The full title of today's book is Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. Dan-el Padilla Peralta was born in the Dominican Republic, but would come to live in New York City early on in life with his mother and father, and later on his little brother. Throughout his childhood and for part of his adult life, Dan-el would be considered an illegal immigrant, staying in the U.S. long past the date of his initial visa. But even with the incredibly huge roadblock of not having a social security number, Dan-el would manage to get one of the finest educations New York has to offer at an elite private high school, and eventually attend college at Princeton University.
Genre, Themes, History: Undocumented is a nonfiction book that follows Dan-el's life from childhood to just after he has been accepted into a PhD program at Stanford. Initially it would be Dan-el, his mother, his father, and his younger brother Yando. After his father leaves to go back to the Dominican Republic, Dan-el's small family would transition between homeless shelters before being set-up in apartment housing. Meanwhile, his visa would expire. And since Yando is the only legal citizen of the three, he is the only one eligible to receive any kind of aid. Despite never quite having enough, Dan-el has a love of reading and wants to do well in school. As he tells the story of his life, Dan-el makes clear the many people he had come into his life who fortunately recognized his desire to learn and ability to pick up on most subjects quickly. It also doesn't hurt that he picked up English and could translate for his mother whenever she needed. But even as he continues to excel in school and goes from public school, to a coveted full scholarship to attend one of the best private schools, there is always the lingering issue of Dan-el and his mother not being legal citizens. Like many illegal immigrants his age, he was brought into the U.S. as a child and now it is the only home he knows. Dan-el is able to keep his secret from most of his friends and instructors, even in college, but if he ever wants to travel outside of the U.S., or even just seek employment, he would have to confront the issue and attempt to solve it. His story is all at once the same as many other immigrants', and very different because of the academic success that would eventually lead to an Ivy League education.
My Verdict: This book is a fascinating story of the journey Dan-el made and the struggles he went through along the way. It is certainly the kind of story Hollywood would love to sell you - illegal immigrant from the Dominican Republic goes from living in homeless shelters to graduating from Princeton - but it isn't just about that, although that is a huge piece of it and what made me initially interested in the story. Dan-el talks about life and his friends in Spanish Harlem, and balancing that life against the one he has with his other friends at the private school he attends. He talks about being able to excel in literature and the classics, but struggling with math and thinking that those struggles could hinder his acceptance to an Ivy League school. He talks about how even his desire to do well in school and go to a first-rate college didn't stop him from attempting a foolish shoplifting plan that went terribly wrong. He also talks about the pressure his academic success would later cause for his little brother, Yando. He even talks, at great length, about his lack of success in dating women of any color throughout his childhood and even after college. But behind all of that is the threat of being found out and reported to immigration. Instead of simply focusing on that one aspect of his life, Dan-el seems to tell the entire story, including all of his struggles as well as his successes. His writing may not be the best, and it would be easy for some to want to write off the entire book as a humble brag, but this is a great book and just one example of what many immigrants must go through when they wish to stay in the U.S.
Favorite Moment: When Dan-el gets beaten in one-on-one basketball by his little brother, twice.
Recommended Reading: It won't come as a surprise to many of you when I recommend either Drown or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. As a Dominican author, Diaz's stories offer a good perspective from someone not born in the U.S. but now calls it home.