Scandinavian Mexicans

I’m reading The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle that was kindly provided to me by reader el and peeing myself with laughter. The book is not supposed to be funny because it’s supposedly about the suffering of illegal Mexican immigrants. I keep saying “supposed” because this author has either never seen a Mexican or has and is taking the piss.

These Mexican characters have the temperament, the communication skills and the emotional range that makes them look downright Finnish. They sit there, alone and in complete silence, terrified of any human contact, incapable of connecting with anybody, struggling for hours with the unbearable task of saying a word to other illegal Mexican immigrants.

Of course, portraying illegal immigrants as emotionally stunted and communicationally challenged makes them look a lot more pathetic. Mexicans in this novel are barely human. This obviously ridiculous way of writing about them tells us nothing whatsoever of Mexicans and everything about the culture that produces and consumes this kind of novels.

I’ve only a third of the novel in but I definitely recommend. I saw in online reviews that this is standard fare in highschool English classes, and that explains an enormous lot.

13 thoughts on “Scandinavian Mexicans”

  1. “Mexicans in this novel are barely human”

    My theory is that people embrace this kind of thing because it embodies what the majority culture wants from the nationality in question. US opinion makers like their Mexicans to be stoic and silent and so utterly wretched that underpaying them to do yardwork or housework can pass for “a better life”.

    I’m reminded of watching the movie Macario a number of years ago with a couple of friends (gringos but with ample experience in Latin America).

    “One thing is for sure” said one “whoever wrote this has never met any Mexican”.


    1. Absolutely. The rugged individualism of frontiersmen that is attributed to these Mexican characters is like portraying a bunch of gregarious, ultra social, extremely upbeat Russians. The author is trying to ridicule “clueless Americans” but ends up being more clueless than any of his characters.


      1. “is like portraying a bunch of gregarious, ultra social, extremely upbeat Russians”

        Or my favorite, Russians as cold, ruthless and hyper-competent spinners of elaborate clockwork plans (see cold war American movies or House of Cards of Okkupert….)


        1. That Russian president on HofC! Brilliant, talented, courteous, and tall. If Russians had a president like that, it would be a dream. The scenes with President Petrov were the funniest for us.


        2. Okkupert is funny in more ways than one. What you mentioned, Cliff, is at least easily explainable, by Baltic people playing the Russians.
          But Norwegian “greens” abandoning production of oil and gas in favor of nuclear energy? Where on Earth has one ever seen such “greens” that are in favor of nuclear energy?
          Russians, instead of experiencing extreme joy due to the disappearance of one of their main competitors, occupy Norway in order to … restore oil supplies to Europe?..
          Russians occupiers releasing the guy who tried to assassinate the Russian ambassador just because their Norwegian secret services contact convinced then that he worked alone?


          1. Yeah, the Russians being unhappy about the ceasing of the Norwegian oil production was easily the most ridiculous idea ever. All it tells me is that Norwegians have one hell of a weird relationship with their oil.


          2. “occupy Norway in order to … restore oil supplies to Europe?..”

            I had always assumed that it was a case of Russians looking to eventually turn Norway into a Russian vassal state a la Warsaw Pact which their European allies would ignore until it was too late.

            But… then the whole show was a metaphor about the modern West-European tendency to deny problems exist until they become full-fledged rolling crises so the Russians weren’t …. Russians they were “ominous portent” that Europeans were trying to utilize while pretending they didn’t exist.


  2. “The book is not supposed to be funny because it’s supposedly about the suffering of illegal Mexican immigrants.”

    The novel is supposed to be outrageously funny with Boyle using irony as the main literary vehicle and methodically creating a net of ironic parallels between the two couples. Were you not amused by his portrayal of the American couple and their friends, making your laughter utterly an inintended consequence of the author’s efforts?

    Would be interesting to hear your final analysis after finishing the book. Then I’ll share my take too , unafraid of spoilers.

    “I’ve only a third of the novel in but I definitely recommend.”


    “I saw in online reviews that this is standard fare in highschool English classes, and that explains an enormous lot.”

    It is studied in German school system and supposedly in other EU countries too, while in America it’s studied less and seen as controversial since the author was criticized for writing from pov of Mexicans by some Liberal readers. I forgot the term defining the problem, if it exists. I suppose it’s not cultural appropriation (the only term I remember now), but speaking instead of minorities while presenting them via Western privileged eyes. You did criticize incorrect representation too, but I suspect many of the above critics didn’t notice this aspect.

    Am unsure what it explains except the widespread ignorance arising partly from the difficulty of learning correct information about undocumented workers from literature. Have you seen correct portrayals in literature?

    It may also partly explain the way many Germans viewed migrants from the Middle East and Africa immediately before and after Merkel opened the gates. If that’s the only portrayal their authority figures present to them, the weird to me mainstream German narrative becomes slightly more understandable.


    1. I love it when I have somebody to discuss what I’m reading.

      The part about “clueless American liberals” I don’t find very interesting because it’s been done a million times. Jonathan Frantzen made a career out of this kind of thing.

      What I like is the enormous irony of the author trying to demonstrate how there are too many Mexicans, there is such an enormous number of Mexicans, they are everywhere, they are swarming, they are under every stone. In the meanwhile, all this plethora of Mexicans still in no way helped the authors himself to notice the first thing about them.

      I’m not surprised it’s popular in Germany because rolling eyes at “American hypocrisy” is a pastime that never disappoints.

      Thank you for the book! I’m truly enjoying it.


    2. ” Have you seen correct portrayals in literature?”

      For myself, I’d recommend “Mexican Voices American Dreams: An Oral History of Mexican Immigration to the United States” By Marilyn Davis who was doing some kind of dry economic anthropology research in a rural Mexican village when she realized there was a much bigger story going on right under her nose and she decided to start documenting it.

      The people in it (on both sides of the border) sound like real human beings. They’re not paragons of virtue and they’re not dysfunctional criminals. They are sometimes misinformed and sometimes misguided but they seem relatable to real Latin Americans I’ve known.

      It’s dated (before the massive rise of maquiladoras from NAFTA or the recent drug wars) but it’s a valuable beginning text to understand Mexican migration from the inside.


      1. Even if you read nothing and never met a Mexican in your life, it’s just simple logic. What are the chances that a guy who has spent a better part of a decade working in the US and crossing the border constantly knows absolutely nobody whatsoever in the country, has made no friends, has established no links, and can turn to nobody for help? Even the most unsociable person in the universe is bound to meet somebody after 10 years. And it’s not like he’s in North Dakota. He is in California! It’s really not that hard to find a Spanish-speaker.

        If you are a Mexican, with a pregnant wife, and literally starving, what are the chances you won’t head straight to a church in a Spanish speaking neighborhood? Why would you, instead, sit alone and starve in a ravine?


        1. “Why would you, instead, sit alone and starve in a ravine?”

          Isn’t that the persistent problem of do-gooder literature? The characters have to be absolute morons to find themselves in such unlikely circumstances….


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