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Oprah’s ‘American Dirt’ Episode Scratches the Surface of Immigration Issue

When Oprah announced she would be hosting a panel to discuss the controversy surrounding the novel, American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins, it felt as if the Oprah from my youth was back. I naively believed Oprah would apologize for featuring an inauthentic read about the immigration crisis. I thought Oprah would deeply investigate why Cummins presented her book (and the press she did for it) so offensively, in the same way, she did with author James Frey after it became public that his memoir A Million Little Pieces was a lie. But we’re learning, Oprah didn’t do that. Her two-part episode with Cummins and Latinx writers was just another promotion for her Book Club selection. 

A preview of the show, which airs tomorrow on Apple TV, shows Oprah solemnly walking alongside the U.S./Mexico border. Oprah attempts to understand the complexity of not just the wall, but what it symbolizes and asks, “why should we care?” Dr. Luz Maria Garcini, an expert on the trauma experienced by Latinx immigrants who also sought refuge from Mexico in 1993, served as Oprah’s teacher. 

“There it is, the wall,” Oprah said in the preview. “I want to know what it represents, because there are some people who said, ‘We shouldn’t even come here, we shouldn’t talk, we shouldn’t show this because it’s like trauma porn.’ Is it trauma porn, or is it reality?”

“Yes, I think you’re right. It’s a reality, and it’s something we need to talk about, because it’s not going away,” Garcini tells her. “And I also think that walls are complex, because they represent different things to different people. For some people, they represent safety and boundaries that are needed to keep safe.”

But the real issue with this episode, which was discussed since the taping of it, is that Oprah and her production team created a very tight barrier around this panel and the type of discussion that would take place when the conversation should have been inclusive. Instead of inviting author Myriam Gurba, the chief critic of American Dirt, they had other Latinas — who while perfectly suitable — perhaps wouldn’t have presented a challenge to Oprah or Cummins. 

The panel included Esther Cepeda, a Washington Post syndicated columnist, Julissa Arce, an activist, commentator, and author of the bestselling My American Dream, and Reyna Grande, author of The Distance Between Us.

Oprah said this topic has made her see that she has excluded Latinx writers from her book choices and will be changing that. 

Well, I am guilty of not looking for Latinx writers,” Oprah said, according to the Associated Press. “I will now because my eyes have been opened to see, to behave differently.”