A clear theme of T.C. Boyle’s novel The Tortilla Curtain is racism. An emphasis on race, class privilege, and the relationship between the two are present in every moment of this story. We watch two couples live, separated only be a few miles, and the vast expanses of race and class in capitalist America. This book stands out from the rest we have read in class. The emphasis is on human relationships rather than our relationship with the earth. However, seeing as we are a part of the earth, the way we treat each other is the way we treat the earth. It is easy to compare the colonization of the planet to the colonization of other races. Those who have power use it to strip the colonized of everything, leaving them with nothing. This is what we do to each other, this is what we do to our home.
We exist in a capitalistic society. It is a fact, money is everything. Money is what separates the character of Cándido with that of Delaney. Their citizenship status, their race, and their backgrounds because of these things set them up to exist where they do in society. In The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry wrote about racism and its relationship with industrialism. He writes about our “contempt for work”. This feeling that we are somehow above manual labor is very similar to the way the human race views its relationship with the rest of the planet. We see ourselves as those who own the earth, not merely people who live here. This is the same exact mentality that capitalist America wants us to believe in. The idea that you must own, not work. Berry writes, “Out of this contempt for work came the idea of a n*gger: at first some person, and later some thing to be used to relieve us of the burden of work. If we began making n*ggers out of people, we have ended by making a n*gger out of the world”(12). This is how the U.S. runs, even today. The undocumented people who come to this country looking for something better, are used just as slaves were in America’s beginning. They human beings who are not citizens, and therefor must do whatever they can to make it in a country that will not help them, even if that means preforming the hardest of physical labor for the lowest possible pay. Throughout the novel The Tortilla Curtain, this is made very clear. América must go find work, because her husband had been run over by Delaney. She goes every day and watches the men work. She knows that you must show up eager to work, while in competition with others who are just as desperate as you. They wait to be picked out for jobs by rich, white people who underpay them because they can. The competition means they can be severely under payed and not be able to do anything about it because this is the only possible way to eat.
Throughout this novel, the traffic is often a topic of conversation between both the rich, white characters, and the undocumented immigrants. The traffic is seen very differently by the two couples. Kyra and Delaney exist as a part of it, with comments like, not caring if they had to be stuck in it. América and Cándido on the other hand, see the traffic and marvel at the sheer amount and speed. While the liberals add to the fast, noisy, dangerous stream of cars, the immigrant’s very lives are threatened by it. The first interaction between the two worlds of the liberals and the immigrants was that of Delaney hitting Cándido with his car. This was a jarring moment for both of them, Cándido, of course, suffering the most. This moment was shocking, and I would say even slightly traumatizing for both of them. In this moment Delaney was wrenched out of the safe world in which he exists. He struck a person with his car. However, his feelings about the situation change when he finds that Cándido is the person he has hit. “Delaney felt a sense of relief wash over him–the man wasn’t going to die, he wasn’t going to sue, he was all right and it was over”(9). Hitting another human being with your vehicle can be something that ruins your life forever. Not only did Delaney hit Cándido, he sent him flying into the desert and nearly killed him. If the hit had been fatal, and Cándido had been a white, legal citizen, Delaney’s life could very well be over. However, as an illegal immigrant, Cándido could not even communicate with his perpetrator, let alone go to the doctor, or sue Delaney. And, somehow, Cándido’s status relieved Delaney of any sort of human to human empathy or worry he would have had if Cándido had been someone else. This shows the dehumanization of Mexican immigrants, even from the viewpoint of liberals who think they are enlightened on the subject of people’s lives. When Delaney goes to his dealership to get his car fixed after the incident, he does not think twice about the fact that there is blood and hair and all sorts of evidence that he has just run down a human being. His white, upper-middle class, privilege shields him from having to worry about being ‘found out’. As soon as he walks in to the dealership the first question is, “‘So what’d you hit–a deer? Coyote?‘”(13). There is not even a slight assumption that he could have hurt another person. However, Cándido came out of this accident with brutal injuries, forcing him to stay at camp while América went out in search of work. Delaney leaves him behind to suffer in the dirt, after depriving him of the only thing that could allow him to make money and better their situation–his body.
Kyra and Delaney live within miles of América and Cándido. However, they are separated into different worlds because of the societal labels on their very bodies. While the liberals can exist in this space, freely and privileged, the immigrants are exploited and ignored by their fellow human beings. In the capitalistic society of the United Stated of America, our economy and way of life is based on the exploitation and oppression of others. This narrative sounds so familiar. It reflects the way we, as the human race, exploits the earth on which we live. The level of comfort that we have come to require in our day to day lives–electricity, readily available water, cars, clean Buddhas(93-97)–can only exist at the expense of other races, places, animals, etc. Whenever there is privilege, there is power imbalance, there is oppression, and there is exploitation.