By James Preston Allen, Publisher
His flight from New York arrived late at LAX, delayed by the smoke from the fires in Malibu, but Jose Antonio Vargas finally arrived on 6th Street in San Pedro with a flurry of excitement. Linda Nietes, the owner of Philippine Expressions Bookshop, was relieved and all smiles, for the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist was the biggest literary figure to come for a book talk inside the historic Arcade Building.
Vargas defies the stereotype of what some Americans think of someone is defined as “being Filipino.” He is tall and stout and talks as fast as a newscaster — and because of his name, he’s often mistaken for Hispanic. In explaining his name, why Jose doesn’t have an accent on the “e,” he says, “It’s because of the imperial legacy of United States taking over from the colonial Spanish after the war, the Americans showed up but their typewriters didn’t have accent keys.” And yet, his name is inherited from the Spanish colonial era – sin acento. (Remember that the Philippines was captured in the Spanish American war, just like Puerto Rico, but it never became an American territory and only regained independence, sort of, after the defeat of the Japanese in World War II).
Vargas’ story started amid circumstances familiar to many immigrants who find out later in life that they were brought here “illegally” by their families as children. He arrived from Manila at the age of 12 with a suitcase, a phony passport and a few words of English spoken with a heavy accent. He spoke in the rhythm of Tagalog, the first language of the Philippines, and when the class sang the National Anthem he thought it was “Jose can you see?” He spent the next few years trying to fit in, like all teenagers, but he felt driven to be very American in every aspect. He consumed American culture voraciously — videos, magazines, and books from the Mountain View, California, public libraries or from the checkout lines at the grocery store.
It wasn’t until he was 16 and wanted to get a drivers license that Vargas learned the sad fact that he wasn’t here legally. His grandfather had provided false documents. Vargas didn’t get a drivers license for the next 15 years, afraid he’d be discovered. In the meantime, he got rides to school with classmates and teachers, who, as it turned out, became his American family by default. He received a private scholarship to California State University San Francisco, graduating with a degree in journalism while serving internships at the San Francisco Chronicle and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Vargas was hired by the Washington Post, and a few years later shared the 2007 Pulitzer for his work on the Post team that covered the mass shooting at Virginia Tech.
In his book, Dear America–Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, he admits he lied a lot along the way — on various application forms for internships and jobs and finally his Oregon drivers license, which he ultimately needed to get hired at WaPo. At the core of this self-confessional tale is the revelation of just how complicated the immigration laws have become and the almost overlooked question, What does it mean to be American?
Vargas asks that fundamental question only when he realizes later in life that the white and black people in this country that dominate the discussion of race are in fact all immigrants. And that, contrary to the current conception, most of the illegal immigrants in this country, the largest growing portion of which are from Asia, are here by overstaying their visas, not crossing in from Mexico.
“Home is not something I should have to earn. Humanity is not some box I should have to check,” Vargas writes.
He remembers sitting in an Immigration and Naturalization Service detention cell in McAllen, Texas. “It occurred to me that I’d been in an intimate, long-term relationship all along. I was in a toxic … abusive, codependent relationship with America..”
And after writing an article for the New York Times Magazine outing himself for being illegal and then being one of the most public “illegals” in America, he ends up in a cell in Texas. And the funny thing is the INS jailers don’t know what to do with him; he’s not Mexican, so they can’t send him back across the Rio Grande River. And then there’s a platoon of journalists outside. He was released in eight hours.
If Jose Antonio Vargas’s narrative seems a bit self indulgent it is perhaps because he sees himself as being the poster child for all immigrants who were brought here, raised here and only know this country as their home — with or without documents. And with his non-profit, Define American, he is asking a fundamental question of every one of us, “Exactly what does it mean to be American?” It’s something that more people may be asking themselves these days.