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The Undocumented Americans
Cover of The Undocumented Americans
The Undocumented Americans
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • One of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard reveals the hidden lives of her fellow undocumented Americans in this deeply personal and groundbreaking portrait of a nation.

“Karla’s book sheds light on people’s personal experiences and allows their stories to be told and their voices to be heard.”—Selena Gomez
FINALIST FOR THE NBCC JOHN LEONARD AWARD
• NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, NPR, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, BOOK RIOT, LIBRARY JOURNAL, AND TIME

Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she’d tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell.  So she wrote her immigration lawyer’s phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants—and to find the hidden key to her own. 
 
Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented—and the mysteries of her own life. She finds the singular, effervescent characters across the nation often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers. The stories she tells are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects. 
 
In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federally funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11. In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other healthcare options. In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water. In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary. And through it all we see the author grappling with the biggest questions of love, duty, family, and survival. 
 
In her incandescent, relentlessly probing voice, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio combines sensitive reporting and powerful personal narratives to bring to light remarkable stories of resilience, madness, and death. Through these stories we come to understand what it truly means to be a stray. An expendable. A hero. An American.
NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • One of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard reveals the hidden lives of her fellow undocumented Americans in this deeply personal and groundbreaking portrait of a nation.

“Karla’s book sheds light on people’s personal experiences and allows their stories to be told and their voices to be heard.”—Selena Gomez
FINALIST FOR THE NBCC JOHN LEONARD AWARD
• NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE LOS ANGELES TIMES, THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, NPR, THE NEW YORK PUBLIC LIBRARY, BOOK RIOT, LIBRARY JOURNAL, AND TIME

Writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was on DACA when she decided to write about being undocumented for the first time using her own name. It was right after the election of 2016, the day she realized the story she’d tried to steer clear of was the only one she wanted to tell.  So she wrote her immigration lawyer’s phone number on her hand in Sharpie and embarked on a trip across the country to tell the stories of her fellow undocumented immigrants—and to find the hidden key to her own. 
 
Looking beyond the flashpoints of the border or the activism of the DREAMers, Cornejo Villavicencio explores the lives of the undocumented—and the mysteries of her own life. She finds the singular, effervescent characters across the nation often reduced in the media to political pawns or nameless laborers. The stories she tells are not deferential or naively inspirational but show the love, magic, heartbreak, insanity, and vulgarity that infuse the day-to-day lives of her subjects. 
 
In New York, we meet the undocumented workers who were recruited into the federally funded Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11. In Miami, we enter the ubiquitous botanicas, which offer medicinal herbs and potions to those whose status blocks them from any other healthcare options. In Flint, Michigan, we learn of demands for state ID in order to receive life-saving clean water. In Connecticut, Cornejo Villavicencio, childless by choice, finds family in two teenage girls whose father is in sanctuary. And through it all we see the author grappling with the biggest questions of love, duty, family, and survival. 
 
In her incandescent, relentlessly probing voice, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio combines sensitive reporting and powerful personal narratives to bring to light remarkable stories of resilience, madness, and death. Through these stories we come to understand what it truly means to be a stray. An expendable. A hero. An American.
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  • From the cover Chapter 1

    Staten Island

    August 1, 2019

    If you ask my mother where she’s from, she’s 100 percent going to say she’s from the Kingdom of God, because she does not like to say that she’s from Ecuador, Ecuador being one of the few South American countries that has not especially outdone itself on the international stage—magical realism basically skipped over it, as did the military dictatorship craze of the 1970s and 1980s, plus there are no world-famous Ecuadorians to speak of other than the fool who housed Julian Assange at the embassy in London (the president) and Christina Aguilera’s father, who was a domestic abuser. If you ask my father where he is from, he will definitely say Ecuador because he is sentimental about the country for reasons he’s working out in therapy. But if you push them, I mean really push them, they’re both going to say they’re from New York. If you ask them if they feel American because you’re a little narc who wants to prove your blood runs red, white, and blue, they’re going to say No, we feel like New Yorkers. We really do, too. My family has lived in Brooklyn and Queens a combined ninety-seven years. My dad drove a cab back when East New York was still gang country, and he had to fold his body into a little origami swan and hide under his steering wheel during cross fires in the middle of the day while he ate a jumbo slice of pizza. Times have changed but my parents haven’t. My dad sees struggling bodegas and he says they’re fronts. For what? Money laundering. For whom? The mob. My mother wants my brother and me to wear pastels all year round to avoid being seen as taking sides in the little tiff between the Bloods and the Crips.

    My parents are New Yorkers to the core. Despite how close we are, we’ve talked very little about their first days in New York or about their decision to choose New York, or even the United States, as a destination. It’s not that I haven’t asked my parents why they came to the United States. It’s that the answer isn’t as morally satisfying as most people’s answers are—a decapitated family member, famine—and I never press them for more details because I don’t want to apply pressure on a bruise.

    The story as far as I know it goes something like this: My parents had just gotten married in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, and their small autobody business was not doing well. Then my dad got into a car crash where he broke his jaw, and they had to borrow money from my father’s family, who are bad, greedy people. The idea of coming to America to work for a year to make just enough money to pay off the debt came up and it seemed like a good idea. My father’s family asked to keep me, eighteen months old at the time, as collateral. And that’s what my parents did. That’s about as much as I know.

    You may be wondering why my parents agreed to leave me as an economic assurance, but the truth is I have not had this conversation with them. I’ve never thought about it enough to ask. The whole truth is that if I was a young mother—if I was me as a young mother, unparented, ambitious, at my sexual prime—I think I would be thrilled to leave my child for “exactly a year,” as they said it would be, which is what the plan was. I never had to forgive my mom.

    My dad? My dadmydadmydad was my earliest memory. He was dressed in a powder-blue sweater. He was walking into a big airplane. I looked out from a window and my dad was walking away and, in my hand, I carried a Ziploc bag full of coins. I don’t know. It’s been almost...
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  • AudioFile Magazine Powerful, eye-opening, and important, this audiobook, narrated by the author, is a must-listen. Karla Villavicencio documents her travels across the country for the purpose of collecting the stories of undocumented immigrants. A DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipient herself, Villavicencio is honest, raw, and engaging as she recounts her own experiences and shares interviews with those she meets along the way. The stories span individuals' everyday lives and include many moments that have impacted this country and the undocumented community as a whole: 9/11; the Flint, Michigan, water crisis; the 2016 presidential election; and more. Those who listen to this work with an open mind and an open heart will undoubtedly be changed by the experience. K.S.M. � AudioFile 2020, Portland, Maine
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    All copies of this title, including those transferred to portable devices and other media, must be deleted/destroyed at the end of the lending period.

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Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
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