Pies on the Windowsills of “El Norte”

Esther Allen offers context for, and a translator’s perspective on, a publishing controversy.

By Esther AllenFebruary 5, 2020

Pies on the Windowsills of “El Norte”

LATELY I’VE BEEN thinking a lot about a white lady from north of the border who wrote a blockbuster book in which most of the main characters are Mexican. No, not that one.

The book I’ve been thinking about is Ramona, a novel published in 1884. Its author, Helen Hunt Jackson, died just 10 months after it appeared, and by then it had already sold more than 15,000 copies, astronomical for the era. Set during the years following the US invasion of Mexico, and directly inspired by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ramona is a work of social reform fiction intended to impact white readers’ attitudes by engaging them sentimentally with the plight of California’s residents following the occupation of their territory by rapacious settlers. It tells the story of a family of wealthy landowners, the Morenos, their thrillingly beautiful, blue-eyed step-daughter Ramona — who, unbeknownst to herself, is of mixed indigenous and Scottish blood — and Alessandro, a physically splendid sheep-shearer of the Payómkawichum or Luiseño people, who has a superb singing voice. Do I need to say that Ramona and Alessandro fall in love?

About Jackson’s attempts at high drama and emotion, her old friend Emily Dickinson once cattily remarked, “She has the facts but not the phosphorescence.” Jackson, though, put fact before phosphorescence. Her first attempt to address the injustices portrayed in Ramona was A Century of Dishonor (1881), a scathing nonfiction condemnation of US government Indian policy that detailed broken treaties, violations of local and international law, forced removals, and massacres. Like the peoples she wrote to defend, Jackson had no vote, but she sent a copy of her book to every member of the US Senate with a line from Benjamin Franklin embossed on the cover: “Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations.”

When the nonfiction book fizzled, Jackson remembered the example of her friend Harriet Beecher Stowe and wrote a novel. Social reform fiction is often addressed to readers who belong to a different social order than its characters, and Ramona is written for white Anglophones. Its heroine’s blue eyes and a description of the Moreno ranch as “half barbaric” are among many concessions Jackson made to white prejudice in her attempt to engage white sentiment (we might also read them as expressions of her own unconscious bias). She also inexplicably changes some Spanish names to Italianate forms: Alessandro, for example, rather than the Spanish Alejandro.

Jackson made several extensive trips to California, including a six-month tour as an Indian agent appointed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but she was writing about people whose languages she did not speak and whose cultures she didn’t understand. Her portrayal of the Californios has come in for extensive critique from readers who share the languages and heritage of Ramona’s characters. Her characterization of “Alessandro the Indian,” in particular, has been rejected by native Californian readers who don’t see any trace of their culture in the male lead of a Romeo and Juliet story.

There’s one concession the reform-minded Jackson did not make: Ramona, written to protest their genocidal brutality, is almost devoid of sympathetic white settler characters. In Chapter 22, she seems to realize belatedly that this might be an issue for the novel’s reception and introduces a superior sort of settler family, the kindly, impoverished Hyers, who — swayed by the couple’s immense physical beauty, preternatural charm, personal saintliness, religious devotion, and perfect love for each other and their child — set aside deep racial animosity to save Ramona and Alessandro’s lives during a snowstorm and subsequently befriend them. The Hyers are the book’s only nod toward settler virtue. When Alessandro is casually murdered by a white settler, the crime is committed with total impunity. Even so, Jackson’s novel tells less than the truth. In An American Genocide, his recent history of the California Indians, Benjamin Madley shows how California and federal governments openly promoted Indian-killing and paid a bounty for Indian scalps.

