Emigrating to All Points West: The Novelistic Complexity of Immigration


Whatever one thinks of President Obama’s recent comments on immigration policy, for the past two decades, the controversy over immigration has stalked American politics and popular culture. Driven by a marked need for labor, the post 1973 period witnessed a collapse of the “grand bargain” – frequently referred to as Fordism – established between employers and labor. While Mexican labor in the US, most notably represented by the Bracero Program (1942-1964, but soon followed by the Border Industrial Program) served to augment the nation’s laboring needs, the shift away form Fordism to neoliberal economic policies meant this migrating labor served to compete with American labor flows. The explosion of Mexican labor in the US belies this fact. For example, 1960 America claimed only 4 million Mexican American/Mexicans, by 1970 it had increased to 5.4 million, but by 1980, it nearly doubled to almost 9 million. The passage of the IRCA in 1986, continuing labor needs, and the early free trade agreement of NAFTA spurred increased immigration such that by early 2000s, over 30 million Mexican Americans and Mexicans resided in the US.

Over the past two decades, the passage of NAFTA drove millions of Mexicans North. In reality, NAFTA represented an extension of the BIP program, which resulted in demographic and income shifts within Mexico. Consequently, maquiladora’s on the northern Mexican border expanded, bringing with them labor (increasingly female as well, which Saskia Sassen has argued produces female workers who after several years of employment no longer fit into Mexican society while remaining outside of US conceptual borders as well.)

In this context, T.C Boyle’s novel Tortilla Curtain attempts to recast the twentieth’s century conclusion in Steinbeckian terms. However, unlike Steinbeck’s “okies” who established a sense of community in the work camps, Boyle’s Mexican migrants struggle, attempting to live off the urban landscape of Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon. Neoliberalilsm’s power to dissolve even the bonds of migrants proves overwhelming. There are no itinerant preachers with the initials of J.C. no Tom Joads fighting for the poor. No instead, Boyle provides a vision of downward brutality as those at the bottom victimize one another to get marginally ahead. Candido and America Rincon provide Boyle with his migrant characters. Candido’s survival techniques lay not in the mutualista tradition of America’s immigrant communities, but an atomized individualism: “In times of extremity, his father said, when you’re lost or hungry or in danger, ponte pared, make like a wall. That is you present a solid unbreachable surface, you show nothing, neither fear nor despair, and you protect the inner fortress yourself from all comers.” Moreover, one need only look to the names of Boyle’s Mexican protagonists Candido and America for further proof. Candido, like his enlightenment namesake, encounters set back after set back , endeavoring on with diminished returns, while America, Candido’s young pregnant teenage wife, endures harsh work conditions and rape at the hands of fellow migrants, illustrating the demons of twentieth century migration. New York Times reviewer Scott Spencer dutifully acknowledged one of the novel’s strengths: “Mr. Boyle is convincing, and even stirring, in his telling of Candido and America’s story, bringing to it an agitprop artist’s perspective on both society’s injustices and the cold implacability of the privileged classes, as well as a Brechtian vision of how those cast to the bottom of society blindly victimize one another.” This idea of downward victimization finds expression through migrants themselves as Candido first objects to his wife’s attempts at securing work: “He considered that scenario – his wife, a barefoot girl from the country who didn’t know a thing about the world, out here among all those lowlifes who’d do anything for a buck – or a woman – and he didn’t like it. He knew them. Street bums who couldn’t keep their hands in their pockets, sweaty campesinos from Guerro and Chiapas who’d grown up abusing their livestock, indios from Guatemala and Honduras: coochie-coochie and hey baby then the kissing noises.” (27)

Though Tortilla Curtain’s publication followed closely on the heels of NAFTA’s passage, it successfully illustrates many of its results. For example, if NAFTA increased trade between Mexico and the US, it also increased Mexican immigration, both internally to Mexico’s northern states and externally to the United States. However, NAFTA’s construction rested on logic that ignored obvious developments. Patricia Fernandez Kelly and Douglass Massey point this out in 2007 for the Journal Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science in an article entitled “Borders for Whom?” “In sum, the narrow interests of financial, industrial, and policy elites on both sides of the border did less for workers in either country than for the consolidation of a new and powerful binational class of professionals, investors, managers, and politicians. The stated objectives of NAFTA—economic development in Mexico and balanced growth throughout North America—were from the outset opposite those actually implemented, which served narrow economic and political interests rather than the welfare of ordinary Mexicans or Americans.” (106) The increased border regulation failed to reduce the number of migrants while encouraging those who reached to the US to stay longer. If Mexican US labor migration long proved cyclical, the increasingly strict border “control” encouraged “undocumented” settlement within the US, which in turn contributed to social and economic frictions that emerged in the late 1990s and 2000s, so clearly present in Tortilla Curtain. Candido and America make no mention of this, instead, suffering the privation of such labor flows.

