Waking Up from the American Dream

Waking Up from the American Dream

Originally Published in The New Yorker

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio - January 18, 2021

Growing up undocumented, I learned that the price of my innocence was the guilt of my parents.

For the undocumented no amount of achievement can guarantee dignity.
For the undocumented, no amount of achievement can guarantee dignity. Illustration by Valerie Chiang; photograph courtesy the author

If you are an undocumented person anywhere in America, some of the things you do to make a dignified life for yourself and your loved ones are illegal. Others require a special set of skills. The elders know some great tricks—crossing deserts in the dead of night, studying the Rio Grande for weeks to find the shallowest bend of river to cross, getting a job on their first day in the country, finding apartments that don’t need a lease, learning English at public libraries, community colleges, or from “Frasier.” I would not have been able to do a single thing that the elders have done. But the elders often have only one hope for survival, which we tend not to mention. I’m talking about children. And no, it’s not an “anchor baby” thing. Our parents have kids for the same reasons as most people, but their sacrifice for us is impossible to articulate, and its weight is felt deep down, in the body. That is the pact between immigrants and their children in America: they give us a better life, and we spend the rest of that life figuring out how much of our flesh will pay off the debt.

I am a first-generation immigrant, undocumented for most of my life, then on daca, now a permanent resident. But my real identity, the one that follows me around like a migraine, is that I am the daughter of immigrants. As such, I have some skills of my own.

You pick them up young. Something we always hear about, because Americans love this shit, is that immigrant children often translate for their parents. I began doing this as a little girl, because I lost my accent, dumb luck, and because I was adorable in the way that adults like, which is to say I had large, frightened eyes and a flamboyant vocabulary. As soon as doctors or teachers began talking, I felt my parents’ nervous energy, and I’d either answer for them or interpret their response. It was like my little Model U.N. job. I was around seven. My career as a professional daughter of immigrants had begun.

In my teens, I began to specialize. I became a performance artist. I accompanied my parents to places where I knew they would be discriminated against, and where I could insure that their rights would be granted. If a bank teller wasn’t accepting their I.D., I’d stroll in with an oversized Forever 21 blazer, red lipstick, a slicked-back bun, and fresh Stan Smiths. I brought a pleather folder and made sure my handshake broke bones. Sometimes I appealed to decency, sometimes to law, sometimes to God. Sometimes I leaned back in my chair, like a sexy gangster, and said, “So, you tell me how you want my mom to survive in this country without a bank account. You close at four, but I have all the time in the world.” Then I’d wink. It was vaudeville, but it worked.

My parents came to America in their early twenties, naïve about what awaited them. Back in Ecuador, they had encountered images of a wealthy nation—the requisite flashes of Clint Eastwood and the New York City skyline—and heard stories about migrants who had done O.K. for themselves there. But my parents were not starry-eyed people. They were just kids, lost and reckless, running away from the dead ends around them.

My father is the only son of a callous mother and an absent father. My mother, the result of her mother’s rape, grew up cared for by an aunt and uncle. When she married my father, it was for the reasons a lot of women marry: for love, and to escape. The day I was born, she once told me, was the happiest day of her life.

Soon after that, my parents, owners of a small auto-body business, found themselves in debt. When I was eighteen months old, they left me with family and settled in Brooklyn, hoping to work for a year and move back once they’d saved up some money. I haven’t asked them much about this time—I’ve never felt the urge—but I know that one year became three. I also know that they began to be lured by the prospect of better opportunities for their daughter. Teachers had remarked that I was talented. My mother, especially, felt that Ecuador was not the place for me. She knew how the country would limit the woman she imagined I would become—Hillary Clinton, perhaps, or Princess Di.

My parents sent loving letters to Ecuador. They said that they were facing a range of hardships so that I could have a better life. They said that we would reunite soon, though the date was unspecified. They said that I had to behave, not walk into traffic—I seem to have developed a habit of doing this—and work hard, so they could send me little gifts and chocolates. I was a toddler, but I understood. My parents left to give me things, and I had to do other things in order to repay them. It was simple math.

They sent for me when I was just shy of five years old. I arrived at J.F.K. airport. My father, who seemed like a total stranger, ran to me and picked me up and kissed me, and my mother looked on and wept. I recall thinking she was pretty, and being embarrassed by the attention. They had brought roses, Teddy bears, and Tweety Bird balloons.

Getting to know one another was easy enough. My father liked to read and lecture, and had a bad temper. My mother was soft-spoken around him but funny and mean—like a drag queen—with me. She liked Vogue. I was enrolled in a Catholic school and quickly learned English—through immersion, but also through “Reading Rainbow” and a Franklin talking dictionary that my father bought me. It gave me a colorful vocabulary and weirdly over-enunciated diction. If I typed the right terms, it even gave me erotica.

Meanwhile, I had confirmed that my parents were not tony expats. At home, meals could be rice and a fried egg. We sometimes hid from our landlord by crouching next to my bed and drawing the blinds. My father had started out driving a cab, but after 9/11, when the governor revoked the driver’s licenses of undocumented immigrants, he began working as a deliveryman, carrying meals to Wall Street executives, the plastic bags slicing into his fingers. Some of those executives forced him to ride on freight elevators. Others tipped him in spare change.


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