YEAH NO, I’M NOT OK
Episode 2 Transcript: Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the King of New York
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the King of New York
Thu, 3/11 10:34AM 51:38
people, dbt, karla, immigrants, book, feel, write, parents, called, undocumented, ing, dreamer, mental health, thinking, read, understand, trauma, person, mom, boundaries
SPEAKERSDiane Guerrero, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio
Diane Guerrero 00:06You know that feeling you get when you're texting with someone and it's going great. And then that little bubble comes up--the one with the three dots. And you're just waiting, waiting for the response. And even if it's been like three seconds, it's taking forever. What are they thinking? What are they about to say? You start creating these stories in your head. **ck!! Am I coming on too strong? Did I sound disingenuous? God, why was I myself? God, why did I wear that color scrunchie? I knew it. She hates me! And, that's basically what happened with Karla. And I tried to be chill, but on the inside, I was bugging out. I think I like I wrote you this letter about wanting to work with you and that I thought you were so special and that I loved your voice. And really you are one of the people that has been able to express a lot of my experiences and kind of what I feel into words, but... but that girl who... that's inside me... like, that girl who is my, like, my trauma, I guess, was like, she thinks you're stupid. She doesn't think you're good enough. She doesn't like you. And I'm like... I was like, brooding. And I remember I was like, but she's on IG so, like, I'm sure she saw my message. I just did not know how to respond but, Karla, I wanted to think of you as not a celebrity, but as a person who was coming into my life. And I wanted to honor that and respect that. And so I didn't want to gush. I didn't want to make you feel like I was a fan. But, I also wanted to respect the glass ceilings you'd shattered and the path you'd carved for us. So, it was a lot to consider, you know? So, you can hear why I'm so taken by Karla. She's thoughtful and considerate, and deeply empathic, and she can
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see right through your corniness. Karla, you use the term dream and I want to ask you something. Throughout your book, The Undocumented Americans, you continually take issue with language. You stop and you pause and you interrogate the terms that we now take for granted. One of those terms, a term that you seem to hate, is 'dreamer'. You would be counted as a dreamer, an undocumented student brought here young, but you don't like that term? How come? Why don't you like dreamer?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 03:02Look at me. It's not punk rock. It's corny. But also it's, uhm, propaganda. Uhm, I would be okay with the term dreamer if it was, if dream was capitalized, to show that it's an acronym for the DREAM Act. But it's not. It's now lowercased to show that it's like a descriptor of an effective experience, which means that you are a person who dreams. And in literature, a person who has a lifelong dream, tends to be a tragic figure because they don't achieve the dream. And that just tends to be the case. And I'm not that kind of person.
Diane Guerrero 03:48That's why I love her. And it's what makes her such an extraordinary writer and person. And so much of that comes from her lived experience. And because she's a ****ing genius. I love how honest she is, and I aspire to be like her. I'm Diane Guerrero, and, yeah, no, I'm not okay. This week, a voice of our generation, Karla Cornejo Villavicencio. So, as soon as I got this show, I knew I had to talk to Karla. Her book, The Undocumented Americans, had me so shook. I had never read a book that told a story I connected with so deeply. And I had never heard the undocumented experience told quite like this. But first, I want Karla to tell you about herself.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 05:01I was born in Ecuador and grew up in New York City, and Brooklyn and in Queens. I grew up undocumented. My parents are still undocumented. I am now a permanent resident. My younger brother is a citizen. He was born in Brooklyn. He's very Brooklyn. I am 31. So, I grew and came of age at a time before DACA, and so things were a little different then. And, so, I was like a very gifted student and all of that. Part of it was just like natural talent, I was really good with language. I was just also like, really competitive and ambitious and wanted to be number one all the time. But also, from an early age, I knew that I needed to be super, super successful, if my parents were going to make it out alive. And I also knew because the narrative was everywhere that grades were the thing that were going to get me out of the hood. Like, it was like, dancing, basketball, or grades. And it was gonna be
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grades for me. You know? And, I ended up going to Harvard, and I was one of the first undocumented immigrants accepted into Harvard, or... or maybe graduated from Harvard. Uhm, and I think maybe like the first cohort, you know, that was accepted and graduated from Harvard. And it was really crazy because there was... they called us international students. So we would go to like, events where it was like international students from China, and they were really wealthy, and we had nothing in common, and they treated us the same administratively.
