Flatiron Books and the Latino Threat Narrative (OPINION)

Feb 3, 2020
10:35 PM

Dignidad Literaria organizers with supporters in New York City, February 3, 2020 (Photo by Amanda Alcántara/Latino Rebels)

The Latino Threat Narrative is based on a culmination of negative depictions in the news media and Hollywood, and how they are “used to malign an entire population” with prejudices and stereotypes. When defining the term, many point to the book by Leo R. Chavez titled, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation.

The Latino Threat Narrative relies heavily on the nurturing and perpetuation of the idea that Latin Americans, particularly Mexicans, “are an invading force bent on reconquering land once considered their own,” refuse to learn English, and are destroying the American way of life with an “out of control” birth rate. All of which are statistically inaccurate, and frankly, racist.

But how we are depicted in Hollywood is a topic often discussed in the Latino/a/x/ community because of its broader impact. We see ourselves as drug dealers, gangsters, and criminals more often than not. Representation in positive roles is grossly lacking and this is also true of a very tone-deaf publishing industry.

And that is a huge part of the problem. For many Americans who are not in close proximity to Latino/a/x culture, what’s on their TV screens is how they see us. Whether it’s on the news or in a blockbuster film or in the lack of representation in prime-time television, what they see is all they know and what they think they know is prejudicial, at best.

You know, like in the book American Dirt.

The Real Issue

Much has been said of the controversial book by Jeanine Cummins. Not because it was written by a white-ish woman, but because of her use of cultural stereotypes accompanied by the lack of representation in the publishing industry. These two issues —combined with the near-constant stumbling on behalf of the publisher trying to get it right— started some much-needed and very uncomfortable conversations.

For instance, when the publisher of American Dirt canceled the remainder of the author’s book tour due to safety concerns, it immediately left me (and others) feeling as if they were perpetuating the same discriminatory stereotypes that continue to demonize our communities. It’s hard to explain, but it’s oddly suspicious. Bob Miller, president of Flatiron Books, issued a statement saying, “Based on specific threats to booksellers and the author, we believe there exists real peril to their safety,” and not much else.

The idea that this is an attempt to shift the conversation over to “angry mob threatens author,” is not lost on me. Big media, forever playing its role is also complicit here too. For example, Ron Charles of the Washington Post writes, “More than 30 years after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa demanding the assassination of Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, here we are terrorizing one of our own novelists.”

Pretty harsh language, no?

A statement like that is designed to do only one thing, change the conversation. And with most of the critique coming from the Latino/a/x community, using language like that —as the reader reflects on who is expressing their discontent— is an exercise in the perpetuation of some of the same stereotypes that make up the Latino Threat narrative.

I will concede that protests outside of booksellers on Cummins’ tour were being organized, but those were to be small and none were perceived as threats. One was being organized near me and the only Latino/a/x folks planning to attend were educators, artists, writers, and journalists.

Not gangsters in low-riders, Ron.

The problem with changing the narrative is not just that it paints Mexicans and Latin Americans in a bad light, it’s that it also silences the voices and discontent about the lack of Latino/a/x diversity and inclusivity in all aspects of American society—from movies to books to politics.

Have there been threats? Maybe. As of this writing, no credible threats have been seen or reported as Miller described them—leaving many to question the validity of those claims. But when Stephen King and other big names chimed in on Twitter saying, “we don’t threaten writers,” many of you, like me, laughed it off knowing that it happens every day.

Writers who touch on hard-to-discuss issues receive threats of violence online with somewhat disturbing regularity. Writers of color are specifically targeted—none more than women of color. Many of these writers (including me) have had their personal information shared publicly. Some women have had to go into hiding as a result and America never even flinches.

I am in no way trying to downplay the threats towards Cummins. Trust me. I get it. The problem we often face with threats is not knowing which are credible, forcing us to take each one of them seriously. While a good portion of threats we see are simply intimidation, somewhere in the sea of anger lies a potentially serious, actionable threat.

However, they should have never started using threats to redirect unless they intended on having an even broader conversation. One that focuses on the immediate outrage over white-ish lady receiving them —as a result of her writing— when it’s a near-constant problem for writers of color. I wonder if Oprah can explain why we should be outraged when it happens to us all the time.

Considering the controversy around the book, the cancellation of the tour was predictable. But claiming it was canceled because of threats is suspect. The publisher was already rethinking the book tour because of scheduled protests. They want it to be done in more of a town-hall format, citing the need to have a broader conversation. Great.

Next time, leave it at that.

Ignoring the Messengers

Reading all these think pieces focused on Cummins really does make this whole thing feel like white-lady important. Brown people, not so much. Because on the other side of the spectrum, Latino/a/x critics of the book have received death threats as well—with very little fanfare.

Myriam Gurba, who wrote one of the first critical reviews of American Dirt and is one of the organizers of #DignidadLiteraria (Literary Dignity), a group formed in response to the book’s controversy, shared with Vox one of the threats she received. In it, she was told to “confront the police” so that “one of them will relieve you of the burden of a life spent in feckless fury.”

