Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Fruitless Divide

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Walk into any car dealership and you'll see it rows of gleaming, airtight, sanctuaries from the noisy, uncontrollable chaos of the world, its people, and its elements. Each vehicle, with its climate controlled, surround sound equipped cockpit, is a refuge of control in an insecure world. So are houses, and so are answering machines, where we screen out the riff-raff solicitors and other individuals we would rather avoid. Today's America is composed of a series of walls, barricades, and borders, each designed to afford some greater level of protection from outsidersthat great, generic expanse of undesirables whom we'd just as soon not have to reckon with. And yet, somehow, given enough impetus, that telemarketer selling a special deal on home delivery of the local tribune always seems to get you live, caught off guard. The ,000-mile southern divide that separates the United States from Mexico is no exception. In The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, Angelinos Kyra and Delaney Mossbacher lie at the center of a group of concentric communities, each wrestling with illegal immigration. Each escalates its border policing to extremesall for naught. Whatever the extent of the isolationist tactic, the outside world is always able to sneak in. For the Mossbachers, their home in suburban development Arroyo Blanco, and the US at large, constructing borders is an exercise in futility.

While the Mossbachers continually reinforce the integrity of the barrier surrounding their backyard, it remains permeable to creatures with the incentive to enter. When the couple first arrives in Arroyo Blanco, they invest in six feet of chain link fence to protect their yard from the wild animals in the surrounding chaparral. Despite this measure, nature finds its way into the enclosure with grisly results.

He flung open the door and shot through the courtyard, head down, rounding the corner of the house just in time to see a dun-colored blur scaling the six foot chain-link fence with a tense white form clamped in its jaws. His brain decoded the image a coyote had managed to get into the enclosure and seize one of the dogs, and there it was, wild nature, up and over the fence as if this were some sort of circus act. (7)

A coyote, seeing a source of food in the middle of its otherwise unforgiving habitat, adapts to counter the protection afforded by the fence. In doing so, it makes off with one of the Mossbacher's matching terriers. Furious at the invasion of an unexpected element, the family responds by replacing the vulnerable fence with a new, eight-foot barrier, complete with a subterranean net to deter any creature burrowing under the surface. Even with this expensive edifice, history repeats itself

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When he whipped round in his seat, he saw the coyote. It was inside the fence, pressed to the ground, a fearful calculation in its eyes as it stalked the grass to where Osbert [the surviving dog] lay sprawled in the shade of a potted palm. […] He watched in absolute stupefaction as the animal swept across the grass in five quick strides, snatched the dog up by the back of the neck and hit the fence on the fly. […] The coyote scaled the fence, rung by rung, as if it were a ladder, and flew from the eight foot bar at the top. (14)

Again, the coyote's desire for the meal waiting within the confines of the fence drives the animal to breech the backyard. Even in the face of the tall fence and the wary presence of potentially dangerous humans, the demi-dog's need to eke out a livelihood overrides its fear. Though the Mossbachers escalate their war on these invaders, these attempts are insufficient, so long as their yard possesses what the outsiders want. Shaken by the coyote incidents, the couple helps pass a costly measure considered by Arroyo Blanco's homeowner's association that creates a cinderblock and stucco wall around the development. Regardless of its expense and virtually impregnable construction, unwelcome visitors continue to break through the barricade to acquire items on the other side. Candido Rincon, a Mexican illegal who, through terrible misfortune, must fight off starvation with his wife and newborn daughter in a ramshackle hut near Arroyo Blanco, is forced to enter the Mossbacher's yard.

…And then he saw something a whole lot more interesting a stepladder. An aluminum one. Right there against the wall. In a heartbeat, he was up over the top and scrambling along the of the outside wall, […] darting on past the plastic sheeting until he found the dog's dishes and the scrap of carpet and tucked them under his armand fuck the dog, he hated that dog, and fuck the fat lady who owned him too; they could buy another dish, another carpet, and who cared if a poor unlucky man and his wife and daughter died of want right under their noses. (06)

Candido, desperate for the most basic supplies, braves the danger and difficulty of breaking into the Mossbacher's backyard. While the wall represents a sophisticated defense structure, it is no match for Candido's desire to live. The wall fails in its most basic purposeto keep the outside from getting in. The futility of the Mossbacher's fence mirrors Arroyo Blanco as a whole.

The wealthy suburban development at the top of Topanga canyon attempts to sequester itself from urban, integrated Los Angeles to increasingly extreme extents. Despite this effort, economic demand keeps poor, job hungry immigrants flowing into the community. In the same day that a new gate springs up at the development's entrance to prevent outsiders from entering, a resident importer drives Candido's wife America into Arroyo Blanco to take advantage of her cheap, dedicated labor.

