Staggering Genius“The Undocumented Americans” Defies Flattened Migrant Narratives

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of The Undocumented Americans (Photo credit: Instagram/@kcornv)

When Karla Cornejo Villavicencio sent me an early copy of her book The Undocumented Americans, published in March 2020, I put off reading it as long as I could. I had a sneaking suspicion that it would leave a mark that would never quite heal—and I was right. Nevermind Dave Eggers, Cornejo Villavicencio’s book is a true heartbreaking work of staggering genius. As an Ecuadorian immigrant writing about some of the nation’s most vulnerable undocumented communities, including day laborers, people living in sanctuary, and elderly immigrants, Cornejo Villavicencio’s writing is raw, vulnerable, and rough around the edges. Her voice is unlike any other in publishing today.

There are entire passages of The Undocumented Americans seared into my brain. (“The twisted inversion that many children of immigrants know is that, at some point, your parents become your children, and your own personal American dream becomes making sure they age and die with dignity in a country that has never wanted them.”) More than once I had to put the book down gently beside me, cover my face with my hands, and cry a primal cry for my own immigrant father and the indignities he has suffered in a country he never intended to stay in. Cornejo Villavicencio, who is consistently a bright spot on Instagram where she gives readers a peek into her life with her wife and their dog, was kind enough to answer my questions via email. In our wide-ranging exchanges, we talked about her book, the need for radical queer theory, and her mom’s love of Hillary Clinton’s books.

I want to start very literally at the beginning of the book. You dedicated The Undocumented Americans to Claudia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Indigenous woman from Guatemala who was shot in the head by a Border Patrol agent in 2018. Claudia’s story haunted me for a long time. Why did you dedicate your book to her?

In general, I have a pretty bad memory from PTSD and a decade of being on a lot of really harsh antipsychotics, but the photograph of Claudia that her family [shared with] the media is something I remember like it’s in front of me right now. The look on her face is one I’ve seen on myself when I was younger—in bathrooms, in front of mirrors, talking myself up; about to do something hard, about to perform. Determined, assured, cocky, but also totally aware I was being observed and wanting to be seen that way. What a little badass. When I read about her, I learned Claudia wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to come to America for an education. She had this really sweet dream, and I began to personally feel guilty for her death. Claudia probably believed in the American Dream and on paper, I look like the American Dream incarnate. The myth of the American Dream persists, and it isn’t quite what it’s made out to be by Americans or by “good” immigrants. I felt complicit in that. Her killer didn’t just kill her, but the innocence of the dream. 

I can’t think of anything comparable to The Undocumented Americans in journalism or literature, mostly because undocumented folks rarely get to shape public perceptions about their communities. Americans have become accustomed to reading very flattened narratives about migrants. Chances are, they have no point of reference for how you’re writing about undocumented people in this book. Did you intentionally set out to disrupt tidy narratives, or is this simply the 360 view we get when undocumented folks write about their own communities?

Undocumented immigrants are perfectly able [to write] stories with caricatures and sycophantic messages. You have to get out of the Matrix because we’re all brainwashed by white supremacy and respectability politics in the exact same ways. That’s one of the things that annoys me about the #ownvoices hashtag; your actual subaltern identity doesn’t mean you have good politics; it doesn’t mean your story is radical or healing; and it doesn’t mean you’re not writing for a white audiences. Plenty of artists of color make feel-good art for white people or people of color that won’t make them uncomfy. As an artist, you have to have a radical vision, think about how you want to use genre, technique, and form to support that radical vision, and bulldoze over a lot of conventional wisdom and canonical works.

I am open about the fact that I think it’s a bummer that 19-year-old Latinx college students are still quoting Gloria Anzaldúa when there is so much radical queer theory, even on Instagram! She’s canon—read her. But because her writing is treated like scripture, it becomes a foundational myth and so you have so many Latinx people essentializing their identity as being like, ‘Well, I’m brown, so I am one with the earth, one with the soil.’ I’m like, Well, you know, if that’s the animistic spirituality you subscribe to, yes. But I’m from Queens and I fucking hate the outdoors. But because [she] is scripture, the response is, “You’re colonized. You need to return to nature.” Don’t let other people essentialize you; don’t essentialize yourself. I was writing against a lot of texts in migration studies and Latinx literature. We need to commit patricide, matricide. There’s an ethnic cleansing happening against our people right now and art needs to respond with radical experimentation with genre.

In the book, you write that you often ask undocumented folks: “How many years have you spent in this country, and how often do you have nightmares?” How often did you have nightmares working on this book, and what were they about?

I had nightmares almost every night writing this book, and now that I’m working on my second book, also related to migration and family, I am waking up multiple times a night, having nightmares, waking up with migraines. I joke with my agent that my contracts should have a “trauma clause” in them. But it is what it is.

I’m very differently situated, but I feel an overwhelming weight when I’m reporting certain stories; I’m afraid to fuck up or let people down. Do you think that’s where the nightmares come from?

I felt a huge responsibility to my community because they trusted me, and they shared stuff with me that I knew they would probably not have shared with another person. I promised them I would get it right. I actually made them a very specific promise, all of them, and it was this: I promise that I will write your story in such a way that the white people who read this book will not be able to look away again.

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (Photo credit: Penguin Random House)

As a reader, The Undocumented Americans felt both deeply personal and like the most beautiful journalism. There’s a line I loved, where you say you weren’t writing the book “in the drag of a journalist.” It made me curious about your relationship to journalism.

