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The Undocumented Americans

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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.

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 nation of singular, effervescent characters 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, 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.

208 pages, Hardcover

First published March 24, 2020

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About the author

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

4 books598 followers
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio has written about immigration, music, beauty, and mental illness for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Glamour, Elle, Vogue, n+1, and The New Inquiry, among others. She lives in New Haven with her partner and their dog.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 2,585 reviews
Profile Image for Thomas.
1,402 reviews8,125 followers
April 15, 2020
Such an honest and important book that centers the lives of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio names early on in The Undocumented Americans how we often tend to focus on the miracle successes of DREAMers or the wretched trauma that occurs at the border, ignoring the humanity of undocumented Americans living in our presence every day. With great awareness of her own positionality, she travels to New York to meet undocumented workers who participated in the Ground Zero cleanup after 9/11, to Flint, Michigan where she connects with those who struggle without clean water, and more. She displays the wide range of emotions experienced by undocumented Americans in the face of constant threat of deportation, the trauma and aftereffects they go through after forceful separation from their families, as well as their perseverance and the love that connects them to those they care about. The specific moments she shares – like a father who could not access chemotherapy for his cancer due to his undocumented status, then loses his ability to chew food before passing away, or a kid whose classmates say “I hope your mom gets sent back to Mexico too” after his dad gets deported – really pulled at my heartstrings.

Overall, I’d highly recommend this book, especially for those like me who need to be humbled by and reminded of our privilege so we can be better allies and advocates for undocumented folk. Villavicencio is unflinching, determined, and persuasive in her pursuit for justice and humanity for her undocumented community. I loved the rawness of her anger and willingness to name wrongdoing as wrongdoing. While I found it a little difficult to follow her own story interspersed among all the other narratives, I still felt moved by the complex emotional space she holds for her own family’s journey, and therefore her own. Grateful that she committed to writing this book even amidst the difficult conversations and the pain she went through along the way.
March 27, 2020
In two years, America took three of my beloveds: all grandmothers. I remember the aisles pouring in with mourners at the first funeral, how I could not look my cousins in their bloodshot eyes, could not quell their pain with my own. Those eyes, warm with loss, found me the following year as I watched my grandmother, wracked with grief, buckle over her own mother’s casket, murmuring in tongues. The third came in the fall, days after my 27th birthday: cancer, terminal, Granny’s atrophied I love you’s a whisper over the receiver. There was no funeral in December; she’d been wisped to ashes in the sky.

So when I say my hope in this nation died with the other folx of color who endure vanishing acts of injustice, disparity, and death, I sense Karla Cornejo Villavicencio knows what I mean. She shoulders the losses of so many with unflinching determination in her book, The Undocumented Americans, a marathon of the heart that called Karla to unbury the stories of working-class immigrants whose lives, dreams and heroism would have otherwise been cut from American history.

From Staten Island and Ground Zero to Miami, Flint, and Cleveland, Karla leaves not only a trail of tears in her wake, but a path of hope to lead her people. My teeth clench for Fernando Jimenez Molinar and the others who disappeared in the debris of 9/11; my heart breaks for Miamians who must rely on makeshift medicine for coughs that swell into cancer; I am angry that Flint has scared undocumented Michiganders into drinking poisoned water for fear of deportation; and no matter how futile, I still hold out hope that Javier will see his family again, in this life or another.

The Undocumented Americans is as relative and harrowing as it is urgent for our times, and it has lingered with me since the day I finished it. I was utterly totaled by the stories of these undocumented heroes and heroines who risk their lives every day for a country that continues to deny them, and was made anew by Karla's tenacious journey to give her people — our people — a proper send-off in a language that is nothing if not beautifully our own.

If you liked my review, feel free to follow me @parisperusing on Instagram.
Profile Image for Elle.
584 reviews1,254 followers
February 4, 2022
This is a hard one to review. Not because there isn’t anything to say, but because it leaves you feeling helpless. It’s not just the stories themselves, which are some of the most heartbreaking and demoralizing I’ve read in nonfiction, but the resignation in the tone with which they’re told, both by the author, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, and the people who she’s chronicling.

