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The Tortilla Curtain

What do you associate with tortilla? What comes to mind? Where in the world are we? And how about curtains? The Tortilla Curtain is a metaphor of course - but of what? Read on....

The Tortilla Curtain
The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain (1995), which refers to the border between California and Mexico, is set in Topanga Canyon, California during the 1990s. It is written by T.C. Boyle and is considered one of his most controversial books with its focus on illegal immigration, middle class values and how the two groups interpret the American Dream. It deals with two couples, Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a yuppie American family, and Cándido and América Rincon, Mexican illegals living in the bushes on the outskirts of the city. Boyle focuses on the hardships and brutality illegal immigrants experience at the hands of unscrupulous “patróns” or Mexican and American employers once they get over the border.

The Tortilla Curtain was published at the same time California voted on and rejected Proposition 187 which restricted illegals from public resources such as health care and public education. The novel brings up the questions of illegal immigrants’ rights to work, health care, schooling and protection.

Read more about the novel

In The Tortilla Curtain Cándido and 17 year old América, pregnant with his child, are Mexican illegals with little or no work skills, and little or no English. Their dream is for a better life. After paying the “coyote” to smuggle them over the border to California, they are forced to live a dirt existence on the outskirts of the city in the bushes with only a make-shift roof over their heads. This leaves them unprotected from the elements as well as vandals and vagrant criminals. In desperation they are willing to work for almost nothing and are at the mercy of evil men who exploit them at the labor exchange. At the same time, we have the American, middle class Delaney, a columnist for a nature magazine, Wild Open Space, and Kyra, a real estate agent, who are living the American Dream in a wealthy community. They too work very hard to get where they want and acquire the things they have. The irony is based on the fact that they are also idealists who want to live close to nature and protect the environment and natural surroundings. What is paradoxical is that they have bought into a huge housing complex called Aroyao Blanco Estates. This community has ultimately encroached on the environment and destroyed indigenous animal habitats. Their fear of foreigners, to them burdensome vagrants and criminals, is so great that they live within a gated community and in the end erect a huge wall to protect themselves.

To get an idea about The Tortilla Curtain and what it is about, you should listen to this interview with T. C.Boyle. It is recorded in connection with an event where the Silicon Valley Read Experience recommends the novel as a good read to its members. The interview is extensive, but you should spend about 19 minutes to get the highlights and see if this might be a good read for you too. Answer the questions afterwards to explore the novel.


  1. The interview is introduced by giving reasons why The Tortilla Curtain is recommended reading among the members in the Silicon Valley Read Experience. Which reasons are given?
  2. Boyle is asked about "the genesis" of his book. What is his reply?
  3. Where did Boyle grow up? Considering this, why is it puzzling that he chooses Southern California as a geographical setting?
  4. From where did he get the voices in the book?
  5. How does he explain that some critics slaughtered his book?
  6. Why do enviromentalists, materialists, liberals, Mexicans and racists all consider the author as their advocate?
  7. How does he explain the novel's title?
  8. Boyle states that it does not make sense to talk about ethnicities and borders any more. What does he refer to?
  9. To which extent is this book dealing with environmental issues?
  10. The author compares recent immigration to the mass immigration in the early 1900s. What parallells does he see? Why does he mention Swedes as an example?
  11. Boyle's characters all have flaws. How does he explain that?


  1. Boyle strongly rejects that a novel should advocate anything. What does he mean by that? What do you think?
  2. Have you read novels that have "seduced" you? Discuss how and why you were seduced.
  3. In the last part of the interview Boyle mentions hit-and-run drivers. In what context does he mention this? What would you have done if you had hit a pedestrian with your car? What if the one you hit is considered a social outcast - does that change anything?

Read an Excerpt:

Meet one of the four major characters, Delaney Mossbacker, as he, who considers himself a "liberal humanist", hits Mexican Candido with his newly polished car. This excerpt is from the opening of the novel.

Read the Complete Novel

According to the English curriculum you are supposed to read a novel. Tortilla Curtain might be a good choice, as it also provides you with curricular information about illegal immigration to the U.S.

Having read the novel, we recommend you do the tasks on Working with The Tortilla Curtain

Useful Resources

Tortilla Curtain Reading Guide (Penguin)