Chapter 33: Juan Pedro, Mother of Jackal


“Coyote” is a colloquial Mexican-Spanish term referring to people who smuggle undocumented migrants across the U.S.-Mexican border. Human smuggling is risky, and many coyotes are well-paid, careful professionals. They have contacts along the southern Mexican border, and their pay includes payoffs to authorities and to drug cartels. Coyotes with good reputations often get repeat business from relatives of “clients” they have smuggled across. While some coyotes refer to themselves by their first names, others use “business” monikers such as “El Chacal,” to call attention to their ruthlessness and their close relationships with the cartels. They are especially dangerous—con artists and extortionists, as likely as not to kill people or abandon them, leaving them stranded in the desert or in the Río Bravo—and their desperate “clients” do not mess with them. 

Everyone knows that a coyote whose name is “El Chacal” is not someone anyone—especially a middle-class Mexican woman with lots of money who could easily have boarded a plane to Canada (but that’s another story)—would choose to deal with. Except for Cummins. I can only imagine her thought processes as she named a good, professional coyote “El Chacal” and then doubled back to justify what she had done, making the whole thing even more of a culturally unbelievable (not to mention ridiculous) mess. That’s “mierda” in Spanish.  

For Mexican villagers to refer to a 12-year-old boy as “mother of” anything is beyond embarrassing. It’s insulting.

Cummins writes: “Most people who meet El Chacal at this state of his life presume he got his moniker because of his work as a coyote, but in fact his family has called him that since he was twelve years old. When he was a boy in Tamaulipas, Juan Pedro, as he was known back then, found a pup one day on the side of the road. The pup’s mother had been struck by a car and killed. The other littermates had scattered or been picked off by the time Juan Pedro arrived and found the lone pup sitting bereft beside the cold body of its mother. Juan Pedro took the pup home, and as it grew, despite the meticulous care and affection Juan Pedro gave it, it became a wild, rangy-looking thing. People in the village took to calling the pup “The Jackal,’ which was fine by Juan Pedro, who liked the wildness of it. But then they began calling Juan Pedro “Mother of Jackal,’ which he didn’t like quite so much. He endured that name for some time and was glad when eventually folks stopped mentioning the dog entirely and shortened his nickname to “El Chacal.‘”

“Despite the name, El Chacal had no intention of becoming a coyote. Few people do.” (pp. 344-346).

  1. “El Chacal” is not a typical name for “coyote.” It’s a pejorative name.

  2. People in a Mexican village would not call a rescued jackal-like pup “The Jackal.” They would not call it anything.

  3. For Mexican villagers to refer to a 12-year-old boy as “mother of” anything, much less “mother of jackal” because he was good at raising a jackal-like pup is beyond embarrassing. It’s insulting.

  4. Then, abruptly switching to Spanish, the villagers “shorten” the boy’s name to “El Chacal,” making it even worse. A Mexican family would never nickname a boy—or anyone else—“jackal.” It just wouldn’t be done.

Chapter 10: Contrived, Artificial, Unrealistic


Contrived: adj.
Deliberately created rather than arising naturally or spontaneously.
Created or arranged in a way that seems artificial and unrealistic.

This adjective screamed in my head when I kept reading further and further into chapter 10 of the book, American Dirt. Full disclosure: I was assigned to review this chapter, even though I’m not a professional writer. Then again, I was told, I probably couldn’t do any worse than JC, the author of this book so I said, F it. I will take one for the team. I hope to one day recover my brain cells after reading this crappy book again.

