Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League
Dan-El Padilla Peralta
Read for The 2016 YALSA Hub Reading Challenge
Alex Award winner
When Dan-El was a small child, he traveled with his mother and father from the Dominican Republic to New York City where his mother gave birth to his little brother. While dad went back to the D.R., mom decided to stay with her two sons past the time of their tourist visa, making them illegal immigrants. Staying first at a homeless shelter and then living on welfare in the projects in New York City, Dan-El and his family had a tough life in the states. Through a natural intelligence and love of reading, some caring adults, and, as he himself admits, quite a bit of luck, Dan-El went from a run-down public elementary school to a prestigious private middle school and high school on scholarship. From there he got into the Ivy League – Princeton – also on scholarship. All the while, and particularly when he headed to college and beyond, his immigration status was a hurdle to his education and employment, one that seemed almost insurmountable many times. Again, with help, luck, and perseverance, things end up alright for Dan-El, but several times there was a good chance he and his family (except his little brother who is a U.S. citizen by birth) would be deported back to the D.R. without the bat of an eyelash by the U.S. government.
Dan-El went to college back in the early 2000s when the DREAM Act, bipartisan legislation that would allow illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children a path to citizenship through education and accomplishment, was first being introduced to Congress. It is still, more than a decade later, wallowing in the legislative process, but in 2012 President Obama enacted DACA to give many of the benefits of DREAM to undocumented children. Dan-El is basically the poster boy for why the country needs the DREAM Act, and this memoir really puts into perspective the kind of people we would be turning out of the country when they have so much to contribute.
Initially I thought this would be the kind of book I would take on my outreach visits to places like the juvenile detention center where some of the teens are affected by their or their family’s illegal immigration status. However, after reading it, I am having second thoughts. While Dan-El’s story is inspiring, it is highly uncommon, almost to the point of being completely relatable for the average person. He was exceptionally smart and had many caring adults and support programs to help him. Because of these things, not only was he able to work his way up to college, but he came to equate success exclusively with getting into the Ivy League, a narrative that just isn’t realistic for many teenagers these days, even ones of relative privilege. I hesitate to hand this book to someone for whom reading at grade level, graduating high school, or simply getting out of juvenile detention is the definition of success. I’m not saying they shouldn’t aspire to something more, but I wish I had an inspiring story of someone who gets into trade school or even state college against the odds and is held up as a success. Someone needs to write that book.
The Circuit series by Francisco Jimenez