How a DACA recipient came to tell the stories of ‘The Undocumented Americans’

Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio holds a dog at her home in New Haven, Conn.
Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, at her home in New Haven, Conn.
(Nathan Bajar)

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio grew up seeing caricatured and clichéd representations of migrants in books, television and movies. What she didn’t see reflected in them was her parents — immigrants from Ecuador — or herself, a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).

When Cornejo Villavicencio was a senior at Harvard University, she wrote an anonymous essay for The Daily Beast about what the publication wanted to call her “dirty little secret” — that her parents did not immigrate legally. Immediately, literary agents started asking for a memoir. It made her angry because she knew it wasn’t about her writing; they wanted a “rueful tale” about someone defying the odds and getting into an Ivy League school. But she was 21; she wasn’t ready.

She knew she was ready six years later as she watched Donald Trump run for president and heard “the xenophobic and dehumanizing rhetoric that Trump used for his campaign,” as she recalled in a phone interview. “And when he won in 2016 I just felt like, as an artist, what I could contribute was a better representation.”

The result, published this year, was “The Undocumented Americans,” a book that unearths the mostly hidden lives of immigrants living in the United States. Cornejo Villavicencio weaves in her own story throughout, describing her lifelong battle with trauma and mental illness and reflecting on her parents’ sacrifices. Published in March, it was a nonfiction finalist for a National Book Award — the first such nomination for an undocumented person.

"The Undocumented Americans" by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
(One World/Penguin Random House)

Cornejo Villavicencio, a PhD candidate in the American studies program at Yale University, will join Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of “Children of the Land,” and Column One editor Steve Padilla for the Los Angeles Times Book Club on Dec. 15.

In six chapters, “The Undocumented Americans” follows the stories of people the author met in five cities across the United States: New York; Miami; Flint, Mich.; Cleveland; and New Haven, Conn. She made a conscious choice not to write about Dreamers — the approximately 700,000 young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Instead, she wanted to tell the stories of immigrants who had made the decision to cross borders.

In New York, she meets lonely day laborers who cleaned up the city after Hurricane Sandy and cleared the wreckage at ground zero; in Miami, she befriends caring, restless women and learns about the city’s herbalists and healers; in Flint, she describes families affected by the water crisis; in Cleveland she talks to a man claiming sanctuary from deportation in a church; and in New Haven she meets with an older couple eager to move back to Mexico and live a simpler life.

Sometimes, getting her subjects to open up was relatively easy: “Migrants are people and they do think about their representation,” said Cornejo Villavicencio. “They do think about the way that they are talked about and depicted in Hollywood, in television and on cable news, so of course they’re interested and have a stake in that, so they were happy to talk to me.”

Other times, they declined. With those who agreed to talk, she didn’t use a tape recorder. “This was 2016, 2017. This was a bad time, and I was going to places fresh off of raids, so I took notes by hand, I changed names and I assured people of anonymity.”

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of ‘Children of the Land,’ and Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of ‘The Undocumented Americans,’ share their stories with the L.A, Times Book Club on Dec. 15.

Dec. 8, 2020

She believes her own story helped earn their trust. “Because I was undocumented, I knew what the risks were, so they knew that I wasn’t going to be taking those risks, that I wasn’t going to be doing dumb s— with their identities.” Brought over from Ecuador when she was 5, Cornejo Villavicencio grew up in Queens and Brooklyn; she was recently granted a green card.

After filling “tons” of Moleskine notebooks, the author destroyed them: “They had peoples’ stories that had to disappear because they didn’t exist according to the United States government.”

In these intimate conversations, Cornejo Villavicencio discovered something about herself: Many of her subjects shared the same traumas and mental health issues she’s struggled with since she was child, including anxiety and depression.

“As someone who has studied literature for many, many, many years, I close read my own life a lot,” said Cornejo Villavicencio, who was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. “I understand my diagnoses pretty well, and I understand what trauma is, and it became more and more apparent to me that what has caused me suffering was a direct result of my life lived as a migrant.”


In his memoir ‘Children of the Land,’ poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo writes of border journeys, family separation and crossing a ‘threshold of invisibility.’

Jan. 29, 2020

She saw her symptoms replicated in many others. “We all have these crazy f— nightmares, we have migraines, we have ulcers, a lot of us self-medicated, but what we had in common that was insane was that we did not miss a day of work,” she said. “These are incredibly high-functioning people who have depression, anxiety, PTSD, [obsessive compulsive disorder] and they just swallow it all, and I thought, ‘Nobody is talking about this.’”

The strongest responses to “The Undocumented Americans” came, she said, from those who lamented how rarely mental health came up among immigrants.

“There’s this belief that we’re not supposed to air dirty laundry, and I think that’s the stigma: that we owe our activism and that we owe our collective need for immigration reform, that we owe that cause so much that we need to swallow our own pain and the lasting damage that migration and the American dream has caused in our community,” she said.

For many of the people she has written about and written for, “I think this book has been emancipatory.”

Book Club: If you go

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of “The Undocumented Americans” and Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, author of “Children of the Land,” in conversation with Times editor Steve Padilla.

When: 7 p.m. PST Dec. 15

Where: Free L.A. Times Book Club event livestreaming on The Times Facebook page, YouTube and Twitter. Register at Eventbrite for a reminder and direct links.

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