From ‘Dirt’ to dignity: How to join the movement to promote Latinx voices

Just like that, the conversation has moved from frustration to inspiration.

My post yesterday about the misguided bestseller “American Dirt” was not quite as constructive as I usually like the Daily Boost to be, but our fearless leaders were already miles ahead: the key voices of protest against the novel had already hatched a plan for positive action. The brand-new #DignidadLiteraria campaign aims to revolutionize publishing and get publishers to prioritize Latinx voices.

The founders are writers Roberto Lovato, David Bowles, and flat-out badass Myriam Gurba, whose scathing piece “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck: My Bronca with Fake-Ass Social Justice Literature” sparked a lot of the current conversation. (She deserves some sort of award simply for starting a headline with “Pendeja, You Ain’t Steinbeck.” You can listen to her starting at about 8:05 on this episode of the Latino Rebels Podcast, where, unsurprisingly, she continues to not pull any punches: as she introduces herself, she calls the book like “a narconovela written by a gringa who went to Acapulco for the weekend… It’s ghastly.”)

#DignidadLiteraria is showing the full power of a hashtag. People are using it to share books you should read instead of “American Dirt,” offer their services as publishers or editors to Latinx writers who have a manuscript that needs supporting, and more. If you are interested in this topic, or just in seeing how people can pull together in the face of something that could have been simply infuriating and exhausting, then follow #dignidadliteraria on Twitter or whatever social media you use.

If your main interest is checking out Latinx writers and journalists, here are the first four that have actually made it onto my Kindle or reading pile after following the hashtag. (I know, Amazon is bad, but one thing at a time.)

  1. Children of the Land,” by Marcelo Hernández Castillo, 2020 – This is a brand-new memoir about growing up undocumented in the United States. As #dignidad boosters are saying, let’s make this one a gargantuan bestseller! What’s more, a book about post-immigration life in the United States addresses a huge truth that “American Dirt” gets wrong: life after crossing that border is not a bed of roses. 

2. “Enrique’s Journey,” Sonia Nazario, 2006 – As I wrote yesterday, this book really did change the way I understood migration. It’s based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series in the LA Times and is absolutely extraordinary. Like “Children of the Land,” it also focuses extensively on the long-term impact of a migration journey after arrival in the U.S.

3. Um, all of these books in this photo from @booksonthepark! Although “The House of Broken Angels” by Luis Alberto Urrea is calling my name in particular, as is his “The Devil’s Highway.”

4. “Tell Me How It Ends,” by Valeria Luiselli, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in South Africa, recounts her experiences as a translator for child migrants in New York. It sounds like it needs to be read with a stiff drink in hand, but so do all of these books.

The Texas Observer published a list of many more books to read, and #dignidadliteraria will keep ’em coming in the days ahead. What are your favorite books on immigration or by Latinx writers in general? Do you subscribe to any media, magazines, ‘zines that help support writers of color in your community? I’d love to learn more, because it’s all hands on deck to turn this around.

(If you’d like to learn more about some amazing young Costa Rican writers, you can check this out.)

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. Sign up (top right of this page) to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter).  

I learned something from ‘American Dirt’ – just not what the author intended

I’ll say this for “American Dirt,” the novel that has been hailed as an epic work of Steinbeck-level genius that will forever change the way we view immigration: if you’re going to inhale a novel in a couple of sittings, this is a decent one to choose. Jeanine Cummins is a talented writer who knows how to spin a yarn and keep things suspenseful.

I’ll say that, and only that, for this book.

The reason I was reading it, and reading it so fast, is that I wanted to understand what Cummins had revealed in this novel that made someone as well-read as Oprah Winfrey say that the book “changed me and changed the way I see what it means to be an immigrant trying to come to this country.”

You know what I learned from “American Dirt” about the immigrant experience? Nothing. And that makes the outpouring of praise for this novel in the United States very disturbing.

