Personalities

The Profile: Jose Antonio Vargas Is (Re-)Defining ‘American’

By Brittany Shoot

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist releases a new memoir about his life — and work — as an undocumented immigrant.

Vargas by Margo Moritz.

It’s a soggy weeknight in February, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas is settling into an armchair in the cozy Mission District cafe and community space, Manny’s. The Philippines-born writer and filmmaker is perhaps the nation’s most well-known undocumented immigrant, an unusual role to occupy given how most undocumented individuals hide in plain sight and stop short of publicizing their status.

Dressed in all black, Vargas grins at rows of filled folding chairs; in the back, a standing-room-only crowd squeaks and shuffles on the wet concrete floor. Lit by the rosy glow of a Himalayan salt lamp and sitting beneath colorful wall tapestries depicting Bay Area icons Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana, Vargas vacillates between hearty laughter and somber head-shaking as he shares his own story and marvels at the stories of others who step forward to share with the appropriately diverse crowd.

Despite the downpour outside, the room feels welcoming to all because it is, thanks to the warm candor of the night’s speaker. Vargas was just 30 years old and already a respected, award-winning journalist when he announced in a 2011 New York Times Magazine essay that he is an undocumented immigrant in the United States. The revelatory piece launched his one-man crusade to shine a light on the normalcy and prevalence of people living and working in the U.S. without legal documentation. Vargas is also a gay man, the many facets of his identity inextricable, and he’s consistently irreverent when he talks about all of the ways he’s had to explain himself to others over the years. “I’m totally done coming out of closets,” he says to his amused audience. “I have no more to share with you!”

Of Vargas’ acclaimed memoir, San Francisco’s own Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club, wrote, “I cried reading this book, realizing more fully what my parents endured.”

That’s not entirely true. The nonprofit salon space is filled to capacity with people eager to hear Vargas discuss his recently released memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. Part personal narrative, part treatise on how to treat others, the self-reflective book is divided into sections about lying, passing, and hiding, themes that Vargas says defined his evolution as an undocumented person trying to make sense of his place in the world, a fascinating and ultimately fruitful effort. “I don’t need anyone’s approval to be a human, but I wanted to write honestly,” he explains.

In the book, he explores how documents define our lives, including how pieces of paper can limit our most basic rights. The most obvious example: whether and how families can be in the same country together. In 1993, Vargas’ mother paid $4,500 for a fake passport and a coyote to accompany her then-12-year-old son on a plane from Manila to Mountain View to live with his grandparents, who are naturalized American citizens. Since then, Vargas hasn’t been back to the Philippines. He didn’t even realize his papers were forged until he tried to get a driver’s license at age 16. “My iPhone can travel to more places than my mother and I can,” he says, noting he hasn’t seen his mom in 25 years.

A new document defines his life these days: a title deed. He recently bought a home in Berkeley and takes a moment to rave about the mango strips sold at Berkeley Bowl.

And he has another building to be proud of in the Bay Area. Last year, a Mountain View school board chose to name a new elementary school in Vargas’ honor, noting his story is an example to all children, regardless of background or legal status, that education can empower. The Jose Antonio Vargas K-5 elementary school is slated to open near San Jose in fall 2019.

Vargas by Margo Moritz.

It’s a special distinction for a man who spent his adolescence in that same community. “I’m not dead yet, and I’m not even supposed to be here!” he exclaims, clearly moved by the honor. After attending San Francisco State University and working as a copy boy at the Chronicle, he went to work as a reporter at The Washington Post, where he eventually earned a Pulitzer as part of the breaking news team that covered the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech. He then went on to make a documentary film, The Other City, a bracing look at the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the District of Columbia that was based on his reporting. He occasionally returned to profile Bay Area luminaries, including Mark Zuckerberg, for The New Yorker.

But it was Vargas’ essay that made him a celebrity in his own right. In order to sidestep his revelation turning his life into a one-man show, he founded Define American, a nonprofit devoted to changing cultural and media representations of immigrant Americans. The organization’s website serves as a repository of stories from undocumented individuals and hosts resources about topics including DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal immigration policy), deportation and detention. Define American’s staff strategists also consult on a variety of projects and are one reason why, for example, audiences have seen undocumented characters on TV shows including Grey’s Anatomy.

“WE CAN LEGALIZE WEED BUT NOT PEOPLE.”

— Jose Antonio Vargas, serving the truth with a strong helping of humor

In the past few years, Vargas has headlined 1,200 events in 49 states, half of those about as far from the current space as imaginable. Just back from events in a midsize Mississippi city and a Kansas college town, he urges the audience at Manny’s to converse with red state loved ones who might be more open than they seem. “If someone like me who is deportable can get out of the Bay Area bubble, you can too,” he says with mocking reproach, smiling all the time

He’s serious about the intention, though, and likens the intention to change hearts and minds about undocumented immigration to the LGBT civil rights movement. “Public opinion changed because somebody knew somebody [who was gay],” he explains. In that way, the topic became personal and ultimately neutralized the issue for some families. “That’s why storytelling is so important,” Vargas says. By sharing honestly and openly with others, they may see you as more fully human and deserving of the same civil rights.

The memoir, he says, was an exercise in being truthful about his struggles over the past few years in particular, but also over a lifetime of dissonance. One thing he knew before he started the book, influenced by reading a lot of James Baldwin: “I’m not your minority. I’m a majority of me.”

He grins widely when he delivers similarly powerful one-liners like “We can legalize weed but not people,” a nod to some decidedly Californian legislative priorities of late. It’s his reporter’s ability to refine an idea that is going to help him redefine the idea of citizenship and inclusive community-building for others, no matter how much it might cost him. “I’m going to push as many buttons as I can until I get deported,” he says. “That’s how I know I’m alive.”

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