The Politics of Tortilla Curtain:
The epigraph, names, title and images
comes from the
Grapes of Wrath.
“They ain't human.
A human being
wouldn't live like they do.
A human being couldn't stand it to be so dirty and miserable.”
This particular quote
comes from chapter 18 of
The Grapes of Wrath.
At this point in Steinbeck's novel, the Joads are in Needles,
California on the Colorado River (they've just buried their grandmother) and a sheriff threatens to run them off if
they're still there tomorrow.
So, the Joads fill up their jalopy at a gas station and start across the desert.
As they pull
away, it's the gas station attendant who says,
(and I'll give you the full quote):
They're all hard-
lookin' / “Jesus, I'd hate to start out in a jalopy like that.”/ “Well, you and me got sense.
Them goddamn Okies got
no sense and no feeling.
They ain't human.
A human being wouldn't live like they do.
A human being couldn't
stand it to be so dirty and miserable.
They ain't a hell of a lot better than gorillas” (196).
By choosing this as an epigraph to his novel, Boyle suggests a correspondence between
Steinbeck's depression era
classic and his own work.
The particular quotation introduces the theme of dehumanization and suggests that Boyle
is writing for a certain audience-- perhaps one like his fictional character Delaney--
angry “liberal humanists,” who
can look at the past sufferings of the Okies with more sympathy than the current sufferings of Mexican laborers.
The epigraph links prejudicial attitudes towards an earlier generation of internal, Anglo-Saxon migrants, to
contemporary prejudices against Mexican day laborers.
This theme of dehumanization--
looking at a group of people as less than human--
is, of course, a form of, or
maybe even a definition of racism.
So Boyle sets this theme in play with the epigraph and one of the main ways he
develops it, right from the opening chapter, is through animal metaphors.
After Delaney hits Candido he thinks,
“The man must have been crouching in the bushes like some feral thing, like a stray dog or a bird-mauling cat . . .
Describing Candido trying to collect himself, Delaney says, “he kicked out his legs like an insect pinned to a
mounting board” (8).
Delaney describes Candido as shaking himself, “like a dog coming out of a bath” (8). Delaney
is not able to see the person he has hit in fully human terms.
And why is that?
Is it just because Candido looks
different, is poor and dirty?
It's more than this. Candido represents a threat to Delaney.
Right from the beginning, Delaney feels like he is the
real victim of the accident.
While he wants “to do the right thing,”
Delaney also feels “like a fish to a lure” (6).
thinks, maybe this is all a plot to rob him or to collect from his insurance.
In addition, Candido represents
group of people who, Delaney believes, are threatening his way of life.
Thus, it is not long before he feels “his guilt