McALLEN — The negative chatter “American Dirt” incurred nationally this week has not been lost on the Rio Grande Valley, where at least one local librarian has decided to take a stand against what she believes is an unfair characterization of the border community.
Authored by Jeanine Cummins, the book released Tuesday tells the story of Lydia Quixano Perez, who owns a bookstore in Acapulco, Mexico, where she lives with her journalist husband and their son, Luca.
When she meets the leader of a drug cartel, Lydia and her son find themselves “instantly transformed into migrants” and traveling north to the United States in an effort to escape from the threats of the cartel.
The book was announced as one of Oprah’s Book Club picks of 2020 and has received high praise from many powerhouses in American literature, including Stephen King, Sandra Cisneros and Don Winslow, who called the book “A ‘Grapes of Wrath’ for our time.”
But “American Dirt” has also garnered a firestorm of criticism regarding the book’s interpretations of Mexican culture.
In McAllen, the director of the public library, Kate Horan, wasted no time Thursday expressing that while the book will be available at the library, it will not be promoted.
Horan explained why she believes “American Dirt” is a harmful book in a letter, which she shared on Twitter, to American Library Association communications director Stephanie M. Hlywak and to Jill Adams from Oprah’s Book Club.
“I think it capitalizes on a lot of very negative stereotypes, kind of like how people who don’t live in South Texas, or in any border city, sort of envision it as being this highly violent place and the whole immigrant experience,” Horan said. “I think it depicts such a negative view that it really takes away from the joy and the beauty of border culture.”
The McAllen Public Library was one of half a dozen libraries from across the country selected to participate in an initiative with the ALA and Oprah’s Book Club. Horan explained that she was excited to be a part of the initiative, describing the library’s selection as a “real badge of honor.”
Once the books were received and revealed, however, the excitement soon faded.
“I thought, ‘I can’t do this book.’ I can’t in good conscious do this book because, in my opinion, it would be a betrayal of all the good people who have supported the McAllen Public Library and our South Texas Book Festival,” Horan said. “It would be a slap in the face to the good work that they are doing and the number of great Latinx authors who already have books out there, who already wrote books about the immigrant experience and border culture.”
Horan said that she has since been contacted by the ALA, who did not understand why she decided to publish the letter publicly, but they were understanding of her position.
“It’s important for me to publish the letter because I feel that, like I said in the letter, there was an assumption made,” Horan said. “That just because we are a library on the border, that we would automatically endorse the book and be a part of this hyper promotion of the book. The reason that I said that it was underestimating the intelligence of the library community is that we were actually reading the book and we’re actually evaluating it for its accuracy and for its negative view of Mexican culture.”
Macarena Hernandez — the Fred Hartman Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University’s department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media — said while she hasn’t read the novel, it has prompted a larger conversation about Latinx representation.
“If you log onto Netflix, most of the stories depicting the border are related to narcos,” Hernandez said. “These kinds of singular narratives about regions, not only are they inaccurate, they’re also dangerous because they create a false sense of what’s going on…
“I hardly ever recognize the Valley when I read about it in national publications. The Valley has been in the news a lot because of immigration. The thing about immigration, it’s one of those hot topics that triggers people in all kinds of ways.”
Hernandez has written extensively about this subject over the last 20 years, both as a journalist and as a professor.
Criticism of the book has not hindered interest from readers. As of Friday afternoon, “American Dirt” was the No. 3 best-selling book in both Amazon and Barnes & Noble.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct information about the book’s availability at the library.