The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Tortilla Curtain. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of T. Coraghessan Boyle

Boyle was born to alcoholic parents in Westchester County. Growing up in the sixties, he had a rebellious adolescence, and his thrill-seeking behavior continued during his early college years at SUNY Potsdam, where he battled a heroin addiction. Boyle intended to study music in college but when he failed an audition he instead enrolled in English classes, including courses in creative writing. This ultimately inspired him to pursue his MFA at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he became friends with legendary short story writer Raymond Carver. Boyle also earned a PhD in nineteenth-century British literature from the University of Iowa. Since 1978, Boyle has taught literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California, where he is currently Distinguished Professor of English. Boyle lives near Santa Barbara with his wife, Karen, and their three children.
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Historical Context of The Tortilla Curtain

The Tortilla Curtain was published only one year after the passage of California’s controversial Proposition 187 (also known as the Save Our State initiative). This law, which was approved by nearly 59 percent of voters in a 1994 referendum, banned undocumented immigrants in California from accessing public services, including non-emergency healthcare and public education. Several lawsuits quickly followed, alleging that the law was unconstitutional, and ultimately a federal judge issued a permanent injunction against its enactment. Immigration remains a hot-button issue today, particularly in border states such as California, and the concerns that motivated people to vote for Proposition 187 are certainly reflected in the anti-immigration anxieties of Delaney Mossbacher and other characters in The Tortilla Curtain. At one point in the novel, Kyra Mossbacher cites “the riots” as the reason so many white couples were seeking real estate outside of LA proper. This is an allusion to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were sparked by the acquittal of four white police officers who were caught on tape brutally beating a black man named Rodney King. The riots began on April 29 and lasted through early May. More than sixty peopled died as a result of the rioting and over three thousand buildings in central and south Los Angeles were destroyed, resulting in $1 billion in damages to the city. The riots are just one indication of how high racial tensions were running in Los Angeles at the time Boyle wrote this novel.

Other Books Related to The Tortilla Curtain

The novel’s epigraph comes from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, an iconic novel about the journey and struggles of the Joad family, migrants from Oklahoma to California during the Great Depression. Like Steinbeck’s classic, The Tortilla Curtain explores themes of prejudice, perseverance, and the power of the American Dream. Cristina Henríquez’s 2014 novel The Book of Unknown Americans follows a Mexican immigrant family’s journey to the States to secure healthcare and an education for their daughter following a head injury she has sustained, and deals with many of the same themes. Boyle himself has written several other novels, including When the Killing’s Done, that center on the complex environmental and social issues he touches upon in The Tortilla Curtain.
Key Facts about The Tortilla Curtain
  • Full Title: The Tortilla Curtain
  • Where Written: California
  • When Published: 1995
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Contemporary fiction
  • Setting: The private community of Arroyo Blanco Estates, in a suburb of Los Angeles; the nearby Topanga Canyon. Early 1990s.
  • Climax: Topanga Creek floods and Delaney, Cándido, América, and Socorro are all swept away by the water
  • Point of View: The novel is written in close third person, with the perspective shifting between the four protagonists: Delaney, Cándido, América, and Kyra.

Extra Credit for The Tortilla Curtain

Nature Nut. In a New York Times interview he gave in 2015, Boyle described himself as “mad for nature writing.” He said, “I want to get inside the head of every creature in the world, even ants.” In The Tortille Curtain, Delaney is a nature writer.

Author or Rock Star? In 1993, along with singer-songwriter Patti Smith, Boyle gave a free performance in Central Park, which was attended by seven thousand people. Boyle has said that the term “reading” connotes boredom and “intellectual duty.” “I want to give a show,” he has said.