Tsunami Evacuation Sign, San Juan. Photograph by Lorie Shaull, Flickr

There’s a saying in the Puerto Rican community, when one of us claims to be white: ¿Y tu abuela aonde ‘ta? This essentially translates to, “What about your grandmother?” Puerto Ricans are a racially mixed nation descending from enslaved Africans, indigenous Taínos, and Spanish colonizers. Any Puerto Rican who claims whiteness is forgetting someone in their lineage. But whiteness is ultimately a state of forgetting, anyway.

Jeanine Cummins, author of the novel American Dirt, has a Puerto Rican grandmother. And though she identified herself as white in a 2015 New York Times interview, she seems lately to have taken that Puerto Rican saying to heart, identifying as Latinx in recent media appearances—just in time for the release of her novel, which has come under fire for the way she depicts its Mexican characters.

Cummins received a seven-figure advance for the novel, about a woman and her son who flee to the US to escape cartel-related violence in Mexico. Even before the book was published, many Latinx critics—including Myriam Gurba, Chicana author of Mean, and Roberto Lovato, Salvadoran author of Unforgetting—took Cummins to task for what they termed her “white savior complex.” In a New York Times op-ed, David Bowles, a Mexican American author who teaches at the University of Texas, wrote, “The telenovela plot is a pastiche of stereotypes and melodramatic tropes of the sort one might expect from an author who did not grow up within Mexican culture, from a massacre at a quinceañera to the inexplicable choice of a relatively wealthy woman to leap onto La Bestia, a gang-controlled train—rather than just take a plane to Canada.”

Like Cummins, I have a Puerto Rican grandmother. Unlike Cummins, I’ve always identified as Latinx, as did my mother. But not everyone in the family was so interested in claiming that heritage. My aunt passed for white. Married a white man. And I have always thought of her son, my cousin, as white. But not because of the percentage of Puerto Rican in his heritage—it is the same as mine. It’s because of his choices. He identifies as white, moved to an all-white environment, doesn’t speak to me or my mother, votes Republican. He’s picked his team.

It seems like Cummins may have picked her team, as well. Despite her grandmother, she writes in the tradition of liberal white narcissism, which presumes that the writer’s disconnected feelings of pity and good intentions toward people of color are more important than finding out whether her work will actually be helpful, or harmful, to the community she depicts. “I endeavored to be incredibly culturally sensitive,” Cummins said in an interview on NPR. “I did the work. I did five years of research. The whole intention in my heart when I wrote this book was to try to upend… traditional stereotypes.” This narcissism is blind to its own potential to do harm, and to the reality of the harm it has actually done. Even after countless Mexicans, Latinxs, and people of color have told Cummins that her book is racist and harmful, the author still defends the work. She said in that same interview, “All I can do is write the book that I believe in. And I did that.” She frames her effort as a tale of rugged individual success. If the literary establishment paid seven figures for her book, she must be the chosen one. So she cashed the checks. She picked her team.

* * *

Growing up in Northern California, I didn’t get to pick a team. My father was African American and West Indian. I look black, so I was considered black. There was no awareness of Afro-Latinx identity back then, and I never met a Puerto Rican outside my family until I went to college on the East Coast.

According to Cummins’s author’s note, her “grandmother came to the States from Puerto Rico in the 1940s… a beautiful, glamorous woman from a wealthy family in the capital city, and the young bride of a dashing naval officer… but [she] didn’t always feel welcome here [in the US].” My grandmother came from a similar background, married an army officer, and came to the US in the 1930s. She lived on army bases until my grandparents settled in California. Like Cummins’s grandmother, my abuela was always sort of perplexed by, and resentful of, the racism she encountered. She was also never able to call it racism—because that would mean acknowledging being from a colony, being a second-class citizen, and not being white. Nothing in either of these women’s backgrounds had prepared them to accept that. My grandmother lived in Los Angeles until her health began to fail, and then she came to stay with my mother in Oakland, in the Bay Area.

