A new musical about immigration was inspired by an undocumented Princeton student

In Noemi de la Puente *86’s musical, the Statue of Liberty is portrayed as an opponent in a boxing ring where immigrants must take her on.
In Noemi de la Puente *86’s musical, the Statue of Liberty is portrayed as an opponent in a boxing ring where immigrants must take her on.
Shira Friedman

In 2006, the remarkable life story of a Princeton undergraduate received national attention: Dan-el Padilla Peralta ’06, who was selected as salutatorian and won a scholarship to study classics at Oxford University, was an undocumented immigrant from the Dominican Republic who once was homeless.

Noemi de la Puente *86 wanted to know more. A former civil engineer — she earned a master’s degree in the field from Princeton — de la Puente gave up engineering in 1992 to become a full-time actor and writer. After interviewing Padilla Peralta, she decided to bring his story to the stage. Though she never had written a musical before, she created Manuel vs. the Statue of Liberty, which won a developmental reading award from the New York Musical Theatre Festival last year and is scheduled to be performed in July as part of the festival. 

The show — an exploration of the fraught politics of immigration seen through the eyes of Padilla Peralta, renamed Manuel — portrays the Statue of Liberty not as a beacon of hospitality, but as an opponent in a boxing ring where immigrants must take her on. “I found a way to physicalize and theatricalize the ruthlessness of the immigration system,” de la Puente says. “If you’re an undocumented child, there is no way you can win this fight.”

Padilla Peralta, who earned a Ph.D. from Stanford, will join the Princeton faculty in 2016 as an assistant professor of classics. His memoir, Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League, will be published this summer.

De la Puente hopes the show will bring new attention to the issue of immigration reform. “By making this story a musical comedy, it appeals to an audience that wouldn’t necessarily be interested in a play on this subject,” de la Puente says. “Music and theater really open up our hearts.”