the undocumened americns karla cornejo villevicenio

THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS, as observed by one of their own

The Undocumented Americans is a tricky book to categorize and an enlightening, provocative book to read.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is a Harvard graduate, a Yale grad student, and a writer. She is the daughter of undocumented Ecuadorian parents who brought her to America as a five-year-old. Her younger brother is American-born, while she lives under the precarious protection of DACA. The outcome of the 2016 presidential election made this life more perilous and uncertain than ever. It also made Cornejo Villavicencio want to examine her own story more deeply, and see how it fit in with the stories of other undocumented Americans.

In her introduction to the book, Cornejo Villavicencio calls The Undocumented Americans “creative nonfiction,” and that’s a fair assessment. The title sounds authoritative, scholarly–possibly a definitive work on the subject. And while it may turn out to be just that, its ambitions and execution are on a smaller scale.

This is a deeply personal book, but it’s not solely Cornejo Villavicencioo’s own story–therefore, it’s not memoir. The other stories she tells grow out of her embedded reporting, but she has changed her subjects’ names and details; it’s not journalism, either But I’m not sure it matters where you shelve this book. What’s important is taking it off that shelf and reading it.

I wasn’t aware that this book existed until last autumn when it started showing up on Best Books of 2020 lists, but I’m really glad it came to my attention. Cornejo Villavicencio is a powerful and passionate writer, invested in her material and attached to those whose stories she shares. The Undocumented Americans is an eye-opening, unsettling, and important work of creative nonfiction.

THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS, as observed by one of their ownThe Undocumented Americans
Written by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Published by Random House Publishing Group on March 24, 2020
ISBN: 9780399592683
Genres: Nonfiction, Biography & Autobiography
Format: ebook
Pages: 208
Source: purchased

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she'd tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell. So she wrote her immigration lawyer's phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants--and to find the hidden key to her own.

Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented--and the mysteries of her own life. She finds the nation of singular, effervescent characters often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers. The stories she tells are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects.

In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federally funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11. In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other healthcare options. In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water. In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary. And through it all we see the author grappling with the biggest questions of love, duty, family, and survival.

Cornejo Villavicencio combines sensitive reporting and powerful personal narratives to bring to light remarkable stories of resilience, madness, and death. Through these stories we come to understand what it truly means to be a stray. An expendable. A hero. An American.

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  1. I read this one recently and thought it was super interesting. You can tell that she spent a lot of time with the people in her stories; she humanizes them for readers who may not have much interaction with undocumented Americans (I also like that phrase much better than using immigrant)

    1. I never encountered the term “undocumented” before I moved to California and I agree with you it sounds better than “illegal.” I’m glad you found it an affecting read too.