Gurba also chimed in on the cancellation of the book tour saying the “the gesture is cowardly,” and adding, “they are attempting to reframe the issue [as one] that falsely implicates Latinx people as a threat.”

But it doesn’t end there. In Charles’ piece, he continues, “…And we can’t blame the threats against Cummins on President Trump’s race-baiting rhetoric or his obscene immigration abuses. The best critics of American Dirt are clearly motivated by a desire to defend the integrity of Mexican culture and the humanity of our most vulnerable residents. But in today’s toxic atmosphere, those valuable critiques have been drowned out by a cowardly chorus of violence.”

I didn’t want to have to unpack all of this nonsense, but here we are. I wouldn’t be so quick to say, “We can’t blame the threats against Cummins on President Trump’s race-baiting.” It most certainly could have been that. As we all know, the publisher, Flatiron Books, touts American Dirt as the novel that “allows readers to feel empathy for immigrants and others “who are struggling to find safety in our unsafe world.” Humanizing a population that is consistently dehumanized, particularly immigrants, can make you an instant target of Trumpistas.

I don’t want to focus on one writer because there are thought pieces similar to Charles’ all over the place. His piece, however, is emblematic of a much larger issue that speaks to how we, in this case, Mexicans, are perceived among the general population in America. Which brings us back to, “what they see [in media] is all they know and what they think they know is prejudicial.”

When these think pieces all begin to sound the same and are loaded with the same suggestive language in an attempt to change the conversation, it’s clear that objectivity went out the window before any of these writers sat down and began typing. It’s as if their collective white rage switched on the minute they heard the words “threat, Mexicans, and white lady” in the same sentence.

In another think piece at the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker projects the idea that Cummins’ whiteness is what people are angry about. She and many others quickly ran to Twitter citing the first amendment and talking about a white lady’s right to write about whatever she wants. Yeah, that happened. Parker’s piece is arguably the worst take in the American Dirt debacle.

It was never about that until writers like Charles and Parker started writing opinion pieces that were designed to shift the focus of the conversation. And it’s not just that, it’s the language they use that’s problematic. Parker, in her uniquely condescending way says, “Once Cummins’s genetic shortcomings caught the attention of social media’s literati, it was off to the bonfires. Not only was she condemned, prompting her to cancel her book tour in fear for her safety…”

You like that? It’s as if we all collectively picked up our digital pitch-forks and torches and started a Mexican mob to hunt her down because she wasn’t Latina enough. How Frankenstein-ish of Parker to suggest such a thing. As many times as this narrative has been denounced by Latino/a/x writers, I think it’s about time to quit perpetuating this lie.

One of the most interesting aspects of all this is that if Flatiron Books simply promoted the book as a domestic fiction thriller, and nothing else, there would never have been much controversy. Flatiron’s first mistake was in positioning the book as literary fiction with a personal connection to the border that could or should appeal to readers of other prominent Latin American writers.

Had they promoted the book for what it is, we would be talking about just another script with the same old stereotypes we see in Hollywood every single day. And in a way, I’m glad they did what they did. Because it opened up a huge discussion that needs to be had. Will we make a difference in bringing more Latinos into the publishing industry? I hope so.

The publishing world would benefit greatly from our participation, our stories, our varying cultures, and styles. Latino/a/x art is limitless. Having said that and as an upcoming author with three books in the works, I would be lying if being overlooked by a publishing world that once told me that I should consider using a more appealing name doesn’t intimidate me.

Because it does.

Where Does It Go Next?

At a Monday press conference following the meeting with #DignidadLiteraria and Flatiron/Macmillan Publishing, Gurba said, “Our goal is justice and I believe we are on the right path.” Author David Bowles added, “We don’t want hollow promises, we want real action.” Bowles then read a statement from MacMillan Publishing detailing their commitments.

According to Bowles, Macmillan committed to:

  • Substantially increase Latinx representation across Macmillan, including authors, titles, staff, and their overall literary ecosystem

  • Develop an action plan to address these objectives within 90 days

  • Regroup with #DignidadLiteraria and other Latinx groups to assess progress and show accountability to the Latinx community for the things they’re dedicating themselves to do

Bowles finished by declaring it “a clear victory for la gente.”

“We have redeemed ourselves as Latinos today,” Lovato said. “The Latinx community in the United States is on its way to entering the national conversation.”

“This is not about Jeanine Cummins, this is about us,” Lovato added.

The meeting sounds promising for Latino/a/x/ writers and I’m hopeful we see change. As we see things now, many Latino/a/x authors have been writing similar but much more accurate and compelling stories than American Dirt and being widely ignored by big media and the publishing world. Instead, we are being portrayed negatively in all forms of media and entertainment by the very same people who ignore our work. Then, when we speak up, they begin the cycle again…

…portraying us as the bad guys.


Arturo Tha Cuban is a front-line anti-racism activist, essayist and upcoming author who advocates for equality, justice and accountability. He tweets from @ExtremeArturo.