by Hector Acosta
By now you’re all probably acquainted with the American Dirt debacle.
In case you’re not, let me direct you to Myriam Gurba’s fantastic review of the book, which breaks down how the novel and its author, Jeanine Cummins, failed its readers with its portrayal of Mexico and those who reside within it. Gurba’s review, and the subsequent discussion on Twitter—spearheaded primarily by Latinx writers such as David Bowles, Robert Lovato and Esmeralda Bermudez—have pushed forward a discussion of not only the way we Latinxs are portrayed in popular culture, but also how the publishing company has continued to do a disservice to us as both as readers and writers. This is something the recently released Diversity Baseline Survey, done by Lee & Low Books reaffirm in stark, disappointing numbers.
And yet, with all of that said above, I’m kind of thankful for American Dirt.
Because the other thing the book has created is the hashtag #DignidadLiteraria. Following of the steps of #ownvoices and #disruptexts, two previous Twitter hashtags meant to highlight marginalized voices, the DignidadLiteraria hashtag has been created for a community to express themselves and come together to share ways to encourage and raise themselves and others, as well as to talk about what they are working on, or what books they have coming out.
And I found myself personally struggling with participating in it.
Not because I don’t agree with the hashtag. I love it, and think it’s tremendous to see so many joining the discussion and sharing their work, their struggles, their hope, and yeah, their anger. It’s because frankly, there are moments where I wonder if I’m Latinx enough. If my words and stories are doing justice to my culture, or if, like Jeanine Cummins, I am only emphasizing ugly and old stereotypes.
I was born in Mexico City—El D.F—if I’m talking to someone in Spanish. My dad is from Veracruz, and my mom, while an American citizen, spent her life crossing the border back and forth between both Mexico and the United States. We were upper middle class, and that meant private schools which taught me English from an early age, and parents who, when they decided to, had the means and ability to migrate into the United States via passports. I was about 8 years old when we moved to the United States, and I don’t remember struggling with the transition. Part of it was the fact I was fortunate enough to already know English, but it was also because we moved into El Paso, Texas. El Paso sits right on the border of Texas, and has one of the highest percentages of those who identify as Hispanics residing in the city. As such, I never felt like too much of an outsider. I never experienced many of the hardships, and racism that others have had to. I also never experienced too much cultural pride. Oh sure, whenever the World Cup came around, I would wear green and chant, ‘Si se puede’ like everyone else in my neighborhood, but otherwise, there wasn’t a lot of exposure to my Mexican heritage.
And my writing showed it. For the longest time, I wrote white. Meaning that the default race of the characters in my store were white. It wasn’t a conscious choice, in the sense that I didn’t set out to explicitly make the characters white, but at the same time, I rarely bothered to consider a different race for the men and women in my story. And when I did write from Latinx perspectives, my stories centered around cartels and drug kingpins, something American Dirt has also been heavily criticized for. The stories I wrote were in the same vein as the narconovelas which have gained popularity not only in Central and Latin America, but also North America, thanks to Netflix shows like Narcos and movies like Sicario, meant to be pulpy entertainment rather than to give faces to brown less mass, as Jeanine Cummins told her editor she was attempting to do with American Dirt.
‘I write to entertain!’ is something I likely said at some point.
So what changed?
A couple of things, actually. First, after leaving in Texas for most of my life, I left it to move to New York. Leaving the state, and the Latinx culture I was surrounded with and that yes, I took for granted, left me with an empty hole. It was startling to find myself in Long Island, where, while the Hispanic population has been growing in recent years, remains largely segregated in large parts of the Island. Right around the same time I moved to Long Island, I also started using Twitter more, as a means to connecting with other writers (as well as making insightful wrestling tweets). Twitter introduced me to writers like Gabino Iglesias, Alex Segura, Richie Narvez , Angel Colon and many other Latinx writers. I was able to see, and read how each of them brought their experiences and culture into their writings, and this in turn prompted me to turn inwards and critically look at my own writing and for the first time, consider what would a story be like if I wrote it from a Mexican perspective.
And still there are doubts. Doubts if whether the stories I am writing are honoring a culture, or simply using it. Last week, a twitter meme was created, inspired by some of the more awkward and unrealistic passages of America Dirt, with folks writing their versions of a Latinx story. I laughed at a lot of the tweets, but there were some which hit close to home, which made me pause and go, ‘Wait, I think I do that?’
And I think that’s good. I believe that’s what hopefully separates me from Jeanine Cummins (along with you know, the fact I’m actually Latinx). Rather than become defensive, I continue to strive to tell a story that remains true to myself and the crime genre I love, while at the same time, something that helps to provide some insight or give voice to a culture which hasn’t been heard for too long.
Though they’re starting to.
Also by Hector Acosta: From Desperado to Lucha Underground: Representation Matters to Robert Rodriguez