Why Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s ‘The Undocumented Americans’ Is a Hardcore Masterpiece

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio kicks off her creative non-fiction masterpiece The Undocumented Americans with a three-word declaration of love: “Chinga la migra.” This inscription establishes the book’s punk sensibility while el Sagrado Corazón de Jesús (Sacred Heart—a Catholic symbol she baroquely asserts) lays down a beat. It will come as no surprise that the writer, herself a 30-year-old formerly undocumented Latina from Cotopaxi, Ecuador, chose the body’s hardest working muscle to represent migrant will.

Throughout the book, Cornejo Villavicenio doesn’t just side-eye the popular and hyper-sentimental rhetoric used to portray bad asses like my late-grandma, Esperanza; instead, she slices and dices it.

“I f*cking hate thinking of migrants as butterflies,” Karla writes. “Butterflies can’t f*ck a bi*ch up.”

Karla’s storytelling lands what my childhood best friend used to call a “double flip.” It lifts both middle fingers at saviors who act as if they’re doing the Lord’s work. Those fools suck at logic. They never seem to understand that because they take the humanity of Latinx migrants for granted, all they’re doing is reproducing and reinforcing the racist status quo.

With zero trigger warning, Karla writes, “I’d honestly rather swallow a razor blade than be expected to change the mind of a xenophobe.” Such casual references to self-harm might make some readers flinch, but I appreciate red.

Karla’s hardcore style turns The Undocumented Americans into a diamond-headed sledgehammer. The book, which engages in a cartographic project critic Edward Said would have approved of, exhibits elegant belligerence.

“Just as none of us is outside of or beyond geography,” writes Said, “none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography.” In this spirit, Karla writes undocumented people into the national literature. An alternative path to naturalization, one that uses art to make Americans of herself and her subjects. In Americans, she flips the whitest of real estate, turning the blank page into sanctuary space, a place where one can both hide from and expose the often ethnonationalist nightmare that is the United States.

“There are no clowns in fields with machetes in America,” writes Cornejo Villavicenio at one point alluding to a nightmare that one of her subjects, a kid named Omar, confided to her. “There are white moms who threw stones at the little girls in Little Rock and there are white moms who wish Andres and Omar and Elias and Greta’s mom will be deported too.”

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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Spatial politics structure The Undocumented Americans. Organized according to place, each chapter chronicles how geographic forces, from New York to Miami to Flint to Cleveland to New Haven, work to crush immigrants. Karla uses the art of the Standard American English sentence to process the violence of these United States and, she explains, that if one is going to write a book about undocumented immigrants, “you have to be a little crazy.”

Plus, “you certainly can’t be enamored of America…that disqualifies you.”

As she travels from locale to locale to become a vessel for immigrant stories that might otherwise remain clandestine, Cornejo Villavicenio develops familial intimacy with, and affection for, her subjects. At one point, she pays a vodou priestess $277.77 for an anti-ICE limpia.

A little bit Studs Terkel, a little bit Zora Neale Hurston, and a whole lotta Nirvana, Karla belongs to the chorus of voices that compose The Undocumented Americans. That sense of oneness comes through on the page.

Karla and I are hunkered down on opposite coasts—she in Connecticut and I in California. Below is a slightly edited/condensed email conversation in which we chat mostly about language—starting with her name:

Cornejo Villavicenio: My parents call me Nena; they’ve never called me Karla. My brother calls me Neen or bae…Latinx people I speak to in Spanish, like my community here in New Haven, or my subjects, people with whom I am close, call me mi amor or mira, lol, or mija, or Karlita. Karla is really only what I go by formally and among strangers. I’ve always found it funny that in Latinx academic circles, they make a big thing of rolling their Rs when pronouncing my name… Karrrrrrla is a performance of my name. But I don’t give a f*ck.

Remezcla: Of all the terms you could’ve chosen to describe our community, you went with Latinx. Some people have incredible beef with that word… When did you first encounter the word? What appeal does the word hold for you? Frankly, I enjoy the word because it challenges. 

I discovered it in college, though towards the end of undergrad we were still using Latin@. I use it because it’s trans-inclusive but language is always changing and circumlocution is okay. Children of immigrants who have to translate for their parents at, like, seven years old know—if you don’t know the right word for something, describe around it. Language is alive.

