Dear Media: Try Again. American Dirt Isn't Cultural Appropriation. That's Not the Issue. This is.

Updated: Jan 26





Yesterday, the BBC ran a piece about how US Latinos are backlashing Oprah's latest book club pick, American Dirt.


NPR's Morning Edition addressed our thrashing unrest, too.


Monday, the interview I did with KJZZ in Phoenix about it will air.


I'm sure a bunch of other media will crow about our collective conniption because ethnic anger bleeds - bleeds, I say! - and bloody things lead, at least until something you'd rather totes share on Insta comes along - say, a story about Kanye finding God in a pair of panties or...whatever.


All of these news outlets will likely frame our concerted vehemence merely as Latinos being angry someone else is telling a Latino story, aka "cultural appropriation." Reporters and hosts will try to present "both sides" of whether or not it's reasonable for Latinos to be angry that a well-meaning person outside of their group had the gringo gall to tell their group's story, you know, out of the kindness of their corazon. (Note to self, all Spanish words must be in italics to emphasize how Other and Foreign they are, k?)


The problem with American Dirt isn't that it is "appropriating" my "culture."


The problem is that the book is misappropriating a stereotype of Mexican immigrant (and, by conflated default, Latino American) "culture," and that stereotype sucks.

The problem is that the book is misappropriating a stereotype of Mexican immigrant (and, by conflated default, Latino American) "culture," and that stereotype sucks.


The problem is actually anticultural misappropriation in service to a dominant (white, wealthy, non-Latino American) class narrative that insists there is only one story of people like that, and that this singular story is pathetic, and that we, being pathetic and all, cannot be trusted to tell it ourselves because we are obviously too busy running from coyotes and la migra, unless we are Sandra fucking Cisneros in which case we are not too busy because we only write a book a decade and shopping for sarapes while narcissistic doesn't qualify as actual busyness.


Do you see the difference?


No?


Okay, fine. Let me try to make this clear.


Let's say you're a pretty girl in high school, and a bunch of guys think you're hot but are also afraid to approach you, so they start spreading rumors about how you're a bitch and a slut, to make themselves feel better about how scared they are of you, when, in fact, you're a nice person. (You, in this allegory, are actual Mexico and actual Mexicans, btw.) Now, let's say you confront these dicks. These guys at the BBC find out about you being, you know, super angry (this makes you scariER and bitchiER, btw), and puts together a story saying you're just mad because these dudes are publicly saying you are a bitch and a slut when, really, you and all the other bitch-sluts believe it would be more culturally appropriate if you and only you got to call yourselves bitches and sluts publicly.


Conversation ensues.


REPORTER: Anyone who speaks well and has an ear for story should be able to call you a bitch and a slut, don't you think?


YOU: Well, no, actually, you're missing the --


REPORTER: Whoa! Hang on. Did you just "well, actually" me? Isn't that hypocritical?


YOU: Can I talk please?


REPORTER: Oh, now you want to talk? I mean, it's not like you were out there talking yourself anyway, right? Weren't you too busy sucking dicks and being mean to guys at the mall?


YOU: Wait, what? How --


REPORTER: Like, maybe if you weren't so angry, people would listen to what you had to say. Is it really fair to attack someone who's just trying to help you to be seen?


NPR sees the story and a producer is all, wow, this is interesting. Let's copy the BBC. Then all the other "reporters" copy these "reporters." This is called American news. Trust me. I have a master's in journalism from Columbia.


Make sense now?


Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a marvelous TED talk about this issue, entitled "The Danger of a Single Story." If you haven't watched it, please do. If you do nothing else at all today, do that.


In her talk, Adichie opens by describing the way her Harvard dorm-mate, upon learning she was from Africa, expressed surprise that Adichie spoke such good English - in spite of the fact that English is the official language of Nigeria. Also surprising to the roomie? That Adichie, who came from a middle class family with servants, could use a fucking stove, and that she listened to Mariah Carey instead of "tribal music." Adichie tells of realizing in that moment that for Americans like this Harvard roommate, there was a single story of Africa, and that it was a pathetic one, drawn from movies, TV shows and, yes, books. Books like American Dirt, movies like Sicario, TV shows like Narcos, but, you know, about Africans.


Adichie then describes how she herself had a single story of Fide, the servant who worked in her family's home. People like Fide, she said, were seen by upper-class Nigerians as sub-human. She recalls, with great self-awareness and humble embarrassment, her surprise in realizing Fide was an artist, creative and smart, when she saw a beautiful basket he'd woven. She had not realized, till then, that people like him could do stuff like that. Damn.


Most pertinent to American Dirt, however, is the way in this same TED talk Adichie says she was stunned when she visited Guadalajara, Mexico, to find Mexicans doing normal things like smoking cigarettes, strolling in the park holding hands, and, like, laughing. She'd never seen a Mexican laugh before. This surprised her, she said, because she, like millions and maybe even billions of people around the world, had only learned about Mexican-ness from the motherfucking (my word, not hers, she's far too classy to be thusly debased) US entertainment media - film, TV, books - and that in the US there is only a single story of what it is to be Mexican. This story is about cartels, violence, fear, immigration. The same fucking story being told in American Dirt. By a non-Mexican, non-immigrant woman who identifies as white.


This is why we're pissed. American Dirt doesn't appropriate a Mexican migrant story at all. It misappropriates the ongoing bullshit single story of Mexican-ness, told by the US entertainment industry.

This is why we're pissed. American Dirt doesn't appropriate a Mexican migrant story at all. It misappropriates the ongoing bullshit single story of Mexican-ness, told by the US entertainment industry.


That Oprah has chosen this book is just a massive slap in the face to all of the US Latino writers who have been writing the actual diverse stories of us and our many cultures and selves for decades, but have been completely ignored by her. In all the years of her book club, Oprah has never - NOT ONCE - chosen a book written by a US-born Latino author. Not. Fucking. Once.


Adichie points out that the true purpose of a single story of any group of people is simple: to dehumanize them. And while some idiots (yes, Sandra, I'm staring at you) have praised American Dirt as giving voice to Mexican migrants, nothing could be further from the truth; all it does is continue a longstanding American tradition of ignoring the nuance, diversity and complex humanity of Mexicans, migrants, and, by default, all other Latinos with whom they are conflated in the simplistic mathematics of the US media's ethnic lexicon that equates migrant with Mexican, Mexican with Latino, and all of these things with "illegal" because, as I mentioned earlier, most American journalists are morons.


The conversation about cultural appropriation and American Dirt is disingenuous and inaccurate. It misses the entire broader point. In a crafty slight of hand, the publishing world and news media would like us to believe American Dirt sets out to right the wrongs of a Trumpian babycage world; but it does not.


It cements them in fucking place.

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