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Opinion ‘American Dirt’ gets Mexico very wrong. It’s the latest in a long trend.

Left: Jeanine Cummins. Right: The jacket for Cummins'' “American Dirt,” which was released Tuesday. (Joe Kennedy/AP)
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Ignacio M. Sánchez Prado is Jarvis Thurston and Mona van Duyn Professor in the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis.

This week, followers of Mexican and Chicanx literary Twitter have been gripped by the controversy surrounding the release of “American Dirt,” a novel by Jeanine Cummins about a Mexican bookstore owner and her son who, chased by drug lords, join those trying migrate to the United States in violent and tragic conditions. Many of us were first alerted to the existence of this book by Chicana writer Myriam Gurba, the author of the brilliant memoir “Mean.” In an epic December takedown of the book and the editorial world that pushed it, Gurba noted its various problems: whitewashing, appropriation, inaccuracy and saviorism, among other issues.

Gurba and other critics also pointed out the astonishing fact that the book, from an author whose knowledge of Mexico is superficial and derivative at best, was signed to the tune of a bidding war and a seven-figure contract in an industry where Mexican and Mexican American writers are often ignored and marginalized. Regardless, the novel was picked up by Oprah’s book club, enthusiastically endorsed by major writers and celebrities, and marketed aggressively as a “new American classic.”

It is important for Americans to view Mexico fairly and accurately, as a country both wealthy and unequal, facing enormous social and political challenges, but also a complex society with a rich and diverse culture. Yet “American Dirt” is a reminder of the deep ignorance regarding Mexico and Mexicans in U.S. culture. As a scholar of Mexican culture, I witness how little Americans, even those with access to top educational opportunities, know about the country. It is often misrepresented as a violent and poor hell against which the United States is a promised land.

This stereotype forms the premise of “American Dirt.” Indeed, a number of recent films are full of the same stereotypes, including “Sicario,” “Peppermint,” “The Mule” and “Rambo: Last Blood.” In television, shows such as “NCIS” and “Breaking Bad” follow the same pattern. As with “American Dirt,” critics praise these products, contributing to the advancement of anti-Mexican sentiment and the toxic ideas that fuel anti-immigration policy, xenophobia and the deadly drug war.

But there is a culture out there that should push these works into irrelevancy. Two products of Mexican culture — Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma” and Valeria Luiselli’s “Lost Children Archive” — reached significant mainstream recognition in 2019. Even if one can quarrel with their class privilege or view of Mexico, both provide rich and legitimate perspectives on the country.

And with a simple Google search, one would easily discover a very rich Mexican and Mexican American culture often erased by the same machine that promotes “American Dirt.” Writers such as Gurba, Reyna Grande, Erika Sánchez and Wendy Treviño and filmmakers such as Alex Rivera or Aurora Guerrero offer much richer accounts of immigration and the Mexican experience. For the first time in years, major authors from Mexico such as Fernanda Melchor or Carmen Boullosa are readily available in translation, while streaming platforms carry many feature and documentary Mexican films. Editorial and media establishments fail miserably by not paying more attention to these works.

I do not think that only Mexicans can speak or write about Mexico, and I feel nothing but love and admiration for my American colleagues of all backgrounds who devote their life to learn and teach about Mexico. It is certainly possible to write about Mexico as an outsider with authority and care.

Paul Theroux, for example, just published a book on Mexico, “On the Plain of Snakes.” Unlike Cummins, Theroux does not bother to claim an authority he does not have or pretend to patronizingly give voice to migrants. Rather, Theroux travels across Mexico and insightfully writes about regions and themes that Mexican literature itself has neglected, while countering the dismal history of Anglophone representations of Mexico.

Where Theroux succeeds with great effort, “American Dirt” wallows in ignorance and shallowness.

Americans need to learn that Mexico is a friend and ally, not a threat, and that Mexicans on both sides of the border are not menaces, but rather important contributors to North America and the world. Experts on Mexico in arts and academia work hard every day to teach and tell that story. If the seven-figure contract, possible film adaptation (by the studio behind “The Mule,” no less) and Oprah endorsement turn “American Dirt” into a book of record, it will be a slap in the face to the many authors who write about Mexico with knowledge and care — and will only add more fuel to the fire of anti-Mexican culture.

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