It isn’t the American story we’ve become accustomed to hearing, that many have sardonically referred to as the ‘bootstrap stories’, but a harsher version without the trademark happy ending. Cornejo Villavicencio’s portrayal is a more honest account, which is why we’ve all been, for the most part, content to ignore it. A DREAMer herself, the author sidesteps the well-treaded reporting of undocumented immigrants like her. She was brought to the US as a child, graduated from Harvard in 2011, and is now working towards her PhD at Yale. Cornejo Villavicencio knows she is the exception, and she resists the urge to write the outlier’s story.

What she gives us instead are accounts of people who don’t let us retreat into the idea that we are part of the “greatest country in the world”. The Undocumented Americans is the portrait of the utter cruelty of an apathetic nation. And something that becomes abundantly clear while reading is that wherever there is crisis in America, there will be the Undocumented bearing the brunt of it. They will suffer themselves, rally together to help one another as well as American citizens, and then once the emergency has passed will be swiftly shuffled back into the margins.

It’s a cycle where our government and society takes and takes while offering little in return besides stigma and scorn. And you can feel the underlying fury in Cornejo Villavicencio’s words. She has grown up in this country, succeeded in it, but her own undocumented status made her vigilant for cracks in the foundation. Her gaze is withering, but there’s not one critical comment or dark-humored joke that is not earned. She knows exactly where to stick the knife to deliver that killing blow. There’s no insulting attempt to “humanize” in this work, as the subjects’ humanity is inherent.

I’m not going to get into specifics of the essays in the book; I won’t be able to do her storytelling justice. The audiobook is excellent, for anyone who may be interested in that, but make sure not to crank up the speed or you’ll miss a lot of the author’s tone and some casual sideswipes. Once I finished, I was struggled with what the next step would be. Not everyone can organize or run for office, and outside of a few specific career paths there’s not much direct policy that can be impacted by the average person.

But maybe that’s the point; that this is a book that’s supposed to knock your morale down to its lowest level. It’s supposed to make you question your own humanity and the inherent ‘rightness’ of a system that has allowed you to live, if not thrive, while others struggle to survive. This is not a book that’s meant to uplift; you will find no comfort here. Is the eventual goal to change minds? Possibly. That would be something to hope for. Though the author is aware that she doesn’t have direct control over people’s response to her words.

And if she can’t make you empathize, can’t make you understand—at the very least she will not allow us to look away.


**For more book talk & reviews, follow me on Instagram at @elle_mentbooks!
52 reviews1 follower
April 18, 2020
I had such high hopes for this book and once I received the ARC, I immediately put it to the top of my list of books to read. I am such a fan of sociological books and that is what I thought this read would be. I was mistaken.

Rather than telling the stories of undocumented Americans, the author relates everything back to herself and it reads like a memoir. Not to mention that the author's commentary is extremely annoying. She claims to be a promoter of social justice and continuously uses insensitive phrases and has an extreme victim mentality for herself. In chapter four, she even says that she chooses not to self-harm because it is too much of a white person thing. What an outrageously ignorant statement.

I was extremely disappointed in this book, though I enjoyed the moments of storytelling for the underrepresented. Unfortunately, I could not get past the annoying, memoiristic and self-pitying commentary from the author.
Profile Image for Karen (idleutopia_reads).
168 reviews94 followers
February 10, 2020
Language can often fail us and can be manipulated to present a one-dimensional view of our life and those in our community. It then becomes jarring to see these depictions and realize that they don’t match the world you’ve seen, lived and loved. In this way, The Undocumented Americans comes into our purview to highlight the nuances that we know exist contradicting the headlines that constantly bombard us. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio takes her empathy, her desire to help, her experience as a child of immigrants, as a Dreamer and as a human being to allow us to come along with her to get to share in people and their stories.

Villavicencio is hilarious, so much of her writing is weaved with humor because she understands that we can either cry or laugh about it, so we choose to laugh. The tapestry weaved into this story contains threads to show the many dimensions of The Undocumented Americans. I laughed a lot in this story, I cried and I was enraged by the many injustices that we are currently living in. I felt an impotence that I wasn’t comfortable with but I also felt proud of the resilience and hope shown by the people that Villavicencio was able to connect with.

