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Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Photo of Dan-el Padilla Peralta

About the Author

Born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, DAN-EL PADILLA PERALTA came to the United States with his family at the age of four. He received his BA summa cum laude from Princeton University, where he was chosen salutatorian of the class of 2006. He received his MPhil from the University of Oxford and his PhD in classics from Stanford University. He is currently a Mellon Research Fellow at Columbia University.

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Books by Dan-el Padilla Peralta

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The different ways we talk about immigration | Author Dan-el Padilla Peralta

Author Q&A

Thursday night, a large group will assemble and tell you why they should be the next Republican candidate for the White House. It’s a safe bet when the question of immigration reform comes up, they will try to top one another in tough talk about border security, the theft of “good” American jobs, ridding the country of illegals, and building the dang fence. If you’re a teetotaler, drink every time someone mentions a “pathway to citizenship.” Your sobriety won’t be tested. And while their Democratic counterparts might talk with a lot less spittle, in practice, they’ve sent a lot of people packing. The Obama administration surpassed the two-million deportation mark last year.

What gets lost in the politics of immigration are the actual people affected by the policies of a dysfunctional system that actually allows little in the way of legal immigration. It’s been shown again and again that immigrants contribute way more to the overall economy than they take out, but that’s still just statistics. If pro-immigrant reform advocates need a poster-child, a brilliant young man to lead the way, they need look no further than Dan-El Padilla Peralta, author of the immensely-relevant-to-2016-and-beyond Undocumented.

Peralta and his family came to the United States legally from the Dominican Republic in 1989. They settled in New York City, but their visas ultimately lapsed. Peralta’s father returned, but his mother stayed, resolute that her two sons would get the best education America had to offer. In the early years, the family moved a lot, from Queens to the Bronx, from a Brooklyn shelter to a crappy Manhattan apartment, before finally landing for good in East Harlem. Poverty didn’t keep Peralta from becoming a straight-up scholar, a brainiac kid who fell in love with Classical studies — Poetics, Aeneid, Basilica Julia, friends, Romans, countrymen — the whole ancient civilization nine. Remarkably, Peralta’s intellect and curiosity took him from the playgrounds Across 110th St. to a fancy prep school, Princeton (he was 2006 salutatorian), Oxford, and ultimately onto a doctorate from Stanford.

Undocumented is no feeble-brained “up-by-the-bootstraps” tale of self-reliance. It takes a village to raise a polymath. Family, friends, teachers, mentors, counselors, professors, benefactors, and the occasional well-known campaigner-on-his-behalf from Hope, Arkansas all contributed along the way. Undocumented is an honest portrayal of living day-to-day with the practical, societal, and existential menace of knowing life as you know it could end at any moment, having the deportation guillotine over your head, and the threat of everything unraveling over bureaucratic forms, in triplicate.

Dr. Peralta, 30, spoke with Penguin Random House about his incredible and distinctly American immigrant journey.

PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE:Dan-El is unique, is it a family name?

Dan-El Padilla Peralta: Prior to my being born, my parents decided they wanted a quirky first name that was a play on Daniel. My dad wanted Dan-El Rey, which is the Spanish word for king. Mom wouldn’t have any of that, she thought it would lead to me having a greatly inflated sense of self-worth. Dan-El was a compromise.

PRH:When did you start conceiving your life story as a memoir? And what was the writing process like?

DP: The idea to write a full memoir came into focus after I was profiled in the Wall Street Journal in 2006. I collaborated with Miriam Jordan, who wrote a lovely piece about my life, family, and our experience in the United States, and I began to receive encouragement to write a memoir. I was hesitant because I wasn’t sure how to craft a book, but also for pragmatic reasons like the fact I was headed off to graduate school at Oxford. Eventually, I came around to the idea that it could be an important book. People could hear the story of someone who was undocumented, as opposed to the punditry. To both get as full a measure of my experience as possible, and to add to the broader conversation about immigration reform. I also wanted to reflect on the meaningfulness of humanistic study in my life, how the Classics in particular shaped my trajectory.

From that initial moment of determination, the process of writing unfolded in stages. Originally, it was conceived of as a series of essays about all the people who had been influential in my life. There’s some of this in the final version, but I decided to write a formal narrative with a standard arc. Starting in 2007, I wrote it piecemeal at Oxford and then while working on my Ph.D. at Stanford. I was upfront with the editors about the potential for me to fall behind in writing it. The first real full draft was in 2010. The final memoir was delivered in late 2013. Undocumented took longer than the gestation of elephants.

