Divisions across the country over a newly released novel by a Gaithersburg native have filtered to the local level among elected officials in Montgomery County.
“American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins, tells the story of a Mexican woman and her son’s journey to the United States to escape a drug cartel after many members of their family are murdered.
The city of Gaithersburg selected the book, which was released last month, for a citywide reading program.
The effort will conclude with a discussion on March 31 at Gaithersburg High School. Cummins, who has Puerto Rican heritage, will talk with Mexican-American author Reyna Grande at the event.
Critics have said “American Dirt” does not accurately tell the Mexican immigrant experience. Some have alleged that passages were lifted from other books written by immigrant authors. Critics have also pointed to the lack of authors of color represented in the publishing industry as a reason to be skeptical in this case.
Nancy Navarro and Gabe Albornoz, the County Council’s two Hispanic-American members, have criticized the work because they feel it perpetuates stereotypes about Latino and Latina immigrants.
Navarro, in an interview last week with Bethesda Beat, said she read select passages of the book.
“I think that constantly reverting back to violence and narco-trafficking that have been glorified in the media as if that is the only dimension of people that comes from Mexico … those kinds of things come with this narrative,” she said.
Navarro, who was born in Venezuela, said she was surprised when she learned that Gaithersburg selected “American Dirt” for its community read event. She noted that the County Council spent the past year making racial equity and social justice a priority in the county. One element of that is understanding how communities of color have been stereotyped, she said.
“We always talk about how Gaithersburg is one of the most diverse cities in the country, and therefore one consideration should be that there is a large portion of residents that is affected by [negative] stereotypes and portrayals,” she said. “It is my responsibility to understand these experiences, just as it is for every elected official in the county.”
Navarro said she would have preferred that the Gaithersburg wrapup event consist of a panel of Latino and Latina authors instead of Cummins.
“To me, that is what should be done. I don’t see what the point is of rehashing the narrative of this book,” she said.
After Navarro expressed a similar view to Montgomery Community Media last week, Gaithersburg Mayor Jud Ashman issued a statement that didn’t directly refer to the comments, but urged people to attend the March 31 event.
“We’d always envisioned our program as a conversation that included both the perspective of the author and that of someone who has lived the immigrant experience — as well as with the audience. I think it’s going to be an amazing evening,” he wrote. “And, I’d say, particularly for those who are on the fence, and who have questions or concerns about American Dirt: we’re providing an opportunity for everyone to come judge for themselves.”
In response to Navarro’s suggestion that a panel of Latino and Latina authors speak instead, Ashman said in an interview last week with Bethesda Beat that the city’s annual book festival in mid-May features a diverse range of authors.
Last month, Flatiron Books, the publisher of “American Dirt,” canceled Cummins’ speaking tour around the country in response to threats of violence. The publisher announced instead that Cummins would hold town hall meetings.
Flatiron also apologized for an insensitive rollout of the book, which included using barbed-wire imagery on the cover and barbed-wire centerpieces at a book launch party last year, as reported by Forbes.
Attempts to reach Cummins for an interview for this story were unsuccessful. A Flatiron Books spokeswoman said last week that Cummins is not doing interviews for now.
However, Cummins told NPR’s Rachel Martin last month that her goal in writing the book was to “try to upend the traditional stereotypes” surrounding the conversation on immigration.
“And I felt like there was room — I feel like there is room in the national dialogue for us to examine the humanity of the people involved in a much more intimate way. And I — you know, people can decide for themselves whether they feel that I failed or succeeded in that endeavor, but that was my hope,” Cummins said.
Asked if he were worried about having to possibly cancel the Gaithersburg event, Ashman said he wasn’t.
“When you explain ground rules to people and ensure people’s voices will be heard, I find people generally are civil. I just have a good feeling our crowd and conversation will be able to have a civil conversation,” he said.
Navarro said Ashman’s intentions are good, but she disagrees with the decision to host Cummins.
“As someone who represents one of the most diverse cities in the country, I would hope he [Ashman] wound understand why this would be so upsetting,” she said. “I understand that perhaps he thinks this is a really nice gesture, but it’s important for him to know what people have been saying.”
Albornoz, whose parents immigrated from Chile and Ecuador, said in an interview Tuesday that he has read excerpts of the book and recently bought a copy. The passages he has read, he said, are “problematic.”
“I think the book does not fairly reflect the unique cultural contributions of our community and further exacerbates some of the terrible rhetoric we’re hearing at the national level,” he said.
Albornoz said he understands Ashman’s decision to host Cummins since she has local roots.
“I understand where the mayor and the [city are] coming from, and obviously she [Cummins] has a unique connection to both the school and the [city], which I certainly understand and respect. I understand the approach they’re trying to take. I think it’s a symptom of a larger problem that we need to address across the entire country,” he said.
Council President Sidney Katz, who preceded Ashman as Gaithersburg mayor, said in an interview Monday that he spoke with Ashman about the March 31 event and thinks it’s important to “have a good dialogue” surrounding the book.
“I think one of the controversies has been that [Cummins] has written about something that she didn’t personally experience, but it’s a book. And in many cases, authors do not experience what they write about. Murder mysteries hopefully have never been written by somebody who’s been a murderer. … so I think they should have a good discussion,” he said.
Gaithersburg City Council members on Monday expressed support for the event.
Council Member Mike Sesma, who is Mexican-American, said he is reading the book and it’s “pretty gripping” and “hard to put down.”
“I don’t think you can compare it to ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ but I haven’t finished the book yet,” he said.
Sesma said it’s important to separate the “marketing of the book” from the work itself. He agrees that the use of barbed wire imagery on the cover was offensive. But people, he said, need to make the distinction between the rollout and the book.
City Council Member Ryan Spiegel said he understands the criticism of the rollout, too, but said Gaithersburg should be “hesitant to embrace any message of so-called cancel culture.”
“Let’s lean in. This is supposed to be an educational opportunity for people in the public. And people are entitled to have their passionate view about the book and the meaning of the book. It’s a novel. But if it makes some people feel a little more compassionate toward the immigrant experience, I think that’s a good thing in the end,” he said.
Spiegel said he is friends with Navarro and she is “welcome to her opinion,” but hopes she attends the March 31 event.
City Council Member Laurie-Anne Sayles, whose parents are immigrants, said she also hopes people attend the city’s event.
“My parents came from Jamaica, and there’s lots of different portrayals of the immigrant experience that I don’t necessarily agree with, but at the end of the day, it’s something that we need to discuss and it’s an important topic,” she said.
City Council Member Neil Harris, who has read the entire book, said he didn’t think it stereotyped immigrants, but the narrative was relatable to what refugees are currently experiencing as they try to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.
“Why are we discussing it in Gaithersburg? Well, it’s written by one of our people. She [Cummins] was a Gaithersburg High School graduate, so of course we’re gonna invite her,” he said. “I hope that the ultimate result of this book being written is that it opens people’s eyes to the fact that people are coming to this country because of horrible things, and we need to be more sympathetic to what they’re going through,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at email@example.com