The PEN Pod: What It Means to Be Essential with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of The Undocumented Americans. Brought from Ecuador to the United States at the age of five, Karla reports on the deepest, most hidden aspects of what it means to be undocumented in America. We spoke with her about the importance of community support in ongoing efforts to advocate for undocumented immigrants and to support the ongoing protest movements, what it means to be considered “essential,” and why she thinks healing is punk rock.
You crossed the country to tell stories of undocumented people, that I think really not very many people have heard. Can you share what in this book moved you the most?
I think it was in the first chapter, or the second chapter, you get the stories of the delivery men who died on 9/11. My father was a delivery man for 15 years. That’s how I became acquainted with the world of the delivery men in New York City. They call themselves delivery boys. A lot of them died that day, and there’s not really a clear count of how many died that day, for various reasons. The employers didn’t come forward with admitting whether they had hired these men or how many they had hired—people who are undocumented don’t really leave a record behind, some family members were afraid to come forward, some men lived alone.
But there was a makeshift memorial left outside Ground Zero of a bicycle, like a bicycle messenger’s bike, in memory of the men who had died that day. There were fake carnations on the bike, and there was a sign that said “In memoria de los delivery boys”—in memory of the delivery boys who died that day. I tell the story of what the job really entails and what it looks like in a broken-down way. I think during this pandemic, people have realized how essential the job is, and by using the word “essential,” they’ve glossed over a lot of personal responsibility in how our lives are intertwined with these people. Like, tipping is such an important part of the conversation. I grew up entirely—like all my childhood and teenage years—we lived off of my father’s tips. That’s how he was paid. Tipping is so important. I hope when people read the book, it adds a lot of depth to the contours of their relationship with the people who are delivering their groceries, food, and packages during the pandemic.
“I think during this pandemic, people have realized how essential the job is, and by using the word ‘essential,’ they’ve glossed over a lot of personal responsibility in how our lives are intertwined with these people. Like, tipping is such an important part of the conversation. I grew up entirely—like all my childhood and teenage years—we lived off of my father’s tips. That’s how he was paid. Tipping is so important.”
You mentioned this concept of the essential worker, and what the tipping economy looks like. How do you think this might raise awareness among people now, who haven’t been conscious of that before, or have willingly looked away?
I think the book covers certain crises in recent American history, where undocumented people have been not just on the front lines, but have been first and second responders. So I look at 9/11, Hurricane Sandy, and I interview a lot of undocumented men and women who did cleanup work—both paid and as volunteers after both. A lot of this happens after Hurricane Katrina, after a lot of natural disasters and national disasters. And I think people were really surprised by that with my book, but for people who didn’t read my book, I think they became aware of that when they saw who was still working during the pandemic, and how they were not receiving—from their employers—the necessary PPE they needed in order to work. And that was not because the government was unprepared for the pandemic, or because certain states were being punished by the federal government because of their sanctuary policies or whatever—that is just an old story.
Like, after 9/11, the majority of the people who did the Ground Zero cleanup efforts were undocumented people, and they did not receive any kind of safety equipment for the cleanup. They received these very flimsy, like, dollar-store masks. They had to wade in waist-deep into basements, after Hurricane Sandy, that had live electrical wiring. After these natural disasters and national disasters, what happens is that there are contractors that are hired by the government, and they hire subcontractors. They obviously know where to find cheap labor, where people who, if you give them checks that bounce, they are not going to have the ability to sue you or to take you to court.
“I think this is such an important time to be asked this question [of what it means to be undocumented], because right now, we see the importance of anger and rage, how human beings need to be afforded the full range of emotions, and how that is a right that we have, and people of color are often not afforded that right, because it further villainizes and criminalizes us.”
I also discuss worker centers in the book, which people might not know about, but there are places where day laborers and housekeepers are taught their rights. There’s Know Your Rights training—not just for when you face ICE, but also what their employers are required to provide for them when they are hired to do work. This includes, for women, understanding what constitutes sexual harassment when they are working as housekeepers or as nannies. A lot of women face sexual harassment and assault on the job. And obviously, a lot of them are afraid to go to the police, and rightly so. But these worker centers have really done a lot of good in the community, informing immigrants and workers of their rights.
You’ve been aiming to tell the full story of what it means to be undocumented, but besides these details, what do you think are the things being left out in the bigger part of the narrative when we talk publicly about undocumented people in the United States?
I think this is such an important time to be asked this question, because right now, we see the importance of anger and rage, how human beings need to be afforded the full range of emotions, and how that is a right that we have, and people of color are often not afforded that right, because it further villainizes and criminalizes us. Black people are especially not afforded that right to be rightfully angry, feel rage, and express that anger and that rage, because there are very harmful stereotypes that are pushed onto them when they feel angry and when they feel rage, and they have a right to.
“I think in a lot of writing about immigrants by immigrants, the publishing industry has favored narratives where we appear docile and subservient almost, where we’re writing about how badly we want to be citizens, how we already are citizens, how we’re great citizens, how we’re like the best citizens. It almost feels like a petition to be considered model minorities. And that has always felt wrong to me.”
