Latina geniuses aren’t rare.
You’ll find us anywhere Latinas are which means you can locate us in schools and in prisons and in the House of Representatives and skateboarding down messed up sidewalks and praying at misa, beseeching La Virgen for winning lottery numbers or for our ex to get run over by a bus. You can also find us in libraries and a Latina genius I urge you to read is Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, author of “The Undocumented Americans,” a hardcore non-fiction masterpiece that makes no attempt to humanize migrants because humanizing projects always achieve the opposite. One of my favorite lines in Karla’s book violently makes this point: “I’d honestly rather swallow a razor blade than be expected to change the mind of a xenophobe.”
On August 27th, I had the pleasure of participating in a remote “fireside chat” with Karla about her work. We All Grow Amigas, an online community that provides “original content, mentorship, wellness sessions and growth tools developed with [Latinas] in mind,” hosted our talk.
Thank you, Ana Flores.
There’s been a lot of talk about monuments lately, literary monuments included, and these conversations take me to the significance of Karla’s work. We could look at her opus as part of the literary canon that represents the United States but let’s piss off the United States by ignoring him. (I think of this country as a man–an abusive one). Let’s instead think about “The Undocumented Americans” as part of the Latinx canon. For too many readers, that canon begins and ends with “The House on Mango Street,” and when assholes are feeling especially affirmative actionable, they’ll double the canon’s size by tossing in that book about a lot of time spent in Macondo.
Sarcasm aside, “The Undocumented Americans” excites me, it pretty much caffeinates me, because it was not written for them. Who do I mean by them? I mean the fugly Anglos who will tell you you look exotic because a) you’re better looking than them and b) you look, and act, a hell of a lot more “local” to this hemisphere than they ever will.
“The Undocumented Americans” was not written for a bitch named Karen. It doesn’t wear fruit on its head or make a show of rrrrrrrrrolling its Rs. Instead, the book chops up cliches and prevailing narratives about home, patria, and immigration.
“I fucking hate thinking of migrants as butterflies,” writes Karla. “Butterflies can’t fuck a bitch up.”
Structurally and stylistically, “The Undocumented Americans” fuses punk, New Journalism and crónica. Through these modalities, Karla reports on hard working migrants, not working migrants, lonely migrants, child migrants, clowns chasing children with machetes, white moms who want Latinx kids deported, dancing, death, and an anti-ICE limpia that costs her $277.77. Karla goes to New York and to Miami and to Flint and to Cleveland and to New Haven and she tells about being undocumented herself. Never does Karla do the grateful immigrant dance.
She has dignity.
During our chat, I peered at Karla through a Zoom window, unable to tell if she was wearing a black dress or a black tank top. I could, however, for sure see that she was wearing a black veil over her bleached hair. Combined with her dewy makeup and her gold chains and the peachy light bathing her upper body, she looked like a grunge rendition of that Dolce & Gabbana ad campaign where Monica Belucci and Bianca Balti pose in dark mantillas and came off Catholic hot, a distinct, and often baroque, subset of sexiness. I didn’t ask Karla the reason for her mourning attire but I figured it had to do with an announcement she’d made earlier through an Instagram caption. Beneath a slightly grainy picture of a masculine figure whose face was cropped out Karla wrote: “One of the subjects of my book has died. A complicated, respected man, beloved by his fellow day laborers. A death none of us should have…I am devastated. Please join me…as I light a candle, say a prayer, and read an unpublished bit of writing I originally wrote for the chapter on day laborers, about what a death like this means, and how close to dying like this I am, you are…”
We never addressed her subject’s death directly during our chat but he was with us and so was death. That’s what veils remind us of, that the heavens (possibly) exist above and that the veil between this world and the next is thinner than we typically care to acknowledge.
Reader, I invite you to follow Karla’s instructions. Get a copy of “The Undocumented Americans.” Read or re-read the chapter on day laborers. Light a candle and say a prayer. If you have forgotten all of your prayers, I offer you this one by (feminist) mystic Saint Teresa of Ávila. (P.S. if the word god bothers you, replace it with love):
Let nothing disturb you.
Let nothing make you afraid.
All things are passing.
God alone never changes.
Patience obtains everything.
God alone suffices.
If pouring one out is your thing, then pour one out for the complicated man we are honoring.
If music is your thing, play “Los Ilegales” by Los Tucanes de Tijuana. You might also play “Amor Eterno,” the Vicente Fernandez version. Sing along.
If crying is your thing, then cry. You can let yourself weep. Sobbing is the best cleanse.
These days, we’re reminded more and more of the veil. We see veils everywhere in the form of masks. As an act of love, please wear one. It’s what Karla, and I, want you to do.