Dream City

THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS BY KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO NEW YORK: ONE WORLD. 208 PAGES. $26.

The cover of THE UNDOCUMENTED AMERICANS

When Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was fifteen and growing up in New York, she called the restaurant where her father worked as a deliveryman and pretended to be a beat reporter at a city paper to get an abusive manager fired. In 2010, after she wrote an anonymous essay about being undocumented and a student at Harvard, she received her first offers to publish a memoir, which she rejected. But she is not, as she tells us in The Undocumented Americans, a journalist. “Journalists are not allowed to get involved” the way she gets involved, nor to “try to change the outcome of their stories as crudely as I do.”

It was the night of November 8, 2016, that persuaded Cornejo Villavicencio to write her first book. She started interviewing some of the eleven million undocumented Americans, in some cases becoming deeply embedded in their lives. She befriends the families of two men resisting deportation via the sanctuary movement in Connecticut. In Miami, she navigates the systems of care—some genuine, some exploitative—that arise to meet the medical needs of people who can’t obtain health insurance. She imagines the last moments of a man who drowned during Hurricane Sandy, of a teenager delivering pizza on the morning of 9/11 for a five-dollar tip. These are people for whom there is no collective remembrance because their lives were architected to leave no trace.

One feature of undocumented life that emerges from Cornejo Villavicencio’s observations is selective visibility: the phenomenon of being treated as nonexistent or targeted as an enemy, with nothing in between. Another is to be accustomed to the most outrageous exploitation, and for there to be nothing you can do about it. Maybe you know, or maybe you don’t, that over a quarter of the reconstruction workers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina were undocumented. They performed “the most dangerous jobs for the lowest wages,” often without proper protective gear. This was the case after the September 11 attacks, and it is presumably the case now, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Milton Vallejo, a night guard at the twin towers and one of Cornejo Villavicencio’s subjects, was unsure whether to report for cleanup work because he worried officials would ask to see his papers. It turned out none of them cared about his citizenship status as long as he helped clean basements, wading “waist-deep through dirty water and chemicals” with no safety equipment except the grocery bags he tied around his feet. At first, onlookers clapped and took photos, until more workers arrived and it became apparent they were mostly Latinx. Some of the spectators started yelling, “Leave! Leave! Leave!”

The book’s chapters are named for the places Cornejo Villavicencio visits: Staten Island, Ground Zero, Miami, Flint, Cleveland, New Haven. But as the book progresses, the terrain covered increasingly becomes an interior landscape of the mind. The Undocumented Americans is about Cornejo Villavicencio, too: about being left behind in Ecuador when her parents first immigrated to the US and about being brought to New York when she was four years old. It’s about her father, a sensitive aesthete with the conversational manner of a dictator. It’s about her mother, an elegant and ambitious woman who “idolized Hillary Clinton from the moment she laid eyes on her.”

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Photo © Talya Zemach-Bersin
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Photo © Talya Zemach-Bersin

Cornejo Villavicencio is able to inhabit her subject in a way few who get to publish can. (She even turns her limitations into strengths: writing powerfully about the places she can’t go, the situations where she’s out of place, the people who won’t talk to her.) She surveyed the genre of migrant literature and hated most of it. The undocumented are usually portrayed either as a scourge (those who work) or as “heroic dreamers” (DACA recipients). Cornejo Villavicencio had a different perspective: She saw her family as “more than laborers, as more than sufferers or dreamers.” She wanted to write about the undocumented who make a living as “housekeepers, construction workers, dog walkers, deliverymen”—and moreover to write about them as people, “as the weirdos we all are outside of our jobs.”

The book is beautiful for Cornejo Villavicencio’s sensitivity to character, and for her ability to structure a narrative almost entirely through the people she meets. There is Mercedes, who laughs at the idea that she would let anyone see her grow old and destitute in the United States, and Elias, age ten, who has dreams that the world will crack open and he’ll fall inside. Their stories are told with generosity, vigilance, and humor. Cornejo Villavicencio began her career writing about music, and The Undocumented Americans is indebted to the form. She takes on a rapper’s swagger when she imagines ruining the doctor who won’t check her mom for breast cancer: “One day I’ll make so much money that I’ll pay for my mom’s mammograms in cash. . . . I’ll buy this clinic and turn it into a museum for myself, in honor of me.” She wants young immigrants and children of immigrants to feel, reading her book, “what I imagine young people must have felt when they heard Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ for the first time.”

Writing, she said in a recent interview, is an “extravagant” career, which is why she has no doubt about the stakes. “My father works with his hands, my mother works with her hands, and they will die prematurely because of it. . . . As my job was paid in blood, I have the ability to kill who I have to kill and resuscitate who I have to resuscitate and that’s what I did in this book.” She has no optimism about institutions, not much hope in the American people at large, and, ultimately, little faith in even her own creed of social mobility through education. The scale of this mistrust is matched only by the desire she feels to be every immigrant’s child, to reach every immigrant kid who suffers. It’s impossible, and she knows it, but she believes she can do it all the same. This kind of fantastical longing is, in fact, commonplace in The Undocumented Americans. It’s the grounds on which the book stakes an alternative claim of belonging for its subjects, one that has nothing to do with citizenship.

Yen Pham is a writer from Australia.