BkRev #1787. Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. (2015). Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Penguin Press, 312 pp. $27.95 (Hardcover). ISBN #978-1-59420-652-8. https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/318245/undocumented-by-dan-el-padilla-peralta/9780143109334
Reviewed by: Corinne Forys
Department of Psychology Undergraduate Advising
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Wayne State University
Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, begins with the author’s family heading to New York City from Santo Domingo, seeking health care for Padilla’s mother during her high-risk pregnancy. After his mother’s health stabilizes, Padilla’s father returns to Santo Domingo while his mother chooses to stay in the United States with her children to allow them to pursue educational opportunities in New York. Their tourist visas expired, Maria Elena and Dan-el begin their lives as undocumented immigrants.
What follows is a story of an exceptional child and his journey navigating through many diverse environments and systems. Padilla’s mother is his fiercest advocate and strives to sustain a sense of normalcy and stability for her children. Along with his mother’s substantial influence, Padilla describes the many people who helped him throughout his education while skillfully maintaining focus on his own intelligence and hard work. Consequently, Undocumented maintains an overall tone of personal triumph infused with humility and gratitude for the kindnesses the author experienced throughout his life. Ultimately, it was Padilla’s own intellect and grit that led him to Princeton, Oxford, and eventually a Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University, but the considerable contributions of his community helped increase his access to educational opportunities too often reserved for those with greater inherent privilege than the author.
Padilla’s memoir is a must-read for all educators. Undocumented describes a personal journey through US immigration law and can help education professionals understand not only the practical but also emotional challenges many immigrant students and their families face. Padilla spends a great deal of time in this book embracing contradictions, one of which is his love for his adopted country coexisting with deep anger for an immigration system that he views as broken. When Padilla finished his book, he was planning for his future while waiting for passage of the DREAM act, which would have provided a path to citizenship for people who immigrated to the United States as young children. At the time of this review, he is still waiting. Any educator with an interest in political activism or any person struggling with their own feelings about immigration would benefit from viewing this process through Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s lens.
Throughout Padilla’s life, he encountered ordinary people who influenced him in extraordinary ways. At every phase of his education, someone recognized his potential and took the time to guide him through processes that were foreign to him. Teachers, counselors, clergy, and friends paid attention and shared the resources available to them, and this served to help level the playing field for a young man whose only advantages were a loving mother and a stunning intellect. In one anecdote familiar to academic advisors, Padilla’s college counselor paused from a script he had surely followed thousands of times and asked Dan-el a simple question: “Do you have any questions about the college process? Any concerns?” (p. 158). Then he waited, and Padilla’s response simultaneously unburdened him of his greatest secret and set in motion a plan that would lay the foundation for the rest of his education. The right question, a well-timed pause, and a bit of extra help changed this student’s life. Undocumented inspires readers to employ these tools to change the world.