As a formerly undocumented Mexican immigrant, I have long wished for books with Mexican immigrant protagonists, squarely centered on our immigrant experience, to receive critical acclaim — to be celebrated with awards, to appear on required reading lists, and to have their authors receive advances that raise an eyebrow. I should have been more specific in my wishes and prayers.
As a Latina writer, my petitions were for us to be seen, heard, and understood. For our talent to be recognized and our stories to be honored — for our lived experiences to create a better reality for our community. Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt — or “The Grapes of Wrath for our times,” according to author Don Winslow — is neither the dream I had hoped for nor the vehicle that is going to create the type of change our community deserves.
American Dirt has been hailed as the book everyone should read if they want to understand the plight of so many immigrants looking for safety in the United States. Oprah selected the book as her latest book club pick, calling it “a remarkable feat, literally putting us in the shoes of migrants and making us feel their anguish and desperation to live in freedom.” Barnes & Noble also selected the book as its storewide book club title.
But the book has also received piercing reviews from Latino authors, journalists, and immigrant rights organizations. Much has been said about the cultural inaccuracies of the text, the cartoonish use of Spanish, and even the low quality of the writing. But despite the Latinx community coming together to raise critical problems with the book and the publishing industry at large, sales numbers so far suggest that the book will likely land at or near the top of the bestseller list.
The success of American Dirt has reiterated the message that the real-life experiences of Latinos, and immigrants, are only valid when they are packed with digestible, familiar stereotypes, as told through the lens of white, or white-passing, storytellers. The book affords its readers a safe distance between real immigrants and the caricatures presented in the book. American Dirt never fully addresses — or even tries to address — the real reasons why migrants come to the US, and the conditions they encounter when they arrive. Instead the book takes its fictional protagonist, Lydia Quixano Pérez, on a perfectly crafted obstacle course with a neat ending that is rarely, if ever, the one real migrants encounter.
American Dirt pretends to humanize the immigrant who has no other choice but to cross illegally into the US, but instead of doing the difficult work to breathe life into complicated people, Cummins — being, as she mentions in the author’s note that concludes the book, “more interested in stories about victims” — goes to great lengths to make her characters small, helpless, and predictable. She creates a plot that seems impossible to someone like me — a Mexican immigrant who, like Lydia, lived a middle-class life in Mexico and whose family has suffered at the hands of cartel-related violence.
The story begins when Lydia, a bookstore owner, is celebrating her niece Yénifer’s 15th birthday, and a new cartel — the subject of Lydia’s journalist husband’s recent exposé — shows up to take revenge, killing everyone except Lydia and her son Luca. When the “sicarios” have emptied their clips and the “gunfire slows,” Luca can hear “a woman’s voice announcing ¡La Mejor 100.1 FM Acapulco!”
Quinceañeras have a special place in my heart, because I always dreamed of having one in my hometown of Taxco, Guerrero, just four hours north of Acapulco. But when I was 14 years old, my visa expired and I became undocumented in the United States, unable to travel to Mexico to celebrate my 15th birthday with family and friends. So let me set the record straight: No Mexican family would have a mere 16 people at a quinceañera, and no Mexican family would be listening to the radio at a quinceañera. Sure, we celebrate birthdays with cookouts and playlists; we don’t have a mariachi or banda at every pachanga — but this was a quinceañera! This is the opening scene and a cultural error that is a sign of things to come.
Not all of these errors are unforgivable; perhaps we can look past the good Mexican Samaritan who tells Lydia the border “has to be ten, fifteen miles from here,” as she looks for a migrant shelter while making her way to “el norte” — even though anyone in Mexico would give the distance in kilometers. It’s even possible one might not notice the erroneous use of “mordida,” which is what Cummins calls the payments shop owners must make to cartels in order to operate their businesses. The phrase Cummins should have used is “cobro de piso,” which is like a tax for avoiding crime; a mordida is more like a bribe, something you’d pay an official who won’t give you a desperately needed birth certificate. A mordida is what Lydia should have paid to get the document she needed to board a plane with her son — but she is not resourceful in the way real immigrants are, and instead she boards the very dangerous “La Bestia” train instead.
It’s harder to move past the echoes of racist assumptions about immigrants, the kind that can make an actual immigrant’s skin crawl. Cummins explains in the author’s note that she wants to help readers see immigrants as fellow human beings, rather than as an “invading mob of resource-draining criminals” or “a faceless brown mass” — but she takes us on a journey that not only perpetuates those very stereotypes so often found in fiction (and Donald Trump’s speeches) but also portrays immigrants as helpless people carrying baggage full of pain and problems. “Yeah, all the migrants wear the same uniforms, right?” a Mexican child named Beto tells Luca during their journey. “Dirty jeans, busted shoes, baseball hats.”
“Your baby will be a US citizen,” Lydia tells Soledad, a Honduran migrant whose beauty is described as “an accident of biology” and who has become pregnant after being raped. That perspective feeds into many Americans’ fears that immigrants want to come to the US to have “anchor babies.” Never mind that in real life, the Trump administration will instruct consular officers to deny visas to pregnant travelers.
Deciding to be silent on matters of policy is in itself a political stance.
