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 determination and seriousness on her face. And then, she was murdered for having this dream. I felt like I had blood on my hands, somehow. Migrants who are in America tell migrants who are back home, “There are opportunities here.” I think that I am such a good poster child for those kinds of opportunities. I wish I could have protected her, and I didn’t.
People would say you’re a “Dreamer” because you came to the U.S. from Ecuador as a young child, without documentation. In fact, you were a DACA recipient until you got married. In the book, you excluded this type of story. Can you tell me why?
It was a political decision. In mainstream politics — in the theater of minivan, white America, where moms go to their children’s soccer games and read Oprah’s Book Club — there is a lot of sympathy for the Dreamers, as there should be. I just feel like there’s been a lot of attention on them already. I wanted to shift the attention to people who haven’t been written about with as much care. Part of it was also, as a writer, I wouldn’t have found it as challenging to write about Dreamers, because it would have been kind of boring to write. It would have been very easy to write a sympathetic portrait of an innocent, and there’s no fun in that.
You avoided detailing why your subjects migrated to America, or describing their journey. Why?
I know the reader is curious — especially if the reader is an outsider, a citizen, or white. They’ve been trained by the media to be given a really meaty explanation, a groveling explanation, whereby the reader will be allowed to judge whether or not that is a sufficient enough reason to have migrated to this country.
I wanted to not indulge that. I wanted to train [readers] out of it. I know that it’s a little uncomfortable to have to read the story of person after person, and then have no backstory why they came here. You feel like you’re missing something, but what it actually forces you to do is care about this person who’s here, who is already your neighbor, who already is struggling to make a life here, and already has laid down roots. You have no say in whether or not they deserve to be here.
Though some of the stories are heartbreaking, it never feels like trauma porn. It felt like such a sharp contrast from a lot of immigration stories, including most recently American Dirt. Do you have any thoughts on that controversy?
I have no thoughts on American Dirt. I think the publishing industry has to do a lot of reckoning with itself. I had to fight very hard to write this book. At nearly every stage, I received pushback, because this book was not American Dirt. That’s all I’ll say.
You exclusively told stories of the Latinx experience, though there are undocumented folks from many other communities. Why?
When I first set out to write the book, I wanted to interview Asian immigrants. In the book, I explore mental health issues. I had read that elderly Asians have extraordinarily high suicide rates in New York. I wanted to explore that.
I realized the language barriers would be an issue for me. I really became very close to the subjects that I wrote about. Part of it was that we were able to speak in Spanish. The Spanish I was able to use when I spoke with them was the Spanish that I know from church and that I use with my parents. It’s a very intimate, very childish Spanish. It created an intimacy. If I had used a translator to speak to other groups, it would not have been the same.
A thing that came through in the book was the ways in which being undocumented prevents you from having access to adequate medical care. Now, we have the coronavirus going on. Do you have any thoughts on how undocumented people are at risk or some solutions that should be in place?
I’m worried. Pre-Covid-19, my mom would try to go to the local, free community clinic for a cold and they would turn her away. “Come back next week.” They’re already understaffed and under-resourced. Our people have no insurance and they’re being turned away from their own sources of health care.
People are like, “This isn’t deadly for people who are basically healthy.” Our people are not basically healthy. Their immune systems are weak, because they probably aren’t eating the best foods. They’re extremely overworked. They’re under-slept. I know my mom is. I know her immune system is very weak.
None of these immigrants have the luxury of staying home when they feel kind of sick. My mom gets a cold, she has to be at work, or she loses her job. I’m extremely worried about how this will affect our community. It goes beyond spreading information about hand-washing. It’s about putting resources into community health clinics, and, well, it would be about starting funding those clinics, more doctors into those clinics, and about making labor conditions fair, but that’s not happening. I’m just praying for the best.
Why was it important for you to explore your own mental health difficulties and that of your subjects?
I was always curious about aging immigrants because I had this morbid curiosity, based in fear of what would happen to my parents when they get older. I started speaking to immigrants like them and I realized this country eviscerates their mental health. Nobody is talking about it. Then, I was like, Well, of course nobody’s talking about it, because we’re already painted as vermin who carry disease, and are contagious, and are criminals. If we were to talk about the fact that the longer we stay in this country, the more likely we are to get sick in the head… It’s not an easy conversation.
I felt like I had this secret. I felt like I was going crazy, having this secret. I saw it happen to my family, to my parents. I saw it happen to lots of people that I know and love.
