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American Dirt is a work of fiction by Jeanine Cummins published in 2020 by MacMillan Press. This guide refers to the first US edition. The controversial, cross-genre novel combines elements of a commercial thriller, literary fiction, suspense, and romance. The title refers to the land comprising the geopolitical entity that is the United States of America, and to the contempt undocumented migrants face both before and after crossing the US-Mexico border. While many critics initially praised the book for its propulsive plot and poignant treatment of an underrepresented group, others objected to its portrayal of Mexicans; characterizing the novel as stereotypical, opportunistic, and parasitical; while also accusing Cummins of cultural appropriation. A vitriolic debate centering on who can tell which stories emerged in the press and on social media, prompting the publisher to cancel Cummins’s book tour. The book is written in alternating third-person viewpoints. Its moral voice unequivocally lands on the side of migrants, while its simple language creates a sense of immediacy and conveys the terror of the migrant experience.
Lydia Quixano Pérez, a bookstore owner in Acapulco, saves her son Luca from a massacre that wipes out their entire family at a quinceañera cookout. The perpetrators are three sicarios, killers for Los Jardineros, a violent local cartel. Javier Crespo Fuentes, Lydia’s close friend and the jefe of Los Jardineros, ordered the hit in retaliation for an exposé written by Lydia’s husband, a journalist named Sebastián Pérez Delgado. Javier’s murderous rage stems not from the article itself, but from the impact it has on his daughter, Marta, who commits suicide when she learns of her father’s true identity. Lydia and Luca spend the rest of the novel running from Javier’s men, encountering a diverse cast of migrants along the road to the US.
Lydia gathers necessities from her mother’s house and takes Luca to a hotel using several buses to throw off Los Jardineros. Despite her precautions, a clerk recognizes her and informs Javier. The next morning, Lydia receives a gift from the jefe with a thinly veiled threat. She and Luca flee Acapulco by bus, stopping in Chilpancingo to avoid roadblocks before pressing on to Mexico City. From the capital, they travel by commuter train to Huehuetoca, where Luca witnesses the aftermath of a sexual assault at a migrant facility. The rapist is Lorenzo, a sicario for Los Jardineros. Fearful of Lorenzo, Lydia takes Luca to the train tracks where they meet two beautiful adolescent sisters named Soledad and Rebeca. Luca notices Lorenzo on the train. The sicario recognizes Lydia but claims he is no longer in Los Jardineros and means her no harm. The sisters invite Lydia and Luca to travel with them.
Lydia, Luca, and the sisters leave Lorenzo behind in Guadalajara and ride La Bestia, freight trains used by migrants, through dangerous Sinaloa territory. Immigration agents intercept the train and load all the migrants except Soledad and Rebeca into vans. When the sisters join the others in a warehouse hours later, it is clear they have been raped. As the only Mexican nationals in the group, Lydia and Luca meet with the commander, who demands a toll for their release. Luca refuses to leave the sisters behind, which prompts Lydia to pay their toll and leaves her penniless. The group meets Beto, a vivacious, asthmatic deportee who is flush with cash.
Soledad contacts a coyote named El Chacal when they arrive in Nogales. He agrees to add Lydia, Luca, and Beto to the group crossing the border, but Lydia does not have enough money. Beto volunteers to pay the difference. The migrants face their first challenge a few hours into the trek when they spy a US Border Patrol drone. Shortly thereafter, they encounter a group of armed vigilantes on the lookout for migrants and an immigration official. Other challenges arise, including a sudden storm and a flash flood that ends the journey north for two members of the group. Lorenzo tries to rape Rebeca, prompting Soledad to shoot him. Lydia finds Lorenzo’s phone and learns he offered her and Luca to Javier in exchange for his freedom from Los Jardineros. The book reaches its climax when Lydia confronts Javier over videocall and Beto dies of an asthma attack. The remaining migrants reach a campsite run by El Chacal’s contacts who drive them to Tucson in hidden compartments in their RVs. The novel ends in Maryland, where Lydia and Luca share a house with Soledad, Rebeca, and the sisters’ relatives.