Unputdownable: American Dirt’s controversial lens on the migrant experience


A cheerful, family quinceañera turns into a gruesome backyard bloodbath in the opening scene of Jeanine Cummins’ controversial novel “American Dirt”, set in Acapulco, Mexico.

Though it had the potential to be emblematic, the fiction novel leans a bit far into the drama category.

Witnessing the decimation of their entire family from the thin shield of a shower stall marks the beginning of an incomprehensible journey for Lydia Quixano Pérez and her 8-year-old son, Luca.

Shocking as it was, this dark opening captivated me. Cummins painted the scene with enough clarity that I felt like I could see through Lydia’s eyes.

Slaughtered on the porch lies Lydia’s husband, Sebastián, a journalist who spent years valiantly researching and writing articles about the Mexican drug cartel Los Jardineros, and their leader, La Lechuza.

The brutal murders of her husband and 15 other family members evoke a whirlwind of emotions within Lydia, but she composes herself for her son’s sake.

She begins preparations for the escape she and Luca must make immediately, gathering money and a few necessities. Once a content owner of a quaint bookstore, Lydia is rapidly transformed into a brave migrant. In this same instant, Luca’s childhood is ripped away from him.

Mere minutes after the massacre, the duo leaves everything they’ve ever known behind, and their treacherous trek to cross the border begins.

Though well-written and intriguing, I admit to feeling guilty for reading such a glorified rendition of a traumatizing real-world issue.

It is soon revealed that Javier Crespo Fuentes, a man with whom Lydia bonded with in her store over Latin poetry and shared life experiences, is actually La Lechuza. An even more shocking revelation follows: Lydia knew.

When reading Lydia’s reaction to Javier’s confession, I began to notice unrealistic aspects of this story. I felt like most people — let alone mothers — would react much differently to the revelation that a close acquaintance is actually a murderous drug lord.

Days before the murder of her family, Lydia confronted Javier about his role in the cartel and told him that continued friendship was inconceivable.

I despised the way Cummins made it seem like Lydia owed Javier an explanation as to why they could no longer spend time together. And Javier was painted as misunderstood and lonely when really he is an awful person deserving of zero empathy, in my humble opinion.

Lydia confided in her husband about the friendship and astounding discovery, which was information her husband felt obliged to write an exposé about.

Revealing Javier’s identity proved to be a fatal error — one Lydia blames herself for throughout the story.

The mother and son’s initial escape takes them to a hotel, where a book and letter from Javier are soon delivered to Lydia, making it clear he is coming for them.

With the help of Sebastián’s friend, the two head toward Mexico City. Here, things get tricky.

A handful of characters help the duo in their attempt to cross the border, and some fellow migrants join forces with them. Two of my favorite characters, sisters Rebecca and Soledad, bring light and comfort to an otherwise harrowing journey.

In some instances, it seems the duo survives due to sheer luck, which lessened my appreciation for the plot. It became an increasingly less accurate depiction of a dangerous and often fatal journey.

Thick with themes of trust, survival, found family, persistence and love, this book entwined real-world issues with a captivating plot and entertaining range of characters.

However, though Cummins’ author’s note explains she wrote the book “to honor the hundreds of thousands of stories we may never get to hear,” I think Cummins somewhat romanticized a complex, harrowing experience. 

I can’t personally speak to the accuracy of Cummins’ representation, but I feel that her laser focus on Lydia and Luca, members of a once happy, stable, middle-class family, does not exactly encompass “the migrant experience.”

Drawing comparisons between La Lechuza and El Chapo, Los Jardineros and real drug cartels, and the experience of Lydia and Luca versus immigrants in the real world highlighted the inconsistencies between actual and fictional throughout the story.

“American Dirt” drew me into a world I had not previously explored to such an extent. I couldn’t help but dive deep into the tale of Lydia and Luca, but I know I’ll have to look elsewhere to appreciate more accurate depictions of the complex lives of migrants and refugees. I give this book 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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