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The Undocumented Americans
Cover of The Undocumented Americans
The Undocumented Americans
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NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • One of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard reveals the hidden lives of her fellow undocumented Americans in this deeply personal and groundbreaking portrait of a nation.

“Karla’s book sheds light on people’s personal experiences and allows their stories to be told and their voices to be heard.”—Selena Gomez
 
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE FINALIST • LONGLISTED FOR THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY VULTURE AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Book Review • Time • NPR • The New York Public Library • Book Riot • Library Journal

Writer 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 singular, effervescent characters across the nation 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. 
 
In her incandescent, relentlessly probing voice, Karla 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.
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • One of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard reveals the hidden lives of her fellow undocumented Americans in this deeply personal and groundbreaking portrait of a nation.

“Karla’s book sheds light on people’s personal experiences and allows their stories to be told and their voices to be heard.”—Selena Gomez
 
LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE FINALIST • LONGLISTED FOR THE PORCHLIGHT BUSINESS BOOK AWARD • NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY VULTURE AND ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The New York Times Book Book Review • Time • NPR • The New York Public Library • Book Riot • Library Journal

Writer 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 singular, effervescent characters across the nation 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. 
 
In her incandescent, relentlessly probing voice, Karla 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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  • From the book Chapter 1

    Staten Island

    August 1, 2019

    If you ask my mother where she’s from, she’s 100 percent going to say she’s from the Kingdom of God, because she does not like to say that she’s from Ecuador, Ecuador being one of the few South American countries that has not especially outdone itself on the international stage—magical realism basically skipped over it, as did the military dictatorship craze of the 1970s and 1980s, plus there are no world-famous Ecuadorians to speak of other than the fool who housed Julian Assange at the embassy in London (the president) and Christina Aguilera’s father, who was a domestic abuser. If you ask my father where he is from, he will definitely say Ecuador because he is sentimental about the country for reasons he’s working out in therapy. But if you push them, I mean really push them, they’re both going to say they’re from New York. If you ask them if they feel American because you’re a little narc who wants to prove your blood runs red, white, and blue, they’re going to say No, we feel like New Yorkers. We really do, too. My family has lived in Brooklyn and Queens a combined ninety-seven years. My dad drove a cab back when East New York was still gang country, and he had to fold his body into a little origami swan and hide under his steering wheel during cross fires in the middle of the day while he ate a jumbo slice of pizza. Times have changed but my parents haven’t. My dad sees struggling bodegas and he says they’re fronts. For what? Money laundering. For whom? The mob. My mother wants my brother and me to wear pastels all year round to avoid being seen as taking sides in the little tiff between the Bloods and the Crips.

    My parents are New Yorkers to the core. Despite how close we are, we’ve talked very little about their first days in New York or about their decision to choose New York, or even the United States, as a destination. It’s not that I haven’t asked my parents why they came to the United States. It’s that the answer isn’t as morally satisfying as most people’s answers are—a decapitated family member, famine—and I never press them for more details because I don’t want to apply pressure on a bruise.

    The story as far as I know it goes something like this: My parents had just gotten married in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, and their small autobody business was not doing well. Then my dad got into a car crash where he broke his jaw, and they had to borrow money from my father’s family, who are bad, greedy people. The idea of coming to America to work for a year to make just enough money to pay off the debt came up and it seemed like a good idea. My father’s family asked to keep me, eighteen months old at the time, as collateral. And that’s what my parents did. That’s about as much as I know.

    You may be wondering why my parents agreed to leave me as an economic assurance, but the truth is I have not had this conversation with them. I’ve never thought about it enough to ask. The whole truth is that if I was a young mother—if I was me as a young mother, unparented, ambitious, at my sexual prime—I think I would be thrilled to leave my child for “exactly a year,” as they said it would be, which is what the plan was. I never had to forgive my mom.

    My dad? My dadmydadmydad was my earliest memory. He was dressed in a powder-blue sweater. He was walking into a big airplane. I looked out from a window and my dad was walking away and, in my hand, I carried a Ziploc bag full of coins. I don’t know. It’s been almost...
About the Author-
  • Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has written about immigration, music, beauty, and mental illness for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Elle, Vogue, n+1, and The New Inquiry, among others. She lives in New Haven with her partner and their dog.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    February 10, 2020
    Journalist Villavicencio draws on her background as an undocumented immigrant and Harvard University graduate to deliver a profoundly intimate portrayal of the undocumented immigrant experience in America. She speaks with Latin American workers who lack documentation to prove they helped to clean up Ground Zero, and therefore cannot get compensation for their health issues; women in Florida who share medications with each other and rely on clandestine pharmacies and botanicas for their health care; immigrants affected by the Flint, Mich., water crisis in “disturbingly specific” ways; families struggling in the aftermath of a parent’s deportation; and undocumented people living in a church sanctuary in New Haven, Conn. Villavicencio interweaves her own story with these accounts, reflecting on her relationship with her aging parents and their decision to leave her behind in Ecuador for several years as they worked to pay off debts and save enough money to bring her to the U.S. She portrays her subjects’ pain with messy familiarity rather than pathos, yielding profiles that are both exceptional and emblematic. Though she writes that she’d “honestly rather die than be expected to change the mind of a xenophobe,” Villavicencio’s highly personal and deeply empathetic perspective serves as a powerful rebuttal to characterizations of undocumented immigrants as criminals and welfare cheats. Readers will be deeply moved by this incandescent account. (May)Correction: The author's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this review.

