“Whatever your thing is, do as much of it as you can — and delight in it.”
Ecuadorian-American writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio shared this advice with students during a recent visit to Northfield Mount Hermon, part of the school’s speaker series focused on citizenship and service, a yearlong learning theme. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern and cultural educator Larry Spotted Crow Mann also visited NMH this year as part of the series.
Cornejo Villavicencio’s first book, The Undocumented Americans, was shortlisted for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2020. The work of creative nonfiction is in part a memoir about her experience growing up as an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. in 1990s and 2000s and in part a collection of essays about the experiences of undocumented day laborers.
On March 29, the 33-year-old Cornejo Villavicencio spent the day visiting an upper-level English class, reading from her book and answering questions at an all-school meeting in Memorial Chapel, and talking with students over lunch in Alumni Hall.
“I loved her visit and appreciated that she spoke to the experience of undocumented Americans and their struggles and the skills that they’ve used to survive,” Henry Castillo ’25 said. “She was also very nice and was willing to make jokes — she knew how to talk to a younger generation.”
Cornejo Villavicencio was born in Ecuador. When she was 18 months old, her parents left her behind when they immigrated to the United States. A few years later, her parents brought her to the U.S.and raised her in Queens, New York.
Cornejo Villavicencio began writing professionally as a teenager, including music reviews for a New York monthly magazine, and has gone on to write for The Atlantic, Elle, Glamour, The New Republic, The New York Times, and Vogue.
“My coping mechanism is art,” she told students in an upper-level American Literature class during her visit to NMH. “I was willingly engaging with beautiful things. I just started writing and didn’t stop.”
Cornejo Villavicencio attended Harvard University prior to the establishment of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, which allowed certain people brought to the country as children to apply for protection from deportation and obtain legal working status. Her senior year, she wrote an essay, “I’m an Illegal Immigrant at Harvard,” which was published anonymously in the Daily Beast. The piece attracted the attention of numerous literary agents, who reached out to Cornejo Villavicencio asking if she’d be interested in writing a memoir. She declined the requests at the time because she was only 21 and thought she was too young to write a memoir. She graduated from Harvard in 2011 and believes she is one of the first undocumented immigrants to do so.
She began writing The Undocumented Americans in 2016, the morning after the election of President Donald Trump. “The moment called for a radical experiment in genre,” she told Guernica Magazine.
“I hope that immigrants of all backgrounds are able to find themselves in [the book],” she told the New York Times. “I hope that people who are not immigrants, who have been considered aliens or undesirables or freaks, will be able to find something of themselves in it.”
At NMH, Cornejo Villavicencio spoke about the freedom that came with being a young writer. “I wrote how I wanted and what I wanted,” she said. “I didn’t have anything to lose. There’s power in that. There’s confidence and a little bit of bravado. There’s even some naivety when you’re young that allows you to stand up for yourself and for your art.”
Students should believe that they have something to say and share it confidently with the world — and know that making mistakes is part of the process of improving your craft, she added. “Make as many mistakes as you need to while you are young. Take risks. Expose yourself to as many things as possible.”
She also discussed her writing process — which often involves performing a lengthy skin care routine, practicing her eyeliner techniques, or putting on something glamorous like a silk robe before climbing into her bed to write — as well as big ideas such as identity and belonging.
“She has always been one of my literary heroes,” Peter Luo ’23 said. “I’m a huge fan of her New Yorker article ‘Waking Up from the American Dream.’ I find myself referencing it when I am writing my personal stories. Recently, I had been writing an article regarding Asian American experiences where I encountered a disconnect between my own Asian identity and the identities of other Asian American citizens, and it was amazing to have her teach me how she deals with this issue in her own compositions.”
After lunch with Cornejo Villavicencio, several students asked her to sign their copies of her book. “Her writing fascinates me, and here she is standing right in front of me,” Leilani Aires ’24 said. “I learn so much more from real-life experiences, and I feel very inspired today.”
Cornejo Villavicencio told students to remember that there’s a payoff to doing what you love and to do it as much as possible. “There’s a great satisfaction in doing something and doing it well, whether it’s art or music or writing — or the achieving the perfect winged eye,” she said.