José Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and activist. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Huffington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. In 2011, he published an article in the New York Times revealing his undocumented status. He has since founded Define American, a non-profit organization aimed at creating a dialog on issues surrounding immigration and American identity.
Harvard Political Review: Tell us about your early years.
José Antonio Vargas: I was born in the Philippines, and I was sent to live in California—in the Bay Area, where Google is—when I was twelve, so that was in 1993. That was the area that I grew up in. But, you know, when people think of Silicon Valley, they think of the tech companies. I was on the other side of that whole thing. I was raised by my grandparents. My grandfather was a security guard, and my grandmother was a food server – so a lower middle-class family.
HPR: What about life in the Philippines prompted your mother to send you to America?
JAV: I actually do not know about that. I have to write a book. It has been really hard trying to remember what the Philippines was like. A friend said that the whole “coming to America” thing was such a traumatizing experience that maybe I just do not remember anything about what happened to me before I got to this country.
Here is what I do know: the histories of America and the Philippines are tied. I recently found out that the poem “The White Man’s Burden” by Rudyard Kipling apparently was written explicitly to convince the American president to take the Philippine Islands. Actually, the subject line of the poem is “The case for the U.S. to take the Philippine Islands.” When Kipling, in the poem, talks about the people being half-devil and half-child, he was actually referring to the Philippines. That was apparently the first time that Mark Twain ever got politically involved. He very publicly criticized the presidency, for the American president to be taking the Philippines. He was very much anti-imperialist.
The Philippines was taken by America, and for a couple of years became an American protectorate like Puerto Rico, so our histories are actually tied. Actually, I remember once somebody asking me, “Hey, doesn’t the United States still own the Philippines?” I said, “No, the Philippines got its independence in 1946, so it does not own the Philippines.”
HPR: In 2011, you wrote an article for the New York Times describing your immigration story. You included an anecdote about misunderstanding the phrase “What’s up?” when you heard it in the schoolyard. Describe your journey into the English language.
JAV: Most Filipinos learn to speak American by listening to Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson, so I think every single young girl that I knew could sing “I Will Always Love You,” committed to memory. We learn American by television and movies and music, so when I got here, I know I spoke English per se, but I didn’t know how to speak American—like slang, right? If someone asked, “What’s up?” my answer was “The sky.” I did not know that that was like, “How are you doing?”
For me, though, adjusting to the language was fun when I first got here, when I was twelve. It got more complicated when I found out I was here illegally. That came four years later. That was when I had to figure out, “How am I going to sound American and not sound like a foreigner?” That meant getting rid of my accent; I had a thick Filipino accent. Getting rid of that: talking white and talking black. It was Charlie Rose and Doctor Dre. I figured if I could talk like Charlie Rose—with enunciated, clipped, formal language—but, at the same time, talk slang like Doctor Dre, I would pass, and no one would ever question where I was from.
HPR: You mention in your New York Times piece that you learned about your undocumented status when you showed up for a driver’s test at the DMV. After that incident, did you feel comfortable calling yourself American?
JAV: It is so funny. It was not necessarily “American” that I was trying to pass for. It was just, “How do I be here?” What does that mean? What does it mean to occupy space? That’s why I think words are so important, because I remember when I was growing up, always hearing the term “illegal” referred to immigrants. I recoiled at that. I did not want to be that. For me, that meant speaking the way that I do. It meant really divorcing myself from anything that screamed “ethnic.”
Although, at the time, I didn’t realize that Woody Allen was ethnic. I thought Woody Allen was American, so I was like, “Hey! Woody Allen films!” It was really interesting how I internalized people’s expectations of what illegal was supposed to be, and I tried to subvert and transcend them. That was kind of my goal. In my very deluded way, I thought, “I am going to talk, and I am going to write like you could not question it—that I would be American—by the way I talked or the way that I wrote.”
HPR: With whom did you identify during this time?
JAV: James Baldwin.
HPR: Why Baldwin?
