The things some of us take for granted. Epicureans who sneer at the sight of a McDonald’s takeout bag may not realize that, to a homeless Dominican boy subsisting on Wonder Bread and tasteless beef stew in a New York City relocation center, the golden arches represent unaffordable gustatory delights. And those who have no use whatsoever for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies may not think of them as tools that help a Spanish-speaking immigrant learn English, even if the immigrant is perplexed by phrases such as “Put up your dukes.”
Insights such as these enliven Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s memoir, “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.” And what an odyssey: In 1989, when Peralta was 4, he and his parents came to New York City from Santo Domingo on a tourist visa so that his mother could receive medical treatment while pregnant with Yando, the second of her two children. But when their visas lapsed, his father, who taught accounting in Santo Domingo but drove taxis and sold fruit in the U.S., returned home and left his wife to care for their two children. The bulk of the narrative in “Undocumented” is a chronicle of the complications wrought by the Peralta family’s lack of “papeles” (documentation papers).
This is not a family that was cowed by adversity. When eviction forces them into a homeless shelter, Peralta uses its library to read such books as “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome” — an early sign of the classics scholar he would one day become. A wealthy volunteer at another shelter mentors Peralta and helps him get a scholarship to Collegiate, a prestigious Upper West Side private school, from which he eventually goes on to Princeton.
Yet Peralta hides his immigration status from classmates, members of his church, his Harlem neighbors and school administrators. The Patriot Act ended any hope of comprehensive immigration reform, so Peralta feels he has to maintain his secret if he wants to study at Oxford or have a chance of securing work upon graduation.
Peralta isn’t a natural storyteller. The dialogue is stilted at times, and his overreliance on the street slang of his Harlem “hoodrats” is as wearisome as any other form of speech static. But “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.
Michael Magras is a writer living in southern Maine and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Iowa Review and other publications.