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September Author Spotlight: Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Learn more about the angsty queen behind The Undocumented Americans.

ID: To the left, a cover of a book titled The Undocumented Americans with a red flower resting on immigration papers. To the right, the book's author, a brown-skinned, Latino woman with faded red hair looking into the camera.

Karla Carnejo Villavicencio is here to tell us the truth as it hasn’t been told before. The Ecuadorian-American author is challenging the statutes of migrant literature, and has asserted herself as a powerful force of representation. Villavicencio was one of the first undocumented immigrants to graduate from Harvard University in 2011, a fact she and others in her position have been often reduced to. While the original intentions for her career did not involve writing about immigration, the results of 2016’s presidential election triggered a response from her, one which began her journey to writing The Undocumented Americans.

Villavicencio’s writing is a kind of angsty, yet safe space for young immigrants and the children of immigrants to find themselves within. She rejects the narratives and stereotypes which often define migrant literature, portraying her subjects in light of their humanity, as real people. In a realm where individuals are reduced to their backgrounds or jobs, Villavicencio uses her writing as a combatting force of care. According to Bookforum, “She has no optimism about institutions, not much hope in the American people at large, and ultimately, little faith in even her own creed of social mobility through education.” This apathy for the institution doesn’t negate Villavicencio’s agency or ability for enacting change, but instead, amplifies it. She refuses to surrender, and the care she exacts for young immigrants in her writing is her method of action.

While much of her writing is nonfiction, she doesn't consider herself journalistic. She wants the outcomes of her stories to change, and gets involved in them boldly, and personally. The connections she builds with her subjects are the focal point of her work. Her own story is weaved through the pages on The Undocumented Americans, as well as those of her mother and father. Villavicencio builds her narratives out of all these stories, emboldening each of her characters and their quirks through the structure of her writing. She wants her audience to truly see her subjects, and in turn, see themselves. Villavicencio builds up identities which have been erased, using each of her subjects’ position in society as a lens through which these individuals can be studied in their wholeness.

In addition to her work as an author, Villavicencio has contributed to The New York Times, The Atlantic, Elle, Vogue, The New Republic, The Daily Beast, The New Inquiry, n+1, and Interview magazine. She is currently a doctoral candidate at Yale University, studying the practices of death and burial among Latin American immigrants in New York within the American Studies program. Villavicencio is also a fellow at Laurene Powell Jobs’s Emerson Collective.



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