In her introduction to The Undocumented Americans, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio reveals that some names and physical descriptions have been changed to protect the vulnerable. Or maybe, she adds playfully, they haven’t. Readers are thus forewarned when, midway through the book, she offers “Macondo” as the name of a pharmacy that sells prescription drugs to uninsured immigrants. The name of the pharmacy, the same as that of the famous fictional town in Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, hints at an underlying goal of Cornejo Villavicencio’s debut: In order to capture—and protest—the ways that the press and politicians misrepresent undocumented Americans, she has sought to tell their stories in a radically new way that fuses journalism and creative writing.
On one level, Cornejo Villavicencio’s mission is straightforward: She wants to chronicle the crises—in particular the health crises—that undocumented immigrants face in the United States. But she also wants to rescue them from simplistic cultural portrayals as either victims or villains, noble workers or criminals, by introducing us to actual people rather than stereotypes: human beings with the full range of flaws, quirks, desires, pursuits, and relationships. To do so, she insists, she must go beyond conventional reportage and mirror the surreal ways in which they experience their lives by experimenting with a form of magical realism.
As a child of undocumented immigrants herself, Cornejo Villavicencio can experiment in this fashion with some authority. An accomplished journalist who describes herself as “a so-called DREAM-er,” Cornejo Villavicencio is both the reporter and the subject in her book, both a researcher and an object of research. The Undocumented Americans is, in many ways, a memoir—“a high-energy imaging of trauma brain,” in her words—but it’s also an indictment of the hypocrisies of a system that makes and keeps the undocumented ill, both physically and psychologically. As she diverges from reportage into creative nonfiction, she also gestures toward what might be called “magical journalism,” an approach appropriate to documenting the surreal inconsistencies of the undocumented condition.
When Cornejo Villavicencio was 18 months old, her parents left Ecuador for the United States. She joined them in New York City four years later, but the separation left its mark. Cornejo Villavicencio proved to be a gifted student but also a troubled one. By third grade, she was reading Hemingway and drinking Listerine to try to harm herself. After a wealthy benefactor paid for her tuition at a Catholic school in New York, she went to Harvard, where she was one of the first undocumented students to graduate. Now at Yale working toward her doctorate, she has become a successful reporter, writing for The New Republic, The Atlantic, and The New York Times on subjects as diverse as music, mental health, and oceanography.
Her accomplishments would seem to cast her as exceptional, but Cornejo Villavicencio pointedly rejects this status. The media, she argues, has made saints and darlings of the Dreamers while allowing many other immigrants to be vilified. In counterpoint, she wants to show how she embodies contemporary stereotypes of both “good immigrant” and “bad immigrant,” “sick immigrant” (“one of the bogeymen of the right,” she asserts) and “superhuman immigrant” (expected to endure pain but still accomplish feats). For many immigrants, this has been a time of representational emergency. Cornejo Villavicencio wants to blow up these dichotomies and capture the complexities of undocumented life.
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To do so, Cornejo Villavicencio suggests that she cannot rely on traditional journalistic methods. It is not enough simply to report the unexpected facts of her subjects’ lives, as she does, for instance, with a woman who fled her country to escape not violence or poverty or persecution but her role as a wife, mother, and grandmother. For Cornejo Villavicencio, if she is to confront the propaganda of our hyperbolic times, the imperative is to go further still. In Miami, during a ritual with a Haitian priestess who asks what afflicts her, a ritual she undertakes as part of her immersive reporting, Cornejo Villavicencio shares her worries that she cannot protect the people she writes about. The priestess, supposedly possessed by the spirit of an ancestor, offers to turn her into a protective shield and promises to guide her “via dreams, déjà vu, the way the wind blows, the flutter of her heart, and hunches.” In her book, Cornejo Villavicencio embraces the magic offered by the priestess by adopting a style that relies on dream sequences and speculative scenarios.