Just two years after it came out, Ramona was translated into Spanish by the Cuban journalist and revolutionary leader José Martí, who published the translation in New York City, where he lived, and had it distributed across Mexico. Why? In Jackson’s attempt to sway white readers to sympathize with the Californios, Martí saw an opportunity to shape a political narrative of his own. For decades, wealthy Latin Americans had entertained the fantasy that they and their assets would be better off under US government rule. After the 1848 indigenous uprising known as the Caste War, the ruling class of Yucatán sent an emissary to Washington who invited the United States to annex Yucatán. Wealthy elites in Mexico City asked invading US General Winfield Scott to do the same, and take over their entire country, not just the northern half. For decades, annexationist Cuban sugar barons made overtures to Washington, offering to refund the cost if the United States would simply purchase Cuba from Spain. Even the Mexican landowning classes who found themselves under US rule after 1848 had some reason to imagine, at least initially, that their interests might be well served by the takeover. Early California state law distinguished between “white Mexicans” and “Indian Mexicans,” establishing a framework that purported to protect white Mexican land and grant white Mexican men the right to vote. But like many an Indian treaty before them, those legal fictions quickly broke down.

Martí was an ardent proponent of Cuban independence — from Spain and from the United States. He reacted to Ramona much as the CIA would react, decades later, to Doctor Zhivago. Nothing could better have furthered US aims during the Cold War than a denunciation of the Soviet Union written in Russian by someone from within the Soviet system. Nothing could better have furthered Martí’s aims for Latin America in the 1880s than a novel written in English by someone from within the US system, denouncing the nation’s murderous racism against Hispanic and indigenous peoples. On behalf of all Latin America, Martí laid claim to the book. In the absence of a copyright treaty between the United States and Mexico, he paid Jackson’s estate no royalties, so you might even say he appropriated it. What Jackson has written, Martí wrote, in Spanish, in the preface to his translation, is “nuestra novela” — our novel.

Martí’s ambition was to shape Latin American attitudes and policies so that if the United States tried to occupy the Caribbean islands still possessed by Spain, Mexico and other Latin American countries would come to their defense, not wanting others to suffer the fate of the Californios. It didn’t work. Instead he died in an early skirmish of the war of independence from Spain he launched in 1895. When that war concluded in 1898, the US flag was flying over Cuba and Puerto Rico.

Ramona has lived on and on in popular culture, inspiring a long string of films and generating vast sums for the entertainment industry. Most of the Ramona movies were made by white directors and starred white actors and actresses in brownface, but one version, made in 1928, was directed by Edwin Carewe, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, and introduced the Mexican actress Dolores del Río to US audiences, along with the hit song “Ramona,” an international pop music staple for decades thereafter. Ramona also became a theatrical pageant in Hemet, California, performed annually for almost a century now, the “Official Outdoor Play” of the State of California. For many decades, the pageant featured white actors in brownface, but that practice was abandoned long ago and the cast now racially aligns with the characters they portray. Ramona also lives on in Mexico, where, in 2000, Televisa released a 74-part Spanish-language telenovela based on the novel, starring Mexican-American actress Kate del Castillo.

The novel’s reception exceeded her wildest expectations as to sales volume and duration, but the impact of Ramona on California was far from what Jackson’s good intentions had envisaged. The numerous cultural iterations of Ramona can be tallied, but the novel’s most powerful effect was territorial — and incalculable. At the end of Ramona, following Alessandro’s murder, the eponymous heroine reunites with her preternaturally handsome stepbrother Felipe Moreno. By then, California has become so inhospitable even to “white Mexicans” that the Morenos resolve to uproot and move to a Mexico City where they’ve never before set foot. Ramona’s “beautiful dream” for the indigenous daughter she bore to Alessandro is that the girl grow up in Mexico City, safe from the racial hatred — peligro de raza, Martí called it: “race danger” — the family faces in California.

In other words, the fundamental message of Ramona for the readers whose sympathies it was trying to arouse was that California had emptied out. The Mexicans, both white and Indian, were gone, and the territory was there for the settling. While the abolitionist message of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was followed by the Civil War, Ramona and its stirring descriptions of gorgeous, vast, fertile landscapes mainly functioned in US history as an elaborate real estate brochure, visually illustrated by colored postcards of the novel’s California settings which circulated abundantly at the height of its early popularity.