JAV: I do not know. I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye when I was in eighth grade, when I did not know I was here illegally. Then, the following year, I read Martin Luther King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail. I already knew I was here illegally. Then I read Notes of a Native Son. Those three books and those three people were so crucial in the way I claimed America. It gave me the language to claim space, to claim my space, and it gave me the language of allowing myself to exist here. But, you know, the black experience: there are clear parallels, but there are definitely differences. I found a lot of power and a lot of peace in the fact that part of this country has always been defined by the very people who were excluded from it.
HPR: The Philippines has a very similar history to Latin America’s. Did you connect to Latinx culture in any way?
JAV: I think the connection there is mostly, for us, through Spanish colonialism. That is why my name is José Antonio Vargas. It was not until I “came out,” so to speak, as undocumented that I was bestowed this kind of honorary Latino status, which I find interesting. Because, you know, my name is José. I look Asian. I am gay. I am undocumented. In college, I majored in African American studies. I should marry a Jew or a Native American and call it a day. That is my America, you know? That is my prism. That is why, for me, I am naturally attracted to how these issues and these people intersect. It has been really interesting, in the past few years, being labeled the immigration guy, when I’m much more than that. That has been a defining thing now. “Oh, he’s the immigration dude!” Oh, okay. Great.
HPR: You won a Pulitzer Prize for your coverage of the 2008 Virginia Tech shooting. What was it like to cover such a dark episode in American life?
JAV: That, for me, was pure luck. I won a part of that Pulitzer because I knew how to use Facebook. This was in 2007, when Facebook was just expanding. I actually remember hearing from Zuckerberg. That was when I met Zuckerberg online. He was like, “Hey, that was a really interesting use of Facebook.” I was fascinated, reporting-wise, by the fact that, while that tragedy was happening, young people went on the computer and sought connection right away. I think the headline of the article that I won for was something like, “Students Find Connection at a Time of Disconnect.” That, to me, is a defining trait of this generation. I actually think we still do not understand what it means that people can touch and connect. The fact that my nieces and nephews can just touch something, and it moves—it connects—must have a psychological impact. I do not even think we understand what that is.
HPR: You have planted yourself at the intersection of journalism and activism. Do you consider those professions related?
JAV: I get called a lot of names, a lot of it bad. One of the things that I had to be settled on doing this work is that I have no control over how people view my work. I only have control over the work. I think it is easier for people to say, “Oh, he’s an activist” or “He’s an advocate” because it makes me somewhat more palatable than just saying I am a journalist. Apparently, I have taken some sort of a stance, as if my existence and my identity is some kind of a political stance. I find it really interesting, though. Because I am gay, undocumented, and a person of color, I have an agenda. My existence is an agenda for people. Isn’t that interesting? Sometimes I wonder: if you are a straight, white guy, what is your agenda? Are you devoid of agenda because you happen to be a straight, white guy? I do not know, but I think that is a question worth pursuing.
HPR: What is your focus as a journalist? Does anyone stand in your way?
JAV: We are living in such an incredibly polarizing time that I would hope that my work seeks to create spaces for empathy and liberation. I am a firm believer that storytelling liberates. Telling stories liberates people from the frames and the narratives that they do not want to be a part of. Storytelling liberates people from the tropes, stereotypes, and delusions that people have about certain issues. Storytelling connects us. In some ways, it is the hardest scientific work there is. I try to insist on the specificity of storytelling as a tool for change and as a tool for changing politics. You cannot change something political until you get at the cultural heart of what it is.
Immigration in this country is one of the most politicized issues, and we will never change it unless we change the culture in which people talk about it. I find it really interesting that, when white people move, it is Manifest Destiny. It is the White Man’s Burden. It is the next frontier. When people of color move, it is a question of “Is it legal?” Is it a crime? That framing is already very suspect. I find it really interesting that, in this country, we have so racialized immigration that I think we actually owe the Latino community an apology for racially profiling them.
Image Source: Flickr/MIT Media Lab