The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain Themes


The building of literal walls is not a hidden theme in the novel - much of the controversy from the start concerns the building of first a gate and then a wall for Arroyo Blanco, and the entire novel is based on the consequences of immigrants jumping the "wall" of the Mexico-U.S. border. The literal wall appears in several other ways as well. The coyotes must get over the Mossbachers' fence in order to grab their dogs, and they are able to do so with skill and cunning, similar to the ways in which Mexican immigrants overcome the wall at the border. The canyon wall is another important one, separating Cándido and América from the safety, comfort, and prosperity of the white Americans and their lives. However, the figurative wall is just as important and present in the novel, though much harder to see. A "wall" exists between the Mexicans and the white Americans restricting interactions between the two. Rarely in the novel does the reader see any conversation between people of the two races, and when it is seen it is usually forced and filled with hate and anger. From youth, Cándido has been taught to build a "wall" between himself and the rest of the world when things become difficult.

These walls serve two purposes: two keep things out as well as to keep things in, something that Delaney realizes when he hears the racist conversation of Jack Jardine, Jr. and is saddened to know that the new Arroyo Blanco wall will keep people like him in. They protect the ordered, regimented, white worlds from the wild and untamed people and forces that exist, but at the same time they trap inside the monotonous ideal, comfortable and coveted though it may be. The Arroyo Blanco wall does this, as does the wall around the Da Ros property. It encloses Kyra's dream home and dream life and protects it, and it is because of this that the breach of José Navidad and his companion is so frightening to Kyra. It was a breach of her walls and a breach of her privacy. Yet although it is Kyra's dream, what is enclosed is actually quite sad, a large, empty home marred by suicide. On a much higher level, the same frame of thought can be applied to the wall at the border. It keeps out the "wild" Mexicans that people fear, yet at the same time the cherished, longed-for life that it encloses is marred with greed, waste, and repression.


This is another fairly obvious yet undoubtedly important theme in the novel. Racism against Mexicans and against immigrants in general is not hard to find - from the very beginning of the story, Jack Jardine, Jack Cherrystone, and Jim Shirley preach the dangers of having immigrants, legal or not, in the United States, and they do not bother to hide their opinions that, while the borders are so loosely regulated, personal safety will be a major issue. These three characters can be seen as the voices of the white middle class population, and their opinions and actions towards immigrants (the shutting down of the labor exchange, the building of the wall around Arroyo Blanco, etc.) are consistent throughout. More physical, hate-filled racism is mainly seen through the character of Jack Jardine, Jr., who not only speaks about Mexican women in a highly offensive manner but also actively seeks out and destroys the Rincóns' camp and all of their earthly possessions. He also vandalizes people's property using Spanish words and symbols, framing the people he so despises. This exaggerated racism is meant to show how racism amplifies across generations, and Delaney has no doubt that Jordan will end up having the same attitudes as Jack Jardine, Jr., if not worse ones.

What is very interesting to watch is the progression of Delaney's racism throughout the novel. He claims to have very liberal values, to be accepting of all races, and yet right away he shows his true colors by allowing a severely injured Cándido to walk away with only a $20 bill after hitting him with his car. It was no problem - after all, he was Mexican. As the story goes on, he does his best to give immigrants to benefit of the doubt, correcting himself when he uses derogatory words and when he makes racist comments. However, as the book goes on and he endures more and more misfortunes, such as his car being stolen, he begins to blame the immigrants. As his rage towards them grows, all of his pretenses begin to fall. By the end of the novel, he is ignoring blatant evidence that a white man, Jack Jr., committed a crime and is blaming an innocent Cándido, following him to his miserable hut with a gun and endangering the lives of Cándido and his family. It only took a few misfortunes to reveal Delaney's true values, which are not that different from those he was decrying at the beginning of the novel.

Coyotes and Other Animals

Nature and the animals that inhabit it are powerful symbols in the novel. The coyote in particular is a very prominent symbol, associated with Mexican immigrants. Delaney draws these parallels very prominently in the second "Pilgrim at Topanga Canyon" column featured in the novel, but they can be seen throughout the entire story, such as in the way that the coyotes scale the Mossbachers' fence to hunt the dogs just as the Mexican immigrants overcome the obstacles at the border to try and make a living in America. Delaney's fascination with coyotes, a fascination that is matched by other people in his community, reflects his fascination with the wild, uninhibited nature of these immigrants. The immigrants are feared, even hated by some, yet at the same time the are intriguing, constantly the talk of the residents and are hired to perform all kinds work. Just as the people of the neighborhood even put out food for the coyotes, they also go to the labor exchange to hire these illegal immigrants that they loathe so much for extremely low wages. This is exactly what Jim Shirley does, hiring América and bringing her into his house, even touching her inappropriately, while on the other hand he is spreading stories of the evil and horrible crimes that happen at the hands of these immigrants.

