As someone who reads a lot of literature online, you’re likely to have heard about the controversy over Jeanine Cummins’ popular and Oprah-endorsed immigration novel, American Dirt. An upper middle class Mexican woman flees a drug cartel boss who is out to get her. She goes on an action-packed journey to cross the border into the United States. The book American Dirt has been a big hit with our own subscribers, and we’re glad that the discussion we held gave people a chance to talk about how much they love the book. However, we’re worried about some of the misinformation that has spread about the fight. Among them, critics of the book may say that a white woman should not be able to tell this kind of story. The truth is, very few people say this. There isn’t enough diversity in the publishing industry in the United States, and people put too much emphasis on who gets their stories told and who is seen as a voice worth hearing. If the author was a Mexican woman herself, would American Dirt have been as popular as it is now? Whether or not it’s true: Though it isn’t likely that this book would have been written by a Mexican author because it isn’t true. Would a Mexican author have had more trouble selling a book like this? Many people think so. American Dirt would not have been promoted as much if the author was a Mexican woman. Unlikely.
If you think about it, it might seem that problems with publishing should be separate from criticism of the book itself. However, the above summary isn’t going to be enough to cover all of the legitimate and complex views on the situation from the many authors, readers, and critics who have a firsthand understanding of how Latinx people are affected by the situation. The subject of Latinx people living in the United States, which American Dirt is always linked to, is also a good one for Latinx voices. To that end, here are six books written by Latinx authors that deal with immigration and the border between the United States and Mexico.
Where We Come From: A novel by Oscar Cásares
May 2019. 272 pages. Published by Vintage
Orly, a 12-year-old Mexican-American boy, is sent to live with his aunt Nina in Brownsville, Texas, after his mother died. The child, Daniel, shows up late at night after escaping immigration authorities. He learns that Nina’s house is a way station for coyotes when Daniel shows up late at night. This is how Cásares looks at this situation and life in Brownsville through the eyes of these three characters, and also through the eyes of the other people they meet, to give a more complex view of immigration and how restrictive policies affect people. But the book is about a lot more than that. It talks about secrets, identity, family history, and empathy. Oscar Cásares was born in Brownsville, Texas, but his family came from San Luis Potosi.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, Lisa Dillman (translator)
March 2015. 128 pages. Published by And Other Stories
This isn’t a simple book about crossing the border. It’s a heartfelt, dreamlike story. It’s about Makina, a young woman who travels across the northern border of her country (likely from Mexico to the U.S.) in order to bring her brother home at her mother’s request. It’s about 100 pages long. In the book, Herrera doesn’t focus on Makina’s dangerous and risky situations, like being sexually harassed on a bus or being shot at by a bullet. Instead, it focuses on how the main character sees the world around her, which leads to a poetic look at borders, homelands, language, and identity. It’s fun to read Makina’s observations, like this one about the American countryside: “The city was made up of small pieces of cement and yellow paint. People saw themselves as always safe, friendly, innocent, proud, and sometimes confused, blithe, and buoyant; they were the salt of the only earth worth knowing.”
Lost Children Archive: A novel by Valeria Luiselli
Paperback Feb 2020. 400 pages. Published by Vintage
There is a lot of talk about undocumented migrant children in Lost Children Archive, but it’s not a book about the immigration crisis itself. A novel by Luiselli herself says that it deals with how to write and record political violence as well as how to understand political crises in general. The book starts with a picture of a woman and her husband getting more and more angry. In the beginning, two documentary filmmakers start working together on the same project. Each of them has a child from a previous marriage and is trying to build a new family with the other even as they start to drift apart. It happened at some point that the husband became interested in Apache history and decided to move to the Southwest to do new work. He told his wife that he would be moving there to do so. To keep their relationship going, the narrator shifts the focus of her own work to the child refugee crisis at the border so that she can join him, at least for a short time, on his work at the border. Following a trip from New York to Arizona, the novel’s plot deals with questions about documentation, history, what it means to be “lost,” and more.
Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Hardcover will be out in January 2020. There are 384 pages in the book. Harper’s Magazine Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, a well-known poet, wrote a book called Children of the Land about growing up in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant. The book starts with the author remembering how ICE agents found his father years after he was deported. Castillo vividly shows how afraid he was of being deported at the time, but he also shows the beauty of the world around him. “I saw agents in trees,” he says. “I felt their hands touch every coin in my pocket.” Children of the Land is written in “movements,” which open up Castillo’s memories and the stories of his parents, who he tries to understand along with his own. The book is a beautiful and wide-ranging look at family, heritage, immigration, and the power of language and literature.
In the Country We Love: My Family Divided by Diane Guerrero
May 2016. 272 pages. Published by Henry Holt and Company
Diane Guerrero is a well-known actress who has worked on shows like Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin. She was born in the United States to Colombian immigrants who were not allowed to stay. When she was 14, her parents were deported, even though they had tried to get legal status. In her memoir, Guerrero talks about the challenges she had to deal with after this sudden event with great grace and honesty. Though she was taken in by family friends, she developed habits of substance abuse and self-harm to deal with the loss of her parents. Because she had a strong support system, she was able to see a therapist and follow her dream of acting. When she was a child, her parents lived in Colombia. They live there now. In addition to acting, Guerrero now works for the White House as an Ambassador for Citizenship and Naturalization. This job allows her to help other families who are going through the same thing. This memoir gives a lot of insight into the pain and trauma that people who live and work in the United States go through when they are deported. a few days after the book came out, she told the Washington Post what she wanted people to take away from reading the book: “We are real people, and our stories have value. I want people to know that there is a lot of potential in our communities and a lot of good that comes from giving people the chance to become citizens. Long gone are the days when we should just be “thankful” and let others make fun of us and keep quiet about what we’re going through.”
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
Sep 2017. 88 pages. Published by Copper Canyon Press
This is how long ago Javier Zamora was born: 1990. His parents fled to the U.S. when he was a child because of the Salvadoran Civil War. He was raised by his grandparents until 1999, when he moved to the U.S. as an adult. In Guatemala, Mexico, and the desert of the Southwest U.S., he made a 4,000-mile journey. The coyote he was riding with left him and his group behind. Zamora’s first book, Unaccompanied, is full of poems about that journey and how hard it is to fit in, especially in a country where he felt like he didn’t belong. They are poems about how it feels like home is in two places at once, or maybe not at all. A man who had never met him before their journey began told him that someone had called the border police and everyone fled. “You ran back toward me, I jumped on your shoulders, we ran from the white trucks.”