Boyle contrasts these characters with the upper middle class couple of Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, who care a great deal more about their dogs than Mexicans. Kyra sees no problem in berating strangers for keeping their dogs in cars with the window closed but exhibits almost no sympathy for migrants. For example, when patronizing a local 7-11 type convenience store, that also seems to be a local site for picking up undocumented day laborers, Kyra views the migrant workers suspiciously, enacting a psycho sexual drama in her head, “all the men stared at her, some boldly, some furtively. If this were Tijuana they’d be grabbing for her, making lewd comments, jeering and whistling, but here they didn’t dare, here they wanted to be conspicuous only to the right people, the people who needed cheap labor for the day, the afternoon, the hour. She imagined them trading apocryphal stories of the beautiful gringa who selected the best built man for a special kind of work, and tried to keep a neutral look on her face.” (158) As already noted, Candido, himself a migrant labor, harbored similar views of his fellow undocumented workers, while America suffered sexual violations at the hands of two such individuals. One might suggest Boyle brushes quite broadly with this theme, perhaps too broadly.

In terms of the depth of the Mossbacher marriage bond, Boyle lays out the ties that bind in their relationship, “They were both perfectionists, … they abhorred clutter. They were joggers, nonsmokers, social drinkers, and if not full blown vegetarians, people who were conscious of their intake of animal fats. Their memberships included the Sierra Club, Save the Children, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Democratic Party. They preferred the contemporary look to Early American or kitsch. In religious matters, they were agnostic.” (34) The ultimate white yuppie pairing, Delaney even writes for nature magazines, while Kyra works the punishing Los Angeles real estate market. Of course, Boyle’s characterization of the couple and their subsequent adventures (Spencer labeled them “unremarkable” at that) juxtaposed with those of Candido and America Rincon, reveal an obvious divide between the two couples, however, as Spencer argues, Boyle’s absolute contempt for the Mossbachers surges throughout the novel, leading the New York Times reviewer to suggest puzzlement at the author’s strategy: “Why are we being asked to follow the fates of characters for whom he clearly feels such contempt? Not surprisingly, this is ultimately off-putting.” Writes Spencer, “Perhaps Mr. Boyle has received too much praise for his zany sense of humor; in this book, that wit often seems merely a maddening volley of cheap shots. It’s like living next door to a gun nut who spends all day and half the night shooting at beer bottles. “

The New York Times critic has a point. Delaney Mossbacher fancies himself a “liberal humanist,” which should be the first sign of the author’s contempt. Who would ever identify themselves as such after say the eighteenth century? It comes as no surprise when Delaney devolves into a nativist bent on driving the local Mexicans from his neighborhood. Inevitably the liberalness of the Mossbachers comes to represent the false openmindedness of Los Angeles’ “limousine liberals,” whom once their precious lifestyles become threatened, retreat into the same false cocoon of gated communities and ten foot walls.

One of the problems with Boyle’s vision is the dichotomy created between the Rincon’s and Mossbachers? What about long settled Mexican Americans? How do they view immigration and the subsequent laws passed to regulate it? It would seem that in the cacophonous diversity of Los Angeles, Mr. Boyle might have tried to add several touches of grey to the story. This is not to say the novel ignores nuance, but if fails to pursue it adequately. Like an Ayn Rand work, on some level, characters seem to represent archetypes rather than real people. Granted, the same might be said of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a polemic that sometimes bruises the reader with its message.

In contrast, Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian addresses an immigration flow less often discussed, that of Eastern Europeans to England, specifically Ukranians. More humorous than Tortilla Curtain, A Short History of Tractors also employs middle class protagonists, the sisters Vera and Nadezhda Mayevska, who though long feuding, unite in an attempt oust a recent familial interloper, their elderly father’s thirty something Ukranian wife, Valentina. Long settled in the UK, the Mayevska’s emigrated 40 years earlier, away from the forced tragedies of communist rule. Vera and Nadezhda represent the very population Boyle ignores in Tortilla Curtain, yet their view of their father’s new bride remains harsh: “I catch the distinct synthetic whiff of New Russia.” (2) Nadezhda, ten years younger than her sister Vera, did not have to endure Soviet ruled Ukraine or the horrid labor camps that Stalin established for his own people. Consequently, her older sister and father’s political outlooks reflect such, as Vera exemplifies a steely eyed Darwinian philosophy, frequently mocking Nadezhda’s own more liberal leanings, “The Triumph of the human spirit?” Vera snorts. “My dear, that is charming but quite naïve! Let me tell you, the human spirit is mean and selfish; the only impulse is to preserve itself. Everything else is pure sentimentality.” (230).


