American Dirt: How a non-Mexican, non-migrant author profited from a human tragedy

Do we really need a whitewashed story about Mexican immigrants fleeing a violent country?

American Dirt: How a non-Mexican, non-migrant author profited from a human tragedy
Jeanine Cummins incurs in cultural appropriation by telling a story full of stereotypes and cheesy phrases - Photo: File Photo/AP
English 28/01/2020 16:15 EL UNIVERSAL in English/Gretel Morales Mexico City AP Actualizada 12:22
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In recent days, American Dirt, the novel written by Jeanine Cummins, has sparked criticism among social media users, activists, and critics after Oprah Winfrey sent the book to Mexican actresses Salma Hayek and Yalitza Aparicio.

After much criticism, Salma Hayek apologized for recommending the book without having read it first:



A post shared by Salma Hayek Pinault (@salmahayek) on

American Dirt tells the story of a bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico, who loses much of her family to a murderous drug cartel and flees to the U.S. on a terrifying journey with her 8-year-old son. The novel was acquired by Flatiron Books in 2018 in a reported seven-figure deal and has been talked about in the publishing world ever since. It has appeared on numerous lists of books to look for in 2020, has reached the top 20 on ahead of its release, and has been praised by everyone from John Grisham and Stephen King to Erika Sanchez and Sandra Cisneros.

When asked about the controversial novel, Winfrey told The Associated Press that “nothing has done more (than ‘American Dirt’) to make me feel the pain and desperation of what it means to be on the run. It’s changed the way I see the whole issue and I was already empathetic.”

Cummins said her inspiration first came from her Irish husband, who had to wait a long time to get his green card and the fear that he might be deported. She also was moved by what she considered the media’s sensationalized coverage of immigration, and, more indirectly, by her grief over a 1991 tragedy when two of her cousins were raped and forced off a bridge, falling to their deaths.

“So many of the stories center on violent men and macho violent stories about people who commit atrocities,” she said. “My hope was to reframe the narrative and show it from the point of view of the people on the flip side of violence.”

Cummins, who is Irish and Puerto Rican, claims she spent time in Mexico and met with many people on both sides of the border; however, her novel has raised questions over whether she, a non-Mexican and non-migrant, was suited to tell this story. Cummins herself acknowledged the situation in the book’s afterword: “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.”

Although Sandra Cisneros called American Dirt the “international story of our times,” some other writers of Mexican heritage have criticized it. For example, Myriam Gurba, whose work has been praised by Oprah and other publications, said that Cummins reinforces “overly-ripe Mexican stereotypes, among them the Latin lover, the suffering mother, and the stoic man child.” David Bowles, a writer and translator, called the book “smug saviorism.”

Over the past few days, The New York Times published contrasting reviews. Critic Parul Sehgal labeled the novel’s characters “thin creations,” criticized the language as strained and even nonsensical, and concluded that the “book feels conspicuously like the work of an outsider.” Author Lauren Groff, reviewing the book for The New York Times Book Review, found herself completely immersed but wondering whether she should have accepted the assignment.

“I could never speak to the accuracy of the book’s representation of Mexican culture or the plights of migrants; I have never been Mexican or a migrant,” wrote Groff, who nonetheless “kept turning the pages.”

After she wrote her review, Groff tweeted: “I wrestled like a beast with this review, the morals of my taking it on, my complicity in the white gaze.” She called Sehgal’s take “better and smarter.”

Therefore, the main issue with American Dirt relies on the fact that Cummins is appropriating the experience of hundreds of Mexican migrants who have suffered atrocities on their quest for a better life in the U.S.

Moreover, the writer showed her lack of sensibility by getting a barbed wire manicure and showing it off online. If that wasn’t enough, there were centerpieces in the form of walls and barbed wire at the book release.

Photo: Taken from

In contrast with Mexican-American writers, and Latinx writers in general, Cummins’ novel sold for a seven-figure sum and was praised by Oprah and prominent writers who often ignore Mexican and Latinx authors. Additionally, the publishing house turned the release of the book into a spectacle, focusing solely on the author and not on the suffering of migrants.

Although many argue that Cummins has the right to tell this story, she is, in fact, appropriating the voice of Mexican migrants and their experience and turning it into a novel full of stereotypes and cheesy lines.

On January 29, Flatiron Books announced its decision to cancel the American Dirt book tour after the author, Jeanine Cummins, was allegedly threatened.

Instead, Flatiron and the author will organize a series of town hall meetings that would include some of the groups that have concerns about the book.

The publishing house acknowledged it had made a mistake when it said it was “a novel that defined the migrant experience; we should not have said that Jeanine’s husband was an undocumented immigrant while not specifying that he was from Ireland; we should not have had a centerpiece at our bookseller dinner last May that replicated the book jacket so tastelessly."

However, after addressing their lack of sensibility and series of mistakes, the publishing house claims Cummins had become “the recipient of hatred from within the very communities she sought to honor”, and that her “work of fiction that was well-intentioned has led to such vitriolic rancor.”

Nevertheless, the statement signed by Bob Miller, the President of Flatiron Books, was met with harsh criticism for portraying the author and the publisher as victims.

For years, Mexican, Chicano, and Latinx writers have shared their experiences as foreigners and immigrants. Although they are talented, the majority of them remain in the sidelines of the literary world, so this is the perfect opportunity to read great literary works written by Chicanos:

1. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa

2. Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

3. The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

4. Our Lost Border: Essays on Life Amid Narco-Violence edited by Sarah Cortez and Sergio Troncoso

5. Mañana Means Heaven by Tim Z. Hernandez

6. Native Country of the Heart: A Memoir by Cherríe Moraga

7. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

8. Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. by Luis J. Rodriguez

9. The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande

10. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying by Laurie Ann Guerrero


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