Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Feminist Bookshelf: "The Tortilla Curtain"

In view of recent events, T.C. Boyle's novel "The Tortilla Curtain" -- a slang term referring to the U.S./Mexico border -- is just as significant today as it was when it was written in 1995.

This is a classic "muckraking" novel in the style of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

During August, President Obama signed the Southwest Border Security Bill. The bill approves $600 million to increase the number of boarder patrol agents and supports U.S. Marshals and other law enforcement agencies whose purpose is to investigate immigration violations.

It is a small step towards what the Obama administration hopes will lead to more bipartisan cooperation on the larger issue of immigration reform.

Immigration has been a hot-button topic down through the years.

And in this post 9/11 world of heightened security and economic turmoil, it has the engines of public opinion and politics revving once again.

It is also of vital interests to global feminists who see the connections of oppressions, both social and political, that affect women around the world.

The novel's plot is about borders -- both personal and geographical. Both are meant to keep something out whether it be human or nonhuman.

The novel's main characters are two couples. Delany and Kyra Mossbacher are a comfortable suburban pair "living the good life" in an upscale neighborhood in Topanga Canyon, Calif.

Candido and America Rincon are a pair of illegal immigrants from Mexico. Their home is a crude campsite in the canyon.

To them, the so-called "good life" means just having their basic needs met with food and clothing, a decent apartment, and work -- almost any kind of honest work.

The lives of the Mossbachers and the Rincons run in concentric circles that do, on occasion, intersect through a series of direct and indirect events.

Although they consider themselves "liberal humanists," the Mossbacher's commitment to the fundamental belief in human freedom is severely tested once their personal borders are breached.

When the Mossbbacher's homeowner's association wants to construct a stucco wall around the neighborhood, Delaney is against it. As an outdoor writer, it will inhibit his view and access to the area.

Yet, when a chain fence fails to keep coyotes -- an invasive species -- from killing the family's dogs, Delaney supports the proposal.

The Delaney's neighbors view immigrants the same way -- as an invasive species -- and the Mossbachers buy into it through extension even though it runs contrary to their liberal belief system .

The neighbors speak of the need to "get control of the border" to keep out the illegal immigrants who -- like the coyotes -- if allowed to cross that border, will threaten to take "what's ours" -- whether it be a dog or a job.

Of course this thinking is totally paranoid and illogical -- not to mention ethnocentric, prejudiced, and dangerous.

And yet, there are some similarities between the human and non-human species. Both are being forced out of their habitats by progress and politics and might not have a choice when it comes to survival. They must cross borders.

So, do fences make good neighbors? Do borders make good politics? In classic muckraking style, Boyle leaves that for his readers to figure out.

Other books by T.C. Boyle:

"The Road to Wellville"
"East is East"
"World's End"

Updated 11.29.10

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