When I read the title of your book, I immediately thought of Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans. Stein’s ghost seems to lurk throughout the book. How has she influenced you?

Stein is a big influence. When I was briefly in a psychiatric hospital, I took one book with me, which was The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, and I wrote down my mom’s cell phone number on the inside flap… Stein writes like how I think. The title of my book is actually a satirical reference to Henry James, because I thought certain people would consider it sacrilege, and I’m a troll. I remember in high school I read Finnegans Wake and I didn’t understand it but it was how my brain felt and my whole body felt very hot and I knew if someone touched me they’d feel an electric spark, like static, like when you touch a balloon or whatever it is, and the next time I felt that was when I read Stein…

The Undocumented Americans. Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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White people often respond to the brilliance of people of color as if it’s a provocation, especially when that brilliance shines in an academic context. Please talk to me about your experience with this f*ckery. 

White Americans get very upset when I say things like ‘I think I am a genius,’ or that I think my book is a masterpiece, or that I think I am America’s sweetheart. I get a lot of hate mail about my lack of gratitude. That I’m ungrateful—and I find that delicious because that is my whole point. Obviously, I’m a performer on top of being a writer. Immigrant literature, from sociological texts to ethnographic texts to novels, often has gratitude at its core as a theme or a subheading or as a lesson, and I hate that. And when I talk to children of immigrants, of young migrants, and we talk sincerely, we really talk about how toxic gratitude is for our mental health, not only the gratitude we feel for our parents, but for teachers, for the education system, for this country. Look, I am grateful for the things a normal human person is grateful for–health, life, my dog, but most of this was luck. The fact that I was born with an ability to write in a way that can make money. There’s work ethic, sure, but my uncle who is a janitor has more work ethic than anyone I’ve seen.

Books aren’t monologues, they’re conversations, and books talk to each other whether we like it or not. What books is The Undocumented Americans in conversation with?

One book I will proudly name is Jenny Zhang’s Sour Heart, which is a collection of short stories that is so different from my book but is also about the bizarre nature of love between immigrant parents and their children.

Do you write to music?

When I sat down at my desk and needed to get in the mood to write, I listened to Kendrick. I watched a lot of live footage of White Stripes performances because I love Meg White, and her drumming really inspired the cadence of my sentences. I love drummers. I guess I listened to a lot of music I remember from childhood and high school because I have suppressed so many memories and too-heavy doses of antipsychotics in my twenties have ruined my memory. So like Juan Gabriel, Juanes, Selena y Los Dinos, Vicente Fernandez, John Mayer, Spoon, Arcade Fire, The Strokes. Listening to all of that helped me remember who I used to be. Right now, I am listening to Bad Bunny and Fiona Apple.

Who is your intended audience?

The children of immigrants.

How do you want to be read?

Karla. Art by Stephany Torres for Remezcla.
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I just ask my readers to read my book and if something makes them uncomfortable—like the fact that I do not ask migrants why they come to this country, those push-pull factors—to ask themselves why. Why do you expect the story of immigrants to have an explanation of the horrible circumstances in their home country that led to their migration? If you are uncomfortable by how openly I talk about suicide or how often I curse or how often I talk about how brilliant I am, ask yourself why? Ask yourself why you think this book was not an Oprah’s Book Club pick. Ask yourself why so many young Latinx and migrant readers are calling this book radical and punk and it has gotten only one review. Be curious about the systems of power in publishing and media because the belief that migrants are subservient, humble, ever so hardworking and quiet is actively hurting and killing our people right now as “essential workers.”

I want [readers] to know that I have met some of the hardest working, most business-minded, funniest, most beautiful, most genetically blessed, most perfectly proportioned, most athletic, most incredible at math, at computers, at STEM, most poetic, most type-A, etcetera, people in the world, and they have been poor, black, undocumented, dealing with trauma, in the hood, taking care of their elders. It’s not just you. It’s not just your work ethic. It’s not just your talent.

It’s not just me. It’s not just my work ethic. It’s not just my talent.

It’s f*cking luck.

As Anne Sexton wrote, “I am a collection of dismantled almosts.”