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
  1. the author’s identity in relation to those about whom she writes;
  2. the commodification of trauma and violence;
  3. the simplification of culture for consumption by (white) outsiders; and
  4. the notion of “giving voice” to a politically disenfranchised community.

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.

  1. Own your identity in your writing, whether as an insider, an outsider, or something in between. This also means that you must acknowledge your privilege and actively work to articulate and address how it impacts your data collection, your interpretation, and your dissemination. That is, what do you observe because of who you are? How do you interpret it? Who listens to you when you talk about it? And what can you do about each of these? Sure, it can be hard to write about your relationship to the communities about and for whom you write. But that’s ok. People way smarter than us have written whole books about identity and positionality and how to write about them. Read them. Cite them. Emulate them. Learn from them. Feminist studies brought us standpoint theory; queer theory pushed us to move from categories to fluidity. Other authors have written extensively about the intersections of queer theory and race/ethnicity or disability research. And plenty of folks have discussed the implications of these theories, including how our privilege and power affect our community work and how we can kinda sorta be an insider and outsider, native and non-native at the same time. Books like Feminist Fieldwork Analysis can guide the methods we choose and the way we use them. So, when you can’t figure out how to write about your identity in your work, treat it the same way you would when you don’t understand the particular type of regression model you are supposed to use: read about it. Dive into the lit. Learn from those who came before you. So often I see students tackle quant work by reading, but, when it comes to writing about positionality, simply take an hour to reflect on their lives and call it a day. Nope. Read, cite, and learn from the (often queer, women, and people of color) who blazed the trails for us all.
  2. We don’t “give voice” to anyone. Claiming to “give voice” belies an assumption that those on behalf of whom we work have no voice themselves, a claim that is often made by folks who do not come from the communities about whom they write. When you live and work in marginalized communities, you’ve seen the way folks gather and march to protest injustice, the way they organize boycotts as grape pickers or strikes as janitors, the way they teach their children how to interact with the officers who profile them or their Black parents, or the way they fight against a pipeline that spoils the water they drink (links to kid books! My new fave thing!). The problem, then, is not that these voices don’t exist, it’s that society either actively chooses to ignore them, or, worse, actively silences them. As has been well discussed in these circles, following the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson, the Black community in Ferguson powerfully made its voice known, only to be met with tear gas and riot batons. Undocumented activists who have spoken out against deportation have been pursued by ICE. Muslim mosques are infiltrated by FBI informants, making the very act of speaking to a friend dangerous for one’s community. As social scientists, it is not only our job to foreground these supposedly silent voices in our work, but to actively elucidate the people and systems that force their silence through surveillance and violence.
  3. We must bring discussions of violence and trauma into the foreground with respect, reverence, and responsibility. When I speak specifically to folks in public health, I always remind them what an honor it is to do the work we do. At the core of our discipline, we talk to people about the darkest moments of their lives: when they and people they love are sick and dying. Of course, public health is not the only discipline to interact with community members during their most vulnerable moments. I’d argue much of the same happens in psychology, sociology, nursing (obviously), and other fields. The more we are able to keep this truth at the forefront of our minds, the more natural it becomes to talk about sickness, violence, and trauma with the humanity and dignity it deserves (And perhaps most germane to the American Dirt drama, when one is from the community about whom they are writing, writing disrespectfully or voyeuristically becomes nearly impossible.) Respectfully discussing violence and trauma requires carefully placing it in the context in which it occurs. And with this context comes a nuance, authenticity, and complexity that makes our work much harder to write for general (often white, straight) public consumption. (In my opinion, it’s not a surprise the Children of the Land or Mean didn’t receive a million dollar pay-out. A non-Latinx public wants a simple Latinx immigration story, not one complicated by queerness and sexual assault.) This is part of the price we pay as social scientists: in shining lights on systems of exploitation, we make enemies of those who benefit from those systems. And in writing complex stories, we limit our readership to those willing to empathetically and humanely engage with our work.

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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