Despite a seeming increase in fictionalized versions of undocumented Americans, the true and endlessly varied stories of contemporary undocumented Americans are still largely untold. Marginalized and criminalized by a country enamored to the point of smugness with its own “open arms” mythos, entire communities across the country are often portrayed as monodimensional and even pitiful, to the detriment of everyone who gives even the slightest shit. Diligent immigration reporters enact a pure public good by exposing the gaping chasm in this mythos on a state level, but less frequent are intimate looks at who these individuals are, what they do to survive, and the heroically mundane feats many of them perform just to get through the day in America.
The Undocumented Americans, the first book by the brilliantly talented writer and essayist Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, seeks to remedy this a little bit through a series of intimate essays that serve as snapshots of undocumented people across the country she’s interviewed over the past several years. This book captured my entire heart; its grace and humanity alternately thrilled me and made me want to lie down on the ground in abject fury. Cornejo Villavicencio reported individual stories of people across the country with a rare level of access, in part because of her own status and in part, I suspect, due to the sheer force and generosity of her personality, which is powerfully evident in her writing. (As an example, read Cornejo Villavicencio’s 2018 essay “A Theory of Animals,” which I consider one of the best pieces Jezebel has ever published.) She does not (and cannot) write about her subjects with the arm’s length studiousness so prevalent in reporting about undocumented Americans. Instead, she interweaves her travels to Flint, to Miami, to Cleveland, with stories about her own family—she immigrated to Queens from Ecuador at five and was undocumented until recently—writing in the first person with deep reporting, investment, and emotion.
Cornejo Villavicencio decided to write The Undocumented Americans the night Trump was elected, after years of declining requests from her agent to do so (“A memoir?” she writes; “I was twenty-one. I wasn’t fucking Barbra Streisand”). Traveling around the country in the aftermath, she embedded herself with day laborers on Staten Island (“New York’s richest, whitest, most suburban borough”), the undocumented heroes who helped clean up Ground Zero after 9/11, a family of young boys in Ohio coping with the deportation of their father, immigrants in Flint who were the last to know the water was poison. It’s complicated because the circumstances are often dire—winter is coming, the boys whose father was deported have no car; the baby is sick from lead; the elder woman has cancer—but Cornejo Villavicencio’s voice is familiar, friendly, and quite often funny, with a particular agility at showing her subjects’ nuances and absolute will. It’s a story of survival; the people in this book are, generally, fucked by their circumstances, but they get through it however they can, flaws and all.
Jezebel spoke with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on the phone about her purpose in writing The Undocumented Americans, the immorality of the state, tending to one’s mental health, and the drag queen Trixie Mattel. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
JEZEBEL: In reading this book, I thought about the feats of will that a lot of undocumented Americans go through just to exist in this country. You said in your book that you wanted to make something better than most of the books you’d read about migrants, “something that rang true to me and the people I knew and loved.” Was that was your main purpose in writing this?
KARLA CORNEJO VILLAVICENCIO: I wanted to humanize the individual subjects of the book, but I also wanted to create a portrait of the undocumented immigrant, and I think I do that in the book. I describe that there is something that makes us, us. There are a few things that I’ve discovered through being undocumented and having undocumented family and loved ones and now interviewing many undocumented people. And part of that is just hunger for survival. This hunger leads to certain things that I think are really inspiring, like the ability to work in small communities, in small groups, to be able to ensure each other’s survival, like understanding that your individual survival depends on the community’s ability to survive. I know that other marginalized groups do this, too, but we have colectas—it’s like an analog GoFundMe. If somebody is suffering because they don’t have the ability to access medical care or whatever, people will go around business to business, restaurant to restaurant, nightclub to nightclub, and just ask for cash, and people will donate, because people will understand this could happen to me. It’s not happening to me right now, but there is nothing in this world that protects me from this not happening to me. I think that’s something that people are realizing now in this pandemic where we’re all vulnerable and all our safety depends on our neighbors doing right by us. But this is something we’ve understood for a long time.
I think undocumented people have an understanding of higher morality in terms of the way that Dr. King spoke about it not being predicated by law, and I think that’s something that the right has a difficult time understanding. But we do believe we’re a little bit above the law in the sense that the reasons that we came here—to protect our families, to seek education for our daughters, to run away from our sons being recruited into gangs—those are, morally, of a higher importance than obeying the laws of any state. And following that is our hearts’ belief that it is a human being’s right to be able to move, that the right to move is a higher law than any state law. Even though know most of these people have not taken philosophy classes or human rights classes, there’s an implicit understanding. A lot of these people are believers. A lot of these people are very religious people. And there’s an implicit understanding that there’s a higher law.
That’s something you write about, Dr. King’s concept of morality—I would love to know more about what you think about the construct of law, because I think you did a really good job of showing, through the individuals you portrayed, how arbitrary it is—the basic absurdity of any human life being “illegal.”
I think I have a strange answer, which is that I think it’s up to religious leaders to really look at the Bible and understand that the Bible tells many stories of migration. Many stories of refugees and many, many stories of God teaching the chosen people lessons through experiences of migration and asylum and being locked out of countries and being locked out through borders.
