In Conversation

Documenting the undocumented

Yale doctoral student and DREAMer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio discusses the challenges of being undocumented, and her book “The Undocumented Americans.”
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio at her home in New Haven. (Photo credit: Nathan Bajar)

After the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented American from Ecuador and Yale doctoral student, decided it was time to write her story. Beyond that, she wanted to write the story of other undocumented immigrants who play such an important part in American society but whose lives are often little understood.

The result is “The Undocumented Americans,” published in March, which captures the day-to-day lives and resilience of undocumented laborers she met across the country. The book was recently named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review and was among 17 books listed by former President Obama as his favorites from 2020.

Villavicencio, 31, one of the first recipients of the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act to graduate from Harvard, is now pursuing a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale. In an interview, she discusses the challenge of being undocumented in the United States, the people she met while reporting the book, and the pressure that comes with writing their stories.

Part of the excitement around your book is that so few stories about undocumented Americans have been told. Why is that? 

I think undocumented immigrants are willing to share these stories, but people aren’t looking at the right places. I’m not a journalist, so I’m not bound by conventions. I was able to get involved in people’s lives and gather these stories in unconventional ways. For instance, I didn’t use a tape recorder, which allowed me to build a trust with people.

Publishing houses and Hollywood, they don’t really have an appetite for the kinds of stories I’m telling which don’t have an exciting plot to them. I don’t write about the border. I don’t talk about people crossing to America. There isn’t an industry appetite for the slow, day-in-the-life stories that I’m telling. But the stories are always there, and immigrants are happy to talk to people who are willing to lend a compassionate ear. 

One of these families you met was in New Haven. Can you talk about them?

I became a mentor to two teenage girls whose father had taken sanctuary in the local church. They were fully supported by the local community. My relationship with the girls came naturally. I have a brother who is 10 years younger than I am. We grew up poor in Queens and I took him to the MET [the Metropolitan Museum of Art], to the East Village, to MoMA [Museum of Modern Art] on Fridays, when it was free. In my mind, I showed him the world. I wanted him to have the experiences that an upper middle-class child would have

I became close to the parents of these teenage girls and they trusted me. They had dinner every week with me and my partner and they trusted that I would be a good influence. And so I did what I did with my brother — I taught them what I knew. And the girls called them my “life lessons.” I taught them about consent. I taught them the difference between American humor and British humor. It was a relationship that came very organically. 

To what degree does being undocumented inform your identity? Can you talk about what that means as a day-to-day experience?

When I was growing up, it was before DACA [the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] policy, so the possibility that I could get a job was not something that was real to me. That affected my mental health profoundly. I felt like I was driving a car with no brakes. I saw how hard my father worked in the restaurant industry, and how much love and dignity he put into his work, and he didn’t get much back. I thought I was going to end up in the same place, even when I was at Harvard.

As a child, I saw my parents as completely vulnerable. It’s like seeing a hermit crab without a shell. I just knew that there was nothing and nobody to protect them. They couldn’t call the cops. They had no insurance. They were completely at the mercy of whatever or whoever wanted to hurt them. And it was my job to protect them through my lifelong quest to get good grades and eventually achieve enough success that my name would protect them because I couldn’t grant them citizenship. 

As an adult, once DACA passed [in 2012], the legal status became an administrative issue. But what doesn’t leave you is the constant fear. So even now, as an adult who is doing well in my career and has a stable life here in New Haven, my parasympathetic nervous system is just shot. I think my parents are in danger at all times. The slightest sound could just send me into a panic. I’ve noticed that that’s similar for a lot of children of immigrants. We’re very high functioning, very hard working, but we have a fight-or-flight instinct that’s very, very fragile. 

What were some of the common attributes that you found among the undocumented immigrants you encountered while writing your book?

The people that I have the most in common with are children of undocumented immigrants. Whether they are Latinx or from any other nationality or ethnicity, we probably have pretty similar emotional landscapes. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. We get a text from our parents, we think: Is this about ICE? Did they get COVID and they can’t be treated at the hospital? Will they be the last ones to get the vaccine? Did their electricity get cut and they have to make an emergency payment? Children of immigrants across American history have probably felt this way. Jewish immigrants, Chinese immigrants, Irish immigrants, Italian immigrants. The relationship of children of immigrants to their parents has been very specific in the American story. 

Is there a lot of pressure in being a voice for undocumented immigrants?

Necessarily I am the first in a lot of things or among the first. You have to resist the culture’s necessity to tokenize you. You have to just focus on your work and do the best work that you can. Everything else is noise. 

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