Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is not enjoying the new social norms imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but she doesn’t hate them, either. Wearing masks, she says, reminds her of all the years she spent growing out her bangs, wearing thick scarves, trying to hide her face. She’s used to working from home, and she likes seeing people cross the street when she’s out walking her dog, Frankie. “I’m probably the introvert from which all introverts were created,” she said on a recent Zoom call, as Frankie ran in and out of the frame. Then, as she so often does in her work and in conversation, she worked her way to a considerably sharper note: “But obviously I’m going through a lot of survivor’s guilt, because my family is from Queens and our hospital was Elmhurst Hospital and I’m not dead.”
Cornejo Villavicencio has been writing professionally since she was a teenager, reviewing jazz albums for a monthly magazine in New York City. Then, during her senior year at Harvard, she wrote an essay for The Daily Beast on what the site wanted to call her “dirty little secret”: Cornejo Villavicencio, who was born in Ecuador, was undocumented, and she had no idea what she was going to do after her graduation in May 2011.
The essay put her in the spotlight at a time when there was an increasing awareness around the plight of undocumented youth; DACA, which shielded some undocumented kids from deportation and allowed them to secure work permits, wasn’t ordered by Obama until later that year. As she writes in the book—and as she reiterated in our conversation—Cornejo Villavicencio felt profoundly ambivalent about the sympathy being generated for hardworking kids who “hadn’t done anything wrong” while their parents and grandparents were being deported in record numbers.
Now, Cornejo has written The Undocumented Americans, a book channeling that ambivalence into a series of dispatches from what we might call undocumented America: a country within a country, one that overlaps and undergirds the other. In six tight chapters, Cornejo profiles Staten Island day laborers who cleaned up New York City after Hurricane Sandy; “second responders” and delivery workers who cleared the rubble at Ground Zero; healers and pharmacists offering black-market cures in Miami; families poisoned by lead pipes and negligent politicians in Flint, Michigan; and the intimate fallout of the deportation machine. Throughout, Cornejo Villavicencio weaves in her own story, reflecting on her parents’ sacrifices and her daily battles with trauma and mental illness. As she’s quick to point out, however, this is no “DREAMer memoir,” but rather the “punk” story of “people who don’t inspire hashtags or t-shirts,” told by a person willing to stick a thumb in the eye of liberal politicians and prominent Latinx thinkers. Her prose—caustic, quick, and simmering with righteous anger—leads seamlessly from heartbreak to gut-splitting laughter; I was happy to discover much the same quality in her speech.
—Lucas Iberico Lozada for Guernica
Guernica: In the book’s introduction, you write that you have to be “a little crazy” to write about undocumented immigrants. Why?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio: When I wrote those words I felt like, based on the research I had done and based on all of the undiagnosed PTSD and depression and anxiety out there, a crazy person who was able to articulate what her experiences had been would be a pretty good canary in the coal mine to talk about the American Dream. The way I define crazy is not just “mentally ill.” It’s a radical term, the way that people with disabilities have used the word “crip.” When this Administration started comparing us to animals, it coincided with a moment when I started undergoing intravenous ketamine treatment for depression. For the first time in my life, I started noticing my surroundings. I noticed—in a purely unsentimental way—certain plants around me. I developed a relationship with this group of crows that lived in my neighborhood, and I began feeding them. I learned that my brain had had a lot of damage because of the traumas related to migration.
In my interviews and research, I realized that the stories that came out and had become sort of popular about immigrants, undocumented or not, were stories from people who were pretty grateful to America. It seemed like the point in a lot of these narratives was to change racist white people’s minds about us. And that didn’t feel right with me, so I thought, what would it look like if a crazy person wrote this? And I’m a very high-functioning crazy person. Even when I haven’t been doing well, I’ve been writing. That part of my brain has never stopped working.
Guernica: What is it about that traditional liberal immigrant narrative—that narrative about resilience, hope, hard work—that you find troubling? What does that narrative leave out?
Cornejo Villavicencio: Well, there are material consequences, artistic consequences when Latinx artists write in a messy way. I experienced a lot of pushback in writing this book, at every step. Originally, this was supposed to be a dissertation at Yale. When I presented it to my dissertation committee, it was failed. And that is because I criticized the legacy of migration studies, where I found a fixation on brown skin, on calloused hands. There was this bizarre belief that Latinx people have an implicit spiritual connection to the land. That isn’t true. It may be true for people who work with the land, and are spiritual in that particular kind of animistic way, but isn’t true for an entire race of people who aren’t a race. It’s sort of colonial. When I taught a Latinx literature class as a TA, I saw that all my students were quoting Anzaldúa ad nauseum. A kid from Newark, who had never really been in nature, writing, “I’m tied to the land and I am made from soil.” And I was like, do you really believe that?
My imprint treated me very respectfully, but they knew people would want to read the book by one of the first undocumented students to have graduated from Harvard. And I think that condemned my book to not be seen as a work of capital L literature, but instead as a DREAMer memoir. DREAMer memoirs have their purpose. But that’s not what I set out to write. My book is a serious work of literature. When I’ve done interviews, people don’t ask me about literary things, people don’t ask me about formal things, people don’t often ask me about my influences or whether I have any training in writing or who I studied under or things like that. People just ask me about my parents leaving me in Ecuador, or what I do for self-care, things like that. It’s very clear that I’m being seen through a sociological lens.
