The morning after Donald Trump was elected, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio decided it was finally time to write the book. Back in 2010, when she published an anonymous essay about her life as a young undocumented immigrant at 21, agents threw themselves at her, imploring her to write a memoir. But Cornejo Villavicencio, now a 30-year-old PhD student at Yale University, didn’t want her first book “to be a rueful tale about being a sickly Victorian orphan with tuberculosis who didn’t have a Social Security number.” In other words, she didn’t want to write for the white gaze.
With Trump’s America in full force, Cornejo Villavicencio could have written a palatable portrait of her life as an undocumented kid for that same audience. Instead, she wrote a punk manifesto for other young immigrants and immigrants’ kids. She tells me that she wants them “to feel a sigh of relief knowing that there are lots of us out there.” The Undocumented Americans, out March 24, is the mirror she wishes she had in her youth. Changing the hearts and minds of those who are not immigrants would be a welcome by-product, but it’s not her goal.
In her provocative and probing voice, Cornejo Villavicencio weaves her story and her family’s with that of regular undocumented people in cities across America — from New York to Miami to Flint — who just want to live a dignified life. We talked about her decision to explore what she calls a mental health crisis in the undocumented community, her combined use of ethnography and magical realism, and how her family felt about knowing their most intimate experiences are out there.
GEN: You set the tone of who this book is truly for by dedicating it to Claudia Gómez González, a 20-year-old Indigenous migrant from Guatemala who was killed by Border Patrol just minutes after she crossed the U.S.-Mexico border back in 2018. Why her?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I remember feeling so heartbroken by her death, as if I had betrayed her. She was this very young woman, had these very big dreams. In these pictures you see of her, she had such a look of…