She never took me to Puerto Rico. I first traveled to the island in my twenties, and the trip was deeply uncomfortable. I couldn’t be a laid-back tourist. I felt the pain of disconnection in a place that should have been a familiar homeland. I stayed with my great-aunt, who was in her nineties, and I felt awkward and foolish the whole time, with my stilted Spanish and my cultural cluelessness. Yet I extended my trip, wanting to push myself to reconnect. I wanted to take Puerto Rico in, not as someone else’s nostalgic story or as a tourism brochure, but as a real place that had shaped my grandmother—a place she had abandoned, in many ways. My family there was welcoming, but politically conservative. Though much warmer than my Republican cousin, they never felt like my tribe. We had nothing in common. I wandered around San Juan like a lost daughter, drifting into bookstores and cafés—never quite connecting in the ways I had hoped for, but continuing to reach for connection anyway.

I stayed about a month, that first trip. I might have stayed longer, but by then my grandmother was dying back in California. By the time I returned from the island, she had lost consciousness. I sat with my mom and held my grandmother’s hand. Her eyes were closed, her breathing shallow. I told her everyone on the island was okay. She never opened her eyes or made a sound, but I know she heard me. She died the next day. My mom and I were convinced she had waited for me.

Over the next several years, I took every opportunity I could find to connect with my Puerto Rican heritage, and managed to build real relationships with Puerto Ricans on the island and in the US. But many of my Puerto Rican connections had grown distant by the time Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. Watching the news, I felt simultaneously numb and sick. My great-aunt had passed away by then, and I didn’t have any immediate family left on the island. I had no idea if I still had distant relatives there. I didn’t know what to do.

Still, I was connected enough to feel like I needed to do something. I was under contract to write the second novel in a two-book package. Eight months into that second book, I asked my editor if I could change topics—to write about the disaster. That is how I was able to publish the first novel about Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Jeanine Cummins has been silent about the multiple disasters in Puerto Rico. On her website, there are many links about Mexico, but nothing about her grandmother’s homeland. Nothing, despite the fact that Puerto Rico has experienced more than six thousand earthquakes in the past year, some of them severe. Of course, Cummins is free to write about whatever she wants, and to champion whatever political causes she chooses. But as a fellow author with Puerto Rican roots, I have to ask: What about our grandmothers’ homeland? How is it that she has appointed herself the spokesperson for the border crisis with Mexico instead?

Cummins says that she did a great deal of research about Mexico for American Dirt. According to a profile in The New York Times, “Cummins researched the novel during trips to Mexico and by conducting interviews on both sides of the border. She spoke with people whose families had been torn apart by deportations, lawyers who work with unaccompanied minors, migrants in shelters in Tijuana, and human-rights activists documenting abuses.” Perhaps the links on her website reflect these organizations. But when authors take in stories and information from a marginalized community that is not our own, we filter the creative work we produce through our dominant lens.

Apparently, Cummins did attempt to get some feedback. According to one report, she ran her idea by Norma Iglesias-Prieto, a professor in the department of Chicano and Chicana Studies at San Diego State University. Iglesias-Prieto says she encouraged Cummins to write about the idea. Reportedly, Cummins asked the professor to read her finished manuscript, but Iglesias-Prieto, a busy academic, didn’t have time. And apparently, Cummins didn’t guarantee that anyone else would check the authenticity of her work, or even have a culturally competent Spanish translator check the idiomatic expressions.

There’s a long history of white people researching communities of color without checking their findings with the people they studied. Racism in research has always presumed that the well-resourced white person who studied a community is more of an expert than the people of color who actually lived the experience. When Cummins felt no obligation to hire a cultural consultant to vet the book for authenticity—a “sensitivity reader” who could offer an insider’s perspective—she picked her team.

Cummins isn’t a debut novelist. She’s a seasoned writer, and American Dirt is her fourth book. In her author’s note, she expressed concern that she might fall short: “I was worried that, as a nonimmigrant and non-Mexican, I had no business writing a book set almost entirely in Mexico, set entirely among immigrants,” So she knew this was a danger. But it never occurred to her to pay someone to make sure she got it right? In the publishing industry, sensitivity readers are common knowledge. With a seven-figure advance, Cummins had plenty of resources to hire one.

