Before COVID-19 and protests for racial and social justice roiled the world, there was a scandal that caused tumult in the American publishing industry, and it was known as American Dirt.
That’s the title of a novel written by author Jeanine Cummins who received a whopping seven-figure deal for what critics called a “narco-thriller,” about a middle-class Mexican woman who migrates with her son to the United States by illegally crossing the border after being threatened by a drug cartel. The novel caused a huge outcry among Latinx writers as it was riddled with stereotypes about Mexicans and migrants. It led to a coalition of Latinx authors —partly led by writer Myriam Gurba, who wrote a scathing review of the book that went viral before the book’s January 2020 release— that demanded more visibility and respect for Latinx writers and their stories from the book’s publisher, Flatiron Books. It even led to a special program by Oprah, since she came under fire for choosing the book as her Oprah’s Club pick.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was one of the first undocumented students to graduate from Harvard College and then went on to pursue a PhD at Yale University.
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The tumult also led to deep questions about cultural appropriation and who gets to tell which stories. Cummins, who is of Puerto Rican and Irish descent, had previously admitted that she felt ambivalent about telling a story that really wasn’t hers to tell, as she spoke for the “faceless brown masses.” It stirred up more debate in the literary community because, historically, many writers have written about experiences or cultures not their own.
This book definitely doesn’t read like a memoir or traditional journalism: It’s a hybrid of vignettes or anecdotes about undocumented Latin American immigrants interspersed with personal stories from the author’s life.
In the midst of all of this, some notable books about immigration quietly emerged. One of these, The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (March 2020, One World, 208 pages), provides a fresh cornucopia of stories and voices of undocumented migrants that goes beyond the headlines about immigration and paints undocumented immigrants in a humanitarian light. Unlike the author of American Dirt, this author has intimate knowledge of her subject matter.
Cornejo Villavicencio, who is originally from Ecuador, was brought illegally to the United States by her parents when she was five years old. She was one of the first undocumented students to graduate from Harvard College and then went on to pursue a PhD at Yale University. In an April interview in Electric Literature, the author admits that she knows she personifies the “ideal” DREAMER, the name given to undocumented immigrants who are brought illegally to the United States as children. But she wasn’t interested in writing a DREAMER memoir. “I wanted to write about our daily lives, how we survive, how we thrive, how we cope,” she said.
This book definitely doesn’t read like a memoir or traditional journalism: It’s a hybrid of vignettes or anecdotes about undocumented Latin American immigrants interspersed with personal stories from the author’s life. Cornejo Villavicencio traveled around the country documenting stories about these migrants — everything from those who helped clean up Ground Zero with little to no protection or compensation, to the lack of affordable health care that led to a blooming of botánicas in Miami (religious goods stores that dispense medications without prescriptions) to migrants suffering from the unsafe drinking water in Flint, Michigan. “I attempt to write from a place of shared trauma, shared memories, shared pain,” the author writes in the forward to her book.
While many of us contemplate this post-COVID-19 world and everything it entails, such as our lack of control over our lives, it is useful to remind ourselves that this feeling of not being in control is normal for undocumented people.
With this goal in mind, the author shares intimate details about her family story — how her parents toil in thankless jobs and do back-breaking manual labor, how as a child she served as a constant cultural and linguistic bridge, interpreting for her parents at doctor’s appointments, and how all of this is just expected, it’s just what you have to do. This theme comes up later in the book as Cornejo Villavicencio considers her parents’ aging and her responsibility to take care of them no matter what.
Although Cornejo Villavicencio doesn’t go into detail about forced separations of migrant children at the border, she offers a devastating metaphor of the permanent damage caused by such separations.
While many of us contemplate this post COVID-19 world and everything it entails, such as our lack of control over our lives, it is useful to remind ourselves that this feeling of not being in control is normal for undocumented people. The author writes, “As an undocumented person, I felt like a hologram. Nothing felt secure. I never felt safe. I didn’t allow myself to feel joy because I was scared to attach myself to anything I’d have to let go of.”
“I fucking hate thinking of migrants as butterflies. Butterflies can’t fuck a bitch up.”Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
At times the audience of the book is unclear. The author provides minimal context on immigration policy and fails to define certain terms like DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. In other parts, the author uses Spanish without explanation or translation, which in and of itself could be a political stance. Cornejo Villavicencio is young, after all —just 29 during the writing of the book— and some of her language and attitude reflect this fact. She complains about the proliferation of art that denotes migrants as butterflies: “I fucking hate thinking of migrants as butterflies. Butterflies can’t fuck a bitch up.”
This book does little to address the immigration debate. It will not answer readers’ questions about whether or not undocumented immigrants have a right to be in this country. But Cornejo Villavicencio succeeds in writing about collective trauma due to the causes for and experiences of migration, and providing a snapshot of that trauma. For those of us who know and work with undocumented immigrants, we’ve heard these stories before. The book reads like a young woman yearning for community and identity, which she finds with these other migrants. “I am not a journalist,” the author writes. “Journalists are not allowed to get involved the way I have gotten involved. Journalists, to the best of my knowledge, do not try to change the outcome of their stories as crudely as I do.”
Although Cornejo Villavicencio doesn’t go into detail about forced separations of migrant children at the border, she offers a devastating metaphor of the permanent damage caused by such separations. In sharing her history of mental illness, she mentions how one psychiatrist said her brain looked like a tree without branches. She writes, “So I just think about all 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?”
This book provides a vital and important contribution to the chorus of voices demanding racial and social justice. The author writes, “I personally subscribe to Dr. King’s definition of an ‘unjust law’ as being ‘out of harmony with moral law.’ And the higher moral law here is that people have a human right to move, to change location, if they experience hunger, poverty, violence, or lack of opportunity, especially if that climate in their home countries is created by the United States, as is the case with most third world countries from which people migrate. Ain’t that ‘bout a bitch?” Perhaps the next debate around social justice will create a more just and humane immigration policy that will give people like Cornejo Villavicencio —and the migrants in her book— a voice in the outcome.