Latinx Twitter was set ablaze with the release of American Dirt. It’s a book about the immigrant experience, written by a non-immigrant, non-Mexican writer who wrote about the experience of crossing the border without any first-hand knowledge. In a time when Latinx writers struggle to get their work published, it was doubly offensive when the author, Jeanine Cummins, was offered a seven-figure book advance and was subsequently selected for Oprah’s Book Club. The book has been criticized for a cartoonish and stereotypical depiction of Mexicans, and galling lack of cultural sensitivity, not to mention a very awkward and inauthentic use of Spanish.
So we’re amplifying authentic immigrant stories by authors whose lived experiences have lent credibility to their narratives, including everything from the pioneering work of Gloria Anzaldúa to the more recent Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. There are many great works by Latinx authors touching upon these themes, here’s just a small sampling of the canon of immigration literature that’s rich with real stories.
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea
The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea was published 16 years ago and remains one of the most important tomes about the border. It tells the true story of 26 Mexican men whose treacherous journey to the U.S. through a deadly stretch of the desert in Southern Arizona left only 12 survivors in 2001. Urrea is a Tijuana-born writer who developed the characters of not only the Mexicans but the traitorous coyotes and the border patrolmen — all written with a level of compassion. The story balances investigative journalism with a humane look at why people do the things they do and how the lure of the American Dream is so compelling that such a dangerous journey seems worth it.
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez
How the García Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez centers around sisters Carla, Sandra, Sofía, and Yolanda as they flee the Dominican Republic with their family after their dad played a role in attempting to overthrow dictator Rafael Trujillo. The story explores what it’s like acclimating to a new culture and home as they leave behind their Caribbean homeland to build a new life in New York City in 1960. In the process of acculturation, they begin to chip away at the evidence of their roots from their hair to their clothing to their accents. This debut novel remains beloved for the in-depth and authentic portrayal of the immigrant experience spanning 30 years in the lives of these sisters.
Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora
Unaccompanied by Salvadoran-born poet Javier Zamora retells his journey across the border as a 9-year-old on his own traveling 4,000 miles to reunite with his parents. He dedicates the poems to those who aided him, including his family and a stranger who saved his life as he made the perilous trek. Zamora also reflects on the child that took an eight-hour bus trip from El Salvador to the Guatemala/Mexico border to begin his journey to the U.S. “I’ll never be a citizen,” Zamora writes in the opening poem. “I can’t go back and return.”
Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s memoir Children of the Land has been receiving acclaim ahead it’s release date this month, specifically for its authenticity. As a 5-year-old child, Castillo crossed the border with his family and in the process developed stress-induced blindness. This is just one example of the devastating ways that crossing the border affected him and his family. He opens up about his mother having to return to Mexico to reunite with his dad, as well as, the trauma that came with his own immigration interview process, where he hed to prove his relationship with his wife was real and not for a green card. “Part of the argument of the book is that the border wall doesn’t just exist, you know, down on the southern border. It exists in the interiority of people who have crossed. It’s almost like a surveillance state. You never know who is watching. You never know when they’re watching. And so your body just feels always tight,” he told NPR.
La Bestia by Oscar Martinez
Salvadoran journalist Oscar Martinez raises awareness of the freight train known as “The Beast” (la bestia) that migrants use to ride north through Mexico in narco territory. Threatened with the possibility of kidnapping and human trafficking as well as government corruption and the very real physical danger of riding this train, people continue to risk their lives for the chance of life in the U.S. More than a quarter of a million Central Americans make this journey and close to 20,000 are kidnapped each year. This was the first book to focus on this treacherous journey and it features color photos that emphasized the brutal reality of what they endure.
My Time Among the Whites by Jennine Capó Crucet
Jennine Capó Crucet’s My Time Among the Whites isn’t explicitly about immigration or the border but it’s a candid look at what it feels like to be othered in predominantly white spaces. People of color have a hard enough time moving up in the world but, as Crucet points out, finding yourself in those spaces doesn’t mean they’ll be hospitable or comfortable. From being the first in her family to go to college to teaching in a university where the faculty lacked diversity, her story of the cultural divide that exists is so important and yet, not very often told — making it that much more of a must-read.
Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera
In his haunting novella Signs Preceding the End of the World, Yuri Herrera tells the story of a switchboard operator in Mexico who sets out to search for her missing brother. She’s smuggled into the States with two secret messages — one for her mother and another from the underworld in Mexico given to her by gangsters. This is the first book by the Mexican writer to be translated into English and one of the most acclaimed Spanish books published in the last few years. Herrera explains how language can be fluid when it comes to immigrants in the U.S. or U.S. born-Latinxs. “More than the midpoint between homegrown and anglo their tongue is a nebulous territory between what is dying out and what is not yet born,” he says.
Homelands: Four Friends, Two Countries, and the Fate of the Great Mexican-American Migration by Alfredo Corchado
— Alfredo Corchado (@ajcorchado) September 18, 2019
Acclaimed journalist and author Alfredo Corchado released Homelands to share his immigration story along with those of his friends, two fellow Mexicans and a Mexican-American who similarly felt isolated in the United States. Corchado intertwines their narratives with a historical analysis of immigration from NAFTA to the bracero program (1942-1964) to present-day border politics. “All these farmers suddenly had to come to the United States to make a living. I mean, it had a huge impact, and it still – I think Mexico’s still, in many ways, reeling from that and still trying to adapt to this new North America, if you will, at a time when you also have a president who says it was the worst trade deal ever,” he told NPR in 2018.
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa
No list about immigration literature would be complete without Gloria Anzaldúa’s iconic book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. The Chicana scholar bases the book on her experience growing up on the border and the feeling of marginalization. The “New Mestiza” term refers to the hybrid identity one develops as an immigrant — never really belonging to either country but rather existing in this in-betweenness and learning to live within two different cultures. The book was released in 1987 and remains relevant as a seminal analysis of the invisible borders that exist in race, sexuality, and gender.
The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande
Reyna Grande’s compelling memoir The Distance Between Us is split between her life in Mexico living with her grandparents after her parents moved to the states and life in the U.S. with her father as an undocumented child. She writes of childhood poverty both — economically (they grew up in cardboard houses) — and deprivation of love with strict grandparents. The reality of her alcoholic and abusive father and the end of her parent’s marriage leaves her trying to come to terms with this new existence. She and her siblings fear their father’s rage, being deported, and being teased for not knowing English, but Grande finds compassion for her father and credits him for pushing them to dream despite their status. She eventually becomes the first person in her family to pursue higher education, earning both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree.