On cultural appropriation: A Latina novelist calls herself out amid the “American Dirt” controversy

Recently, my latest book, a contemporary novel about a pregnant Latinx anthropologist who has to battle her way through an apocalyptic New Mexico, was labeled “appropriative” — as in, culturally — in an online review. Another way of saying this is I, the author, was accused of writing a culturally appropriative novel. This made me ask myself: What or who is my novel appropriating? What are the ways in which it could it be appropriative? In what ways have I been appropriative as an author? Do the answers to these questions, or even the act of asking the questions in the first place, mean authors should write about only that which we’ve directly experienced in our lives, rather than whatever we can imagine and empathize with? Or does it all add up to something more complicated? 

I am a Latina writer, a Mexican-American woman who grew up in the desert, on the Mexicali border. My dad is white. My mom’s family has traced our lineage to the Pueblo in New Mexico. My great-great grandmother crossed the Sonoran Desert and married a Puebloan man and had my great-grandmother before they worked as migrant farmworkers across the Southwest and up and down California, picking pecans and citrus. My great-grandfather Natividad Efren Casas crossed from Durango to Juarez up to El Paso, and they all ended up in downtown Los Angeles, where my great grandma sewed in the garment district and my great grandparents owned a little corner restaurant that sold deli sandwiches and piloncillo and where my Grandpa Rafael accidentally burned down the shed with his friend Tommy when they were nine years old with a box of newspapers and matches. 2615 E. 1st Street, Los Angeles, my grandpa says. My bisabuelas are Veronica Martinez Lopez and María Bracamonte Casas.

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I am also a daughter of the revolution, says my Grandma Marge, my father’s mother, who came here from Canada when she was a teenager, whose life has been tumultuous and wild and beautiful, and who has supported my writing from the beginning. In my heart, I affectionately call her my white grandma. Because I grew up Mexican-American, identifying with my mom and brother, whose father is Mexican, spending most of my time with my mom’s family and my Mexican-American cousins, aunts, uncles, comadres and compadres. My mother told me again and again that I was a daughter of Mexican and indigenous queens: she grew up with the stories from her abuela, my bisabuela, who recounted them in turn to me. 

When I was nine years old, the same age as Grandpa Rafael when he burned down the shed, the whole family visited New Mexico, packed into my uncles’ two huge vans, to find our family’s roots. We visited Las Cruces and the chapel in Old Mesilla to locate our antepasados’ graves and were caught in a lightning storm in White Sands, where my Grandma Linda, the strong matriarch of our familia, rolled down the hills with us. A decade ago, my mom, my own babies, my partner, and I moved to New Mexico, following our roots and hearts back to this land that my familia crossed to bring us safety and prosperity, and where my bisabuela’s ancestors had been all along, connected to the Ancient Ancestors of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico when it was still The Place, the land, Mother, the center of the world. 

When I came to New Mexico, I was searching for a way to keep breathing. For hope. For life. I’ve suffered from sometimes debilitating depression and mental illness since I was a young teenager, and I came home to find my antepasados, my ancestors, to guide me through. 

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Someone had told me there’s a place in New Mexico where people disappear. I’m a voracious reader and scholar, and interested in the interstices of science, religion, myth, belief, art, and hope, so I began researching my family’s roots as well as the nuclear history of New Mexico, looking for the origins of that story. I learned that the history of the indigenous peoples here is enmeshed with the atomic history, but I could not find examples of the disappearance place explored in literature. 

Calling on stories I learned from anthropological scholarship and memoirs dating back as far as 100 years, from scholars and people both indigenous and white, I wrote a place for us — a place my heart and my mother’s heart and the hearts of all our mothers before us had belonged. That became my novel, “Trinity Sight.”

Into my fictional narrative I incorporated the stories of Puebloan people who were not a part of my own lived experience growing up on the Mexicali border. I called on Zuni stories, of a culture and people I immediately loved when I read them ten years ago, beginning with “Water Jar Boy,” and from my visits to Zuni. I wove the stories of the people of this land, along with my own lived experiences — as well as my hopes and dreams and fears and loves and failings, as a 26-year-old mama living in poverty, working as an adjunct without health insurance, a Chicana whose mama has reminded her since she was a little girl that she is a Mexican queen — to write “Trinity Sight.”

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I went onto Goodreads the other day and saw that a reader has given it two stars. In their review the reader writes that my book is appropriative.   

This week, Jeanine Cummins, an author who as recently as four years ago described herself as a white woman with no desire to write about race, has received much harsher criticism than a lukewarm Goodreads review for her new novel “American Dirt,” about a Mexican mama trying to cross the border. The reviews are out, and several are damning. Not only have critics pointed out the ways in which the wider publishing industry passes elevates a writer like Cummins over Latinx folks already writing these stories, the reviews make clear that Latinx folks are also doing it much better, both on a cultural competence level and in the crafting of characters Cummins claims are meant to “humanize” migrant peoples.  

