How White Writers Profit from Mexican Pain

Why does publishing have a budget for outsider accounts of immigrant trauma, like "American Dirt," but not for our own voices?

Faces painted on the US/Mexico border wall
Photo by Jonathan McIntosh

I made $1800 for my first book. 

After researching, writing, fact checking, editing, securing blurbs and endorsements, that comes out to under a dollar per hour. I clearly didn’t do it for the money, or the recognition: hate mail from strangers decrying my free luxury housing or “c*nty crooked nose”. (Actually, I lived in a moldy basement apartment—the government never returned my calls for free money or a nose job).

I did it knowing full well what I was signing up for. I did it because people impacted by our violent immigration regime should be the ones to tell our stories. 

That American Dirt, a non-Mexican reading of Mexican pain, received a seven-figure advance wasn’t surprising. It’s part of a proud literary tradition of repackaging white violence, and finding redemption in the wreckage.

My sister and I have been inseparable since either of us could stumble towards the other. Late nights whispering furtively about boys, clumsily adorning ourselves with makeup to impress no one, sneaking into the kitchen for midnight snacks. But there’s been one ever-present point of contention, one constant wound that won’t heal. 

She was born on the other side of the border. 

When I write, I don’t want to write solely of grief. We have so many more stories to tell. 

It’s meant that first dates, breakups, good days, weird anecdotes, bad dreams, and all the rest are mediated over Skype. It’s meant bad connections, missed opportunities, and a sharp, needling longing that never leaves my side. It meant not knowing if she’d make it to my wedding until two days before—lest a customs officer find her entry “suspicious” and turn her back. A 120-mile stretch of land has determined our fate. 

When I write, I don’t want to write solely of grief. I want to write of young girls whose laughter can’t be silenced, who have no patience for an arbitrary man-made line in the dirt. We have so many more stories to tell. 

Latinx writers are often told there’s just no budget for our stories. But somehow, the money emerges time and time again for those with access. For those willing to tell a story that Americans want to hear. For American Dirt, a woeful migrant tale written by a white woman with a Puerto Rican grandmother, the budget extended not only to that seven-figure advance but to a lavish book party with barbed-wire-wrapped walls as centerpieces. 

American Dirt follows the story of a young mother and her son as they flee a drug cartel, seeking safety in America. Cliches and misreadings abound, assumptions only someone writing from the outside, an onlooker gazing at a spectacle could make; it’s a book not about Mexicans but of the fantasies Americans craft around us. Grief abounds, but always at a comfortable distance—the book is not concerned with interrogating power, or challenging it. The New York Times called it “determinedly apolitical,” saying the quiet part out loud: U.S. readers are eager to engage with migrant pain. A fix to their problems? Less so. 

What should we make of such a voracious appetite for stories of traumatized immigrants, but so little space for narratives not told through the white gaze? For narratives that challenge imperialism, capitalism, and the ways these drive migration in the first place?

How is it that these seven-figure advances never end up in our communities?

What does it mean that our pain is fit for mass consumption, our grief a performance space for wealthy authors to play in? How is it that these seven-figure advances never end up in our communities, where we bail out our brothers and sisters from immigrant detention with the pennies we can scrounge? 

Why are we palatable when we’re convenient, when we call Trump a racist but not when we point out Bill Clinton helped build the wall? Why do the accolades stop when we remember Obama bragging about putting “more boots on the ground along the border” than at any point in U.S. history?

There’s no shortage of Latinx writers with stories to tell. But when we try, we’re pushed and prodded for details, for a thorough exposition of our deepest griefs. As a vehicle for white pathos, we have value; the moment we start asking questions about why things are the way they are, how quickly we become the aggressors. 

We may not be welcome in your barbed-wired reception halls, but we will never stop sharing our stories. 

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