Dan-el Padilla Peralta is an undocumented immigrant and a bonafide academic badass. Peralta, who was born in the Dominican Republic, came to New York City as a child, where he persevered through homelessness and cleared myriad legal hurdles to graduate from some of the most prestigious universities in the world. MTV News caught up with Peralta to find out more about the experiences he chronicles in his memoir, "Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League," out Tuesday (July 28).
"When I was growing up – the first and biggest challenge was that we were really poor," Peralta, who at one point lived in a homeless shelter with his mother and brother, said. "My brother and I [would] go to school and then at home hope that there wasn’t a blackout in our apartment or that water kept working and running or that we would have enough food every first and 15th of the month."
Despite financial struggles at home, Peralta was accepted to Collegiate, one of the most prestigious private schools in the world. But when the time came to start thinking about college, Peralta was faced with another wave of anxieties about his legal status.
"It was really when I was a junior in high school that it dawned on me that being undocumented was going to pose a serious problem in terms of college applications," he said. "I had gained enough knowledge about how federal financial aid works, to know that I wasn't going to be eligible for any federal financial loan help or any federal grants. So, when this all hit me over the head like a ton of bricks, I sat on it for a while and I didn’t really know what to do and then one day I went to my college counselor and I told him, you know, 'I'm undocumented.'"
Instead of encouraging him to hide this information, Peralta's college counselor had a very different approach, one that surprised Peralta, who'd kept his legal status a largely a secret. "My college guidance counselor came up with the great idea of me going to a Princeton admission’s officer at an information session in New York City and volunteering the details of my undocumented status to this admissions officer... I immediately responded, 'there’s no way, I could do this,'" he said.
"But eventually, gently nudged by this admissions officer, I decided to go to this info session and tell the admissions officer about my predicament," Peralta said. "And the admissions officer replied, 'You should feel free to apply to Princeton. Your status is not our problem; it’s not going to factor into our admissions decision.'"
Since then, Peralta's gone on to achieve all sorts of academic amazingness, like graduating from Princeton at the top of his class and earning his doctorate in classics from Stanford University. Currently, he's a fellow at Columbia University, where he'll be a lecturer in classics. But he feels there's still a lot of work to be done to shed the stigma of being undocumented, especially for young people.
"You have no one to talk to," he said. "The friends who may be able to travel, not even terribly far, but at least able to go from one state to another and you think to yourself, 'well, why can’t I do that?' Well, because traveling might be a bit of a problem. You’re already poor to begin with and you don’t have papers so you don’t want to risk that.
"It’s so difficult as a teenager or young adult to get yourself to the point where you feel comfortable talking about that, where you feel empowered enough to talk about that and to say 'this is the limitation, the constraint that I have to deal with,'" he said.
Peralta's advice for young, undocumented students is to find people they can trust to talk to about their status, and to consider becoming involved in advocacy, either on or offline. "I believe in order to make ourselves effective advocates we have to begin the process of healing ourselves and undoing the stigma that is imposed by this discourse and ideology that is so structured around the lack of papers," he said.
"In the case of undocumented youth, one of the things I want to say is the American dream ... is hopelessly unattainable for them until we rethink our immigration apparatus comprehensively," Peralta said. "We need to be very careful in what and how we approach the American dream and we have to be prepared to accept that there are many kinds of variations of the dream, some of which need to be systemically interrogated in order for them to have any meaning."
For more information about the campaign urging undocumented people to 'come out,' check out Define American.