At the end of 2019, newsrooms across the United States were sent a book for review: American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The book has a white jacket cover featuring blue birds, reminiscent of traditional Mexican Talavera tiles surrounded by barbed wire. In the center of the page is a blurb from author Don Winslow. He calls American Dirt, “A Grapes of Wrath for our time.”

The novel tells the story of Lydia Quixano, a middle-class bookstore owner in Acapulco, Mexico. Her entire family is gunned down after her husband, a journalist, publishes an article about the head of the local cartel—a man Lydia was flirting with. She and her son Luca escape the massacre, and in fear of the cartel, find themselves taking a dangerous trek north to the United States.

American Dirt was released with much anticipation—acclaimed Latina writer Sandra Cisneros called the book “the great novel of las Américas.” Julia Alvarez, Reyna Grande and Erika Sánchez also wrote positively about the novel. And this month, American Dirt got one of the most important endorsements there is when it comes to sales: it was chosen as the next book in Oprah Winfrey’s book club.

But when American Dirt was finally released in January of 2020, it came with an overwhelming outcry from Latinx writers and readers. Many people felt that Cummins, who identifies as white and Latina, furthered harmful stereotypes about migrants from Mexico and Central America, that her novel included several cultural inaccuracies, and that the marketing campaign surrounding her book was tone-deaf and indicative of a publishing industry that only has 3% Latinx workers. Cummins writes in her author’s note, that she wishes someone “slightly browner” then her had written the book.

For this story, Maria Hinojosa spoke to four people at the heart of the American Dirt controversy: Myriam Gurba —writer and author of Mean— who wrote an explosive critique of the novel; Cisneros, who speaks publicly about the book for the first time; Luis Alberto Urrea, a Mexican-American author who has written extensively about border life; and finally, Cummins, the author of American Dirt.

Featured photo by Natalia Fidelholtz/Latino USA. 

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28 thoughts on “Digging Into ‘American Dirt’

    1. It was so sad to hear Sandra Cisneros defend her endorsement of American Dirt. Her reasoning did not ring credible. I would have more respect for her if she had not also criticizes and call out Latinx writers and basically they should read it. So sad.

    2. IMaybe the book isn’t perfect, but it is engrossing for an American audience. And it cannot be stated enough that literature influences minds! Real migrants suffer every day . Waiting for equity in publishing isn’t an option. Luis Alberto Urrea is mentioned by the main character in this novel! Americans interested can then read his body of work and be exposed to a wonderful latinx writer who really does get the details correct.Imagine how a group discussion in a high school classroom could be generated about so many current topics, It’s all good! Raising consciousness is the goal, and Ms Cummins has achieved that. Kudos to her, not arrows.

  1. Kudos, Maria!

    This is such a respectful, skillful, principled interview! Thank you so much!
    I have to mention that I had a brief interview with your lovely mama back in 1993(?) in Chicago about her DV shelter. Such a powerful person! Uds. both tan chingonas!
    Con respeto!

  2. As a somewhat privileged white middle-class female conservative midwestern reader and Indy publisher who very much understands and suffers under the disparities of the publishing industry, I read the book after hearing about the controversies in order to learn, to widen my own understanding of the Latinx perspective. Reading the book did not really help me on this front – I thought it was a good read and understood immediately as a publisher why it was written as it was, and for whom, but could not pick out the cultural offenses easily. Listening to this series of interviews really helped me begin to grasp on a specific level why the book has roused such passionate Latinx response, both positive and negative. Thank you. I also felt the pain in Cummins’ voice during what should have been a glorious time and I do believe she has become a lightning rod for issues she should not be held responsible for. I hope this NPR piece helps the conversation’s tone overall become less vitriolic and more constructive.

    1. Well said though I am the opposite of a white conservative midwesterner. Though I think the issues that were raised by this book are important and worth grappling with. I have not read the book so I can’t comment on the content, but the context of its writing and marketing are deeply concerning.