Cornejo Villavicencio is transparent about her experiments with form and lets the reader know when they’re happening. She also discloses that, during her interviews for the book, she dispensed with using a recorder, translated her subjects’ words in the moment in a literary rather than a literal way, and took handwritten notes that she destroyed after the legal review by her publisher. As with the changed names, the annihilated notes protect her subjects, but they also allow her to take some creative license. She’s straightforward, too, about directly helping her subjects in ways that most reporters wouldn’t. She offers them cash, helps them find a lawyer, and secures a laptop for one of them. She intervenes—and, in several significant interludes, she invents more than just names. She provides imaginary accounts of the deaths of two men to rescue them from the oblivion of their unknown ends, and she offers reveries about the bond that two of her subjects share with animals in order to capture, in the way a novelist might, the pathos of each person.
When, for example, Cornejo Villavicencio writes about a group of day laborers who rebuilt hurricane-ravaged parts of Staten Island as unpaid volunteers, she gives a fictional account of the final hours of a Mexican man who drowned alone in a basement during the storm. The others knew him from undocumented circles on the island and saw him, because he was homeless and an alcoholic, as a “bad immigrant” to their “good immigrant.” Describing a tender, elaborate scene between the man and a wounded squirrel that he rescues from the storm, Cornejo Villavicencio presents a figure who confounds these stereotypes. “Did this happen?” she asks rhetorically at the story’s end. For her, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is her power to make him a hero as well as a casualty and a victim, even if it takes speculating: “What if this is how, in the face of so much sacrilege and slander, we reclaim our dead?”
Cycling through verifiable episodes and visionary vignettes, The Undocumented Americans is loosely organized around the places Cornejo Villavicencio visits to tell their stories: Miami, Cleveland, Flint, New Haven, Staten Island, and Ground Zero in Manhattan. As she moves from one city to the next, she intimately reports on the lives of the undocumented. In Flint, she meets a factory worker who is alone except for two pit bulls he adores so much that he gives them part of his ration of bottled water. In New Haven, she becomes friends with a man who has taken sanctuary in a church for three months, sleeping in the pastor’s office where the clock is stuck at 12:22, a symbol of suspended time worthy of an absurdist play. (“It’s like Vegas in this room,” Cornejo Villavicencio jokes, “no windows and a single broken clock.”) Even wilder are the mechanics of sanctuary itself. To forestall charges of harboring fugitives, churches fax the headquarters of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to let the agency know that people ordered deported have taken refuge within their walls, and prison corporations issue these immigrants ankle bracelets. They are hiding out, but everyone knows where they are at all times.
This almost nonsensical detail allows Cornejo Villavicencio to dramatize one of the fundamental paradoxes of US immigration policy: The immigrants are here, but the authorities behave materially as if they’re not. The repercussions of this surreal pretense are, however, only too real. The pharmacy she calls Macondo does a brisk bootleg trade in prescription drugs because undocumented workers don’t get health insurance from employers and aren’t allowed to buy it privately, even if they could afford to. In the void, as Cornejo Villavicencio shows, “a lot of people count on other people.” A Nicaraguan mother gets migraine medication only because a neighbor with access to a doctor feigns headaches for a prescription by proxy. A US citizen gives her own blood pressure pills to an undocumented friend. Others rely on the medicinal herbs sold in botanicas or on vodou or Santería to cure everything from AIDS to pneumonia to diabetes. In one devastating case that Cornejo Villavicencio recounts, an Argentine construction worker developed brain cancer after working at a site near a chemical plant, and every hospital refused him treatment because he was uninsured. (“Medicine,” his widow concludes, “is a total mafia.”) Since he couldn’t pay out of pocket, he was treated instead by a naturalist who instructed him to chew the juices of exotic fruits (yes, the juices) for 15 minutes every night before bed. This alternative remedy, of course, did not help. But in the desperation of this last resort, one finds the kind of evocative, exigent detail that helps Cornejo Villavicencio build the case that magic suffuses the landscape the undocumented inhabit.
