‘I Came From Nothing’: An Undocumented Writer Defies the Odds

‘I Came From Nothing’: An Undocumented Writer Defies the Odds

Originally Published in The New York Times

Concepción de Leon - October 21, 2020

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, a National Book Award finalist for “The Undocumented Americans,” talks immigration, her unconventional approach to nonfiction and why impostor syndrome doesn’t faze her.

“I don’t want all of the images of our people during this period to be of us on our knees or in cages,” Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, the author of “The Undocumented Americans,” said. “I want this book to also exist as a snapshot of this period in time.”
Credit...Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio never wanted to do something as clichéd as writing about immigration.

But when she was a senior at Harvard University, she wrote an anonymous essay for The Daily Beast about being undocumented. Soon literary agents were asking for a memoir.

“I was really offended by that,” Cornejo Villavicencio, now 31, said, “because it wasn’t about my writing. I knew that’s not why they were reaching out.”

It wasn’t until the day after the 2016 election, feeling shellshocked by the results, that she felt ready. She had to do something, she thought, to give voice to the millions of people living in the country illegally who, like her, feared what might happen to them under a Donald Trump presidency.

The result was “The Undocumented Americans,” published in March, in which Cornejo Villavicencio chronicles her own immigration story and profiles undocumented immigrants across the United States: the trauma of those recruited to clean up ground zero; the loneliness of day laborers in Staten Island; the challenges of those facing the water crisis in Flint, Mich.; and the role of herbalists and healers in Miami.

Now her book is a finalist for the National Book Award in nonfiction — the first time an undocumented person has been up for the prize, according to the National Book Foundation. One of her goals in writing it was to push back against the one-dimensional caricatures she saw of Latinx and undocumented people. She also wanted to shift focus from Dreamers like her to older immigrants, who she feels are often erased or reduced to their job descriptions.

Cornejo Villavicencio’s is one of several books by undocumented or formerly undocumented writers, including Jose Antonio Vargas, Julissa Arce, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Dan-el Padilla Peraltaand Javier Zamora, written in the last five years. Vargas, whose book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” was published in 2018, called Cornejo Villavicencio’s book “a significant contribution to personal-essay literary journalism,” notable for its emphasis on migrants’ interior lives.

“It’s almost like a rock ’n’ roll memoir,” he added. “It has an energy of its own.”

“The Undocumented Americans” is a nonfiction finalist for the National Book Award this year. 

Cornejo Villavicencio was born in Ecuador in 1989 and brought to the United States to join her parents a few years later. She grew up in Brooklyn and Queens and now lives with her partner, Talya Zemach-Bersin, in New Haven, Conn., where she is finishing up a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale University.

Next up is a young adult novel loosely based on her teenage years in New York City, as well as an essay collection about cults that she is working on with her editor, Chris Jackson of One World.

For a time, Cornejo Villavicencio thought she was on a path toward legalization. She got a worker’s permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, and a temporary green card when she married Zemach-Bersin. But the green card has expired, and upheaval at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services means the renewal process is uncertain.

“I was inching toward being able to feel safe, and now I’m falling back down,” Cornejo Villavicencio said. “It just shows how precarious the situation is for undocumented people.”

In two interviews this month, she discussed the story she needed to tell, the toll it took and her complicated relationship with the American dream. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.

Why did you decide to write this book?

I read a lot of James Baldwin, and he specifically said, “I didn’t want to do this. I was living in Paris. This thing started happening in America. It’s now my time to pay my dues.”

I could have chosen to not write about this, and my mental health would’ve been a lot better off for it, but it was my job to go back. It’s so funny because when you’re a kid of color and you’re an immigrant and you grow up in the ’hood, the whole narrative around your life, since childhood, is getting out. And at this moment, it was like, No, you have to go back.

James Baldwin, he attempted suicide multiple times, and this took a great toll on him, but this is not something we mention often when we think about James Baldwin. I think it’s important to acknowledge the toll that being the witness, being the person who tells these stories, the toll it takes on artists of color and these communities.

You’re so frank in the book about your own struggles with mental health. Why was that important to you to include?

I think the meaning of my life is to make other people hurt less. That has expanded from when I was younger to just meaning my parents. Now I know that I can’t solve my parents. I can’t fix my parents. I can’t take away my parents’ trauma. But I can influence younger people who look up to me, and I can make them hurt less.

You’ve talked about how you financially support your family. How do you think about money? And how do you reconcile this need with the pursuit of your career or dreams?