Diane Guerrero 06:42In 2010, Karla published an essay in the Daily Beast called, I'm an Illegal Immigrant at Harvard. It was published anonymously during her senior year and, in it, she talks about the deep fear and trauma she has felt through her young life as an undocumented person living in the United States. After that essay came out, Karla was asked to write a memoir by several literary agents, but she turned them all down. She was only 21. And she knew that the story they wanted was that stereotypical inspirational one about the poor, sad, immigrant girl who miraculously pulled herself up by her bootstraps, bootstraps, bootstraps. So, she said, 'no thanks'. And instead, she kept on the academic path, though not entirely by choice.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 07:31And then I went to Yale for a Ph.D. because I couldn't work. And for Yale, you didn't... you didn't need a social. And I didn't want to do a Ph.D. I wanted to go back to New York and work in magazines, but I couldn't do that. And I appreciated the health insurance because I was really depressed. And, uhm, yeah... and so I've been living in New Haven for the past 10 years. And I basically used my time at Yale to learn as much as possible and to use the time to write. And so I've been writing professionally since I was 15 years old. I started writing about music. And then, when Trump won in 2016, I knew I was the best person to write about immigration in the way that I wanted to write about it, which was, like, unapologetic; really examining what illegality means to a person, aside from just, like, breaking the law equals bad because, like, the way that I think about it, like, all of the 'American Dream' icons like the Kennedys, the Godfather trilogy, Andrew Carnegie, Jay Gatsby. All of those folks, like bootleggers, mobsters, just absolute people who made their lives in the informal economy. Like, Americans ****ing love heist movies, movies about underground like crime. But, if an immigrant uses a fake social, god ****ing forbid. They should be deported, they should be killed, they should be shot in the head. You read that in the comment sections. And it's like, well, that's actually antithetical to the American Dream story, because the American Dream story is about committing crimes in order for your family to get ahead and in order to create generational wealth. And so, I was like, I
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need to say that and people weren't saying that before me. People were just like, I mean, immigrant writers, because they were writing for white audiences. They were saying, please accept us. We really want to be citizens. We really want to be Americans. We love America--red, white, and blue. And I was just like, this is dehumanizing. I love America. I love the English language. It's my language. This is my country. I'm like, New Yorker. I'm... I'm from Brooklyn. I'm from Queens. I'm so ****ing proud. Uhm, but, also, I don't have to turn myself into a caricature to demand respect. And so I wrote a book, and I was the first undocumented person to be nominated for a National Book Award. And Barack Obama recommended my book as his... one of his favorite books of 2020, which was... surprised a lot of people because the dedication of my book is chinga la mira, which means **ck ICE, and I haven't commented publicly on that. But, I think I understand why he chose it. And, uh, Presidents don't apologize. Doctors don't apologize. And I understand why they don't because it would all crumble if they did. But, him using his name to backup my book, I think, says something about what he thought about his administrations, and their policies on immigration. And also the fact that my book is like a book where I say, I'm not going to talk about dreamers. This is about their parents who get no attention, who get no love, who get no respect. And Obama... it was the DACA President. That was his great achievement. And so I think his support of my book just said something and I'm not gonna say what he said, but I think it says something, you know?
Diane Guerrero 11:17Yeah. Looking back, it was hard to reconcile that Obama was separating record numbers of families, and perpetuating the good immigrant/bad immigrant narrative, which is why I think your book is so important. Like, I'm dyslexic, okay. It's very hard for me to sit down and read a book and, yet, yours was so clear to me.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 11:50I'm really proud of that. Because, you know, in going through grad school, like, people just really love language that's inaccessible and, like, theory and academic language, and I just never ****ed with that because I was just like, I want a book that like, that's just... that's just for the people! You know? And, uhm, my book is smart. My book is full of references. My book is just like, you know, how people used to say, like, 30 rock had like 30 jokes a minute or something like that, like, that's the energy my book has. But like, some people call it a YA book, too, because like teenagers can read it. Like, adults can read it. Uhm, I've had non-native English speakers who are undocumented residents... immigrants read it. It's just a really accessible book, and the stories are just, like, not, like, really depressing.