The chapter starts after Lydia and her son are dropped off in Mexico City by the missionaries who rescue them, when she starts going on the run from the cartel dudes. Then at the airport, she is trying to figure out what flight to take to a border city in Mexico: Tijuana, Nogales, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, etc. I should’ve remembered better, what a drivel of a book AD is, when I read the following sentence: “From any of those cities you can smell the fresh-baked pies on the windowsills of el norte.” I laughed out loud! So white! I kept re-reading that sentence since I had read the book the first time in a rage and had overlooked these particular words. It was just one of many glaring examples in just this one chapter about how mediocre the writing really is. What Mexican woman is going to say that?! Sounds like Lydia watched too many reruns of Little House on the Prairie or The Waltons. You’re going to tell readers that a middle class, educated, Mexican woman, would have such an idealistic picture of the US in the 21st century? I understand Lydia is an “Anglophile,” but is she also an uptight Mormon prairie woman? No mames, guey.

Another detail regarding the italicized words in Spanish that bugged the crap out of me: I know this book is for an Anglo monolingual audience, but I wondered what’s with all the unnecessary italicized Spanish words JC uses? Did she want to make it look like she was all in the know about the Spanish language? Was she trying to imitate Latina/o/x, Chicana/o writers in the way many write, code switching effortlessly? Or was it a secret drinking game where every time an italicized Spanish word is used, Anglo readers Google it and drink tequila and think they’re learning Spanish and learning to “empathize” with migrants? Eye roll in Spanish.

Then in the section, where Lydia and her son Luca, are trying to book the flight that will get them closer to the USA, JC switches to the voice of the 8 year old by writing, “Mami interrupts his thoughts…” or “Mami bites her lip” and I wondered why an editor didn’t see how contrived this section sounds. Why not be simple about it and keep writing in the third person instead of making it sound so goddamn stupid? I know it’s a “romantic thriller,” but good God, couldn’t anyone in the editorial department read the ridiculous prose? More screaming in my head kept happening: contrived, contrived, contrived. Am surprised I was reading this far without having a stroke because my eyes were rolling so hard to the back of my head.

A main plot point that propels the character’s migration journey is due to the fact that Lydia and Luca can’t book a flight to the US because she doesn’t have a copy of her son’s birth certificate. Then to complicate matters, she goes to the Oficina Central del Registro Civil (eye roll) to request a copy and is denied because she has to go back to Acapulco to order it. 

Many people have pointed out that it’s ridiculous that the character at this point in the book, decides that her only option is to ride La Bestia, the notorious train that is used by migrants to shorten their journeys throughout Mexico. I asked myself the same question. Why would JC decide to make it a crucial reason that Lydia could see no way out other than to make the perilous journey in the most dangerous way imaginable?

I did a quick Google search on how to order a birth certificate in Mexico, and guess what? Many states have joined the 21st century and a person can order them online! The list of Mexican states where this service is available is as follows: Aguascalientes, Baja California, Baja California Sur, Campeche, Chiapas, Chihuahua, Ciudad de México, Coahuila, Colima, Durango, Estado de México, Guanajuato, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Nayarit, Nuevo León, Morelos, Michoacán de Ocampo, Oaxaca, Puebla, Querétaro, Quintana Roo, San Luis Potosí, Sinaloa, Sonora, Tabasco, Tamaulipas, Tlaxcala, Veracruz, Yucatán y Zacatecas. 

It took me less than five minutes to find out this information. I mention this as well because JC devotes a good amount of time in the chapter to the fact that Lydia and Luca spend time in the library. It has internet which Lydia uses to see videos on YouTube of La Bestia. Did it ever occur to her to do a search about obtaining a birth certificate online? She could have ordered it online and printed it right then and there. Problem solved. This plot hole is as big as my head. Contrived to the 

Nth Degree. No mames.

As I finish writing this review, I reflect on the times I’ve been at detention centers, to advocate for migrants, and I feel unimaginable rage that this book is being

sold as trying to be an ally to migrants all the while using their pain for monetary gain of the author and the publisher. Trust the writers that sounded the alarm about this awful book. They know of what they speak. Instead of buying it, donate money to organizations helping to free migrants who are really suffering because of our unjust immigration laws. There is nothing contrived about their pain.