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The degree to which “American Dirt” has been elevated by the industry matters. Cummins’ book has been showered with astounding levels of pre-publication money and attention — a seven-figure advance, a launch party featuring (of all things) barbed-wire floral centerpieces, four separate pieces in the New York Times, rapturous blurbs from prominent authors, and now, a berth in Oprah’s Book Club. 

Cummins achieved this on the assumed strength of a book being marketed as the story that will humanize the border. A woman who apparently identified as white until she became known for writing a book about nonwhite people said she hoped “American Dirt” would help give migrants, thought of as a “faceless brown mass,” some humanity. As Latino Rebels notes, Cummins wrote, “I wished someone slightly browner than me would write it.” As if Latinx writers haven’t been writing our hearts out — speaking, singing, chanting our hearts out — here in our Ancestral lands for millennia?

Someone asked me, what about the fact that Cummins’ grandmother is Puerto Rican? Is it still cultural appropriation?

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Well, now you see, I am no expert. Depending on your belief about whether Latinx and indigenous peoples are ancestrally connected and share claim to the stories, I may have appropriated, and I’ve been called out for it. Whether Cummins’ Puerto Rican heritage gives her the right to Mexican stories isn’t really the point. 

And I’m not saying white people can’t write about Mexico or Mexicans.

And I hope you’re not saying I had no right to write “Trinity Sight.”

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But Latinx and indigenous peoples are still not getting paid and credited and lauded at consistently high levels for our work telling our stories. And that makes no sense when we are the experts on our lives. 

(For perspective: I received $12,000 dollars for “Trinity Sight.” Not enough to pay off my credit cards after all the years living in poverty, but more money than I’d ever received for my writing before, aside from my National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, which allowed me the time to write my novel in the first place, as well as two books of poems.)

Whatever any of us are writing — whatever voice we’re writing in, whatever story we’re telling —  we should be asking ourselves: Who benefits? Who is already telling these stories without the benefit of the privileges and platforms we can access? Who is being paid — and paid well — for telling these stories? Who is being ignored and why?

These systemic differences in access and privilege matter in the publishing industry, where according to Forbes, Latinx representation accounts for 6% of the industry, yet Latinx folks make up 17% (or about 55 million) of the U.S. population. In that same survey, no editors self-identified as Native/indigenous. A Publisher’s Weekly 2015 annual survey confirmed the paucity of Latinx and indigenous representation in the industry: , and while PW claims the 2018 survey shows an overall increase of diversity, shifting from 86% to 84% white, the new survey includes no Native representation at all, and Latinx decreased to 3%.  

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Beyond the publishing industry, systemic differences in access and privilege represent life or death matters. Native women are more likely to go missing than any other demographic of women in the United States; there were 5,712 missing Native women in 2016 alone, and the statistics haven’t improved in the past four years. Native people have a 39% poverty rate; for Latinx peoples it’s 23%. 

This topic is so fraught and multifaceted, and I appreciate that the literary community is engaged in this discussion, a microcosm for the larger social/political inequalities that Latinx and indigenous peoples face. We need to continue exploring its depths, no matter what. We should consider what those depths mean for us as individuals, and as part of larger communities, and we should do the hard work of examining our own work and intentions and results. This means calling ourselves out when needed. And I am. 

My deepest hope is that I have not caused damage, that I have not overstepped in drawing on the sacred that uplifted me, which I wove into the plot of my novel in order to uplift other Latinx and indigenous peoples. I tried very hard to share only those stories that have already been in the archaeological record and also to contextualize them since many were originally interpreted and written through a white lens. My goal, first and foremost, has been to encourage and strengthen Latinas and indigenous girls and women. I am committed to this uplifting in word and in deed: Whatever funds I earn that allow me to subsist beyond paycheck to paycheck, I also contribute to the empowerment of Latinx and indigenous girls and women. If my work does not serve this goal, then I do need to be called out. 

I truly believe that my experience, as a woman of color who grew up with the knowledge of my ancestral roots and the prejudices against me for being Latina, have given me the insight to tell the story of “Trinity Sight” with the nuance, empathy, and grace that it deserves. It was never written for the white gaze. I wrote to my hermanas and hijas, always. I found and created a place for us where we would be safe.  

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But writing about experiences outside of our own is not only about empathy or imagination, though these are important. The stakes are higher. Yes, we should write the stories and worlds and experiences we’re called to write, that burn within us. But who is the writing serving? What are our intentions? Why are we called to write a particular story?

My intention was always about serving my community, my family, people of color, Latinx and indigenous people — reminding us how our ancestral connection to the land and its spiritual possibilities give us strength and courage. I never aimed to speak for another culture. If indigenous readers feel I have, then I invite conversations and I will listen.