  3. I am at a complete loss to understand why the uproar about American Dirt. It reminds me of a modern day book burning, thank you Social Media. Authors have been writing literature for centuries; not belonging to the ethnic group they were writing about; Leon Uris, Trinity & The Haj, to name a few. We have become a nation of over the top Political Correct police. Lighten up and let each of us decide what is appropriate for us to read. Thank you

  4. Congrats on a great thought provoking show. The passion and different perspectives of each speaker came through loud and clear. Great lineup! As a white male, the interviews and Maria’s analysis helped me better understand the impact of this book and the pervasive racism that in inherent in our world.

    Like Leslie mentioned above, it was also striking to hear the pain in the author’s voice. Who knows her level of sincerity or intentions? Hard to tell. Who knows if this will end her career as a writer, as she states at the end of the interview? Hopefully not.

    At times it is hard (for me) to jump into discussions on these hard issues, for fear of using the wrong words or saying the “wrong thing”. And despite best intentions, some times I do. Yet at times, it is frustrating for me to have to tip toe around the questions and opinions that I have. Bottom line, this podcast, discussions with friends, and the thoughtful articles coming from this issue has helped me better understand why the world is like it is. Just like that crazy piece of public art that may not be true to its surroundings or offensive to some, the resulting dialogue and discussion can often bring new perspectives and sense to many of us to need to hear it. It often forces us to make connections that we have never seen before.

    Thanks to Latino USA for deepening the discussion with some very thoughtful reporting.

  5. This is a great interview, however as a Mexican immigrant who developed her professional career in Mexico and after that, I moved to the USA. I am also a “Want to be Writer” I have read books written by Latina writers that are full of clichés. I guess it’s because editors are white, Mexicans would feel very offended by reading that a Mexican refers to the USA as “America”. I am not reading Cummins’ book for the same reason. Sandra Cisneros is the most inspiring Latina writer I have come across!

  6. The book is well written. It doesn’t have to portray mexicans exactly, because Mexicans are a very diverse group of people, only the 2nd, 3rd and 4th generation Mexicans born and raised in the US don’t get it. The people crossing the border escaping violence are not only Mexicans, actually most are from El Salvador and Guatemala, Honduras too. They are escaping with their children because the “maras” (gangs) force teen boys and men to participate and threaten and assault in horrific ways.
    This interview was not about these people, THE REAL VICTIMS. It was about the writers who sit comfortably on this side of the border, whining over not making a million bucks.
    They argue about who has the right to profit from the story of a child crushed by a garbage truck!!! It is REVOLTING, SINISTER AND GROTESQUE.
    The book is a novel. It doesn’t have to be a journalistic essay. It would have been a great opportunity to talk about the people trying to escape violence and what we can do or are doing to help as humanity. This interview is a disgrace. T

    1. Agree with many of your points. I, too, sensed a tinge of jealousy, to be quite honest. The uproar is ridiculously self-centered. I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Thrilling! Like being on a rollercoaster, being disappointed that it’s over, then running back to get in line to ride again. Enjoyed hearing the differing viewpoints. There is no right or wrong answer, it’s totally on the reader to make their own assessment.

  7. A book about Latinos may open the hearts and minds of people who never thought of delving into the subject. It may even cause them to read more books on the subject written by people who have experienced that life. This refers to every kind of life not just Latino. Not just whites. But everyone.

    1. Thank you for this excellent journalism! I cannot think of another recent example of speaking to the source, the critics and other expert opinions in one report!
      Diclaimer: I have not read the book.
      I respect everyones perspective and feelings surrounding this book release. I hope that going forward we can all come to the table for discussion, collaboration and solutions rather than following the current climate of reactivity. As the story unfolds I am seeing a mirroring of the identity crisis our country is currently going through. We are reworking our national identity together, and in order for it to go in the positive Equitable direction we must all examine our reasons for starting conversations or our personal reasons for stonewalling discussions with reactivity or hate.
      Thank you, Ms. Hinojosa for your great hosting of LatinoUSA!