I’m still figuring that out. I feel it is my responsibility to take care of my parents until they die, and I feel like that’s shared by a lot of people.

Most of my money, aside from taxes, has gone into immigrants — into my family and into the girls I take care of and into the community, and not just in the form of people who need help. For a while, when I had a sense that someone might’ve been undocumented and worked at a restaurant, because I thought of my dad, I would just leave a $100 tip, every time, out of guilt.

Even though I’m undocumented, I have a work permit. I don’t know when it’s going to expire — U.S.C.I.S. is being bankrupted — but in the time that I have, I’m able to make money writing about undocumented people, and part of that seems a little crass. And so I feel like some of the money should go back to the community. Otherwise it would be unethical to me to make a living writing about undocumented people.

“I could have chosen to not write about this, and my mental health would’ve been a lot better off for it,” Cornejo Villavicencio said, “but it was my job to go back.”
Credit...Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

You could easily be the poster child for the “American dream.” But you question that in the book. Why do you want to change that narrative?

I think people should have their own relationship to the American dream, and it shouldn’t be something you can pick up inscribed on a T.J. Maxx pillow. I think a lot of “good” immigrants who’ve “done it the right way,” who are model immigrants, they have a very narrow view of the American dream that they’ve spread the gospel about. I think the American dream has to mean something different for every single immigrant. It’s private.

In my experience as someone who has been blessed to go through this process, I see what it took. What it took is a lot of luck. A lot of genetic accidents that I had nothing to do with.

I listened to your piece for “This American Life,” and you said that when people ask whether you felt culture shock when you arrived at Harvard, you tell them, “No. I kind of felt like it was my birthright.” I thought that was so funny. Where does that feeling come from?

Part of why I said that was just to troll white people. But no, I didn’t have impostor syndrome. I was actually talking to my partner about this today. When I was in high school, I took a journalism workshop at N.Y.U. which was very prestigious. There was this one white lady professor who took an interest in me.

She told me that she thought I was a gifted writer and had a good voice, and she would not be surprised if she saw my name on the spine of a book at Butler Library. I think she was at Columbia. That part was true. But what she also said was that I looked shocked and that my eyes were wide open and I looked on the verge of tears, because it was like that hadn’t occurred to me, or nobody had ever said something like that to me before. And that was just her imagination [laughs].

I remember feeling really humiliated when I heard her account of the first time apparently someone ever told me I could be a writer. And I was like, Why would I have been shocked that I can write a book? I realized that this was a white narrative: that there was something lacking in me, and that not only was there something lacking in me and my background, but that I was sort of obviously insecure and had low self-esteem.

When I went into those classrooms at Harvard, I saw kids that were very wealthy. A lot of them had gone to boarding school, some of them were children of celebrities, some of them were children of politicians. And all I saw was that I could hold my own in a conversation with them, and that I was self-made and they were not.

I came from nothing. I created all of this world myself, just like my parents as immigrants created a world themselves. These kids — honestly, it would’ve been weird if they hadn’t gotten into Harvard. There are some kids whose last names were on the buildings.

But me? I was a statistical anomaly. I felt like I was a rare [expletive] beetle. And this didn’t stop me from being depressed, or from years of self-harm or any of that, but in a classroom or in an environment where it has to do with my writing, I have never lacked self-confidence.

There are several instances in the book in which you turn to magical realism. Why did you turn to that form?

I’ve never had an intuitive connection with nature or with the land, but it’s just always made sense to me that if something so unbelievably sad happened, that all of the natural things around us would react and never be the same. So when I learned about the Holocaust as a kid, I was like, “How did the rivers not become rivers of blood? How did the ocean not stop being salty? How did entire species not get wiped out and end up — like bird species — in people’s yards?”

In my mind it was like a belief system in the form of a literary technique that was used to bring justice to the page when there was impunity in real life and in our environment, where there are disappearances, where people’s bodies are being mutilated, where we’re being thrown into unmarked vans, where we’re living under what seems like a banana republic dictatorship. I thought it was the perfect moment to use magical realism.

How do you hope this book will be received in the world?

I hope that immigrants of all backgrounds are able to find themselves in it. I hope that people who are not immigrants, who have been considered aliens or undesirables or freaks, will be able to find something of themselves in it.

I don’t want all of the images of our people during this period to be of us on our knees or in cages, or begging for soap. I want this book to also exist as a snapshot of this period in time, where there are people who are different, who are imperfect, who are weird, who are hardworking, who are just people.

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