Some of the best books are the ones that just find a way to your hands. There isn’t an all-out blitz to go find them; there isn’t any extended time examining book titles on a bestseller’s list or finding it after perusing shelves at the local Barnes and Noble. In the case of Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, this book came courtesy of a friend who read the book and had a hunch that I would enjoy it. After reading the first several pages, that hunch was correct and the book was rarely put down.
While the story is about one person’s journey, the story can be told for countless individuals who face similar circumstances. The author, Dan-El Padilla Peralta, tells a story about making it that doesn’t come off as an “I made it” story, and that is not easy to do considering it is autobiographical. He writes the story in a way that puts the reader right in the middle of his and his family’s circumstances: from the time he and his parents came to the states to his mother giving birth to his younger brother to his father leaving the family to return to their native Dominican Republic when Dan-El was only seven years old.
There are stories of the learning styles in the Santo Domingo schools compared to New York schools and how he was able to be more of a self-learner in his native country as opposed to having to work with others when he got to classrooms in elementary school in the states. However, his style of learning was never intentionally selfish. At the center of Dan-El’s education is his love of reading, how reading is truly the primary activity he enjoyed from the time he was a child all the way through adulthood.
The struggles he and his family faced were real. Dan-El and his mother did not have their citizenship papers, leaving his youngest brother as the only citizen in the family which affected everything from being eligible for food stamps to particular forms of housing. His mother didn’t have papers, which made it damn near impossible to get a steady job and provide for her family, which was made tougher since she was the only parent available to watch her two young sons. As a family, they always found a way, but there were many challenges and obstacles they faced together and those challenges and obstacles, along with Dan-El’s love of learning and education, helped fuel him to provide a better life for his family.
Dan-El writes about the people who make a difference in his life; every step of the way and every single point in his journey, Dan-El gives props to the people who helped shape the young boy he was, the young man he grew into, and the young man he became. He gives props to his friends, gives praise to mentors in the church, in the classroom and people he was fortunate enough to meet along the way. He keeps family first and writes about how much reading carried him through good and bad times. Sure, he did things that young people did growing up: he told the occasional lie to his mother, he ignored his younger brother at times, he had his obstacles with peer pressure, and he tells these stories in a way that are relatable to the reader. He is also very honest about his own issues with self-identity. He was a poor kid who was fortunate enough to attend private schools. It presented a duality in him in that he felt he had to be one person in the hood with the people he grew up with and a completely different person at school with people who were also a part of his life.
At the heart of the story are the challenges he and his family face as undocumented citizens of the United States. Dan-El did not find it easy sharing his circumstances with citizenship, or lack thereof, with many people and did not really open up until he was in college. He would listen to peers and their criticisms of the undocumented population while those same people did not realize that he was one of the people they were heavily criticizing. The issues surrounding public assistance in the form of simply being able to eat and having somewhere to live are heartbreaking. The obstacles he writes about when it comes to obtaining an education should have been insurmountable, yet he found a way to get things done. Yet by his own admission, he realizes that various people in similar situations do not have the resources he had to be able to attend a prestigious high school, or go to the Ivy League for college or study abroad. He tells his story without pounding his chest. He champions the cause of his people and does so in an eloquent and humble way.