“American Dirt” stirs controversy regarding cultural inaccuracies

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Jenny Seo

“American Dirt,” a novel about a Mexican woman forced to leave her home country as an undocumented immigrant with her son, received immense praise immediately after its debut on Jan. 21. Not only telling an inspiring and engaging fictional story but also presenting an unconventional portrayal of undocumented Mexican immigrants, the novel gained positive reviews from renowned literary figures like Stephen King and Oprah Winfrey, along with publishers like the New York Times. In fact, the book even won a seven-figure advance, earning more than one million dollars in total, and was added to Oprah Winfrey’s book club. 

“I understand why ‘American Dirt’ received a lot of love from its readers after its release,” said Unnseo Park (12), fan of the novel. “This novel not only tells a thrilling tale of two Mexican immigrants leaving behind everything to cross the US border, but also propels at a suspenseful rate that is unlike any other fictional story. Anyone who loves a good adventure story should definitely try out this novel.” 

However, while many people showed positive responses toward the novel, others  –– especially those of Mexican descent –– expressed harsh criticism toward it, pointing out its cultural flaws stemming from cultural appropriation. For one, critics pointed out that the author, Jeanine Cummins, incorporates little authenticism in her portrayal of Mexican culture and language, as she is an American with no cultural relation to Mexico. Cummins often confuses nuances and idiomatic structures written in Spanish throughout the novel; instead of bringing forth the nuance in “Hello Abuela,” for example, her translation sounds like “Hello Grandma” in English without any Spanish nuance. Others even pointed out that lengthy Spanish paragraphs in the novel sound inaccurate, as if it were hastily translated from English to Spanish. 

“‘American Dirt’ would have been more accurate and genuine if it had been written by someone of true Mexican descent or someone who is very knowledgable about Mexican culture,” said Christine Lee (12), an avid reader. “A Mexican writer, for instance, would know how to correctly say certain phrases in Spanish with the correct nuance. The inaccuracies of Spanish elements in the novel may, unfortunately, just be reminding us of how ignorant the American society is of Mexican culture” 

Additionally, critics have pointed out that Cummins’s lack of experience with Mexico naturally made her portray the country and its people in a way that is more attractive and understandable to Americans instead of native Hispanics. Mexico, for instance, is depicted as a country of poor conditions filled with rape and theft when, in reality, such cases of abuse are not common. Furthermore, the protagonists of the story are described as if they are of white descent, as if they barely possess any authentic Mexican traits, so that Americans can understand them more easily. Critics indicate that Cummins makes such unintentional, yet stereotypical depictions of Mexico throughout the novel.

“‘I definitely think that Cummins deserves backlash for presenting content that is culturally flawed,” said Megan Lee, AP Literature and Composition teacher. “Although the book brings to attention the serious issues regarding immigration and evokes compassion amongst illegal immigrants, it deserves the criticism it has been receiving since its release, as it is one of the many white savior texts that come from white men and women who write about issues without having the full knowledge or capacity to do so.”

“American Dirt” has been recognized for its telling a unique and wild story of two undocumented immigrants. However, its multiple inaccuracies of Mexican culture still bring into discussion the possibilities of whitewashing, cultural appropriation, and unfair stereotypes in the novel, having yet to settle the controversies surrounding the novel.