A key theme of Cornejo Villavicencio’s book is the cruel irony of a system that blocks access to affordable medical care for undocumented Americans while also extracting their labor in exploitative conditions that often expose them to injury or illness. Undocumented workers emerged from the Ground Zero cleanup in Manhattan afflicted with cancer, asthma, gastrointestinal problems, PTSD, and depression, among other illnesses, while the practice of subcontracting shielded their bosses from responsibility. One woman Cornejo Villavicencio meets at a support group for undocumented Latinx Ground Zero workers, who has breast cancer most likely linked to the cleanup, tells her: “Yes, we were heroes, but the dangers of the job were hidden from us so that we could work. If they had put up a sign at the site listing what we could come to face, we wouldn’t have gone in.” She received a small sum from a federal 9/11 compensation fund, but many others lacked the documents needed to file claims.
Cornejo Villavicencio also mourns how the harsh realities of undocumented life affect children. She notes that those who have been separated from their parents, through detention or deportation policies, suffer disproportionately from PTSD. Cornejo Villavicencio has decided not to have children, but she often assumes the role of alternative mother to the young people who appear in The Undocumented Americans. For instance, she tells the story of siblings from Ohio whose father had been deported. On discovering that one of them has to walk miles to a library to use a computer, she organizes an online fundraiser to buy them a laptop and a year of Internet service. When one of the siblings asks for help with his homework, she’s thrilled to tell him that his question “Do trees die in winter?” makes her think of Holden Caulfield. Her mind races with excitement at the thought of teaching him who the J.D. Salinger protagonist is, what an allusion is, and how the cultural capital that comes with a college education can save him.
In conjuring the mad and maddening landscape that the undocumented must navigate, Cornejo Villavicencio also turns to her own childhood and the toll it has taken on her psyche. Dryly joking that she loves diagnoses because you get to read about yourself, she lists her own as borderline personality disorder, major depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. She reveals that, at 21, she tried to kill herself. And she traces her fragility to being abandoned in Ecuador when she was a toddler. Though initially skeptical of the therapists who concluded that this childhood trauma had scarred her, she ultimately embraces research that shows that the stress hormones released when a child is separated from a parent kill dendrites and neurons, permanently affecting the mind. “One psychiatrist told me that my brain looked like a tree without branches,” she writes. This insight leads her to connect her condition and her fate to that of the thousands of children torn from their parents through the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” border policy. Envisioning migrant children separated from their parents as “an army of mutants,” she laments: “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?”
Cornejo Villavicencio’s questions demand answers. So too do the material problems and the crises of representation that her subjects contend with perpetually. Her search for a solution has her continually circling back to America’s exceptionalism and her own, despite her doubts about both. At times archly, at times piously, Cornejo Villavicencio keeps returning to the myth of meritocracy that defines the promise of America and that also rests on her—its arguable product and standard-bearer—as a heavy mantle. She shares that she has tattooed on her breast the coordinates of East Egg and West Egg, from The Great Gatsby, and confesses that she had once “drunk the social mobility Kool-Aid through college prep programs run by white people.”
But even as Cornejo Villavicencio expresses her disillusionment with this creed, she passes it on to the next generation. To the Ohio children, she writes: “It’s up to us to honor our parents’ sacrifices by doing better than they did, by having better lives than we saw growing up. I’m here to tell you that the best way to do that is through an education.” In Miami, she tries to encourage one undocumented mother by texting her census data showing that children of immigrants have higher rates of graduation than others. In Flint, she can’t suppress her desire to mentor undocumented teenagers out of the waitressing futures they envision for themselves. She’s eager to help them write college essays and to offer advice on the SAT. But even as she tries to help these children, she is forced to reconcile how Flint’s dire realities—including the dangerous consequences of lead exposure—challenge the very idea that education can help anyone succeed in the United States’ purported meritocracy. “What promises,” she wonders, “can you make to a child about the world of possibility ahead of them when the state has poisoned their bloodstreams and bones such that their behavioral self-control and language comprehension are impaired?”
