by Jeanine Cummings
This is a novel that Stephen King called ‘extraordinary’ but is it?
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I do an excellent imitation of a British accent—as long as you don’t ask anyone who is British. Americans, Aussies and Canadians all find it convincing, but anyone from the U.K. can immediately identify it as an extremely poor imitation of their voice, useful only for its entertainment value.
The same could be said for Jeanine Cummins’ novel about Mexico. As someone who has spent half a lifetime in Mexico and on the border, I can only pray that this book doesn’t go down in history as “the great migrant novel.”
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American Dirt tells the tale of Lydia Quixano and her son, Luca, who flee drug traffickers in Mexico. Leaving their hometown of Acapulco, they cross Mexico aboard the freight train known as La Bestia, alongside hundreds of other migrants headed for the U.S. border.
The novel has already received rave reviews from literary voices in the English-speaking world, from Rumaan Alam to Don Winslow. John Grisham described it as “rich in authenticity,” while Stephen King called it “an important voice in the discussion about immigration.” Following an aggressive bidding process, according to Publishers Weekly, Cummins received a seven-figure advance for it.
To be sure, she spins an exciting yarn. Her story describes an engaging and riveting journey filled with chills, thrills and kills. According to Hollywood Reporter, the production company Imperative Entertainment has already acquired the film rights.
Anyone who has spent significant time in Mexico, however, will find this novel to be laughably inaccurate. It represents nothing more than the fanciful imaginings of its monolingual American author, no more authentic than my poor attempts at affecting a West Country drawl or a Cockney dialect.
If English-speaking readers assume that this novel accurately depicts the realities of Mexico and migration, it will only further the cause of disinformation and prejudice. And in this day and age, we can’t afford any more of that.
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The book is riddled with gross misrepresentations of its subjects. Despite Cummins’ claims to have been “careful and deliberate in my research,” she failed to research how to spell her main characters’ names.
The surname Quijano has not been spelled with an X since medieval Spain, and the correct Spanish version of the name “Luke” is Lucas. One wonders if the protagonist Lydia adopted her son “Luca” from Italy, Hungary or Romania. The name sounds extra dissonant to a Spanish-speaking reader, as names ending in A are typically female. When even the protagonists’ names are butchered, what can one expect from the rest of the book?
Cummins sprinkles in the most stereotypical cultural fetishes that Americans associate with Mexico: quinceañera dresses, Day of the Dead celebrations, concha sweetbread rolls, grilled carne asada. In her imaginary vision of Mexico, these items exist, incongruously, alongside extreme anatopisms.
Ostensibly Mexican characters eat typical American cuisine that is foreign to much of Mexico: sticky and sweet BBQ sauce, black licorice drops, tacos with heavy sour cream. They think in terms of Anglo-American cultural references. When Lydia comes to the route of the freight train, she ponders:
The freight tracks stretch out across the Mexican landscape like a beanstalk migrants must climb.
Never mind the fact that Jack and the Beanstalk is a legendary reference as foreign to Mexico as La Llorona is to most British people.
When Lydia begins her escape from the narcos, she heads for the home goods department of a store and buys a “machete” to defend herself. The weapon is described as having a retractable blade and a “tiny black holster she can strap to her leg.” This type of knife is not known as a “machete” in the United States. Or in the U.K.. Or in Mexico, for that matter, despite the author’s insistence on referring to it as such.
Cummins fails to understand the racial dynamics of Mexico, and of human genetics in general. When Mexican authorities detain Lydia and two fellow migrants, Cummins explains that the agents know the migrants cannot possibly be Lydia’s relatives, as their skin is darker than hers. This contradicts the reality of many Mexican families, where blond-haired and dark-skinned cousins often share the same grandparents.
Mexico is depicted as a one-dimensional nation, irredeemably corrupt and violent, while the United States of American Dirt is a fantasy land: a country free of gun violence, hate groups and organized crime. While the book ostensibly pushes a progressive message, it drives home a very Trumpist myth: “crime and violence are Mexican problems.”
Meanwhile, the supposedly Mexican characters react to Mexico’s problems as a naive foreigner would. When Javier visits Lydia’s bookstore, the woman is shocked to learn that this nattily-dressed man with fearsome bodyguards is—oh my stars—involved in organized crime! The literary setting is especially interesting, as Cummins seems all but unaware that books are written here in Mexico.
The novel itself opens with a quote from Chilean author Pablo Neruda. Why quote a poet born 7,000 miles away, when Mexico has given the world some of its greatest poets, from the ancient poet-king Nezahualcóyotl to Nobel Laureate Octavio Paz? Likely because Neruda is the only Spanish-language poet that most gringos have ever heard of. (Most U.S. readers only recognise his name from a reference in How I Met Your Mother.)
The theme of South American literature persists when Lydia and Luca are fleeing the narcos. They check into a hotel under the false name of “Fermina Daza,” a character created by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez. By the time Javier shows up, though, Cummins has apparently exhausted her knowledge of Latin American literature, and resorts to referencing Anglophone authors instead.