Chapter 7: Let’s Talk Spanish



The episode is very concise on terms of what’s going on, Luca and Lydia managed to get on a bus off Acapulco on the way to the DF, they feel very lucky they managed to make it this far; sometimes the cartels have roadblocks, and if stopped, they would be identified easy and murdered.

Lydia is afraid to go all the way to Mexico City, since is more likely roadblocks will show up in that route, so they get off in Chilpancingo, hit up an Internet cafe where she’s able to find the church that her husband’s friend is likely attending, and the time of the service. Lucky is about to start, so they head out there in hopes of finding him.

They meet Carlos and his wife Meredith in church, and he takes them to his house, where they can enjoy tea and chat more; they go over their stories more, adding that Meredith is from Estados Unidos, Indiana to be more specific, she’s a missionary. Carlos suggests that Lydia and Luca can hide on the next missionary van that is going to Mexico City to increase their chances of getting there alive.

Meredith, however, thinks is a bad idea, covering for them puts the missionaries at risk, and she doesn’t want to hurt them, and the future missions, is too risky. Carlos tells her to pray about it, and the chapter concludes.


Overall this chapter does very little to advance the story, but it tries to paint a picture of their relationship, friends and the situation, Lydia reminisces her time traveling to Mexico with her husband, learning about Carlos and Meredith and the way they interacted in the past provides a glimpse into their lives that is expected to seed some empathy for the characters. 

I had a lot of strong negative reactions while reading this chapter, that I tried to tie together in a neat manner, but failed to do so, so I will share them here with no particular order or cohesion in mind: 

— On the second page, of the chapter, the book says “Sebastián, sweaty, laughing, tangled in the sheets, would whisper into his wife’s hair”  Either the publishers left a typo get pass them, or the author, tired of describing things in a way that’s natural and normal, has decided to break the mold and coin a new metaphor, one that is convoluted, pointless and absurd, just like the rest of this book. Brevity is the soul of wit, and this book has neither brevity, soul or wit. Tho we know there are typos, because in page 60 it says Taburnáculo.

— Gabacha, The author uses words in Spanish, sprinkled here and there, with no narrative value, to conceal her ignorance of the Mexican reality, and pretend that she could belong on this story. When a pretentious author uses unnecessary big words, those words, are not intended to help the story move forward, often they make the story worse, is confusing to the reader, and they exists only so that the author can disguise its insecurity by pretending to be smarter than they are, the more obscure the word, the more satisfied the author feels, thinking they are deceiving the audience, when in reality their writing is just contrived.

Carlo’s wife is described as gabacha when she’s greeting people in church. In Colombia we’d refer to that word placement as rebuscada (sorry for copying the author’s style, tho in my defense there’s no English equivalent for this word), the author found this word, maybe liked the way it sounded, and misplaced it there. I picked up this word more than others, because when the author throws around words like mami or papi, we can assume that the English speaking reader can deduct what the word means, but why use a word that has a very particular meaning to a specific group, adds absolutely no narrative value, and its meaning is hard to deduce, even after a google search. Is the wife French? Is the wife from the USA? Is the wife an apron? Does she have trouble speaking Spanish?  A couple pages later we learn her name, and that she’s from Indiana, and the book focuses on her for a few paragraphs; but in those two minutes from seeing the word Gabacha, until learning that Meredith is from Indiana, I couldn’t but wonder, why introduce a seemingly important character, in such a brief and confusing way. She might as well have used any word, or not even a word, a random combination of characters, or another word misspelled, like Taburnaculo. 

— I have a problem with the dialogue on the book, I’m trying to immerse in the story, I picture a Mexican person talking to a Mexican person, talking in Mexican Spanish, and the author being an observer of this conversation, and translating what is happening, so that the reader can get a glimpse on the life of these strangers, and sympathize with a reality that is foreign; strangers who are not just Lydia and Carlos, but presumably every Mexican who is trying to come to the US, fleeing violence and persecution by the narcos. However the words used by the author in this case, the sentences, and their speed, is nothing at all similar to the way Mexicans speak, further proving the unfamiliarity of the author with Mexicans and the story she’s trying to describe.

