From the very first page of Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt, we are plunged into the heart-pounding action of Lydia Quixano Perez’s nightmarish run-in with a cartel. She must face her greatest fears in order to protect one of her greatest loves, her young son.
The twin themes of fear and love are like two legs that propel the remaining 377 pages at a sprinter’s pace from Acapulco to the border to Maryland, while giving us a glimpse of human nature under pressure, the capacity of humans to be (sometimes simultaneously) giving and selfish, brave and cowardly, kind and cruel.
This novel has come under scrutiny because it was written by someone who is not Mexican and who has not experienced what she writes about firsthand, with the argument being that the writing of a novel like this, and the acclaim it has received and money it has made should have gone to a Latinx writer. I do understand this concern, but I think it may be because this book is being held up as being the be-all-end-all novel about immigration, the iconic one that will go down in history. I don’t think that necessarily is or should be true.
If we view this as simply a very good story (not the ONE story for the ages), then I think the more stories that humanize immigrants, the better! Whether these stories are written by Latinx writers or not, I think they can all work together to give readers an understanding of and empathy for those who end up at the US’s southern border. But this controversy has certainly made me more determined to find and read more stories written by Latinx authors on the same topic.
I think it’s particularly effective that the character Lydia is a middle to upper class, well-educated woman who had never considered immigrating to the USA until she got on the wrong side of a powerful cartel. Thus, she retains an outsider’s perspective that helps the reader learn about what is going on and to put themselves in the shoes of migrants on the perilous journey.
Some people also criticize the book because they say it seems like Cummins thinks that Mexico is nothing but cartels and violence. I actually think the opposite–I thought a strength of the book was giving the reader a tour (at the pace of Lydia’s journey) of several Mexican cities which were portrayed as beautiful and full of much good, though having a shadow side which concerned residents greatly, much like many American cities!
The characters in this book and the insights I gained from American Dirt will stay with me for a long time. Now, when I read the news about the southern border of the USA, I will have Lydia’s face in my mind, as well as Luca’s, Soledad’s, Rebecca’s, Beto’s, and many other characters’ which have been richly fleshed out and brought to life by Cummins’ excellent writing.