Diane Guerrero 12:51
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Diane Guerrero 12:51So you use this phrase in some of your writing, including a recent piece you did for the New Yorker that's called, Waking Up From The American Dream. You call yourself a professional daughter of immigrants, and that really resonated with me. I'm, I'm going to read a little excerpt from that piece. "In my teens, I began to specialize. I became a performance artist. I accompanied my parents to places where I knew they would be discriminated against and where I could ensure their rights would be granted. If a bank teller wasn't accepting their ID, I'd stroll in and oversized forever 21 blazer, red lipstick, a slicked back bun and fresh Sam Smith's. I bought a pleather folder and made sure my handshake broke bones. Sometimes I appeal to decency, sometimes to law, sometimes to God. Sometimes, I leaned back in my chair like a sexy gangster and said, so you tell me how you want my mom to survive in this country without a bank account. You close at 4:00, but I have all the time in the world. Then I'd wink. It was vaudeville. But it worked." Whew!!! That made me think about how we feel like we have to be our family's saviors. And sometimes they're caretakers and kind of because we have to be, but it's ultimately a feeling that if it goes to the extreme, it doesn't serve us. And I wonder how do you combat that urge?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 14:30I don't... I don't combat it. I mean, I still do it. I just have more boundaries with my parents. Uhm, because of my mental health, I realized that, uhm, talking to them very regularly is a great trigger to my mental health. So I've just cut down on communication. So, I still check in on them; make sure they're doing well. I asked them if they need money because obviously the pandemic has hit hard on the service industry, and that's where they work. And, uhm, I still provide for my mom and, you know, she gets sick sometimes. She needs medicines. She needs... she needs support. But aside from that, I don't check in on the regular to chit-chat very much because I know it's going to become a conversation that I have learned to not expect more from. You know? It's been a long time where I tried to change them, where I tried to explain to my mom, that certain things she says... she said were hurtful. And then I realized what I've learned in therapy, which is that I'm the skillful one, and she doesn't have those tools. And so, I made boundaries. And with my father, I am not ready to deal with... with just everything that I have to deal with in order to re- establish a healthy relationship with him right now, because my priority is healing and mental health, just in an SOS day-to- day basis, and my work right now. And he is maybe the number one source of panic in my life because, just like you said, I've had a relationship with my mom that is just is not as close, and I've just absolutely worshipped my father my entire life, which has allowed me to not really examine the ways in which he's used that love and that trust and that worship to, uhm, be emotionally abusive, or to lie or to exercise his... his machismo and his toxic masculinity in ways that I allowed
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because I thought he was a martyr. And so, I sort of put that on the shelf for now. And I said, it's best for me to just not talk to you for an... you know, unless it's to check in. And so, it was just boundaries. I'm still there for them. I know that they won't be evicted. I know that they won't go hungry. I know that they're... they're always going to have, uhm, me to advocate for them with health care, with anything that they need. But, that doesn't mean that they're allowed to intrude on my days and my emotional state of mind whenever they want to.
Diane Guerrero 17:26I feel that so much. And those are boundaries that I'm trying to create, at the moment, with my folks. You know, and as much as they... they push back so much on these boundaries, 'cause they don't understand them. I, I'm just starting to realize in some of the ways that my dad isn't perfect. You know, just because my mom... my mom and I had such such a difficult relationship. You know, I kind of looked to him as the one who really understood me and... you know, no. Like, dude, you need boundaries too. Both of you do.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 17:58And there's this term called mentalizing, which means like, you put yourself in someone else's shoes, basically. And like, think about... or mine and, like, think about what they must be thinking about or going through and experiencing. She has no interest. My dad has no interest. Like, I'm constantly like, I wonder why my father was cruel and crazy? I wonder why my mom has such a narcissist? And then I think back to their childhoods, and their life in America and all of their hardships, and I'm like, that makes sense. It's intergenerational trauma and migration trauma, and then I move on. But they don't do that to me. And so, like, my... my mom is just like, "yeah, I guess I wish your father was dead and, you know, COVID was a missed opportunity." And I'm like, he is my father, and it causes me panic to think he could die, and you should think that I am your daughter. Like, do you remember that I am your daughter? And they don't. Because like once you achieve a certain level of success, and once you are grown, they feel like... They do... they feel like well, we did our job. Now you have to take care of every single one of our traumas. And, it's up to us to push back because, if we don't, they really will take it to [Diane: oh, yeah] God knows where?
