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Birchbark Blog

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Louise Erdrich - Wednesday, April 08, 2020

The Undocumented Americans. Early on in this brilliant, vivid, tender, furious work, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio tells the reader that she is crazy.  But I've not met a saner person on the page.  Brave, yes, outrageous and honest, yes, but far from crazy, although Villavicencio shows how being crazy is often the sane response of an undocumented person to life in the United States.

Villavicencio interviews undocumented workers who rushed toward the burning towers on 9/11, cleaned up afterward, ruining their health, people who saved other American lives during Hurricane Sandy.  In every crisis, including this pandemic, undocumented workers are on the front lines caring for the vulnerable, cleaning hospitals, delivering food, working hard in an array of punishing jobs that often put them in danger.  These jobs are essential.  Just look at recent newspaper headlines, "Don't Deport Health Care Workers", "Undocumented Farmworkers, Still Deportable, Are 'Essential'. 

I've dogeared half pages of this book, not only because the information is so vital, but because Villavicencio has remarkable descriptive gifts.  She describes her father's feet, "small and fat, like mine, so you can't tell they're swollen.  After a few years, my dad's feet would hurt so much that he walked like he was on hot coals . . . "  She talks about his life, measured in deliveries, "a raisin bagel with cream cheese and coffee with hazelnut creamer.  A blueberry muffin and black coffee; two cranberry scones . . ." There is Julieta, "a big woman with the cheerful, paranoid manner of a debutante with a secret."  And Theodoro, "a lonely, ancient man, but he says he is fifty-six.  He is a tree.  His mouth is curved downward, wrinkled set deep like bark grooves . . . our conversations feel like dark, hardened sap."

What can I say.  This book.  I read it in gulps, late at night.  I couldn't stop, because I was meeting so many funny, philosophical, courageous and intriguing people, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio included.  I hope you read this book! ( I would press it into your hands if I didn't have to stay 6 feet away from you.)


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