The Tortilla Curtain Summary and Analysis
by T.C. Boyle
Part I, Chapters 4-6
Chapter four opens with a worried Cándido wondering what has happened to América. His fears are assuaged when she returns unharmed, but she is upset at not having found a job. She insists on returning to the labor exchange the next day despite Cándido's ranting and she takes off, leaving Cándido alone in the camp once more. This gives him a lot of time to contemplate his past, and it is at this time that the readers learn of Cándido's past. During his younger years, Cándido was actually very successful in his work in America and was somewhat of a star in his hometown of Tepoztlán, Mexico. He married his first wife, Resurrección, at the age of 20. She happened to be the older sister of América, who was a flower girl in their wedding. Everything was going well until after his seventh year abroad, after which he came home to find that his wife had moved in with another man, Teófilo Aguadulce. To make matters worse, she was pregnant, despite the fact that he had never been able to impregnate her in their seven years together. After being humiliated in a fight with Aguadulce, Cándido becomes depressed and alcoholic, trying to make his way of life in the border city of Tijuana, even breathing fire and thus burning out his taste buds for tourists, before finally giving up and returning to Tepoztlán to live with his aunt. It was there that he met a grown-up América, and the two eloped to the United States with the hopes for a better, more prosperous life. As he is thinking over all of this and feeling guilty for having yet to give América the life he'd promised her, Cándido grows more and more thirsty and finally decides to drink out of the stream next to the camp, despite the fact that he knows it is unclean. Soon after, he not only has diarrhea, but he hears voices coming towards him. Praying that it is not la Migra, or Immigration, he settles down in the rocks to hide.
The chapter continues by describing América's experience at the labor exchange. At first, she is too timid to do anything but sit in the corner, but she feels much more comfortable being around people of her own race. She soon musters up the courage to approach Candelario Pérez, the unofficial leader of the labor exchange and the liason between the employers and potential employees. However, he tells her that finding work for women is difficult and that she will just have to wait. While waiting, she meets Mary, a large American woman who is also looking for work, a concept which stuns América. How could an American citizen be struggling to find work just like all of the illegal immigrants? Soon, the noon deadline of the labor exchange arrives, and América is once again left without work. She tries waiting in the parking lot but is soon scared away by the hungry stares of the other workers, many of whom have left their wives back in Mexico. The readers learn that Cándido and América had one unsuccessful attempt to enter the United States which cost them everything that they had. They gave their money to a coyote, or a person who was supposed to help them cross the border. However, as soon as they went through the fence, they were attacked by Mexicans who stole the remainder of their possessions and stripped América of her clothing. They would have raped her had they not been interrupted by Border Patrol, and she and her husband were deported, naked, back across the border. She describes it as the most humiliating night in her life, and as she contemplates it, she walks past a little garden from which she steals for only the second time in her life.
Back at their camp, Cándido is holding his breath and waiting for the arrival of the mysterious voices. As he waits, he is not afraid for himself - he had been caught three times before. He is instead worried for his wife and what will happen to her if he is deported. Soon, however, he realizes that the voices are that of teenagers, and when he sees them round the bend in their T-shirts and baggy shorts, he breathes a sigh of relief. Nevertheless, it is not all good news. The two teenagers proceed to destroy the camp, throwing everything the Rincón's own into the creek and ripping up América's dress, the only spare dress that she has. The descriptions of the boys, one a tall, gangly redhead and the other a stocky boy with light eyes, reveals that the vandals are Jack Jardine, Jr. and one of his friends. They leave after completely obliterating the camp, and, after hiding out for a little bit, Cándido crawls out of his hiding space, still physically ill from drinking the creek water. He finds that they have painted, "Beaners Die," on the rocks, and although he does not understand what the words say, he cannot miss the sentiment behind them.
