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Published: 22-09-2019

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The Coyote Symbol in “Tortilla Curtain”

A “coyote” is someone who earnings from sneaking immigrants across the U.S.-Mexican border. It’s also an animal stereotyped as a scavenging coward. In The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle draws frequent parallels between coyotes prowling the edges of civilization and Mexicans scavenging meals and work on the fringes of an upscale white neighborhood. Boyle also uses Delaney Mossbacher’s attitude toward the coyotes to each parallel and foreshadow his waning sympathy for illegal immigrants. Ultimately, he uses coyote attacks as a metaphor for white insecurity.

Though coyotes are talked about many instances in the opening chapters, it’s not until Chapter Three that their metaphorical function emerges. In this chapter, a coyote climbs Delaney’s fence to steal one of the family’s terriers. The dramatic scene, with the “dun” (brown) coyote holding a “tense white form” clenched in its teeth, metaphorically illustrates white fear of the Mexican immigrants. At this point, Delaney is nevertheless a staunch liberal humanist and animal lover. He feels that coyotes are entitled to be there and that human intrusion and “treating them as amenities” is what causes problems. In the column he writes prior to the attack, he rhapsodizes about the coyotes, calling them “four-legged wonders” and listening to their cries as he might “listen to Mozart or Mendelssohn, lulled by the impassioned beauty of it” (79). This idealistic viewpoint parallels his belief that the illegal immigrants are entitled to be in America and to enter his neighborhood if they select. He opposes gating the neighborhood and creating a wall to maintain them out. Even so, the inevitable creating of the wall is foreshadowed by his decision to erect an even larger fence to thwart the coyotes.

Throughout the novel, parallels are drawn between the coyotes and Cándido, who represents all illegal immigrants. After his dog’s death, Delaney blames the men and women who feed coyotes. He recalls finding a red-and-white striped Kentucky Fried Chicken box left behind someone’s house. Much later in the story, this image resurfaces as Cándido raids a dumpster, retrieving the red-and-white striped boxes of chicken to feed himself and América. Then there is the scene in which América spots a coyote and stares at it “so long and so difficult that she started to hallucinate, to imagine herself inside these eyes searching out” (179). Her identification with the coyote reinforces Boyle’s symbolism. Yet another parallel is drawn in Delaney’s second column, when he writes of coyotes who gnaw through irrigation pipes for water. By the finish of the novel, Cándido has assumed the traits of a coyote: diverting water from a sprinkler method, stealing from yards and, most drastically, consuming the third and last of Delaney’s pets. He fits Delaney’s description of the coyotes as “cunning, versatile, hungry and unstoppable” (215).

By the time Delaney writes his second column, he’s lost his remaining dog to the coyote and knows that greater fences are not a solution. He nevertheless opposes trapping the animals, but now admits that “some sort of control should be applied” (212). Even though he hesitates to “blame” the coyotes and acknowledges the benefits they bring, he “can’t assist considering also of the missing pets, the trail of suspicion, the next baby left unattended on the patio” (215). Now that coyotes (and Mexicans) have impacted him directly, his idealistic attitude is shaken. On a parallel track, his neighbors have decided that the Mexicans have to be controlled, and their resolution is to gate the neighborhood and destroy the Labor Exchange. Delaney seems to address each issues when he writes, “we can not eradicate the coyote, nor can we fence him out” (214). Nonetheless, his ideals are crumbling and by now he’s resigned to both the gate and the wall. By the end of the novel, his resignation turns into hatred of all Mexicans, and Cándido in certain.

By employing the coyote to symbolize the Mexicans, Boyle creates a subtext linking animal rights to the rights of illegal immigrants. To a lot of Americans, the Mexicans are no far better than coyotes: unwelcome, sneaky scavengers who steal and cause damage. It’s effortless to demonize both the humans and the animals even although they’re just trying to survive. This is the case with Cándido and América, properly-intentioned but irrefutable law-breakers who trigger enormous destruction by inadvertently beginning a fire. Boyle asks if we can judge them for trying to survive any more than we can judge coyotes for consuming our pets. He also shows that traps and walls are not the answer. The Tortilla Curtain delivers no resolution for the troubles of illegal immigration. It just illustrates the situation’s complexities.
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