Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is known for being one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard University. She is now a Yale PhD candidate, writer, and activist. When I bought The Undocumented Americans, I had the idea that this would be a memoir about her experiences as an undocumented Ecuadorian navigating the higher education system at two prestigious, predominantly white universities with Trump, children caged on the border of Mexico, and shouts of “build the wall” chorusing around her and her parents. I was wrong.
Rather than write about her unique experiences, Cornejo Villavicencio writes about the immigrant workforce in the United States. She includes some good information in the introduction to tell you what this book is meant to do:
This book is a work of creative nonfiction, rooted in careful reporting, translated as poetry, shared by chosen family, and sometimes hard to read. Maybe you won’t like it. I didn’t write it for you to like it. And I did not set out to write anything inspirational, which is why there are no stories of DREAMers. They are commendable young people, and I truly owe them my life, but they occupy outsize attention in our politics.
Now, I love creative nonfiction; it’s what makes stories so interesting to read. But Cornejo Villavicencio isn’t writing a memoir, she’s writing about other people. Inserting creative segments and translating Spanish into poetic English made me curious about the accuracy of what I was reading. I thought, “Let the people sound how they do and be who they are.” In one section, the author describes a homeless alcoholic undocumented immigrant who drowned in a basement during Hurricane Sandy. Before he dies, Cornejo Villavicencio writes that he found an animal shiver and needing care, so the man took the creature into a basement, heated his own socks, and warmed the animal. The story, meant to evoke pathos, is made up. No one can know what happened in the man’s final hours because no one was with him. Though a heart-warming example, I’m suspicious when writers feel the need to embellish (lie?). Cornejo Villavicencio asks the reader, “Is this book nonfiction?”
To be fair, though she’s interviewing people, the author says she’s not a journalist because the way she gets involved with the families she meets is not ethical, nor can she remain unbiased. Her ambition to get to know immigrants, their lives, and especially during times of hardship — she interviews people post-9/11, post-Hurricane Sandy, and who live with the ongoing Flint water crisis — is admirable and humanizes to a degree. But because we get small sections, oftentimes a few pages, about each person, they’re easy to forget. There’s little depth to most of the relationships (two men in sanctuary at different times stand out, though I’ve confused them for the same person), which essentially makes their stories rootless, even shallow.
Woven throughout her encounters, Cornejo Villavicencio gives what I would call crumbs about her own life. She was left in Ecuador until she was five before her parents sent for her in the U.S., and their absence has permanently affected her brain. Her brother was born in the States, so he’s a citizen. Cornejo Villavicencio has tried to commit suicide many times. She is queer. She feels impermanent because she could be deported at any minute, so her whole life she’s never been attached to a single physical object and even writes things so she delete them just to test her ability to let go without emotion.
The author’s life came together bit by bit and was the more compelling story because there is more of it, basically outshining the dim light she pointed at numerous other undocumented immigrants. I kept thinking, “Why did she not write a memoir? Why couldn’t she give more attention to the undocumented immigrants she met and she kept in contact with for years, instead of writing tiny pieces of their lives?” I have a hunch: the author zooms in on a moment when each person was in peril, such as the fall of the Towers, a hurricane flood, facing ICE deportation, and poisonous drinking water. But who are these people outside of their most traumatic moment?
There were other moments that sent my “feelers” reeling in a negative way, such as Cornejo Villavicencio describing elderly men doing the work teens usually do, their bodies deteriorating rapidly:
“I hope they have children who can take care of them,” I respond. What I mean to say is: I hope they have a child like me. I hope everyone has a child like me. If I reach every child of immigrants at an early age, I can make sure every child becomes me. And if they don’t, I can be everyone’s child.
I wasn’t sure what to make of the author’s feelings about saving everyone, especially given the way she speaks of undocumented immigrants as if they have no personal agency. The author gave a two boys a laptop for homework, demanding they go to college so they can “get out” without asking their ambitions. She was mad when one man kept laying down a card in an envelop she gave him in which she stuck $400, despite barely knowing him. Cornejo Villavicencio’s forceful help implied she had no boundaries, forcing people to accept her assistance when it is she who feels powerless. The anecdotes suggest she views undocumented immigrants as people she must save in spite of themselves.