I do not know much about this topic. I worked in Arizona for three years and have lived in Costa Rica for 15, but when it comes to what it’s like to live in Mexico or the Northern Triangle – to experience such fear and oppression that you give up everything to become a migrant, to ride on the back of the infamous Bestia, or to scramble across the desert by night – I know no more than anyone in the United States should. I did read “Enrique’s Journey,” the harrowing 2007 nonfiction account by Pulitzer Prize-winning LA Times reporter Sonia Nazario. I’ve ingested news articles and opinion pieces in pretty limited quantities, compared to many of my better-informed family and friends.

In short, I know what I’d consider to be the absolutely minimum for any citizen of a country facing a major humanitarian crisis: I know that the reasons for migration are diverse and dire, that the countries sending migrants are unique and complex, that no one would run away from their lives or put their families at risk without a damn good reason, and that each and every migrant has a story. Those actually aren’t even facts that you learn. It’s basic logic.

Is this too much for us, as a nation? Do privileged people need a work of fiction by a white author to hold our hand through these discoveries? We sure did in 1852, when Harriet Beecher Stowe published “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” using fiction to illustrate the inhumanity of slavery to her fellow northerners. Have we progressed not at all since that time? Has our unparalled and unprecedented access to opinions and expression from all over the world, the rich diversity of Latin American literary voices, and the presence of Latinx culture throughout the United States made not a dent?

The most eye-opening part of “American Dirt” is not the novel but the afterword, home to Cummins’ now-infamous comment that she “wished someone slightly browner than me would write” her book. She also writes that she is “always raging against a perceived slight, always fighting against ignorance in mainstream ideas about ethnicity and culture. I’m acutely aware that the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass but singular individuals, with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique. I feel this awareness in my spine, in my DNA.”

Is that the bar for groundbreaking insight in the United States? Knowing that migrants are distinct individuals?

The praise that has been heaped upon her book suggest that it is. It also suggests that by publishing “American Dirt” to massive acclaim, Cummins has changed the nature of our public discourse, just as she’d hoped.

So we need fiction written by someone who looks and lives like us to teach us that these migrants are not “one faceless brown mass.” The news articles weren’t enough. The work of journalists like Navario, who put their lives at risk to research true stories about migration, wasn’t enough. The work of journalists in Mexico and Central America who risk their lives not occasionally, but every minute of every day, journalists who have died at their craft, wasn’t enough. The countless and frequently translated works of Mexican writers and poets and artists weren’t enough.

People in the U.S. aren’t reading that stuff? Neither am I, most of the time, and that’s no excuse for us, because this fuss suggests that our basic humanity wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to recognize that because our own friends and families and acquaintainces are not a faceless mass but rather distinct individuals, and Latin Americans probably are, too.

I did learn something from “American Dirt” and the reaction it’s received: if there were any doubt that our moral core is very rotten, this controversy confirms it. If this book proves to be some sort of gateway drug that piques fresh interest from new audiences, inspiring its readers to then learn more about Latin America from actual Latin Americans, and migration from actual migrants – that’s better than nothing, I guess, but it seems unlikely that cases like that will be very common. And even those cases are not something we should be proud of. It confirms how far up our asses we’ve shoved our heads. It confirms that writers and journalists of color need much more support. It confirms that someone like me who thinks she knows what’s up needs to read more widely (works like these), buy more paid subscriptions to media that are making those writers’ work possible, and figure out any other way to be a part of the solution so that she never again finds herself reading an “American Dirt.” The $13 I spent so I could read this book should have gone into other pockets. I can’t take it back, but I can at least duplicate that investment elsewhere.

One of the book’s characters spits through the border fence onto the ground beyond so she can leave a part of herself on the U.S. soil that gives the book its name. It’s a fitting title, in the end: our paroxysms of delight over this novel have once more shown our dirty laundry to the world. We’ve demonstrated why the country that calls itself America, thus appropriating the name of an entire continent, deserves the reputation it has earned as a place that prioritizes the voice of white people again and again and again.

