Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has written one of the country’s most important books this year about the difficult experience of migrants to the United States.
“I didn’t allow myself feel joy because I was scared to attach myself to anything I’d have to let go of,” writes Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, the 31-year-old author of “The Undocumented Americans,” who was born in Ecuador and has lived undocumented in New York since the age of five. This, her first book, was published by Random House in March, and Cornejo Villavicencio has become the first undocumented person to be a finalist in the prestigious National Book Award. In his yearly “best of” lists published on social media, former President Barack Obama recommended the book as one of his top picks for 2020.
“The Undocumented Americans” — a mix of biography, journalism and magical realism — is a photographic exhibition of the physical and mental cost of the American dream on the bodies of 12 million undocumented people in the United States. It is a journey into the life of the Latinos in New York, who became ill after cleaning New York’s streets in the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers; those in Miami who treat health problems with plants and rituals; and those around the country looking for refuge in churches, attempting to escape immigration authorities. It is about loneliness and depression more than dreams achieved. But it is also about the author, about her childhood: Her family was separated because her parents emigrated from Ecuador without her, and later, in New York, the emotional weight of watching her parents live in the Big Apple without medical insurance or workers’ rights. “My diagnoses are borderline personality disorder, major depression, anxiety and OCD,” Cornejo Villavicencio reveals in the book.
Her work is, in summary, an effort to destroy the myth of the American dream, even when she might be taken as a success story: a student at Harvard and Yale, with a successful book, who reaches enormous fame. “My mind is a real hell,” Cornejo Villavicencio tells El País.
Question: Obama recommended your book, which is paradoxical because, before Donald Trump, he was known to be the president that had deported the most undocumented people in history. Do you see this recommendation as a reflection of a cultural change in the United States regarding undocumented immigrants?
No, not really. The reception of my book shows that a lot of Latinx people, or people from immigrant families — whether from Asia or Africa — were waiting for a book like this one. But it is still early to know what the impact is going to be, whether in the world of publishing, film, or TV. My book wasn’t a bestseller. The readers liked it a lot, and the critics gave it a lot of praise, but it’s not like they made a ton of money from it.
The book begins by saying that you have read a lot of books about migrants and that you hate the majority of them.
I hated everything, not just sociology books that I read in grad school, but also the novels. I don’t like, for example, Gloria Anzaldúa. She is very important and I respect her, but young people cite her a lot even though she essentialized our identities as brown people of color that are connected to the earth. For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with me because I didn’t see representations of Latinx people, and they said that in order to reject colonialism and gringos, we have to be connected to the earth. But I’m from Brooklyn and I hate hiking.
Other books that I don’t like, represent us as undocumented immigrants that pay taxes and take the jobs that Americans don’t want to do. This, supposedly, makes us worthy of being legalized, because we’re very good and humble people. But I don’t consider it a virtue not to take Americans’ jobs. That was the rhetoric that inspired activists, supported by politicians, to make us seem like sheep and get legal projects passed. And that later filtered into literature, movies and TV, without any type of criticism.
What influenced you while you wrote this book?
I listened to Kendrick Lamar a lot. His song “Element” was important because I felt like I was at a point where, if the project failed, my family was going to return to extreme poverty and there wouldn’t be any way out. Also, a lot of rock music because I felt like a girl who couldn’t find a place and I had to teach myself to play the guitar. I became a writer because I couldn’t play in a rock band. That’s why the book should sound like it was produced by a garage band.
The book talks a lot about the psychological cost of being undocumented — the toll on both your mental health and on that of immigrants you interviewed. Was it difficult to talk about this topic?
It’s a responsibility that I have as a person who has dealt with mental illness, and in particular, because the public perception of me is as someone that everything goes well for, and as a very successful person. My eccentricities are justifiable to the world because I’m an artist. I know, thanks to my readers, that there is a lot of fear of coming out of the closet with a life like mine — both queer and undocumented — there is a lot of stigma. Something I discovered when I was researching for this book is that lots of us have scars from having been separated from our parents, or from having lived a migration in fear and in precarious situations. So, whether we have a mental illness or not, we all live with some level of depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress.
There is also a lot about motherhood in the book: you say that you don’t want to have children, you talk with women who have had to abandon their children or who never wanted to be mothers, and with others who didn’t want to take care of girls whose parents were undocumented.
The best thing about books is that readers see things there that the authors didn’t have an explicit intention of addressing. I have a complicated relationship with my caretakers: with my mother, my father, with authority figures and in terms of abandonment. I didn’t want to write something obvious about it, but I have been affected — it’s inside of me. So this is an exploration of the feeling of emptiness that I haven’t been able to fill, that happened in the first five years of my life when I was without my parents.
The book was published in March, just when the pandemic was being recognized around the world. What new stories about undocumented immigrants have been seen in these months?
In the first chapters, I talk about how undocumented people were the second to respond to the events of 9/11, and about how my father had worked as a deliveryman for 15 years. So, for me, it was traumatic to suddenly see how migrants and people of color, and delivery people, were considered to be essential workers. Deaths in New York among Latinx migrants were the highest in my dad’s neighborhood. The day that Obama recommended my book was the same day that I found out that my uncle, who is undocumented and a doorman, had COVID-19.
Are you surprised by the positive reception that the book has enjoyed?
I would say that the world has been surprised, but not me.
And what do the people who you wrote about say?
I’ve sent the book to a few of them who speak English. If they were the protagonists of a section, in general, they felt shy about it. Others were very happy that I wrote about them. We are a people who are used to being used just for our bodies or our stories, and then set aside, forgotten. I was told that when Univisión broadcast a story about me, they were very proud. One person told me that this book felt like reparations. Right now, I’m negotiating for a Spanish translation, and I hope they feel like I did them justice with this book.
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