AMERICAN DIRT and Where We Can’t Forget to Point the Finger (OPINION)

Jan 30, 2020
5:41 PM

Her stamp of literary approval has perhaps not risen to the level of Harold Bloom’s, but along her promotional book club journey, Oprah Winfrey has selected such canonical stars as Morrison, Dickens, García Márquez, and Oates. Yet, along the way, no book by a U.S. Latinx author could boast of being on her list until she selected American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins, whose grandmother is Puerto Rican.

The unprecedented reaction to the cliched and unrealistic portrayals of Mexican characters in American Dirt resulted in a barrage of finger-pointing with Oprah, the publisher, and even the iconic Sandra Cisneros, being declared guilty and worse for promoting the book. We knew that Yale’s Bloom was a gatekeeper, but et tu, some pondered. Still, rather than focusing exclusively on publishers and individuals, we need to remember how our educational system played a pivotal role in the rise of such a problematic book.

Famous All Over Town became a sensation and was hailed by The New York Times for its realism. That was before it was revealed that the novel was not written by a Latinx author but rather by Daniel Lewis James, who understood that American readers associate the Latinx community and reality with violence, drugs, and gangs, and that this formula was too good to pass up.

Don’t get me wrong. Ask any Latinx author and they will share stories of disappointment and disillusion with publishers. Indeed, I have experienced their lack of effort to take Latinx writing seriously firsthand. At the 2008 MLA Conference, back when John S. Christie and I had just co-edited Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature, I was curious about how Pearson, the publisher, would market the book.

I figured what better place than the city lights of the book exhibit hall, where academics walk around in search of that next text they will add to their classes. I approached the publisher’s booth and without introducing myself, asked them what they could tell me about the book sitting on their shelf. Their representative looked back and without apology simply said, “That’s a small market so I don’t know much about that book.” That was the promotion. Yes, publishers are at fault. But if we continue to concentrate solely on them, it will only be a matter of time before another version of American Dirt is recycled.

And what about Oprah and Cisneros, you might say? In praising this problematic book, Oprah even went to say that everyone should read to book to understand what it means to be “a migrant on the run for freedom.” Mind you, this was no ordinary reader saying this. This was the “woke” Oprah, the Sofia from The Color Purple who knows what justice is.

What we learned is that Oprah is not much different from other American readers, as evidenced by the fact that she was genuinely surprised that the selection was even a problem. The more we concentrate on her, the more we disregard how she is a product of an educational system that finds her lack of knowledge acceptable. Yes, one could correctly argue that she should have gone out of her way to read more about Latinx communities, but the fact remains, even those whom we consider the most literate are a product of a system that endorses cultural illiteracy.

As for Cisneros, who is becoming proof that we are unforgivingly quick to forget all the good that Latinx literature advocates have done for the broader Latinx communities, I consider her someone who is “guilty” of her own relenting activism. Her support of other writers is legendary, which by the way, is more than I can say of all authors who reach the pinnacle of the publishing world, and in this case, I am not surprised that she has continued to support the book. As I’ve read the attacks on her, I can’t help but hear laughter in the background. Pointing jaggedly at Cisneros accomplishes nothing more than falling into the trap set by those who thrive on watching Brown on Brown crime.

Flatiron Books, the publisher of American Dirt, knows the market for a book like this one and is fully aware that American audiences have been educated in a system that ignores Latinx literature and couldn’t tell the difference between buenas noches and buenos nachos. Readers are more likely to recognize a Latinx character from “Breaking Bad” or a Pablo Escobar miniseries than they are a character from a Latinx work.

The question, however, is not just what are publishers or producers going to do about it. We must expect more from our schools and in turn create audiences that know better. From elementary school to high school, students learn that there is no difference between a Puerto Rican, Mexican, Guatemalan, Salvadoran, or any other Latinx group. And there is no incentive nor consequence for this failure. AP’s, SAT’s, name the assessment, and I’ll show you how this knowledge just doesn’t seem to matter.

The educational system continues to fail students into their years in higher education. It is bad enough that Latinx faculty represent only 4 percent of the overall faculty at colleges and universities. When that absence is coupled with the dearth of representation of Latinx authors in college and university courses, the result is a graduate who has buying power yet barely has any knowledge of anything Latinx. And it is not enough for faculty to use a fragment of a Latinx work here or there. Those faculty who include only a poem, short story, essay, or a chapter by Latinx author in their syllabi may mean well, but they are part of the problem. In effect, they are saying that the largest minority population can continue to be invisible as long as they are in the periphery. The token representation of a Latinx author only serves to reinforce the belief that Latinx are monolithic.

And then there are the book reviews touted in resumes and vita as a measure of how knowledgeable faculty are in their fields. Higher education faculty need to be more inclusive in their scholarship and in particular, the way they select which authors to review. Faculty need to reflect on the colonialistic thinking that works written by and about Latinx communities should be reserved for review only by journals such as Latino Studies or Journal of Latino/Latin American Studies. They may not have the power of Oprah, but they do make choices about where to shine academic lights and in doing so, point out which works deserve serious attention and which don’t. Not surprisingly, almost all of the Latinx authors I know resort to book review commentary, (i.e. support, via social media). Most of these authors have barely gotten a review on Amazon, never mind on academic journals.

There is a glimmer of hope in how educational institutions can be pressured to chang, but it is just that, a glimmer. When Dr. Lorgia García-Peña was denied tenure at Harvard last year, there was an uproar. The ensuing condemnation that came from Harvard’s own students and the protests —such as a letter of petition now signed by over 5,000 individuals— resulted in the dean’s promise this year to lead a review of the tenure process. Still, the likelihood is that the review will be conducted by those whose bookshelves are devoid of works by Latinx authors. Neither a promise of a review nor a review itself is an acknowledgment of a broken system.

Likewise, pressuring Oprah and others to review what went wrong with American Dirt is not enough. Unless we are willing to admit that when it comes to Latinx representation, our educational system is a true American tragedy that needs to be fixed, it will only be a matter of time before another “great” classic comes along and we are wildly pointing fingers again.


José B. González, PhD, is the author of Toys Made of Rock, and When Love Was Reels and the editor of A Fulbright Scholar and professor of English, he has been a contributor to NPR. JoseBGonzalez.Com, @Jose_B_Gonzalez on Twitter.