“American Dirt” should not be revolutionizing our view of migrants. There’s no excuse, in 2020, for needing a non-Mexican, non-Central American’s fictionalized account to make us care about the violence in Mexico and the Northern Triangle, violence our country has had a critical role in creating. We shouldn’t need a wakeup call when alarm bells have been going off all around us every day for decades. The disproportionate success of this book should shame us. We should return it to the thriller shelves where it belongs; trade fiction for the plentiful and compelling facts that are at our fingertips; and use those facts to guide how we speak, share, spend and vote.

I’m a writer in San José, Costa Rica, on a year-long quest to share daily posts on inspiring people, places and ideas from my adopted home as a kind of tonic during a rough time in the world. (Of course, there will be an occasional rant, like today.) Sign up at the top right of this page to receive a little dose of inspiration every weekday in your mailbox; tell a friend; check out past posts; and please connect with me on Instagram or Facebook! You can also find me churning out small, square poems on any topic under the sun (here on the site, on Instagram or Twitter). 


The power of immigrant vision

Founders’ Day remarks delivered at The Derryfield School, Manchester, New Hampshire, May 19, 2017.


Thank you, Dr. Carter, the Founders, Mr. Sanborn, and everyone who played any part in helping me get me back to Derryfield today, including my parents, who made the drive from Eastport, Maine. The list of reasons we love Derryfield is very long, but one I have been thinking about lately is how much I was allowed to try when I was here. Middle and high school are always going to be scary – but I got to experience that part of my life in a place where I felt able not only to do the things I was naturally good at, but also to do things I was clueless about. I mean, they let ME on the soccer team! Mr. Holland let ME through the door of his classroom every day for years! Breakthrough Manchester let ME teach a total immersion Latin class to sixth-graders.

I was not great at any of those things. That means that Derryfield helped me start to learn what it felt like to enter new spaces where I did not quite belong. Those small experiences of awkwardness in a safe place build up little muscles that help us deal with bigger uncertainties later on. Those muscles, that practice of cluelessness, have been crucial for me as an adult.

Continue reading The power of immigrant vision

‘Nothing is black and white: there’s a lot of gray’

How old were you when you became an adult? Were you 16? 15? How about 10?

That’s the question the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project poses at the start of one of videos. I’d say 25, I thought to myself, only half-joking.

The idea went on to haunt me. The number 25, along with the faces of kids and teenagers in my life, kept flashing before me as I read on about this Philadelphia nonprofit that provides mitigation and reentry services for young people being treated as adults in our courts and prisons – particularly children sentenced to life in prison without parole.

That’s right. Children sentenced to life in prison without parole. The United States is the only country in the world that does this; we even have an acronym for it (JLWOP). And of more than 2,000 JLWOP cases that must be resentenced, thanks to the 2016 U.S. Supreme Court Montgomery vs. Louisiana decision, Pennsylvania has 500, and Philadelphia more than whopping 300.

Lawyers Lauren Fine, 33, and Joanna Visser Adjoian, 34, got to know each other during and after law school when they were working with families of incarcerated youth. They created the YSRP in 2014 to address the misinformation and lack of support that often results in young people’s cases entering the adult system – cases like that of Eugene, who, at 16, was sent to adult jail as a result of a botched group robbery attempt using a BB gun he didn’t handle, in which no one was hurt, and in which no money was taken.

Fine and Visser Adjoian helped Eugene’s case get transferred to the juvenile justice system and, once he made bail, connected him with education and counseling services he needed.

I spoke to the lawyers about how our country reached this pass and what they are bracing for in the new presidential administration. Excerpts follow.

So – a lot of this project is about me realizing how much I don’t know.

JV: That’s like every day for us [laughs].

There was so much on your site I didn’t know before. What struck me the most was on your list of Frequently Asked Questions: “Why should kids receive special treatment?” Is this really a question you frequently hear? How is this a question for our country?

