Arts » Arts Stories & Interviews

Revolutionizing Representation: Panel on American Dirt Controversy Stokes Important Conversation But No Easy Answers


Prompted by the controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt, Esperanza Peace and Justice Center recently hosted a panel discussion on Latinx underrepresentation in U.S. publishing.

The lengthy, sometimes-uncomfortable exchange raised more questions than it answered.

American Dirt, a 2020 Oprah Book Club pick, is a fictional narrative about a mother who flees the threat of drug cartels in Acapulco, Mexico to the U.S. with her 8-year-old son. One of the book’s fiercest critics, educator and author Myriam Gurba formed a grassroots campaign #DignidadLiteraria after publishing her response to the book. That campaign advocates for greater Latinx inclusion in the U.S. publishing industry.

Prominent members of the San Antonio’s Latinx and Chicanx communities joined Gurba on a panel moderated by Barbara Renaud Gonzalez Saturday, February 22 at the Esperanza. The capacity audience also included U.S. Rep. Joaquín Castro, scholar John Philips Santos and Alexandra van de Kamp, executive director of San Antonio’s Gemini Ink.

The panel — comprised of authors, educators and illustrators — spoke about the lack of Latinx voices at New York’s “Big Five” publishing houses. Carmen Tafolla, president of the Texas Institute of Letters, recounted how Chicanos and Chicanas historically created their own presses in response.

Early on, it became clear the discussion was less about American Dirt than it was about the responsibility writers have to each other if they want to survive in an Anglo-dominated industry. When it was Gurba’s time to speak, she opened with an icebreaker. She asked members to turn to someone else and utter their favorite curse word in Spanish.

Giggles ensued.

During the question and answer session, a Honduran immigrant in the audience who identified herself as Alba said she didn’t want to be a subcategory in a Chicanx-dominated conversation. She wanted to know how the publishing industry could include her as well. After the panelists could offer no solid answer, she lingered a few minutes before heading out the door.

Erick Fierro, a Chihuahuan immigrant, asked how many recent immigrants were in the crowd. Few raised their hands. Sparking the night’s first significant conversation on American Dirt, he told the panelists that the immigrant narrative depicted in the book mirrored much of his own. He asked what it was about the novel that didn’t ring true.

Gurba responded that the story “perpetuated stereotypes,” adding that the characters were written like “paper dolls.” Fierro wanted to ask another question, but the moderator moved on.

It was refreshing to hear Chicanx authors advocate for representation in publishing and use their privilege to uplift immigrant narratives. But the exchange suggested that we can sometimes unintentionally marginalize the very voices we want to uplift.

The controversy surrounding American Dirt is critical in a time when migrants are struggling to be humanized both in print and in reality. The panel missed a grand opportunity to learn alongside our migrant community and discuss what panelist Denise McVea offered as two theories surrounding underrepresentation: revolution and censorship.

In response to an audience comment about San Antonio-tied author Sandra Cisneros’s endorsement of American Dirt, McVea — a writer, publisher and educator — urged everyone to understand the pressures of the publishing world. She asked the audience not to assume someone has a certain level of power when our own community is the one assigning that power.

“We either want Latinos to be published or we don’t,” McVea said. “Consider the cost of entrance to publishing.”

The comment drew verbal pushback from male panelists.

Likely, many who came to listen to the panel did so to find their own place in the conversation — including insight on how to break into the publishing industry. While the discussion was worthwhile, many questions remained unanswered. Where do we go from here? How do we hold one another accountable for missteps in representation? Whose voices are being heard? Does an objective point of view of the border exist? If a book resonates with some immigrants, is that book still a gross misrepresentation of the migrant experience?

The almost three hours of dialogue didn’t offer enough time to figure those out, and in the end, underrepresentation of Latinx voices persists. While it’s not a new conversation, it’s one that must continue. Our current political climate demands it.

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