Through his exploration of the four protagonists’ desires, Boyle presents a unique picture of the frequently invoked “American Dream.” In Boyle’s view, there is a depth to this dream that tends to go unacknowledged. On the surface, the “American Dream” is one of economic prosperity, social mobility, and overall self-sufficiency—goals all firmly rooted in an ideology of individualism. Both of the novel’s main couples desire these aspects of the Dream for themselves. But Boyle shows that underneath these more practical desires, there exists a deeper desire to feel that one has found one’s place within a community. In this way, The Tortilla Curtain shows that an oft-overlooked aspect of the American Dream is the dream of belonging.
As Cándido reflects on his home country of Mexico, he thinks that everybody there wanted, as he did, “a house, a yard, maybe a TV and a car too—nothing fancy, no palaces like the gringos built—just four walls and a roof. Was that so much to ask?” Cándido and América both hope for economic stability in the States, but América also articulates a more complex, emotional aspect of this dream. While in the neighborhood of Canoga Park, waiting alone for her husband, América reflects on how badly she “wanted to belong in one of those houses.” She thinks of how the people who live in those houses “were home, in their own private space, safe from the world.” On the one hand, the desire América expresses here is consistent with the more individualistic and materialistic aspects of the American Dream: she wants privacy, ownership, autonomy. But on a more nuanced level, América’s desire to feel that she belongs speaks to her yearning to feel at home in the United States itself, to not feel like an outsider.
Boyle shows that even Delaney and Kyra, who have ostensibly achieved the Dream, given their affluent lifestyles, experience this deeper longer for a sense of belonging. At a neighborhood meeting that Delaney attends in order to speak about the death of his wife’s dog Sacheverell, he realizes that he doesn’t recognize many of the people in attendance. He experiences a “faint uneasy stirring of guilt” and tells himself “he should be more rigorous about attending these meetings […] he really should.” The only character Delaney claims as a friend is Jack Jardine, whom he initially dislikes due to his openly racist views. These details speak to Delaney’s loneliness and his unspoken yearning to feel that he is actually part of a community, but they further suggest that perhaps his desire to feel a greater sense of belonging fuels the bigotry he increasingly exhibits over the course of the novel. Meanwhile, Kyra’s attachment to the Da Ros house (a property she is attempting to sell) represents a similar need for belonging; Kyra feels more at home at the Da Ros house, it would seem, than anywhere in Arroyo Blanco, as evidenced by the fact that she finds herself daydreaming about never leaving the Da Ros house, “not ever again.” Thus, even the characters who have already attained the superficial aspects of the American Dream hunger for this deeper aspect of it.
Boyle’s depiction of the American Dream exposes the deeper drives and desires that animate what might otherwise seem to be a purely material striving. He suggests that beyond desiring “four walls and a roof” and economic self-sufficiency, Americans of all races and economic classes wish to feel that they belong in their communities, in their families, and in their country.
Belonging and the American Dream ThemeTracker
Belonging and the American Dream 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.
He sat up and railed […] he told her his fears, outlined the wickedness of the gabacho world and the perfidy of his fellow braceros at the labor exchange, tried to work the kind of apprehension into her heart that would make her stay here with him, where it was safe, but she wouldn’t listen. Or rather, she listened—“I’m afraid,” she told him, “afraid of this place and the people in it, afraid to walk out on the street”—but it had no effect.
His skin was light, so light he could almost have passed for one of them, but it was his eyes that gave him away, hard burnished unblinking eyes the color of calf’s liver. He’d been damaged somehow, she could see that, damaged in the way of a man who has to scrape and grovel and kiss the hind end of some irrecusable yankee boss, and his eyes showed it, jabbing out at the world like two weapons. He was Mexican, all right.
A moment ago she’d been out there on the road, exposed and vulnerable—frightened, always frightened—and now she was safe. But the thought of that frightened her too: what kind of life was it when you felt safe in the bushes, crouching to piss in the dirt like a dog? Was that what she’d left Tepoztlán for?
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.
She looked at that coyote so long and so hard that she began to hallucinate, to imagine herself inside those eyes looking out, to know that men were her enemies—men in uniform, men with their hats reversed, men with fat bloated hands and fat bloated necks, men with traps and guns and poisoned bait—and she saw the den full of pups and the hills shrunk to nothing under the hot quick quadrupedal gait. She never moved. Never blinked. But finally, no matter how hard she stared, she realized the animal was no longer there.
The baby moved inside her and her stomach dipped and fluttered. All she wanted was to belong in one of those houses, any of them, even for a night. The people who lived in those houses had beds to stretch out on, they had toilets that flushed and hot and cold running water, and most important of all, they were home, in their own private space, safe from the world.
He felt exultant, infused with a strength and joy that made a mockery of his poverty, his hurts and wants and even the holocaust that had leapt out of his poor cookfire in the depths of the canyon. He had a son, the first of his line, the new generation born on American soil, a son who would have all the gabachos had and more.