I love reporting as a technique. I love going on reporting trips, meeting people, and finding creative ways into their hearts. When I’m on reporting trips, it’s actually when I’m at my best mental healthwise. Then I crash. There are some immigration journalists that I really love, like you, Aura Bogado, Jon Blitzer, because I don’t sense there’s ego motivating your work; you truly care about your subjects. Your work is impeccable. But some people I don’t fuck with because they’ve shown they don’t care about their subjects as much as they care about being scooped; people who clearly just want the saddest, most tragic story to break because it will make their career or try to use migrants as a stepping stone for their career.

In your book, it was particularly interesting to hear about 9/11 from the perspective of undocumented workers who were at Ground Zero. Americans think of 9/11 as such a pivotal tragedy in the country’s history. As a reporter who covers immigration, I think about 9/11 in terms of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the effect it had on immigrant communities. Why did you decide to focus so heavily on 9/11, and as an undocumented New Yorker how was 9/11 a turning point for you and your family?

9/11 changed everything for my family. My father lost his license—he had been working as a taxi driver since he came to America—and started working as a delivery man, which destroyed his body and he started experiencing a ton of racist abuse and humiliation. I was called a “spic” for the first time, which struck me as very…old-timey. It didn’t hurt me; it felt quaint. White neighbors would say shit about us learning to speak English and get off welfare when we walked to the park. And I found out I was undocumented and then, on a magical day, I heard of the DREAM Act for the first time and my father guaranteed it would pass by the time I graduated high school. [The first version of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act was introduced in 2001. Over the last 19 years, at least 10 versions of the DREAM Act have been introduced in Congress. None have become law.]

In a similar vein, I’m very curious to hear about how you settled on the people you wrote about—beyond the fact that they belong to immigrant communities often not included in mainstream narratives. You focus very heavily on day laborers, 9/11, botanicas, elderly immigrants, Flint, and sanctuary. What drew you to these specific stories?

My book was a snapshot in time and I wanted the places to also be random because the point was to write about random people. I knew I wanted to write about the Ground Zero workers, and I knew I wanted to write about day laborers and housekeepers, but I looked at stories and then went to places where I felt safe to fly to. I wanted to stay away from the border because while it is of course of momentous importance, so much writing is dedicated to the border and to border crossings.

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In The Undocumented Americans, you write very honestly and lovingly about complicated family dynamics that positioned you as the family advocate. As the daughter of an immigrant, I’m also very familiar with this role. How did you navigate writing about your family life—did you feel protective of them? Of yourself? How did you decide what portions of your family’s story was yours to tell?

The idea was to write about my parents as they’re related to me. I don’t write about their secrets or their private lives. I write about them splitting up because I separated them—as I’ve learned a lot of young immigrants end up separating their parents, which is fucked up and painful. I didn’t divulge details about their last days together, that’s theirs. The painful sections about our family’s dissolution I ran by my younger brother because that’s his story too, and he gave me his approval. When I reveal that my mother is a result of her mother’s sexual assault, I made sure to get her permission, because that is her story. I don’t reveal their names. I don’t describe their physical appearances and I don’t post photographs of them on social media, ever.

I interviewed both of them for the book, and they’ll read it next year when it comes out in Spanish. Or my dad will. He’ll be bitchy about how much I swear. In general, he’ll be salty about my vulgarity, but he’ll like it because he wants to be the hero. He remembers my childhood as being very happy and rosy because admitting otherwise would mean admitting he was a tyrant. My mom only rereads Hillary Clinton’s books over and over, though she tells her congregation her favorite book is The Bible. Not true; it is Living History. Bitch is obsessed. She will probably not read my book. She may not be a big reader, but she’s really bitchy and hilarious in the very specific way drag queens can be. I think if my mother’s life had been different, she would have written jokes for Trixie Mattel.

There was a part of your book where I legit just had to put it down and sob. It’s when you say that you are a “professional immigrant’s daughter.” You write, “I try to solve shit the way that immigrant’s kids try to solve shit for their parents because these people are all my parents, I am their child…” This resonated with me, and made me think of conversations that I’ve had with other daughters of immigrants. Do you think this is gendered, and do you find it as exhausting as I do?

I spoke to a woman in the book who definitely feels it’s gendered because her brother doesn’t help. But I know a lot of guys who take care of their parents because they are the oldest or they have been the most successful by society’s mainstream capitalist terms. My brother is the most emotionally-stable, grounded person in the world. He mediated fights between my parents for all these years I haven’t been home, and he knows how to deescalate. I do not. I think a lot has to do with how “good behavior” is gendered in schools and how boys of color get disciplined and policed in ways girls often do not.

I have been the head of my family for a long, long time. My father calls me “macha.” His issues with my queerness lasted exactly three weeks. But I also recently learned that my eagerness to fix problems and become Tom Cruise scaling up a building when a crisis arises in my family is also due to trauma—it’s a different iteration of the “flight” response where you avoid dealing with what is causing you pain by obsessively trying to fix it. So I am working on it. Right now, my dad does not have a job and New York just opened up and I am working so hard to not try to find him a job. 

You tweeted that The Undocumented Americans is speaking directly to Latinx children of immigrant readers and undocumented readers, but it’s received very little media attention. Has this changed at all since you first tweeted it, and what does it mean that a book like this is largely being ignored by the media after the clusterfuck that was American Dirt?

It has not changed. I’ve gotten a few lovely interviews, but I still have exactly one review from a major publication. It means people think it is a DREAMer memoir and dismiss it as not being literature. It means it is currently catalogued under “social science” by Google Books.

What do you want to write next?

A script for a movie about my telepathic connection with Stephen Miller directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

This interview, which was originally published by Prism, has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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by Tina Vasquez
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Tina Vasquez is a writer and editor from the Los Angeles area. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.