Stanly County Arts Council Brings National Book Award Finalist to Pfeiffer

Global/Cultural Awareness
Student Life
Why Pfeiffer

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio, a native of Ecuador, was brought by her parents to the United States when she was five years old. In 2020, she became the first undocumented immigrant to be named a finalist for the National Book Award.

Cornejo Villavicencio, who wrote The Undocumented Americans (Penguin Random House, 2020), will read from that book and answer questions about her life and work via a 90-minute Zoom presentation at 5 p.m. on March 11. A Community Book Club discussion, also over Zoom, will explore The Undocumented Americans at 2 p.m. on March 6.

Two Assistant Professors of English at Pfeiffer University – Dr. Danielle Donelson and Dr. Ashley Schoppe – sought the Stanly County Arts Council grant that is funding the March 11 presentation, which is free and open to the public, as is the book club discussion.  Donelson and Schoppe will moderate the discussion.

Schoppe first became aware of Cornejo Villavicencio’s work while listening to a June 2020 episode of Code Switch, an NPR podcastThe author made quite an impression on Schoppe when, quoting from The Undocumented Americans, she said:

“Maybe you won’t like it. I didn’t write it for you to like it. And I did not set out to write anything inspirational, which is why there are no stories of DREAMers. They are commendable young people, and I truly owe them my life, but they occupy outside the tension in our politics.

“I wanted to tell the stories of people who work as day laborers, housekeepers, construction workers, dog walkers, deliverymen, people who don’t inspire hashtags of T-shirts. But I wanted to learn about them as the weirdos we all are outside of our jobs. This book is for everybody who wants to…read about the people underground.” 

Schoppe was immediately struck by what she called Cornejo Villavicencio’s “unique tone and voice.”

Villavicencio is among the first DREAMers to graduate from Harvard. She’s a candidate for a Ph.D. in American Studies at Yale.  She first came to national attention in 2010 when, as a senior at Harvard, she was revealed as the author of DREAM Act: I’m an Illegal Immigrant at Harvard, an initially anonymous essay that ran in The Daily Beast.

Publishers pressed her to write a memoir, but she turned them down, fearing such a project would make her yet another poster child among DREAMers.  She eventually wrote, instead, The Undocumented Americans.

The right time for such a project emerged the day after the 2016 Presidential elections; Cornejo Villavicencio would “give voice to the millions of people living in the country illegally who, like her, feared what might happen to them under a Donald Trump presidency,” according to a New York Times article from October 2020.

In The Undocumented Americans, described as “creative non-fiction,” the author explores what happened to her and her parents after they came to United States from Ecuador, including her struggles after being diagnosed with a mental illness. It documents Ground Zero cleanup crews dealing with the debilitating effects of toxins. It illuminates the trials and tribulations of day laborers on Staten Island, New York.

Cornejo Villavicencio also relates the stories of Latinx residents dealing with contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan, and she observes a Miami “pharmacy” that sells everything from herbs to prescription psychotic drugs.

The Undocumented Americans has been very well-received. It’s one of former President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2020, and several media outlets – including NPR, The New York Times, Time, Book Riot and Vulture – selected it as one of the best books of the year.

This doesn’t surprise Schoppe.

“She writes about the experiences of undocumented Americans, of first-generation college students, of mental illness with such bravery and forcefulness,” she said. “Her work requires you to reevaluate what we mean when we talk about the American dream.”

Want to attend?

What: The Undocumented Americans will be the focus of a Community Book Club discussion, via a Zoom presentation

When: Saturday, March 6 at 2 p.m.

Cost: Free, using the following link:

Want to attend?

What: Karla Cornejo Villavicencio will read from her book The Undocumented Americans, via a Zoom presentation

When: Thursday, March 11 at 5 p.m.

Cost: Free, using the following link: