November 30, 2023

Undocumented American

National Book Award finalist Karla Cornejo Villavicencio coming to NWS to talk memoir and myth
By Anna Faller | March 20, 2021

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio’s debut memoir, "The Undocumented Americans," has oft been acclaimed as a punk manifesto. And while the title isn’t completely misplaced — she does, after all, thank The White Stripes’ Meg White in the acknowledgments — Cornejo Villavicencio’s style of storytelling is far more about feeling than routine rebellion.

“I’m most moved by storytelling in songwriting,” she says. “I find it to be the ability to recreate an experience of a moment in life so fully that you feel it viscerally. That’s what I try to do in my writing.”

She does it well. Her memoir has earned a place as a finalist for the National Book Award, and locals and fans alike can hear directly from the author about her experience as an undocumented immigrant and writer at an upcoming National Writers Series event, Thursday, April 8. Northern Express talked to Cornejo Villavicencio about her life and book ahead of the event.

Born and raised for a short time in Ecuador, Cornejo Villavicencio came to America with her parents as a young child. Her visceral reaction, as a grown woman and now, permanent resident of the United States, to the 2016 presidential election marks her memoir’s inception.

“The day after Trump won, I kept getting these emails from people who were scared for me and were trying to offer their homes as refuge,” she says. “But I was like, ‘I’m not hiding out.’”

Though formally documented as a resident, Cornejo Villavicencio says she still maintains a sense of distrust. “I can still be deported,” she says, “so I’m on some spectrum of ‘undocumentedness’ that is still in my peripheral vision at all times.”

Cornejo Villavicencio is certainly in good company, as more than 11 million of the United States residents remain undocumented. And while there’s no shortage of representation for migrants in popular film and literature — Latinx voices like Sandra Cisneros and Gabriel Garcia Marquez come immediately to mind — their stories often cater to a citizen audience.

“My book has gotten attention because it was written by an undocumented person,” says Cornejo Villavicencio. “[Writing] for a white audience is going to be starkly different because your goals are going to be different — you’re going to seek to inspire, or you’re going to seek to elicit pity or gratitude in the reader’s life. I think we’ve been seen as subjects, and that’s because we haven’t been writing our own stories.”

While there’s no such thing as a singular undocumented experience, Cornejo Villavicencio maintains that her own status as a migrant is essential to her identity. “Being a migrant is so fundamental to who I am,” she says, “that I don’t consider any of the slurs that are associated with being a foreigner hurtful, because to me they’re just words that are associated with an underworld that I am proud to be a part of.”

Her experience, however, is singularly American. “This country loves cowboy stories,” Cornejo Villavicencio says. “I think I’m allowed to have a self-mythology about being undocumented that is also about movement, and survival, and making a world out of nothing. Leaving something for the next generation that didn’t exist before you is so uniquely American, and I sort of consider it a part of the American mythology that I’m an extension of.”

As Cornejo Villavicencio addresses in her book, that mythology — and the conversation it requires — inextricably comprises mental health. Though not a topic often discussed among immigrants, she is quick to point out that the psychological experience of an undocumented person is just as complicated — and just as worthy of consideration — as that of any individual. “Obviously, given the life we live, there are going to be negative effects on our mental health,” Cornejo Villavicencio says.

Pursuit of happiness is nothing if not persistent and, like, many other U.S. residents, migrants are just as susceptible to glorifying "the grind."

“In general, I think what we see are very high-functioning people who keep it all in and who suppress it,” she says. “I think our society kind of sees mental illness when you’re no longer able to contribute to the capitalist agreement. I thought it was important to tell that story.”

It’s one that also applies to the author herself. “Certainly, when I am able to notice I’m not well,” she says, “is when I’m not able to work, or I’m not able to write.” But, make no mistake — Cornejo Villavicencio isn’t masking mental illness. “I have borderline personality disorder,” she says. “It’s a very stigmatized condition, and I want to be open about it, because nobody’s open about it.”

This code of candor by which Cornejo Villavicencio prefers to abide has earned her a certain reputation amongst readers — and it’s one that she works hard to keep. “I have a very unique relationship with my readers,” she says. “They trust that I’m honest with them, so that’s the deal.”

Still, Cornejo Villavicencio’s work — not to mention that of the rest of the country — is far from finished. As such, she’s sought a spiritual purpose for storytelling, as well. In her book, Cornejo Villavicencio describes a particular Latin American tradition of tying a red string around a child’s wrist “as a form of protection or to ward off evil,” she says, “like a talisman.”

It’s this sense of protection — of power in numbers — that Cornejo Villavicencio aims to offer in her writing. “I wanted my book to not just be something where [readers] could see themselves in and where they could see that they were not alone,” she says, “but also something that they could carry around — like a talisman — and feel a sense of community, and where they could feel they were protected by me and by each other.”  

National Book Award finalist Karla Cornejo Villavicencio will join the National Writers Series for a free, virtual event at 7pm Thursday, April 8, to discuss "The Undocumented Americans." The book, published last March, is available for preorder, with a 20 percent NWS discount, at Horizon Books. Guest host for the event is Myriam Gurba, an award-winning author and editor-in-chief of weekly criticism magazine, Tasteful Rude. To register for the event, click here.

Myriam Gurba is a Mexican-American author and artist. A California native and graduate of U.C. Berkeley, Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Brick House Cooperative publication, Tasteful Rude, and the author of four books, including the memoir "Mean," which gained critical acclaim as one of Oprah Magazine’s top LGBTQ books of all time. Gurba’s other awards include the Edmund White Award for her debut novel, "Dahlia Season," for which she was also a Lambda Literary Award finalist. In addition to her full-length works, Gurba’s countless essays and criticism have appeared in The Paris Review,, and 4Columns. She resides in Long Beach, California.


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