by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

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Undocumented Summary

Undocumented by Dan-el Padilla Peralta is a 2015 memoir about the author's upbringing in the United States as an undocumented Dominican immigrant.

  • As a child, Dan-el's family moves to New York City for the birth of his brother. His father returns to the Dominican Republic, but he and his mother stay.
  • Dan-el is raised in poverty, and he feels divided after he begins to attend a prep school with wealthier classmates.
  • As a Princeton student, Den-el pursues classical studies, despite discouragement.
  • Throughout his college and graduate school years, he worries that his undocumented status, which he keeps secret, will cause his life to unravel.


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Last Updated on January 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250

“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 logical path for a student such as Padilla is college, but he is well aware of his lack of papeles. The fear of being discovered as an undocumented immigrant and deported from America, which has plagued Maria her entire time in New York, now infects Padilla as well. When Princeton sends Padilla a letter asking him to participate in a humanities symposium, it seems to him like another prank “cooked up by my classmates to make fun of me.”

The memoir’s third section takes Padilla to Princeton and Oxford, and through the experience of sharing his undocumented status, which he has thus far kept hidden from most. One reason Padilla has not previously revealed his status is simply fear of deportation. American in every sense but one, Padilla often feels like a visitor or an impostor. The other aspect is his unresolved feelings about class. So far, he has navigated this complex by keeping his “hoodrat” and “white-boy prep” lives separate, but at politically aware Princeton, these lines are beginning to blur.

It is also at Princeton that Padilla discovers the political charge his dating and career choices carry. As the only student of color in the classics department, Padilla finds himself dating blanquitas, or white women, for which his friend Derrick criticizes him sharply. Padilla also debates his decision to pursue the study of classics, which some Black and Latino friends consider a field meant for people of privilege. A more lucrative field like finance may be more suited for people of color, so they can better the lives of la raza, or the people. Briefly torn, Padilla comes to the conclusion that the assumption that an education in humanities cannot better the life of his community is itself flawed.

With questions of identity snowballing, as well as adult life to navigate, sharing his immigrant status becomes more pressing. Padilla also understands that sharing his status is the first step towards changing it, especially when legislation such as the DREAM act, which proposes to legalize the citizenship of migrants who entered the US as minors, is being advocated. When a Wall Street Journal reporter seeks him out for his story, Padilla finally shares it first with his friends, ending decades of feeling like an impostor.

When Padilla decides to take up a two-year Sachs Scholarship to study for his master’s degree at Oxford, the threat of not being allowed back in the United States for ten years looms large. Though local politicians from whom he has requested a waiver are sympathetic, they decline to take action on Padilla’s case, lest it set a precedent. Meanwhile, though his mother can get permanent resident status by marrying her boyfriend, Carlos, she refuses to do so until Carlos’s first marriage is annulled. His Catholic mother’s choices are inscrutable to Padilla, but he recognizes in her the same mixture of pride and stubbornness which keeps him from accepting classmates’ offers of a green card marriage.

Padilla manages to secure entry to the US with a work visa sponsored by Princeton and is soon accepted at Stanford’s doctoral program. In this period, he also meets a social work student named Missy, with whom he falls in love. As the memoir ends, Padilla’s immigration status is still that of a “happy alien.” Although he has enormous love and gratitude for America, he also expresses anger at the lack of a “practical and just immigration policy.” With undocumented migrants often seen as usurpers, Americans forget how these workers prop up their economy. Padilla emphasizes the need for undocumented migrants to shed their shame and fight for legal status.

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