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

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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1181 words.)

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