Brought to Syracuse University on Thursday, March 28th, 2019, by the Delta Beta Executive Chapter of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, Jose Antonio Vargas spoke up as a part of the organization’s “Executive Series” about his personal life and activism regarding marginalized and undocumented communities.
Vargas is a renowned journalist with work in a number of well known publications. During his time at The Washington Post, he won a Pulitzer Prize for his work covering the Virginia Tech shootings. He came out to declare and examine his undocumented status in a 2011 New York Times Magazine article named My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant. That same year, he founded his own nonprofit organization, Define American, to educate the public about immigration issues. In addition, he directed an MTV documentary titled White People in 2015. In 2018, he published his own memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, documenting his life and personal struggles. Currently, he is working on a sequel to White People, called Straight White Guys.
Born in the Philippines and brought to America at the age of 12, Jose Antonio Vargas has worked hard to make a name for himself as a prominent journalist. In the public eye, Vargas was a success with what seemed to be a flourishing career. He held many highly coveted journalism internships, went on to work at prestigious news organizations, and interviewed countless VIPs such as Mark Zuckerberg. There was only one secret: he is an undocumented immigrant.
For most of his childhood, he lived life like a normal American. It was only when he tried to apply for a California driver’s license at 16 that he found out his “legal” papers were not so legal after all. Many words of condemnation came to his head, “illegal” and “undocumented,” as he tried to make sense of it all. In attempting to reconcile past lies, he spiraled into an identity crisis and found it hard to trust other people after that.
Fast forward a few years, with the help of his high school teachers, Vargas went on to pursue a career in journalism. He loved the idea of having a byline, a name on printed paper; it was his way of telling the world that he was here and unafraid. Vargas thought to himself: If I work hard enough, maybe I can somehow earn my citizenship in America.
Additionally, he spoke about the importance of public libraries and the impact that his local library had on him growing up. This was where he learned about artists and authors of color, such as James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. After reading Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, he asked himself: Why is this black female main character disappointed by how she looks and why did she want blue eyes? It dawned on him that she wrote this book to show what it means to surrender to the master narrative, the fact that white people in power socially construct this idea of segregation, de jure or de facto. “Legality is a construct of power,” Vargas declares.
As he continued to work his way up in the journalism industry, he found different kinds of family: friends, mentors, and colleagues. He stated that: “When you don’t have a family, you create a new family.” These are the kinds of people to whom he credits a lot of his success today.
After his presentation at Syracuse, I asked Vargas, “What has been your greatest challenge and biggest reward since creating Define American?” to which he replied “My greatest challenge is balance, and my greatest reward is being free to do whatever I please that promotes this important issue and help others.” Then, I wondered aloud to him that he has been afraid for most of his life, and now he says he is not so much anymore. I asked him, “What made you stop being afraid?” Immediately, he brought himself back to 2014, when he was arrested and detained in Texas. He was kept for eight hours in a room with young boys from ages 8-16 years old. After he was released, he thought to himself: If that’s the worst thing the government can do to me, then this government can’t hurt me more than I hurt myself. I have the power.
There are 800,000 DACA recipients, 11 million undocumented immigrants, and 43 million total immigrants in America. What does it mean to be undocumented in America? Does it mean one must have the legal documents to be in America, or does it mean something more? Is being undocumented the ability to work, to buy a home, to have a driver’s license? Or, is being undocumented the notion of being a contributing member of society? What is a home, and what happens if the only home you recognize is not legally your home? Without the right of abode, do you have a home at all? These are the kinds of questions that Jose Antonio Vargas has pondered his whole life.
Despite everything the government has taken away from him, like his mother who he hasn’t seen in over 20 years, Vargas confidently declares: “What they can never do is take away what I’m going to do. My work will always stand on its own, and that’s its own kind of freedom.”