Unpacking the “American Dirt” controversy


Story by Esperanza Garcia, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy Target

Representation of Mexicans in the media is scarce, and too often stereotypical. So when Jeanine Cummins’ book “American Dirt” was announced, with the approval of Sandra Cisneros, there was the faint possibility that the community would start to get more representation in literature. Then reality hit. The plot of the book revolves around a mother who is fleeing Mexico with her children after she loses her husband to cartel violence. Cartel violence in Mexico? Believable. Having to leave Mexico because of the cartel violence? Also believable. The details of the main character being surprised at the violence happening in the country and not knowing how difficult crossing the border is? Not believable.

And yet, that’s exactly how the protagonist of the novel, Lydia Quixano Perez, acts throughout the plot. And then, the tip of the iceberg: Oprah decides to add the book to her ever illustrious book club, and hold a party for the author, with centerpieces that resemble a border wall with barbed wire. This led the way for stars like Salma Hayek, MJ Rodriguez, and Gina Rodriguez to post about being excited about the book (Hayek would later apologize for rushing to praise the book before reading it). This exposure did the book no favors. 

Instead, it led to people remembering the author, Cummins, from a New York Times Op-Ed where she mentions that she shouldn’t be the one to talk about race, given the fact that while she’s ethnically Puerto Rican, she is racially white —and no, race and ethnicity are not the same thing. Yet, four years after that op-ed, during the press tour for “American Dirt,” Cummins is no longer stating her whiteness, instead simply saying that she is Puerto Rican. I will admit that racial identity politics are personal, and finding a connection to your non-white roots can be difficult enough for 1st generation kids, so I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be for those that are multi-racial. However, for Cummins to have let herself be known as someone that shouldn’t and didn’t want to talk about race, and now wants to be a voice for the “faceless brown mass,” is quite contradictory. Also, there is still the fact that Cummins is Puerto Rican which, just a refresher, is not a part of Acapulco, where the story begins (also one of the most touristy cities of Mexico).

We are so used to seeing Latinidad being homogenized in the media— “if this is representation for one of them/if this is the experience of one of them, then it must be for all of them!” – when it doesn’t work that way. What represents one Latin American country doesn’t represent the rest. This is especially true of traumatic experiences such as having to flee your motherland due to violence. Ideally, Cummins would not even have written this kind of book. However, there is another level of inappropriateness to Cummins capitalizing off trauma and violence that she doesn’t know about, especially when she’s acting as if she’s doing the Mexican community a favor.

Among the very deserved backlash, Eva Longoria commented that she has not and will not read the book, as well as stated frustrations that the book tour was canceled for “safety reasons,” further enabling the narrative of the violent Latino. In the aftermath, Sandra Cisneros, who was a light of representation for many of us, not backing down from her endorsement of the book, chided the criticism, and told us that we should read the book with an open heart, and that if we were to find a problem that we should instead “put it down, and make some serious introspection about why you really don’t like it…find out what you’re really upset about.” 

A rule of thumb: If you feel as if someone else should be creating whatever it is you’re working on because you don’t have the experiences necessary to be in charge of the narrative, you should probably stop whatever it is you’re working on. It’s not your story to tell. When Cummins found herself wishing that someone “slightly browner than her” had written the book, she should’ve stepped aside. We do not need a white person to act as a “bridge” for us, we are our own bridges, we have faces, we have voices, and you are not our Steinbeck.

headshotEsperanza Garcia is a senior at Aquinas College, majoring in Sociology and minoring in Women Studies. In her free time, she enjoys watching films and reading thriller books.

Categories: Culture, The Saint

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