Writing Your Latino Story: How Not to Pull an American Dirt

BeLatina What Not to do American Dirt

Have you been following the controversy over American Dirt? If not,you should — it’s a textbook lesson in creating social justice impact through social media advocacy

As a journalist, independent producer/writer, and cultural consultant I cover mostly one beat: Latin/a/o/x/Hispanic culture, heritage, and storytelling. My portfolio spans Academy Award-winning films and small non-profit cultural events. I’ve been at this 20 years. Full disclosure: David Bowles is a colleague and as a result of our working together on other projects such as the Mexicanx Initiative I have followed his work as a writer and social justice advocate.

Here’s my take on the post-American Dirt scenario for storytellers, publishers, and anyone interested in the Latino zeitgeist, which I offer as a practical guide. My colleagues in the Latinx community have done the hard work to explain the why of their perspective, as well as the what. I can’t add more to their essential narrative, other than to echo recommendations for Latinx authors. Where I might be useful is to unpack the dialogue a bit more to offer a map for next steps. I hope for everyone’s sake we can start talking together, instead of at each other.

It’s the Strategy… 

The American Dirt advocacy resembles community campaigns directed at other media like films and TV shows but one element is especially notable — the strategy. The organizers knew beforehand about the timing of the book’s publication, so they formed a small and smart group consisting of respected and influential writers/advisors with their own clout in Latino storytelling, they leveraged their own talents as writers, and they rallied support in social media before they pulled the advocacy trigger. Importantly, their messaging is CCT — continuous, consistent, and tenacious. 

It’s the Strategy, y Más

Now the group is getting calls from publishers but they have not let up on their advocacy for the community. Their additional message is all about integrity: They can’t be bought.

It’s become an inflection point for the publishing industry.

¿Y que? The writing about American Dirt is on a wall of the author and her publisher’s making. This novel about a Mexican mother’s flight from gang violence sparked the above referenced inflection point and the book was unpacked, reviewed, and re-shaped by Latin/a/o/x/Hispanic critics, academics, writers, activists, and students. In this social media era, that reaction is a given.

The question for Latin/a/o/x/Hispanic writers and for content distributors is whether this moment creates meaningful awareness and opportunity — writing gigs, producing gigs, green lights for pitches. I’ll place bets the answer is yes, and sooner rather than eventually. Why? The market can’t be ignored.

And if that’s the case publishers, storytellers, content distributors, marketers — and anyone unfamiliar with Latinidad who seeks to illuminate our culture through storytelling — can use this opportunity to not screw it up. (Opportunistic monetization is a topic for another essay.)

Here are guidelines I have found useful in my work:

Research: It may seem basic but, really, do your homework. Read, interview, visit locations, read more, and most especially — listen. Take your emerging story on the road — share your ideas with community folks as well as subject matter experts. The current history about the development of American Dirt underscores the research behind it. But here is where the tangible research activities any good writer must undertake, need to step into the realm of the intangible. By that I mean, to place oneself into an unknown space, to make oneself vulnerable to ideas of culture and the agency of identity.  We all have our own stories to share and what is especially important is to try and hear not just the facts of culture and heritage but the music of it — the cadence of yearning, suffering, triumphs. You’ll learn more from hearing between the lines.

Be humble and ask: The most important thing to understand is you don’t know what you don’t know. No, really: You. Don’t. Know. So ask yourself — who can help me understand what is it I don’t know? For Mexico (and all of Latin America) that question should be asked about numerous categories. What don’t we know about the language(s)? About the history of a place? About music, food, the weather, folklore, politics, outside influences, culture? Why do Monarch butterflies make the roundtrip there annually? Why are the best tasting (in my view) tortillas made with lard? Why are Bavarian-style polkas so popular in Mexico? Why do the kids want to play the tuba and the accordion? Why do grandmothers throw flip flops when they’re upset? 

Here’s an example: In the borderlands regions, many people who are natives (like me) or residents have a point of view about the place that is one part philosophical, one part pragmatic, and one part romantic. To us, the borderlands are not really a place so much as a state of mind. There is no “border” because the thing that passes for an international demarcation was itself the result of an illegal war — which leads to the inevitable question, “How can you respect a border that was stolen”? So, in my heart, it’s not really a border. But in my mind, I remember to carry my passport. 

Listen: When someone wants to share insights about a place, listen. When someone is angry about the way you are telling their story, listen. It’s not easy to engage with critics — but I’ve found the best way to resolve tension is to respect the tension — invite dialogue, ask questions, listen, and take notes. Don’t get defensive when challenged about motivation to create a story. Step into the tension and respect it. The upside is the exchange and the learning which results. How to do this? Find a neutral convenor and organize a meeting. Set ground rules for dialogue. Keep the cameras out. What gets said in the room stays in the room. One way to establish a connection when you start the discussion is to ask all of the participants to prepare an answer for the following question and share it with the group before the dialogue begins: “When did you first believe you could be a storyteller?”

Understand the zeitgeist or find someone who does: Repeat after me: Culture equals identity. If you tell a story about someone else’s culture, you are, in a way, exerting control over that person’s identity. Period.

Back in the day, it was impossible for marginalized people to push back. Those days are over. Publishers and storytellers will get pushback, even from their own communities. (I have. I’ve even received death threats over curatorial choices.) It may be organic. It may be strategic. It may be both — but because of the nature of social media, it will also be evergreen.

A successful publisher and storyteller will understand this, prepare for it, anticipate it, and is ready to respond to it, the moment it happens. This strategy is called rapid response, not maybe-it-will-go-away-and-I-don’t-need-to-respond response. Community reaction never “goes away.” Ask yourself this Ms. Publisher: Would you rather have a tense but enlightening dialogue with potential readers, or calculate the expense to deal with canceled book signings or boycotts — or worse, unsold inventory?

Map out the good, the bad, and the ugly: The cool thing about modern storytelling is a story may be told once, in a book, then a gazillion times over, forever, in social media. Take the time to try and understand El Zeitgeist (one way is to hire Latin/a/o/x staff) in the community and anticipate potential reactions — good, bad, and ugly. Or beautiful — that happens too. 

Take the book cover for American Dirt. It features an illustration of beautiful Mexican Talavera tiles fenced in by barbed wire. Ok, I get the clever message about the clash of innocence and evil. But then (surprise!) a photo from the book party was leaked — and the photo depicted floral table decorations which used fake barbed wire as a decorative embellishment to the vases. Instead of ribbons. Cue an enraged Latinx readership. Because why not use barbed wire as a party favor in this era of kids in cages and parents separated from their kids — by barbed wire.

The conversation sparked by American Dirt is not overdue — it started in 1519. So to all those once and future storytellers and promoters of stories — remember that memory is the essence of zeitgeist. I remember the words of a Yaqui warrior and social justice leader, named Cajemé. His adventures took him to California, then to Guaymas where he joined my ancestors in defending the port against the French. He  was honored for his courage with an appointment as “Mayor of the Yaquis.” His assignment: Control his people under Mexican dominion. Instead, he united the Yaqui tribes into an independent republic and led an armed insurrection to secure their independence. In the end, he was betrayed, captured, and executed by firing squad, but not before exclaiming, “Antes como antes y ahora como ahora. Antes éramos enemigos y peleábamos. Ahora está todo concluido y todos somos amigos.“ (Before was before and now is now. Before we were enemies and we fought; now everything is concluded and we are all friends.) I remember him now, in today’s cultural context and it occurred to me — in a social media battlefield, the message can’t be — won’t be — shot. Another reason, then, to listen.