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



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 came here legally with his family. Together they left Santo Domingo behind, but life in New York City was harder than they imagined. Their visas lapsed, and Dan-el’s father returned home. But Dan-el’s courageous mother was determined to make a better life for her bright sons.

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. There 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 these 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 could immerse himself in a world of books and where he soon rose to the top of his class.

From Collegiate, Dan-el went to Princeton, where he thrived, and 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 a classic story of the triumph of the human spirit. It also is the perfect cri de coeur for the debate on comprehensive immigration reform.

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Praise

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

Undocumented is not meant to be a ‘whole hood-boy-in richy-rich-school saga.’ Peralta is merely determined to put another face to the undocumented millions, that of the son of an illegal who reached the highest pinnacle of privileged education.”—New York Daily News

“Part memoir, part confessional, and part coming-of-age tale, Peralta’s story holds several truths on the road through loss, sacrifice, and achievement to gaining his slice of the American dream.”—Publishers Weekly

“An impassioned and honest memoir… Underscores the need for comprehensive immigration reform.”—Kirkus Reviews

“Peralta’s simple and unadorned yet fast-moving narrative provides an insightful read for anyone passionate about immigration reform.”—Library Journal

“Peralta offers an inspiring personal story of the hardships faced by undocumented families.”—Booklist

Author Q&A

Excerpt

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

I took Mom’s call outside my school’s computer room, where I’d been proofreading the school newspaper.

“What? What happened? Why did they think we had drugs? Did they say?”

Mi’jo, it’s going to be OK now. They made a big mistake. They had one cop who speaks a little Spanish explain to me what went wrong. They’d received a call from someone who told them dealers were storing drugs in an apartment in our building. The cops thought the informant said ‘Apartment 2B,’ so they came to our apartment—”

“So they were there when you got home from church?” “They’d knocked down the door. They were searching everything. They searched my bedroom, the table where I have the candles for the santos, the living room, the kitchen, the bedrooms.”

“Do they still think we’re involved with drug dealers?”

“Ay, no, mi’jo. So they’re searching everywhere and I’m telling them over and over again that they’re wrong, that we’re a family of God and I’m just a single mother raising two children. I showed them all your books, I told them you go to a famous private school on full scholarship. But they wouldn’t believe anything I told them. They just kept asking where the drugs were. But finally, finally, thank you, Virgin Mary, one of the police officers took out his radio and spoke with the police officers standing outside our building. That’s when another cop came up to me and said they were extremely sorry. That it had all been a mistake, that they were supposed to be investigating another apartment instead. And you should have seen them, Dan-el, how nice they were when they realized their mistake. They’re even going to pay to have our door fixed.”

“Those sinvergüenza cops!”

“Dan-el! They were doing their job, my son. It’s over now.”

“Did they ask about our immigration status?”

“Thank God no, my son. They didn’t ask me for papeles or anything like that.”

I let out a small sigh of relief. Mom continued:

“But I must have interrupted you, my son, you’re still at school working on the newspaper, right? Everything’s OK, I just wanted you to know what had happened. Get back to what you were doing and I’ll see you at home for dinner. Dios te bendiga.”

I returned to the computer room. One of my friends asked me if anything was wrong.

“Me?” I replied. “Nah, kid, I’m good.”

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