Last Updated on February 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 425
In Undocumented, Dan-el Padilla Peralta tells of his odyssey through the streets and shelters of New York, where he spent much of his childhood, until he reached college at Princeton and continued with graduate study. In some ways, the book can be considered just one chapter in an ongoing American dream, individual reinvention, Horatio Alger–type rags-to-riches saga, yet Padilla manages to set his story apart from the others. Born in the Dominican Republic, Padilla came to Manhattan as a child, and his family’s illegal status occurred through his mother’s overstaying her visa. A crucial part of the odyssey, more than one young man’s story, is the way his family navigates US immigration’s bewildering legal labyrinths.
As it reveals the monumental obstacles Padilla overcame, the book truly is an odyssey as it centers him in a hero’s quest. Yet he does not claim heroic status for himself, for another constant in his memoir is the emphasis on family, especially his mother, and more generally on the support of others who create a community of caring. Padilla is as much a realist as an idealist, however; acknowledging that serendipity also affected his chances of success, he tries to separate out the qualities unique to his story from the overall circumstances in which thousands of other homeless, undocumented children find themselves.
Padilla’s unflinching confrontation of the negative as well as positive aspects of his sojourn through the Ivy League also makes this particular story memorable. “Success” in arriving at Princeton, or even in graduating from it, was far from a simple proposition. His self-awareness included the anomaly of his position, even among the few Latino students at the elite university, in constantly concealing his lack of documents. One distinguishing feature, which put him on the national stage at age twenty-one, was his decision to expose his undocumented status precisely at the point of his college commencement—and in a highly conspicuous way: he was profiled in a Wall Street Journal article, titled “Illegal at Princeton.”
Ultimately, for Padilla, to succeed as an American paradoxically required him to divulge his undocumented status, even though doing so might have jeopardized his future chances not only to remain in the US but also to study at Oxford. He consistently refuses to pigeonhole himself within any one identity and shows that he gained strength from multiple influences in his life. Padilla’s frankness, ambition, frustration, and pride as he recounts his progress—combined with skillful writing—also help this book stand out from its genre.