From an ‘Undocumented’ Boyhood to a Doctorate


As a follow-up to our previous post—“What’s on Our Nightstands: Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s ‘Undocumented’”—here are excerpts from a related article by Liz Robbins (The New York Times) on Dan-el Padilla Peralta’s trajectory in his personal and academic life, following his 2015 book Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League:

As Dan-el Padilla Peralta toggled fluidly between worlds for much of his life — ancient and modern, poor and privileged, Dominican and American — there were times when he managed to forget he was a child without a country.

He found refuge in New York’s libraries, the Greek and Latin texts speaking to him even before he could speak their language. He would copy entire orations, memorizing for inspiration.

But always, the fear would return: He could be deported. His mother brought him to the United States from Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, when he was 4, and they overstayed their tourist visas. He has wrestled with the consequences ever since.

“The drumming of papeles was the background music to my life,” Dr. Padilla said, intoning the Spanish term for legal documents.

Now he hopes that by telling his life story, he will be able to further the discussion on immigration policy, which has become a contentious issue on the presidential campaign trail. In “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey From a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League” (Penguin 2015), he recounts the extraordinary arc from poverty to the all-boys Collegiate School in Manhattan, to Princeton, then Oxford, where he earned a masters in philosophy, and Stanford, where he earned a doctorate in classics.

At age 30, Dr. Padilla is at Columbia as a postdoctoral fellow in humanities, and next summer, he will return to Princeton as an assistant professor of classics. He has a work visa, but is not yet a citizen, a status he hopes will soon change because in March, Dr. Padilla married a woman from Sparta, N.J., whom he had dated for six years. He is still waiting for his green card application to be considered.

Dr. Padilla said that his wife, Missy, a social worker, was teasing him recently that he still could not enjoy his success. To explain his pessimism, Dr. Padilla cited Homer’s Iliad, where two jars stood on the floor of Zeus’ palace, one containing bad things, and the other a mixture of good and bad. There was no vessel of all good things.

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[Photo above: Dan-el Padilla Peralta, 30, is currently a fellow at Columbia University, teaching previously incarcerated adults. Credit: Damon Winter/The New York Times.]

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