This book is about Villavicencio’s journey towards different parts of the United States, she looks back at events like the World Trade Center, Hurricane Sandy, the Flint Water Crisis and looks at how these events further damage people without documents. We are allowed to witness the trauma of family separation through Villavicencio’s own life and through the lives of people that are currently experiencing it. We are reminded of what makes the Latinx community so amazing, how we keep our humor, we keep our empathy and we keep our hope. There are so many things that resonated with me about this book but there is one that stuck out, Villavicencio writes, “I’m looking to interview children of immigrants partly to get a blueprint for myself because I’m lost and I am scared, so I set off to find somebody a little older, someone who has been doing this for a while”. Holy shit did this craft the language of my soul! I didn’t realize how much being the child of immigrant has made an imprint into my way of thinking. I am constantly seeking blueprints where there aren’t any and trying to figure out what the future will look like for my parents and how I can help to mitigate some of their fears despite feeling I have no control to what the future is shaping out to be.

So here’s the question, why should you read this book? Well, given the popularity of a certain book it seems that there is a desire for readers to seek out a narrative of what’s happening regarding immigration in this country. This book welcomes you to look at different people’s lives, their desires, their strengths, and their humanity and get to witness how they live in a country that constantly shows them that it doesn’t want them. But you know what screw that, they’re here, they have made a life, they have survived and they will continue being here because ...”as an undocumented immigrant, everything we do is technically against the law. We’re illegal”. So do yourself a favor and pre-order this book!
Profile Image for Dennis.
723 reviews1,384 followers
April 6, 2020
I'll be honest and tell you that I read American Dirt earlier this year and fell victim to the book's sensationalized storyline. Sometimes as a white man, I don't understand my privilege as much as I should due to also being a gay man. When I heard that Karla Cornejo Villavicencio was coming out with a non-fiction book with real life accounts of undocumented people sharing their journey and struggles, I knew that I wanted to read these stories. As a New Yorker, I tend to believe that my ideals tend to gravitate towards more accepting and sympathetic when it comes to the topic of America's undocumented population, but I know that no matter what I believe, I still need to learn more. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio doesn't have all the answers in The Undocumented Americans and she doesn't claim to have them. This book is unapologetic, raw, and compassionate. I read it in one sitting.
5 reviews1 follower
November 7, 2020
Unpopular opinion: I really did not like this book. I had such high hopes based on the rave reviews it was getting but this was beyond disappointing. The writing style was grating and self-serving.

Here’s a line from the author that pretty much sums up how I feel about this book: ��Then I felt like I sounded like a white girl trying to slum it, so that made me feel disgusted with myself, so now I felt like cutting my arm with the room service knife but that seemed even whiter, so I didn’t do anything at all..”
Profile Image for Lupita Reads.
102 reviews171 followers
May 3, 2020
With the utmost care and brilliance, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio takes the power of storytelling to unveil the struggles and perseverance of Undocumented Americans throughout major crisis across the nation from 9/11 to Flint, Michigan. And in adding in snapshots of her own story, The Undocumented Americans reads like a pixelate of voices demanding to be heard and recognized. If you read any book this year, make it this one.
Profile Image for Traci Thomas.
511 reviews9,268 followers
August 16, 2020
I really enjoyed this book and the ways the author mixed her own story with the stories of undocumented Americans and the recent history/politics of immigration in the US. Her writing was really exciting. I wanted more context. I appreciated hearing about and from the undocumented people that are overlooked so often in the narrative around immigration. The day laborers. The elderly. The sick. Very good book.
August 28, 2021
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As the title itself suggests this book is about undocumented Americans. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio never treats the people she is writing of as passive ‘subjects’, or worst still ‘objects’, her gaze is neither voyeuristic nor impersonal. She does not give the impression that she is filtering their experiences and stories, even if she admits early on that due to privacy she may or may not have altered names and specific/recognisable details. In the interactions she has with those who are undocumented she isn’t a stoic journalist or interviewer, she doesn’t only ask questions. She shares her own thoughts, feelings, and circumstances with them, and often seems to form a bond with them. Which is what sets apart The Undocumented Americans from other works that wish to elevate the voices of those who are so often silenced.