They went through a gatetwo broad pastel-colored steel grids that swung back automatically as the car approached. The gate hadn't been there in the morningAmerica was sure of that. […] She remembered seeing half a dozen of her own people there, with picks and shovels and a cement mixershe thought she recognized one of the men from the labor exchange. (5)

While the new gate further isolates Arroyo Blanco from the outside world, it remains accessible to the wave of expendable Latino day labor the residents demand. The Arroyo Blanco homeowners are so addicted to the economic advantages of poor immigrants, they hire the same people to build the gate that the structure is intended to keep out. Later, the same laborers enter to build the supposedly people-proof stucco wall encircling the community. The Mossbacher residence is among the last to be sectioned off.

The man in the T-shirt was watching him closely. "The wall," he said. "My people are going to need access."

The wall. Of course. [Delaney] 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. (4)

The fantastically obtrusive and expensive wall can't keep economic pressures from forcing the laborers in. Within the confines of Arroyo Blanco reside jobs and willing employers, and outside wait vast numbers of employees, hungry to pounce on any occupation. On a grander scale, the same pressures that push coyotes into the Mossbacher's yard and Mexican day laborers into Arroyo Blanco compel illegal immigrants to enter the US.

Even as the US as a whole creates a denser shield around its southern border, illegal immigrants seeking the economic opportunities in America repeatedly thwart INS enforcement. While immigration policing becomes more intense though Candido's life, he and other immigrants continue to return to the states by illegal means. For him, the economic benefits proves alluring enough to convince him to take the riskin America, "in nine months he had made moreand sent half of it home via girosthan his father in his leather shop had made in a lifetime."(50) As a younger man, Candido travels easily through the pre Operation Gatekeeper border. He is later caught in an INS raid. When Candido runs from the immigration officers, the ensuing chase leads to the brutal death of two young illegals that follow him. Nevertheless, the damage this enforcement wreaks does nothing to curb immigration.

…[Candido] sprang out into traffic like a cornered rabbit leaping from a cliff to avoid the dogs. The boys followed him, both of them, and they gave up their lives. […] Pulp, that's what those boys werethey were nothing foreverand they could have been back in forty-eight hours. […] Half the people on those buses would be back in a day, back in forty-eight hours, a week. It wasn't worth it. (17)

In the face of the fallout of the INS's attempt at enforcement, the immigrants' desire to work and earn a living drives them to continue crossing unabated. Years later, when America and Candido cross the border together, the newly enhanced "Gatekeeper" barricades force the couple to hire a smuggler to lead them across the desert into the US. When the smuggler betrays them, they are robbed and deported.

And then the animals jumped them. Just like that. A gang of them, armed with knives, baseball bats and a pistol. […] in that hot, subterranean darkness, they went for her. But then, just as the first one loosened his belt, taking his time, enjoying it, the helicopter came with its lights and suddenly it was bright as day […] Twenty minutes later she was back on the other side of the fence."(5-60)

Though the billion-dollar border enforcement causes the couple terrible suffering, it is useless. So strong is Candido and America's drive to obtain what is readily available on the other side of the barricade, they simply pick themselves upnow scarred and pennilessand try again. On their second attempt, they break through, despite helicopter patrols, thieves, and deserts. Their incentive to cross the border is such that, try as the INS might, augmenting enforcement is ultimately destructive and futile.

The borders that the various communities in The Tortilla Curtain create are uselessthe simultaneously create a climate of terror on both sides of the divide and do nothing to curb the problem they intended to solve. The only result of these measures is further antagonism. They run counter to the primordial forces of nature, of diffusion and entropy in which every structure yearns towards disorganized mixing. So why do we, as a culture, as a species, rally behind them? The meaning behind the walls we all build in our lives can be distilled into two simple definitions they are either patches for the problems we can't fix through other means or patches for the problems we refuse to fix through other means. Of course we can't control the weather, and so roofs and walls sprang into being to shelter us from the temperamental elements. However, Americans often fixate on walls of the other variety. We create walls to shield ourselves from trouble without ever considering its root causes. We become obsessed with applying quick fixes to the world rather than identifying the larger issue behind the problems that affect us directly. While this strategy provides us temporary comfort and relief, it is about as useful as burying our heads in the ground. For as the quick fixes crumble, the problems they masked only become more potent and dangerous. Such is the impact of our national strategy to control illegal immigration. We see waves of impoverished people flowing over our border to seek a living in the world's wealthiest country, and we ask, "how do we block them?" Few people ask, "why are they impoverished?"

Only by confronting this issue can we end the hateful cycle evidenced in The Tortilla Curtain. Only by confronting this issue can we fully understand illegal immigration and by recognizing the humanity of the amorphous, demonized mass we lump into a vast "them" category. And only then can we solve the problems that no wall, even one composed of six feet of stacked cinderblock and stucco, can solve.

Boyle, T. Coraghessan. The Tortilla Curtain. USA Penguin, 16

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