By Velia Salazar, Editorial Intern
When Oprah Winfrey recommended American Dirt to her book club on Jan. 21, she never imagined the headaches her commendation would stir up.
American Dirt tells the fictional story of Lydia Pérez and her eight-year-old son, Luca, both of whom leave Mexico to escape the cartel violence in that country.
The controversy that erupted stems from the fact that the novel’s author, Jeanine Cummins, wrote about the immigrant experience without either being Mexican or an immigrant. Later, Cummins, who identifies as white, stated that one of her grandmothers is Puerto Rican. For some people in the Latinx community, the recognition of American Dirt also is a slap in the face, considering that many Latinx authors, who also write about the immigrant experience, struggle to get published.
“The other part was that she received so much money for this particular book,” Dr. Marisela Chávez, an associate professor and chairwoman of Chicana/Chicano Studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills. “I get it. She’s already a published author, she has a proven track record. But then I start to think about other Chicanx/Latinx authors who try to get their stories published and don’t get that kind of recognition nor do they get that kind of money.”
Cummins earned seven figures for this novel.
Cummins writes about how the main characters had to leave the country because of a cartel. Lydia Pérez and her eight-year-old son, Luca, survive the slaughter of the rest of her family at her niece’s quinceañera by hitmen of Los Jardineros cartel in Acapulco.
Some critics believe the premise of the story is stereotypical because not all Mexicans that come from Mexico are in the United States because they had to get away from a cartel. There are numerous reasons why people come to the United States.
“I’m not speaking for the whole department,” Dr. Chávez said. “I’m speaking for me. I was disappointed in the way that the book was publicized…. I have a problem with that because there is not just one immigrant experience. There are so many different experiences and can’t just homogenize them into one thing.”
Cummins did not help her case by writing in the author’s note section of her book that she wished someone “slightly browner” than herself would have written it. Many people were puzzled with her statement and wondered why she would even write that.
“I was just trying to understand where she was coming from,” Chávez said. “And, to me, that told me that she might have been uncomfortable with the topic, but she did it anyway.”
It’s easy to see why the book has rubbed people the wrong way when you consider the current political climate.
“The conservatives are already rallying to keep migrants out of the U.S by any means necessary,” said Karmela Cooper, the administrative support coordinator of Chicano Studies at CSUDH. “Author Cummins describes in her afterword that during her four-year writing process, she did extensive travel and interviews in Mexico. Where are these people and why haven’t they come forward to give their side of the story?”
Cummins has stated in an interview that she did extensive research when she was in Mexico. She did not simply write a book without knowledge of what she was talking about. That is something Chavez was confused about.
“In the Latino USA interview, Cummins said she spent a lot of time in Mexico,” Chávez said. “But she didn’t elaborate or be specific about what exactly she did for research.”
Yet, some people still are perplexed about the nature of the controversy. Chicano Studies assistant professor Alfredo Gonzalez said he didn’t initially understand it, other than it being listed on the Oprah book reading list.
“It was a book written by someone that didn’t necessarily go through the experience,” said Alfredo Gonzalez, an assistant professor of Chicano Studies. “So, when it comes to how you view Chicano/Chicana literature, Chicanx literature, it’s usually coming from a more genuine perspective…. It is something that folks have seen or experienced themselves or within their families. Although she is very explicit that it’s a work of fiction, it is still a work of fiction that she’s trying to get passed off as an experience that people in this country have gone through. My view is she’s appropriating the experiences of Latinx folks in this country. For me, that’s the issue.”
Cummins tried to respond to critics during an interview on NPR podcast of Morning Edition called ‘American Dirt’ Author Jeanine Cummins Answers Vocal Critics.
She explained that she did not mean to be offensive. She just wanted to bring awareness about the stereotypes. Cummins states that she felt like there was a national dialogue for people to examine the humanity of the people involved in a much more personal way. She was hoping her novel would be able to do that.
Many of the times Mexican journalists are being murdered because they want to speak about the truth, yet they are always silenced before the light comes out. Cummins interpreted that in her novel since the significant other of Lydia Pérez (the main character in the story), Sebastián, is an investigative journalist. He was working to discover the leader of this new narcotic cartel. Once his story got published, that was when everything changed. This is something a lot of journalists face in Mexico since the freedom of the press is not respected like it is in the United States.
“Not everyone has to love my book, you know?” Cummins said. “I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive. I did the work. I did five years of research. The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue.”