Cornejo Villavicencio isn’t interested in relating stories of those deemed ‘exceptions’, as exceptionalism ignores narratives that are not deemed ‘extraordinary’. Throughout the course of 6 chapters, moving across America—Staten Island, Miami, Cleveland, Flint, New Haven—Cornejo Villavicencio reveals the complex lives, identities, and histories of undocumented immigrants. The voices she ‘collects’ in these chapters belong to day labourers, housekeepers, family members who have been separated from their loved ones, those who have lost loved ones because they do not have medical insurance, those who have been or are still being affected by the Flint water crisis, and the first responders to 9/11.
The people Cornejo Villavicencio connects with do not want our sympathy or pity. They share their experiences with her hoping perhaps that their stories will reach those in need, those who perhaps like them are being or have been exploited by a country that treats them as ‘illegal’ and ‘aliens’. Even in the UK there is this stereotype of immigrants as lazy when the exact opposite is true. Chances are they work harder and for much less than the ‘natives’, whilst being subjected to all sorts of injustices. Cornejo Villavicencio challenges this view of immigrants as criminals, lazy, welfare cheats, ‘less than’. She also confronts the myth of the ‘American Dream’ as she comes across people who do nothing but work, yet, no matter their hard work they risk being deported or are forced to turn to ineffective herbal remedies in order to cure serious illnesses or health problems they probably have developed while working physically and emotionally draining jobs and/or in dangerous environments.

Cornejo Villavicencio speaks frankly and readers will feel her anger and sadness. She confronts the realities of being an immigrant, of working unfathomable hours for little or no money, of being treated unfairly, of experiencing health issues and being unable to seek treatment. However sobering their stories are, the people she writes demonstrate commendable qualities. They are multi-faceted individuals and their stories will undoubtedly resonate with many.
Cornejo Villavicencio is an empathetic writer, who shares her own experiences and feelings throughout the course of this work. While this is a read that will both incense and depress you, it will also (hopefully) make you want to do something about it.

Although I live outside of America, immigrants do not face an easier life here in Europe. There are “immigration removal centres” (who thought that the word ‘removal’ would be okay when speaking of HUMAN BEINGS?), governments which are willing to let people drown rather than reach their shores (and at times orchestrate these shipwrecks), collude with other governments in order to stop people from leaving their countries….the list of horrors go on. I urge you, if you are in a position to donate to charities such as 'The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants' and 'Migrant Help' (these are UK based) to do so.

The Undocumented Americans is a heart-breaking, urgent, thoughtful work. Cornejo Villavicencio is a talented writer whose prose is both eloquent and raw. I will definitely read whatever she publishes next.
Profile Image for Kathleen.
1,277 reviews119 followers
October 13, 2020
National Book Award for Nonfiction Shortlist 2020. Villavicencio is a DACA recipient and through her hard work, became one of the first DACA students to attend Harvard, and is now pursuing her Ph.D. from Yale.

Her parents left her back in Equador when she was just 18 months old and did not have her join them until she was 5 years old. This separation from her parents caused trauma that her doctors tell her caused her brain to be stripped of dendrites resulting in a history of migraines and panic attacks. [Experts have warned that this will happen to migrant children who have been separated from their parents and living in detention.]

For this book, Villavicencio traveled to areas of the country to interview undocumented immigrants in well-guarded communities who are reticent to talk to outsiders. These include the day-laborers that sub-contractors hired to clean-up Ground Zero after 9/11 and now suffer the aftereffects of the toxins they were exposed to. They include residents of Flint, Michigan that suffered from drinking lead in their water. She spoke with people that work seven-day-a-week manual labor without sick leave or medical care and how that wears a person down.

The United States does not want these people, but the irony is that the experience they are escaping from in their native countries—hunger, poverty, and violence—often trace back to policies pursued by America. Recommend.
Profile Image for BookOfCinz.
1,378 reviews2,179 followers
October 6, 2020
To my mother, who should have a different life, I will do everything in my power to give you a different future.
Finally, to my father- you'll never know what it is like to carry your father's heart in yours when it has been so torn to shreds for your sake.


This book pulls at your heart for the entire read and doesnt let up. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes about The Undocumented Americans in New York City, Miami, Staten Island, Flint and New Haven. We get a real life look into what it is like living in American Undocumented, it means you have no insurance, freedom, access to health care and is constantly worrying about finances. It is a heart breaking read overall but very necessary and we should not look away. How Villavicencio humanizes everyone she writes about is something to behold. My heart broke for all of them BUT this is not trauma porn. There is a sense of hope, strength and power in these stories.

I particularly loved reading about how the author formed lasting friendships with the persons she interviewed. I loved reading about Leonel who claimed sanctuary in a church so he would not get deported. The author gave us a history lesson in Sanctuary and I was so happy to learn.

This for me is what I consider a necessary read and I hope a lot more persons take the time to read this book.

