12 Books to Read Instead of “American Dirt”
By now you’ve probably heard the buzz around Oprah’s latest pick for her book club, American Dirt, written by Jeanine Cummins. The controversy is that Cummins, a White woman, used racist stereotypes in the book that was marketed as a poignant and realistic migration story. The drug cartels, violence, and negative Mexican tropes Cummins uses to create a migration thriller have been assailed by Latinx writers and critics.
Cummins received a seven-figure advance for the novel and, to top it all off, the book release party used border wall imagery as decorations, such as barbed wire floral centerpieces.
So, if not American Dirt, what should you read? Here are some books by Latinx authors that capture the Latinx perspective with accuracy, empathy, and authenticity (and also omit racist tropes for shock value).
Sabrina & Corina by Kali Fajardo-Anstine (One World/Penguin Random House)
This collection of short stories about Latinas of Indigenous descent living in the American West was a National Book Award finalist. The narratives explore abandonment, heritage, and “an eternal sense of home,” following a family in a cycle of violence against women, a sex worker and her daughter as they leave their ancestral home, a woman leaving prison to find a gentrified city so far from the one in her childhood memory, and more. In Fajardo-Anstine’s debut collection, according to National Book Award judges, “the center of the world is brown and it is female.”
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende (Ballantine Books/Penguin Random House)
Isabel Allende’s latest novel takes a moment in history—the ship from Spain to Chile chartered by Pablo Neruda to save 2,000 Spanish refugees at the end of the 1939 civil war—and uses it to imagine the lives of two people heading for political asylum. “Destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world,” Allende’s characters start over in a new continent, longing to return to their home while building a new one. Reviewer Marcela Davison Avilés writes that Allende, who was exiled from Chile when her name appeared on a “wanted” list in the 1970s, writes a novel that brings “the solace of wisdom when we need it most, wrapped in a love story which reminds us, as abiding love always does, that grace takes many forms—yet its core is not faith, but truth.”
Young Adult/Middle Grade Fiction
Juliet Takes A Breath by Gabby Rivera (Dial Books/Penguin Random House)
Juliet Takes a Breath is a book about a young Puerto Rican lesbian from the Bronx, New York, who gets a summer internship with a White feminist author in Portland, Oregon. It’s a young woman’s journey learning about herself and her history and understanding her place in the world and in her community as a chubby lesbian of color.
The First Rule of Punk by Celia C. Pérez (Puffin Books)
The First Rule of Punk is a middle-grade, “wry and heartfelt exploration of friendship, finding your place, and learning to rock out like no one’s watching.” Protagonist Malú is rock music-loving 12-year-old who’s finding her place at her new school where popular girl Selena calls her “coconut,” implying she is brown on the outside but white on the inside. “A charming debut about a thoughtful, creative preteen connecting to both halves of her identity,” according to Kirkus Reviews.
With The Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo (Quill Tree Books/HarperCollins)
With The Fire On High tells the story of an Afro-Dominican senior in high school who also is a mother. She has a love and natural gift for cooking and is trying to balance work, taking care of her child, negotiating boundaries with her child’s father, and her dreams of being a chef.
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (Quill Tree Books)
The Poet X follows the tale of 15-year-old Xiomara as she navigates her family, growing up, and falling into poetry. The book is written in verse, each poem one that Xiomara is writing to tell her own story. Acevedo writes the powerful Afro-Latinx representation that is necessary when these perspectives are often erased.
Citizen Illegal by José Olivarez (Haymarket Books)
A book of poems by Mexican American poet José Olivarez, ties together memory, experience, and humanity. This collection makes the reader sit with the idea of nationhood, assimilation, and how White people are granted immediate access to privileges denied to people of color, regardless of citizenship or immigration status.
The Breakbeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext Edited by Felicia Chavez, José Olivarez, and Willie Perdomo (Haymarket Books)
Forthcoming in April 2020, this will be an anthology of contemporary Latinx poets. From the publisher: “Poets speak from an array of nationalities, genders, sexualities, races, and writing styles, staking a claim to our cultural and civic space. Like Hip-Hop, we honor what was, what is, and what’s next.”
The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail by Jason De Leon (University of California Press)
This chilling nonfiction book by anthropology professor Jason de Leon paints a picture of the state-sanctioned violence of the border, and how the United States government is complicit in some of the most violent deaths. De Leon describes his work as an “ethnography of death.”
Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas (Vintage Books/Penguin Random House)
Published in 1967, this memoir details the author’s experience growing up half-Black, half-Puerto Rican in a barrio of New York City. Thomas, who died in 2011, struggles with the colorism in his family—his siblings and mother are light enough to pass as White—racist schoolmates, gang loyalty, and prison. Reviewer Thelma T. Reyna describes Thomas’s memoir as a “double-layered odyssey to discover who and what he is,” as he searches for a physical place where his skin color doesn’t determine his worth, and as he fights an emotional battle for the love of his family.
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande (Simon & Schuster)
Reyna Grande details her young life in Mexico, living with her grandparents while her parents were building a new foundation in the U.S. When Grande reunites with her parents—when her mother returns to Mexico, and when Grande illegally crosses the border at age 9 to be with her father—they are not the people she remembers or dreamed of. Grande’s memoir is routinely recommended both for the author’s storytelling and her ability to reveal the complex emotions and “understanding of the challenges that make it difficult for her relatives to be consistent parents and role models.” The memoir has also been adapted for young readers.
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa (Aunt Lute Books)
According to the publisher, this collection of essays and poems has profoundly challenged how we think of identity for more than 30 years. Based on Anzaldúa’s experience as a Chicana lesbian activist, she critically analyzes the psychic, social and cultural impacts of borders, and of living in a borderland. It should be noted that in recent analyses of the book, critics have highlighted Anzaldúa’s lack of consideration for transatlantic slavery and Afro-Latinx identity. Scholars say this absence does not diminish Anzaldúa’s contributions, but the evolution of thought around the book is needed “to make visible this erasure and open up possibilities for thinking about what would happen if we approached her work, Latinx geographies and Latinx theory more broadly with a commitment to understanding Black experiences, struggles and geographies.”
Ananya Garg is a former solutions journalism reporting intern for YES!, as well as a poet and educator in Seattle.
Isabella Garcia is a former solutions reporter and former editorial intern for YES! Media. Her work has appeared in The Malheur Enterprise and YES! Magazine. Isabella is based in Portland. She can be reached at isabellagarcia.website.