Likewise, I think in a lot of writing about immigrants by immigrants, the publishing industry has favored narratives where we appear docile and subservient almost, where we’re writing about how badly we want to be citizens, how we already are citizens, how we’re great citizens, how we’re like the best citizens. It almost feels like a petition to be considered model minorities. And that has always felt wrong to me. And so with this book, I’m not looking to profile people in a motorcycle gang, but I’m just profiling the full spectrum of human emotion. I profile people who are just human. Some of them mess up. Some of them grapple with lifelong PTSD, that started when they fled Pablo Escobar’s Colombia, because they escaped multiple bombings. They lose friends on 9/11, and they do cleanup, and they’re surrounded by dead bodies, and they survive suicide attempts, and now they have PTSD. Portraits of people like that are not really favored by mainstream media, and I think that’s the full story of what it means to be undocumented. We’re just not often given the privilege to be fully human. And so that was my purpose, to just paint a full portrait of a human affect.
Do you think that there could be change for immigrant populations in the United States, once we break through this current moment?
I’m just tired. The DACA decision might come, any Monday, any Wednesday. People in the immigrant community and our allies wake up every Monday and every Wednesday, hoping it won’t be that day because just now is not the time, because of the pandemic and now, our energies should be on supporting the Black community in their protests. And it sort of feels like, based on the way this government works, now is definitely going to be the time that they drop a decision, and the reason why we don’t want that decision is because we all have a feeling that, the Supreme Court—given what the Supreme Court looks like right now—is going to support DACA being revoked. It’s just going to upend people’s lives. And so, I’m not optimistic that things are going to change for the better because we are under this administration, because Stephen Miller still has the president’s ear, because USCIS—and they’re like, literally the only body that is in charge of creating green cards and citizens, and citizenship applications, processing them—is being bankrupted, and more and more money is being funneled into ICE.
“We’re at a moment of reckoning where people are realizing the problems that the police state really represents, and I think that is something that we should be talking about. And no, I don’t think things are going to change for immigrants in this country. I think that, right now, we should look inward, look at our own biases and our own communities’ anti-Blackness, and how we can support the Black community in their struggle and in their protest.”
We’re at a moment of reckoning where people are realizing the problems that the police state really represents, and I think that is something that we should be talking about. And no, I don’t think things are going to change for immigrants in this country. I think that, right now, we should look inward, look at our own biases and our own communities’ anti-Blackness, and how we can support the Black community in their struggle and in their protest. I think we should also look at how those those of us who write about immigrants can provide more support for Black immigrants and the Black undocumented community, who certainly don’t get written about at all.
I think for those of us who have a platform, it’s a moment of reckoning to see where we’re putting our attention. But I definitely think regarding immigration specifically, not a lot is going to change, but I’m certainly feeling heartened by—and I was heartened by this in the book—during the pandemic, by seeing how grassroots support for each other is really what sustains so many communities, and how mutual aid societies help, and how, in Spanish, what we call colectas—which are essentially just going around and asking people to donate money for a certain cause—has sustained so many communities. And I guess that’s where my hope lies.
What are you reading right now?
I’m actually reading Marsha M. Linehan’s memoir, Building a Life Worth Living. It’s really interesting. I have been practicing DBT for quite a long time, and I took a break from it because it’s just so hokey. DBT is dialectical behavioral therapy that was developed for people with borderline personality disorder, and it basically teaches you skills like emotional regulation and distress tolerance. I’ve been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. I was first diagnosed with bipolar, and I think a lot of people who are creative and who have chronic trauma in their past are often misdiagnosed with so many things. But I’ve learned a lot of really good skills, and reading her memoir has been really healing. And she’s not a great writer—she’s a scientist, you know? But I remember reading David Foster Wallace talking about AA, I think, and he was talking about how platitudes sometimes help him. There real studies and real science behind DBT, but sometimes the way she explains her relationship with God—as someone who’s not religious—a lot of DBT, you really have to be in the mindset, and you really have to be what—some of this sounds really cultish—but you can’t be willful. So you can’t be like, “This sounds corny.”
“I think healing is also very punk rock. When they’re trying to kill you, when they’re trying to destroy your spirit, staying alive and pushing back is punk rock. Screaming law and order from the comfort of your mansions is not.”
I remember when I was in an outpatient program, they gave us these Ziploc bags filled with things that were supposed to help you engage your senses when you were having a panic attack or something. And I was super into Nirvana, and I was like, “This is so corny.” And it was like, a hot chocolate packet, a little thing you could blow bubbles with, maybe some clay, some crayons. I don’t know if this is true, but I saw a screenshot of the former Nirvana guitarist Krist supporting Trump’s speech yesterday. I don’t know if it’s a parody account; it had a lot of followers. It wasn’t full-on Trump support, but it was definitely like a supportive law and order type of thing, and I was like, “Well, that’s not very rock and roll.” He’s also a middle-aged white millionaire who wears a fedora a lot. And then I was like, “Oh, but I am also at a stage in my life where I am coloring and I am constantly drinking hot chocolate mindfully, like savoring each sip because it helps me with my panic.”
I think, actually, healing is pretty rock and roll. A lot of people refer to my book as a punk manifesto. One of my readers—she works in policy or law or something, she’s Latina—she brought my book to a DHS conference, and she posed with the book in front of that podium that had the DHS seal on it. And I was like, “That is very punk rock.” But I think healing is also very punk rock. When they’re trying to kill you, when they’re trying to destroy your spirit, staying alive and pushing back is punk rock. Screaming law and order from the comfort of your mansions is not. So that’s what I’m reading.
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