“Meet the Aliens—the Legal Ones”: When fellow students on Princeton’s International Festival Committee coin this slogan for the campus’s “annual celebration of . . . multicultural diversity,” Dan-el Padilla Peralta is enraged. The slogan’s insinuation that Latin Americans on international visas have a legitimate right to be in America, unlike other “aliens,” stings Padilla, a Dominican immigrant who has grown up in New York but does not have documenting papeles. But when he sits down at his computer to compose an email blasting the committee’s insensitivity, all he ends up sending is a “platitudinous ‘make peace, people’ missive.” His response to the episode reveals the complex realities of his immigrant experience, the subject of Padilla’s memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.
As the memoir opens, four-year-old Padilla arrives in New York from the Dominican Republic with his father and pregnant mother. In New York to seek better care for his mother until she gives birth, Padilla’s family ends up staying because of health complications she faces after delivering his brother. The family enrolls Padilla in school and rents an apartment in the Bronx. It is here that little Padilla, admonished for wasting food, learns a crucial fact about his new life:
I hadn’t known we were poor.
In Santo Domingo, his parents had white-collar employment, but lacking a work permit in the US, they only have access to minimally-paying jobs. The financial struggle and his advancing age make Padilla’s father choose to return to Santo Domingo, while Maria, Padilla’s mother, decides to stay on in New York with Padilla and his brother, Yando.
The loss of income from Padilla’s father ushers in an intense period of hardship for the family. With New York–born Yando the only person eligible for public assistance, the family subsist on what young Padilla calls “welfer.” Interestingly, Padilla’s narration initially uses simple English syntax as well as sounded-out words in order to capture his experience as a small child. As the memoir moves through time, Padilla uses code-switching to navigate his many contexts.
Soon after his father’s departure, Padilla’s family find themselves homeless and waiting to be assigned to a shelter. However, the unsanitary conditions at the shelter aren’t much better, with Yando and Padilla keeping their sneakers on while showering in the communal bathrooms “to keep our feet from touching the pools of urine and streaks of shit.” It is around this time that Padilla first develops a sense of shame about his family’s lifestyle, as well as the need to keep his school and home lives discrete. However, books offer Padilla an escape, sparking an instant, lifelong connection.
Two influences that Padilla counts among his “overgenerous servings of good luck” are Father Mike of the Resurrection Church, known as “Pops” to neighborhood children, and Jeff, a young photographer and art teacher. Impressed by Padilla’s intelligence, it is Jeff who helps him apply for scholarships to the private school Collegiate and the “Prep for Prep” summer program. Studying hard and navigating “yo mamma” jokes, more nuanced “disses” at Prep, and punches from neighborhood boys called Geno and Mouseface, Padilla learns to shift between the several fronts in his burgeoning American life.
The second section of the memoir looks at Padilla’s experiences at Collegiate. Although he loves the coursework at Collegiate, the school exposes even further the gaping chasm between Padilla’s life and that of his classmates, many of whom holiday in Europe and own country houses. Away from his diverse neighborhood, Padilla also encounters toxic racism, such as the crude, sexist jokes his classmates make around his mother’s name, Maria. But Collegiate also clarifies his interest in the classics, aided by Dr. Russell, his Greek and Latin teacher.
(The entire section is 1,250 words.)