DP: Any particular memoirs serve as a guide for Undocumented?

PRH:Oh man, I read so many. James McBride’s The Color of Water was huge. J.R. Moehringer’s splendid The Tender Bar was formative when I actually started writing, and I kept going back it. Jonathan Franzen’s Discomfort Zone was important early on, from ’06-08, which in hindsight is kind of remarkable because I find his novels tedious. I read a lot of memoir-istic essay writing, so James Baldwin was tremendous for me. I’d read a lot of his stuff in high school and in college, had a class at Princeton with Cornell West where we covered Price of the Ticket, but I reread a big chunk of his work. I also have to give a shoutout to Junot Diaz, even though he writes fiction. Drown isn’t a memoir, but it provided me with an idiolect. It modeled how one might craft a language that was responsive to these different worlds. Language that traffics between the Dominican-American diaspora and white America as it’s normatively constituted…Without Junot Diaz, I can’t imagine how I would have written some of the chapters.

PRH:When did you complete your Ph.D. and what was the focus of your dissertation?

DP: I defended my dissertation in June of last year. It was on “Roman Republic and Religion,” specifically focused on 4th-to-2nd B.C. I became fascinated by ancient religions throughout grad school and this is a time about which we don’t know a whole lot. The literary evidence is non-existent and the archeological evidence is hard to decipher. I wrote my dissertation on how to study this particular period.

PRH:Speaking of religion, in Undocumented, it doesn’t seem like you wrestle with the nature of God and the church any more than your typical undergrad. But yet, had your mom simply ignored the church rule on annulment and married your stepfather (which she ultimately did), many of the documentation problems could have been solved…

DP: I wrestled with all kinds of things about the Catholic church. I had many questions about my church upbringing, a whole host of issues, many related to social policy. By the time I graduated high school I was pretty far gone on the progressive side of the spectrum and regulations governing people’s lives, certainly the ones about premarital sexual activity, were not ones I was going to follow. But yes, there were also rules that directly affected my life. Why was mom so insistent on doing things right by the church? I disagreed with some of her reasoning behind it, but ultimately, I felt it was my responsibility to honor her wishes. In her adherence to principal, she was acting in an exemplary way. I couldn’t help but take a cue from her and even when I wavered, lapsed, and went my wayward way, I admired and tried to return to her example.

PRH:Do you feel much of a connection to the Dominican Republic, especially considering you couldn’t visit for fear of not being able to return to the U.S.?

DP: One of the developments of the last few years is that, as my physical connection to the Dominican Republican has become more attenuated — I haven’t been since I was a kid — my intellectual connection has intensified. I’m working on a project that looks at the legacy and appropriation of the Ancient Greek and Roman past in Dominican context. Like all academics, I say I study this field because it’s grossly understudied.

PRH:For The Guardian, you recently wrote about current Dominican and U.S. immigration policy as it relates to Haitians, so it isn’t just the academic realm that interests you?

DP: Right, but I actually see them tied together in a way. In The Guardian piece, I tried to point out how Dominican immigration reform has piggybacked, taken inspiration from, and sought the expertise of American policymakers. Going deeper than a single op-ed however, I am trying to put together how in reconceptualizing their past, Dominicans are trying to develop techniques to write Haitians out of their history altogether. These techniques owe a lot to the ancient Greeks and Romans. The dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo from the 1930s-60s is a watershed in this regard. His apparatchiks imagined Santa Domingo as a second Athens, which would give the D.R. an intellectual superiority over the Haitian hordes to the west, who were renounced as barbaric. In that regard, my interest in the past and present intersect. I’m also pretty sure mom and stepdad will relocate to the D.R. permanently, so it’s good to know what’s going on down there.

PRH:The typical “rising-from-poverty” Horatio Alger type story usually features students in math, science, medicine, etc. What was it about Classics, which you hilariously call “some white people nonsense,” that’s resonated with since you were a young boy?