Cummins has responded to the criticism of her book, that she has no right to tell this story, by saying that while according to the “court of public opinion” she is “the white lady,” she sees herself as Latinx. This response, paired with her own declaration just a few years ago that “in every practical way, my family is mostly white” and her admission that she’ll “never know the impotent rage of being profiled, or encounter institutionalized hurdles to success because of my skin or hair or name” shows a lack of self-awareness and a conflation of lived experience versus ancestral heritage. It must take extreme bravado and entitlement to switch so seamlessly between identities and cultures. The world has seen me as a Latina since I was a little girl, and treated me accordingly, though I still do have light-skin privilege compared to my darker hermanxs. If Cummins can decide that she has the right to tell the stories of the people who have been living and writing them longer than she’s publicly called herself Latinx, then it doesn’t sound like she’s able to look beyond herself, her privilege, or her own stake in the story she’s appropriated, even as she claims to be serving as a “bridge.” Perhaps she is familiar with Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherríe L. Moraga’s indispensable anthology of feminist writing, which makes clear that the bridge has always been upon the backs of women of color, who have survived by splitting ourselves, making bridges of ourselves. That Cummins believes she can enter this world (of oppression, racism, fear, violence) when she chooses (and by that logic, leave whenever she chooses), then, no, I don’t think she understands why her critics are saying she doesn’t have a right to this story.

I do believe writers shouldn’t feel limited to writing only through experiences that we can personally claim 100% “ours,” or write only characters and voices and personas that we “own.” Identity is not all. But for many of us, particularly writers of color, disabled writers, and LGBTQ+ writers, identity is how we’ve been labeled and understood and interpreted – how we’ve been ignored, slighted, ridiculed, swept aside. How I’ve been mistaken for a member of the cleaning staff and spoken down to again and again by white folks with all the best intentions. I’ve lived as a woman of color my whole life and write from that perspective. 

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At the same time, publishers are supposedly invested in the #ownvoices campaign, in an effort to work toward increasing diversity. My publisher has told me it’s a major marketing point that a writer is telling their own story in their own voice. This is supposed to give people of color a boost in platform, yes? 

And yet here is a typical way a big publishing house — the kind that could bestow seven-figure advances and get books in Oprah’s hands — will find to say no to a writer like me, even as I’m praised as a “star on the rise”: 

“I really enjoyed the themes that Jenn plays with in this collection and found her imagery truly stunning. Jenn is clearly so talented and definitely a star on the rise. However, while [REDACTED] is always on the lookout for fresh new voices, we struggled to find a truly commercial way to position Jenn as her platform isn’t quite as robust as we so wanted it to be in order to break her out in a big way.”

Too often we are out here telling our “own” stories, and yet we — POC and disabled people and queer/trans folks perhaps especially — are being passed over in favor of others who are writing those stories for us, who are taking the mic instead of passing it.

There is pressure to stay in our own lanes. At the same time there is the pressure that comes from being told our own stories are not enough. 

It is important to me to tell my protagonist’s story — that of a Latina at the heart of an epic adventure. I’d never read or seen any badass Latina/indigenous protagonists slaying demons and taking names; I wrote this book so that women and girls like me, like my daughter, could see ourselves reflected in stories that stretched in different directions than what white, mainstream America thinks we should star in. My protagonist is a mother but she is also a professor, an anthropologist, and a force to be reckoned with. She becomes a monster slayer and saves the lives of those around her. I’ve lived in fear that someone would accuse me of not being indigenous enough to tell my antepasados’ stories alongside her story, though I’ve felt commissioned to do so, called to do so, by my spirit and my familia, all my life. And now it’s happened. 

So I ask myself again. What were my intentions? 

To find hope in the ancestral stories and to champion the healing and renewing possibilities that Latinx and indigenous wisdom offer us.  

To add my voice to the conversation of strong writers of color, Latinx and indigenous folks already doing the work. Here’s a list of powerful indigenous books to start with from the Chicago Review of Books. I’d like to call special attention to two of them, recent post-apocalyptic and indigenous futurist stories working in a similar vein to mine: “Trial of Lightning” by Rebecca Roanhorse and “Future Home of a Living God” by Louise Erdrich (both of which I read only after finishing my novel, since I was writing concomitant to Erdrich and Roanhorse, who published these beautiful books the year before mine came out). I’ll carry these books alongside my own, sisters in the fight for survival, recognition, and healing.  

What were my intentions? Not to speak for. Not to give humanity to. To uplift. To recognize the gifts and talent and light and spark that already exist. And to keep lighting that for generations to come, mis hijas y mis nietas, until the time all Latinas and indigenous women are seen for the queens and badasses we’ve always known we are.

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