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Adult nonfiction Review: The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Title: The Undocumented Americans

Author: Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Year Published: 2020

Category: Adult fiction (mystery)
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map)USA (New York, Florida, Connecticut, Michigan, and Ohio)

FTC Disclosure: I received this book as a gift

Summary (from the inside flap of the book): 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.

Review: I got this book for Christmas and am glad I read it. It was a National Book Award finalist this past year and I can see why.

Cornejo Villavicencio writes with an interesting style. At times it is academic and journalistic, telling the stories of people with whom she has met and at others it is casual and full of swear words. It reminds the reader that she is talking about issues which affect her and her family personally. In amongst the stories of the undocumented (including herself), we also learn of her own struggles with mental illness and her relationship with her own parents. By combining the personal with the larger problems faced by immigrants, the author helps the reader better understand the issues.

While all the chapters were interesting, the first one is the one that has stuck with me the most. This is the chapter in which she discusses the lives of the undocumented men on the labor lines in Staten Island, NY. I think most big towns and cities have labor lines, I know my town does, and it's easy to forget that they are mistreated by those who offer them work, that they don't have health benefits, and just how difficult their lives are.

The author brings to light important issues about immigration in general, undocumented people specifically, and show the reader the impact it all has on family.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Alphabet (Author)--"C"
  • Diversity--Latinx author and subjects
  • Literary Escapes--Connecticut, Florida and Ohio
  • Popsugar--A book about a social justice issue (undocumented people, immigration, health care)

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