I leave you with the last words of this book.....
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me
Profile Image for N N.
117 reviews16 followers
December 25, 2020
The parts of this book that are actual research and facts and stories about undocumented Americans are very interesting, but interwoven into it seems to be the memoir of an angry, immature, self aggrandizing narrator. The narration swings from rage to entitlement to bravado; it seems willing to call anything a micro aggression (ie, the complaint that Mexicans have to dial 011 to call home from the US otherizes them? Please). After reading the introduction I just couldn’t take this book seriously, and unfortunately reading the first third did not redeem it.
Profile Image for Allyson Perry.
12 reviews4 followers
November 22, 2020
I feel one star isn’t fair to those who shared their experiences with the author, but multiple times I almost quit reading. The stories of undocumented immigrants, especially those who worked at Ground Zero, are incredible. However, the author is insufferable. You know those people that one-up every experience you tell? That’s her. Her commentary and attitude is just awful. It overshadows the purpose of sharing the accounts of those living day-to-day in the US. On top of it all, the truth and facts are heartbreaking enough that she shouldn’t have made up medical diagnoses to add more drama to the narrative.
Profile Image for Claire.
789 reviews167 followers
February 18, 2022
The Undocumented Americans is required reading. It came to me highly recommended by a raft of trusted friends, and my extremely high expectations were not only met but exceeded. Villavicencio, herself an undocumented American immigrant has constructed a piece of excellent reportage (although she does not consider herself a journalist). This book takes a different angle to many of the stories we read about undocumented immigrants, not focusing on the border crisis itself, but the lived experiences of these migrants. Villavicencio tells real, personal stories about undocumented Americans who supported the 9/11 clean up, who are impacted by the water crisis in Flint, who are trying to access healthcare, who are providing day labour. It’s a confronting narrative about lives that are lived in many ways on the margins, but in others right in the centre of American life. It is the personal nature of these stories that is so affecting- taking things we know from abstract to specific. An exceptional book that I cannot recommend more highly.
Profile Image for Natalia Sylvester.
Author 10 books71.4k followers
July 6, 2020
It's taken me a long time to write a review of The Undocumented Americans simply because it's hard to put into words what an incredible work this is. In the introduction Villavicencio writes, “This book is not a traditional non-fiction book. Names of persons have all been changed. Names of places have all been changed. Physical descriptions have all been changed. Or have they?”

Villavicencio talks about the act of translating her interviews like a literary translator translates a poem—in other words (or at least, my interpretation of this) is that her loyalties don’t lie with the factual truth of any one story but its complex, emotional, nuanced core, the things that can never be understood, but that are essential to any true level of understanding. It struck me as one of the most compassionate ways to tell a story: to refuse to turn people into subjects, especially people who have already been marginalized and made vulnerable just for existing.

This intentional ambiguity between what we think of as facts vs fiction not only bridges the gap between what is known and what is unknown, but more importantly challenges the limits of our own imagination, and causes us to question why we hold our perception of truth in such high regard when some of the deepest truths are too hard to unearth precisely because they’re held by others.

This book says screw your empathy. It wasn't written for that.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 9 books191 followers
November 29, 2020
Important stories but an odd mix of reportage and insertion of self. Neither completely journalism nor memoir, the mix can be off-putting.
Profile Image for Kelly (and the Book Boar).
2,394 reviews7,265 followers
December 16, 2020
Find all of my reviews at: http://52bookminimum.blogspot.com/

In case you haven’t figured it out yet – my reading tastes are all over the map. I also have a severe case of FOMO so if I see a book enough I will want to read it too. I was shocked to see that I’m the first of my Goodreads’ friends to have reviewed The Undocumented Americans, but it has been all over Bookstagram and I didn’t want to miss out. I’m going to be totally honest and say this one almost lost me from the jump because I simply do not want to read/watch/listen to anything more about 911 . . . .



I know it makes me sound like a monster, but I lived through it (mind you, in the Midwest where things were 100% still safe) and watched the planes fly into those buildings while rocking a two month old baby - trying to figure out what kind of fucking world I had brought him into. I don’t like to be bamboozled into reading a 911 narrative. And also, when it comes down to it? It doesn’t matter if an undocumented citizen was at the Twin Towers or a cleaning rooms in a hotel in Great Bend, Indiana – if they pass away there’s a good chance . . . .

Nobody will ever know you died. Nobody will ever know you lived.

