The Tortilla Curtain

by

T. Coraghessan Boyle

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The Tortilla Curtain: Part 1, Chapter 4 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narration is now from Cándido’s perspective. It is the day after América first went to the labor exchange to look for work. She did not find work the first day and now wants to try again. Cándido is furious and threatens América with his fist, but she leaves anyway. Cándido then begins to reminisce about his first wife, Resurrección, América’s older sister.
That Cándido explicitly threatens América with physical violence is ironic, given that his professed reason for not wanting her to seek work is a concern for her safety. It speaks to how often male violence is motivated by a sense of embattled masculinity. Cándido will continue to find reason to obsess over his perceived emasculation as the novel progresses.
Themes
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
Violence Against Women Theme Icon
Related Quotes
Cándido married Resurrección when he was twenty years old, just after his return to Tepoztlán from nine months of farm work in the States. In those months he made more money “than his father in his leather shop had made in a lifetime” and was consequently treated “like a god” in his hometown. For years Cándido continued to spend only winters in Tepoztlán, working for the rest of the year in the United States and leaving Resurrección at home for months on end. During these years, Cándido and Resurrección tried unsuccessfully to get pregnant, much to Cándido’s frustration. After spending seven seasons away from Tepoztlán, Cándido returned home to his father-in-law’s house to find his wife and her family absent. América, Resurrección’s youngest sister and eleven years old at the time, was the only person present. She revealed to Cándido that her sister was six months pregnant and living in a different town with a new man, Teófilo Aguadulce.
Cándido’s backstory helps to contextualize his belief in fate and his exaggerated sense of his importance in the world. Because Cándido was so long revered in his hometown, he bought into the perception of himself as a kind of god. The dissolution of Cándido’s first marriage partially explains why Cándido is so worried about América’s actions making him look and feel like “less than a man.” Not only was Cándido unable to impregnate Resurrección, but she also left him and then got pregnant by another man. After being so revered by his community, Cándido experienced these events as a massive humiliation, and this sense of shame continues to permeate his relationship to América in the present-day of the novel.
Themes
Fate, Luck, and Egotism Theme Icon
Cándido travelled to Cuernavaca, where Resurrección was living, and publicly confronted Teófilo Aguadulce, who left Cándido “stunned and bleeding in the dirt.” Feeling abandoned by his neighbors and friends, Cándido fell into alcoholism. He moved in with his aunt Lupe and began working as “a streetcorner firebreather who sacrificed all sensation in his lips, tongue and palate for a few centavos and a few centavos more.” One day Cándido ran into sixteen-year-old América, who asked if he recognized her. Cándido replied, “You’re América […] and I’m going to take you with me when I go North.”
Cándido’s work as a firebreather shows how hard-working and determined a character he is. The stakes are high in Cándido’s second marriage, since he sees América as representing his second chance at a successful life. It is also significant that América shares a name with the United States, where Cándido is determined to rebuild his life.
Themes
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
Lying in the canyon, Cándido now begins to worry about América, who has not yet returned from the labor exchange. Still in intense pain from his injuries, Cándido doses in the heat and awakens extremely thirsty. Even though Cándido has gotten sick from drinking from the stream in the past (and harangues América about being sure to boil the water) he takes the risk of drinking directly from the canyon creek. He quickly experiences debilitating diarrhea, during which he begins to hear “gabacho-accented cries” in the canyon. Practically crippled at this point, Cándido does his best to hide amongst some rocks from whomever the voices belong to.
Cándido’s decision to drink the stream water without boiling it, while perhaps partially attributable to his fever, also demonstrates his inflated ego. He has given América condescending lectures on the importance of boiling the water, yet he somehow seems to think that he might be immune to the effects of drinking directly from the stream. Cándido will, in fact, experience several strokes of purely bad luck later in the novel, but this moment is an example of his own hubris causing him harm.
Themes
The Natural World Theme Icon
Fate, Luck, and Egotism Theme Icon
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The narration shifts back in time to América’s perspective earlier in the day. Sitting in the shade at the labor exchange, América feels frustrated about the fact that Cándido treats her like a child. She thinks this treatment ironic given that she will give birth to her own child in five months’ time. Earlier in the morning América had approached the headman of the labor exchange, Candelario Pérez, and asked if he had work for her. He compassionately replied that there is not much work for women and gestured to América to take a seat in the shade, where she now waits.
This passage is important to understanding América’s character. Even though Cándido infantilizes her, América remains optimistic and focused on her own goals. She will continue to find hope throughout the novel, even as other characters resort to anger or despair.
Themes
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
América feels “bored” and “frightened” as she waits and watches men in trucks drive up to the exchange, seeking laborers. She wonders: “What, exactly, did they want? What were the rules?” América waits from dawn until eleven in the morning, when a white woman named Mary approaches her and claims that she, too, is looking for work. América finds Mary, who is obviously an alcoholic, repulsive. She thinks to herself: “Have I sunk to this, a good student and a good girl who always respected her parents and did as she was told, sitting here penniless in the dirt with a common drunk?” América excuses herself and goes to look for Candelario Pérez.
This passage powerfully illustrates the sacrifices required by immigrating to a new country. Though América was economically comfortable in Mexico, she is now penniless in the United States. América is still trying to navigate her new circumstances, as evidenced by her wondering about what the “rules” are—not only in the labor exchange, but also in this new country.
Themes
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
Unable to find Candelario Pérez, América soon learns that the labor exchange closes at noon and she must leave. She wanders along the canyon road, feeling unsettled by the way men stare as she passes. Their leering makes her recall the night she and Cándido attempted to cross the border from Mexico. The coyote—the man América and Cándido had paid to ferry them and half a dozen others across the border—abandoned them at the fence. At that moment they were jumped by a gang of Mexican men, who beat Cándido with a bat and attempted to rape América at knifepoint.
América’s traumatic experience at the border clearly illustrates how real the threat of sexual violence is for women. The fact that Cándido was with América when the men attempted to rape her exposes the fallacy of Cándido’s conviction that he can ultimately protect América. Women—particularly women of color, like América—are vulnerable to violence from men whether they are alone or with their male “protectors.”
Themes
Violence Against Women Theme Icon
Before the men could rape América, however, a helicopter appeared overhead, frightening the men away. América, Cándido, and hundreds of others were rounded up by US border control agents and deposited in Tijuana. Lost in these dark memories, América heads off the canyon road onto a side street where she intends to raid a garden for fruit and vegetables, as she had the day before on her way back to camp from the exchange.
Later in the novel, América will experience an even more brutal trauma when José Navidad and his friend rape her. Another noteworthy aspect of this passage is the fact that América has resorted to stealing food; this shows that starting a new life with nothing in a foreign country sometimes requires amending one’s moral judgments.
Themes
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
Violence Against Women Theme Icon
The narration jumps forward in time to Cándido’s perspective. He is hiding in the canyon from two teenage boys. (The teenagers are described in terms that make it clear to the reader that one of them is Jack Jr.) Cándido watches as the boys trash his and América’s camp and destroy their clothes. When the boys leave, Cándido emerges and finds graffiti on the canyon wall that says “Beaners Die.”
The actions of Jack Jr. and his friend illustrate the fact that Cándido and América are seen as outsiders by many in white American society. Furthermore, the fact that Jack Jr. graffitis the canyon wall is an important plot point, as it will be revealed later in the novel that Jack Jr. is also responsible for graffiting the wall outside Arroyo Blanco Estates.
Themes
Anger, Hatred, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon