Undocumented Themes

The main themes of Undocumented are code-switching and multiple identities, the state of undocumented migrants in America, and father figures and finding a new masculine identity.

  • Code-switching: Dan-el navigates the contrasting worlds of his family, his public-school friends, and later his prep-school peers.
  • Undocumented migrants: Dan-el's undocumented status makes his life precarious and is a source of both fear and shame.
  • Father figures: In his father's absence, Dan-el must take up a paternal role in his household, even as he searches for father figures to guide him on his path.


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Last Updated on January 8, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1181

Code-Switching and Multiple Identities

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One of the most striking aspects about Undocumented is the mix of jargons and idioms used by its author, Dan-el Padilla Peralta. When recounting early conversations with his mother, Padilla uses English with simple syntax and a smattering of Spanish, as well as idiosyncratic terms and pronunciations—such as “chin-chin” for Ketchup and his mother’s use of “Ma’hattan” for Manhattan—as if to capture the language through which he experienced childhood. However, when Padilla shifts to PS 200 in fifth grade, he changes to a different idiom, comprising words like “beef,” “diss,” and “yo mamma jokes.” Still later, when Padilla moves to Princeton as a young man, his dialect changes again, and he begins to “talk white,” as he describes in the author’s note preceding his memoir.

Padilla explains that he deliberately uses these switches of language to report a life experience lived on “many different registers.” The languages of Padilla’s childhood and youth navigate his reality as a Dominican immigrant; a boy living in the “hood,” rapping to Jay-Z; and a politically aware student at Princeton. Thus, Padilla showcases the code-switching (that is, the switching of language, idiom, and dialect based on one’s social context) he has always used to live his multiple identities. Code-switching enables Padilla to simultaneously live all his complex identities—a self-confessed “hoodrat” who is a scholar of classics, a brown man with a white partner, an American who is an undocumented migrant—while resisting any one definitive label. For instance, the deliberate use of the Spanish papeles, instead of papers, captures Padilla’s and his mother’s anxiety about their immigration status as undocumented Dominican immigrants, while terms like “homegirls” consciously reclaim and affirm Padilla’s identity as both person of color and speaker of English.

Although Padilla experiences social anxiety about his mother’s lack of English, he handles this by acting as her translator in a larger context. Further, he preserves in his account the rhythms of his mother’s language—his literal “mother tongue”—and, through that, his Catholic, Dominican, and Spanish-speaking cultural selves. He seeks bendicion from his elders like a well-brought-up Dominican child, prays to the Virgin Mary and Saint Michael, and ensures his mother he will not turn into a no-good, antisocial tiguere. Thus, his multiple languages also serve to preserve several cultures in Padilla’s persona.

The State of Undocumented Migrants in America

Being an immigrant means negotiating complex realities of racial and cultural difference, but being an undocumented immigrant is even more complicated. Without documentation, Padilla’s family is especially vulnerable to extreme poverty and the anxiety of deportation. Worse, attitudes toward such migrants, even from “legal” immigrants, can be patronizing at best and virulent at worst. Anxiety about immigration status is a recurring theme in Padilla’s memoir, with the all-important papeles being the most prominent word he can recall from his early New York childhood. A poorly formulated immigration policy ensures that Padilla’s family remains in poverty: because his mother is undocumented, she is afraid to apply for jobs lest her immigration status be revealed and she be deported. Lack of documentation ensures that the family remains on meager welfare, yet the state does not offer them a chance to seek a work permit, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Soon, Padilla begins to view his lack of papeles and his family’s impoverished background as a source of secret shame, which leads him to compartmentalize his school and home lives. A visit to a prep school classmate’s apartment is especially jarring: Padilla notes how a bathroom at the classmate’s home is as large as the bedroom he and Yando share. Although a combination of academic performance and helpful mentors helps Padilla carve a path out of poverty, he is well aware that his story is the exception, rather than the rule. When he wins a scholarship to Princeton, a schoolmate insinuates that his minority status has given him an edge, ignoring the vast difficulties of Padilla’s childhood, where an occasional trip to a McDonald’s is the height of luxury. Though such opinions enrage Padilla, his complex mixture of shame and fear at “outing” his immigrant status rob him of expressing even his rage. When people espouse views on “illegal” immigrants stealing jobs, Padilla similarly holds his tongue.

It is only after Padilla gathers enough courage to “out” himself as an undocumented migrant that he begins to express his views more freely and envision a way out of his dilemma. Thus, Padilla realizes that the conspiracy of silence only leads to injustices being prolonged; speaking up and canvassing for rights, though, will help create a fairer, more sensitive immigration policy.

Father Figures and Finding a New Masculine Identity

When his father leaves the United States when Padilla is seven years old, Padilla is immediately placed in the position of the “hombre” of the family, the one who has to look after his mother and younger brother. He negotiates the additional responsibility by being an obedient son and excelling in academics. Though the lack of his father is a real, practical absence in his life that contributes to the family’s poverty, Padilla and Yando are not at a loss for adult men they can look up to, which helps them form a nuanced idea of masculinity. Although absent, Padilla’s own father is portrayed as a gentle, gracious man, and these qualities are replicated in Father Mike, the pastor at Resurrection Church, known as “Pops” by the neighborhood’s kids. Not only does Pops watch over the children, he treats them to a trip to Disney World in Florida. When Padilla gets into trouble for vandalizing a store, it is Father Mike who pays the bill and guides Padilla in the right direction.

The other two prominent father figures in Padilla’s life are Jeff, a photographer with whom Padilla forges a deep and lifelong friendship, and Carlos, Padilla’s mother’s strong and humorous boyfriend. These role models are especially important because Padilla is growing up in an America dominated by toxic masculine values. Schoolmates make crude, sexist jokes about his mother, while a couple of others are killed in gang violence, sometimes for no fault of their own. “Fronting” as tough is essential to being a man in this milieu, but Padilla’s gentler role models show him different ways of being a man. As a consequence, he begins to respect women, especially at Princeton, where he is teased for his circle of female friends (or “groupies”).

Padilla begins to extend understanding towards his own younger brother, Yando, whom he has ignored in the past—partly because he assumes Yando, an American citizen, has advantages Padilla himself never enjoyed. However, his stint as a mentor in the Prep for Prep program and his own widening life experiences help him gain empathy towards Yando. By the end of the memoir, he has also developed a better relationship with his father in the Dominican Republic, whose decision to leave America he can now contextualize and understand.