Guernica: This book isn’t a memoir, or isn’t only a memoir: you fold in other people’s stories along with your own. How did you settle on that form for the book, and what was the guiding impulse behind the people and places you decided to write about?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I never wanted to write a straightforward memoir, because I’m very young and I’ve never done anything really impressive. I started writing the book right after Trump won, and I just thought the moment called for a radical experiment in genre. I knew I could use reporting as a technique, some magical realism, some stream-of-consciousness, the Latin American genre of testimonio. I’d been influenced by García Márquez’s News of a Kidnapping for a long time. In Charles Bowden’s El Sicario, amid horrific narco-violence, there is a scene where this cartel hit man, who grew up really poor, remembers going to the circus with his mostly-absent dad, his dad wrapping up some cheap cookies because they couldn’t afford the popcorn or the cotton candy. It’s a tender memory from his childhood, but it also severely depressed him, and was one of the things that led him to spiral out.
I related to that—I have memories that make me feel tender but that also make me want to kill myself. I have a psychiatrist who told me that my anxiety and my adrenaline run on the same train tracks, and that sometimes I can’t differentiate between them. And then I wonder, what if I was really poor and put on a lot of drugs and exploited? I felt empathy for this hit man who had horrifically killed and mutilated people, because I’ve felt that feeling. And I said, I want to do that. Charles Bowden was a journalist and Harper’s let him do it, and he was notoriously difficult to edit because he was like, “Well, this is how I want to tell the story.” And this is how I wanted to tell my story. I wanted the reporting to be fact-checked. But I wanted the dialogue to be translated from the Spanish the way that Edith Grossman would translate García Márquez from the Spanish. Which is not really what’s done in journalism.
Guernica: If you knew you didn’t want this to be a memoir, and if you didn’t have an overarching theory of how these stories fit together with your own, how did you come to decide to write about your family?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I needed to take control of my narrative. I knew that on paper I looked like a poster child for the American Dream. That’s how my last imprint tried to market me. It’s how, even despite my reluctance, this imprint had to market me, because we needed to sell books. I am an accomplished person. I made it out of the ghetto. But I have this memory of graduating from Harvard and my dad getting my diploma and just sobbing. And then feeling like, okay, I’ve worked my entire life for this. People talk about how you are doing this for your parents, and you’re paying them back. But they don’t really tell you what happens after graduation. And what happened for me was a full-on mental breakdown. I was on like 20 different psychiatric medications, and inpatient, for the next decade. I don’t remember much of my twenties. For a while I was on so many antipsychotics that I forgot how to go down stairs.
I’m just now thinking, at age 30, after having been published in pretty much every major publication of the United States, working on my second book and with my third lined up: Do I like myself? Do I know who I am outside of my accomplishments? Do my accomplishments mean anything to me? Because I really don’t know. And I’m sure this question is asked of white kids who have been “gifted” all their lives, but the thing is, that question to them is not tied to whether they can save their parents. And that is something that we children of immigrants have to grapple with. When the messaging is: kid, you graduated, now you can pay your parents back—actually, you’re 21, and your parents are going to keep aging out of manual labor, and you might lose DACA, and you might not be able to pay them back.
That’s why I wrote about my story. Because I love my parents, so much. Too much. And I want to be free. I want to emancipate myself from the burden of their love. I know a lot of kids can relate, because I’ve had my DMs flooded with children of immigrants, DACA kids, kids who are not on DACA, older immigrants whose parents came here as adults, all these people saying, “I didn’t know I was allowed to feel this way.”
Guernica: There’s a moment at the end of the chapter on Staten Island, when you “reclaim” the death of Ubaldo Cruz Martinez, an undocumented day laborer who drowned during Hurricane Sandy. His friends are all a little embarrassed by his death—there’s a rumor he had been drinking—but when you describe his final moments, you imagine him doing everything he can to save an injured squirrel, sacrificing his life to save a hurt animal. What effect do you hope this book will have on the kinds of stories that get told about immigrant lives?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I have a witchy response to this question. I feel that it empowers my Latinx readers, gives them powers that they didn’t feel like they had before. I feel like my parents paid for my life in blood, and I don’t necessarily feel like the answer to that is getting a diploma. I feel like the answer to that for me, as an artist, is that I can resurrect who the fuck I want and kill who the fuck I want in my writing. And I do. When people talk about their ancestors, and how they’re doing shit for their ancestors—my family in Ecuador is fucking evil. I don’t think that my ancestors were probably any better or any worse than the family I already have. The men were probably just as misogynist, and the women were probably just as evil as my aunts and my grandmother have been. I don’t romanticize human beings.
I want kids to know that they can just take from history and they can just take from our traditions and just fuck shit up. I want them to stay in school, I want them to be creative, I want them to think of ways to express themselves and expel their demons in ways that do not perpetuate intergenerational trauma. I want them to say, “This ends with me.” I want them to not romanticize their parents, please.