  • Kirkus

    February 15, 2020
    The debut book from "one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard." In addition to delivering memorable portraits of undocumented immigrants residing precariously on Staten Island and in Miami, Cleveland, Flint, and New Haven, Cornejo Villavicencio, now enrolled in the American Studies doctorate program at Yale, shares her own Ecuadorian family story (she came to the U.S. at age 5) and her anger at the exploitation of hardworking immigrants in the U.S. Because the author fully comprehends the perils of undocumented immigrants speaking to journalist, she wisely built trust slowly with her subjects. Her own undocumented status helped the cause, as did her Spanish fluency. Still, she protects those who talked to her by changing their names and other personal information. Consequently, readers must trust implicitly that the author doesn't invent or embellish. But as she notes, "this book is not a traditional nonfiction book....I took notes by hand during interviews and after the book was finished, I destroyed those notes." Recounting her travels to the sites where undocumented women, men, and children struggle to live above the poverty line, she reports her findings in compelling, often heart-wrenching vignettes. Cornejo Villavicencio clearly shows how employers often cheat day laborers out of hard-earned wages, and policymakers and law enforcement agents exist primarily to harm rather than assist immigrants who look and speak differently. Often, cruelty arrives not only in economic terms, but also via verbal slurs and even violence. Throughout the narrative, the author explores her own psychological struggles, including her relationships with her parents, who are considered "illegal" in the nation where they have worked hard and tried to become model residents. In some of the most deeply revealing passages, Cornejo Villavicencio chronicles her struggles reconciling her desire to help undocumented children with the knowledge that she does not want "kids of my own." Ultimately, the author's candor about herself removes worries about the credibility of her stories. A welcome addition to the literature on immigration told by an author who understands the issue like few others.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    April 1, 2020

    In this debut, Cornejo Villavicencio writes of forgotten family traumas, through and around profiles of undocumented persons. She enters communities in Miami, Flint, Staten Island, and more, and examines structural challenges that people without papers experience, including access to health care. These well-rendered journalistic vignettes evoke her sources more like characters or friends. The account is straightforward about what it is like to exist as an immigrant in today's political climate. Cornejo Villavicencio does not mince words, repeatedly calling policies and actions racist, violent, and exploitative. She also touches on the subject of child separation at the Southern border and what such early crises do to human minds. For Cornejo Villavicencio and many in her community, traditional relationships and caretaking arrangements are altered by necessity. She writes, "At some point, your parents become your children, and your own personal American dream becomes making sure they age and die with dignity in a country that has never wanted them." VERDICT Readers come to see that there is no time for hedging: the personal traumas discussed in the book are compounded by their commonality. A must-read indictment on what it means to be undocumented and what it means to be American.--Sierra Dickey, Ctr. for New Americans, Northampton, MA

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from March 15, 2020
    Cornejo Villavicencio is an undocumented American, Harvard graduate, Yale doctoral candidate, and journalist who has written for the New York Times, the New Republic, and the Daily Beast. She is a DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient born in Ecuador whose book shines as true testimonio (a classic Latin American genre combining fiction and nonfiction). Based on fieldwork from Ground Zero to Miami, solidly researched and footnoted, this chronicle is framed by her own family's experience with immigration and the relationships that blossomed between her and her similarly undocumented subjects. This valuable and authentic inquiry is powerfully embellished with magical imaginings, as when she envisions a man drowning during Hurricane Sandy's last moments. Cornejo Villavicencio's unfiltered and vulnerable voice incorporates both explosive profanity and elegiac incantations of despair, as, for example, when she internalizes the hatred toward brown people manifest in the poisoning of Flint, MIchigan's water supply. She gives of herself unstintingly as she speaks with undocumented day laborers, older people working long past retirement age, and a housekeeper who relies on the botanica and voodoo for health care. Cornejo Villavicencio's challenging and moving testimonio belongs in all collections.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Roberto G. Gonzales, author of Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America "This is the book we've been waiting for. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio offers an unflinching indictment of our current immigration system, one that separates families, inflicts trauma, and every day eats away at people's dignity. At the same time, she writes about migrants in a way they've never been written about before--in all their complexity, messiness, humanity, and beauty. Cornejo Villavicencio understands in her bones that writers cannot give people voices or faces. The Undocumented Americans succeeds precisely because she sees their faces and hears their voices. Deeply personal and so superbly told, this is a work we will be talking about for a long time to come."
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