The Tortilla Curtain Incident (1978–79), which involved El Paso, Texas, refers to a proposed measure in which the United States sought to impede illegal immigration, which sparked outrage among human rights activists and Mexican citizens, particularly those who lived along the Texas-Chihuahua border. The term “Tortilla Curtain” referenced the Cold War-era’s “Iron Curtain” that represented the division between the democratic Western Europe and the Communist Eastern Europe. The incident serves as a key example of the mercurial nature of border relations between the United States and Mexico.
The role Texas played in this conflict can be traced to annexation by the United States in 1845, which within a year brought the two countries to war. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which resulted in the acquisition of the Mexican Cession by the United States, also acknowledged the Rio Grande as the boundary between Texas and Mexico. The present boundary between the U.S. and Mexico would be virtually fixed with the Gadsden Purchase, which was finalized in 1854.
For Mexicanos with long-lived commercial and familial ties to both sides of the border, the boundary remained especially fluid. Others crossing into the United States who sought relief from economic and political turmoil only compounded American concerns and insecurities. The Tortilla Curtain Incident was a manifestation of cyclical American frustrations over the inability to find a solution to perceptions of this growing problem. Failed efforts to coerce undocumented workers to leave the country included the insensitively titled Operation Wetback, implemented during the Eisenhower Administration of the 1950s. Earlier, in El Paso, Texas, the U.S. erected a menacing series of barbed-wire fences and watchtowers, reminiscent of the totalitarian European states of the World War II era. The watchtowers were eventually removed, but the fences remained. Their purpose was not only to keep out Mexican immigrants, but they were also used to halt the spread of livestock diseases and discourage the traffic of contraband. This was somewhat successful, though smuggling remained an issue along with the increasing flood of illegal immigrants across the border.
By the late 1970s an estimated three million (and some analysts speculated that the figure could be as high as five million) illegal immigrants were residing in the United States. Americans who feared that undocumented workers posed a threat to their jobs and safety demanded a firm response from the federal government, which again erected fences that proved virtually useless in slowing illegal immigration and the traffic of contraband. In 1977 and 1978 the U.S. Congress approved funding for even more fencing in El Paso and other densely populated locations along the Mexican border between Texas and California. These new fences, which were to be strewn with razor wire to deter unwanted Mexican immigrants from entering the country, were referred to collectively as the “Tortilla Curtain.” This, in addition to growing expressions of nativist ideologies, led to the unfolding of the Tortilla Curtain Incident. Mexican officials and those who resided near the border lashed out at the United States Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) which was used to enforce border security and control the influx of illegal immigrants into the United States. Protests and riots ensued as groups such as the Coalition Against the Fence were formed and demanded more compassion from the United States government. The use of razor wire to deter illegal immigration was considered inhumane and was relatively ineffective.
As rumors of stationing troops at the border spread, so did hysteria. In one particular event that occurred in March 1979, a group of Mexican women had their crossing cards confiscated by border patrol. This resulted in a riot where “militant protestors arrived to support the women, blocking traffic and tearing down a U.S. flag and throwing it into the Rio Grande.” Ignoring the protestors’ demands seemingly worsened the conflict. These protests proved to be successful along with a meeting that took place in February 1979 between U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Mexican President José López Portillo to discuss easing tensions along the border. Final construction of fencing was limited in its total length and lacked the razor wire.
In the years after the Tortilla Curtain Incident, nativist policies in the United States have continued as political leaders have searched for more ways to prevent illegal immigration. This push for more effective border control surged as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when Americans feared that terrorists could enter the United States through the border. T. C. Boyle described this racial disconnect in the 1995 novel Tortilla Curtain in which he told the story of a Mexican migrant couple searching for work in the United States. This novel has been used by multiple scholars to further examine the growing border conflict between the United States and Mexico and the efforts to control it. Almost four decades after the Tortilla Curtain Incident, the issues of border control and illegal immigration were still highly-debated topics.