Diane Guerrero 19:23I'm learning in therapy that boundaries equal love. And that's something I keep telling myself. And I think that that constant boundary crossing in relationships with our parents affects, like, every relationship we try to have, be it romantic or platonic. Like, I've always
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had an especially hard time making friends with other women. Like, where we are healthy, and cultivating success, and lifting each other up, and maybe being best friends for- ****ing-ever.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 19:57I have lots of, like, female friendships in a sense, but all of my closest friends are guys. And I don't know why that is. Uh, and I think like a lot of women, it's like pretty common when they're... to be said, like, don't trust a woman who doesn't have women friends. And it's just... it's just sort of happened. And so, when a woman does approach me and want to be my friend, I am so confused. And then, like, I don't know how to act. I'm like, should I be myself? Because like myself is really weird.
Diane Guerrero 20:37I think something that I've always longed for, like women connection, female connection and... and relationships with women, because my relationship with my mother is so strained, I think. I mean, believe me, I love my mother, we talk often, but we have a strained relationship. Like, we're fighting a lot. And so, when it comes to female friendships, I try everything in my power not to argue, not to find myself in a position where I have to fight with them because I will lose them. And, you know, 100% of the time I end up losing them because I'm overly like, I'm sorry, and did I do something wrong, or I defer to them, even in times where they have wronged me, and I should stick up for myself and say, hey, that's not okay. And like, in order to move on, and continue being friends, we must unpack this. I mean, that's why I wanted you to be one of my guests on this pod because I really do think you're freaking incredible person. I, and I know you don't like this, but I really do think that you are one of the frickin greatest writers of our generation. And I'm only here to offer my friendship.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 21:47I really appreciate that. That's really kind. Uhm, I also think I'm one of the great writers of my generation. You know, the only thing I want from you is your friendship because you know what it's like to achieve certain markers of success, and to just feel like the loneliest girl in the world. I think once you reach certain goals for yourself that you've had for a long time, it can feel pretty empty. And there are not a lot of people who can necessarily share the experiences that we've had. And we've had different experiences, but there's some overlap, and through incredibly lonely, and I think it's in those moments where people feel like nobody understands that you resort to behaviors that are self-harming. And that's definitely happened to me, all my life, but especially in the past couple of years
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where I would meet certain goals that I had, and I would be like, I feel completely empty. And there's nobody that I can talk to right now. Because, like, my phone is filled with people that just wouldn't understand. And, uhm... and so I think once you meet someone that... that you like, and that you think is a good person, and that in... that you just think might understand, I think that's just, I mean, that's how you formed your chosen family, right. And like, as a queer person, chosen family is so important. And I think as, as you know, when you belong to a family of immigrants, there's people who have mixed status. But as you know, sometimes people are deported. Sometimes people move for work, sometimes people have to go underground, and chosen family is important there too. You have, like, aunties. You have people that you call aunties who are not aunties. You have. like, people who sell, like, you know, your favorite food from the local restaurant. And like, that's the only food you can eat when you're sick. Like, that's chosen family too. So, those are the people that sort of keep you alive, you know. And so, I think that that's... that's really special when you find someone that you feel like you can be yourself around because so much of what allows people like us to be successful is performativity. Like, you create a persona when you're... when you're young. I wrote about that in a piece for The New Yorker this week. When you feel like you have to protect your family, or your community or yourself, you form a persona, and a lot of that is a lot of armor. And some of that is, you know, vaudeville, and you just stick to that persona. And, at some point, you do have to ask yourself, like, who am I really, and you do have to find people who know you for who you really truly are and who still love you for that.
Diane Guerrero 21:55Wonderful! It's not easy being breezy. Karla tells us more after the break. So, Karla. Babe. You've been really open about your mental health struggles. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 25:32 What do you want to know? [laughing]
Diane Guerrero 25:34I want to know how you did it. How you...
