Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a first-generation student who graduated from Princeton as salutatorian in 2006, joined the University as an assistant professor of classics earlier this year. His memoir, "Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League," was published in 2015. In these musings, he weighs in on the power of books, baseball, rap music, the challenges of defining the word "citizen" and more. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)
What I think: Dan-el Padilla Peralta
Posted December 8, 2016; 12:00 p.m.
When Dan-el Padilla Peralta was 4, he and his parents left the Dominican Republic and traveled to the U.S. for better medical care for his mother, who was having complications with her second pregnancy. They overstayed their temporary visas. After his father returned to Santo Domingo, Padilla Peralta, his mother and his brother stayed, subsisting partly on the public assistance funds received by Padilla Peralta's brother, the family's only U.S. citizen; the family spent a year in the New York City shelter system. Padilla Peralta attended the Collegiate School in New York City on full scholarship beginning in the seventh grade. He received full financial support from Princeton and graduated as salutatorian from the University in 2006, a classics major who also earned a certificate in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
With a Daniel M. Sachs Class of 1960 Graduating Scholarship, Padilla Peralta earned an M.Phil. in classics at the University of Oxford and went on to earn a Ph.D. at Stanford University. He was a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University and joined Princeton as an assistant professor of classics earlier this year. His memoir, "Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League," was published in 2015. This fall he is teaching the undergraduate course "The Roman Republic" and co-teaching the graduate course "Problems in Latin Literature: The Culture of the Roman Middle Republic." In the spring he will be teaching a new course titled "Citizenships Ancient and Modern."
Dan-el Padilla Peralta, a first-generation college student who graduated from Princeton as salutatorian in 2006, joined the University as an assistant professor of classics earlier this year. His memoir, "Undocumented: A Dominican Boy's Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League," was published in 2015. In these musings, he weighs in on the power of books, baseball, rap music, the challenges of defining the word "citizen" and more. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)
Growing up, I drew sustenance from books. In my application to Princeton, I tried to explain how reading books had allowed me to create and imagine for myself all these different identities that I could inhabit. Books provided me with the raw material I needed to construct a vision of what not only my future but my family's future, my community's futures, should look like.
One of the most salient memories I have of the first shelter we stayed in was the smell of the bathroom; it was rank and overpowering, the bathrooms were not cleaned regularly. It was very loud in the hallways. I vividly recall the smells of coleslaw and sloppy Joes in the shelter cafeteria. And there was a screen of dust on practically everything — especially the railings of the staircase to our floor — but somehow my mom managed to keep our room very clean.
In the shelter's library, I discovered the book "How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome."
My parents always said to me, "Muchacho, ponte serio," which translates as "Boy, get serious." Then and now I tend to favor a kind of ironic distancing in times of crisis: "Oh, it's not that serious, it's gonna be fine, whatever we're going through." But their phrase was a reminder that there are moments when we are called to be very serious, in ways that required of us deep thinking, a vision of what we wanted for ourselves not only as a family but in other interpersonal contexts as well. I absorbed this phrase into the rhythms of my daily life.
Padilla Peralta, age 9, reads a book in spring 1994 in the Bushwick Family Center, one of the shelters he lived in with his mother and brother, where he met Jeff Cowan, a volunteer art teacher who would become a lifelong mentor and father figure. (Photo by Jeff Cowan)
Jeff Cowan, an artist who volunteered in one of the shelters we lived in, intervened in my life. He took a liking to me because I happened to be reading in a corner by myself. He became a father figure to me and a mentor. He helped me apply to different schools, including his alma mater, Collegiate. He talked with me about the books I was reading. We remain in touch — and an enduring question we both continue to grapple with is how to put disadvantaged students in touch with people who might be able to provide them with the support and resources they need.
My favorite comfort food is mangú — plantains mashed up with eggs, usually hard-boiled, a little butter, and some ham or salami. It evokes all of these memories from my earliest years in the States, because my mom was so fond of making it for my brother and me for breakfast.
Whenever I would say good-bye to my mother or father, I would say "Bendición," which translates to "blessing." It represented a connection both to my Dominican roots and to my upbringing in a very Catholic family. To ask someone for a "bendición" is at once a gesture of respect to the person and an acknowledgment of faith in the efficacy of that blessing.
Every year, from the end of March to the beginning of October, my productivity plummets because I spend a great deal of time watching baseball games. My wife, Missy, and I are huge Yankees fans and actually met at a Yankees game. I also love basketball, which means that my winters and early springs are also tied up. You may be wondering at this point how I ever get anything done; it is a mystery to me too.
I am happiest taking a long walk with Missy and our dog, a corgi named Boots — around campus, down to the boathouse, or past the golf course and the Graduate College.
A personal trait that I struggle with is that I have a hard time surrendering my own writing. Not only do I have extravagant perfectionist tendencies but I also feel the itch to constantly correct whatever it is that I happen to be working on at the time.
Padilla Peralta enjoys a walk through East Pyne courtyard with Denis Feeney, the Giger Professor of Latin and professor of classics. As an undergraduate at Princeton, Padilla Peralta was a student of Feeney and is now his colleague — they are co-teaching the graduate seminar "Problems in Latin Literature: The Culture of the Roman Middle Republic" this semester. (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)
Books are the single best gift one can give or receive.
I started reading "The Odyssey" in middle school, and it spoke to me. Initially, Telemachus' constant negotiation of the challenges of adolescence and young adulthood and his acute feeling of loss from not having a father figure resonated with my own experiences. Over time, "The Odyssey" helped me reckon with what seemed to be my family's perpetual itinerancy. We moved around a lot after we arrived in the States — from Astoria, Queens, to Washington Heights, to the South Bronx to Jackson Heights to Corona to Jackson Heights again, to a basement in Elmhurst, then into the shelter system and out to Central and then Spanish Harlem — which left me feeling pretty deracinated. But "The Odyssey" empowered me to plot a selfhood capable of embracing the prospect of being always on the move.
