When you pick up Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s book The Undocumented Americans, you might wonder if the author is personally affected by this subject in some way. Perhaps she has close family – a grandparent or an uncle – who is undocumented, perhaps her parents, maybe it is even herself. The real story, as is often the case, is more incredible, heartbreaking, complicated, and inspiring than you would imagine.
On paper, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio could be the poster child for education and the American Dream. Born in Ecuador, she was left behind with her father’s family as “collateral” while her parents went to the United States to work and pay off a family debt. When she was four, Cornejo Villavicencio’s teachers noticed that she was extremely gifted and her parents decided to bring her to the United States for the best educational opportunities. A wealthy benefactor sponsored her private Catholic school education and she eventually ended up at Harvard University. Writing for major publications such as The New York Times, The Atlantic, Vogue, and being the first undocumented person ever recognized as a National Book Award finalist for this book, hers is the ultimate success story.
That is the easy story, the inspiring story, the one that had droves of agents contacting her to write a memoir after her anonymous essay about being an undocumented Harvard senior appeared in The Daily Beast. Cornejo Villavicencio, not wanting to be reduced to just another sad-immigrant-tale-turned-success story, turned them all down. It wasn’t until after the 2016 Presidential election, during her PhD studies at Yale, that she felt equipped to write authentically of her experience and that of other undocumented people in America.
The uglier story is the mental and physical toll that years of anxiety, stress, and isolation has on the undocumented: day laborers who work in dangerous conditions because they are not afforded workplace protections; domestic workers who have no recourse for employers who underpay or fire them unjustly; World Trade Center workers whose families did not qualify for the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund because there was no paper trail linking them to the work; the Latinx community in Flint, Michigan, some of whom only learned of the dangerous drinking water from relatives in Mexico, and whose children are now living with the consequences of repeated lead exposure. Cornejo Villavicencio is especially intent on profiling the older undocumented immigrants, including her father, who spent decades wrecking their bodies, chasing the American Dream, only to age out. She writes that there is value attached to their working bodies, but once this country has wrung all of the work out of them and spit them out dry and physically incapable, what is left of their lives?
In her own story, Cornejo Villavicencio is candid about her struggles with mental illness and the lasting effects of life as a migrant:
As an undocumented person, I felt like a hologram. Nothing felt secure. I never felt safe. I didn’t allow myself to feel joy because I was scared to attach myself to anything I’d have to let go of. Being deportable means you have to be ready to go at any moment, ready to go with nothing but the clothes on your body. I’ve learned to develop no relationship to anything, not to photos, not to people, not to jewelry or clothing or tickets stubs or stuffed animals from childhood.”
-Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
While researching for this book, Cornejo Villavicencio became embedded in the lives of the other undocumented people she met, acting as a substitute daughter, a surrogate mother, an advocate, a fundraiser, a professional “solver.” This took a toll on her mental health. It would have been easier to remain a detached journalist, to not become a part of the story, but, as an undocumented immigrant herself, Cornejo Villavicencio recognizes that the undocumented are often reduced to nothing more than their irregular status. It is by showing the flaws, strengths, dignity, failures, and aspirations of the undocumented Americans in this book that Cornejo Villavicencio reveals that it is not the only story.