By Miriam R. Kramer
Recently Oprah Winfrey and Barnes & Noble Bookstores selected the book American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, a novel about migrants trying to make their way to a new life in the United States, as a timely choice for their respective book clubs. In doing so they unwittingly made a controversial choice. Many Latinx writers protested the pick, with several accusing the white writer of spreading stereotypes about Mexicans and other Central Americans while attempting to write a story that was not hers to write.
As pundits and other cultural figures argued about the story, Cummins’ book tour was canceled because of threats of violence. This tumult raised the book’s profile but also obscured what she wrote: a profound and moving work about maternal love, human resilience, and the evil and kindness that emerge during the worst of human circumstances. Her story about migrants searching for the best among terrible choices gives names, faces, and humanity to the brown hordes clamoring for a piece of the North American dream at the border to el norte.
American Dirt sprints off the starting line as a middle-class Mexican mother, Lydia, and her son, Luca, hide in a bathroom when bullets start flying at a family birthday party in Acapulco. Emerging to find their extended family killed, along with their husband and father, Sebastián, Lydia finds a note pinned to her husband. It says “My whole family is dead because of me.”
As a journalist writing about the cartels, Sebastián has penned a locally published profile of local kingpin Javier Crespo Fuentes, known as La Lechuza (The Owl), the head of the cartel Los Jardineros. Before knowing who he was, Lydia had befriended La Lechuza at the bookstore she owns, growing close to him because of their long conversations about literature. In telling her husband that La Lechuza would not threaten them, Lydia has made a terrible mistake.
Knowing that his halcones (cartel lookouts) want to find her and Luca to finish off the job, Lydia realizes that La Lechuza has located her at a hotel where they are hiding. She must flee with Luca and find a way out of Acapulco and to the United States, where she has a relative in Colorado.
As she begins living the life of a migrant with little access to money or security, Lydia realizes that “All her life she’s pitied these poor people. She’s donated money. She’s wondered with the sort of detached fascination of the comfortable elite how dire the conditions of their lives must be wherever they come from, that this is the better option. That these people would leave their homes, their cultures, their families, even their languages, and venture into tremendous peril, risking their very lives, all for the chance to get to the dream of some faraway country that doesn’t even want them.”
In writing Lydia as a middle-class woman forced by threat of death to join people of all types of economic levels in making their way north, Cummins has probably made it more possible for a middle-class readership, whether here in North America or elsewhere, to better identify with the way corruption in Mexico or anywhere else can bring people of all social levels to their knees. Empathy for one sufferer can be contagious; it can lead to empathy for all who suffer.
Without the documents to fly north, Lydia now contemplates riding La Bestia (The Beast), a network of Mexican freight trains that migrants from Central America and Mexico climb and ride on a dangerous journey north. On La Bestia they can fall and kill or injure themselves, fall prey to cartel bandits or corrupt policia, or be robbed of all they own. In contrast to these terrors, churches open migrant shelters with kind priests and others offering temporary shelter and food to those fleeing cartel wars, death, and oppression.
In the process of seeking out the best way forward to Nogales, Mexico, on the border of Arizona, Lydia and Luca meet people fleeing gangs that will rape or kill them if they stay, including two kind sisters from Honduras with whom they strike up a friendship. They meet regular Central Americans deeply affected by dire circumstances, corrupt officials who try to extort them, gangs who kill men and rape women, and those who rise above modest circumstances to show kindness and try to save their lives. In the process, Lydia does everything to save her child, regardless of what happens to her.
When reading about the controversy surrounding this book, I wanted to determine as best I could whether I thought this book was unfair to Latinx people, or those interested in this subject matter. Some Mexican and other Central American writers have accused this novel of stereotyping and said, in essence, “I don’t recognize myself in these people.”
I would not agree. Despite being a relatively privileged, well-traveled person, I recognize myself in the other characters as much as I do in middle-class Lydia. One of a writer’s main goals is to make any reader do the same. I also believe that a writer can write any point of view about any characters in any book she wants to write. Brown writers have no monopoly on writing a book about brown writers, just as white writers, or male writers, or female writers, have no such monopoly either.
Mexico and Central America are not monoliths. There are as many Mexicos, for example, as there are United States of Americas. We are multifaceted countries comprising multifaceted peoples. If those protesting Latinx writers mean that they don’t recognize themselves as uneducated migrants whose lives have been threatened, perhaps they are tired of others assuming that everyone who comes here from Mexico, or Central America, or Spanish-speaking countries, did. Such writers also might have grown up as victims of racism within this country. They may be angry at having stereotypes and slurs thrown at them.
That being said, Mexico is the most dangerous country in the world for journalists attempting to tell truth to power. That is a fact, and this book recognizes it. Cartel corruption rots the highest levels of government. It is also true that poorly paid government officials, whether they be the federales or state and municipal policía, are riddled with corruption. There are honest government employees and dishonest ones. Unfortunately, the latter are the ones who generally make living wages.
Cummins spent five years interviewing people who had made this trip as migrants. She is well-versed in the subject. In American Dirt, she explores all types of characters, and writes with nuance about the best and sometimes even the worst of them. If you want to experience her discoveries through others’ eyes, please watch the transfixing Showtime documentary series The Trade, in particular Season 2. While the series covers aspects of the drug trade overall, the four episodes in Season 2 are specifically about desperate Central American migrants trying to get to the United States of America and stay there. These powerful stories parallel and confirm many in American Dust. As real people’s journeys ripped from the headlines, they will sink into you.
You might also read Don Winslow’s powerful trilogy about the Mexican drug trade from the the Eighties until today: The Power of the Dog, The Cartel, and most importantly in this case, The Border. I consider these books excellent, thinly fictionalized lessons in history, international relations, and global money laundering, with the United States as guilty as any other country when it comes to the latter.
It seems that Latinx writers’ outrage comes mostly from feeling sorely underrepresented at telling their own stories through major publishing houses. In this case, the controversy surrounding American Dirt can only help their stories get heard. I would be very interested, for example, to read a story about current-day migrants written by a Mexican or Honduran writer to see how it compares to Cummins’ perspective. I hope these writers can hold publishing houses’ feet to the fire and make that happen. There is a huge Latinx community in the United States, and it hungers to read better books and hear different points of view on their own experiences. So does the book-buying public. We do not just want to hear about migrants, either.
As I said, American Dirt has been overshadowed by the discussion taking place outside of the book itself, which is unfortunate. It is surprisingly subtle considering its subject matter. This novel does not hesitate to confront evil while recognizing not only the love Lydia has for Luca but also that which they feel for certain migrants who become like family. It is broad-minded, unsentimental, violent, terrible, and hopeful. It is also a speed-read that paradoxically makes you want to pick it up and put it down at the same time.
Is American Dirt a future classic like The Grapes of Wrath, to which author Don Winslow compared it? I do not know. I do know that it brought me emotionally closer to the lives of languishing asylum-seekers and desperate border crossers than anything else I have read. If there is one point that Jeanine Cummins wants to make in titling the book, it is that we all live on American dirt, no matter what America that is, and that the borders between us exist only as constructs, not as strict boundaries between people with the same emotions, needs, and hunger for security and sustenance.