DP: My experience with Classics has undergone a series of stages. First, when I was a shelter kid, my encounter with a book on how people lived in ancient Greece and Rome opened doors to a radical new world, different than anything I knew. There was a legacy that connected antiquities to the present, which was captivating. Second, I was drawn to the language of the worlds, which became increasingly interesting to me as a teenager. I could make sense of languages. They had rules, patterns, conjugations, dissensions, and this melded with my maturation as a bi-lingual person. I was used to existing in two different linguistic domains. Third, starting in high school, was encountering and engrossing myself in the texts. They were written 2,000-years ago, but they made sense to me. I was swept up in the romance in reading and reacting to Virgil, Horace, and so on. I was one of those loser kids in high school with Latin tags on my backpack. The fourth, and final phase, began at Princeton. I figured out the Classics were a unique discipline where various intellectual capabilities can be put to use all at once because they encompass so much. The Classics require linguistic ability, sensitivity to material culture and archaeology, and historical framework. How do we think about the past and periodization, which is one of my big obsessions. That’s how I go from little me in the shelter to where I am today.

PRH:Self-evident as this may sound, does it somewhat come down to a bedrock life-long love of reading?

DP: I can’t deny it. My parents were the model, they were both avid readers. Reading as a child allowed me to somewhat escape the conditions in which we lived. It also gave me a set of cognitive tools. One is learning to be alone. Reading is an isolating experience and I like that. It also provided me the opportunity to test my puerile simplistic musings on life against nuanced and sophisticated texts. Reading gave me challenges and constantly enabled me to recalibrate my own expectations of my self-identity, and how I was interacting with the larger world.

PRH:Throughout Undocumented, you have this massive threat of deportation-at-any-moment hanging over your head, but it doesn’t keep you from seamlessly ingraining yourself in all kinds of groups and communities. What do you attribute this ability to?

DP: A lot of it was a learned ability to maneuver through varying worlds and to reposition myself as circumstances dictated. I was also the beneficiary of a lot of love, people looking out for me at various stages of life who provided constant encouragement and affirmation. When I was sorely in need of someone to cheer me on, help me work something out, or to just listen, I would get it. They were always there for me. I credit my survival and achievement to that more than anything else.

A friend was teasing me about the Acknowledgments section of the book, saying it appears I thanked every person I ever met. I felt bad that I had to cut some people out.

PRH:You have that great line that “structures, context, and luck reigned supreme.” You really need all three, it isn’t the guy with the most fortitude gets it done, is it?

DP: One of the challenges I face now in talking about the memoir is that invariably, there’s a tendency to take the individual successful life according to a standard metric — overcoming obstacles, getting an Ivy League education — and make it about an exceptional person with special attributes. What I hope to illuminate is that in my case, there were all these institutions that came together, structures of power, that allowed me to stand out. I benefited from people who were extremely well-positioned to help me out. That’s the luck aspect. I had to walk through the doors, but it was mentors and teachers who opened them for me.

PRH:Outside of your success, is there a connection to all of the undocumented in America, regardless of how they make a living, in that there’s a simultaneous sense and fear in being of a place/not being of a place?

DP: Totally. It’s the feeling of precariousness, that everything is so unstable, and that you’re living in a country that shuts doors on you. Being undocumented means your dreams might be held out in front of you, but they are unattainable because you don’t have the right paperwork. And in order to keep your sanity, you have to suspend belief in the precariousness, and focus on work, study, or family. Otherwise, it can lead to derangement. This is where I feel so connected to all the undocumented, even now as someone with provisional documentation. There is a constant looming anxiety about what’s the next step. If you let it, it becomes incapacitating.

PRH:Sadly, what gets lost in immigration as a hot-button issue is that these are actual people whose lives are being upended…

DP: Back in 2006, I gave an interview after the Journal article came out and called America’s treatment of undocumented immigrants, “inhumane.” I received a letter from a 1960 Princeton alum, a retired Marine Colonel, who congratulated me on the story and my imminent graduation, before going on to say that he took exception to the adjective “inhumane.” He said there were many things that were inhumane in the world, but this was not one of them. I wrote back and said, “You’re wrong.” Lately, there’s been some great reporting at places like the AP and the New Yorker about the daily inhumanities visited upon undocumented immigrants, but it only scratches the surface. What’s so demoralizing and dispiriting is that you hope these stories will bubble up into the pubic consciousness. Then Donald Trump comes along and tries his damnedest to ensure the conversation revolves around recriminations and stereotypes without any credible foundations. There’s a perverse allure to Trump’s words, they reinforce people’s preconceived biases, and it becomes what’s discussed instead of real reform.