  8. Great journalism, I ran out to buy three Urrea books after I heard his voice. Have not yet decided about whether to read American Dirt, but have two responses about the controversy: 1. It is unfair and wrong to argue that you have to be a certain color or have a certain background to have a voice in literature and art. 2. Plagiarism is never OK, if portions were lifted unintentionally from another’s work, there should be an apology and some financial compensation. I think unintentional use of others’ work can be an understandable mistake, sometimes it is difficult to know where our ideas originate.

  9. Get over it! Latinx? How about just using “hispanic”? No problem there,. As a second generation Mexican American I am so tired of the PC police. A good story is a good story, no matter who writes it. In Portland, they chased away some great Mexican food because they weren’t Mexican! How stupid is that!! I make great Indian food, and Chinese food, and Italian food. Should not being any of those ethnicities stop me from opening up a food cart? So tired of this…

  10. As a relatively inexperienced (white) writer trying to hone my craft, and the friend of someone who had posted a positive review and was then trashed, I read the book with interest. IMHO the book has several flaws that left the author open to the criticisms of stereotyping and “trauma porn.” First, if Ms. Cummins had brought Chapter 1 to a critque group, she might have been admonished not to kill off her characters before the reader has a chance to care about them. By killing off sixteen people in the opening scenes, the author created characters whose sole purpose was to get shot. They weren’t people, they were props. We learn about a few characters from the reminiscences of the two main protagonists, but that lends more depth to the living than to the dead. Another choice that left her open to criticism was the choice to narrate in what’s called a “close 3rd person,” for instance writing third person dialogue both the widow and her son have with themselves inside their own heads. For some people of color, this replicates the co-opting of black and brown bodies (through violent subjugation, if not genocide) that has happened over the past five hundred years on this continent. Another odd thing about that, though, was that Cummins often switched from being inside the widow’s head to being inside her son’s head in the same paragraph, with no transition. Finally, I don’t think people are saying you have to “be a certain color or have a certain background to have a voice” in literature and art. (Well, maybe the publishing industry is.) But if you are going to represent others’ cultures, be respectful enough to get the details right. It’s another aspect of craft. I suspect some of the outrage is that in that way, the book feels sloppy, careless. I don’t think it was intentional. But I think if an author isn’t aware of her sources, to the point that she doesn’t know she’s lifted a scene, she’s written the book in a stupor — in this case, perhaps a stupor of grief. For that reason, I have compassion for her.

  11. Balanced reporting overall. Just finished the book and I think it’s a composite story intended for a U.S. audience. Some parts aren’t authentic but the story is interesting and it fosters empathy for migrant people. I don’t get why some people made such a big deal about the conchas. Really? Can’t a rich guy like a good concha? I’ve seen rich Mexicans in DF eating street tacos….

  12. My book group will share our thoughts about the book on Wednesday. While the book was not written by a Latinx writer, I think it’s very errors reveal discussion and pain reflecting how poorly most people in the US understand the needs and values of others. The book was a good read but seemed unreal. Still the book sparked the controversy and that is equally if not more important. Though the story may be imperfect, it does allow the reader to see some of a culture most never see, and though romanticized and distorted, there is a glimmer of reality in it, which is made clearer by the responses and the stories most will not read. In the anger and tightly held vitriolic responses I hear the grief of people crying to be seen and heard and valued. I also see how a mostly white publishing industry is selling best sellers, not truth. This opens lots of questions and challenges for any reader. In the end, without this book I would not have known about so many others. Will see what my grouopt hinks later this week.

  13. Once again Marina Hinojosa does a great job of presenting the issues related to this book. I have been reading latinex authors over the years. I see this book & the controversy generated as an opportunity for many white people to expand their knowledge, to have a deeper appreciation of the pain & suffering that stimulate people to leave their homes for some pretty shabby treatment in the USA!

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