The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

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.”

20 comments

  1. A strong review about a strong book. Like you, I really want her to succeed, I want her book to be the masterpiece she thinks it is. I mean she’s right, judged by its actions America really does want non-whites dead. The cages, the non-living wages, the systemic homicides of people in custody, the disproportionate effect of Covid-19 on minorities. The list goes on and on. Unfortunately what her scattergun approach says in her head isn’t what you the reader take from it, though you can see some of what she was trying to achieve. A for effort, D for execution.

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    • That is an accurate way to think of it; I know she’s not a reporter, but she’s writing like a reporter, and the rhetoric doesn’t jive. This blurred sort of memoir/journalistic form in which she writes ignores the rules of journalism that are important and neglect the storytelling aspects of memoir that make it so powerful.

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  2. Wow. It sounds like the author has experienced powerful trauma. There’s a lot to take in here. I can see why her approach might be problematic. But it doesn’t really sound like she cares if it is, or of people see it as that. And that’s fine. People can write whatever they want to write. I think I can see why you had issues with the execution.

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    • I almost wonder if she has so many stories and so much anxiety wrapped up in her that she’s trying to get it all out in one burst. The execution is lacking in many ways because she’s trying to cover so much. What it really means is she had so many books in her, and I hope to see more from this author in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, based on the interview notes you took, it sounds like the author has experienced a lot (the note about being unable to write about her feelings made me raise my eyebrows). Whatever she went through must have strongly influenced her writing. I agree with you that her experiences sound well-suited for a memoir. Maybe she will write one in the future!

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    • Apparently, people have asked her for years to write a memoir, but she may not be ready to go to that place just yet, which is understandable. Roxane Gay wrote around and alluded to and finally described her gang rape when she was a teen, and then in Hunger she wrote the book that seemed an impossible story that people wanted to hear, and, in the end, wanted to write, it seems.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Huh, lots to unpack here. I think we are seeing more and more people (especially minorities) who are angry, and who refuse to apologize, shrink in a corner, or say the ‘right’ things. They’re mad, and they want to intentionally rile white people up, which I understand. Will that help their message? I don’t know, but their anger is justified, even when they say problematic things that make them enemies instead of friends. I’m just trying to listen and avoid my feelings of defensiveness, and if I do feel offended or the need to defend myself, I just swallow that emotion and keep listening. Do you know what i mean? I don’t know if that’s the right way forward, but I’m still trying to figure it out…

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    • I totally know what you mean and appreciate this comment. I agree that she has loads of anger and is getting it out in the way she deems best for her thoughts and feelings. To which I say, that is art and I’m rooting for her. In terms of blending genres (fiction, memoir, journalism), it’s not gaining my trust as a reader. Honestly, the part that made me shake my head at this book is how little we actually get to know immigrants. She’s mad on their behalf, but not really giving us much beyond surface details about them, making them forgettable.

      BUT.

      I still think your comment is super important and made me think about this book differently. Sincere thanks for that ❤ You're doing good.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks girl! And I agree with your comment re: the genre too, I don’t trust that blend of non-fiction and fiction. I suppose there are two ways of looking at every book; the intention of the writer, and the reader’s experience 🙂

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  5. Some of the quotes from the author make me quite worried about her, especially her desperate desire to help absolutely everyone irrespective of whether they want helping. I read some criticism of the memoir industry recently, which argued that publishers make a lot of money from publishing people’s unprocessed traumas and that they should think hard about the ethics of that. Not to say that people’s accounts of living through trauma can’t be a really helpful contribution to a conversation, but that it should be something people have had the chance to reflect on privately for a long time before publishers choose to essentially profit from something that would be better worked out with a therapist. The author’s comments about how she can’t write for private use make me wonder if something like that is going on here.

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    • You know, she DID mention at the beginning of the book that people told her repeatedly that she should write a book about her life, and she didn’t want to. This work, in which she lightly touches on her own life and briefly discusses the lives of immigrants and swirls it all together, was her compromise.