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 25:38I'm... I just hate ***ing saying this because it sounds so goop. But, I'm on my healing journey. Okay, so the the mental health journey. First, I'll speak sort of generally, which is
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that, through my research, I found out that it was not just me, and that so many-- especially, older immigrants, aging immigrants--suffer from a lot of PTSD, depression, anxiety. And because, obviously, they don't have mental health resources available to them, they self-medicate. But, the thing that people love about immigrants is that we're hard working, right. And so, yeah, these... these people struggle with these horrific nightmares, and they, like... they need to drink in order to be able to sleep and all of that, but they don't miss a day, they don't take a sick day. They're able to deal with their mental illnesses and mental health issues while still, like, looking bright, happy--yes, sir, yay... yes, ma'am--and being high functioning. And so, I found out that, you know, in a lot of the interviews that I did, that that was lke, kind of an immigrant thing. A lot of children of immigrants; so much PTSD, so much self-harm, a lot of self-punishing behaviors that our parents don't have. Because we feel guilty. Like, there's so much guilt and so much shame, and so much pressure to save ourselves, save our families, save our communities. And obviously, we're going to fall short. And so then we do self-punishing behaviors, and then we feel guilty about that. And so, we'll do more self-punishing behaviors. But we still show up on time, we still meet our deadlines, we still pay our taxes, we still... you know? And so, the idea that, like, society has of, like, someone who's like... who needs help, is not of, like, a dreamer, who is just like, has everything under control. And that's why it was important for me to be public about my mental illness. So, the way that my psychiatrists have sort of talked to me about this is symptoms and not diagnoses. But as a writer, like, a diagnosis is very comforting to me, because I can read about it, and I like having the ability to do research. And so, I've been misdiagnosed for many, many years, and, uhm, I was talking to a researcher at Yale who studies borderline personality disorder. And she told me that it's actually standard practice among a lot of psychiatrists to misdiagnose people who have borderline personality disorder and tell them that they... that they're bipolar, because the stigma with BPD is so great, that it might do more harm to just tell them that they have BPD. And so, they'll just tell them they're bipolar, and then just be like, recommend therapies for BPD. Uhm, so I was misdiagnosed as bipolar for many years. And I was like, I don't have like manic episodes. I, uhm, I stay up all night writing because I'm a writer. And of course, my mostly white psychiatrists, were like, 'now, staying up all night to write just... that seems manic'. Right? And so, I was never asked about my migration history, about my past, about sexual abuse, about what it was like to be undocumented or to, like, hide from ICE during... like, when you knew they were conducting raids in your neighborhood, that's ****ing scary and traumatic. And so, it would be like I would have certain experiences at night that would be called hallucinations. And, if they had really dug in, they would have understood, sometimes I had raids and they were at night because they disappear you in the middle of the night. And if I wake up screaming in the middle of the night, thinking that I saw something, maybe it has to do with that and not because I've been having like in a state of psychosis, or nothing else indicates that that's case. So after many years, I had a psychiatrist of color
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who was like, "Oh, you have borderline personality disorder", and that fit perfectly based on my experiences. Basically, I'm an extremely sensitive person. And, like, if you yelled at me right now, I would just completely be devastated. The rest of my day would be ruined. I would... I would just feel like... like a wilted orchid. Whereas if I was just a person who was more neurotypical, I would be like, "why are you yelling at me? That's weird and inappropriate." But if you yelled at me, I would just... I would just... I would just... it would just be the most devastating thing that could happen to me. It's Marsha Linehan, who is the person, the scientist who created the gold standard therapy, behavioral therapy for the personality disorder because no medicine exists for it. She calls it people who walk around like they have third-degree burns all over their body. Like everything, everything hurts, everything hurts. And so, I walked around in my life with everything hurting. Like, if I saw a person, and they had like, a string loose, on one of the buttons on their coat, it made me feel, like, immediately suicidal. And part of that, sure, made me a good writer, because I could notice details at that level. And notice how that could be sad. And I could write about that. And that makes me like an intuitive, empathic writer. No, it is not a gift. It is based on early trauma that I had based on separation from my parents, and on the fact that the people who raised me when I was a toddler, in Ecuador, probably weren't responding when I was showing that I was scared or was... where I was crying. And, of course, this lifetime of growing up undocumented, in poverty, often hungry, and with a father who had a completely erratic temper. So, I was lucky enough to get the diagnosis. And I started reading about it, and it made sense. And so the thing that helps with the diagnosis is skills. And the skills are called DBT. And that's the program that I'm doing now three times a week for three hours a day. And I absolutely love it.