A lot of the people who are keeping us out and who engage us with vitriol are evangelicals and Christians who use the Bible in order to keep us out. You know, Jeff Sessions would quote the Bible, talking about the law. He knows the Bible as well as many of us on the other side of things, and we know that the greatest law, the greatest law that Jesus said was love, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And even if you don’t believe that, literally the entire Bible is just the story of a people in movement. People lost in the desert, moving from encampment to encampment, just moving by their faith in God. And so I think that Americans need to be less hypocritical and they need to decide, are they Christian or are they not Christian? And if they are Christian, they need to be on the side of migrants, and if they cannot be on the side of migrants, then they cannot rightfully call themselves Christian.
I think that there is no way that I would be able to argue with someone based on economics, or on the tax money that DACA kids bring into the country. But I’m completely confused, as someone who was raised Christian, that they would call themselves Christian and completely ignore every single story in the Bible and direct orders from Jesus. That strikes me as the most appallingly hypocritical and like a slap in the face of every writer in the Bible.
I don’t think that’s a strange answer at all. Just sort of to take it back, you write about deciding to do this book on the night of Trump’s election. I wonder if you could go a little deeper into that decision.
It really was an immediate decision where there had been a reluctance for years—and then that night I was able to witness my spirit. I think a lot of adults who had been children who grew up in traumatic circumstances must relate to me, where they are really good in moments of crisis and they become like Neo in the Matrix—they just become fucking robots. Ordinarily when it’s summertime and people are having drinks on their porches, I am extremely depressed and self-destructive, but in extreme moments of crisis, I’m a machine. That was the night of the election, where my partner was falling apart and my parents were falling apart and everyone was falling apart. I was able to witness my spirit that night in which I physically felt every inch of my body turning to steel, and I comforted all of them. Even though I was scared and I did not know how bad it was going to be, and I couldn’t imagine that things were going to be as bad as they have been and continue to be. But I knew that I didn’t want to be a witness at my own funeral and that I wanted to write my own obituary. And what I wanted the obituary to say, at the very end, was like, She’s alive, bitch. You know?
I wanted people to just be shocked that I had somehow, like, zombie apocalypse’d myself and survived. And it was that night that just made me want to write this book because I felt like I was the person that I had been waiting for. I was the person who was going to write the book that I didn’t have as a kid, and that I could make a difference between a kid’s feeling lonely, feeling like nobody understood them in the world—because honestly, there are a lot of communities online for undocumented kids, kids on DACA, but a lot of it is slogans. I think there’s not a big sister out there who’s crazy and who’s been through it and who’s come out on the other side and who’s there to... you know, like my DMs are open for these kids. And so I wanted to let them know that I was here. You know, I was in the middle of fucking Connecticut and I wanted to let them know I’m here for you.
That’s really why I wrote the book.
You also write about struggles with mental health—having headaches from stress and the like, but I also feel like there’s such an openness and generosity in your writing. How do you square it?
I don’t know how I do the arithmetic for this, but I do believe a few things about myself to be true. I think that I’m America’s sweetheart. I believe that I’m a national treasure. I believe that I’m endlessly interesting. And I also think that I’m a sufficient overlap of as many identity categories such that my telling stories about what I’m going through can help a lot of people.
I also think that I’m someone who experiences life with a lot of pain, excruciating pain. But I made an early commitment to myself to not kill myself. And we think that for everybody out there who is living their lives with pain and who has not yet made that commitment, who’s maybe on the fence, it might be extremely useful to read about a person who, every day, looks for things big and small to maintain that commitment. Because I’m not going back on that commitment. I think that that you can follow Dora the Explorer’s journey as she keeps on her quest to keep living. And I think that’s a fascinating story, especially since I have so many things that could really knock me down. You know, the undocumented thing doesn’t help. The financial precarity with my parents doesn’t help. A lot of things don’t help. But I hope with my writing I can reach people who really don’t see a fucking point and that maybe I can save someone, I think is why I’m so open.
I think that comes through in your writing style, not necessarily that you are telling everyone every aspect of your personal life, but you write on an equal level with the reader.
[I’ve] been really influenced by rap. Not syntactically or anything like that, but when I was writing this book, I was looking to James Baldwin as a spiritual guide, because he was the one who was like, my country is a hellhole and I have to pay my dues. I was looking to Eileen Myles, with a kind of punk rock with which they approach sentences. And then I just listened to a lot of rap because I wanted to—you know, I didn’t like being called a journalist, because in order for reporting to be understood as reporting, it had to be conveyed in a certain way. But the parts that were more essay-like, I wanted it to be literary and full of references. I wanted it to get you in the gut, but also be winking at you, and I was listening to a lot of rap—Kendrick, almost exclusively, and Jay Rock.
I wanted to ask you about your line in the book: “Journalists are not allowed to get involved the way I have gotten involved. Journalists, to the best of my knowledge, do not try to change the outcome of their stories as crudely as I do.” I made a note of that because I think the notion of objectivity in journalism is a fallacy—even if you’re writing in old-school, “both sides” style, you’re still making choices about what topics you cover and why and how. But I consider your book an important act of journalism, in that you reported out personal snapshots of profoundly underreported stories and overall under- and misrepresented people.