Lydia replies to Carlos in one of their conversations with: “Could is an understatement”. That is not something that can be easily translated back into Spanish. (“Pudieran es una atenuación”?)  Is not something anyone would say, much less in those circumstances. To me, it further proves that this book is poorly written, bad fiction, and undeserving of all the praise it has received. 

— what perspective is the book being written from, the narrator uses the word mami many times, implying to me that the narrator would be Luca. Unless there’s a ghost descendant of Lydia in the mix following them around, we can assume that there’s no consistent narrator throughout the book, which is a huge oversight and another sign of an amateur writer, more concerned with presenting a condescending portrayal of a mom and her son fleeing violence, than she is with writing a good book. We know Luca is not the narrator, because the narrator refers to him in third person several times across the chapter, like when describing his lack of “active participation of abstention on his part” or the pointless inclusion of him knowing the word.

— Meredith, la Gabacha, is the most believable character on this chapter, meaning: her backstory, her motivations, her dialogue, her plight, are very convincing. When Meredith speaks I wanna sympathize with her, and I don’t want Lydia and Luca jumping in that van with those kids from Indiana. Not only as a mere reader, but also as a Colombian who interacted with many US missionaries as a kid. 

When I was younger, and didn’t really understood what some folks were doing in my country I was a lot more appreciative of them, mostly idolized them; in a way, owe them a lot, missionaries like Meredith helped some of us learn English and get familiar with other cultures, at the time when nobody would immigrate to Colombia because of how violent and dangerous it was. 

— Jeanine Cummings is a bad writer, she can’t write convincing characters who are not like her, and we can tell, because the Mexican folks in the book are very poorly written, but the white lady from Indiana, who has white savior complex, is very well written.

Chapter 3: Church Shoes, Orange VW, and a Machete!


[disclaimer: although I have been called an old, Latino dude on Twitter, I am originally from Liverpool, in England. I now live in central México. I speak Spanish every day of my life but I feel I can’t say much about Mexican culture, after living here full-time for about 7 years; part-time for 4 years before that. For this reason, I keep my comments to some of the weird, everyday stuff. There is plenty of that described in this book.]

My first problem is with the present tense, omniscient point of view of the writer. It grates in Spanish and English.

My comments below are taken from the 4 chapters of the book, available as a sample from Amazon, in English and Spanish.

Chapter 3 is where Jeanine, I mean Lydia, circles an orange VW Beetle a few times. Had Jeanine circled the VW a few more times, she’d have noticed that there was no dashboard on which to leave her sunglasses to glint in the sun. There are still many examples of the 1974 VW Vocho, running in México. It was never a Beetle in México, as it was called in the UK. In Germany, it was a Käfer, in the US, it was a Bug. In México, it is still a Pulga or Vocho. Anyway, in 1974, they all had a steel vertical dashboard in the same color as the car’s exterior metalwork. Plastic dashboards came later to countries in cooler climates.

Had Jeanine unlocked a few more Vochos, she’d have noticed that there was no Clunk, as there was no central, or electronic lock. This was never available on VWs of this age, though it is almost surely available on today’s ‘new’ Beetle. Her visceral alarm at the imaginary sound of unlocking, is therefore not credible. You can imagine she is jumpy and expecting the worst but…Narcos are known for bullets and fires, not bombs. They could have easily cut the gas line from the tank and torched the car but I digress…

The inner dialog of Lydia strays into possible autobiographical territory for Jeanine, as she recalls the time after the death of her father, when her mother walked in circles from sink to fridge, sink to fridge. In contrast, in the Spanish book, she ‘circles’ from fregadero to refrigerador; from refrigerador to fregadero. A less formal translation might have used the more common refri as fridge [which is much easier for gringos to pronounce].