I’d add that the White House hasn’t been helpful either. Since DACA in 2012, there’s been an effort to help certain classes of immigrants with paths to stabilization, but it doesn’t provide full legalization. The Obama administration has been responsible for a gross moral calamity, the deportation of so many undocumented immigrants on an unparalleled scale. These deportations were carried out, in essence, as a negotiating ploy. All of these lives were surrendered to a brokered agreement about immigration reform, which hasn’t even come to pass. Families were broken and destroyed. The indignation that wells up in me when I think about it is almost too much to bare.

PRH:Simple-minded question to be sure, but as someone who studies language, how much of a difference do you think it makes to use “undocumented” as opposed to “illegal” immigrant?

DP: Changing the terminology is a struggle immigration advocates have been immersed in for the last few years. I’m not sure if undocumented is the best word, but it’s infinitely better than illegal. The notion of an illegal person is paradoxical at best. At the worst, it smacks of an awful construal of human beings, that it in and of itself, a person’s body is an illegality. The term undocumented points us in a different direction, one that serves to underline how the procedures of marginalization all revolve around documentation. The idea that bits of paper are effectively what adjudicate your chances of being a fully accepted member of society is preposterous.

PRH:One fascinating moment in the book is when a former Princeton roommate of yours, the son of Caribbean parents, espouses arguments that if his parents came to America legally why can’t other people’s parents… Is this something you’ve heard often from children of immigrants or was he an anomaly?

DP: It’s an argument that I hear from time-to-time. There are children of immigrants, even some immigrants themselves, who ask why can’t these undocumented folks “wait in line.” There are rejoinders. One easy one is to point out that America has made it increasingly difficult for certain categories of immigrants to make it here. Since the 1960s, there are a bunch of countries that are subject to visa caps, including the Dominican Republic. If you are not a special class, a scientist, say, or have familial conditions, a spouse or next of kin living in America, then it’s a near-mathematical impossibility. Immigration isn’t the same as it used to be.

The idea of “waiting in line” is questionable in and of itself. It gets tossed around by conservatives, and sometimes by children of immigrants, or privileged immigrants. What does the phrase entail? People rarely have a sophisticated answer. Is it paying staggering high fees? Is it applying from one’s home country? What if that country has reached its cap? There are all these contingencies, it’s not like getting a ticket and simply standing in line. It’s a vexing question. Refugees and asylum status are a whole other thing that we could discuss all day.

PRH:In the immigration debate, you always hear reform-leaning types say, “we’re all immigrants, we all came from somewhere else.” Has that become yet another empty phrase?

DP: I do think it’s become a simplistic platitude. One of the longterm hindrances to changing the current conversation is the lack of an emotionally-resonant tag, or a viscerally-appealing standard, that people can rally around. “We’re a nation of immigrants” sounds good, and I agree with it, but it doesn’t seem to compel people. Why? One basic reason is that the trauma of being an immigrant gets stamped out over time. It’s impossible for Americans to conceptualize what it means to be an immigrant today, let alone an undocumented one. Transitioning to a new country and a new language, especially if you’re not in a skilled migratory slot going from one high-prestige occupation in your home country to the United States, is a jarring collision.

Even if the experience has been filtered through storytelling, the generational reminiscence of hearing stories from the old country from your grandparents…it can’t be understood.

I just finished teaching a class at Columbia and I showed the class how Irish immigrants were consistently “niggerized.” Plenty were deported, and those who stayed were seen as Negros. We have all kinds of political cartoons from the late 1800s, often depicting the Irish as apes. Exploring this legacy of racialized nativism in the history of American discourse is one way to get past the platitude Yes, we are a nation of immigrants, a nation of immigrants who were subjected to virulently racist treatment. Just like now. People don’t like this, it doesn’t jibe with their optimistic reading of the American dream. I am a sober pessimist when it comes to these questions. Other than the basic economic arguments, I’m at a loss as to what an ideologically resonant claim to push forward is. It’s hard to pitch beyond that cliche and still appeal to a lot of people. If there was, somebody would have already used it to wrest attention away from Trump & co.

My dream for Undocumented is that it redirects the public conversation on immigration.

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