In The Tortilla Curtain T. Coraghessan Boyle tackles an issue which haunts much of the Western world: illegal immigration. Alternating between two couples, one white American, the other Mexican, the novel explores both sides of this difficult question, confronting racism, fear and the moral dilemma of the liberal conscience. Delaney Mossbacher lives on the Arroyo Blanco estate with his wife, Kyra, and her son, Jordan. Delaney is a naturalist working from home and caring for Jordan. Kyra is a real-estate agent, driven by her work, always promising herself more time with her family.
Delaney prides himself on his liberalism but when he injures Candido, an illegal Mexican immigrant on his way back to his pregnant wife at their makeshift camp, the incident triggers a fearful anger in him. Despite Delaney’s reluctance, Arroyo Blanco becomes a gated community. Although happy to use the Mexicans as cheap labour, most of the residents fear them and want them excluded. When a coyote seizes one of Kyra’s dogs, there is further reason to shut out the world. First a fence is erected, followed by a wall when the coyotes continue to invade. Meanwhile Candido and America try desperately to raise a deposit for somewhere to live.
Already robbed and beaten while crossing the boarder, they face a seemingly endless round of setbacks. Their one piece of good luck, a free Thanksgiving turkey, becomes a disaster when the fire Candido lights to cook it results in an inferno. Forced to seek shelter when her waters break, America gives birth in a shed. Since the accident, Delaney’s anger has smouldered, fanned by his and Kyra’s encounters with two Mexicans apparently up to no good on the estate. His liberal conscience has been sorely tried and when he sees Candido again he begins a pursuit that ends in tragedy but with a hand outstretched in help.