Controversy surrounds American Dirt, a new literary page-turner about a middle-class Mexican bookstore owner and her 8-year-old son who attempt to migrate to the U.S. as they flee a murderous cartel. It received a lot of hype in early reviews and praise from acclaimed and respected authors such as Sandra Cisneros and Julia Alvarez, and it was selected by Oprah as her next book club pick. I recommended it in an earlier blogpost, and at the moment it has more than 100 holds at Oakland Public Library. But since its release it has been the target of scathing criticism for cultural appropriation, shallowness, and inaccuracies. And some reviewers just didn’t think it was a good book. You can read more about the details of the backlash here and here, and Myriam Gurba’s scorching essay has been mentioned in every conversation. So much of the criticism connects back to the undeniable and persistent fact that authors of color aren’t published, promoted and paid enough by a too-white publishing industry.
Whether or not you’re planning on checking out American Dirt, here’s a list of books you should try by much-admired Mexican, Mexican-American and Chicanx authors who deserve your readerly attention!
Bless Me, Ultima
Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family in New Mexico. She is a curandera, one who cures with herbs and magic. Under her wise wing, Tony will probe the family ties that bind and rend him, and he will discover himself in the magical secrets of the pagan past--a mythic legacy as palpable as the Catholicism of Latin America. And at each life turn there is Ultima, who delivered Tony into the world...and will nurture the birth of his soul. The winner of the 2015 National Humanities Medal, Rudolfo Anaya is acclaimed as the father of Chicano literature in English and for his rich and compassionate writing about the Mexican-American experience.
Borderlands: The New Mestiza = La Frontera
Rooted in Gloria Anzaldúa's experience as a Chicana, a lesbian, an activist, and a writer, the groundbreaking essays and poems in this volume profoundly challenged how we think about identity. Borderlands/La Frontera remapped our understanding of what a "border" is, seeing it not as a simple divide between here and there, us and them, but as a psychic, social, and cultural terrain that we inhabit, and that inhabits all of us.
The Mixquiahuala Letters
Focusing on the relationship between two strong and fiercely independent women--Teresa, a writer, and Alicia, an artist--this epistolary novel, written as a tribute to Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch, examines Mexican and Latina forms of love, gender conflict, and female friendship.
Caramelo, o, Puro Cuento
During her family's annual car trip from Chicago to Mexico City, Lala Reyes listens to stories about her family, including her grandmother, the descendant of a renowned dynasty of shawl makers, whose magnificent striped (or caramelo) shawl has come into Lala's possession, in a multi-generational saga of a Mexican-American family.
A 1599 Roman tennis match between the Italian painter Caravaggio and the Spanish poet Quevedo represents the way the world changed in their times, in a novel that goes from the execution of Anne Boleyn to Mexico after the conquest.
The Death of Artemio Cruz
An elderly rich and powerful landowner in modern Mexico recalls his corrupt life after collapsing from an illness while attending a business meeting. Hailed as a masterpiece since its publication in 1962, The Death of Artemio Cruz is Carlos Fuentes's haunting voyage into the soul of modern Mexico. As in all his fiction, but perhaps most powerfully in this book, Fuentes is a passionate guide to the ironies of Mexican history, the burden of its past, and the anguish of its present.
Cristina Rivera Garza
The Taiga Syndrome
Fairy tale meets detective drama in this David Lynch-like novel by a writer Jonathan Lethem calls "one of Mexico's greatest...we are just barely beginning to catch up to what she has to offer." A fairy tale run amok, The Taiga Syndrome follows an unnamed female Ex-Detective as she searches for a couple who has fled to the far reaches of the earth.
Across a Hundred Mountains
After a tragedy separates her from her mother, Juana Garcia leaves her small town in Mexico to find her father, who left his home and family two years before to find work in America, "el otro lado," and rise above the oppressive poverty so many of his countrymen endure. Out of money and in need of someone to help her across the border, Juana meets Adelina Vasquez, a young woman who left her family in California to follow her lover to Mexico. Finding each other -- in a Tijuana jail -- in desperate circumstances, they offer each other much needed material and spiritual support and ultimately become linked forever in the most unexpected way.
True crime, memoir, and ghost story, Mean is the bold and hilarious tale of Myriam Gurba’s coming of age as a queer, mixed-race Chicana. Blending radical formal fluidity and caustic humor, Gurba takes on sexual violence, small towns, and race, turning what might be tragic into piercing, revealing comedy. This is a confident, intoxicating, brassy book that takes the cost of sexual assault, racism, misogyny, and homophobia deadly seriously.
Signs Preceding the End of the World
Yuri Herrera does not simply write about the border between Mexico and the United States and those who cross it. He explores the crossings and translations people make in their minds and language as they move from one country to another, especially when there's no going back. Traversing this lonely territory is Makina, a young woman who knows only too well how to survive in a violent, macho world. Leaving behind her life in Mexico to search for her brother, she is smuggled into the USA carrying a pair of secret messages -- one from her mother and one from the Mexican underworld.
Lost Children Archive
A novel about a family of four, on the cusp of fracture, who take a trip across America--a story told through varying points of view, and including archival documents and photographs. A National Book Critics Circle Award Finalist, Longlisted for the Booker Prize, and one of The New York Times 10 Best Books of the Year.
Deserted villages of rural Mexico, where images and memories of the past linger like unquiet ghosts, haunted the imaginations of the author. In one such village of the mind, Comala, he set his classic novel Pedro Paramo, a dream-like tale that intertwines a man's quest to find his lost father and reclaim his patrimony with the father's obsessive love for a woman who will not be possessed, Susana San Juan.
Benjamin Alire Sáenz
Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club
Benjamin Alire Sáenz's stories reveal how all borders-real, imagined, sexual, human, the line between dark and light, addict and straight-entangle those who live on either side. Take, for instance, the Kentucky Club on Avenida Juárez two blocks south of the Rio Grande. It's a touchstone for each of Sáenz's stories. His characters walk by, they might go in for a drink or to score, or they might just stay there for a while and let their story be told. Winner of a PEN/Faulkner Award and a Lambda Literary Award.
How to Be a Chicana Role Model
From the award-winning author of Chicana Falsa… a young Chicana writer who is struggling to find a way to embrace two very different cultures, without losing touch with her own true identity.
Luis Alberto Urrea
The Hummingbird's Daughter
When sixteen-year-old Teresita, the illegitimate and beloved daughter of a powerful late-nineteenth-century rancher, arises from death possessing the power to heal, she is declared a saint and finds her family and faith tested by the impending Mexican civil war.
Descriptions in Italics from the publishers.