30 DoB, Day 26: A Book That Changed Your Opinion

Every day when I drive to work, I see them standing to the side of a strip mall parking lot.  Every time I go to the community park in the morning for tennis, they’re clustered near the entrance. They are day workers, almost certainly every one of them in the country illegally.

Thinking about them brings me to the next installment in the 30 Days of Books list.

Day 26 – A book that changed your opinion about something

Before I moved to San Diego from less temperate and tolerant climes, I’d hadn’t given much thought to illegal aliens in the U.S.  Like many, I’d thought “It’s easy. Deport ‘em all!”

It didn’t take many months living here to see how intricately entwined illegal immigrant labor is in Southern California and how easily and conveniently blind-eyes are turned.  About the same time, I read T.C. Boyle’s book The Tortilla Curtain.

The book covers the lives of two couples: Candido and America Rincon (who have entered the country illegally in hopes of starting a better life, especially since America is pregnant) and Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher (well-to-do suburbanites that live in a gated community on Topanga Canyon outside of LA).  The Rincons are living in the canyon when Delaney accidentally hits and injures Candido with his car, and the two couples’ lives become entangled.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle

Boyle adeptly juxtaposes the luxury liberalism of the Anglo couple against the ambition and fear of the immigrants – including Candido’s illiterate machismo.  Their interactions are an avalanche of miscommunications and incorrect assumptions.  The whites don’t trust the latinos, even while thinking of them paternalistically from their compound home. The Rincons distrust any interactions with Americans, certain they are ready to arrest and deport them.

As with his most recent book When The Killing’s Done, Boyle presents a complex subject that has no easy answers and tells a story that is populated with flawed, complex human beings.

I think about The Tortilla Curtain fairly often as I drive past clusters of day workers and it always reminds me that what goes on here is more complex than any pundit or politician bothers to portray it.

This book should be required reading for anyone that moves to Southern California.

10 thoughts on “30 DoB, Day 26: A Book That Changed Your Opinion

  1. Have you ever seen “A Day Without a Mexican”? Your description of this book reminds me of that movie. It’s more of a mocumentary, but not as silly as the Christopher Guest variety. It was good and thought-provoking.

    • Hannah — no I never saw that movie, though I remember it making a big splash around here when it was released. I think that I’ve seen it available streaming on Netflix, so I might have to check it out.

  2. Do you think that people in Tennessee wouldn’t get the same take from Tortilla Curtain? Do you think you have to live in SoCal to “get it”?

    • I’d like to think that in the 15 years that it’s been published that middle America is more cosmopolitan and empathetic towards situations like this — but I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.

  3. When ICE began a series of raids on California businesses that had hired “illegals” four years ago, many of these companies, most of them based in agriculture, had to shut down. The economy of this state depends heavily on them, though as you mention, they are largely invisible to most of us. It would be a lot more humane if this country ‘fessed up and began issuing temporary work permits similar to the German guestworker program. Unfortunately, illegal immigrants are such an easy scapegoat for rising crime rates and the drug trade in border states. They’re like the urban underclass in Dickens’ London: easy to overlook, so necessary to the daily functioning of the city, and so obvious a target for whatever we wish to blame for our society’s shortcomings.

    Good choice again, Steve. I now want to go back and read The Tortilla Curtain.

    • Thanks HG — it’s not a perfect book — there’s a little too much eyebrow-arching cynicism, but it really did hit home for me as I was just getting dunked into the issue (and essentially living as the anglo suburbanites depicted) for the first time.

  4. Sounds good. In comments, I see someone mentioned the day w/o Mexicans film. I’d forgotten about that.
    We don’t have a great deal of Mexicans here: we have the 2nd largest population of Bosnians, though (and other former Soviet “countries”) and there’s a lot of hatred. Again, that’s more in town, not where I live but just doing errands (which have to be in town), I run into loads. People here complain about the way they smell, dress, etc. I keep remembering the daily news reports in the late 80s and early 90s…My hair stylist in Bosnian but “hides” it. She pretends she’s from Germany, so you can tell it’s a problem. Totally different situation (the US “let” these people in as refugees) but people want them all to “go back” plus the culture disconnect.

    • MT — I’ve always loved interacting with people from different places and seeing their cultures become part of America’s. I love learning about different customs and seeing how different people celebrate and commemorate events. It really makes me sad to think that there’s still a big portion of America that’s close-minded about culture.

  5. Interesting. I didn’t really like that book all that much. I wonder if it is because I grew up in this region and I’ve been over all of this ground before. Over and over. To me- the book didn’t give me any new insight. I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t do much for me.

    I liked Enrique’s Journey a lot (a former One Book, One San Diego selection)- I got more insight into what drives people north.

    • It’s interesting because to me the book (and because of moving here) and the topic were pretty new to me. I’d never lived anywhere that took the situation seriously or with any sort of subtlety. As with too many things, people just want a 5-second black/white answer.

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