The Tortilla Curtain

by

T. Coraghessan Boyle

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on The Tortilla Curtain can help.

The Tortilla Curtain: Part 1, Chapter 6 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The narration shifts to América’s perspective. She and Cándido have run out of food and América insists on going to the labor exchange for the fifth day in a row to look for work. She is angry and frustrated and accuses Cándido of doing nothing to help her. Cándido smacks her and says, “You’re no better than your sister, no better than a whore.” América feels that “those hard and filthy words […] hurt more than the blow itself.”
This is the first time in the novel that the reader sees Cándido commit violence against América. Cándido will repeat his insult of calling América a “whore” later in the novel, after José Navidad rapes her, underscoring the ways in which women are often blamed for things they can’t control, or simply for trying to help.
Themes
Violence Against Women Theme Icon
Despite Cándido’s violent protest, América heads to the labor exchange. There, a man with “hard burnished unblinking eyes the color of calf’s liver” and wearing a backwards baseball cap gives her a cup of coffee. América accepts the coffee but finds the man unnerving. Later in the morning the man returns and tries to flirt with América, touching her face and calling her linda (pretty). América feels “miserable, guilty—she’d taken the coffee hadn’t she?”
América feels indebted to Navidad because she made the choice of accepting his coffee. Boyle suggests here that a feeling of owing men something often motivates women to tolerate harassment and otherwise harmful behavior from them. This is a catch-twenty-two for América: once she has accepted the coffee, she feels she must accept Navidad’s conversation and inappropriate comments. Though brief, this passage illustrates one of the many ways that societal norms of politeness work to trap women into dangerous situations.
Themes
Violence Against Women Theme Icon
Related Quotes
The man introduces himself as José Navidad and asks América’s name. When she refuses to give it, he continues to flirt with her—“come on, loosen up, baby,” he says—and América stands to leave, saying, “I want you to know that I’m a married woman and it’s not right to talk to me like that.” As América turns to look for Candelario Pérez, whom she hopes will protect her from José, José grabs and holds onto her ankle. Before letting go he says, “Married woman […] Maybe so […] But not for long, pretty, not for long.”
This ominous moment acts as foreshadowing of the terrible violence Navidad will later inflict on América. Indeed, as he is about to rape her, Navidad repeats his taunt about América being a “married woman.” Navidad’s cruel mocking of América’s words, and his unprovoked aggression toward her, illustrate his villainy.
Themes
Violence Against Women Theme Icon
Two hours later, at nine in the morning, Candelario Pérez calls América over to a car driven by “a giant of a fat man,” with whom Candelario is speaking English. (The man turns out to be Jim Shirley.) Mary runs over, too, and insists that she be hired instead of América—“She doesn’t speak any English—what do you want with her?” Mary says. Candelario converses with the fat man and then says to América, “Six hours’ work and he’ll give you twenty-five dollars.” América agrees and gets into the car, and so does Mary.
Mary’s attempt to cut América out of a job shows how white Americans’ prejudice against immigrants (particularly those of color) is often disguised as a practical concern. As the novel will later show, despite not speaking English, América has a much better work ethic than Mary. Thus, Mary’s “rationale” is merely an appeal to anti-immigrant prejudice.
Themes
Anger, Hatred, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
Get the entire The Tortilla Curtain LitChart as a printable PDF.
The Tortilla Curtain PDF
The narration shifts to Cándido’s perspective. Though he is still in intense pain from his injuries, Cándido manages to move the camp upstream, hoping to avoid further attacks by Jack Jr. and his accomplice. Cándido moves his and América’s belongings half a mile away, to a “private beach” on the far side of the stream. Cándido feels energized by the beautiful location and he sets to work building a lean-to as a surprise for América. When he is done, he naps, and awakens to find that América has not yet returned. Worried, he returns to the old campsite, thinking América might be waiting there. Unable to find her, Cándido makes an excruciating hike up the hill, where he comes suddenly upon a “tall pale man” carrying a bedroll (José Navidad) who asks him what the camping is like in the canyon. Cándido lies, saying he is leaving the canyon because it is so inhospitable. Cándido thinks, “if word got out, the whole labor exchange would be down there.” Cándido and José exchange a few more tense words before José heads down into the canyon (ignoring Cándido’s advice) and Cándido continues up the hill in search of América.
This is the first and only time Cándido meets Navidad. Cándido’s immediate suspicion of him seems to spring not only from Navidad’s threatening demeanor, but also from the fact that Navidad’s skin is light enough for him to pass as a white person. This will become important later on, as Cándido will continually refer to Navidad as “half-a-gringo.” The fact that Navidad is considered too Mexican by white characters like Delaney and not Mexican enough by fellow Mexicans like Cándido makes him symbolic of “the other,” leading people to mistrust him. A final noteworthy aspect of this passage is the sense of hope and energy that Cándido draws from his new campsite. This suggests the power of the natural world to reinforce human emotions, a theme that is continually revisited throughout the book.
Themes
The Natural World Theme Icon
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
Cándido heads to the smaller of two local markets; he and América tend to buy their groceries here and he thinks this might be where she is waiting for him. He wonders if América has found work and is grocery shopping this very moment. The thought of food makes him feel weak and he bumps into someone in the parking lot, attracting attention and making Cándido wish his injured legs did not prevent him from running away.
This moment validates the constant feeling of vulnerability that both Cándido and América feel when on the canyon road or visiting the shops that line it. A white person may have been able to bump into this man without attracting so much attention—and certainly without eliciting such an angry, hateful response—but Cándido’s “outsider” status means that he is under constant scrutiny and threat of attack.
Themes
Anger, Hatred, and Bigotry Theme Icon
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
The narration shifts to América’s perspective. It is six o’clock in the evening and she is still at Jim Shirley’s house, working. Though she is incredibly tired, América is heartened by the prospect of earning extra money for her extra hours of work. She has spent the day using corrosive to clean stone Buddhas before affixing “Jim Shirley Imports” stickers to them. Mary has been drinking and complaining, but América works hard until just after seven o’clock, when Jim Shirley comes downstairs and ushers América and Mary into his car.
Not only does this passage emphasize América’s passionate, hardworking character, but it also sharply contrasts this dedication with Mary’s laziness. Though neither América nor the reader will end up learning how much Mary is paid for her work, the fact that she is paid at all—when she barely worked half as diligently as América did—shows the privilege she gains from being white.
Themes
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
As Jim Shirley drives out of Arroyo Blanco Estates, where América has been working for the day, América notices the brand-new gate that has been erected in front of the neighborhood; she also sees the men who have been working on the gate and thinks she might recognize one of them from the labor exchange. Jim Shirley drops Mary off at her bungalow and América strains but is unable to see how much Shirley has paid her. Alone with América, Jim Shirley puts “his hand casually across her thigh;” though she wants to scream, América lets “it lie there like a dead thing, though it moved and insinuated itself.” Shirley does not pay América for the two extra hours she worked.
América’s decision not to resist Shirley’s advances shows not only how committed she is to building a better life for her family, but also highlights the vast power differential between América and her white, male, English-speaking employer. It is difficult to believe that América could have resisted without endangering herself or her one tangible prospect for future employment.
Themes
Belonging and the American Dream Theme Icon
Violence Against Women Theme Icon