Since its release, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins has been the subject of controversy and a lot of pain for the Latinx book community. American Dirt follows a Mexican woman and her son who are being chased by a cartel. The two have to escape Mexico on La Bestia, an infamous and dangerous train that many migrants take because it leads into the US.
It’s written by a woman who identifies as Latinx and white (her grandmother is Puerto Rican), but has never been through these kind of situations herself. While I believe that it is possible to tell stories outside of your lived experiences faithfully, the response and marketing campaign for this book reflects a hurtful carelessness and a publishing industry that is dated and needs change.
It’s frustrating to see a book like this receive so much praise and attention when there are so many stories that are not given the same consideration by publishers. At a time where diversity in publishing is still extremely low, this book feels like a hollow and exploitative attempt at selling an “acceptable” version of a migrant story.
American Dirt is an Oprah’s Book Club pick, received a seven figure advance, and already sold its film rights. In her author’s note, the writer says she wishes that “someone slightly browner” than her would have written the story. In a way, it implies that her book is a necessary instrument for these stories to be told. From barbed wire centerpieces to “us” versus “them” subway posters, it purposely frames Mexican immigrants as props to a white savior narrative. In the publisher’s note, the publisher mentions that the author wanted to write this book as a way to put faces to the “brown mass.” This sentiment not only ignores the countless novels written by own voices authors, it demands the question, faceless to who? Because of course, God forgive where Mexicans would be without this story, right?
As a Mexican American and proud daughter of Mexican immigrants, I don’t think of a “faceless brown mass.” I think of my closest friends, I think of family. I think of hardworking people, people that have had to leave their homes for safety or for the hope of the American Dream. Empathy should have always been there and if this novel was the first time a reader was able to form an emotional connection to somebody like this, then they should take a moment to ask themselves, why? Why this book and why not the plethora of own voices migrant tales that have been published and are readily available. Just because a reader has not actively sought these stories out, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
These stories have always been told and passed down in our community. They are not invisible. They matter. Here are seven own voices books to check out instead.
The Devil’s Highway: A True Story by Luís Alberto Urrea
This book reconstructs the horrifying 2001 journey of 26 Mexican men who tried to cross the border into Arizona. Only 12 of the men survived as they traveled through a bleak desert area called The Devil’s Highway.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Hererra
Makina is a young woman who crosses the Mexico-US border in search of her brother. She is smuggled across with two messages— one from their mother and one from the Mexican underworld.
Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli
This book looks into the horrifying reality that many child migrants from Latin America are escaping from. It’s structured around the forty questions that the government asks of undocumented children facing deportation.
Border Lore: Folktales and Legends of South Texas by David Bowles
This anthology collection retells traditional folktales and spooky stories from the region. It also features some amazing artwork by José Meléndez.
Mean by Myriam Gurba
This coming of age debut memoir is about trauma, sexual violence and growing up as a queer mixed race Chicana. Plus if you haven’t already, Gurba’s sharp review of American Dirt is a must read.
Antígona González by Sara Uribe
Written in prose, this is a quiet book about the people and the families they leave behind affected by drug violence in Mexico. It’s inspired by the play Antigone by Sophocles.
Untamed Shore by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
While this crime noir is still a couple of weeks away from publication, it’s an excellent look into class and racial tensions between white Americans and Mexicans. It follows Viridiana, a young woman who is a tour guide to a few Americans in Baja California, MX.