Well before Walt Disney founded Disneyland to usher people “in real life” into the cartoon fantasy world they’d previously accessed only via their TV screens, Southern California developers named towns — Ramona, Moreno Valley — to capitalize on the popularity of Jackson’s novel and entice white settlers to experience “in real life” what they’d felt in its pages, seen on the postcards. A 1916 publication suggested that by then Ramona had been worth $50 million in tourist revenue for the state, and there’s no estimating how much in enhanced property values. Meanwhile, the novel's promotion of sympathy and justice for Mexicans doesn’t appear to have had much lasting resonance for the people who bought what the developers were selling. Voting records for 2016 show that a majority of the residents of both Ramona and Hemet, for example, opted for the presidential candidate who promised to keep them safe from invading gangs and rapists by building a vast wall along the Southern border.

As you may have heard, there is a more recently published novel by a white woman from north of the border in which most of the main characters are Mexican. It, too, states its intention to promote social reform and give sympathetic voice to what its author’s afterword describes as a “faceless brown mass.” It also uses a weirdly Italianate name, “Luca,” for one of its Mexican characters. And, as in the case of Ramona, its depiction of those characters has been demolished by a series of critics, many of whom share their heritage.

The 2016 presidential candidate supported by the majority of Ramona and Hemet voters has extensively demonstrated that outrage is the marketing tool of our day. The term “cultural appropriation” emerged in the 1980s, and publishers have routinely used sensitivity readers for years; did Flatiron Books really have no inkling that the recent novel in question — Jeanine Cummins’s very aptly titled American Dirt, in case you’ve been living on another planet — would be greeted with outrage? (One fiery review in particular, by Myriam Gurba, is not to be missed.) Might the manufacture of outrage have been, in fact, a deliberate marketing strategy? If so, it worked. Now, along with her seven-figure advance, Cummins can lay claim to “victim of cancel culture” status, and her publisher, Flatiron, has canceled her book tour, citing fears for her safety. It’s not exactly social justice for brown people, but then again her book made the front page of The New York Times and Mitch Albom wrote an essay about it in defense of the unfettered imagination and the right of artists to “[explore] worlds beyond their own.”

I had no interest in subjecting myself to Cummins’s novel until I realized Vintage Español had issued it simultaneously in a Spanish translation by María Laura Paz Abasolo. With Martí’s translation of Ramona in mind, I decided to read the book in Paz Abasolo’s Spanish. Maybe seeing it through the lens of the language it pretends its characters are speaking would yield some insight.

Paz Abasolo has been publishing extensively since 2015 and does a lot of work for Vintage Español. This is her first translation of adult literary fiction — an important step in her career. She’s a professional, and understands that it’s her job to inhabit this white author’s imagination as best she can, bring her characters to life, and bring this novel across the linguistic, conceptual, and cultural barriers that separate it from Spanish-language readers, to make something of it that will compel them.

Unlike the author, Paz Abasolo understands that in Spanish a quinceañera is a girl and not, as Merriam-Webster defines it, a party. Her prose reflects that higher understanding. But there’s only so much she can do. No translation, however skilled, can confer plausibility on the decision of the novel’s literate middle-class heroine to leap onto a gang-controlled train rather than — as David Bowles drily put it in the Times — just take a plane to Canada. In fairness, the plot does offer an explanation: Lydia, our very intelligent and fluently English-speaking heroine — who like everyone else in Mexico is constantly witnessing extreme violence and whose journalist husband routinely receives death threats — has never given any thought to the possibility of leaving Mexico for any reason, or to providing herself or her prodigiously gifted son with any sort of government documentation they might need in order to do so.

