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The Coyote Symbol in “Tortilla Curtain”

A “coyote” is someone who profits 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 food and work on the fringes of an upscale white neighborhood. Boyle also uses Delaney Mossbacher’s attitude toward the coyotes to both parallel and foreshadow his waning sympathy for illegal immigrants. Finally, he uses coyote attacks as a metaphor for white insecurity.

Although coyotes are mentioned several times in the opening chapters, it’s not until Chapter Three that their metaphorical role 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 still 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 before 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 choose. He opposes gating the community and building a wall to keep them out. However, the inevitable building of the wall is foreshadowed by his decision to erect an even higher fence to thwart the coyotes.

Throughout the novel, parallels are drawn between the coyotes and Candido, who represents all illegal immigrants. After his dog’s death, Delaney blames the people 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 Candido raids a dumpster, retrieving the red-and-white striped boxes of chicken to feed himself and America. Then there is the scene in which America spots a coyote and stares at it “so long and so hard that she began to hallucinate, to imagine herself inside those eyes looking out” (179). Her identification with the coyote reinforces Boyle’s symbolism. Another parallel is drawn in Delaney’s second column, when he writes of coyotes who gnaw through irrigation pipes for water. By the end of the novel, Candido has assumed the characteristics of a coyote: diverting water from a sprinkler system, stealing from yards and, most dramatically, eating 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 higher fences are not a solution. He still opposes trapping the animals, but now admits that “some sort of control must be applied” (212). While he hesitates to “blame” the coyotes and acknowledges the benefits they bring, he “can’t help thinking too of the missing pets, the trail of suspicion, the next baby left unattended on the patio” (215). Now that coyotes (and Mexicans) have affected him directly, his idealistic attitude is shaken. On a parallel track, his neighbors have decided that the Mexicans must be controlled, and their solution is to gate the community and destroy the Labor Exchange. Delaney seems to address both problems when he writes, “we cannot eradicate the coyote, nor can we fence him out” (214). However, 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 Candido in particular.

By using the coyote to symbolize the Mexicans, Boyle creates a subtext linking animal rights to the rights of illegal immigrants. To many Americans, the Mexicans are no better than coyotes: unwelcome, sneaky scavengers who steal and cause damage. It’s easy to demonize both the humans and the animals even though they’re just trying to survive. This is the case with Candido and America, well-intentioned but irrefutable law-breakers who cause massive destruction by inadvertently starting a fire. Boyle asks if we can judge them for trying to survive any more than we can judge coyotes for eating our pets. He also shows that traps and walls are not the answer. The Tortilla Curtain offers no solution for the problems of illegal immigration. It simply illustrates the situation’s complexities.

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