Jose Antonio Vargas lied, passed and hid to survive. Nine years after he came out in the media and became the most famous undocumented immigrant in the U.S., the SF State graduate and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist continues to tell his true story. On October 28, he gave a live-streamed talk to students, faculty and staff about his life and best-selling memoir, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.”
On the book cover, “Citizen” is underlined in Vargas’ own handwriting. The mark underscores his questioning of the word’s definition. Who gets to be citizens? What are they part of?
“Being a citizen is fully knowing I am never the only person in the room,” said Vargas, who earned his bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 2004 and was named SF State Alumnus of the Year in 2012. “It means that I’m in a relationship with other people, and I’m in a relationship with the government, even if the government doesn’t want to know that I’m here.”
Vargas moved to the U.S. at age 12. He practiced extensively to disguise his thick Filipino accent, in hopes he would pass as American.
“My mother wanted to give me a better life, so she sent me thousands of miles away to live with her parents in America — my grandfather (Lolo in Tagalog) and grandmother (Lola),” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine in 2011. Because he does not have papers, he hasn’t seen his mother in 27 years. She still lives in the Philippines.
Undocumented immigrants “live our lives obsessed with borders,” Vargas said at the SF State talk. “We begin creating walls and borders in our own relationships.”
Vargas shared a recent message he received from a young man with severe depression and anxiety. “You inspire me. But why keep going, Jose?” the man asked. It reminded Vargas of his peers and mentors at SF State who supported him when he felt lost. If freedom for the undocumented doesn’t come from governmental reform, then it must come from the people you trust.
“Surround yourself with people who will say yes to you, who will open windows when all those doors are being closed,” Vargas said. “Your survival and your strength comes from that.”
The event included a Q&A with his friend and event moderator, Creative Writing Assistant Professor Carolina De Robertis, and the virtual audience. She noted Vargas wrote in “Dear America” that Black writers such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin helped shape his philosophy (they gave him “permission to question America,” he writes). He responded that he feels proud and lucky to have completed a minor in Black Studies at SF State and taken classes from Robert C. Smith, an expert in African American politics.
“It introduced an entirely different set of curriculum ... critical parts of histories that the master narratives of U.S. history don’t teach,” he said.
Sponsors for the event, rescheduled from March, were the College of Liberal & Creative Arts, School of Cinema, School of Humanities and Liberal Studies, Creative Writing Department, Journalism Department and Dream Resource Center. SF State’s George and Judy Marcus Funds for Excellence in the Liberal Arts also provided support for the event.
— Matt Itelson