Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s Book Captures The Anguish Of Living Undocumented And Makes Her The First Undocumented Immigrant Named A Finalist For The National Book Award
Ecuadorian-born Karla Cornejo Villavicencio immigrated to the United States when she was about four years old. She was one of the first known undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard and is also a Yale Ph.D candidate. While at Harvard, she wrote the Daily Beast anonymous essay “Dream Act: I’m An Illegal Immigrant at Harvard,” which expresses the war Villavicencio faced as the Dream Act failed to pass. She wrote “It would hurt to be forced to leave, but it hurts to stay the way I’m staying now. I belong to this place but I also want it to belong to me.”
About a decade later, Villavicencio is the first undocumented finalist in history named for the National Book Award on her book The Undocumented Americans.
Villavicencio always had a knack for writing. As a teenager living in the Bronx, she started out writing by reviewing jazz albums for a monthly magazine in New York City.
For years, she would read different cliche caricatures of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and the chasing of the “American Dream.”
She always felt that she could do much better to tell these raw stories but didn’t really know how. It wasn’t until Trump was elected to the presidency, that Villavicencio knew it was time to tell the story in her own words. “I just never felt like I had a fire in my belly until the night of the election.“
As a DACA student herself, Villavicencio set out across the country to interview and tell the stories of undocumented immigrants like never before. To give names to the nameless laborers and tokenized pawns and rather report on the provocative heartbreak, love, insanity, and at times-vulgarity infused into the everyday plight of undocumented immigrants. She describes these accounts as complex, unscripted, and “don’t inspire hashtags or T-shirts.” She goes on to say in the introduction of the book that “This book is for everybody who wants to step away from the buzzwords in immigration, the talking heads, the kids in graduation caps and gowns, and read about the people underground,” she writes. “Not heroes. Randoms. People. Characters.”
Mixed in with accounts that reflect her own biography and memoir also include Latino literature styles of writing such as magical realism, streams-of-consciousness, and testimonio.
The book is dedicated to Claudia Gomez Gonzalez, an undocumented immigrant and nurse-hopeful killed by a border patrol agent in 2018. The Undocumented Americans takes the reader throughout the nation. To the undocumented workers recruited to clean up New York City after 9/11 and some of the undocumented people’s deaths from this community shortly after. To the curanderas and healers in Miami who create medicinal herbs since their citizenship status blocks them from healthcare. To the immigrants denied clean water in Flint, Michigan because they do not have a state ID. To the childless teenagers in Connecticut who’s parents are in sanctuary. To the Staten Island where undocumented day laborer Ubaldo Cruz Martinez drowned during Hurricane Sandy. To the startling amount of undocumented Black and Brown people dying from COVID-19 more than any other groups.
Throughout these interviews and stories, Villavicencio interweaves her own personal stories of the battles she faced mentally and externally in the face of her undocumented status and intergenerational trauma.
Villavicencio paints an incredibly raw and vulnerable picture of her mental anguish and Borderline Personality Disorder in complexities and nuances of her life as an undocumented immigrant chasing what society has deemed the “American Dream.” She grappled with this dream narrative for children of immigrants which she says is like “kid, you graduated, now you can pay your parents back—actually, you’re 21, and your parents are going to keep aging out of manual labor, and you might lose DACA, and you might not be able to pay them back.” After she graduated Harvard as a “good immigrant,” she said that instead, “I was on so many antipsychotics that I forgot how to go down stairs.”
Villavicencio now has a green card. Described as “captivating and evocative” by New York Times and the “book we’ve been waiting for,” by author Robert G. Gonzalez, Villavicencio hopes this book will give undocumented immigrants a voice they’ve never had before. She even said “I’ve had my DMs flooded with children of immigrants, DACA kids, kids who are not on DACA, older immigrants whose parents came here as adults, all these people saying, “I didn’t know I was allowed to feel this way.” Her book is available for purchase anywhere.
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