At the heart of The Tortilla Curtain is the psychological unraveling of Delaney Mossbacher. At the beginning of the novel, Delaney is a self-professed liberal who considers gated communities “intimidating and exclusionary, antidemocratic even” and challenges his neighbors on their racist views. However, this disguises a more deeply engrained bigotry which gradually emerges. In the opening pages of the novel, for instance, Delaney runs a man over with his car and then sends him off with nothing more than a twenty-dollar bill; the man, Cándido, is after all only “Mexican.” At first, Delaney makes good-faith efforts to confront and correct his own biases, but by the end of the novel he has become paranoid and delusional, committed to his “crusade” against Cándido Rincón and the threat that he and his fellow “wetbacks” pose to Delaney’s way of life. In chronicling the evolution of Delaney’s character, Boyle builds the argument that the people who exhibit the most virulent forms of hatred tend to be society’s most privileged and powerful people; meanwhile, the most disadvantaged members of society (such as Cándido), who are far more justified in their anger, frustration, and resentment, find ways of showing compassion and humanity toward others. While Delaney is the character through which Boyle explores this idea most fully, the three other protagonists of the novel also demonstrate the way in which anger becomes transmuted and externalized in the form of hatred and bigotry.
Delaney’s anger is rooted in his perception of Mexican immigrants as disruptive to his way of life. As a nature writer, Delaney feels it is essential to be close to nature, but when his neighbors in the Arroyo Blanco Estates vote to erect first a gate and then a wall around the community, Delaney feels that his freedom of access to nature has been infringed upon. Gradually, he begins to feel that all the negative changes in his life—including the theft of his car and the emotional distance of his wife—have been precipitated by Mexicans. By comparison, the reasons that Cándido feels angry are much more basic: he suffers devastating injuries when hit by Delaney’s car, making him unable to find work; his pregnant wife is raped when he is away from camp; he is robbed twice; his camp is destroyed in a fire; and, finally, his infant daughter is drowned. Boyle shows that, indeed, all of these tragedies, which are far beyond Cándido’s control, make him angry and even hateful. Yet Cándido’s anger is more contained: it tends to focus mostly on el pelirrojo (the redhead)—that is, Delaney—who injured him in the first place. Cándido does express resentment toward gabachos (white Americans), but given the way he has been treated while in the United States, even this seems more justified than Delaney’s anger toward immigrants. The baselessness of white Americans’ anger toward immigrants is highlighted when Cándido merely bumps into a white man in the grocery store parking lot and the man reacts by shouting: “You wetback motherfucker, watch where the fuck you’re going or I swear I’ll kick your sorry ass from here to Algodones and back.”
Although Boyle illuminates the ways in which people in all walks of life misunderstand and resent people who are different, he most closely examines the bigotry of white people, arguing that the anger which animates this hatred is misdirected. Countless times throughout the novel Delaney pauses to recognize that his rage is ridiculous, reminding himself that he “[leads] the least stressful existence of anybody on earth besides maybe a handful of Tibetan lamas,” and that “nothing” in his life has ever “gone wrong.” Still, Delaney’s hatred is based in resentment—resentment of the fact that, despite his powerful, privileged life, he is still vulnerable to disappointments and the occasional misfortune. This feeling of resentment demands a target or scapegoat. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene near the end of the novel when Delaney attempts to have José Navidad wrongfully arrested for starting the canyon fire. Boyle writes that Delaney “was anxious and irate and ready to lay the blame where it belonged.” Thus, Boyle illustrates how white hatred is a result of anger being misdirected, foisted onto a group of people who are only looking to provide for themselves.
It is important to note that Boyle builds into his argument about hatred an awareness of gender. Delaney and Cándido are much more apt to externalize their hatred as violence than are Kyra and América, the novel’s female protagonists. While Delaney physically attacks people and Cándido uses his frustrations as reason to beat his wife, the most Kyra does is to channel her anger over the death of her dogs into a campaign to build a wall in Arroyo Blanco (ostensibly to keep out coyotes). América’s anger is even less externalized; in fact, she is constantly holding in her anger and her grief throughout the novel. Though Boyle never makes the link between maleness and anger explicit, the stark difference between how men and women characters express their anger supports the argument that the most privileged people in society tend to express their anger far more violently than less privileged people. In this way, Boyle is suggesting that being able to indulge in hatred is a kind of luxury—a paradox that further illustrates how misguided Delaney’s anger really is.
