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I Spoke Out Against "American Dirt." Then Oprah Asked Me To Talk About It.

After I wrote a piece criticizing American Dirt, Oprah invited me to appear on Oprah's Book Club for a candid conversation with her and author Jeanine Cummins.

Posted on March 6, 2020, at 4:39 p.m. ET

Karen Ballard

Esther Cepeda (left), Julissa Arce, Reyna Grande, Jeanine Cummins, and Oprah during the taping of Oprah's Book Club.

A month ago, I received a call from a producer at Oprah’s production company, inviting me to participate in a taping of Oprah’s Book Club to discuss the controversy around the novel American Dirt. The event, which is streaming on Apple TV+ today in two parts, would be filmed in Tucson, Arizona. A friend had floated my name as a potential guest. In an earlier piece, I had noted my criticism of the book, which is packed with harmful stereotypes of migrants and Mexicans and was written by Jeanine Cummins, a woman who, until recently, identified as white.

Esmeralda Bermudez, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times, publicly declined an invitation to appear on the show; others raised concerns that cofounders of #DignidadLiteraria, a grassroots social media campaign formed in the wake of the controversy, had not been invited to attend. I was hesitant to accept because when the producer shared the format of the show, which he asked to keep off the record, I had deep concerns about some of the elements — one aspect was a deal breaker. But because of the movement that has grown from the controversy, I felt empowered to negotiate aspects of the show with Oprah’s team. (I should note that beyond travel arrangements, I did not receive compensation to attend.)

Though Oprah had promised “a deeper, more substantive discussion,” I knew the conversation wasn’t going to be perfect.

My major concerns addressed, I decided to go on the show because the conversation was going to happen with or without Latino voices, and given the concessions her team made, I felt comfortable enough. Two other Latinx writers, Reyna Grande and Esther Cepeda, would be on the panel alongside me, Oprah, and Cummins. Though Oprah had promised “a deeper, more substantive discussion,” I knew the conversation wasn’t going to be perfect. Cummins’ peppering of Spanish words during the show, like saying she had hoped to use Oprah’s Book Club to talk about “migrantes,” and the show’s trailer being packed with images of barbed wire along the border and Latino migrants crossing the desert was deeply disappointing. Still, I didn’t go on the show to tap-dance or to be a brown prop, or even to talk about American Dirt. I attended to push the conversation, advocate for my community, and highlight how the publishing industry, including Oprah’s Book Club, could be doing so much more to support and highlight Latinx authors, and how failing to do so is a form of systemic erasure.

The day of the taping, Grande, Cepeda, and I were led into a holding room and we were given appearance release forms and nondisclosure agreements to sign — standard forms I have signed for other TV appearances. While we waited for the audience to take their seats in the studio, Oprah stopped by and we met her for the first time. She told us that whatever our intention was in coming on the show, we should fulfill that intention, which I appreciated, since that was why I decided to appear on the show in the first place. She then asked her team to bring Cummins to our room. Cummins was visibly nervous and looked concerned. Oprah assured her, “You will be OK.” We introduced ourselves, shook hands, and then walked to take our seats. I left my nerves in the hotel room. I grabbed my note cards from my purse and walked into the studio.

About 250 people were sitting in the audience. (Contrary to rumors circulating on Twitter, there were no ICE agents present.) The attendees were readers and librarians — mostly Oprah fans.

Oprah told us that whatever our intention was in coming on the show, we should fulfill that intention.

At the top of the show, Oprah summarized for the audience, from her perspective, why we were all here: “There has been a robust backlash on social media about the selection of American Dirt,” she said. After Oprah’s opening remarks, she brought Cummins onstage, and tweets from people critiquing American Dirt and defending Cummins appeared on the screen, replacing the video messages from fans of Oprah’s Book Club selection that typically play during that segment of the show. During the taping, Cummins looked visibly uncomfortable. When the tweets stopped flying across the screen, Oprah turned to her and said, “So that’s what you’ve stirred up!”

But she didn’t. We did. Latinx writers raised our voices so loudly that the publishing industry was forced to pay attention to us. We were the reason Oprah decided to change the format of this show from a conversation between her and Cummins to a larger conversation that included Latinx writers on the same stage.

It was clear that the show was not going to be an NPR Maria Hinojosa interview where Oprah would hold Cummins accountable. But before we could take the stage to make these points, Oprah and Cummins brushed on some of the criticisms Cummins had fielded. One of those criticisms was about Cummins’ identity as a white woman. In a 2015 New York Times article, Cummins, who now identifies as white and Puerto Rican, wrote, “I am white. … In every practical way, my family is mostly white. I’ll never know … or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name.”

“Did your identity evolve for you? Or what changed?” Oprah asked. “Because you know what a lot of people are saying, is that you became Puerto Rican by convenience.”

“In the same essay, I identified myself as Puerto Rican,” Cummins said. This isn’t actually quite accurate, though. In the article, she wrote, “The grandmother I shared … was Puerto Rican.” But the dubious ethics of identifying as Latinx when she previously identified as white aside, that wasn’t my chief critique of Cummins. I sat in the audience impatiently waiting to take the stage and voice my responses, and making notes on my flashcards.

