memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

The United States may call itself a country of immigrants, but it’s not a country that’s known to be kind to immigrants. Not in the past, and not now; not by our government, nor by our citizens. Obviously there are major exceptions; there are a ton of organizations out there fighting really hard to make this country a safe and welcoming place for our newcomers (I’ve volunteered teaching English as a second or other language in the past with one of these great organizations!), and I don’t want to discount their hard work and amazing contributions. But as a whole, the crazies tend to shout incredibly loud and drown out the voices of the helpers; we make it as difficult as possible to come here legally (unless you’ve got plenty of money, and then the rules don’t count); and it’s difficult to start a new life here when you have nothing, because we offer so little in terms of help. One of the people speaking up about how difficult it is for immigrants is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, an undocumented writer (she’s on DACA) of undocumented parents. Her book, The Undocumented Americans (One World, 2020), is an eye-opening gut-punch that examines the difficulties of living in the United States without legal status.

How much do you know about undocumented immigrants? You’ve probably read the stories of people smuggled in on trucks or making dangerous journeys across the desert with coyotes (people paid to smuggle others into the US), and seen the tragic photos of families drowned in the Rio Grande. What happens to the people who make it here? They pick your fruits and vegetables. They clean your office buildings. They build your houses. They package your food. They cook the food you eat in restaurants, they clean up after natural disasters, they rushed in after the Twin Towers fell on September 11, 2001 to sift through the debris that gave them cancer in order to get New York up and running again. They serve and give. They do all of this without health care, often at massive personal expense, with zero protection- if their boss doesn’t pay them that week, there’s nothing they can do. And so they suffer. And Karla Cornejo Villavicencio wants you to understand exactly how much, and what that does to not only them, but to their families. Their children. Their communities.

There are other books that will illuminate the reasons people come here illegally- desperate for safety after their lives have been threatened, searching for a way to make more than $50 per week at a full-time job, etc.- but Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio is more interested in explaining the emotional and physical damage her people have suffered. Are suffering. Will suffer. She’s angry- rightfully so, because for all that a large faction of our country likes to talk about respecting life, we certainly have no problem using the lives of these people- taking what we need when we want restaurant food, clean offices, help after natural disasters- and then throwing them away once they’ve served their purpose. Their pain is fresh and raw, and what they suffer is passed down the line to their children. The Undocumented Americans is heavy proof that we as a society are shirking our responsibilities to humanity.

This is a sad, heavy book about a group of people who have suffered a lot even before arriving here, and who continue to suffer after they arrive. Ms. Cornejo Villavicencio floods each page with raw emotion, anger, desperation. She’s a Harvard graduate and a current PhD candidate at Yale, but she makes the case that so often, when we hear of undocumented immigrants, we hear of stories like hers, the brilliant kid who climbed higher than anyone could have possibly imagined, and don’t they deserve citizenship for their brilliance? But what about the other people- the ones who came here out of desperation, seeking safety, the opportunity for their kids to simply go to school, who work two or three jobs (or more) at a time in order to make sure their children would have paper and pencils and whose services and lives and abilities we Americans take advantage of every day of our lives? Are people only worth it to us when they contribute massively to capitalism? Are human lives only worth as much as their financial potential?

We’re so willing to dismiss this group of people, and this book will show you exactly what we’re looking past every day. I can hear the arguments now- “Well, they came here illegally, so it’s their own fault that-” and I want to scream. They’re human beings. They’re people. Why are we so hell-bent on making people suffer for such stupid, arbitrary rules? Why can’t we take care of people in a way that makes them more able to participate in society? Why are we so willing to throw so many people away, simply because they had the audacity to be born somewhere else?

This is a book that will make you cry, if you’re at all a decent person. I’ll continue to vote for people who want to be part of a compassionate solution, and to do what I can so that the people Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about have better, safer, healthier lives and more opportunities than just breaking their bodies down piece by piece and dying young because of it. Because they’re people, and they deserve so much better than the cast-off scraps we deign enough for them. This book was truly amazing and heartfelt.

One thought on “Book Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s