Language can often fail us and be manipulated to present a one-dimensional view of my life and to those in the Latinx community, especially of the immigrant narrative. It then becomes jarring to see certain depictions and realize that they don’t match the world you’ve seen, lived, and loved. In this way, The Undocumented Americans comes into our purview to highlight the nuances that we know exist contradicting the headlines that constantly bombard us. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio takes her empathy, her desire to help, her experience as a child of immigrants, and as a human being to allow us to come along with her and share in people and their stories.
We all remember where we were on Election Night 2016. That night took something from so many of us. For Villavicencio, this night meant that she had to write this book. This book collects stories and attempts “to write from a place of shared trauma, shared memories, shared pain.” Villavicencio travels across the United States, to lend her ear to undocumented immigrants who are entrenched in our current history that makes them undocumented Americans.
This is an oral history weaved with the memoir of a Dreamer, a former undocumented immigrant, an Ecuadorian girl that was left behind while her parents came to the United States, the same girl who came to the United States at five years old, one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard, a PhD candidate at Yale, and any other adjective you want to add in there that makes you feel better about a woman who wants to use her platform to share the stories from those that don’t have the power to be visible. To me, Villavicencio is the most compassionate person that could have undertaken the task of journeying across the United States and showing us how much this country continues to fail us.
Villavicencio looks back at events like 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Sandy, and the Flint Water Crisis, demonstrating how these events further damage people without documents. We witness the trauma of family separation through Villavicencio’s own life and through the lives of families that are currently experiencing it. We are reminded of what makes the Latinx community so amazing, how we keep our humor, empathy, and hope. There were so many things that resonated with me—a born and raised Chicagoan and daughter of Mexican immigrants—but there is one that stuck out. Villavicencio writes:
“I’m looking to interview children of immigrants partly to get a blueprint for myself because I’m lost and I am scared, so I set off to find somebody a little older, someone who has been doing this for a while.”
Holy shit did this craft the language of my soul! I didn’t realize how much being the child of immigrants has made an imprint on my way of thinking. I am constantly seeking blueprints where there aren’t any and trying to figure out what the future will look like for my parents and how I can help to mitigate some of their fears despite feeling I have no control. Villavicencio leaves space in her book for the people she interviewed, and for her own history. These go hand in hand, in interviewing people she’s also introspecting her life, trying to unlock what the future might hold, and how the past has shaped her.
“I am not a journalist. Journalists are not allowed to get involved the way I have gotten involved. Journalists, to the best of my knowledge, do not try to change the outcome of their stories are crudely as I do…I try to solve shit the way an immigrant’s kids try to solve shit for their parents, I am their child, if I was their child—and I was their child—I should be patented and massproduced and distributed to undocumented immigrants at Walmarts. I am a professional immigrant’s daughter. My job was simple: to tell this story.”
Villavicencio is hilarious; humor weaves through much of her writing because she understands that we can either cry or laugh about it, so we choose to laugh. At one point when she’s in a voodoo ceremony in Florida she writes, “I overhear two people saying they don’t trust me because I’m showing them too many pictures of my dog.” Honestly, who wouldn’t do this? I laughed a lot in this story, I cried, and I was enraged by the many injustices that we are currently living in. I felt an impotence that I wasn’t comfortable with, but I also felt proud of the resilience and hope shown by the people that Villavicencio connected with.
The tapestry weaved into this story contains threads to show the many dimensions of The Undocumented Americans. These stories show us the people that came into this country with a dream, and how that dream juxtaposes to the reality of a country that uses their bodies in the cleanup of 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and Hurricane Katrina. A country that poisons its own people, as we have seen in Flint, and yet they are unable to receive aid because they don’t have a state ID. This is a compassionate look at the trauma that accompanies immigrant narratives, narratives of children of immigrants, without exploitation, and with a guide that brings into focus the humanity of each story we get to witness.
So, here’s the question, why should you read this book? Well, given the popularity of a certain book it seems that there is a desire for readers to seek out a narrative regarding immigration in this country. This book welcomes you to look at different people’s lives, their desires, their strengths, and witness how they live in a country that constantly shows them that it doesn’t want them. But you know what—screw that, they’re here, they have made a life, they have survived, and they will continue being here because,
”As an undocumented immigrant, everything we do is technically against the law. We’re illegal.”
I read this book to unlock my own past and future. I am the daughter of immigrants. I don’t know what the future will hold but I know that the present has made my parents afraid of a country they have called home for over thirty years. I am enraged by the present but this book made me feel less alone in my fears and doubts. It made me proud of my people and reminded me that as much as the expectations placed on children of immigrants can feel limiting, they can also be a gift. This book is a gift, and it gives me strength to share these words, to urge you to read this book, and to continue fighting for those that are currently silenced.
The Undocumented Americans
By Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
208 pages. 24 Mar 2020.
Pre-order from Bookstore here. And support local Indie Booksellers