JV: We first drafted those when we were getting started, feeling like we needed to justify our existence, and trying to anticipate pushback we could get from any member of any audience. It went back to really what goes back to the basis of having these law on the books in the first place: the terrible superpredator era of, “You do an adult crime, you serve adult time.” Our desire was to cut this off at the pass and address this head-on – to say that our work is informed by the belief that no kid deserves to be in adult jail.

The United States is the only country in the world that’s treating kids in this way – how did this happen

LF: Race is at the center, and otherization in general, and the idea of certain children being different from other children: using terms like juvenile delinquent, juvenile offender. In our view even the word “juvenile” has an impact, and we try not to use it as a noun. Certainly the idea that there are some children who are inherently bad and corrupted, and should be treated in a way that those who propagate those kinds of laws, across the board, would not want their children to be treated.

Bad facts make bad law, and there were a number of cases in the 90s in particular when the superpredator myth was rising from academia that made it easier that made it easier to justify decisions in legislatures accordingly, to “protect” people from what they feared.

JV: We subscribe to the racial justice or racial injustice view of how our criminal justice has evolved over time, that Michelle Alexander writes about in “The New Jim Crow,” and that Ava Duvernay has so brilliantly pulled together in “13th.” The undercurrent of modern-day slavery as reflected in our system of mass incarceration disproportionately impacts young men of color. That’s what we see day in and day out in our cases:  both in terms of the young people prosecuted directly in adult court, and now the hundreds of juvenile lifers in Pennsylvania who have spent the majority of their life behind bars, since they were kids.

As we’re heading into the impacts and ramifications of our new administration, this is something we’re paying close attention to: how these dynamics are going to be exacerbated.

A promotional image for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary “13th.”

In terms of the Trump administration, are there any issues or changes you’re engaged with already, or are you waiting to see what transpires?

JV: It’s all of the above. We’re in a bit of a wait-and-see posture right now, but not really. We can anticipate what’s coming down the pike… Lifting up a Blue Lives Matter narrative over a Black Lives Matter narrative is directly impactful on our work and something that we would be pushing back on from the start. As a colleague wisely advised a week or two ago, we are storing up our energy for when more explicit things come down that we need to respond to.

We also take an intersectional approach, feeling like we’re all implicated here… [on issues like] the Muslim ban and immigration.

There’s a section of “13th” that discusses the idea that a merging of the immigration system and criminal justice system is taking place. In President Trump’s speech to the joint session of Congress, he talked about getting gang members and drug dealers out of the country, and I saw it differently than I would have even a couple of months ago. It’s all knitted together.

JV: Yup. That was an incredible line. This idea of the bad ones, getting the bad ones out, all goes back to the idea of the bad guys being the superpredator kids. It’s rooted in the same racism.

What can people to do to take action on this? We can donate to your organization, of course! For people in other regions, what organizations can they engage with?

LF: There’s a DC-based organization called the Campaign for Youth Justice and there’s another one specifically on the issue of juvenile sentencing without parole, the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. They have an important, sweeping perspective: getting involved on the litigation front, but also doing family organizing with loved ones of people serving life sentences, as well as loved ones of people who were lost to individuals who were then convicted of life without parole. Their goal as an organization is to get rid of sentences of life without parole for children.

The Incarcerated Children Advocacy Network – ICAN – is made up of individuals who, as children, were sentenced as life without parole but have been released through various legal mechanisms, and are doing really amazing things in countries around the country.

Many people now are getting more involved in the political process. On this issue, I guess a first step people can take is to find out about their own state’s policies, right?

LF: It can be really encouraging the focus on the local level with these issues. There’s a lot of change that can happen on the municipal level or the state level.

JV: It’s become really clear for us that there’s huge power in local elections – in particular in states like ours where judges and district attorneys are elected. That’s something people can do even if there isn’t an organization on the ground. They can pay more attention to these kinds of elections and hold the folks who are running accountable.