Though oddly reluctant ever to organize an actual visit to the well-known nation a few hours’ flight north, where an uncle of hers lives in Denver, Lydia has always been in thrall to US culture, the US language, even US culinary traditions (at least those featured in many a heartwarming corporate advertisement). Her bizarre, Fifty-Shades-of-Grey-but-entirely-sexless-but-way-more-violent relationship with the sensitive, well-dressed, professorial drug lord who murders her family and then relentlessly hunts her down was crystallized by their shared love of Heart, You Bully, You Punk, a 2003 novel by Leah Hager Cohen set in a Brooklyn private high school. It’s never been translated; she and drug lord both read it in English.

Paz Abasolo quickly comes to understand it isn’t her or anyone’s job to impose logic or rationality here. After a mass murder kills 16 of her family members, Lydia is a foreigner in the city she’s lived in all her life, during which she has never established a single friendship other than that really strange one with the drug lord. There’s not a soul in Acapulco she can turn to. Therefore she does the obvious thing: heads to Walmart to buy a machete. There’s no shift in meaning here: Merriam-Webster, too, defines machete as a “large heavy knife used for cutting sugarcane and underbrush.” But in Dirt, it’s a small, retractable knife in a holster that Lydia can strap to her thigh. “Machete,” you see, just sounds so much more Mexican than “switchblade.” Paz Abasolo (you can feel her heaving a sigh) just translates machete as machete. None of it makes sense anyway.

José Martí understood better than Helen Hunt Jackson did that the deep lesson of Ramona had little to do with its tragic portrayal of the sympathetic Californios and their fate. The real lesson was the image it offered of white USA. And that lesson was: While some individuals may be benevolent, for the most part, beware.

What image does American Dirt offer of white USA?

Given the almost century and a half that separates the two novels, it’s remarkable how closely Cummins’s strategy for creating white sympathy for brown characters hews to Jackson’s. Such characters must be educated, exceptional, saintly in conduct (hence no actual sex with the drug lord), deeply religious, utterly devoted to their children and willing to sacrifice everything to keep them safe, and they must also be absolutely helpless amid an unending onslaught of overwhelming hardship. These imperatives, rather than any reality of Mexico, immigration, drug lords, or the human experience, dictate every absurd kink in the ludicrous plot that Cummins’s heavily fettered imagination has devised.

There’s one divergence: while Ramona and her husband are penniless after they elope, a decision seems to have been made that an impoverished heroine might be tough for contemporary white USA readers to identify with. So Lydia has money. Which means that her flight to the Land of the Free has to be impeded by other factors, such as throwing away her cell phone’s SIM and never replacing it. To be fair, the Chinese government itself would envy the micro-surveillance that the suave drug lord maintains over the entirety of Mexican territory. Luckily for Lydia, though, that total surveillance ends at the border. Heading north, her first goal is to make it to any Mexican city along that border — Tijuana, Mexicali, Nogales, Ciudad Juárez, portals of paradise all; from there “you can smell the freshbaked pies on the windowsills of el norte.”

I went back to the original to be sure of having the precise flavor and wording of that line.

El norte, Lydia knows for sure, is “a planet where no one can reach” her. And indeed, so powerful is the magic force field that separates the United States from those nether regions to the south that the moment she makes it across she grabs someone else’s cell phone and video chats the drug lord. She can do that because she’s safe now. By the way, the cell phone she grabs belongs to a young, recently deceased, Mexican man whose first impulse, after crossing the border, is to rape someone.

When Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha was translated into Japanese, Takayoshi Ogawa had the geishas speak the elaborate language of their profession and period and did such a gorgeous job of it that the critic and translator Motoyuki Shibata hails Ogawa’s Japanese version as immensely superior to the English. Dirt, though, paints its own ignorance, the ignorance it is selling its readers, onto its characters in such a way that a translator can’t do anything but echo it, or the whole thing would fall apart. Along her perilous journey, Lydia, for only the second time in her life, makes some friends: a pair of deeply traumatized teenaged sisters who are Chortí Mayans from Honduras. (Would it surprise you to learn that they are also drop-dead gorgeous?) The problem here is that if Paz Abasolo had these girls use vocabulary and speech patterns that mark their differences from a middle-class Mexican college graduate, it would only further underscore the absurdity of a plot that calls for that college graduate and her wunderkind to blend in seamlessly among Central American refugees. So Paz Abasolo translates everyone’s dialogue into a neutral Spanish, differentiated, like the English, only by having certain Mexicans punctuate their speech with guëy, which Cummins seems to believe is some kind of obscure gangster lingo. There’s a moment where someone says, “¿Qué onda, guëy?” and eight-year-old native Spanish-speaking Luca from Acapulco doesn’t know what that means. Here again, Paz Abasolo just goes along with it, though it makes as much sense as a gringo kid being unfamiliar with the expression “What’s up, dude?” Thoughtful and capable as it is, the Spanish translation can do nothing but make the fundamental brownface logic of the original all the more strikingly apparent.

Though married to a journalist, Lydia has a strong aversion to the news. It’s so depressing! She often makes an explicit point of not keeping up, and apparently everyone else in the novel does, too. As she is actually crossing the border — a group of shadowy gringo vigilantes glimpsed harmlessly off to one side — the fear of being separated from Luca does flash across Lydia’s mind a couple of times, but then vanishes. No negative encounters with any US authorities ensue. Earlier, a priest in an immigrant shelter harangues the immigrants riding La Bestia, warning them to turn back and detailing the horrors before them: the dangers of the ride, the treachery of coyotes. But the only peril he mentions they’ll face if they do make it over the border into el norte is lack of money. Earlier still, on the way to Mexico City, when a van full of teenaged gringa evangelicals with Lydia in the back is stopped by gunmen at a highway roadblock, Lydia notices that the sight of guns is thrilling and exotic to the French-braided missionary girls. They must not see guns ever, where they’re from.

Dirt begins with an image of Luca in a bathroom amid a hail of bullets. Jackson’s Ramona travels to Mexico at the close of her novel so that her child can be safe from racism. Cummins’s Lydia undertakes a long journey in the opposite direction, also motivated by a beautiful dream of safety for her child: a dream that he’ll grow up in a place where children are safe from bullets.

Which of course, is the other major divergence between Ramona and American Dirt. For all Jackson’s pandering and cultural misrepresentation, Ramona grasps the fundamental political situation it depicts and is, in its essence, a work of protest, not propaganda. That may explain why it has had such a lasting afterlife in both English and Spanish, and why it has ultimately been embraced not only by white readers but by Cuban, Mexican, and indigenous readers, actors, and directors.

The America to which Dirt’s title alludes is a freshbaked-pie-scented fantasy wonderland for everyone, and brown immigrants, too. If you can just make it across that border, you are set. Myriam Gurba condensed the plot into four words: México: Bad / USA: Good. Which I would paraphrase as: Latin America: Shithole Basket Cases / USA: Order and Virtue.

This fantasy sells well, and has been selling well for a long time. It even sells to Latin Americans and Latinos, though perhaps not quite in the same numbers. It’s not sympathy for immigrants but a fantasy USA of order and virtue that the industry which designated this book for blockbuster status is peddling, in every language this novel gets translated into, in every market where the eventual blockbuster film will be shown. Hats off to the marketing genius who came up with the idea of packaging that message in the guise of a social reform novel. Who knows? It may even have been Cummins herself. Whoever it was, they’re making out like a bandido, as the ink flows, the heads talk, and the dollars roll in.


Esther Allen is a professor at City University of New York. She edited, annotated, and translated the Penguin Classics anthology José Martí: Selected Writings.

LARB Contributor

Esther Allen is a professor at City University of New York. She edited, annotated, and translated the Penguin Classics anthology José Martí: Selected Writings. Her translation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel Zama won the 2017 National Translation Award.


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