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.