There is lots of angst for Lydia, in going through the possessions of Sebastián, her husband. In his work as a journalist, he apparently used a Samsung Galaxy tablet, along with paper notebooks and…a tape voice recorder? Watch any press conference and you’ll see real journalists use electronic recorders, often disguised as phones. The Spanish book only calls it a grabadora de mano or recorder. If he was a journalist, with sensitive material about the bad guys, would he really leave all this visible, inside his car? The VW Beetle/Bug/Vocho, is notoriously easy to break into. It has those small, triangular windows, that can be opened from outside with a spoon, allowing access to the mechanical door handle. No key, no remote, no nada!

Luca’s church shoes and Sebastián’s red Yankees cap were still in the car, having not been robbed along with the backpack. Having had dirty laundry stolen from a VW, I know this can happen anywhere!

His good brown cardigan, [el suéter bueno [sic] in the Spanish book] meanwhile, was dumped in the trunk of the VW. In English, she slams the trunk of the VW. Again, this is not advisable, as it has a cable lock, which needs to be pushed closed. Slamming does not work! With the good, brown cardigan, Lydia puts one of Sebastián’s notebooks in the backpack. She chooses it at random, not to preserve evidence but to save a sample of his ‘extinct’ handwriting. This is but one example of Jeanine’s weird adjective use.

It might have been difficult to translate this book. People have suggested there was a computerized translation followed by a once-over from an editor. Some expressions are translated literally and sound very wooden in Spanish; not the way I’d expect people to speak. So for example, Lydia looks over her shoulder, presumably checking for bad guys following her. She doesn’t look hacia atrás but ‘encima del hombro’. The dog barks at them in English at an open gate. The perro barks in Spanish through an open grate. Either way, she takes a risk in kicking a free-roaming dog, who apparently doesn’t continue the fight. Most unleashed dogs, that I have seen in México, are street-loose without homes or on a roof barking down at you.

Luca’s dad had promised to take him to El Rollo, a water park, this summer. His mom feels ‘disloyal’ by getting momentarily angry with him. What? He can’t now fulfill this promise.

‘Like a government furlough’, where services [in this case, her religious faith] are suspended becomes ‘institutions of government’ in translation. The simile is messy.

The Playa Caletilla is on the west side of Acapulco Bay and is on the Playas peninsular, some distance from the mainland. There are a few banks and most of them are not open on Saturday afternoons. She’d be better going to an Oxxo, a convenience store like a 7-11. You can complete all kinds of financial transactions there. At a bank, life is much more difficult. For person to person attention, there are usually lines of people waiting. I can not believe you would not invite scrutiny, if you tried to empty your account.

At the very least, you would need identification. Even if the bank was open on a Saturday afternoon, it is unlikely this would be such an easy transaction. Interestingly, the proceeds differ between the English and Spanish versions of the book. Though the dollar figure was $12,500, the yield in pesos was $219,803 [in the English copy] and $234,803 [in the Spanish copy]. These are exchange rates of $17.50 pesos/dollar and $18.78 pesos/dollar respectively. These are realistic rates but given Lydia’s account would be in pesos, it might have been better to fix the peso withdrawal and not mention dollars. As the book ages, this rate will change, of course. Then there’s those pink $1000 pesos notes. Good luck getting change from those.

Really, though, does this make any sense to carry around nearly a quarter of a million pesos in three envelopes? She’d be much safer taking smaller amounts from her account, by visiting an Oxxo. What’s she planning on doing with all this cash, if and when she reaches the US?

Lydia’s stated intent was to blend in with the bus-taking masses and not be conspicuous. She then does things that make her stand out: the shoes, the giant cash transaction etc. With her money, as many others have said, she could have been safer and got out of town much more quickly by taking a long-distance bus or airplane. Primera Plus has very comfortable buses that put Greyhound to shame and cash is OK. Taking a plane, though, she’d have that cash and ID problem.

