A&M Latinx scholars discuss controversial fictional immigrant account 'American Dirt'

Published: Jan. 31, 2020 at 5:46 PM CST
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A New York Times bestselling novel and selection for Oprah’s Book Club “American Dirt” by Jeanine Cummins is drawing huge backlash from the Latino community.

The novel follows a Mexican family fleeing cartel violence and working to cross the border into the United States.

Initial critical acclaim led to critical backlash as the work of fiction was trashed as perpetuating harmful stereotypes and, as one reviewer put it, trafficking “trauma porn.”

Now, Cummins’ book tour is canceled after the publishing company said both she and the bookstores involved were receiving death threats.

Marcela Fuentes and Regina Mills are both Latinx studies scholars at Texas A&M University. They joined First News at Four to discuss potential issues with the book, beginning with the stereotypes and tropes used.

“Characters can only be one of these two, a victim or a villain,” said Mills. “Also the idea that Mexican life is one of only trauma and hyper-violence. There are never any times where it’s just somebody getting their nails done or having a family dinner. It is definitely really dehumanizing to see such one-dimensional portrayal.”

“Also with this victim-villain binary, and you’re like, ‘Well, this is all that it means to be Latino,’” Mills said. “We rarely do that with books by white authors.”

Fuentes adds that, even more broadly, this kind of stereotyping negatively affects the global conversation on diversity.

“It makes it to where people can’t understand each other,” Fuentes said. “People will then say, ‘Oh, well these people are less complicated than other people,’ so it can be very alienating.”

Cummins, the author, identifies as white. Fuentes says this controversy doesn’t necessarily mean that white people should stop trying to tell the stories of minorities, merely that white storytellers should approach the endeavor with dedication and care—and a lot of research.

“I would never say that someone shouldn’t write what they want to write,” said Fuentes, “but I would say that if you are going to take that on, then you are responsible for what you put out.”

Mills says that this controversy is the result of the failure of many: the author, the publishing industry, the marketing team, even Oprah.

“There is a way in which this novel is representing a perfect storm of all the things—not only about the stereotypes in this novel but of access to the publishing world that Latino authors do not have,” said Mills. “Gatekeepers have kept a lot of these authors out.”

Fuentes says that this conversation and controversy would look different—or not exist—had this novel been marketed as a romance thriller instead of a story representative of the true immigrant experience.

“It’s literally being compared to ‘Grapes of Wrath’ by John Steinbeck,” Fuentes said. “I think there needs to be in the publishing industry that there needs to be less gatekeeping, more diversity of voices, and maybe applying the right label to what you market. If it is a thriller, let it be a thriller. It’s probably a great thriller.”

“As readers, we can do a lot to help make the publishing industry see that we want diverse stories, that we want to see stories by people with these backgrounds,” Mills added. “Whether it’s memoirs, testimonies…even reading Latino stories that aren’t just about immigration.”

For the full conversation with Fuentes and Mills, see the video player above.

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