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Book Review: "The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio"

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wrote the book I always wanted to write but never could. Many times during the 22 years that I worked within the immigrant day laborer community, I wanted to tell the every day dramas of people who live without the protection of a livable salary or family and friends with resources. I wanted to tell the stories of people who had let me into their lives so easily, who had showed me where they lived, had shared their troubles with me any time I had the time and patience to listen, and who argued and criticized and laughed and danced and sang together in the lives that we shared in the Casa Latina Day Worker Center. We shared our lives every day for 22 years but at the end of the day, they went home to the crowded apartments that they shared with others, or to the public library to wait until the shelters opened, or to ¨el yungul,” “the Jungle,” where they joined others in their makeshift shelters in the overgrown areas near Seattles freeways. I went back to my two children and my heated house and full refrigerator.

I knew their stories, but I didn’t tell them.

It’s not that I wasn’t asked to tell their stories. I was often asked to be a guest speaker or to identify people who could tell their own stories of exploitation, cruelty and illness. Then I would have to find a person, a sympathetic person, who I could talk about or coach to tell their story of woe, leaving out all of the details where they were anything less than an innocent victim. But those weren’t the stories that I wanted to tell. And those weren’t the stories that Cornejo Villavicencio wanted to tell either.

She wanted to tell the stories of everyday people. She tells us that “This book is for everybody who wants to step away from the buzzwords in immigration, the talking heads, the kids in graduation caps, and read about the people underground. Not heroes. Randoms. People. Characters.”

She gets introductions to those characters from social justice organizations and informal immigrant networks. In fact, although she changes all the names when she does her reporting of the day laborers in Chapter 1 who go to the worker center in Long Island, the details are so accurate that I immediately recognize “Pedro” a beloved activist on Staten Island, who is like a godfather to the community and who is openly gay. I texted my colleague right away to see if I was right. “Yes,” he texted back. “She is so amazing and bad ass!”

Bad ass is right. She tells it like it is, with all of the embarrassing details of flawed, infuriating, and real humans. She knows those details because she is a reporter who becomes friends with her subjects, who participates in their lives, and who relates to them because she is also a flawed human.

In her introduction to the book she warns the reader.

Maybe you won’t like it. I didn’t write it for you to like it. And I did not set out to write anything inspirational, which is why there are no stories of DREAMers. They are commendable young people, and I truly owe them my life, but they occupy outsize attention in our politics. I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers, housekeepers, construction workers, dog walkers, delivery men, people who don’t inspire hashtags or T-shirts, but I wanted to learn about them as the weirdos we all are outside of our jobs. She divides her book into six chapters, each one reporting on the people that she meets in different cities and in different worlds: day laborers, domestic workers, delivery men, construction workers in Staten Island, New York, Flint, Cleveland, and New Haven.

I know people in many of those worlds but I couldn’t write this book and not only because I lack discipline and a publisher’s advance. I couldn’t write this book because Karla is part of this book. Can I call you Karla? I feel like I know you. This is her story too. She was brought to the United States as a very young child by her parents, undocumented immigrants from Ecuador. And she interweaves stories of her family: memories of conversations with her father who worked as a delivery man in New York and her mother, who raised her and her brother and fiercely protected them from gangs and danger outside their home. And she exposes her own struggles with mental illness, considering whether it was caused by the trauma of being separated from her parents when they immigrated to the US and left her behind as a toddler with her grandparents until they earned enough to bring her to the United States. She cites research that shows that the flooding of stress hormones caused by the separation of young children from their parents kills off entries and neurons in the brain, causing permanent psychological and physical damage. She compares her brain to a tree with no branches and imagines a whole generation of immigrant children growing up with stunted trees as brains. So I just think about all of the children who have been separated from their parents, and there’s a lot of us, past and present, and some under more traumatic circumstances than others-like those who are in internment camps right now - and I just imagine us as an army of mutants. We’ve all been touched by this monster, and our brains are forever changed and we all have trees without branches in there, and what will happen to us? Who will we become? Who will take care of us? There are no easy answers to her questions. But one thing is clear. Hers is an American story. The stories of day laborers, domestic workers, delivery men, and the immigrants who clean up after disasters are American stories. And the traumatized separated immigrant children are also part of the American story.

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