Chapter five finds Delaney walking home from the town meeting, his anger residing as he walks through the calm, rural-feeling streets of Arroyo Blanco. As he is walking, however, an older-looking car playing music with a heavy bass pulls up next to him. It tails him as he continues his walk home, slightly angering and annoying him. It is not until he is safely in his home that he realizes that he should have been afraid, and he wonders where the drivers of the car were headed and whether they would have robbed him or beaten him on any other night. This makes the idea of a gate seem much more attractive to him. As he thinks about this and places the remnant of Sacheverell in the freezer, he sees the bedroom light on and knows that Kyra is waiting up for him. It is revealed that Kyra finds sex therapeutic, and as a result, the greater the tragedy that she is enduring, the more passionate and aroused she becomes. Delaney and Kyra discuss the meeting, and as they get more and more intimate, Kyra asks if Delaney knows whether or not Sacheverell is dead, as he has not yet informed her of the piece of leg that he find. He admits that he knows that the dog is dead and that he found the leg, and, outraged, Kyra demands he tell her where the leg is. He reluctantly does, feeling slightly guilty, and Kyra runs to the freezer to see the proof for herself, interrupting and putting an end to their passionate activities.
Despite her shock and sorrow, along with her regret that she had not let Delaney hide the truth from her, Kyra knows that she cannot sell houses with a miserable attitude and appearance. She pulls up to the first house that she is showing, owned by the Matzoob family, and immediately encounters a puddle of water on the front porch, caused by an incorrectly aligned sprinkler system. The incompetence of the gardner, whom she remembers as having a last name of either Gutiérrez or González, angers her greatly. She is a perfectionist, and she prides herself on catching and fixing the imperfections in all of her properties. After sweeping away the puddle, she walks into the house and analyzes its smell. Another thing she prides herself on is her ability to analyze a home based on its smell, and she believes that the smell of a home is key to selling it. Approving of the smell, she reminisces on how glad she is that the Matzoob family has moved out and taken their tacky furniture and peculiar smells with them. Kyra much prefers that her properties, of which she has forty-six, are empty, for it is very rare that she found a client whose home is decorated to her taste. Once she is finished inspecting the house, she goes to the bathroom to prepare herself for the potential buyers. She is horrified at her appearance, especially her nose, which, as a side effect of plastic surgery, is paler than the rest of her face and turns red much more quickly as well. She finishes just as the buyers and their realtor, a fit lady whom Kyra very much respects, arrive. She immediately identifies the buyers, whose unkempt appearances immediately fire her dislike, as unlikely buyers, leaving her with a headache that was only added to by an unsuccessful day in moving properties. She goes to lock up the five properties which she is responsible for closing up at the end of every day, and begins to calm down on the drive. Kyra uses these drives to relax, playing a relaxation tape of ocean waves to take her mind off of her worries. She goes through the first four houses quickly but takes her time with the fifth house, the Da Ros place. It is a beautiful mansion with a prime view overlooking the canyon, the Pacific, and even Arroyo Blanco. The enormous home has twenty rooms, complete with a library, a billiard room, and numerous chimneys, the kind of home that Kyra hoped to have when she opened up her own office. As she wandered through the house, which was on the market because of a suicide, Kyra tried to shake off her misery, surprised that she was feeling such emotion over the death of a dog. She decides that it must be her displeasure with her job and tries unsuccessfully to convince herself that what she is doing is important and necessary. She lingers in the home, not wanting to go home to her husband and son. The chapter ends with one of Delaney's "Pilgrim at Topanga Creek" articles. In it, he talks about one of his latest hikes through the canyon, describing the brief bloomings of the interloping mustard plant and the hardiness of the manzanita and toyon plants. He explains that hiking is not just about seeing the beauty of natures but about dealing with its contingencies, such as the rattlesnake and the scorpion, as well. He finishes the article with a description of the experience of listening to the coyotes sing under the night sky, a surprisingly positive and calming view of the coyote given what he has just gone through.
Chapter six finds the Rincón's in a dire situation, running out of food and taking out their frustrations on one another. América is leaving to go to the labor exchange for the fifth day in a row, snapping at Cándido for not being able to help and for allowing the two white boys to destroy their possessions. Cándido retaliates by calling her a whore like her sister, words which sting her as she climbs up the hill to try to find work. At the exchange, América and the readers meet José Navidad, the man with a backwards cap, for the first time when he gives her a cup of coffee. The man has skin so light that he could almost be mistaken for an American, but América can see in his eyes that he is injured and broken in a way that only someone with Mexican blood can be. After fighting with Candelario and expressing his impatience with waiting his turn, he comes back to América and begins to flirt with her, and it is then that she realizes the evil and darkness within this man. He backs off, but only slightly, when she tells him that she is married. Luckily for América, a fat man, whom readers later learn is Jim Shirley, comes to the exchange looking for a worker like América. Candelario calls her name, but as she goes to meet the man, Mary, the white lady América met earlier, tries to convince him to take her instead. Candelario manages to convince the man to take both of them to work for 6 hours for $25 total, and América and Mary get in the car.