And that is what is important : (

While undocumented is the theme of this novel, the “documented” term could be removed from many of these narratives and replaced with underpaid, underpriviled, underinsured, POC, etc. As always, the people who could truly benefit (and please don’t mistake that comment equating I don’t believe I benefit from books like these – they serve a purpose to remind me exactly how far my white privilege extends and I absolutely know I need to read/hear the people telling them) won’t ever read them or muster any sympathy for the struggles of others. Then there are those who will still blame “not doing it the right way” for being the root of the problem. I don’t even know what to say to them so I’ll simply borrow the author’s own words . . . .

As an undocumented immigrant, everything we do is technically against the law. We’re illegal. Many of us are indigenous in part or whole and do not believe borders should exist at all. I personally subscribe to Dr. King’s definition of an “unjust law” as being “out of harmony with the moral law.” And the higher moral law here is that people have a human right to move, to change location, if they experience hunger, poverty, violence, or lack of opportunity, especially if that climate in their home countries is created by the United States, as is the case with most third world countries from which people migrate. Ain’t that ’bout a bitch?

I love this author’s voice and that she is ready to pull the trigger on her dry, dark wit rather than shy away from it. I’ll be first in line for whatever she releases next.

While I have you here, the one other thing I will say is to those who post things like “don’t read THE BOOK THAT SHALL NOT BE NAMED - read this one instead. Uhhhhh, how ‘bout stop telling people what to do and just be happy that they are readers. Especially when the two books are aren’t even comparable. This book is an amalgam of memoir and biographical vignettes. American Dirt is a fictional book club selection chosen for its “un-put-down-ability” factor. They are both super interesting reads. But again, they aren’t the same genre at all – and hell the fictitious book is about the getting here while the nonfiction is about those already here so once again, apples and oranges.

Profile Image for Steph.
478 reviews248 followers
July 21, 2022
this book is super heartbreaking, and unfortunately necessary.

villavicencio is an extremely talented writer, and she uses a sharply poetic creative nonfiction approach for this subject. she tells the stories of many undocumented americans she's known or interviewed, but all of their stories are peppered with details from her own life and the lives of her parents. it's personal. it's painful.

every chapter is about a place. every chapter discusses a unique issue or problem faced by undocumented americans. and honestly, every chapter ends with a gut punch. villavicencio's words are powerful, and the individuals she talks about all come to life in raw detail. day laborers doing back-breaking work and being taken advantage of by their employers. immigrants thanklessly sacrificing their health to do post-9/11 cleanup. debilitating labor, lack of healthcare access, and home remedies as a necessity for those who cannot afford actual scientific medicine. flint michigan as a microcosm of the rest of the country - a place where the government passively wishes its people dead. the constant threat of deportation, and its psychological effects on children of immigrants. so much fucking trauma.
Profile Image for Jessica.
346 reviews203 followers
March 2, 2020
Thank you to the publisher for the free review copy

“I am not a journalist. Journalists are not allowed to get involved the way I have gotten involved. Journalists, to the best of my knowledge, do not try to change the outcome of their stories as crudely as I do. I send water. I fight with immigration lawyers. I raise money. I make arrangements with supernatural spirits to stop deportations. 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.”

The United States makes life impossibly hard for undocumented immigrants. Either you will be familiar with these challenges and see yourself or your family and friends in these pages or you will be enlightened to the reality that many face.

Getting a drivers license in some states, health insurance, obtaining clean water, facing the threat of being deported at any moment, being able to retire with dignity or having any financial safety net are just some of the daily struggles that this book shines a light on.

Karla, one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard, gives a piece of herself to each of the people she interviews, and to readers of this book. You can feel her exhaustion and rage in each page. She has created something here that is really special.

