NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • One of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard reveals the hidden lives of her fellow undocumented Americans in this deeply personal and groundbreaking portrait of a nation.
“Karla’s book sheds light on people’s personal experiences and allows their stories to be told and their voices to be heard.”—Selena Gomez
FINALIST FOR THE NBCC JOHN LEONARD AWARD • NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, NPR, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, BOOK RIOT, LIBRARY JOURNAL, AND TIME
Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she’d tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell. So she wrote her immigration lawyer’s phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants—and to find the hidden key to her own.
Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented—and the mysteries of her own life. She finds the singular, effervescent characters across the nation often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers. The stories she tells are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects.
In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federally funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11. In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other healthcare options. In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water. In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary. And through it all we see the author grappling with the biggest questions of love, duty, family, and survival.
In her incandescent, relentlessly probing voice, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio combines sensitive reporting and powerful personal narratives to bring to light remarkable stories of resilience, madness, and death. Through these stories we come to understand what it truly means to be a stray. An expendable. A hero. An American.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio arrived in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant when she was five and went on to study at Harvard and Yale and establish a career as a journalist and critic. She knows most migrants aren’t as fortunate, which is why she spent months collecting the stories of undocumented workers, especially those who don’t fit the common narrative of farm or construction laborers in the Southwest. Villavicencio spoke with people across the country, from Miami to Flint, Michigan, small-town Ohio to the Connecticut suburbs. These individuals share their touching accounts—their names and identifying details have been changed to protect them—and give us an intimate look at immigrants’ struggles to secure green cards, healthcare, even drinkable water. We were particularly moved by the way Villavicencio allows herself to be a part of the story. Her worries about how she’ll be able to care for her own parents as they become too old to perform the physically taxing jobs that are the only available option for undocumented workers are absolutely heartbreaking. Harrowing but also inspiring, The Undocumented Americans will alter your idea of the American dream forever.
Journalist Villavicencio draws on her background as an undocumented immigrant and Harvard University graduate to deliver a profoundly intimate portrayal of the undocumented immigrant experience in America. She speaks with Latin American workers who lack documentation to prove they helped to clean up Ground Zero, and therefore cannot get compensation for their health issues; women in Florida who share medications with each other and rely on clandestine pharmacies and botanicas for their health care; immigrants affected by the Flint, Mich., water crisis in "disturbingly specific" ways; families struggling in the aftermath of a parent's deportation; and undocumented people living in a church sanctuary in New Haven, Conn. Villavicencio interweaves her own story with these accounts, reflecting on her relationship with her aging parents and their decision to leave her behind in Ecuador for several years as they worked to pay off debts and save enough money to bring her to the U.S. She portrays her subjects' pain with messy familiarity rather than pathos, yielding profiles that are both exceptional and emblematic. Though she writes that she'd "honestly rather die than be expected to change the mind of a xenophobe," Villavicencio's highly personal and deeply empathetic perspective serves as a powerful rebuttal to characterizations of undocumented immigrants as criminals and welfare cheats. Readers will be deeply moved by this incandescent account. Correction: The author's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this review.