Other animals make appearances throughout the novel, and like the coyote, many of them hold a significant symbolic meaning. For example, there are several instances where reptiles such as horned lizards, creatures who shoot blood out of their eyes when threatened, are associated with the likes of Jack Jardine and Jack Cherrystone. More important, however, is the way that Kyra and Delaney are so passionate about these animals. One of the couple of times that Kyra loses her temper is when she sees a dog locked in a car in the blazing heat, and it is Delaney's job to write about the animals that he observes. This interest is a further extension of the fascination the Mossbachers and other white middle class Americans have with wildness and untamed forces.

The American Dream

The idea of the American dream is one of the more poignant themes in the novel, and it is not limited to the dreams of the immigrants who are trying to better their lives, though that is where we see it most powerfully. Cándido brought América to the United States with promises of a better life, a cute apartment, and numerous possessions. América explicitly states that she does want the lavish, overly ornate houses that Americans often long for - just a small place to call her own and the ability to live comfortably, just as the Mossbachers do. All of the immigrants have a similar dream, their goals in life simply to be able to live comfortably, to have a steady job, and to not have to wonder every day whether or not they will have money to eat that day.

The Mossbachers already have what all of those who immigrate from Mexico want. However, that is not enough for them. Kyra dreams of having the incredibly ostentatious Da Ros property, a location which she even admits has too much space for anybody to be able to fill properly. Delaney has a less ambitious dream: a child. However, this dream of his is not hindered by racism or lack of means - it is hindered by his own wife, Kyra, who refuses to have a child due to work obligations. In comparison to the dreams and the struggles of families such as the Rincóns, those of the Mossbachers and their neighbors seem ridiculous. Nevertheless, they have their own American dreams, ambitious though they may seem.

The American Lifestyle

An interesting contrast that can is revealed by the back and forth setup of the novel is the contrast between the lifestyles of the Rincóns and their fellow immigrants and that of the Mossbachers and the other citizens of Arroyo Blanco. Chapter two of the first part of the novel lays out the very regimented nature not just of the community itself but also of Delaney's day to day life. This extremely ordered nature, while seemingly bland and boring, provides a stability that people like Cándido and América strive for. When thrown out of this structure, such as when the people of Arroyo Blanco are evacuated to protect them from the danger of the fire, white people tend to become more uninhibited and wild. Recall that when he was evacuated, Delaney almost incited a riot at the sight of José Navidad and his companion walking up the hill. While such lack of inhibitions fascinates these people, they need their highly regimented lifestyles to stay on track and to continue earning steady money. That is why the Rincóns try so hard to become a part of this lifestyle and to leave behind the life in which they do not know whether or not they will have any work day to day. Also necessary to earn a good in come is a good work ethic, even at the expense of your family, like that of Kyra. She and other white people are constantly rushing in their expensive cars, something which certainly does not go unnoticed by Cándido, a victim of this aspect of the American lifestyle. Not even owning cars, it is impossible for Cándido and América to rush around in this same manner, and the two of them find it a very frightening prospect. Still, they would do anything to have the means to rush to a steady job and to make steady money, anything to gain the stability that the ironically frantic American lifestyle offers.

Luck and Superstition

Cándido is constantly cursing his tendency towards misfortune, convinced that the many bad things that befall him are due to this unluckiness. He worries about having to kill snakes, something which is supposed to bring even more bad luck. América also has superstitions of her own, upset that she cannot go back to Mexico and make a pilgrimage to a sacred tree to pray for Socorro's health and long life. These tendencies towards superstition and belief in luck do not generally appear so blatantly in the chapters focused on the Mossbachers. However, there is no doubt that the element of luck is present in the Mossbachers' lives - they simply blame their misfortunes on the actions of other people, such as when Delaney ran over Cándido with his car (blaming the carelessness of the immigrant) and when the coyotes took their dogs (blaming the neighbors who would feed the coyotes). As Delaney's highly regimented life begins to fall apart due to his growing obsession with immigrants, he begins to talk more and more about luck, such as when his car is stolen.

Food and Possessions

It is clear throughout the novel that the most important things in the broken lives of Cándido and América are food and their few, meager possessions. Delaney and Kyra, on the other hand, do not have to worry much at all about such things - in fact, their biggest decision when it comes to eating is whether or not they will go out to eat that night or not. These differing attitudes towards food and possessions are also highlighted by the books structure, and it produces a very powerful contrast. While Cándido and América are intimidated by the supermarket, viewing it as a restrictive place with unforgiving owners and prices, Delaney and Kyra basically view it as a treasure chest of food, for they can pick whatever they want off of the shelves without having to worry about a price. While the two immigrants must eat whatever they can afford, the Mossbachers have the luxury of being able to pick and choose what they eat, opting for the healthy, natural high-fiber, whole grain diet, despite the inevitable added expense of such a diet. When Delaney goes for a hike in the canyon where Cándido lives, he brings all sorts of gear with him and wears special hiking boots to protect him from the elements, while the Mexican traverses those same trails with only sandals made from old tires and the clothes on his back. And when the Rincóns are fleeing from the fire, they have no prized articles to carry with them, while the residents of Arroyo Blanco evacuate their town with cars full of everything from electronics to vinyl records, and these are only their most prized possessions. The contrast between the two groups of people is extremely striking and heart rending, and it can be followed throughout the entire novel.