In Conversation with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio


Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is gifting the world her book, The Undocumented Americans, on March 24, 2020. I had a chance to ask her questions that she turned into poetry in the answers below. These answers provide a glimpse into what you can expect from this book.


I want to preface this by saying that this is the book for the Latinx community, especially the immigrant community.


This is the book for the undocumented Americans, for those that are part of our contemporary history, for those that are afraid to speak up.


Villavicencio recently shared that there’s a reason she waited until she received DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) to begin writing this book, because of amplified persecution against undocumented Americans since the election of Trump. Make sure to pre-order this book to walk alongside people that have lived here their whole lives, that have made a difference, and have also been affected by the course of our shared United States history.


Photo by Jessica Maria Johnson

Karen Salgado: In your book you talk about how on the night of Election 2016 you decided to write the book, referring to the book that became the Undocumented Americans. What exactly about that night (other than the election of Trump) prompted you to write this book and “fuck shit up”?


Karla Cornejo Villavicencio: I was able to witness my spirit that night. I didn’t cry. I comforted my partner and my parents. I was in a fucking fur coat, velvet, and red lipstick because I knew Trump would win and I wanted to be a guest at my own funeral, but not as a witness, I wanted to write my own obituary with a surprise at the end—she’s alive, bitch! I woke up the following morning at dawn to report on a story by the feet of the Statue of Liberty, and I just knew that I was the person I had been waiting for. I needed to read the book I was capable of writing.


KS: Can you speak a bit more about the reasons why you chose the people you interviewed?


KCV: Once I met with community leaders, the subjects and I fell into each other. The people I ended up writing about were the people who felt most comfortable opening up to me. There were stories I started that didn’t go anywhere and subjects I ended up cutting because our conversations didn’t flow naturally, but the ones in the book are the ones where we were able to form some kind of intimacy.


KS: How did you build your connection with them? What did that entail? What was the hardest part about getting people to open up about their experience?


KCV: I think the hardest part is just coming in as an outsider, and trying to build trust. One thing I did, was I gave people my elevator pitch about the book. I told them what I wanted to do through my book, so they knew, representationally, what my goal was. I felt like, well, my editor knows what I want to accomplish with this book, why shouldn’t my subjects? I was able to build trust by opening up about my own undocumented status and that of my parents, but also by telling them about my fears and my dreams, connecting with them wherever possible, giving them of myself too. I made myself vulnerable to them, and I think they appreciated that, and trusted me. I was also honest with them about money. I told them how I was using my book advance—to pay for my family’s therapy, to pay for their debts, to get my mom glasses, to send my dad to the dentist. I showed up in a Forever 21 blazer and jeans from Target. Sure, I was lucky, and different, but I was also one of them.


Photo provided by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

KS: You speak about children of immigrants and the blueprints we seek for our parent’s future. This truly resonated with me since these are questions I’ve had percolating in my mind and I never knew they lived there until your book gave them language. I’ve constantly wondered about where they’ll retire, what that will look like, how I can support them financially, how will I be able to drop everything once they need me, and now how do I protect them against an overtly racist United States? Are there any tips for that future that you have gathered throughout your research?


KCV: I think the #1 thing I’ve learned is that mental health for women, queer people, people of color, migrants, is an investment with infinite returns. And for those of us who take care of our elders, in order to be able to do that, you need to address the intergenerational trauma you carry in your heart, the anxiety, stress, and depression you carry in your body. I cannot take care of my family or deal with crises if I am sick or depressed, and when I’ve been going at it, taking care of other people for too long, my body and mind break down. Invest in your own mental health. And invest in theirs if you can. Seek low-cost or sliding scale therapy for your family in their language if it is available in your area. I’ve found people who do it, and it’s taken dozens upon dozens of pleading e-mails and phone calls, but I’ve found it, and it’s been an investment in my own health.


KS: What do you want people to get out of your book?


KCV: For young immigrants, and the children and grandchildren of migrants—for whom I wrote this book—I hope the book makes them feel less crazy, makes them feel witnessed, makes them feel less alone, and makes them feel like they have the license to fuck shit up. For readers who are not a part of the immigrant community, I hope it allows them to view us as people. Just that—people. I hope you don’t feel pity for us. I hope you don’t feel guilty when you look at us. I hope you don’t see us as inspirational. I hope you look at the guy making your salads at the deli next time you go on your lunch break and think to yourself, I wonder if he crossed the desert four times to see his young children. I wonder if he loves pitbulls. I wonder if he lectures his kids with the longwindedness of Fidel. And I will honor his humanity with how I vote in every election.


KS: I have never read anything like your book but are there any books that you felt helped you in your journey?


KCV: James Baldwin guided me during the first couple of years of the Trump presidency in a spiritual way. He made me feel braver. Eileen Myles helped me write braver. Meg White’s drumming and Dave Grohl’s drumming helped me with the cadence of my sentences.


Kendrick Lamar helped me keep my conscience where it needed to be.


Photo provided by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio


KS: I think it was important for own-voices to have written this book because so much is said about the immigrant narrative nowadays that I feel that the voices that are supposed to be elevated are instead further silenced. Was it important to you that an own-voices writer wrote this book?



KCV: Nobody else but a mentally-ill undocumented writer could have written this book.






KS: You traveled the United States for months, with your information written on your arm, went to Staten Island to visit day laborers that were affected as second-responders after 9/11, migrant communities in Florida where you met amazing women that had to resort to getting medicine in whatever capacity they could get, Flint, Michigan where you met families affected by the water crisis still occurring but unable to seek the minimal help the government is offering because they lack a state ID, and Cleveland, Ohio where you spent time with two fathers and their families that were seeking asylum in a church to prevent their deportation and forced separation from their families and their lives, all to write this story. How did you keep your head above water here? (Apart from the adorable pictures of your dog?)


KCV: My partner is the most calming force in my life. We talk a lot. I tell her all my worries, real or imagined, and she addresses all of them, every morning before we sit down at my desk to work. I have to do this while lying on top of her, and hiding my face in her sweater, in list form. And we address them one by one. I take my medications religiously, I undergo ketamine therapy. I don’t go on Twitter, I only follow accounts that make me happy on social media. I don’t read comments on my writing. I do unhealthy things to cope too, but am trying to stop doing those. And animals are very important to me. After my ketamine therapy, when I stopped being severely suicidal, I also began noticing birds, and crows began to follow me. I began feeding them and they began leaving me gifts. I love my birds—but I like feeding birds some people would consider pests: crows, ravens, blackbirds, bluejays. I feed songbirds too, but I don’t seek them out. I’m a pest too. And I try to see as many of my dog friends as possible. They really do keep me sane and happy. I thank all of them, by name, in my book.


KS: You shared a throwback song of RBD (a Mexican band that was popular from 2004-2007) on your Instagram a few weeks back and then we proceeded to geek out about their mini reunion so I’ve been deeply curious, what is your favorite song from them?


KCV: My favorite RBD song to listen to is “Sólo Quédate en Silencio” but my favorite one to rock out to is “Rebelde” because I love the camp of being so stylized and produced and declaring yourself to be punk. But that was me, in high school, a Jehovah’s Witness, with my dad painting rainbows on my face before going to some warehouse party that he would pick me up from.





The Undocumented Americans

By Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

March 24, 2020, One World.


Pre-order your copy from our Bookshop here. And at the same time help support local indie Bookstores.


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Read Karen's review of The Undocumented Americans here.