Lydia and Luca take various buses, almost-randomly, around town and find a Walmart further along the coast of Acapulco [after passing another Walmart on their route]. They then walk from the Walmart to a hotel, carrying all their new swag. Paying in cash at Walmart is not too conspicuous. Buying sunblock, though…The Spanish book refers to pantalones de mezclilla, rather than jeans.

They also purchase a map of México. That too is difficult to do. México is a large country, similar in size to western Europe. Buying a single sheet map gives you a satellite view. Buying one, with towns on it, needs a book of maps. Besides, she has her husband’s tablet and a telephone. We don’t know why she buys a map but we can guess she’s planning her cunning escape. And she buys a ‘machete’. Where I live, a machete is a blade 1-2 feet long, used to chop branches from trees, slice sugar cane, open coconuts and some other more unsavory things. It is rather difficult to find one with a retractable blade. What she buys, sounds more like a pocket knife, or navaja, like a Leatherman for example. Walmart does sell these!

They arrive at a hotel called Hotel Duquesa Imperial. There is a real hotel Princess Mundo Imperial, within a km or two of that Walmart, on the way to the beach, that I assume was used as the model for this. Here, they arrive, without a reservation and apparently book a room without any identification or form-filling. Typically, even with a reservation, many hotels in México have a paper registration process. Rooms at the Princess are in the range $1,800-2,000 pesos. Leaving a credit card for ‘incidentals’ is usually optional and no, you’d never leave $4000 pesos in cash! That’s not acting inconspicuously!

When Lydia asks about leaving the incidentals deposit in cash, the clerk looks mildly alarmed. He then sees the four pink $1000 pesos notes, for the first time in his life, and passes out. [OK, that didn’t really happen in the book]. In a small, informal survey of people here, 100% have failed to tell me the correct color of those notes. In the English book, the clerk smiles clinically. In the Spanish, he gives her a cynical smile.

Fermina Daza is the name she gives to the hotel clerk. In a bid to remain inconspicuous, she uses the name of the lady in Love in the Times of Cholera. She could have used the name Gabriela García Márquez or something a little more common, like Lupita García or Alejandra Hernández.

We have a few more poetic interludes in the hotel room, with Luca having a cloudburst of anguish and a globular nightmare. Mami then opens the balcony door, to let in some of that hot, humid Acapulco freshness. With a $4000 pesos deposit, she should be able to turn on the AC, no?

Chapter 2: Pollo & Drive-bys


[Who am I and why should you read my review? I’m Mexican-American, a product of immigrants from Chihuahua and Colima, and born and raised in LA. Spanish is my first language and I grew up in the incredibly unstable and normalized environment of East LA in the late 80s/90s. Oh and I’ve taken several creative writing classes. So that pretty much makes me like totally at least as credible as Cummins so no reason why you shouldn’t believe me.] 

Chapter 2 opens with Luca clearly traumatized. Who is telling us that Mami is back or that Luca is terrified? Unclear. Is it a sister that is narrating the events? Luca’s POV? 

Is it Mami’s opinion that it may be better for 8 year old Luca to witness the carnage left by the 16 dead bodies because what he imagines may be totally worse. Somehow it seems a stretch that an 8 year old can imagine a worse fate for his 16 relatives.

Paragraph three continues with the usage of Mami and Luca, implying that this is Luca’s POV.  But also a third person who is not Luca. Who is the narrator here? Unclear. 

After experiencing the most traumatic event of their lives, Lydia a brand spanking new widow and orphan takes her now fatherless son outside to wait for ‘help’. They wait like sitting ducks on the yellow-painted curb. What?!!!

I’m not comparing 90s LA to current Mexico but I do believe that there are similarities when you grow up in an environment that makes you street smart. And regardless of how much avoidance Lydia may have practiced, as a business owner, she was well acquainted with the cartels as she had to interface with them when paying her mordidas (payments to the cartel for ‘protection’). She had witnessed the violence. So she and Luca had to have some semblance of street smarts. 