I’m not fucking around when I say I want you to think of this book as permission to be punk. I was listening to earlier Ramones recordings and they sound like such babies. They’re so soft. Just give yourself the permission to be badass. Just gather the rawest supplies you have—your memories, your feelings, your traumas, everything—and make something out of it that’s just truly your own and that’s going to cause some people in suits to look at you twice. Put some bobby pins in it.
Guernica: There’s a passage in the chapter set in Flint, in the aftermath of the lead-poisoning scandal there, where you reflect on the fact that being separated from your parents as a child can have damaging long-term effects to your brain chemistry, just like lead poisoning. Then you start to think about all the migrant children who have been separated from their parents at the border in the past few years. You describe this collection of people as an “army of mutants.” Can you walk us through that idea?
Cornejo Villavicencio: I was really hoping that nobody would ever ask me that question. I don’t like the bad X-Men movies, but I really liked Logan. I really like that little girl, Laura. I have a tattoo of her and I also have a tattoo that says “mutant” on my arm. One of my most beloved essays is about animals that survive in inhospitable climates. And they are really ugly, just grotesque. That’s us, man. And this is when a lot of people were writing think pieces about how dangerous it was to compare undocumented immigrants to animals, and I understand the reasoning behind that. The Holocaust, the Rwandan Genocide, many genocides began by comparing people to rats, to vermin, to cockroaches.
But I found something so freeing about relating to these grotesque animals who can survive anything. Not because we’re so strong and we don’t feel pain, but because as a community we survived so much for so long. We’ve adapted. And I thought that was a beautiful rebuttal to the people who still say we live in the shadows, and still say that we scamper around and are invisible, when we’re not. But what we are is extremely crafty, and we adapt. And so I thought that the idea of mutants who have these powers but are also physically sort of grotesque, and people might want to put them into camps or persecute them, think they’re scary and create propaganda against them—I felt so moved by that. I will say that undocumented youth are not so mutant-y. They are very accomplished. But they are complicated people. They know how to survive.
Guernica: I’m thinking of the passage where you write, “They want us all dead.” It made me think of Elmhurst Hospital. It made me think about essential workers—that term, what that means. What has the COVID-19 pandemic revealed about the nature of that kind of work undocumented people tend to do?
Cornejo Villavicencio: They do want us all dead. Think about Trump’s executive order keeping meat-packing plants open. And the bosses of these plants saying, “It’s just their cultural tradition. They enjoy living in extremely tight packed quarters and not using PPE.” They want us dead. I’ve always felt a telepathic connection to Stephen Miller. I wrote an article once in the New York Times, and immediately afterward I became aware that he became aware of me. I have a strong sense that Stephen Miller is behind the meat-packing plant executive order, and behind this new family separation, 2.0, at the detention camps, where they’re having parents choose whether to release their kids so they aren’t exposed to COVID or if they want to stay together and, I guess, die of COVID together.
I have all of these dreams of meeting him one day. I don’t know what I would say to him. I don’t want to do any violence to him. I just want to be in his presence. I think it’s a self-harming impulse, akin to wanting to be in a room with a grizzly bear. That is the pure visceral response that I have. I see him as an apex predator who doesn’t deserve to be an apex predator, because grizzly bears are powerful and beautiful, and he is an insecure, mediocre white man with a receding hairline, and I am beautiful and brilliant and self-made and I hate that I have to spend a second thinking about him and yet I spend so much time thinking about him, and so whenever one of these things comes up I say I know Stephen Miller did this, and it just makes me angry.
Guernica: One of the things I really love about this book is the throughline of reflections on what it means to be a child and what it means to be a parent, so I have to ask: What do your parents think of the book? Have they read it?
Cornejo Villavicencio: My parents will read it next year, when it comes out in Spanish. Maybe my mom won’t read it. My mom just re-reads Hillary Clinton’s books over and over and over. My dad will probably read it, and he’ll just be bitchy about how much I curse. If my mom flips through it she’ll be mad about how often I write about my father and how I have forgiven my father, at least in the book. They’ll just be petty about it.
When This American Life ran an excerpt of my book, they called my father to fact-check, and I was like, this is a fucking nightmare. I translated the piece into Spanish for him, and I said, “Does this look right to you?” And he said yes. And I said, “Okay—can you just say it’s all fine and it’ll all just go smoothly? Do not go on and on, recalling my childhood stuff when they call.” And then he did! Like, “Is it true Karla was a difficult child?” And he’d be like, “No, Karla was a perfect child, she was just a genius.” And then the fact checker would be like, “Well, Marcelo says that you were not a difficult child, can we correct it to you were a genius?” No! He was just high on power. And then my poor mother — my poor mother was fine about it. But the person who did read my book and liked it was my brother, who is the only one whose opinion matters. I’m not talking about my mom and my dad’s private life; I’m talking about their lives as it relates to my life. They are actors in my life. I’m not talking about my dad’s affair, or my mom’s career, or whatever. I’m talking about their roles in my memories, in my stories. Plus, if they try to sue me, they’d have to borrow money from me.