Still, the pressure to save persists. At one point, Cornejo Villavicencio makes explicit the weight of her relationship with her subjects: “I try to solve shit the way an immigrant’s kids try to solve shit for their parent because these people are all my parents, I am their child, if I wasn’t their child—and I was their child—I should be patented and mass-produced and distributed to undocumented immigrants at Walmarts. I am a professional immigrant’s daughter.” She acts on this sense of responsibility often and broadly. It leads her to support her own parents financially and to give money to a day laborer, a man she barely knows, who was cheated out of wages by his boss. The memory of her father’s relief when generously tipped leads her to tip immigrant servers as extravagantly as she can whenever she can. And her experience as a linguistic go-between for her parents, improvising as she interpreted their words, even lying in order to make unjust systems work for them, leads her to attempt much the same for the subjects of her book.
Cornejo Villavicencio didn’t need to be artful about Lilliana, a Flint grandmother diagnosed with breast cancer. She was still alive, and Cornejo Villavicencio was able to interview her. Yet, the author is artful. Lilliana loves birds, so when she begins chemotherapy, Cornejo Villavicencio texts her photos of macaws to cheer her up. But she doesn’t hear back. In the silence, Cornejo Villavicencio dreams that predatory raptors flock to Lilliana’s backyard. In this detour into magical realism, Lilliana has the distinct impression that strings connect her limbs to the hawks’ wings and that she is a puppeteer controlling their movements. This fantastical passage has a purpose: It allows Cornejo Villavicencio to represent the woman’s resistance against her hunted place in the world with a symbolist flair that leaves a lasting impression.
In the end, the duty that Cornejo Villavicencio feels to “solve shit” also finds expression in the book itself. The Undocumented Americans is her effort to right the injustice of bad representation. Her narrative becomes another way for her to try to translate the struggles and humanity of the undocumented. For Cornejo Villavicencio, this work is driven by filial piety: It’s what she believes she owes her parents and, more broadly, their generation of undocumented Americans. But Cornejo Villavicencio also does it for the children she meets and for those who will be, unless lawmakers change US immigration policy, the inevitable next generation of undocumented Americans.
Macondo, whether a pharmacy in Miami or not, is a real place on the map. A refugee settlement on the outskirts of Vienna that was set up to house Hungarians fleeing Soviet repression in 1956, it was given its name by a group of Chilean asylees who arrived there in the 1970s. Among the world’s oldest refugee camps, it still houses some of its original inhabitants. Their children have been born and lived their entire lives there, alongside elders and newer waves of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.
Cornejo Villavicencio does not refer to the Austrian settlement in her book, but the undocumented America that she depicts faces a similar quandary. The undocumented have been in the United States for so many decades that they are aging without access to Social Security (despite, of course, paying into the benefit pool). Cornejo Villavicencio captures the folly of this when she writes about her own father’s precarious existence as a dishwasher and a delivery “boy” in his 50s. Her work exposes the unsustainable fiction built into the economic and political systems that invite the labor of the undocumented into the country but fail to protect them once here. The pandemic has only sharpened this structural fabulism. Nearly a quarter million health care workers are undocumented, yet the undocumented can’t get Covid-19 relief checks.
With real life as surreal as that, Cornejo Villavicencio’s practice of magical journalism is a fitting response. Her flights of fancy are an attempt to fulfill her promise to her immigrant subjects “to write about them in a way they’d never been written about before.” Could she have accomplished this with a more orthodox approach? Perhaps. But since this is her story as well as those of her subjects, she’s in a position to tell it as few can, and that involves bringing her full subjectivity, with all its wit and sensitivity, all its allusive instincts and imaginative impulses, memorably to bear. The Undocumented Americans might not save anyone or solve anything, but it does passionately and provocatively direct us to see those Americans, whose status this country denies, in all their idiosyncrasy and magic.