In “American Dirt,” Faulty Characters Fall Flat

Can an ally be worse than an enemy? In Jeannine Cummins’ case, yes. 

Her novel “American Dirt” brings readers into a world where drug cartels are intertwined with la policia, and the only escape is making a perilous journey to el norte. Lydia, a middle-class Mexican woman, is suddenly sucked from her little Acapulco bookshop into the paradoxical realm of drug lords, shaping the new standard for Mexican immigrants.

Unlike most Mexican immigrants, Lydia is not escaping an abusive or absent husband, fleeing extreme poverty, nor moving for a better life. In fact, Lydia has a loving husband, a beautiful home, a bookshop, and a brilliant son. The cartel leader of the novel, Javier, is just as problematic and misrepresentative. Javier is portrayed as a poetic, book-loving persona, rather than for what he truly is: a psychotic murderer. By romanticizing drug lords and immigrant stories, Cummins only further perpetuates misinformation and stereotypes about Mexican immigration. Even with seven years of extensive research, Jeannine Cummins fails to craft semi-realistic characters and to compensate for them, she inserts shoehorned symbols of motherhood and Mexican culture, only feeding the stereotypical representation of immigrants.

“American Dirt” is not all bad. The novel is a winner for strong worldbuilding and dynamic detailing. Jeannine Cummins is an experienced author and is more than capable of writing an engaging book. As Oprah Winfrey tweeted, “From the first sentence, I was IN.” Unfortunately, the captivating plot does not outweigh the faulty characters. 

Although the release of the novel was very successful, a current of backlash quickly followed. In the first week after release, Jeannine Cummins was accused of racial and cultural appropriation. Immigrants and members of the Latine community criticized the novel for being “pity porn” and for not accurately representing the gravity of their experiences. Other readers were appalled by the fact that Cummins is white and neither immigrant nor of Mexican heritage. She tried to refute this criticism by bringing up her Portuguese grandmother. Although Cummins may have some generational experience with migration, emigrating from a European country is very different from emigrating from a Latin American country. Furthermore, as a second-generation American, Cummins has not personally immigrated and thus cannot equate herself to people who have experienced immigration firsthand, especially immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border.   

Although writing about characters and situations outside of one’s lived experiences is a valuable part of creative writing, it is important that fiction does not become the predominant narrative. Not only does “American Dirt” falsely stereotype Latin American immigration and cartels, but the novel also takes the spotlight away from less-known, authentic works that tell the true story of Mexican immigration through the lens of an immigrant. Books like “Cajas de Carton” by Franscisco Jimenez, “The Devil’s Highway” by Luis Alberto Urrea, and “The Beast (La Bestia)” by Oscar Martinez deserve more recognition. Cummins’ voice is amplified, while people who are part of these demographics fail to receive adequate attention and coverage.

“American Dirt” is enveloped in a web of controversy. Although Jeannine Cummins presumably wrote “American Dirt” with good intentions, she ultimately tarnished the real stories of immigrants and members of the Latine community. In the toss-up between deceptive fiction and flat-out fraudulence, one must ask, “Is the read worth it?” Jeannine Cummins, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you were not meant to write this book.