An incredible, unforgettable ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/5 book. Pre-order, read, and share this book as much as you can.
Profile Image for julieta.
1,099 reviews17.1k followers
March 30, 2021
Whatever this book might have that I did not love so much, really is not important enough to take stars off it, the stories are just wonderful, it's learning about different lives, and the problems people face from living as undocumented in the US. I really loved all that she shows in this book.
Profile Image for Ileana Cartagena.
152 reviews12 followers
September 6, 2021
I am Ecuadorian and have lived in Ecuador my whole life. Ever since I can remember, people around me left Ecuador for the United States: one of my aunties, one of my best friends, my mom's best friend with her family, one of my dad's best friends, several acquaintances, neighbors, friends of friends, etc. Most of them left with tourist visas and then just stayed. Some of them fared better than others and could send their kids to college; some of them come back only to visit, others came back for good. Some of them we never heard of again. But there is something common to all of them: they never speak about how they make a living in the US. Some may tell that they do this or that but without any details. So, in my opinion, Karla has written a book that needed to be written. She has truly given a voice to those without a voice. Her own story is interlaced with the stories she tells, which make such stories more real.
I also think that this book is relevant not only in the US, but in the whole world, especially in Latin America. Our countries have received thousands of Venezuelan immigrants in the last 5 years. And I am ashamed to tell that they have not been well received. They have suffered the same abuse our immigrants endured in the US, from people who is indignant about immigrants being abused in the US. I hope that this book and books like this one help to change minds about immigrants.
Profile Image for Will.
200 reviews
May 29, 2020
In her introduction to The Undocumented Americans Karla Cornejo Villavicencio writes:

On the night of the 2016 presidential election, I spent a long time deciding what to wear…I wore a burgundy velvet dress with a sheer lace paneling, a ribbon in my hair, and a leopard print faux fur coat over my shoulders…I would not be ushered to an internment camp in sweatpants.

Cornejo Villavicencio’s book is both political and highly personal, mixing memoir with her collected ‘stories’ of other undocumented Americans like herself. She claims she is not a journalist, writing I’m no Ronan Farrow but her reporting (journalistic or not) is excellent and committed, taking a different path from many that have been explored since Trump’s election. Her stories are not focused on the border crisis. Instead she interviewed undocumented Americans who did 9/11 cleanup, those dealing with the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, those seeking alternative medication for uninsured illnesses, and the ageing population, beaten down from years of manual labor, and facing a future without health benefits, social security (although many paid into it) and little to no savings. There are stories of hope and love, but many of the stories are heartbreaking, resulting in my feeling not only sad but angry. In the end, however, it is Cornejo Villavicencio’s winning voice that makes this book so special. She is vulnerable, empathetic, often funny and, well, a little kick ass. My only criticism is the book is slim. I wanted more and was not ready to part with the author.

So…returning to the Introduction, Cornejo Villavicencio concludes with:

…y hermanxs, it’s time to fuck some shit up.

I think she accomplished that, in her own unique way.



edit: after reading and reviewing this yesterday I came across Louise Erdrich's GR blog of the book. I love and respect Erdrich so I'm sharing. A better review than I could ever possibly write. https://www.goodreads.com/author_blog...
Profile Image for Mbgirl.
235 reviews8 followers
May 28, 2022
Best book in this new month of 2021 that I have read. Brilliant, sharp writer. Funny, edgy, quick, irreverent, and conflicted.

Sharp, incisive, piercing points. Dazzling.

For example, that there could be brown Latinx whose loss was way more personal than for a white person, but simply is not culturally acceptable. You’ll have to read for yourself.

Or the super heartbreaking vignette of drowned homeless who tried to save a squirrel or chipmunk... the humane face of the marginalized.

Peter, Javier... all stand out for me. As well as her own complex history. Did she ever say at what age exactly she left Ecuador? Her maternal great grandmother saved her mother, and the irony of her own grandmother saving her.

Does a great job in showing how there is no clear-cut, black and white at viewing this very very prescient topic. They aren’t a bill number; these are human beings.

I too thank the however many benefactors she had, all of whom helped catapult her to Harvard and Yale.
Profile Image for Bonnie G..
1,221 reviews176 followers
February 17, 2021
This was an illuminating and surprisingly often sweet and funny listen, though its center is the personal impact of US immigration "policy," something that is not sweet or funny at all. This is a 3-star I think everyone should read. Its not average as the star-rating implies. It is truly worth reading, though really flawed.

The way in which the US treats black and brown immigrants has been one of the greatest shames of the 19th-21st centuries, but the Trump administration upped the ante. We began subjecting people, whose only crime was a wish for a better life and consequent penetration of a national boundary, to horrors we would (most likely) not deploy against murders, rapists, and enemy combatants. People hiding in plain sight for years were suddenly being scooped up (often as a result of complying with the mandatory reporting rules that had been set before as a condition for remaining in the US) and sent to countries to which they often no longer have any connection and sometimes where they face physical danger. The author shares stories of people impacted in an engaging and edifying way. That said, things get a little complicated when Villavicencio weaves together memoir, reporting, and political polemic. I know this has become a thing that many authors to, and has been done in books I liked very much, but the balancing act is a hard one, and this author (who clearly has a hard time compartmentalizing/ maintaining appropriate boundaries in general) did not balance.

