Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League

by Dan-el Padilla Peralta
Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League

Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League

by Dan-el Padilla Peralta


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An undocumented immigrant’s journey from a New York City homeless shelter to the top of his Princeton class
Dan-el Padilla Peralta has lived the American dream. As a boy, he arrived in the United States legally with his family. Together they had traveled from Santo Domingo to seek medical care for his mother. Soon the family’s visas lapsed, and Dan-el’s father eventually returned home. But Dan-el’s courageous mother decided to stay and make a better life for her bright sons in New York City.
Without papers, she faced tremendous obstacles. While Dan-el was only in grade school, the family joined the ranks of the city’s homeless. Dan-el, his mother, and brother lived in a downtown shelter where Dan-el’s only refuge was the meager library. At another shelter he met Jeff, a young volunteer from a wealthy family. Jeff was immediately struck by Dan-el’s passion for books and learning. With Jeff’s help, Dan-el was accepted on scholarship to Collegiate, the oldest private school in the country.
There, Dan-el thrived. Throughout his youth, Dan-el navigated two worlds: the rough streets of East Harlem, where he lived with his brother and his mother and tried to make friends, and the ultra-elite halls of a Manhattan private school, where he immersed himself in a world of books and rose to the top of his class.
From Collegiate, Dan-el went on to Princeton, where he made the momentous decision to come out as an undocumented student in a Wall Street Journal profile a few months before he gave the salutatorian’s traditional address in Latin at his commencement.
Undocumented is essential reading for the debate on immigration, but it is also an unforgettable tale of a passionate young scholar coming of age in two very different worlds.
Praise for Undocumented:
Undocumented is an impassioned counterargument to those who feel, as did some of Peralta’s more xenophobic classmates, that ‘illegals’ are good-for-nothings who take jobs from Americans and deserve to be kicked out of the country. No one who reads this story of a brilliant young man and his proud mother will automatically equate undocumented immigrant with idle parasite. That stereotype is something else we shouldn’t take for granted.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s story is as compulsively readable as a novel, an all-American tall tale that just happens to be true. From homeless shelter to Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford, through the grace not only of his own hard work but his mother’s discipline and care, he documents the America we should still aspire to be.” —Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter, President of the New America Foundation

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143109334
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/07/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 202,407
Product dimensions: 5.48(w) x 8.42(h) x 0.70(d)
Lexile: 930L (what's this?)

About the Author

Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Dan-el Padilla Peralta came to the United States with his family at the age of four. He received his BA summa cum laude from Princeton University, where he was chosen salutatorian of the class of 2006. He received his MPhil from the University of Oxford and his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is currently a Mellon Research Fellow at Columbia University and will be returning to Princeton as an assistant professor of classics in July 2016.

Read an Excerpt

“Dan-el, the police just searched our apartment for drugs!”

Excerpted from "Undocumented"
by .
Copyright © 2016 Dan-el Padilla Peralta.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Reading Group Guide

In his memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, Dan-el Padilla Peralta presents a new version of the immigrant American dream—a young man not only struggling to succeed within his adopted country but struggling to succeed in spite of this country and the obstacles it systematically placed before him. Padilla Peralta’s journey is tender, funny, and inspiring, and it offers a personal and nuanced perspective on an issue that continues to spark debate among lawmakers, cable news pundits, and voters.

Dan-el arrived in New York from the Dominican Republic at the age of four, accompanying his parents on a visa while his mother sought medical care. Three years later, his father returned home but Mrs. Peralta stayed in the country on her expired visa, hoping for a better future in America for her sons. The cost of her decision was immense—undocumented and afraid of being discovered, Dan-el’s family fell into extreme poverty, first living in a homeless shelter, then in a dilapidated apartment in inner-city New York. Despite the crime and drug use that surrounded them, Dan-el and his brother thrived, thanks to their mother’s firm hand, a supportive church community, and the power of education. Dan-el was a voracious reader; his love of learning caught the eye of a volunteer art teacher, and soon, through hard work, scholarships, and connections, he was accepted to Collegiate, one of the best private schools in New York City. From there, doors opened to the finest universities—Princeton, Oxford, and Stanford—as Dan-el’s list of achievements continued to grow.

Padilla Peralta is a lively and likeable storyteller, as unafraid to admit his flaws as he is to champion his own successes. He strikes a conversational tone, spiking his narrative with slang and classical Latin quotations, and he is a loving and proud son who recognizes the enormous sacrifices his mother made. But while his passion for education leaps from the page, so does his growing frustration with the government’s policies. As he approached graduation, Dan-el realized that, despite his accolades, he faced an uncertain future as an undocumented immigrant. So he became adept at navigating his network of academic connections and influential advisers, and after a childhood spent hiding, Padilla Peralta made his undocumented status public, becoming a champion for change.

Throughout his life, Padilla Peralta experienced the extremes of life in the United States: from the confines of a New York City homeless shelter to the hallowed halls of academia, reaching the pinnacle of academic achievement while living in constant fear of deportation. He argues that his success was exceptional but the challenges he faced were not. Reflecting on his achievements and knowing how easily he could have fallen through the cracks, he makes clear that an untold number of undocumented children are being held back from achieving their potential as Americans—a loss for them and for the entire country.

1. What were your views on immigration, and specifically undocumented immigrants, before you read this book? Did your opinion change in any way?

2. While both Dan-el and Yando eventually experience great academic and personal success, their childhoods were marked by extreme poverty, and the legal risk Mrs. Peralta put herself and her children in was enormous. Had you been in her situation, would you have stayed in America or returned to the Dominican Republic?

3. Did you or a member of your family immigrate to the United States.? If so, what was that experience like, and how does it compare with that of Dan-el’s family?

4. Although he describes himself now as an agnostic, religion was a formative influence in Dan-el’s life. What kind of support did the church community offer him that he could not find elsewhere?

5. When speaking from the perspective of his younger self, Padilla Peralta at times uses slang, Spanish, and profanity; later in the book, he includes Latin quotations. What effect do these shifts in voice have on the reader?

6. While reading Breimer’s reference letter for his Princeton application, Padilla Peralta says he tries to ignore the “whispering ghost of race/survivor guilt” (p. 174). What does he mean?

7. Padilla Peralta notes that the media coverage after the Wall Street Journal article was published often painted him as a “Ragged Dick for the twenty-first century” (p. 244). How does Padilla Peralta’s life compare to the famous Horatio Alger novel? Does he agree with this assessment?

8. While Dan-el’s many teachers were hugely influential in his life, he also had a number of nonacademic mentors and family friends who played a part in his success. Who were these individuals and what did they contribute?

9. Did you have a teacher, mentor, or religious figure in your childhood who altered the course of your life? Share your experience.

10. Padilla Peralta says that he has “no intention of ever being only a Dominican, or a minority, or an undocumented immigrant, or a Spanish Harlem resident; or a Collegiate man, a Princeton man, an Oxford man” (294–295); he is a combination of all those identities. How many different identities do you have? How do they relate to each other?

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