Unsurprisingly, Valentina’s rapacious behavior, demanding the accoutrements of Western life, results in the feminist Nadezhda abandoning some of her own principles in an attempt to have the British authorities annul the marriage, shipping Valentina and her boy Stanislav back to the Ukraine, “Pappa, why should I give money for you to spend on this grasping deceitful painted ….” Bitch bitch, bitch! I think. But my feminist mouth won’t say it” (92). As a Washington Post reviewer points out, Valentina represents the stereotypical conception of Eastern European women, corrupted both by unrestrained capitalism and an almost amoral communist past, “’No car! No jewel! No clothes! (She pronounces it in two syllables — cloth-es.) No cosmetic! No underclothes!’ She yanks up her T-shirt top to display those ferocious breasts bursting like twin warheads out of an underwire, ribbon-strapped Lycra-panelled lace-trimmed green satin rocket launcher of a bra.” (89) Again, the sexuality of immigrants emerges. However, here at least, Valentina had to ruin her reputation among the local Ukrainian community before she’s cast out. In Tortilla Curtain, no such community seems to exist meaning that while Boyle provides glimpses of Mexican American residents, no communal opinion (or even the debates within such groupings over the issue) visibly emerges. Furthermore, the role of immigrant sexuality emerges once again. If Boyle portrayed undocumented male Mexican migrants as aggressive sexual predators, Lewycka falls back on the equally gender specific Eastern European gold digger harlot whose entrance into the lives of the Mayevskj family, Nadezdha famously describes as akin to a “fluffy pink grenade.” (1)

A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian, like Tortilla Curtain, has its critics. Chicago Tribune critic Laura Ciolkowski argued that the book’s characters “never finally become three dimensional” and that such a rendering never provides the necessary lens from which to delve into the “the deeper, richer story of postwar Russia and the immigrant experience in the West that is at the heart of the Mayevskya family drama.” The Guardian’s Andrey Kurkov took an even more critical stance, “the novel is not so much written as constructed, and the same can be said of the characters. Just about everyone portrayed in it inspires the sympathy of the reader except the Ukrainians, legal and illegal. What we see are caricatures. Valentina’s enormous breasts are mentioned dozens of times. Her bad taste in clothes (she has a passion for green satin underwear) and her dislike of cooking are exploited in the same way. She is more like a rubber doll than a real person. The old man is almost always seen in pyjamas or naked, as a symbol of the impotence of old age . . . Reading this novel gave me the impression that I had read a school textbook on Ukrainian history with one eye on an episode of Coronation Street.”

Granted, the parallels between the two examples of immigration do not line up neatly. The history of communism and the rise of the EU demonstrate numerous differences between the two examples. However, a cursory examination of news articles reveals a very similar dynamic. For example, an August 26, 2006 Economist article explains fears expressed by numerous EU members regarding Romanian and Bulgarian memberships ranging from lower wages to increased dependency by native born EU residents on the dole:

Although the macroeconomic impact of the newcomers appears benign, it has distributional consequences that are increasingly worrying Labour MPs. Almost four-fifths of the arrivals who have registered for work earn an hourly rate of between £4.50 ($8.50) and £6. By contrast, less than a fifth of the overall working population earn less than £6 an hour. John Denham, a former minister, says that the new arrivals have halved wages for builders in his Southampton constituency.

Both he and Frank Field, another influential Labour backbencher, also worry that the migrants will undermine attempts to get people off benefit and back to work. “If you have a choice between hiring someone who has been on incapacity benefit with a mental health problem for five years, or a young, fit Pole, who are you going to go for?” asks Mr Denham.” (Economist, “Second Thoughts,” August 24, 2006).

Other worries included nearly identical refrains heard frequently on American shores concerning the burdening of public sector: “Although few of the new workers have brought families with them so far, some local authorities are starting to complain about increased demands. In Slough, the council says that one of its primary schools has recently taken in 50 Polish children in a single term. And because the new migrants have spread out, rather than clustering in London and a couple of other big cities as previous waves have done, their effect is being felt all round the country.” (Economist, “Second Thoughts,” August 24, 2006) Like the United States, Britain opened its labor markets to newcomers more so than other EU members. In fact, Britain provided the only large market example.

Undoubtedly, Mexican-US immigration is not a replica of its Eastern European-EU counterpart, yet some similarities remain undeniable. The pressure of immigration can confound even the most liberal members of society; after all, it’s very easy for professors, graduate students, and professionals to extol its virtues. None of them compete with these emigrating labor forces. While Arizona’s recent laws have rightly sparked outrage and economic boycotts, there remains the sticky truth that some of immigration’s consequences can be harsh, especially for some of America’s most vulnerable workers. The same can be said for the EU. With the possibility of future Turkish membership (a Muslim nation of over 70 million in a political/economic entity that defines itself through a kind of secular Christianity), one might argue that Turkish labor flows represent a better analogy to the Mexico-America example. Perhaps, the combined efforts of Houston’s interfaith effort this past July 4th points to a more positive future as religious clergy across the city emphasized the need for America and Americans to reevaluate their problematic policies attitudes toward immigration. As Reverend James Bankston of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church implored his parishoners to reconsider their conception of U.S. immigration, he acknowledged that “Knowing how to live with neighbors in our world is never easy.” Indeed.

Ryan Reft

[Editor’s note: the author is ½ Ukrainian-Polish.]

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