I questioned her good intentions, thinking of all the many young undocumented immigrants I’ve known and wondered if they would want to approach being helpful, society, and activism the same way. Cornejo Villavicencio encourages young people she meets to never trust police because they’re all “pigs,” and that the United States has an agenda (rather than a systemic problem) to kill all black and brown people. Anger and trauma, mixed in with other people’s glossed over experiences and frequent references to her suicide attempts left me feeling confused, and, in general, mistrusting of the author’s approach to other undocumented immigrants’ stories.
Only when I finished The Undocumented Americans did I see she has a list of sources, which is extensive, but she doesn’t integrate those sources in a way that makes you aware that she isn’t simply sharing her opinion. For example:
It is not torturous for the government. They want us all dead, Latinxs, black people, they want us dead, and sometimes they’ll slip something into our bloodstreams to kill us slowly and sometimes they’ll shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot and shoot shoot and shoot and shoot [shoot is repeated 43 times].
This is what you see in the notes section:
The repetition of “shoot” is cited. Does the cited article claim that the government wants black and brown people dead? No. I read it, and it’s a factual account of what happened, who the victim was, and how police typically respond vs. how these police did. Rhetorically, Cornejo Villavicencio fails to even paraphrase the article, instead sharing her own feelings and then pointing at an article to say, “SEE!?” which misrepresents Michael Cooper’s article and is unethical. Most of her sources are The New York Times, a news source for which Cornejo Villavicencio writes, suggesting there could be more variation in her research and possible conflict of interest.
I would recommend Reyna Grande’s memoir The Distance Between Us instead, which is about living in Mexico while she waits for her parents in America, then traveling to American as an undocumented immigrant. The memoir ends with a hopefulness thanks to personal progress, yes, but doesn’t avoid hard situations and relationships throughout. I haven’t read Grande’s A Dream Called Home, a follow-up memoir covers her time in higher education, but now I’m eager to find there what I did not get in The Undocumented Americans.
notes from the live cast with karla Cornejo Villavicencio, in conversation with Andrea González-Ramírez (may 21, 2020 @ 7:30PM)
The live cast was recorded and can be viewed here. Here are notes I took during the live cast:
- Cornejo Villavicencio didn’t ask people why they came to American because she’s not curious. She feels liberal white American readers are trained to expect a “juicy story” of why migrants made the journey that makes the immigrant worthy of the privilege of entry to the United States, such as refugees and asylum seekers doing things “the right way.” Immigrants who come for a better life do things the “wrong way,” according to liberal white Americans. She wants to “train readers out of that.”
- Doesn’t write about DREAMers because it would be “boring.” She doesn’t identify as a DREAMer because it’s “so saccharine,” even though she was one.
- She believes immigrant youth across history, national groups, and ethnicities have in common gratitude that they owe their parents. Children believe they can pay their parents back with grades, good posture, and going to church. Yet, they may deny queer feelings or wanting to leave the church. Gratitude can “metastasize.”
- She repeated several times that she’s going to make white people mad and fully expected the number of viewers in the live cast to drop. One woman she interviewed came to America because she didn’t want to be a grandma, so she left her children behind. Cornejo Villavicencio said white people will hate her.
- She can’t write unless it’s for an audience. When therapists tell her to write about her feelings, she can’t. Instead, she’ll decide to color and call her friends make make them pick a picture she’ll color and send to them and she wants a guarantee they will hang it up. That didn’t work, so she decided to make bracelets and get a guarantee her friends will wear them, and they didn’t want to make that promise.
- She no longer believes college is for everyone because her brother has bad grades. Honestly, she says, she thinks that any child of color who doesn’t go to college will end up dead.
- She’s working on a young adult novel called Dream Girl and is experimenting with genre.
- She used to like Oprah, but “Oprah triggers me now because of the American Dirt stuff.”
- She feels people don’t see Latinx writing as “capital L literature” but as more like dead bison, taxidermied, in the Museum of Natural History. She says her book only got one review, when there should be more because “it’s a fucking masterpiece.”