      It’s feels like this isn’t the story the publishers wanted, but it’s what she was willing to give, and readers who support immigrants and their families are appreciative for what they got. I hadn’t thought about this from an ethical perspective.

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  6. This sounds disappointing. She obviously has a lot of passion and knowledge but it seems like it isn’t quite focused in an effective way here. Who do you think her audience is supposed to be?

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    • Oof, that’s a great question. Honestly, the book reads like she didn’t have one. I’ve read The Undocumented Americans described as gonzo journalism, and I’ve never gotten on with that no matter who was behind the keyboard.

      Maybe immigrants so they feel seen?

      Maybe the children of immigrants who take on the burden of their parents dreams and expectations?

      Maybe non-immigrant Americans who don’t know how undocumented Americans are living?

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  7. Ooh, great review. I knew this wasn’t a memoir when I added it to my TBR, but I didn’t realize the author was taking quite so many liberties with the stories she is telling. And finding out what you’re reading is completely different from what you expected can certainly be jarring! It sounds like this may be a good author to watch, someone who does have some incredible stories to write (like that memoir!) but perhaps isn’t quite ready to put that much of herself into the work. Which is fair, though perhaps her books will become stronger and more focused as she goes? I’d be interested to see what her genre-bending YA novel would look like. In the meantime, I don’t think I’ll be making this one a priority. Thanks for the honesty!

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    • Yes, I remember thinking she could write a really empowering YA novel that blends fiction and memoir in a way that gets across what she’s trying to say here but in a more ethical style. She’s an interesting person, and I do want to hear more from her.

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  8. “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.” — This observation and the snippets you’ve mentioned really rubs me the wrong way. It seems like she has some sort of saviour complex. Plus, the way she only displays the trauma of the stories of the other undocumented immigrants makes me wonder if she’s any different from the ways that other perhaps more oblivious authors would portray their stories (as trauma porn). It seems like she has some important things to say, but also that she might have to work on processing her own story first…

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    • I agree that she would benefit from telling her own story first, and if she’s not ready to share that story, then she should never feel pressured to do so. My friend Charles and I have talked about what it means to help someone, and it’s not as simple as I originally thought. The person you’re trying to help may come to really depend on you, and are you willing to be that person they depend upon? Is your help limited, or limitless? Are you setting boundaries on how much and what kind of help you’re giving, and is that fair to the person in need? There are all sorts of questions around helping. One that we hear the most often in the U.S. is whether we should give money to homeless people, because what if they just spend it on alcohol? Well, why is your help conditional? How harshly do you judge yourself when you buy alcohol? It’s a whole rabbit hole, and I think I need to read more about it.

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      • It’s true, those are interesting questions, and helping isn’t as altruistic as we initially think it is. I can’t help but remember helping in the context of counseling. I have a professor who always warns us that we have to be very careful when our client goes, “You‘re the only one who can really listen to me / help me / know me,” because the goal is to eventually allow them to help themselves and link them to their other potential support systems.

        Here in the Philippines, we also have that dilemma about giving to homeless people or beggars on the street. Some people choose not to, while others give food instead. I’m unsure how to feel about it though, so it’s also something for me to think about.

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        • In my city this new story broke about people begging for money at busy intersections only to discover these people were not homeless, and the food they were getting was thrown away. They just wanted money, and some of them were making a hefty amount each day. Instead, citizens were urged to make donated to the homeless shelter and food pantry to do the most good. Everyone has access to those facilities.

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          • WHAT?! I hate that – they’re taking advantage of people’s generosity. There are similar rumors here of beggars being a part of a modus operandi where they make money off begging, but no one has ever been able to confirm this. Unfortunately we don’t have something like a homeless shelter or food pantry – if we wanted to help we would have to search for an NGO that caters to the poor and donate there. Do homeless people there also receive unemployment and food stubs?

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