“When the publishing industry is 80% white, what I am really being asked to do is to make my stories more relevant to white people.”

At last, Oprah introduced us onto the stage. “What were your feelings when you read the book?” She asked me. I told her I was thinking about the real-life immigrants whose lives are in limbo, the immigrants whom this book fails. “The other thing that I was thinking is how, as a Latina writer, I am very often asked to make my stories more relevant, and to make them more accessible. And what I have to ask is when the publishing industry is 80% white, what I am really being asked to do is to make my stories more relevant to white people.”

Don Weisberg, the president of Macmillan, American Dirt’s parent publisher, and Amy Einhorn, Cummins’ editor, were sitting in the audience. I turned to them next. “I find it incredibly offensive that our very thoughtful critique about the book and about the industry was minimized as being ‘vitriolic rancor.’” I was quoting the press release that Bob Miller, the head of Flatiron Books (the imprint American Dirt was published under), released at the height of the controversy. “To have this language in that statement furthers the narrative that we are violent and that people should be afraid of us,” I continued.

I also said that I wished Myriam Gurba were there to speak for herself. Gurba is the Latina writer who unleashed the wave of criticism about American Dirt with her powerful review, and who has been the force behind the #DignidadLiteraria movement. “But what I will say is that [Myriam] has received death threats.”

And then I turned to face Cummins. “Jeanine, you can enlighten us here. Have you received death threats?” She replied that the publisher had never said she received death threats. Maybe she is right, but they have certainly let the public believe that she was in danger and that was why her book tour had to be canceled.

To my question, Einhorn replied, “Our first priority is the safety of our authors. But by no means did we mean to silence criticism of the book or discussion.“

While I do believe we pushed the conversation, it was clear that some of the segments were attempts to justify both why Cummins had written American Dirt and why Oprah had selected the book. Take, for instance, the second half of the show, which is made up entirely of human interest stories that were shared during the two-hour conversation.

Luz Mirella (her last name was withheld for privacy reasons), a Mexican immigrant who lives in Arkansas, shared her story of escaping sexual abuse and crossing the border several times before she was able to live legally in the US. (The details of how she was able to do this were not discussed.) “My producers told me you saw a lot of yourself in American Dirt and in Lydia’s [the protagonist’s] story. What did you think of the book?” Oprah asked.

“I like it. I think it’s a great book … I mean, it speaks for a lot of people that went through that I did go through a lot of stuff to make it here,” Luz Mirella answered.

I wasn’t there to disagree with Luz Mirella and Darwin about their experiences reading the book, but I was there to say that we deserve better books than American Dirt

Darwin (I've withheld his last name for privacy reasons) shared his story of escaping gang violence in El Salvador at the age of 12, and ultimately feeling some sense of protection when he was a beneficiary of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that protected young undocumented immigrants from deportation and that the Trump administration has since rescinded. He, too, identified with Cummins’ book. “What I love about it is that there are indisputable facts about our countries,” he said. “Meaning the push factors that push people like myself [to immigrate] ... that felt very real to me.” I wasn’t there to disagree with Luz Mirella and Darwin about their experiences reading the book, but I was there to say that we deserve better books than American Dirt. Books that do not rely on, and benefit from, our pain and trauma. Books that are written with us in mind, and not designed to convince someone else to see us as humans.

Grande asked the readers in the room to use their warm feelings for the book to advocate and stand up for real immigrants. “I would really like to see you transfer your concerns and your compassion for Lydia and Luca [the characters in the book] to the real mothers who are being turned away at the border, to the real children who are locked up in cages.”

I asked Cummins how she is continuing to “be a bridge,” as she put it in her author’s note. “I donate a lot of money thanks to Macmillan,” she said. It’s worth noting, though, that one of the organizations she suggests donating to, No More Deaths/No Más Muertes, took to Twitter to express its support for #DignidadLiteraria.

At the end of the first segment, I turned to Cummins and asked her, “Who did you write this book for?” When she struggled to answer my question, the audience, mostly book club fans, and the majority of whom were not Latino, stepped in to rescue her. “For me,” several people said, raising their hands.

I hope readers in the audience and viewers at home listen when we say this book is not all it has been hailed as being. But most importantly, I hope I made Latinos proud. A two-hour TV conversation is not where all the solutions are going to be found, but it’s perhaps another step to keep the issues at the forefront. In February, Flatiron Books met with the founders of #DignidadLiteraria and committed to increasing Latinx representation both within the company and in the titles it publishes. Macmillan reiterated those commitments during the taping. It’s a start, and I hope the publishing industry at large is paying close attention.

After the show taped, I stopped by the greenroom to pick up my suitcase and head to the airport. Oprah asked if I had said everything I wanted to say. She said she could tell that I “especially” had a lot to share. I didn’t get to say everything I wanted, but when I walked off the stage, I felt proud of how I showed up for my community. ●


Julissa Arce is an activist and author of My (Underground) American Dream and Someone Like Me.

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