The Undocumented Americans:Book Review

Never use the term “undocumented worker” again

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Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s new book The Undocumented Americans is not the story publishers have been begging her to write for years. It’s the story that she wants to tell, about her own family’s struggles with documentation in America, and the countless others stories that overlap yet are intricately different and all together human. Cornejo Villavicencio writes:

“I am not a journalist. Journalists are not allowed to get involved the way I have gotten involved. Journalist, to the best of my knowledge, do not try to change the outcome of their stories as crudely as I do. I send water. I fight immigration lawyers. I raise money. I make arrangements with supernatural spirits to stop deportations… these people are all my parents, and I am their child… ”

Cornejo Villavicencio uses magical realism to not only protect the identities of the people she writes about in this book, but also to imagine the things that she is unable to know. In one heartbreaking passage she write about a man who takes in a wounded squirrel as hurricane Sandy is drowning him in his basement apartment:

“Can we imagine that he was capable of kindness, even as he was drinking? That he was capable of courage, even as he was wounded? What if this is how, in the face of so much sacrilege and slander, we reclaim our dead?”

Throughout the book, Cornejo Villavicencio meets and writes about undocumented families she meets who have gone through/ are going through stories that never make the news. She gets to know immigrant families in Flint, Michigan, noting that undocumented people are many times the last to know about dangers and health risks. She also writes about undocumented people working in cleanup in the aftermath of 9/11 (the largest group of volunteers outside of emergency workers after 9/11 was undocumented people). When she hears the term “undocumented worker,” she is horrified:

“…to describe all of us, men, women, children, locally Instagram-famous teens, queer puppeteers, all of us, as workers in order to make us palatable, my god. We were brown bodies made to labor, faces pixelated…”

A good review here discusses why Cornejo Villavicencio’s book is not written for the ‘white gaze’- it’s written for kids growing up in the US like herself.

midwestern librarian, writer, activist. subscribe —

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