Javier saunters into Lydia’s bookstore and buys a copy of Heart, You Bully, You Punk, a novel about a female teacher in Brooklyn who falls in love with her student’s father. Machismo be damned, this hardened criminal is a sucker for “chick lit.”
It is worth dwelling on the character of Javier for a moment. A “drinking game” could be created based on all the Latin American stereotypes he personifies. Javier is dapper, yet dangerous. He is charming, yet mysterious. He wears a white guayabera, a shirt the author describes as “more suitable for Sunday Mass than a regular workday.” (Untrue—this is a casual garment, more suitable for a love affair in a Fabio-bedecked romance novel.)
This quintessential “Latin lover” shows up at Lydia’s bookstore and speaks to her in a tone significantly different from the other characters of American Dirt. I must emphasise, Javier’s dialogue does not reflect the normal speech patterns of Mexico, but perfectly reflects U.S. stereotypes. The only way to properly read Javier’s lines is through the most gross of caricatures.
One should imagine the husky voice of Antonio Banderas, speaking at his most sensual and Spanishy. Any character he has played in English will do, although it is clear that Javier was ideally written for the voice of Puss in Boots. When Lydia asks if Javier reads English, the dapper narco responds:
“I try, yes […] My English isn’t fluent, but it’s close. And this story is so delicate.”
Later, when Lydia praises him for being an ideal customer, he places a hand across his chest and gives a slight bow:
“I shall try to be enough […] If I had met you in a different life, I would ask you to marry me.”
When Lydia notices Javier’s criminal bodyguards standing outside the bookstore and naively suggests that they might cause harm to Javier, he casts her a debonaire look and—I kid you not, this is actually in the book—twitches his moustache. He then says with aplomb:
“They will not.”
Curiously, during these protracted sequences, Lydia continues to speak with a normal English cadence. Only Javier employs this sexy, Banderas-esque speech. Every scene reads like a conversation in English between a gringa and a Spanish-speaker. I kept expecting Javier to begin every sentence with “Eh, how you say? Ah, yes…” in the style of an old Saturday Night Live sketch.
I wish these humorous stereotypes were the only thing Cummins gets wrong. More significantly, her novel misrepresents its own central topic—the dynamics of Mexican migration. Lydia and her son decide to escape Acapulco by riding northward atop the freight train known as La Bestia, described as the one place out of reach of the drug traffickers. In reality, this train is practically controlled by organized crime. Members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang regularly climb aboard, rape female travelers and rob the migrants blind. Those who refuse to cooperate are thrown to their death.
These horrific realities are glaringly absent from Cummins’ tale.
The cultural inaccuracies of American Dirt run deep, right down to the language. The author sprinkles in italicised Spanish words and phrases at random, mostly those that would be acquired in a Beginner’s Spanish class. This begs the question—if she is translating dialogue that supposedly took place in Spanish, why not render it entirely in English? Are these characters not fluent in their own language?
Cummins seems to be repeating the long-standing practice of Hollywood screenwriters establishing the “exotic” nature of a character by having them speak imperfect English. A James Bond villain will throw in an “auf Wiedersehen” or a “dosvidaniya” from their native tongue, despite the fact that “goodbye” is one of the first words one learns in a new language.
Authors often try to indicate “foreignness” through broken English, and Cummins follows this convention. Mexican characters regularly use unusual turns of phrase, in a poor attempt to replicate the syntax of a language that the author does not herself speak. It all smacks of the “Engrish” used by Anglo writers to depict bad Asian stereotypes. Whatever the intended motives behind it, the end result is a heavy “othering” of the Mexican characters.
Despite its entertainment value, American Dirt is an extremely inaccurate representation of the real situation of a real country—every bit as bad as my own phony imitation of the Received Pronunciation. The Apostle Paul once wrote, “Now we see through a glass, darkly, but later we shall see clearly, face to face.” The American public has been seeing diffuse, blurry images of Mexico for far too long already. It is time to see clearly, to allow Mexico to tell her own story in her own voice.
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David J. Schmidt is an author and multilingual translator who splits his time between Mexico City and San Diego, CA. He is a proponent of immigrants’ rights and fair trade, and works with worker-owned coops in Mexico to help them develop alternative, fair sources of income.
Schmidt has written several books in English and Spanish, published in the United States and Mexico. His series “Into the Serpent’s Head,” recounts his journey to a coffee-farming community in the mountains Oaxaca, Mexico. Other titles include his “non-fiction horror” book, Three Nights in the Clown Motel, and Holy Ghosts: True Tales from a Haunted Christian College, a study of haunted places. His Spanish-language books Más frío que la nieve: cuentos sobrenaturales de Rusia and Tunguska: luces en el cielo sobre Siberia were published in Mexico in 2017. He is also the co-host of the podcast To Russia With Love.
Find out more about David Schmidt