The Tortilla Curtain


T. Coraghessan Boyle

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The Tortilla Curtain: Part 1, Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

While driving on the canyon road on his way to the recycling center, Delaney Mossbacher hits Cándido Rincón with his car. Delaney searches the nearby bushes and discovers the severely injured Cándido, with whom he struggles to communicate, resorting to broken French in response to Cándido’s Spanish. Cándido refuses Delaney’s offer to take him to a doctor and instead asks for money. Delaney gives Cándido twenty dollars and watches as he hobbles away.
The opening scene of the novel is important in the way it evokes Delaney’s inner conflict. On the one hand, Delaney successfully resists the instinct to flee the scene of the accident, and he makes a sincere—albeit clumsy—attempt to communicate with Cándido. These actions show that Delaney is not entirely without compassion for other human beings. On the other hand, Delaney’s inner thoughts demonstrate from the outset that he is prone to selfishness and narrow-mindedness. He is primarily concerned with whether his car is okay and whether Cándido will attempt to sue him. Over the course of the novel, Delaney will continue to wrestle with this inner conflict.
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At the recycling center, Delaney reflects on the accident. He concludes that Cándido must have refused medical care because he is undocumented (“illegal,” as Delaney thinks it). He feels irritated and angry, wondering where “these men” all come from and why “they have to throw themselves under the wheels of his car.” Later Delaney takes his car to Kenny Grissom’s dealership, where he claims to have hit a dog. Privately, Delaney calls his wife, Kyra, and tells her he hit “a Mexican.” Kyra immediately suggests Delaney inform Jack Jardine, the president of their neighborhood property owners’ association, of the accident. Later in the call, when Kyra expresses her surprise at Delaney having paid the injured man off with only twenty dollars, Delaney responds, “I told you—he was Mexican.” He finds himself saying this “before the words [can] turn to ash in his mouth.”
Delaney’s continued frustration at the car dealership further demonstrates his self-centeredness. He is fixated on why this accident happened to him, rather than on the fact that he severely injured a man and essentially fled the scene. Delaney’s confession to Kyra that the man he hit was “Mexican” seems almost compulsive; he finds himself saying it “before the words [can] turn to ash in his mouth.” This is the first moment in which Delaney clearly loses the battle between his good intentions (what he thinks of as his “liberal-humanist ideals”) and his inner prejudice. This slippage will become even more exaggerated as the novel progresses and Delaney descends into bigotry and paranoia.
Anger, Hatred, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Fate, Luck, and Egotism Theme Icon