After being kidnapped by Mexican immigration officials, Lydia and Luca earn their freedom by paying their own ransom, but they are told by “el comandante” that they should not care about the other immigrants because “most of these are bad guys anyway.” Echoing Trump, he continues: “They’re gang members, they’re running drugs. They’re thieves or rapists or murderers.” The narrator doesn’t comment on the racism or inaccuracy of these words. How can she? The novel is filled with these types of characters.
American Dirt has been called “determinedly apolitical,” precisely because of these decisions to gloss over the political forces behind the circumstances of its characters. But later, as the migrants approach Arizona, a “young, politicized liberal” tells Lydia about Arivaca, a town where “vigilante militiamen murdered a nine-year-old girl and her father years ago.” Here, when Americans are the ones being criticized, the author challenges such broad demonization, assuring us through the coyote’s dialogue, “There are good people in Arivaca, too.” Deciding to be silent on matters of policy is in itself a political stance.
In the author’s note, Cummins says she wrote this book in part because “the conversation [surrounding immigration] always seemed to turn around policy issues, to the absolute exclusion of moral or humanitarian concerns”— but we cannot divorce the political from the human condition of immigrants. Our “policy issues” are a direct consequence of our moral and humanitarian shortcomings. At least 25 immigrants have died while in ICE custody during Trump’s presidency. Just this week, the Supreme Court voted to allow Trump’s “public charge” policy to go forward, which would reject permanent residency applications from low-income immigrants and keep them from using public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. A denaturalization force has been created to take away the citizenship of naturalized citizens for minor discrepancies in their applications.
Cummins wants her readers to see immigrants as “regular people,” as “fellow human beings,” and to do this, she created a middle-class mother who somehow speaks near-perfect English without ever having visited an English-speaking country. We are supposed to believe that a well-to-do Mexican family does not have passports and that, with tens of thousands of dollars at her disposal and having made it to the Mexico City airport, Lydia has no option but to board the most dangerous form of transportation.
When I immigrated to the US at the age of 11, I came here on a plane; I never crossed the border illegally, because at that time my family had financial resources that many immigrants lack. Mexican citizens can fly to many countries around the world without the type of visa restrictions the US imposes — among them Canada, France, Italy, Colombia, and Spain.
American Dirt is a work of fiction, but it’s not fantasy; Cummins has a responsibility to accurately portray the context she places her characters in, especially since, as an author, she felt she had “the capacity to be a bridge.” I do believe that books, films, and TV shows have the ability to ignite cultural change, which can in turn create political change. But when these mediums perpetuate dangerous stereotypes, they do not build bridges; they tear down the ones we’ve been working to build.
Cummins writes in her author’s note that she wishes “someone slightly browner” had written this book. She feels “that screaming into the echo chamber wasn’t working.” But those of us who are “browner,” who have written these books, aren’t screaming. We are fighting, advocating, and using our art to break down walls.
Those of us who are “browner,” who have written these books, aren’t screaming. We are fighting, advocating, and using our art to break down walls.
After 378 pages, we arrive in the United States and it seems all is right with the world. Luca goes to school; Lydia cleans houses — because of course she does. But the reality is that for many immigrants, the journey starts anew when we set foot in the US. As author Reyna Grande has poignantly written, “Unfortunately for us immigrants, the trauma doesn’t end with a successful border crossing. I believe that for the rest of your life, you carry that border inside of you.”
Most of my pain as an immigrant came long after I entered the United States. The reality that college was not an option for undocumented students like me, no matter how well I had done in high school — I graduated in the top 5% of my class — stung deep in my heart. The pain of not being able to travel to Mexico when my father fell ill is something I will never recover from; I didn’t get a chance to see him before he died. The angst of becoming a citizen, going through endless background checks, interviews, lawyers, court dates, took such a huge personal toll that my marriage ended. No, the freedom I now feel didn’t come from stepping foot into the US. It’s something I fight for every day.
On the back cover of Cummins’ book, publisher Flatiron Books’ blurb promises, “American Dirt will leave readers utterly changed.” But when readers are presented with characters that poorly reflect the real lives of people who are affected not just by the dangers, economic conditions, and violence they are fleeing, but also the inhumane, anti-immigrant laws they encounter once they cross the border, how can they truly be transformed?
While the book continues to sell, and we continue to have these discussions, let us not forget that the government still can't confirm if more families were separated than reported and if they have been reunited. Migrants and refugees haven’t been afforded due process because of Trump’s "Remain in Mexico" policy. DACA recipients still await their fate in this country as the Supreme Court argues. ICE Acting Director Matthew Albence has confirmed that if the DACA programs ends, DREAMers can be deported. There are still tens of thousands of immigrants in detention. The wall continues to be built. American Dirt fails to humanize immigrants because its author was unwilling to face the real forces behind migration and the very real challenges migrants meet once they arrive in the United States.
The publishing industry ensured her book’s success with a vast publicity push — dinners for booksellers and celebrity endorsements, including from big names like Oprah — that most novelists can only dream of. Early in American Dirt, we learn that Lydia has stocked her store with books she loves as well as books “she isn’t crazy about but knew would sell.” Perhaps Cummins was telling us something. American Dirt is not the book I dreamed of, but the stereotypical Latinx story in its pages certainly sells. ●
Julissa Arce is an activist and author of My (Underground) American Dream and Someone Like Me.