By Anya Shukla
I am a child of documented immigrants. While I can relate to many aspects of “The Undocumented Americans,” obviously I cannot connect to this book like undocumented Latinx immigrants or relatives of undocumented Latinx immigrants might. I write this review as a reader with few personal connections to or knowledge of the undocumented community.
That being said, after reading “The Undocumented Americans” and watching an old Q&A session with its author, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, I have come to the conclusion that I adore both this book and its creator. I love Cornejo Villavicencio’s writing style and her tone and her thinking and this hard-hitting piece of Literature.
What follows is an unstructured fangirling.
Review: Karla Cornejo Villavicencio revolutionizes both the journalism and creative nonfiction genres with her debut, “The Undocumented Americans.” Chapter by chapter, Cornejo Villavicencio interviews undocumented Latinx immigrants from Staten Island to Flint to New Haven. She provides frank, searing coverage of the injustices undocumented immigrants face—the separation of families, the health issues that plague 9/11 cleanup workers—and enhances already vivid portraits of her interviewees with personal narrative and fictionalized dream-like sequences.
Migration stories often focus on policies, but Cornejo Villavencio expands the focus of the genre. Through her in-depth reporting, fully-developed characters, and inclusions of allusions and motifs, she transforms literary boundaries. “The Undocumented Americans” goes beyond dry census data; the book illuminates the beautiful, ugly truth. Rating: 4.75/5.
What I Loved: So much so much so much.
First: Cornejo Villavicencio writes with a no-nonsense, cutting style that toes the line between caring and brutal. She speaks very similarly to how she writes—a sign of a writer who has found their voice. Meanwhile, my writing and my speech toggle between insensible pseudointellectualism and the playground humor of “Brooklyn 99.”
Her words read as dark and chaotic but still draw you in; she can make a joke about drowning a child and it doesn’t read as too intense or vulnerable. I don’t know how she does it, but Cornejo Villavicencio is everything I have ever wanted my writing to be.
Second: “The Undocumented Americans” deconstructs the idea of “good journalism.” The book is based in journalistic reporting but has subjective, first-person narration. I didn’t even know this was possible.
Cornejo Villavicencio incorporates literary devices into a fact-driven storyline, creating a many-layered text capable of becoming required reading in both English and History classes. Allow me to provide an analytical-paper ready example.
Salvation—and Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross—is a recurring theme in “The Undocumented Americans.” As Cornejo Villavicencio writes, “The twisted inversion that many children of immigrants know is that, at some point, your parents become your children, and your own personal dream becomes making sure that they age and die with dignity in a country that has never wanted them” (pg. 299). Yet at some level, she feels connected to all the undocumented immigrants she meets: “they are all my parents, I am their child” (pg. 235). She texts her interviewees frequently, sends them money, offers to host sleepovers at her house for their kids. She wants to save them from their pain—in a sense, save them from America.
Sorry for that geek-out. But no journalism article—no journalism book, for that matter—that I’ve read has had that level of subtext and symbolism.
Third: I learned a lot. Cornejo Villavicencio wrote this book because she wanted to acurately portray undocumented Latinx immigrants. She notes the potential exploitation faced by day workers and the dangers of household cleaning. She breaks stories about the cancer, asthma, lung problems borne by the undocumented immigrants who cleared the rubble from the World Trade Center post 9/11.
As someone who has read Anna Clark’s “The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy,” I already knew about the infamous Flint water crisis. But Cornejo Villavicencio added a layer to my factual understanding. She shares the impact of Flint water on undocumented Americans—the blindness, hives, rashes, developmental delays. Because the news of the bad water was spread by people in uniform, knocking door-to-door on houses, some undocumented immigrants did not learn about the issue until their families in Mexico called to tell them the news. “What I saw in Flint was a microcosm of the way the government treats the undocumented everywhere, making the conditions in this country as deadly and toxic and inhumane as possible so that we will self-deport,” Cornejo Villavicencio says in “The Undocumented Americans. “What I saw in Flint was what I had seen everywhere else, what I had felt in my own poisoned blood and bones. Being killed softly, silently, and with impunity” (pg. 235-236).
Yet Cornejo Villavicencio’s interviewees are not just their suffering. One of my favorite characters (and there are many) is a man named Theodoro, who once worked in a chocolate factory in Flint. His description of a previous job is enchanting—“chocolate cascaded down like a curtain but also up like a geyser; it showered chocolate from both directions” (pg. 218). He loves his two pit bulls, Gracie and Bella, so much that he gives some of his clean water rations. Theodoro doesn't read like a caricature; rather, he is authentic, honest, full-fledged.
What I Didn’t Love: Nothing. (I know! It’s a shock!) This book is intense yet gorgeous. The only reason I didn't give it 5 stars is personal preference: it's a tad too nonfiction-y for my taste, and I'm not sure if I would read "The Undocumented Americans" multiple times. That's just me, though!
The book can get a little dark, so I would want readers to make sure they’re comfortable with topics like mental health, suicidality, and death before they check it out.
Food for Thought: Cornejo Villavicencio writes, “I personally subscribe to Dr. King’s definition of an ‘unjust law’ as being ‘out of harmony with the moral law.’ And the higher moral law here is that people have a human right to move, to change location, if they experience hunger, poverty, violence, or lack of opportunity, especially if that climate in their home countries is created by the United States, as is the case with most third world countries from which people migrate” (pg. 277). What obligation does America have, especially in this era of restorative justice, to support migrants from countries where we have caused harm in the past? How do we help rebuild what we tore down? (Maybe a better question is: how do we get Americans on board with putting what we see as our resources towards supporting other countries and their people?)
A Quote I Would Like On Goodreads Because It Just Resonates: “I think every immigrant in this country knows that you can eat English and digest it so well that you shit it out, and to some people, you will still not speak English” (pg. 51).
Next up: “Heavy: An American Memoir” by Kiese Laymon.