For weeks I kept noticing Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s 2015 memoir Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League when I passed through the memoirs, biographies and autobiographies section at my public library but I never felt the urge to borrow it. Then one Saturday, right before they closed all the public libraries I strolled past it but this time thought otherwise. I finally realized this is a book I needed to read. Any guy who goes from a homeless shelter to an Ivy League university is smart as hell and full of ambition. And people like that can always teach you a thing or two. Inspired by my revelation I grabbed Padilla Peralta’s memoir and went to work reading it. Finding it damn near impossible to put down I’m pleased to say Undocumented did not disappoint me.
Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s life story bares little resemblance to the unflattering stereotype many Americans have of immigrants. He didn’t brazenly enter the US in a spirit of lawlessness seeking employment and public assistance. He was brought to America legally by his parents from the Dominican Republic, because his mother needed advanced medical care for her high-risk pregnancy. Not long after the birth of his brother Yando his father returned home, sick of trying to support his family working low-paying jobs. Over time Padilla Peralta’s parents grew estranged and even though Padilla Peralta and his mother’s visas expired they continued living in the US. Fearing deportation if their applications for legal residency was denied and seeing how well her oldest son was faring in school she opted to keep the family in the US, putting them in legal limbo and thus ineligible for most, if not all public assistance. (Fortunately, being born in America Yando was eligible for aid since he was a citizen.)
Forced to live in a New York City homeless shelter after losing their apartment, a young volunteer took the young Dan-el and his brother under his wing. Recognizing Dan-el’s was a voracious reader with a budding intellect, he encouraged the boy to apply to Collegiate, the same prestigious prep school where JFK attended. At Collegiate he flourished where his hard work, ambition and smarts paved the way for his entrance to Princeton. After majoring in the classics of Greece and Rome he graduated with high honors, earning a scholarship to study at Oxford. But his undocumented status was always there, like a hidden stigma he fought to conceal.
This a great follow-up book to Tara Westover’s Educated, as well as other memoirs by first-generation college graduates like Carlene Cross’ Fleeing Fundamentalism: A Minister’s Wife Examines Faith, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Steve Pemberton’s A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home. It also deserves to be read alongside other Ivy League memoirs like Walter Kirn’s Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever and Andrea Raynor’s Incognito: Lost and Found at Harvard Divinity School.
This memoir should be mandatory reading for any American with strong opinions about immigration, pro or con. It’s also a wonderful memoir and easily one of the best books I’ve read this year.