There’s been a lot of attention on the legal profession in general in the past few weeks and the power that lawyers can have. Have you experienced fellow lawyers showing new interest in addressing some of these issues?

LF: Philadelphia is a sanctuary city; there have been a lot of efforts directed and defending members of our immigrant community who are under attack right now. Our local Bar Association has been really fantastic in convening a lot of our partners, colleagues, and local attorneys to get them trained in deportation defense and figuring out what the front line should look like. It’s encouraging knowing how the community has mobilized so far, and that when issues [related to criminal justice] present themselves, similar mobilization efforts will likely occur.

You’ll each have a million answers for this question – but what have you learned from the young people you are working with, that you wish more people knew?

LF: At the risk of being really cliché, I think an overarching theme that I have learned is that nothing is black and white. Our system is designed to put things in those terms, but people are really complex; there’s a lot of gray. Even in the advocacy world, we want things to be black and white, and there’s complexity and grayness there, too.

It’s about recognizing the full humanity of everyone we come in contact with, and understanding that this doesn’t fit into an easy narrative, but trying to really understand people as individuals.

And that’s what our country is struggling with on every level.

JV: I keep thinking about what one of the young people we work with said to me last week – in our first meeting, actually. We were just getting to know each other. He looked at me and said, “You know, I have so much untapped potential, and I have never had an opportunity to reach my full potential, and I need help doing that.”

That degree of self-awareness was so – I can’t even find the right word. Poignant, I think. It reminded me that the systemic oppression and inequality that our young people and families are experiencing are not lost on them. They are aware of the barriers that we have erected on people’s paths. It was a helpful reminder, at the very least, and something we need to remind ourselves of in terms of how we do the work.

LF: This is easy, Hallmark-y, but to put a more positive perspective in the mix, too: just how resilient people are. Even in the face of all these things, there’s still that hopefulness in wanting to reach one’s potential. That’s so important in all of this.

Donate to the Youth Sentencing and Reentry Project here; meet other women leaders from the Shadow Cabinet series here.

Comments, suggestions? Connect with me on Facebook or Twitter.


Why despair in the age of Trump means we need to know more, not less

Here’s what surprised me the most during Donald Trump’s first month in office – a period I prefer to think of as my first month with the Shadow Cabinet.

During each of the past four weeks, I’ve interviewed one remarkable woman: an immigration lawyer in New Mexico, a public-education advocate in Alaska, a business owner who promotes activism through art in Pennsylvania, and a Washington, D.C. innovator who made congressional pressure as easy as sending a text.

Before each chat, I was nervous, and not just because these women are powerful and extraordinary. I was nervous because they know so much about the problems facing our country, and are so in tune with populations and institutions at risk. I expected to learn terrible truths and come away the way I generally come away from the news: depressed and feeling helpless.

Instead, every time, I hung up the phone and practically ran up the walls with excitement. Allegra, Alyse, Maryam and Laura replaced my despair with energy.

Continue reading Why despair in the age of Trump means we need to know more, not less

‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn’

Allegra Love doesn’t mince words. It’s obvious from the pace and passion of her speech that she doesn’t waste time, either. The immigration lawyer can’t afford to, not with her clients depending on her – plus the onslaught of “thousands of emails” and calls since the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, just one week before we spoke.

The waves of new attention come from people who want to help the organization she created: the Santa Fe Dreamers Project, which provides free legal aid to immigrant youth and their families.

At one point during our Skype conversation, Love stands up to go ask her colleagues for a website address she wants to give me. “I’m sitting outside,” she explains, “so I don’t disturb all the other lawyers while I YELL. AT. YOU.” She laughs for a split second, recognizing the heightened emotion that has dominated the conversation, and then the moment of mirth is gone and it’s back to the urgent topic at hand.

Continue reading ‘Before you say you want to help, say you want to learn’