To Social Scientists Following the “American Dirt” Saga: We Have the Tools to Do This Right.

In the past few days, social media has been flooded with discussions and reactions to American Dirt, the new novel by Jeanine Cummins that follows the journey of a Mexican mother and her son as they flee to the U.S. while being chased by the drug cartel. Criticisms of the book, especially by Latinx authors and critics, swiftly followed its January 21st release. Much of the pushback to Cummins’ portrayal of Mexican society and immigration revolved around the same few concerns:

@lesbrains, author of “Mean”, critiques the use of barbed wire table center pieces as “border chic.” https://coffeehousepress

Yeah, it’s a doozy, and after a wave of initial critiques, follow-up summaries and critiques of these critiques followed suit.

Most of the criticism of American Dirt has come from the Latinx literary community (as it well should). But as a social scientist who writes about the violence of immigration raids and police violence in Black and Latino communities, every single one of the called-out missteps sounded familiar to me. As social scientists, the research and advocacy we do is fraught with opportunities to do our work wrong, to engage in the trauma porn, the white-washing, and the reductive racial tropes that do harm to the communities about and with whom we write. In fact, I would argue that for most social scientists, especially social scientists of color, these issues of identity, representation, commodification, and exploitation are part and parcel of the work we do. And we have the tools to do the work right.

I doubt there are many early career social scientists who are following the American Dirt drama as closely as I am. For me, it lies at the intersection of most of my professional and personal interests, including race, immigration, writing, and representation. Oh, and #LatinxTwitter chisme, language discussion, and absurd humor (I think everyone has read it by now, but if you haven’t, Gurba’s piece is as brilliant as it is searing (on twitter she’s @lesbrains)). But as early career social scientists prepare to launch into the world of writing about trauma and identity and face all the challenges that come with it, I wanted to share a few lessons I learned doing this type of work. Notably, I’ve been fortunate enough to have had fantastic academic mentors, often queer women and queer men of color, and worked on projects that pushed me in early stages of writing, research, and advocacy. Equally if not more influential have been those with no letters after their names who taught me the real stakes in the game; people, like Guadalupe, who watched her provider get deported in front of her children, twice; or Indira, a trans undocumented Latina sex worker who was excluded from every health system I thought would provide the answer. We don’t do our work for our departments or even our fields. As social scientists, our work is meant to counter systems of injustice and inequity, and addressing issues of identity, representation, commodification, and authenticity are fundamental parts of this work.

So, to add yet one more voice to the American Dirt chorus, I wanted to use the criticism and debate as a jumping off point to remind social scientists at the earlier stages of writing and research of the many tools we have to help us position our work in respectful, honest, authentic, and powerful ways.

I’ll end by following the lead of others and share a few books about immigration and immigration enforcement written by folks with first-hand experience.

Children of the Land, by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo.

The Distance Between Us, by Reyna Grande (note also the young adult version with the same name).

In the Country We Love, by Diane Guerrero (also a young adult version, My Family Divided, as seen in the pic below).

Mean, by Myriam Gurba.

And while it’s not specifically a memoir, shout out to Ruth Behar (who graciously wrote the preface to Separated) for her young adult book, Lucky Broken Girl.

My daughter reading Diane Guerrero’s latest.



PhD in public health. He/Him. 🌈✊🏽. Talk and write about immigration. Author of “Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid”

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William Lopez

PhD in public health. He/Him. 🌈✊🏽. Talk and write about immigration. Author of “Separated: Family and Community in the Aftermath of an Immigration Raid”