Boyle’s exploration of the evolution of hatred is complex and full of subtlety, but he is less subtle about the negative effects of hatred. Throughout the novel he shows that to hate someone is to reduce them to subhuman status; in one of the novel’s most striking moments, Delaney refers to Cándido as his “quarry,” or prey. By the same token, Boyle shows that allowing oneself to be consumed by hatred has an equally dehumanizing effect. By the end of the novel, as he prowls Topanga Canyon in pursuit of Cándido, Delaney is so full of hate he hardly seems human. Catching a whiff of the smell of “woodsmoke” in the air, he “touched the gun […] where it lay tight against his groin, and let his nose guide him.” Delaney has become practically an unthinking character, guided by the physical, animalistic sensations in his groin and nose. In this way, Boyle builds a powerful argument about how the most powerful people in society express the most violent forms of anger and hatred—with the ironic result that they become far lesser than the people toward whom they direct their hate.
Anger, Hatred, and Bigotry ThemeTracker
Anger, Hatred, and Bigotry Quotes in The Tortilla Curtain
He thought of the development he’d grown up in, the fenceless expanse of lawns, the shared space, the deep lush marshy woods where he’d first discovered ferns, frogs, garter snakes, the whole shining envelope of creation. There was nothing like that anymore. Now there were fences. Now there were gates.
“You heard Jack Cherrystone speak to the issue, and nobody’s credentials can touch Jack’s as far as being liberal is concerned, but this society isn’t what it was—and it won’t be until we get control of the borders.”
The borders. Delaney took an involuntary step backwards, all those dark disordered faces rising up from the streetcorners and freeway onramps to mob his brain, all of them crying out their human wants through mouths full of rotten teeth. “That’s racist, Jack, and you know it.”
He felt anger and shame at the same time—the man was a bum, that was all, hassling somebody else now, and yet the look of him, the wordless plea in his eyes and the arm in a sling and the side of his face layered with scab like old paint brought Delaney’s guilt back to the surface, a wound that refused to heal. His impulse was to intercede, to put an end to it, and yet in some perverse way he wanted to see this dark alien little man crushed and obliterated, out of his life forever.
What he wanted to tell her was how angry he was, how he hadn’t wanted a new car […] how he felt depressed, disheartened, as if his luck had turned back and he was sinking into an imperceptible hole that deepened centimeter by centimeter each hour of the day. There’d been a moment there, handing over the keys to the young Latino, when he felt a deep shameful stab of racist resentment—did they all have to be Mexican?—that went against everything he’d believed in all his life. He wanted to tell her about that, that above all else, but he couldn’t.
Still, this congregation was disturbing. There had to be a limit, a boundary, a cap, or they’d be in Calabasas next and then Thousand Oaks and on and on up the coast till there was no real estate left. That’s what she was thinking, not in any heartless or calculating way—everybody had a right to live—but in terms of simple business sense […].
Kyra looked down at her plate as if uncertain how to go on. “Remember I told you about all those people gathering there on the streetcorners—day laborers?”
“Mexicans,” Delaney said, and there was no hesitation anymore, no reluctance to identify people by their ethnicity, no overlay of liberal-humanist guilt. Mexicans, there were Mexicans everywhere.
But where were these people supposed to go? Back to Mexico? Delaney doubted it, knowing what he did about migratory animal species and how one population responded to being displaced by another. It made for war, for violence and killing, until one group had decimated the other and reestablished its claim to the prime hunting, breeding or grazing grounds. It was a sad fact, but true.
The wall. Of course. He should have guessed. Ninety percent of the community was already walled in, tireless dark men out there applying stucco under conditions that would have killed anybody else, and now the last link was coming to Delaney, to his own dogless yard, hemming him in, obliterating his view—protecting him despite himself. And he’d done nothing to protest it, nothing at all.
Delaney felt a thrill of triumph and hate—he couldn’t suppress it—and then both cops were bending over the suspects to clamp the handcuffs round their wrists, and the tall Mexican, Delaney’s special friend, was protesting his innocence in two languages. The son of a bitch. The jerk. The arsonist. It was all Delaney could do to keep from wading in and kicking him in the ribs.
He never gave a thought as to what he was going to do with the Mexican once he caught him—that didn’t matter. None of it mattered. All that mattered was this, was finding him, rooting him out of his burrow and counting his teeth and his toes and the hairs on his head and noting it all down for the record.
He was beyond cursing, beyond grieving, numbed right through to the core of him. All that, yes. But when he saw the white face surge up out of the black swirl of the current and the white hand grasping at the tiles, he reached down and took hold of it.