Graphic via Desirée Tapia for The Americano Graphic via Desirée Tapia for The Americano

The uproar caused by the narco-romance thriller might have shown a way forward in this electoral year.

Earlier this year, Latino writers and activists came together to call BS or worst on American Dirt, a novel about the forced migration of a Mexican bookstore-owner and her son into the U.S. The book—that had been bought by Flatiron publishing house after a bidding war and received the blessing of Oprah (who claimed to be “IN from the first sentence”)—was accused of inaccurate depictions of the immigrant’s struggles in general, and Mexicans in particular. This was the beginning of a months-long controversy.

As Mexican critic Gabriel Garcia Ochoa put it, the novel is plagued by butchered Spanglish, literary and contextual impossibilities, and dissatisfying representations of sensitive topics such as violence against women and children. It “tries to be taco, but it’s Taco Bell.”  

Cummins and Flatiron made headlines for their tone-deaf defenses, and even more so when people found out about barbed-wire centerpieces at a book party, and the author getting the cover turned into nail art before tweeting about it. 

Beyond that, Cummins is considered irresponsible because of the lack of “make-believe” that usually comes from being familiar with the culture or doing the research, adding to the vilification of an already demonized minority—even if that was not her intention.

“This kind of narrative is meant to make white people feel good about what they know, see and understand to be the problem,” says Nicole Guidotti-Hernández, an expert on immigration and Latin studies, currently a fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center. “It trivializes the immigrant narrative, and takes away the cultural specificity and the historical factors that drive people to migrate in certain ways.” 

“The people in American Dirt would not be taking La Bestia; those folks will probably get a tourist visa and overstay,” she adds, in reference to the dangerous train many undocumented immigrants ride on to cross the border. 

What’s Politics Got To Do With It

To Guidotti-Hernández, understanding the differences amongst and between Latino (race, gender, class, generation dynamics, and how they interact in state and federal legislation), is as fundamental as understanding the places where they connect (healthcare, higher education, immigration).  

American Dirt was labeled as “trauma porn” because its sanitized story appeases the guilt of the readers with a page-turner instead of directing the reflection to the complex and human dimensions of the migrant experiences. Many writers of color have published complex narratives about the immigrant experience without seeing a fraction of the support the industry gave Cummins.  

“The book received a seven-figure advance, a movie deal, and an Oprah stamp of approval because it turns a hard-to-tell story into an easy one,” wrote author Ingrid Rojas Contreras on her essay “There’s Nothing Thrilling About Trauma.” 

The American Dirt backlash might have made it seem like everybody in the Latino community was ganging up against Cummins for daring to touch on immigration without having experienced it, but that doesn’t mean it was a risk-free move. Not only were those critics going against names such as Stephen King or Sandra Cisneros, who had been part of the advanced praise chorus. For Chicano writer Myriam Gurba, her opinion against the book —a review that was rejected by the editor of the feminist magazine that had requested it—turned into online harassment, but that didn’t silence her.

The voices criticizing Cummins’ novel coalesced around a movement and a hashtag, #DignidadLiteraria, demanding concrete actions. 

“The nice thing about Dignidad Literaria is that it’s not just, ‘I’m just going to go and promote my work,’” said Dr. Guidotti-Hernández. “The conversation is ‘We need to promote the work of everyone, and other people need a chance’.”

Dignidad Literaria turned out to be much more than a hashtag. The group met with MacMillan, the publisher of American Dirt, and the company committed to substantially increasing Latino representation, from authors to staff, and to write up an action plan within 90 days. They organized events to discuss the issues. They made their voices heard against the TV special Oprah Winfrey produced to address her controversial support of the novel. And last week Dignidad Literaria, along with Presente.org, filed a request to New York Governor Cuomo to initiate an investigation of potentially discriminatory practices in hiring staff and in contracting with authors in the publishing industry.

The American Dirt controversy might have been just an escalation of previous outcries in the face of discrimination or misrepresentation, but it could have done something new: show us a way forward for activism in 2020—a path to quickly coalesce on- and offline around what could have just been dismissed just as business as usual. Or as Dr. Guidotti-Hernández put it, that Latinos have a saying on how they are treated as citizens or non-citizens. In an electoral year, that may make a big difference.

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