So, this book took three years to write, and I wrote that part when I was mad at a lot of journalists that I knew personally because of the way in which they dipped in and out of the lives of the subjects that I was writing—who really flocked to them like vultures, would take the story, never ask after them, never check in how they were doing, never check in if the children were eating, never check in if the families would face a deportation order again. In one of theses cases, the kids [I wrote about] in Cleveland, a journalist showed up unannounced while I was there, did not ask permission, took a photo of the children and then left.
Since then, I’ve met other immigration reporters who are doing their best, and I understand everybody’s doing their best, but I just feel safest calling myself an essayist—which nobody wants to call me! [Laughs] I just wanna do what I wanna do. My stories are footnoted, and I’m not gonna fucking lie about undocumented immigrants, but I just don’t want to ever have to say no to giving a kid a hundred-dollar vaccine because my editor is gonna say that it’s unethical, you know?
Right. I was actually wondering that—do you still keep in touch with everyone you spoke to for your book, insofar that you can?
A lot of them. Ohio kids changed their number. I keep in touch with the people in Flint, I keep in touch with the ladies in Miami, I keep in touch with the day laborers. And obviously the girls in the Cleveland chapter are basically my kids. The 15-year-old one—she just turned 15, and in the middle of the fucking pandemic she sent me a video a few days ago asking me to buy her titty tape.
Wait, what? [Laughs]
She’s like, I don’t like wearing a bra, I’ve been using the titty tape you bought me for my coronation, can you please buy me more titty tape. I’m like, you know that I’m supporting my entire family; she’s like, yeah but pleeeeaase, I need titty tape. So Brianna from the book—her pandemic request is titty tape.
I did want to ask you about the trauma of doing this, which you write about, but how have you taken care of yourself? How did you process it all, in tandem with your own experiences?
It doesn’t really matter what I’m feeling. I take my medications regularly. I try to see as many dogs—I have a lot of dog friends and I try to see as many of them as I can, or I did before isolation, and that is really helpful to me. I like bluejays and crows and ravens because they’re considered pests and they’re actually the smartest birds. And this is not me being crazy, but when I’m at my saddest, they flock around my windows. Sometimes a couple dozen crows, they fly around, and I don’t think it’s a God and I don’t think it’s my ancestors, but I do feel like something is watching out for me. I don’t often feel like anyone is watching out for me. I’m the caretaker. I have my family, I have a lot of immigrants to look out for. But I’ve sort of accepted that there is going to be a traumatic toll to the job that I do and the kind of bullet that I have to take so that other people can take comfort in my work.
I mean, it’s a personal curiosity about how people process things because at Jezebel we write about a lot of generally traumatic stories and have our faces in the news every single day. It’s a constant conversation and question—how do we disconnect ourselves sometimes in order to continue doing the work?
Well, I watch a lot of Trixie Mattel videos, you know that queen?
Yes, I love her!
OK, so I love Trixie and Katya, but Trixie just inspires me because she’s such a hard worker, and she came from absolutely nothing, and she’s such a hustler. I love Trixie and Katya together, but just whenever I want and I’m feeling stressed, I watch Trixie videos, because she’ll literally be like, “I played with corn husk dolls when I was a child,” and now I live in a pink palace. And it’s not about capitalism, she’s just like, the baddest bitch and so funny. I don’t like to spend a lot of time alone with my thoughts, so when there’s not a conversation with my partner, I have Trixie and Katya videos on all the time. Katya’s such an intellectual and Katya wants to die so like, I am Katya, but I wanna be like Trixie.
Trixie and her rollerblades!
So other than what you’ve put forth in the book, what is the thing that you most want readers to take from The Undocumented Americans?
I just want people to know that there are two things that are true about this book and they seem like they cancel each other out. One is that undocumented people are just like you and me. They can be very good people. They can be very bad people. They are funny people. They are crazy people. They are scammers. They dye their hair blonde and don’t tone it with purple shampoo. They’re literally just like us, and I’d like you to be curious about them. Don’t think of them as just other people who have jobs that Americans won’t do. When you see them behind the deli counter or with a baby as a nanny or working landscaping, just try to be curious about their lives. And not just about the border crossing... just wonder. Like, I wonder how many telenovelas she’s watched? And I bet it’s a lot! Just wonder about them as people.
And the second thing is that undocumented people are extraordinary creatures that are actually the heirs of the legend that we have in America, that was foundational to this country, like our founders or our frontiersmen—we’re not the heirs to that, it’s undocumented people who are, the people who have made absolutely something out of nothing. They’re the people whose children are statistically guaranteed to be more educated than they are, to outearn them, and some of them will grow up to be very successful and have empires and own homes and their children will grow up to be very comfortable. They are doing that move west, my son; they’re the frontiersmen, they’re the ones who are picking up on the legends.
So, be curious about them, but also I think you should be in awe of them a little bit.