Back in the canyon, Cándido, still feeling awful from his encounter with Delaney's car and frightened by the teenagers who had ruined their camp and what they would have done if he and América had been in the camp when they arrived, decides that it is time for them to switch campsites. He gathers up the belongings which he managed to salvage from the creek and begins heading upstream, the fight and stinging accusations made by América that morning ringing in his ears still. He keeps going until he finds a pool with still, yellowish water, on the other side of which is a beach with the remnants of a car wreck. He takes off his sandals, despite the danger of snakes or other creatures, and wades across with his possessions held high above his head. once on the other side, he finds an area behind the wrecked car and next to the sheer rock wall of the canyon that would make a perfect spot for a campsite. His vision of what the site should look like inspires him, and, working through his hunger and his pain, he proceeds to build a rock fireplace and a sturdy little lean-to. Exhausted by his efforts and inspired to give América the home and the life that he promised her, Cándido falls asleep.
After awakening, Cándido realizes that América has not come back yet and realizes that she would not have realized that he moved the campsite. Worried, he decides to go find her and, despite his only partially-healed wounds, he begins to climb the steep incline to the road where the labor exchange is located. On the way, he meets a man wearing a poncho and José Navidad, who begins questioning him about the canyon and how livable the conditions are down there. Sensing the evil in the man and not wanting other immigrants crowding the canyon where he and his wife are living, Cándido lies and tells them that it is too dangerous down there, telling him how some gabachos, or white people, had destroyed his camp and his possessions. Navidad, who we learn has a cheap set of fake teeth, contemplates this, opening a stick of gum and throwing the wrapper on the ground, when Cándido turns the tables on him and begins asking him for food. This makes the man uncomfortable, and he and his friend soon leave Cándido to look for his wife. Growing more worried, he hurries up the hill and carefully crosses the road, heading for the parking lot of the Chinese store and then for the market where the Italian paisano worked, where he and América usually shopped. Cándido feels very uncomfortable, since the Mexicans have gone to bed by now and the area is swarming with Americans. He feels better when he realizes that América has probably gotten work and that they will most likely be able to eat tonight. However, in his excitement, he accidently runs into a large, brawny, white man who shoves him and yells at him. Cándido rushes away as fast as he can, ashamed and embarrassed.
At her job, América is working hard. She has been working for much longer than six hours but is excited because that means that she will get more money and that she will be able to buy so much food for herself and Cándido. She works hard, scrubbing away at stone buddhas with powerful cleaning solutions and labeling the statues with stickers that read "Jim Shirley Imports." However, her companion, Mary, does exactly the opposite, working slower and slower until finally all she is doing is drinking from her liquor bottle and complaining of the fumes. América continues to work until, finally, Jim Shirley returns to take them home. On the way out, they pass through the newly built gate of Arroyo Blanco, and América wonders what it would be like to live in such a nice neighborhood. She even longs to live in Mary's less elegant yet somewhat cozy neighborhood. However, once Mary is dropped off, Jim asks her to sit in the front seat and then proceeds to place his hand casually on her thigh. He kicks her out of the car at the labor exchange, cheating her out of the extra money he owes her and leaving her feeling revolted by what she has just experienced.
In these chapters, we get to know Kyra's character much better, and it provides another perspective on white American culture. As a real estate agent, physical appearance means everything to her. She frequently judges the people with whom she works based on their appearances. For example, when she describes a real estate agent whom she respects as a frequent gym-goer, and she is quick to point out the unkempt appearances of potential buyers whom she finds annoying and a waste of time. Thus, the ability to look good and to keep up personal appearances becomes an indicator of success and wealth, for people like Cándido and América do not have the money required to achieve such put-together looks. Kyra's nose is a manifestation of this obsession with appearance. She uses it to analyze odors, which she claims are three-quarters of a first appearance, she has had it fixed through plastic surgery, and she is constantly working to keep it in check, since it has a tendency to turn red and to embarrass her. Kyra is also used as a means of portraying the stereotypical American workaholic attitude, often to the point of ignoring her family, and she is always in a rush to get to her destination, depicted in details such as her long strides and her love of driving. Finally, the fact that Kyra's sexual nature is triggered by catastrophes, events that disrupt her ordered world, is a continuation of the idea that people like her and Delaney are both afraid of and drawn to unpredictability and lack of inhibition. These events hurt Kyra, but the more that she is hurt, the more that she is turned on, a very interesting parallel.
