What is “Latina” Enough?

MexicanAmerican flags

I have been reading, with great interest, the heated controversy about Jeanine Cummins’ new book, American Dirt. While I have not read the book myself, I’ve read enough from proponents and critics of the book, that I believe I understand both perspectives. David Bowles, an author I met at a Texas book conference, wrote a rousing editorial on the subject for the NY Times which can be found here.

This conjures up a subject I’ve grappled with my whole life. Stick with me here; I’ll get to that, but first, a little background…

The criticism of American Dirt is that it perpetuates Mexican stereotypes and cultural inaccuracies, and in essence, the author is not Latina enough (doesn’t represent an under-represented or marginalized group) to accurately or sincerely write about the Latinx immigrant experience. She cites her relevant background as having an abuela from Puerto Rico and a husband who came to the US as an Irish immigrant. She did thorough research before writing the book, but still, the book’s 7-figure advance, selection as an Oprah book of the month choice and acclaim by other prominent authors has angered many, and in particular, talented Latinx authors who have more direct and continuous experience in the world American Dirt proports to represent and are all too often passed over in the publishing world. That part is not in question. Despite efforts in the publishing industry to diversity its staff, data proves it’s still inordinately homogeneous (white-Caucasian, heterosexual, non-disabled females).

I will reserve judgment on American Dirt until I have had a chance to read it for myself. Hoping to check it out of the library rather than buy a copy.

In the meantime, the issue I’ve been grappling with for a long time has percolated to “top of mind status” again. What qualifies as “Latina enough,” to others? I AM LATINA, and  am the only rightful authority on that, however, I sometimes find I have to “convince” people. In my work as an author, this matters given I write about the Mexican-American experience.

MY LATINA ROOTS IN QUESTION – “YOU’RE NOT REALLY LATINA, ARE YOU?”

First, my name is Diana Jacobs Noble. What’s Latina about that? Do I need to explain that my mother is Mexican, my father is half Mexican, a quarter English and a quarter Lebanese? And that, his grandfather came to the US from Lebanon and had his name changed by authorities to Salem Jacobs instead of allowing him to keep his own name, Salim Njaim? Plus, I married a “Noble,” and am proud of the name, but it doesn’t scream “Latina!” to the outside world.

Second, I “look white” to virtually everyone, making it difficult for people to believe I have Mexican roots. I find this interesting (disturbing?). Yes, I have a pale olive complexion, dark hair and stand 5′ 6″, but do all Latinx’ers have “dark” skin and dark hair? Are they all “short?” Of course that is total nonsense, but those stereotypes persist.

Third, I live in Washington State. Do I have to tell people that I was born in Laredo, Texas a 5-minute drive from Mexico? Do I have to divulge that both my parents were born and raised in South Texas? My father’s job took us to multiple states, and I only lived in Texas until I was 5 years old, but it’s still my home state and where almost my entire family lives. Does living in Washington reduce my Latina credibility?

Fourth, I do not speak Spanish fluently or have an accent. My parents spoke a mix of Spanish and English in the home, but my brothers and I answered back in English. It was just our pattern and completely normal to us. So, while I speak some Spanish, I can’t have extensive conversations without a lot of heart palpitations and perspiration, but I understand it very well! My accent is excellent, plus I sing in Spanish. Does that count?

I grew up with equal parts Mexican and American cultures and traditions. I am prouder of my Mexican-American identity than can be put into words, but still, it can be disheartening to have to explain how and why I identify as Latinx.

ADDENDUM:

I just read another review on this subject in Texas Monthly and greatly enjoyed the author’s insight.

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