My book advance was six thousand dollars. But I still paid a sensitivity reader—who was Puerto Rican, and a hurricane survivor—to vet my manuscript, and make sure that my details rang reasonably true. I simply looked up “Puerto Rican” and “sensitivity reader” on the internet, and paid her out of my own pocket. It never would have occurred to me to publish my hurricane novel without having a survivor vet the book.

Many people, particularly white writers, have argued that all they need to write about other cultures is their imagination. Sensitivity readers challenge this central prerogative of white supremacy: the entitlement to imagine what the “other” thinks and feels, and to be free of any obligation to check that perception. The imagination is not inherently benign: humans imagined chattel slavery, Indigenous genocide, the Jewish Holocaust, mass rape in war, the atomic bomb. The imagination, when armed with racism—or another dehumanizing distortion—is anything but harmless. It is always vulnerable to reproducing racist depictions.

Cummins followed her fascination with a culture that wasn’t her own, while being totally disconnected from her own Puerto Rican culture. But isn’t that what whiteness is? To have roots somewhere else, and to claim or dismiss them as is convenient? This is how people go from being Italian American or Welsh American to just being white. They forget their homelands, and forget that their perspective is not universal. And then, generations later, their descendants feel a dull ache. They feel like part of them is missing. Some of them might attempt to steal and appropriate someone else’s culture of struggle, just so they can feel something.

* * *

It is not easy to be Puerto Rican right now. “The whole island has PTSD,” a friend told me when I visited in summer 2018. To live in Puerto Rico in 2020 is to always be braced for the next disaster. The next hurricane; the next earthquake; the next humiliating, debilitating belittlement from the US government. It is to be in the streets, again, protesting the latest in a series of corrupt colonial governors who exploit their own people.

In early 2018, when I was researching my book on the hurricane, I realized that I would need to visit the island. I hadn’t been back for over a decade—not since I had become a mother—but I knew I had to go. I didn’t want to face the reality; I wanted to keep reading books about the disaster, looking on the internet, listening to report-backs from Puerto Rican activists visiting the Bay Area. But my novel wouldn’t have integrity if I didn’t bear witness myself. I bought the cheapest ticket I could find, a JetBlue flight through JFK. I was fine on the leg from San Francisco to New York. But then I got to the gate for my connecting flight to San Juan, I looked around and everyone there was Puerto Rican. A wave of nausea hit me. I felt choked with tears.

I was certain the trip had been a terrible mistake. I wanted to write my book about something else. I didn’t want to think about five thousand of us dead. I didn’t want to think about us committing suicide. I didn’t want to look. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t want to feel. I didn’t want to be responsible. I wanted to worry from afar, and just send money. I wanted the American dream. I didn’t want the Puerto Rican nightmare. I didn’t want to be colonized. I wanted to fantasize about an island faraway with sandy beaches. I wanted to be a tourist. I wanted to be an American. I wanted to go home.

But I can’t deny my Puerto Rican heritage, and I have no interest in denying Jeanine Cummins’s. I got on the plane. I wrote the novel. Needing it to be more than just a book I believed in, I made sure it was a book that my people could believe in, too.

So, Jeanine: ¿Y tu abuela aonde ‘ta? It’s not too late to pick a different team. Book a flight to San Juan. Bear witness. Check your work. Go find your grandmother.

Aya de Leon

Aya de León teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley. Kensington Books publishes her award-winning Justice Hustlers feminist heist series, including Side Chick Nation, the first novel published about Hurricane Maria. In 2021, Kensington will publish her first spy novel, about FBI infiltration of an African American eco-racial justice organization. Aya's work has also appeared in Ebony, Bitch Magazine, VICE, The Root, Catapult, and Ploughshares. Aya is at work on a black/Latina spy girl series for teens called Going Dark. Visit her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, where she writes about race, class, gender, culture, and climate action.

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2 Comments on “What About Your Grandmother, Jeanine?

  1. It is interesting that she wrote about Irish people …which she partially is…but chose to write about Mexicans rather than Puerto Ricans. Gee, I wonder why.

  2. Great commentary. In a way, we have to thank Cummins for making the publishing world more authentic and inclusive – if only by way of the backlash to this book. In future, the literary establishment will think twice before shelling out seven-figure advances for books whose authors have no business writing them. Or, one can hope.

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