A Tale of Two Families

We’ve been experiencing Tortilla Curtain in reverse. Tortilla Curtain is a T. Coraghassen Boyle novel about two couples who happen to live on the same street in a Southern California suburb: a yuppie couple in an ostentatious house, and a couple of undocumented immigrants in a hidden tent in the nearby canyon. There is a car accident that brings them together and then everyone fulfills the expected stereotypes. The yuppies are narcissistic and unintentionally cruel; the undocumented Mexicans are noble and tragic. The book gets on my nerves, but my students tend to love it.

The part of the novel that came true, for us, is that one of our neighbors is an undocumented immigrant and we didn’t know him til a car accident brought us together. But this time it was the Mexican man who was the bad driver. He lived 3 doors away, it turns out, in a house crowded with single men. He was driving home from work at a restaurant, so drunk that he was weaving across lanes of the highway, alarming other motorists enough that they had already called 911 by the time he got off the highway, still going too fast, and crashed through our fence.

We were inside, at the time, but the cops actually got to our backyard before we did. The driver was too drunk to get out of his car. The driver gave me the stink-eye more clearly than anyone else ever has, so I kept back and let the cops talk to him.

He had a chihuahua on his lap, oddly, and one cop walked the little dog home. The dog’s name was Jefe.

The driver was undocumented, so he had no driver’s license, but he did have insurance. The cops told us this is normal: they say undocumented folks actually take extra steps to follow the law. The cops arrested him — it wasn’t his first DUI — and eventually kept him in jail almost 6 weeks before deporting him to Tijuana. I felt badly about that. If a U.S. citizen drove through my fence, would he have gone to jail for 6 weeks?

Actually, I happen to know the answer: the first time someone drove through our fence, it was a 19-year-old white boy who had been driving his dad’s car too fast. He walked himself home, no problem. His dad threatened to kill him, so he walked back to our house and asked for my help running away from home. You can read about it here.

This time, the family of the bad driver had a very different reaction. The drunk driver had been driving his brother’s car. His brother, Joel, left an apology note on our door. Then Joel called to ask if he could pay us directly for the fence, instead of going through his insurance and hiking his insurance rates. Joel didn’t seem to mind that his brother was still in jail: “You do what you can for your brother, but some people can’t be helped,” he said. He asked how much he owed us.

We told him that, if he wanted, he could hire someone to fix the fence. We figured, since it’s his money, he’s probably the best negotiator. He said, actually, his brother-in-law has a contracting business, so could his brother-in-law do it? Of course.

And so a half-dozen Mexican brothers and their father rebuilt our fence. I don’t know if they actually were contractors, but they did as fine a job as the insurance guys did the last time through.

There were moments of awkwardness, along the way, the awkwardnesses of cultural differences: they said they’d be there at 2pm one Saturday and didn’t show up til 7pm that day. They didn’t return our phone-calls for 2 weeks, once, because, as Joel’s wife told me later, “You kept leaving message in English. So we figured it must be Joel’s boss. We didn’t even listen to the messages, just told Joel to call his boss.” Her English was, ironically, good enough to tell me that they generally don’t bother listening to messages in English.

But mostly, the awkwardness was that we felt badly to see them all working so hard, for several days, always late at night after their work at other jobs that probably weren’t any easier. I didn’t want to be the obnoxious white yuppies in Tortilla Curtain. We kept bringing them food, water, beer. These men were working so hard to fix the mistake of a brother who — Joel told us — hadn’t even phoned him from jail.

And it occurred to me that someone else might view this story’s moral as: “See? Illegal immigrants break laws and endanger our families.” But that’s not how I see it. I see it as: See? This was one incredibly strong family, working astoundingly valiantly to correct the mistake of one alcoholic family-member.

We have now petitioned our city to install traffic-calming measures on our corner. And we called up another Mexican man, a guy-with-a-truck who brings us all our gardening materials. He brought us some decorative, defensive rocks.


One response to “A Tale of Two Families

  1. Dinorah

    Awesome post, Elaine! How does the saying go, “You can choose your friends but not your family”? I have read Tortilla Curtain and was profoundly affected by it though I haven’t been able to articulate this clearly in words.

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