American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

I’ve read both negative and positive reviews of American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins. The controversy piqued my curiosity and I read the book. After finishing, I have to say that some of the outrage by the Latino community was warranted, but that didn’t make it a horrible read. 

The action begins right from the first page. A shoot-out at a quinceanera barbeque—ok, stop right there. Anyone who knows anything about Mexican culture will tell you that relegating the formal pageantry and coming-of-age ceremony of a quinceanera to a backyard barbeque, with potato salad no less, is sacrilege. 

The cartel, naturally, is the aggressor, the target, a journalist’s family. Since Mexico is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists, the scenario seems plausible. However, describing the shooters as “the modern bogeymen of urban Mexico”, well, the boogeyman isn’t a Mexican creature, but maybe the author meant El Cucuy. 

Mexican currency at the time American Dirt was written.

Lydia and her 8-year old son Luca are the only survivors of the massacre. Knowing she can’t rely on the police, Lydia flees with just a few things she takes from her mother’s house. She pays the hotel’s 4,000 pesos deposit with four pink bills—hold up. The pink bills are each worth 50 pesos each, so she actually pays 200 pesos. The color of money is mentioned again when Lydia needs to pay 10,000 pesos. She lays down 7 pink, 2 orange, and one blue bill, so that would be well, I don’t know. Are we playing Monopoly here because there aren’t any orange bills in Mexican currency?  Maybe the orange ones are the 100 peso bill? 

The head of the cartel that Lydia and her son must hide from is known as La Lechuza, who according to Lydia’s husband could have been the next Bill Gates–really, what’s wrong with a reference to Carlos Slim here? Yes, the criminal leader of the big bad cartel organization is called La Lechuza, just like the popular children’s song, although there is no reference to this song in the story at all. Since the song is about putting people to sleep, it would have certainly added a creep factor if nothing else. 

Lydia comments that La Lechuza is a terrible name since owls aren’t scary. However, it’s common knowledge in Mexico that la lechuza is often a precursor of death, a bad omen, certainly no laughing matter. But again, none of this was mentioned in the book. 

There were more references that just took away from the authenticity, an Italian meal in San Miguel de Allende (not carnitas), ginger ale (not Coca) stored in the Abuela’s basement (who has a basement?), police officers dreaming about pot roast (not tacos), a girl from Honduras looking like an Aztec (not Maya) warrior, the journey measured in miles (not kilometers), using the word vertedero (not basurero), drinking water from the tap (just not done) and so on. 

However, despite it all, I have to admit it was an engaging read. From the get-go I was invested in the outcome, as implausible as some of it seemed. But then again, it was a work of fiction, a fantasy of sorts, so it was ok. Anyway, if you are looking for something that not only provides an exciting adventure but also tests your knowledge of Mexican culture in an alternate universe since it depicts neither an authentic Mexico nor a typical migrant experience, well then American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins is just the ticket. 

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