Any small child that grew up around the constant drive-bys of 80s and 90s LA will tell you that after a drive by, after any confrontation with gangsters wielding guns, the last thing you do is go outside and wait by the curb. Especially when you’re afraid that they may come back because they didn’t get what they wanted the first time around.

Any small child that grew up around the constant drive-bys of 80s and 90s LA will tell you that after a drive by, after any confrontation with gangsters wielding guns, the last thing you do is go outside and wait by the curb. Especially when you’re afraid that they may come back because they didn’t get what they wanted the first time around. As someone who lived in Westlake / Boyle Heights / East LA in the late 80s/90s I can tell you that after a drive by, everyone ran inside and stayed inside. You did not walk outside waiting for the police that you knew was going to do nothing anyway. 

Since the previous scene occurred during a Quinceañera, I will throw in my experience during my older cousin’s Quinceañera (held at my aunt’s house in East LA in 1995). I was waiting in line to go to the bathroom. My mom and several of her sisters had been in the kitchen preparing plates of barbacoa to serve. We heard some yelling and thinking that it was a drunk uncle, several of us ran outside to see what was happening. Me being the 13 year old chismosa that I was, ran to the front porch to see what was going on. My great aunt Chole, who seemed to sense that it wasn’t a drunk uncle, yelled at me to stay inside. Two cholos were at the front gate, drunk, saying they were there as my cousin Michael’s guests. Michael, Chole’s son, was my loser cousin who was constantly in and out of jail always trying to emulate my uncle who was heavy in one of LA’s biggest gangs. My tio Baby was trying to calm them down by offering them a case of beer and food to go, repeating that Michael wasn’t there. They took the beer started to walk away and then turned around and opened fire into the sky. Everyone ran inside. There was not a soul left outside as these assholes lingered a little longer laughing and shooting aimlessly again before driving away. My tia Chole was hysterical. She was screaming and crying that they were going to kill everyone. Someone slapped my tia and told her to shut up, that she was scaring the kids. But the kids were quiet. We were all crammed into a small bedroom not making a sound. And when the cops finally came, instead of trying to help, they harassed my uncles as if they had been the ones to shoot. As soon as the cops left, everyone went home and we never talked about it again.

I’ve lived through many drive-bys and have had a gun pointed right at me twice. It wasn’t by being brave that helped me survive. It’s that I pretended not to see anything and walked right by as if nothing happened that helped me survive. And I definitely never waited for ‘help’ outside, only a pendeja would sit curbside, making it easier for whoever was looking for me to use me as target practice.

Back to American Dirt…

“Mami, whose name is Lydia, becomes aware that her teeth are chattering.” Someone please tell me who is narrating this for us!

Luca throws up “a glob of potato salad, stained pink with fruit punch.” Can someone explain to me why an 8 year old would eat potato salad at a Mexican Quinceañera? I mean if we’re trying to stereotype Mexicans, the author could have remained consistent and just said arroz y frijoles!

We’re thrown into a moment of deep reflection by Luca who realizes that Acapulco is a dangerous city. 

When the police arrive Lydia ponders where to send Luca, to shield him. But she realizes that her mother, sister, and husband are all dead and that it’s “all meaningless anyway.” The police won’t help. So she cries. In front of her son. And her 8 year old son steps in to protect her. And a moment later Luca acts like a kid on a typical day by dangling his feet over the detective’s back bumper while the detective offers him a drink. Not just any drink but a “cold refresco.”

If I were 8 years old and I had just lived through what Luca lived through, I highly doubt that I would be chilling off to the side dangling my legs as if nothing happened. And I definitely would not have accepted some bullshit refresco as a consolation. 

The detective starts interrogating Lydia and the only information he thinks to write down is not that there were three men, not that there are possible fingerprints on the bathroom faucet, but that “one ate the chicken.” “Pollo” he writes. Because if anything is going to crack this case open it’s going to be the smell of freshly grilled pollo on a perpetrator’s breath.

