As ‘American Dirt’ debate rages, UTRGV tackles discussion

EDINBURG — The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s Center for Mexican American Studies held a roundtable discussion Friday in response to ongoing controversy over “American Dirt.”

Published in January, the book describes the trauma of a Mexican mother and her child fleeing a drug cartel and their journey to the United States.

The novel, written by Jeanine Cummins, has received criticism from pundits claiming the book reinforces negative Mexican stereotypes and shows a lack of research.

Writer David Bowles, who led the discussion at UTRGV, said there were rumblings of concern even before the book’s publication.

“As we got closer to publication and articles started coming out with interviews with [Cummins], a lot of us became kind of concerned,” he said.

Bowles claimed that initial negative reviews were stifled because of the author’s clout.

“Advanced review copies came out and the first major take down of the book came out by Myriam Gurba, a wonderful writer, teacher and activist from California,” he said. “Myriam was asked by this magazine to write this review, but because of how negative it was, they said we can’t print this because you’re not popular enough to write something like this about an established author.”

Despite that, criticism for the book grew, eventually entangling the McAllen Public Library.

The library was selected as one of half a dozen libraries nationally to participate in an initiative with the ALA and Oprah’s Book Club, which it ultimately declined due to the inclusion of “American Dirt.”

McAllen Public Library director Kate Horan opposed the promotion of the novel in an open letter to the American Library Association and Oprah’s Book Club.

Sara Montoya, a representative from the library, talked about the decision during the discussion.

“We kind of found ourselves in the middle of this whole discussion,” Montoya said. “Because we were offered a chance to be included in the Oprah Book Club that American Dirt was a part of and through conversations with some of our staff, our director decided to decline the offer to promote American Dirt within the library.”

Montoya recalled receiving the package of books from Oprah’s Book Club and being given instructions to create an unboxing video and to thank Oprah for the opportunity to be in the club.

“Prior to really thinking about this book, why we were sent this book and why our library was chosen, we were like, ‘Oh it’s because we’re a great library,’” Montoya said. “‘We’re the biggest one-story library in North America, we’ve got all these accolades, we win all these library awards. Wow, Oprah knows us.’”

Montoya says that opinion changed quickly.

“Oprah chose our library, not because she recognized it as this award-winning library, this progressive library in the Valley, which we are. She chose it because we were a border library and we were the perfect backdrop to promote this book,” she said.

Montoya’s story was met with sounds of disapproval from the audience.

The entirety of the discussion can be viewed on CMAS’s Facebook page for those who missed it.

xalvarez@themonitor.com