Diane Guerrero 32:29 What's DBT?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 32:30So, DBT is called dialectical behavioral therapy. And it is a therapy that is sort of based on different behavioral techniques, and also loosely based on, like, Zen Buddhism. So, it sounds like a cult. And once you go into it, it feels like a cult because it's a lot of acronyms. I think it teaches you how to regulate your emotions. So something is... when you and I started talking, I told you, I was winding down from feeling like an injustice had happened to me. And so that... if I feel disrespected, I immediately become hot and angry. And something that DBT teaches you are, like, tip skills, which can tell you what the acronym stands for. But one thing you can do is like... you can, like, hold ice in your hands until your hands become too cold, painfully cold. Or, you can put, like, ice in your mouth. Or, you can take a freezing cold shower, and that is supposed to produce the same amount of
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discomfort and pain that you would as if you were harming yourself. And... but, it stops your emotions. It stops your, like, angry, fiery hot emotions, where you would be like I want to engage in negative behaviors. And it works. I have an ice hat, which you've seen on Instagram, where it's like, it's just a hat full of ice. I have it in the freezer and, when I'm feeling just overwhelmed by emotion, I put it on, I lie in bed, I listen to music, and within like 10 minutes, I'm calmed down. And that helps me make a rational decision. Because, if you make a decision when you're really hot headed, it's not going to go well. And so, like, another skill that like you can learn in DBT is, for example, how to deal with a confrontation with someone and to do it skillfully, where you're not threatening them, where they're not being emotionally abusive to you. If someone is being emotionally abusive to you, how to respond while preserving your self-respect, while keeping long- term goals in mind and not compromising them for short-term goals, which is really important for someone like me, who's always like, I'm going to say this really cutting, biting, witty thing that's going to just, like, tell them off because it's... because I'm right. And so, DBT is like, sometimes it's better to be efficient than to be right. It's like, yes, I don't want to burn this bridge even though I know I'm right. So I'm just gonna stay silent. Or, I'm just going to just, like, communicate my displeasure in another way. It's fantastic skills. It's scientifically proven to help people with borderline personality disorder or eating disorders, all sorts of, you know, different disordered behaviors like that. It really helps them and it really helps with suicidality. And so, yeah, when I started being open about having BPD, there was really nobody who was public about it, because it's so stigmatized. There was just nobody who was high profile, or any kind of profile, who is open about having BPD, uhm, and who was also successful because people who have BPD are said, to not be able to hold down jobs, have intimate relationships, maybe never get married, and just constantly be in and out of hospital. And because I wasn't on any of those things, but I was doing so much hard work, I felt it was important for me to just share about all the work I was doing, to better myself, but also show that I still had a sense of humor about it, that I still called myself crazy, that I still embrace this aspect of myself. And just to share of myself because where presentation does matter, and for mental illness, it matters too.
Diane Guerrero 36:54I know so many people can relate to what you're talking about from misdiagnosis to not understanding why one resorts to negative behaviors. And I personally experience both those feelings. Like, I really think I could benefit from DBT, and maybe it could help a lot of other folks out there. We will be leaving some resources in the Episode Notes for you guys. Whoever is interested, please, please, please click on those resources.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 37:27
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the KPinageof1N1eowf 1Y6ork Transcribed by https://otter.ai
I mean, it is so helpful, but you do have to do the work. And so something I learned, that I thought of, is that I used to tell myself, like, during the pandemic, like be gentle with yourself. Like, just be gentle with yourself. And then I realized that I was telling myself to be gentle and interpreting it as not doing the work. So, I would just be like, be gentle with yourself, I'm gonna lay down in bed, and just watch a lot of YouTube videos. And I was like, that's not being gentle with myself. I was like, I'm going to be gentle with myself, so I'm going to meditate even though I don't want to. Like, I'm going to be gentle with myself, and I'm going to paint like a portrait of a friend's dog while not being high. You know? Like, those things are being gentle too, even though they're not necessarily what I want to do. And sometimes doing something that's hard is, is the gentler option on yourself.
