'Tortilla Curtain' resonates in high school classrooms

In Rob Camm's academic English class for juniors, students were slated to read Sherwood Anderson's 1919 book "Winesburg, Ohio" but Camm was so impressed by "The Tortilla Curtain" that he swapped the two.

He was not sorry - the book was a hit with his students.

"It's engaging and the kids read it," the Santa Rosa High teacher said.

T.C. Boyle's "The Tortilla Curtain" has made news in recent weeks as the Santa Rosa School Board considered a complaint by a parent that the book is too sexually graphic and racially offensive to be taught in the classroom.

The seven-member school board disagreed and kept the book on the district's long list of classroom reading from which teachers can select titles. "The Tortilla Curtain," published in 1995, also is on the state Department of Education's approved reading list.

"For me, it was more interesting than most of the books because I could put myself in their place," said Aracely Cebreros, a junior at Santa Rosa High. "Racism against Latinos is a big thing here and if more people could understand, there is more of a chance that people could relate to it."

Cebreros said she was more unnerved by the bestselling "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini than "The Tortilla Curtain."

Boyle's book tells the intersecting stories of Kyra and Delaney Mossbacher and America and Candido Rincon. The Rincons cross the border illegally and struggle to establish their American dream before their child is born, while the Mossbachers bicker about building a neighborhood wall as a way to preserve what is theirs.

The Rincons dig in trash cans and eat sardines from the tin for sustenance while the Mossbachers debate the wall while eating tofu and oyster mushrooms.

"There are not 50 pages of pornography in this book but there are several sections that are bracing," Camm said, adding that parent concerns about the text "are not unreasonable.

"That is why you have the option for parents to say no," he said of district policy that allows students to read alternate texts without penalty.

But that policy is not fair to all students, said parent Brian Flinn, who has a son at Montgomery High.

"What about that shy kid who doesn't want to say anything?," he said. "I'm defending someone I don't even know, a child who may not be as outgoing as my son is. I don't think that is fair, with peer pressure."

Jazmine Whitlock, who graduated from Montgomery and is now studying French at Santa Rosa Junior College, urged the school board last month to pull the book from classroom discussions.

She credited her high school teachers with being able to lead discussions on sensitive topics, but said "The Tortilla Curtain" is too much for younger readers.

And opting out creates a whole new set of issues, she said.

"I was in high school last year and it is a huge deal to not go with the crowd and be the black sheep and kids are really, really mean," she said. "You would have to feel so strong about the book."

Camm expressed concern that to pull "The Tortilla Curtain" from reading lists for its graphic scenes would open the door to a host of others - many of which are considered classics.

"You could make that case against any book I teach. You want to pull &‘Scarlett Letter?' It's about adultery. You want to pull &‘Huck Finn?' It's got the N-word."

Stephanie Moore, English department chairwoman at Elsie Allen High, said she just finished teaching "To Kill a Mockingbird" and had to deal with the N-word throughout.

"In the book, the way it's used is, only the more ignorant characters use it," she said. "In &‘Of Mice and Men,' . . . Steinbeck wrote dialect the way the ranch hands talked back then and the language is rough. Of course, Steinbeck isn't saying this is the way to speak. It's important to teach anything that we teach in context, even more so with sensitive materials."

"Students understand that just because something is in a book, doesn't mean it's being advocated. In fact, often quite the opposite," she said.

For junior Jimmy Salgado, reading "The Tortilla Curtain" was "a refreshing dose of reality."

"For me, it's important to be realistic for it makes it that much more interesting," he said. "The fact that it's on your mind, the rape scene, it's not very comfortable but . . . it certainly gave a bit more strength to the difficulties of immigrants in the United States."

Salgado said Camm talked about upcoming scenes that might be unnerving for some students, but said all of his classmates participated in the discussions.

Camm, who was a member of the district-appointed committee that reviewed parent Liz Franzel's complaint over the book and eventually recommended that it remain on the available reading list for juniors and seniors, said he understood Franzel's concern over some of the scenes in the book.

"She is not wrong, there is some rich stuff in there and it's controversial," he said. "But at the end of the day, I also felt there was enough that was redeeming in the book. The discussions we had were terrific."

He was especially aware when talking over scenes in which two white boys discuss sex with "Mexican chicks" and the rape of America Rincon.

Overhearing the conversation, a distraught Delaney Mossbacher wonders what yet another wall would do to his community.

" . . . it might keep them out, but look what it keeps in. It was poisonous. The whole place was poisonous, the whole state."

The book also describes the violent opening moments of the implied rape of America Rincon as she makes her way down a dusty path to her camp-like, temporary home.

For Justin Connell, a senior at Montgomery, realistic books help prepare students for life after high school just like any other academic course work.

"I hate it when people . . . take something away that is part of life when they think it's going to make kids better when really all it does is it shelters us and makes it harder for us to transition into the real world," he said.

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