Can young Latinos' Twitter takedown of 'American Dirt' help diversify publishing?

“Institutions move like molasses," says a Latina academic, but when it comes to art, Latinos have made progress translating "conversation into action."
Image: Jeanine Cummins, author of "American Dirt," in Nyack, N.Y., Jan. 9, 2020. (Heather Sten/The New York Times)
Jeanine Cummins, author of "American Dirt," in Nyack, N.Y..Heather Sten / New York Times via Redux Pictures

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By Gwen Aviles

If there's a fascinating possibility surrounding the controversy around Jeanine Cummins' highly publicized novel "American Dirt," it's that young Latinos could ultimately help force the publishing industry — which is 80 percent white — to enter a new, more diverse era, experts say.

Whereas once the success of a book mainly hinged on publicity from major publishers and reviews in major newspapers and magazines, young Latinos who took issue with Cummins' depiction of the migrant and immigrant experience and life in Mexico made their thoughts known through social media memes, tweets and blog posts, taking issue with a narrative they saw as stereotypical, even harmful and like some said, "not my truth.”

Chris González, an associate professor of English at Utah State University, said there's always been longstanding criticism of books "depicting Latinx communities from uninformed positions in literature — as well as a long history of Latinos advocating for more representative narratives.

"But now it seems we’ve reaching a tipping point,” González said.

The first hint that Latinos were not shrugging off the book as “another slight” was Myriam Gurba’s scathing review of “American Dirt” — a review by the Latina author and critic that was published after it was rejected from Ms. magazine for being too negative.

Mari Castañeda, a professor and the associate dean for equity and inclusion at University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Department of Communication, said there's a reason why it hit a chord.

“Gurba’s review provoked a lot of people, especially because her use of Spanglish spoke to the specific cultural context of codeswitching that Latinos do in their own lives,” she said. “It was easy to send around and it showed that Latinos didn’t have to wait for an official channel to share their thoughts.”

A number of reviews from Latino critics followed, adding to the debate and the reviews from mainstream outlets.

The meme that took off

But shortly thereafter, a meme emerged, in which young Latinos began sharing their own stories, using tropes and stereotypical language to describe their lives as a way to parody “American Dirt” — which many viewed as a voyeuristic cultural endeavor that relies on clichés about Latinos, and in particular, Mexicans.

“Writing my Latino novel: "We fled late in the night, or /la noche/ as Mami calls it. I'm always embarrassed when Mami says shit like that, but I forgive her because she's one of eleven kids and is from /el barrio./ Anyway it was late at night, and Yolanda Saldivar was chasing us,” tweeted the cultural critic John Paul Brammer, referencing the woman who shot to death the popular singer Selena.

Not all the tweets were lighthearted. The cover of “American Dirt” features a wall with barbed wire, and after a November tweet showed images of a manicure Cummins got with barbed wire nail art along with tweets with pictures of a book event with barbed wire centerpieces, outraged ensued.

Speaking to NPR on Friday, Cummins said that "not everyone has to love my book, you know? I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive...The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend the traditional stereotypes that I saw being very prevalent in our national dialogue."

What struck Castañeda as particularly interesting is that it hasn’t just been Latinos in the literary world who have been vocal about their views of the book. Social media has brought together people of different backgrounds who have added their own interpretations to the dialogue. She said that among her colleagues the online discussion has inspired scholarly investigation and may be the foundation of future analyses.

This is why, Castañeda said, the social media responses cannot simply be chalked up to “Twitter outrage.”

“It’s not just a bunch of people getting upset,” Castañeda said. “We’re seeing more and more Latinos saying, ‘Ya basta!’[enough] They’re not only advocating for the narratives, but creating the narratives that speak to their truth.”

But just because Latino critics are making their voices heard doesn’t mean that change will come swiftly or surely.

An industry study found that 9 in 10 book reviewers are white, as well as 9 in 10 publishing executives. Over 80 percent of the publishing industry's editorial and sales staffs are white.

“The challenge will be ensuring that sustained inquiry and pressure is put on this,” González said. “The initial outrage has understandably been very emotionally driven, but how are we going to make sure our voices are heard three months from now?”

González notes that one upside of the controversy over the book is that people have been sharing reading lists of other books authored by Mexican American and other Latino authors — some considered classics — that have not gotten the attention of "American Dirt."

At the same time, the controversy and debate can be free publicity for "American Dirt," says González. This could make publishers feel “emboldened” to focus on similar books since “negative publicity is good for book sales.”

González sees the discord generated by “American Dirt” as an “opportunity” for Latinos to join together in “solidarity” and support fellow Latino writers in ways the mainstream publishing industry has not.

He said that it’s commonplace to rely on advertising from the major publishing houses for reading suggestions, but Latinos also need to “do their due diligence” and support the more complex narratives that are published by small presses as well as self-published literature.

"Potential to energize us"

Now lauded as literary titans who have made incomparable contributions to Latino studies, Gloria Anzaldúa and Sandra Cisneros both began their careers at small independent presses, González notes, stating that authors of similar talent are going overlooked by their own community.

“If we want to fully reclaim our narratives, we can’t uncritically trust the big marketing machine,” González said. “‘American Dirt’ exposed old wounds, but it has the potential to energize us.”

Castañeda agreed with this assessment and is “hopeful” that the vocal criticism surrounding “American Dirt” can institute both institutional and individual change.

“We’re reaching a boiling point, where increasingly people are saying that they’re going to self-publish and create their own spaces,” Castañeda said. “Institutions move like molasses, because there are so many moving parts and different people, but when I look at some of the art we might not have had just 10 years ago, I’m reminded of the progress Latinos have made translating the conversation into action and making our presence and voices heard.”

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