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Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, The Undocumented Americans (New York: One World, 2020), 185pp.Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, The Undocumented Americans (New York: One World, 2020), 185pp.

The day that I finished reading this book our local media in San Diego reported that a suspected smuggling vessel struck a reef near the shore of Point Loma and disintegrated into bits and pieces. Three people died and twenty-nine survivors were rescued. And a year ago, as I walked along our beach, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents were examining an abandoned "panga" boat that had washed ashore with sixteen life jackets and numerous fuel containers.

Barely a day goes by without some mention in the media of the 11 million undocumented people in America. Karla Cornejo Villavicencio (born 1989) is an Ecuadorian-American writer who has channeled her own experiences as an undocumented immigrant into this bestseller that was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction, and on just about everyone's "best of the year" list. She graduated from Harvard in 2011 as one of the first undocumented immigrants to do so. Today she is a PhD student at Yale.

The bland title of this memoir belies its incandescent tone. Don't imagine that you'll read anything like the standard journalistic detachment here. Quite the contrary. Villavicencio writes with an angry edge, and to good effect. She writes not to inspire, or even in the hopes that you will "like" her book.  Rather, she says that she writes "from a place of shared trauma, shared memories, shared pain."

She's captured what real life for her fellow undocumented immigrants is like — day laborers, dish washers, house cleaners, construction workers, dog walkers, deliverymen, and cab drivers (like her dad, before he lost his job and became a salad maker). In her telling, these people are far more than "laborers, sufferers, or dreamers." They are our fellow human beings who deserve our compassion and respect. Each of her six chapters explores a specific place — Staten Island, Ground Zero, Miami, Flint, Cleveland, and New Haven.

Villavicencio doesn't romanticize or condescend to her subjects. In the language of the dust jacket, "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 undocumented immigrants. I loved how she described Anthony Bourdain as "a homie who got it" (cf. his book Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly).  

For more on this important subject, see my reviews of Francisco Cantú, The Line Becomes a River; Dispatches From the Border (New York: Riverhead, 2018), 250pp; Lauren Markham, The Far Away Brothers; Two Young Migrants and the Making of an American Life (New York: Crown, 2017), 298pp; and then the movies El Norte (1983) and Sin Nombre (2009).

Dan Clendenin:

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