I had been curious about American Dirt for a while, especially after constantly seeing it mentioned in several bookish communities, on Twitter and even in Oprah’s Book Club!
This book had a heart wrenching plot, with gripping and shocking scenes from page one. In a nutshell, it tells the story of Lydia, a Mexican woman who desperately flees with her son after a cartel murders her family in a brutal, cold blooded scene. A big part of her extremely difficult journey from Acapulco to the US border is made on top of “The Beast”, which is how locals refer to the huge freight trains that run through Mexico.
During her journey she meets and teams up with two teenage central American sisters who are fleeing from the gang violence in their country. Together they live extremely harsh experiences triggered by corruption and gangs in the areas they travel through. On top of that, they also witness horrific scenes and accidents while on the train.
Their last struggle comes when they make their way to cross the border into the US, always careful to avoid capture by the Border Patrol.
Overall, this was an eye-opening and nerve-wracking story that shows the extreme lengths that some migrants need to go through in their search for a safer and more prosperous place to call Home.
The book has stirred up a cultural misappropriation controversy as some people aren’t happy with the fact that a white-identifying author is telling the story of a Mexican character (according to this Vulture article). This has led to the following overaching question: are people entitled to tell stories that belong to a different cultural group?
Personally, I haven’t given much thought to this and I’m only mentioning the controversy as an additional fact about the book. Regardless of this debate, I would still definitely recommend American Dirt as a strong, gripping and eye opening read.
The “Train of Death”, also known as “The Beast”, is real and it’s the only travel option for thousands of Central American and Mexican migrants who day after day, risk their lives to jump onto this ride. They travel for days on end, with no water, food or clothes other than the one they’re able to carry with them. There’s no protection from the sun, the wind, the rain and the criminal gangs that haunt the train. On top of these risks, people very often lose limbs or even their lives when boarding or leaving the train.
The Patron Saints (“Las Patronas”)
Even in the face of extreme hardship, human kindness is able to shine its light. Several years ago, a self-organised group of women started to provide some relief to the migrants: they would wait alongside the tracks of The Beast and would throw food parcels and bottled water at the migrants on the passing trains. They have continued this voluntary work for many years, always providing the food for free and relying on donations to keep their work going.
Watch a short video about them in this article from The Guardian: Women of Las Patronas get fast food to migrants on Mexico’s Beast train – video
- American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
- Migrants brave the ‘Beast’ as Mexico cracks down under US pressure by The Guardian
- Mexican kidnappers pile misery on to Central Americans fleeing violence by The Guardian