The Synonymous Relationship Between Poverty and Pollution

The Synonymous Relationship Between Poverty and Pollution

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle was first published in 1995 and yet still, in 2017, it possesses a moving narrative of us vs. them that is very prevalent within today’s society. This novel takes on the point of view of two immigrants from Tijuana who are living in the US void of proper citizenship and juxtaposes their daily life struggles with that of an affluent, white couple living in none other than suburbia. The Tortilla Curtain does an incredible job of intertwining the two very different lives of these couples in order to show how insignificant the problems of the first world are compared to that of immigrants who are cheated out of a healthy and prosperous life in their own countries. This novel also incorporates themes of environmentalism within this juxtaposition of the different worlds which illustrates how environmental thought can be pushed aside due to the constant focus on, in my opinion, minute problems such as immigration in the US. This novel is proof that many people’s priorities are jumbled up in that of the “illegal immigrant” debate and it is my contention that this has an enormously negative effect when it comes to dealing with the real problems that contribute to climate change and the need for illegal immigration in the first place.

If The Tortilla Curtain does one thing perfectly, it would be that the representation of these two couples is done without bias. Boyle shifts back and forth between both of the perspectives and does not get caught up in showing how the “better half lives” at all. In fact, a novel like this makes me realize even more so, how very ungrateful many well-off US citizens are for the life of privilege that they have been given. By so vividly depicting Delaney’s inner turmoil between being a liberal humanist and a blatant racist just goes to show how contradictory many can be in their thoughts. In doing this, Boyle showcases Delaney’s privilege to even form conclusions on another’s life simply because they may live without first world accommodations like housing or a toilet. Delaney is the perfect example of a person who struggles with their privileged existence in relation to the other 80% of the population who live in poverty, and who do not have the same chance for success and happiness the way in which we do in the United States.


Poverty is a huge problem one that is very much related to climate change so it seems only natural that these two issues be tackled together rather than seen as separate issues entirely. This brings me to another point that I would like to bring up, and that is the fact that within the immigration debate, people who think that migrants from other countries are not welcome because they only want to mooch off our economy are completely ignoring the REAL issue. I think that so many people, including the very President of our United States have simply categorized immigrants as being bad people who cause crime and take jobs away from other more deserving people, when in all actuality, people like Candido and America would not have felt the need to illegally cross into the US to work for a mere fraction of minimum wage if their own country was not being robbed of its ability to provide for its citizens by institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. These international organizations may masquerade as institutions that are intent on combating poverty within countries like Mexico but actually, they are sustaining the existence of poverty within these third world countries by indebting them further. During my sophomore year, I took a class called “A Just World?” and in it, we learned about and discussed every injustice that you can think of that exists within this world, and The World Bank and the IMF are two international institutions that hold up this division of power. 

The World Bank, or the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, is a bank that has the job of giving loans to countries for the purpose of constructing roads, airports, dams, and other such infrastructure projects. The World Bank is also responsible for promoting private foreign investment through the participation in loans and other similar investments. The IMF was created with the intent to simplify world commerce by reducing the restrictions of foreign exchange. This is not the only job of the IMF however, it also has created a pool of money that can be used by any country who is unable to pay off their debts; this money lending makes it so that any country who has debt can pay it off, and therefore can continue to trade without any issues. Structural Adjustment Policies, or SAPs, are policies created and enforced by the World Bank and IMF that impose certain rules on the countries who do participate in the money lending that the World Bank and IMF offer. There are typically six different kinds of SAPs, all of which are intent on cutting foreign countries’ social spending, which hinders the citizens of third world countries significantly.

The policies are as follows: 1) They cut a significant amount of worker’s jobs by privatizing state-owned businesses (water companies, electrical companies, etc.) so that the local government will no longer have to spend money on employing the people who work in these state-owned facilities. 2) Limit government spending by significantly minimizing the budgets of necessary social programs such as education and healthcare. By cutting the budgets of these programs, even more jobs are lost, and the well-being of the country’s citizens is jeopardized. 3)  Freeze, or dramatically slow, the wages citizens can earn in order to increase more foreign investment and decrease consumer demands. 4) Devalue the currencies of these foreign countries so that prices rise immensely; by devaluing their currencies, exports become cheaper, and the imports become much more expensive, thus creating poverty due to the fact that their wages are decreasing while other costs are skyrocketing. 5) Foreign countries must devote different areas of land to growing only crops that will be exported. This is extremely damaging to the environment because a large amount of chemicals and pesticides are needed for production to be successful; not only this but many indigenous people are also forced to leave their homes because of their land being converted into these export only farms. Many sweatshops are also created through this SAP because they need humans to be producing quotas not only for food, but for toys, clothes, and other manufactured exports as well. 6) Put an end to the use of subsidies that help citizens afford food to feed their families; without these subsidies, poor countries are not able to easily access the nutrition needed to survive.


As it can be seen The World Bank and IMF are the institutions who are contributing to the existence of poverty in the first place, and arguably, since they institute these harmful policies, they are ensuring “a race to the bottom”, as they are promising third world countries sustenance for their citizens but are only weakening the economies and social programs that help the citizens of these countries to prosper. The SAPs hinder third world countries immensely because they make it impossible for citizens to remain healthy, for workers’ rights to be met, and for their land to be respected, so it is no wonder why people who live in these disadvantaged places want to move somewhere like the US where this kind of colonization is not happening. 


A book like The Tortilla Curtain represents the immigrant debate in the light that is always shown, US versus THEM. Not many people are aware of the true causes that lead to the need for illegal immigration in the first place because organizations like the IMF and World Bank are thought to be good and honest institutions, when clearly, they are only “good” in terms of making wealthy and powerful corporations and countries, like the US, more so. When we look at the environmental and social issues that are brought up within The Tortilla Curtain the only way that we can begin to solve them is by first calling attention to the manipulation that capitalism and globalization have on the overall way in which our world functions. People like Delaney blame people like Candido and America for being the cause for the issues like pollution and violence but he does not look to the overarching system of oppression that creates an unlivable situation for Candido and America in the first place. So, in order to combat the environmental issue, we first have to dismantle institutions that profit off of destroying habitats and entire countries all in the name of making money. Once we do this, the immigration issue will be diminished greatly because when these institutions are no longer using third world countries in order to make a profit, the third world will finally be able to exist independently from this new age colonization that makes life in their home countries impossible.


(All information about the World Bank & IMF was extracted from the textbook Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World)

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