying the plight of Mexican Immigrants as they struggle to enter our country and earn a living. I don’t know that I am an advocate for illegal immigration, but I certainly feel for them in their struggle. This is a great challenge – one that our nation needs to face sooner rather than later.

Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.