Diane Guerrero 38:30Oh, I love that. I really love that. You talked about how family separation has damaging effects on the brain. I was separated from my family when I was 14. But before that, the being afraid all the time about being separated and just the inevitability of it all was so damaging. [Karla: Yeah.] And we've seen more research on this recently with the children separated at the border. Can you talk about that?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 39:09People have no idea like, what this is going to look like for generations to come. Like, they they just have no idea. And part of it is because those of us who have been through it don't really want to talk about the mental health issues we experience. Because that seems like blaming our parents. That seems like not being good representatives of the Latinx community or the immigrant community. That seems like airing our dirty laundry. You know, this piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, several people said to me that like... like, it might not be the best idea to write it. Like Latinx people because they said that it was like our story and it was private and it was shameful. And I was like, it's... we, I mean the children of immigrants, we carry so much baggage and the most we do to acknowledge it is to make memes about it. But we don't talk about how painful it really is to just get through a day. And, if you get a text from your mom or dad, you just immediately go intoa panic. And we're dealing with, like, nervous systems that like... it says if we came backfor more, and we don't talk about it, because we've been so preoccupied with fighting for basic decency for ourselves and for the dreamers, and for our parents, and for the kids who are, you know, separated from their parents at the border. There hasn't been room in the discourse for us to be like, by the way, like I've been doing, okay, you know, like, I'm pretty successful. But, by the way, this ****ed me up for life. Uhm, because people would blame our parents, but we are not talking or writing to rightwingers who are going to take anything we say and twist it, we're talking to each other. You know? We have to stop
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the KPinageof1N2eowf 1Y6ork Transcribed by https://otter.ai
thinking about racist white people as our audience and start thinking about each other as our audience. And this is a conversation we need to have because it's a crisis. Like, the number of immigrants who are successful, or children of immigrants who are successful, who have reached out to me with suicidal thoughts is alarming. And they can't... they reach out to me because they can't reach out to anybody else. Because that would be, like, betraying their image and their cause. And so, I feel like it's so important to talk about that amongst ourselves, and to have like, safe spaces where we can talk amongst yourselves. And yeah, to write about it, so that if White people read that, they know, look, we're not here to be your decorative dolls. Your votes, your... your unwillingness to vote, or whatever it is, affects us and will affect us for generations because these kids are citizens. You know, we're a community and... and like, they'll be in class with your children. It's just... it just... it's a mental health crisis. The public... it's a public health crisis. And nobody wanted to talk about it. And so that's what alarmed me so much is that I got so many messages when I started being open about this from young people who would be like, I can't be open about this, I can't talk about this, I don't know how to talk about this. And I was like, there's so many of us out there. And with the policies of the last several years, there's just so many more. And I hope that by the time, you know, the younger kids who have experienced these things are a little bit older, there's enough of us talking, writing, having TV shows, movies, that shows them that there's a light at the end of the tunnel.
Diane Guerrero 43:02How can we start caring? And this is a big question. How can we start caring for the mental health of... of undocumented folks?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 43:14I think it really does start with yourself, and caring for your own mental health and figuring out why it's like such a tough puzzle. And it's such a tough, like, Rubik's... Rubik's Cube for... for yourself. You know? I think that I, uhm... I wrote about mental health for a long time, before I was willing to really address my own. And I, uhm... I wasn't ready. I remember at the beginning of my press tour for The Undocumented Americans, I would like, like show all of the books that my partner had bought me that were books about healing, and DBT, and chronic trauma and all of that. And I would be like, my partner buys me these books, but I'm not ready yet. And now I'm... now I'm ready. Now I'm like, in this full-time, and I'm largely off of social media, because people have not been nice, and because I don't... I don't want to think of myself as a Sims character, which I already do as someone who writes about my life, and it's consumed by people and someone who disassociates sometimes. You know? I want to just kind of be in the present more. But I do also, you know, want to share with my readers and be engaged and all of that. I'm just figuring stuff
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the KPinageof1N3eowf 1Y6ork Transcribed by https://otter.ai
