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What we’re missing in the controversy around ‘American Dirt’

Though the book is fiction, its factual lapses obscure the real migration crisis at the border.

Central American migrants were blocked by members of Mexican National Guard in Ciudad Hidalgo, Chiapas State, Mexico, on January 23, 2020.ALFREDO ESTRELLA/AFP via Getty Images

Of all the controversy exploding around “American Dirt⁠” the novel that, as journalist Maria Hinojosa said, “set the Internet on fire”⁠ — one seemingly small detail stands out to me as a journalist focusing on immigration. Among the many people listed in her acknowledgments, author Jeanine Cummins thanks Alex Renteria of the US Border Patrol, followed by nameless “brave” migrants “in different stages of their journeys” who spoke to her about their experiences.

While Cummins’s book is a work of fiction, the author has gone to great lengths to legitimize the novel’s premise by recounting the years of “exhaustive research” she performed, sometimes saying it took four years, other times saying it took five years or seven years. But anyone who has even skimmed a newspaper recently, or spent a fraction of a moment at the US-Mexican border would know that Border Patrol’s entire function is in direct opposition to the “faceless brown mass” Cummins set out to humanize. More than that, Border Patrol is the federal immigration agency behind policies and practices that kill unknown numbers of migrants each year.


This may seem like a small point of contention, but it seems illustrative of the larger criticism surrounding the novel. Namely that Cummins is an unreliable narrator. Not just because she previously identified as white and has since rebranded as Latinx. Not just because she has been accused of cribbing the work of Latino writers. But because if her primary mission in writing this novel was to “examine the humanity” of migrants and shed light on the atrocities unfolding in the borderlands, she failed spectacularly.

If accuracy was important to Cummins, she would have known that it simply doesn’t make sense to place a middle-class Mexican woman at the center of her story. Is cartel violence real? Absolutely. Is it nearly impossible for Mexican migrants to access asylum? Certainly. But in 2018, Customs and Border Protection apprehended more than 38,000 unaccompanied children and nearly 104,000 people traveling as families from the Northern Triangle Countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, according to the Migration Policy Institute. As of June 2019, CBP had apprehended more than 363,000 migrants in families from the three countries during the first nine months of the fiscal year, more than tripling the total apprehensions for 2018. President Trump may have targeted Mexican immigrants with his rhetoric, calling them “rapists” and “drug dealers,” but Central Americans have been on the receiving end during one of the most anti-immigrant periods in modern American history. It was primarily Central American families separated at the border; it has been Central American children who have died in federal immigration custody; and it continues to be Central American migrants subject to Draconian immigration policies that lead to their deaths and disappearances and this is just under the Trump administration.


If it is true — as Cummins claimed — that she put years of research into “American Dirt,” speaking to lawyers, migrants in shelters, children in orphanages in Mexico, activists and helpers, deportees, and border crossers, it seems a glaring, unforgivable misstep to approach her stated goal of humanizing migration as if Latinx migrants’ stories, histories, and reasons for migrating are simply interchangeable. Or worse yet, that the identities of migrants and the conditions of their countries of origin are inconsequential or inconvenient details in storytelling about migration.


This is not to say that if Cummins had placed a Central American family at the center of her story, all would be well. I stand by the Latinx writers who have used this moment to have larger, desperately needed conversations about cultural appropriation, the overwhelming whiteness of the publishing industry, and the particular ways that Latinx writers are ignored in favor of storytellers like Cummins, who rely on uncomplicated, superficial narratives and harmful stereotypes to appeal to white audiences.

And make no mistake, this was absolutely a book about immigration written for white audiences. This has been made clear time and time again by Cummins, who says she overcame her fear of perhaps not being brown enough to write “American Dirt” by understanding that “there were so many stories that were important, vital and crucial but that no one here knew about them.”

As an immigration reporter, an avid reader of Latinx literature, and as a Mexican American and the daughter of a formerly undocumented Mexican immigrant, I beg to differ. But if any more evidence was needed, the publisher of “American Dirt,” Flatiron Books, has an interesting reading group guide for the novel, asking readers to debate whether borders are a “necessary evil” and if the world would be a better place if we made decisions knowing nothing of gender, race, nationality, individual tastes, or personal identity. Early on, Cummins made it her goal to “avoid politics when discussing the novel." As bizarre of an approach as this may seem, formerly undocumented writers have also pointed out that “American Dirt” itself pretends that immigration isn’t political.


I’ve covered immigration for a long time, and along the way I’ve encountered many well-meaning white advocates like Cummins, who tell me they want to give “voice to the voiceless” by speaking on behalf of immigrant communities. They often rely on deeply harmful narratives that pit immigrant communities against each other and throw immigrant parents under the bus. Early in my career I learned to avoid these interviews and instead give my attention to migrants, undocumented immigrants, and other affected people who are the experts on their own lives.

I only wish the publishing industry would do the same.

Tina Vasquez is a journalist focused on immigration and reproductive justice. She is based in North Carolina.