Lydia offers the name of her husband, a reporter, as the target. The detective notes the many death threats that he must have received. Lydia adds that the cartels threatened to kill his whole family. So Lydia knew that her life was in danger. As a mother she knew that her son’s life was in danger and yet it never occurred to her that it would be unsafe to remain where they were. And then she realizes that they will kill her too. 

We’re thrown into another moment of inner reflection, this time it’s the detective’s mind we are in. He trusts no one. He is not on the cartel payroll. But his colleagues? Who knows, some of them are for sure. I mean look at Mexico’s 90%+ unsolved crime rate. <Source? Who needs sources? I mean this is Wild West Mexico we’re talking about> Even though we are in the detective’s mind, we are told that Lydia knows that the police are an illusion. The same police that she was waiting for on that curb.

We’re fully back to Lydia where she realizes that they will return to kill her. Oh and her son too. Yikes it just occurred to her that they are going to want to smoke her kid so she should like totally get out of there. Especially because she totally knows that this was her bestie Javier Crespo Fuentes. Who she totally didn’t know was The Narco but you know hindsight is 20/20 and all that and so she now knows exactly who he is and that it was him. 

The detective writes “La Lechuza?” “Los Jardineros?” And we wonder what an owl or gardeners have to do with all of this. He shows his notebook to Lydia because apparently he forgot how to speak. She pushes past him because now that she knows that she can’t trust anyone, she totally has to get her dead husband’s keys to the most recognizable car in the world to get out of there before anyone sees her. 

Lydia trusts the detective (without any reason as to why she should trust him) to look after Luca while she goes to fish the car keys out of her dead husband’s pocket. She is confronted with the “sweet odor of lime and sticky charred sauce” and I wonder what kind of barbecue this Quinceañera is serving? 

“She knows that the relative neatness of his death is a sort of deformed kindness.” This woman just had her whole family callously gunned down during a Quinceañera. There is some dead 15year old girl lying on the ground somewhere. Red blood splattered over her young face, her white dress stained red. There are 15 other bodies in states of permanent terror lying lifeless in her backyard. Blood everywhere. Yet Lydia is high minded enough to think this is kindness. Her stages of grief must have iterated through lightning fast.

But Lydia has seen other crime scenes you see! She’s seen the mutilated body of a neighboring business owner displayed as a warning for business owners that refuse to pay the mordidas to the cartel. So it could totally be worse you know? So she’s super grateful.

And in her moment of clarity, Lydia hurries to get the car keys but pauses first to pull off the wedding ring off her dead husband’s finger. She then moves on to look at her dead mother but stops when she agrees with a police officer that this is no longer her mother. So poetically she agrees, why spend more time in this “landscape of carnage”? She returns indoors to pack her shit and somehow knows that her mom keeps a wad of emergency cash under her mattress. She packs the essentials, you know, cookies, chips. How old is Lydia? 10?

So Lydia continues onto her car parked outside this nice neighborhood. Which car? A 1974 VW Beetle. And orange one. Can’t make this shit up.

Lydia wonders if the car has a bomb and spends an eternity taking stock of the situation even though the message “Boo!” written on a piece of paper and affixed under the wiper should be enough to tell her to back the heck up. 

She realizes once again that they have to split because Acapulco is totally unsafe now that her bestie the narco Javier Crespo Fuentes is onto them. Oh and in case we didn’t know already, they can’t drive the car. Whaaaaat? Didn’t see that coming.

Lydia’s naivety is annoying for sure but what makes this chapter a total toss away is how passively everything happens. People are gunned down and left in the backyard. Lydia has lost her husband, mother, and sister. Luca has lost his father. They have lost their life as they know it. And they have to flee. This should be a chapter full of suspense and fear yet it feels so blasé like we’ve totally seen this before and know exactly how it will end. Who exactly knows this? If we knew who the narrator was we would ask.