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Faculty lecturer reflects on classics, his upbringing, American politics

Faculty lecturer reflects on classics, his upbringing, American politics

Peralta speaks in a crowded Higley Auditorium. | CHUZHU ZHONG

When Dan-el Padilla Peralta, assistant professor of classics at Princeton University, stepped up to the microphone in the Community Foundation Theater on Monday, he was met with a full house of students, professors and residents eager to hear him speak.

Peralta’s talk shared the title of his 2016 memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League. It was coordinated by Kenyon College Faculty Lectureships, the Latinx Studies Program and the Robert O. Fink Memorial Fund of the Department of Classics.

In his lecture, Peralta related his upbringing as an undocumented immigrant to the larger, structural forces that impact the Dominican immigrant diaspora.

“This is [an] example of how you can bring a professor — who’s a Latinx professor, who’s a classics professor — but who can also talk about his experience as an immigrant,” Associate Professor of Psychology Irene López, who introduced Peralta, said.

Peralta’s message comes at a crucial time in the current political landscape, when immigrants feel demoralized by policies intended to crack down on immigration, Professor of Spanish Clara Román-Odio said. “These are difficult times, challenging times,” she said. “There is a rhetoric and a narrative of criminalizing the immigrant.”

Peralta argued that U.S. immigration policies, in feeding latent xenophobia, serve to make all Americans miserable. “One of the most effective devices that this system has cultivated in order to foment and maintain the antagonism toward immigrants … is the ever-present anxiety … shared by Americans who believe that their country is under assault,” he said.    

Peralta described how the “populist dynamics” currently at play in the United States damage migrant communities across the world by masking “hegemonic domination” under the guise of education and instruction. “This is how power, distributed asymmetrically across borders, contributes to the contemporary moment’s violence against immigrants,” he said.

Peralta gave another lecture titled “Classics as a Form of Racial Knowing” in Ascension Hall during Common Hour on Tuesday. The event was equally well-attended as the first and only limited by space. He discussed the ways classics as a discipline can be used to understand the history behind modern racial structures, tracing themes of elitism and domination back over two thousand years.    

Similar to the ways in which his own ideas were conveyed to the Kenyon audiences this week, Peralta said that it’s crucial for immigrant survivors to share their stories.

“I see it incumbent on all of us who have survived so far to speak about the system, to lay bare its operations, lay bare its historical and contemporary manifestations and above all to begin the work of leveraging narrative,” he said. 

Peralta equated the burden of sharing one’s story to the theme of “performing whiteness,” which was an unfortunate necessity for his success in academia.

“[Peralta] didn’t want to be totally encompassed under the guise of being ‘undocumented’ because people are so much more than [their] legal status,” Qiyam Stewart ’21 said.

In the context of the current United States immigration policy, Peralta suggested an obligation to resist the country’s hegemonic power over border control.

“No account of the modern U.S. polity is complete without a robust recognition of what those ethical imperatives demand of each of us in this room and beyond,” Peralta said.

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