In Spanish Harlem, I felt that we were living in a militarized zone. I always saw cops; I was always terrified of them. Once, the cops knocked down the door to our apartment because they had been informed that one of the dealers in my neighborhood was keeping his drug stash in our apartment. The stash was in fact being kept in another apartment; they had gotten the numbers switched.
The morning of 9/11, I was in Greek class, my senior year in high school. We were reading Aeschylus, which was ferociously difficult for all of us. My best friend thought we should have been dismissed from class, but our teacher, one of my favorites, Dr. Stephanie Russell — my Latin teacher from eighth grade on and my Greek teacher from ninth grade on — was resolved that even in moments of extreme adversity, we should, as best as we could, try to imagine a space in which we could read Greek. I think it was one of the most beautiful gestures a teacher could have made that morning to her students — to show that in the end we were going to see this through with the aid of the material we had to work with.
I have spiritual encounters with texts all the time. When I read Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man" in high school, I felt something approaching rapture. When I read "The Iliad" for the first time, I cycled through emotions that I normally experienced in church.
I found and find it psychologically draining trying to explain what it means to be a brown-skinned person in mostly white and privileged spaces. In high school and college, there were some conversations I simply wasn't ready to have. I wasn't ready to talk about being undocumented, for example. In times of confrontation, Archilochus' shield poem appealed to me — it's a poem about someone who has just, in the heat of a military encounter, left his shield on the battlefield and run off. But he's not a coward. He says, "I can always get a new shield if I want one." The determination: live to fight (and write!) another day.
One of my first encounters with white privilege was when I visited the apartment of a friend at Collegiate. It was palatial and took up a whole floor. Even more shocking to me than the sight of the apartment was the fact that it was completely unremarkable to the friends who accompanied me and to the classmate who lived there.
Padilla Peralta waves to family and friends after passing through FitzRandolph Gate — a senior tradition — following the 2006 Commencement ceremony. (Photo by John Jameson, Office of Communications)
After I got into Princeton, one of my high school classmates stated that it had been easier for me to go through the college admissions process because of my skin color. It was apparently beyond him to reckon with me as a deserving human being. This triggered a whole host of responses on my end, most of which were buried deep inside for several years.
I'm fascinated by the influence of ancient Greek on rap music. Jay-Z raps in one song on the album "Watch the Throne" he made with Kanye West, "Is pious pious 'cause God loves pious?" This is a pretty unmistakable reference to Plato's "Euthyphro," in which one of the questions raised by Socrates and Euthyphro is, "Is the pious known as the pious because the divinity has defined it as pious?" Socrates works Euthyphro through a series of propositions and arguments that are meant to undermine this claim. To see this so elegantly condensed into a verse in a song just blew my socks off the first time I heard it.
One of the best pieces of advice I ever received followed the publication of the 2006 Wall Street Journal profile of me, which came out just weeks before graduation. Robert Hollander [professor of European literature and French and Italian, emeritus], one of my intellectual heroes, wrote to me: "I imagine it is a bit difficult to become a celebrity so suddenly. Please try to remember this: what you are being celebrated for is the best thing you and I know: an absolute devotion to serious study of the works that make a difference and the languages they are found in. And so you won a round for our side." Those words invigorated me then and still play in the back of my mind now.
At Oxford, I had immense amounts of free time, a big contrast to my schedule at Princeton. I read as widely as possible. That became really important as I began to develop a sense of myself as a professional classicist, as an ancient historian, and as someone who would also want to write about immigration and citizenship — in forms both ancient and modern.
When I walked around the monuments of the Roman Forum for the first time, the nerd in me truly danced.
Padilla Peralta gives a lecture on issues of citizenship, immigration and deportation in ancient Rome in the undergraduate course he is teaching this fall, "The Roman Republic." (Photo by Denise Applewhite, Office of Communications)
My advice to first-year students at Princeton would be to develop more curiosity about how your education can align with this big project to which I think we should all be committed, namely, becoming more responsible citizens and building a better society on all fronts — one that is intellectually vibrant, ethically aware and politically responsible.
Writing the memoir helped me realize that I had grown up nurtured by all these different communities. I felt so loved when I began working on the final draft of the book because I knew by that point I had done at least some of what I had set out to do: to give a sense of how all these people and communities had taken time to shape me, to educate me. Writing the acknowledgments was the greatest opportunity I had to say thank you.
I'm challenging my students to do some serious thinking about the long history of exclusion. For example, Romans understood their own cultural history as being pluralistic, yet they repeatedly defined themselves by excluding certain others. You have a culture that is, on the one hand, preoccupied with targeting and expelling certain communities and yet at the same time is aware of the degree to which its own origins are implicated in cultural difference, in migration, in mobility — this is the scope of the paradox that I want my students to appreciate.
One of my go-to classical historians is Herodotus — his ethnographic vision is so open to giving life to the difference of the other. As far as I'm concerned, there is no cooler project!
I think the biggest question of our time is: What do we mean when we talk about citizens? In the spring I am teaching a new course, "Citizenships Ancient and Modern." Crucial to understanding the citizen is understanding the figure of the non-citizen. And so I'm in a position where as a teacher I can deliver a specific embodied perspective on these questions. It's terribly difficult for me to say what a citizen is or whether and to what degree I'm a citizen — a citizen of what and in what context? But it's a question that I think has all the potential to be generative not only for those of us who have been historically or presently marginalized, but for all the folks who have tended for a variety of reasons to take their citizenship for granted.