To be fair the author does not fail, so much as she makes no attempt, to maintain any sort of journalistic objectivity. She explicitly says, somewhere, near the halfway point as I recall, that this is not reporting and that she is not objective. But. She sort of holds herself out as a reporter until she doesn't, and it becomes hard to figure out what she wants the book to be. If it is a memoir, that is fine -- she has a particular story to tell and she is a hell of a good storyteller. But if its a memoir what is the point of her hauling herself to Florida and Michigan to tell these other stories. Do they bolster her tale, add dimension? They are interesting stories which not told nearly often enough, but did they belong in the middle of one woman's attempt to find her place in the American immigrant story?

I was honored to have access to these other stories. I loved that she did not fall into the trap of portraying immigrants as "the wretched" Most of the people we meet find joy and pleasure in their lives. They are not perfect, they are sometimes generous and sometimes selfish and petty, they are abused and abusers, they are hard working and not. They are people navigating a cruel and insane system and they are just trying to survive. These are stories I want to hear, stories that create connection. I just didn't understand what this author was doing with them. These people shared difficult stories, for some stories that embarrassed them or put them at risk, and then the author made their stories all about her (and sometimes about her dog.) These brave amazing people deserved more. Also, I am not sure why the Flint story was even included. I am from Michigan, have friends and family who were impacted by the water crisis, and this is a story I want more people to hear. I do think the Flint story is in part about disenfranchisement. Flint is pervasively poor and majority black. The Flint Latinx population is pretty small, about 4% of the population, and though Latinx people's access to clean water was impeded by government ID requirements for free bottled water, its a small part of a giant terrible story which was not given its due in this portrayal. I want to read that book, but relegating it to a chapter in a book about something else took the wind out of its sails.

In addition to not really framing what story she wants to tell, I suspect Villavincencio hasn't quite figured out how to feel about many things, things she alternately celebrates and shits all over. Her own failure to understand who she is in the world she inhabits is, I suspect, to blame for a lot of the muddiness. There is so much good here, so much worth reading, but it would have all been so much better if it had been delivered as two separate books, each with less gut-feeling unsupported opinion and a clearer sense of authorial purpose. But read it anyway.
Profile Image for Skyler Autumn.
224 reviews1,376 followers
November 14, 2021
5 Stars

Short and sweet review. This book is heart-wrenching and eye-opening and will elicit compassion from anyone willing to read it.

Books like this should be required reading in American Schools not 1984 by George Orwell which let us be honest isn't helping American people and their socialism paranoia.
Profile Image for Jiny S.
300 reviews23 followers
June 2, 2020
There are so much love and eloquence in this discourse which the author exposes the injustice and discrimination of undocumented Americans.

The United States has always had a complicated, dependant, and abusive relationship with its southern neighbors, especially in the current political climate. Its treatment of those who chose to cross the border for asylum or better opportunities is unsympathetic and vulgar.

This novel seeks to break the popular and very false stereotypes of South Americans being lazy and stealing American’s jobs. In reality, they often work very hard, with minimal pay, doing jobs that no other Americans want to do. And yet, they have to deal with condescending attitudes as if being born in a different geographical location makes them less of a person. Without proper papers, undocumented Americans live in constant fear of deportation. They do not receive social resources despite contributing to society.

The author documented two national disasters in recent memory from the perspective of undocumented Americans: The 9/11 attack and the Flint water crisis. It is heartbreaking to learn that undocumented Americans who risk their own lives during the attack on the twin towers are denied social and health services and resources. In Flint, when auto manufacturers stopped production because the water quality was so bad it would erode machine parts, citizens who drink the water every day were the last to find out. The public notices do not take into account the actual demographic, and some people only found out when they talked to their families in Mexico on the phone. There will always be a double disadvantage for documented Americans in difficult times. Their status made them especially vulnerable because they could not receive help and resources as members of society.

The US has a history of ingrained racial divide, not only with its neighbor in the south but also with its African-American population (and recently China). Discrimination and exclusion create problems in societies that affects everyone. Understanding undocumented Americans start with understanding their plight and sharing their voices. It could be the first step to improving the lives of citizens.

This piece of writing is most eloquent and persuasive and belies the discordance in the author’s identity and experience of being a Harvard graduate and paperless at the same time.
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