out. And I want to be honest with people. I think honesty is important. And I think, like, when people are like, I'm taking some time for self-care. And then they'd like.... it's like a face mask and a matcha. It's like I love face masks and matchas so much, but like, that's not really self-care for... if you have experienced systemic violence. Like, self care is like, here is my heavy ass workbook. Here is some... here's my... here's a notebook where I'm going to write down my triggers, and what I'm going to do in response to them. My phone is off, so nobody can interrupt me for this one hour. I've lit a candle with a non-triggering smell. And I'm going to say like, for the next two days, I will not drink or for the next two days, I will not cut myself or whatever. And it doesn't have to be like a long-term goal. Like, sometimes I will be like, wake up and be like, I will be sober forever. And like, that's just not how life works. But just do it for like a day or two, to prove to yourself that you can do little things that make yourself proud. And then once you start accomplishing those, like little by little, I think like, I realized why the world loved me. And then I started thinking, this is something that happened in my DBT class; they said, What do you like about yourself? And I was like, well, I like that I write well, and then I was like, no, that's my career. And that's what people like about me. And then I was like, well, I like that I'm generous and I'm kind to people. And I was like, no, that's still about external validation, and something that I could do for other people. And I was like, I couldn't think of something. I was like, I like that I'm funny. But that's still like, other people find me funny. And then I said, I like that dogs and animals feel safe with me, which is something that I really do value in myself, and I think is special. And that, uhm, has nothing to do with race or immigration status or anything. And like, when there's a dog that runs away in my neighborhood, my partner, like, calls out for me and I come out just wearing a mask, like, nothing else. And like, sometimes the dogs like, bare their teeth at me. And I just like lay down and they come to me. And I don't feel fear because I'm like, the worst they can do is bite me, but I don't want them to get hit by a car. And like part of that is like, yes, I'm crazy because it could maul me. But like, like, I always help them come home to their parents. And I like that about myself. And it's like, for all of those who are children of immigrants or immigrants who feel like they need to succeed in order to save the ****ing world, make a list of why the world likes you make a list of why you like yourself; it'll probably look different.
Diane Guerrero 47:53Oh, my! What do I like about myself?
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio 47:57You know, I was just thinking, like, I became a permanent resident this year. And I'm probably going to be... okay, this is like goth Karla, like, bringing up death again, but ...
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the KPinageof1N4eowf 1Y6ork Transcribed by https://otter.ai
[Diane: give it to me.] I'll probably be buried in America. And I'm like, I would just like to... 'cause I know this is a lifelong journey. And the point wasn't going to Harvard or whatever, whatever. The point is, like, I want like, whoever outlives me to be like, she didn't die a broken person. She healed herself. Like all of the odds were against her. And she was supposed to be the girl who wrote about being broken. And she didn't do that. And then she... she healed herself and she died feeling peace. And like, that's what I'd like, for all of us to just like, be like, you know what, the entire, like, system of colonialism and imperialism, all of that has set it up so that we just have to swim against the current. And just like work, work, work and just like die exhausted in disgrace. And it's like... and for those of us artists, as you well know, it's like we have to like, play roles or have images that are like subservient, really grateful all the time, humble, perfect. And it's like, what if you do things your way, but you still are able to have peace? I think that's the greatest thing we could do for ourselves. And once people see that in us, they know it's possible for themselves too.
Diane Guerrero 49:38I love you, Karla. Thank you so much. You're freaking amazing.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio Okay, Love you.
Diane Guerrero 49:42 Bye, Mama! Bye.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio Bye.
Diane Guerrero 49:57Yeah, No, I'm Not Okay Is a production of Laist studios. Remember to rate and review our show. It helps other people find it. If you like it, share it with your friends, the more people we can get to have conversations about mental health the better. If you've got a story you want to share about how you deal with mental health issues, send it my way. Record on your phone's voice memo app and email it to email@example.com. And be sure to subscribe to our newsletter to get the latest episodes with a note from me, recommendations from our listeners and our team, and listeners' stories. Sign up at
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the KPinageof1N5eowf 1Y6ork Transcribed by https://otter.ai
laist.com/newsletters. Jessica Pilot is our talent manager and producer. Our executive producer Leo G. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Thanks to the team at Laist Studios, including Taylor Coffman, Kristin Hayford, Kristen Muller, Michael Conentino, Robert Jo, Mildred Langford and Leo G. A special thanks to you, Brian Crawford. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting a private corporation funded by the American people. Additional support comes from the Angel Foundation, supporting transformational leaders and by the California Health Care Foundation dedicated to improving the mental health care system for all Californians.
Karla Cornejo Villavicencio on Being the KPinageof1N6eowf 1Y6ork Transcribed by https://otter.ai