The theme of the American dream, which has already been seen in the case of the Rincóns, is now seen from the white American point of view. The Mossbachers, specifically Kyra, have their own American dream, represented by the Da Ros property. This ridiculously large, overly ornate house is located high above the neighborhood of Arroyo Blanco, physically and figuratively much higher up than the small white neighborhood. Every night, when Kyra crosses through the gates of the property to perform her duties, she crosses into her dream, and that is why it is so hard for her to leave every night, to return home to reality. In comparison to the aspirations of the Rincóns and the other Mexican immigrants, the American dreams of people like the Mossbachers seem extremely greedy - however, the sad truth is that they are much more likely to achieve these dreams than any of the immigrants are.
The scene in which Jack Jardine, Jr. and his friend destroy and vandalize the campsite of the Rincón's while a terribly injured and helpless Cándido watches from the rocks nearby is one of the more shocking scenes in the novel. The pure hatred that emanates from the pair as they ruin the Rincón's only possessions simply because they are Mexican is in character with Jack Jr.'s role in the story. The teenager reflects the way that racism is magnified over generations. Jack Jardine is clearly prejudiced against Mexicans and completely convinced of the dangers which they pose, but his son takes the prejudice to a whole different level. His feelings are not based on any first-hand experience - it is simply a result of growing up around anti-immigrant sentiment, which makes his powerful feelings and violent actions even more frightening.
We are also introduced to José Navidad, the half-white, half-Mexican vagrant who will play a large role in both the Mossbachers' and the Rincóns' journeys throughout the story. Navidad is never accepted by either white people or Mexicans. People like Delaney simply assume that he is another dangerous Mexican immigrant, and people like Cándido and América don't trust him because of his appearance. Navidad can always be seen with a man wearing a traditional Mexican poncho, or sarape, and the two of them together will become intrusive forces of evil as the book goes on. Navidad intrudes upon América's space and sense of comfort by flirting with her at the labor exchange, and he begins to encroach on the Rincón's sanctuary in the canyon. He will continue to appear in the places that are most important to the different characters, breaching both literal and figurative walls to do so.
América encounters two more characters in this section who provide another outlet for Boyle to explore the white American population. The first of these is Mary, a large white woman with alcoholic tendencies who, surprisingly, is at the labor exchange looking for work. América describes her clothing as made of cheap fabric that you might find in a brothel, and the lady carries a bottle of liquor with her. In addition to being quite sneaky and underhanded, attempting to steal América's job from her, Mary has a terrible work ethic and spends most of the work day complaining about the conditions. The second of the two characters is Jim Shirley, the man who employs América. Shirley is a very obese man who not only cheats América out of her full pay but also touches her in a suggestive and inappropriate manner. Combined, these two characters display another side of white American culture, one very different from the health-conscious, workaholic side that the Mossbachers represent. Mary and Jim are stereotypically American in their obese figures and complaining, lazy natures. They complete Boyle's all-encompassing picture of American culture.
The Tortilla Curtain Essays and Related Content
- The Tortilla Curtain: Major Themes
- The Tortilla Curtain: Essays
- The Tortilla Curtain: Questions
- The Tortilla Curtain: Purchase the Novel and Related Material
- T.C. Boyle: Biography
- The Tortilla Curtain Summary
- About The Tortilla Curtain
- Character List
- Glossary of Terms
- Major Themes
- Quotes and Analysis
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Part I, Chapters 7 & 8
- Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Part II, Chapters 7 & 8
- Summary and Analysis of Part III, Chapters 1-3
- Summary and Analysis of Part III, Chapters 4-6
- Summary and Analysis of Part III, Chapters 7 & 8
- Consequences of Illegal Immigration to the United States
- Related Links on The Tortilla Curtain
- Suggested Essay Questions
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 1
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 2
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 3
- Test Yourself! - Quiz 4
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