My parents, whatever reasons that they’re going to die from are going to be connected to their migration — because they’re toiling in this country, for their lack of health care, for their manual labor, for their nutrition. My mental health issues, my physical health issues, all of that is connected to my traumas from my migration, and from taking care of them, and from dealing with their traumas from their migration. They’re going to die from having given me the American dream. I’m going to die from having taken care of them as they die from having given me the American dream.
I wondered, “How many families is this happening to?” Ultimately, this book is a lot of things: an homage to my family, an homage to the 11 million. It’s also a little bit like a canary in a coal mine.
How did your parents and brother feel about you writing about some of their most intimate experiences?
My parents don’t know what’s in the book. They will because it is coming out in Spanish early next year. I think my dad is going to be hurt by how much I’ve been hurt. I think my mom is going to be angry by how much I’ve forgiven my father. Those [reactions] are perfectly in character with how I describe them in the book.
The person that I did run scenes by is my brother, because the story of my family falling apart was also my brother’s story. He writes very different things than I do: spoken word and fan fiction. I shared all of these scenes with him. These are also his traumas, right? He was like, “This is painful, but it’s honest and it’s beautiful.” He gave me his blessing to share that. It was ultimately our story.
In the first chapter, you reclaim the narrative around an immigrant you name Ubaldo, who died during Hurricane Sandy. It’s fictionalized with a dash of magical realism that felt very Latinx to me. Can you walk me through that decision to fictionalize parts of the book?
The decision to change names was obviously for the safety of my subjects. That was journalistic. That is what ethnographers do. They not only change names, but they change the gender, the job — just any identifying characteristics.
I’ve always felt, ever since I was a little girl, that magical realism is our people’s response to impunity. In Latin America, there was no justice from politicians, from the police, from jueces [judges]. And the land, the flowers, the nature, somehow would respond with some measure of witnessing your pain. Something would happen in your life, and the police would not respond, but a tree would grow from a place where blood had been spilled. I think that’s why a lot of people like my parents, a lot of Latinos, are drawn to religion. They believe in a higher justice, because they don’t see justice in their lifetime.
I was also inspired by the Latin American genre of the testimonio. I was just like, “How do I keep this based on reporting, but include certain sections where I’m making an intervention, as the author, to show that the universe witnesses this?” In Ubaldo’s case, it just didn’t seem right that that [drowning while drunk] is how he would have died. I didn’t want to let this country get away with this undignified death.
It feels like when undocumented folks write about their experience and their community, there’s often an element of activism. You don’t really do that. You don’t offer policy solutions — a citizenship path, making the case for DACA. Why?
I don’t feel that that’s my job. I’m an essayist, and I think there are lots of people who are smarter than I am who have smarter things to say. I support all of the obvious things, like DACA. We’re like ants in a colony, and we all have little jobs. My job in the colony is to write portraits of people.
I’ve written these portraits which I hope cause people to look at our stories and… Well, I imagine two different audiences. One, for outsiders to look at us and not feel just pity, inspiration, or guilt — just to feel love for us, to see us as fully human, to laugh, to see that we’re weird, and just to see us as fucking people. Two, for people who are children of immigrants, or grandchildren of immigrants, or young immigrants themselves, to see themselves in these pages. To feel a sigh of relief knowing that there are lots of us out there.
You admit you could not help but get deeply involved in the lives of a lot of your subjects. Can you talk to me about that instinct?
My subjects, almost without exception, remind me of my parents. They’re undocumented. They’re all nice to me. It’s probably an effect of trauma that I can’t help but just be absolutely reminded of my parents. I am completely debilitated by small things like: If my dad leaves work, and he doesn’t respond to a text message, I think he has been pushed into the train tracks and has been hate-crimed. Then, I have a full panic attack. I need to have a shot of whiskey, calm myself down, and do CBT charts until he responds. But when there is a full-blown crisis, I am an absolute soldier.
When the subjects have crises in their lives, I know how to help. I sit down at my computer, make myself a coffee, start sending emails. I start making calls. I contact immigration lawyers. I send DMs. I tried to reach the pope to help some subjects. In another case, I emailed Mark Wahlberg. I do not care. I do everything. I am just a machine.
I think a lot of immigrant kids are like that. They’ll do anything and everything for their parents. I think that’s why a lot of immigrant kids go into nonprofits, community activism, and into work that’s meaningful — not only because that’s where their hearts are, because that’s where their skills are. They know how to do this shit with their eyes closed.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.