A Man Apart
Undocumented immigrant. Fil-Am. Pulitzer prize-winning journalist. Film director.
Jose Antonio Vargas reveals his identity among (not despite) his many contradictions
Post Production & Design
June 3, 2014
Five hours before the call time for the shoot, an email pops in, “See you tonight! I must warn you though that I’m not very photogenic.”
The only other time that Jose Antonio Vargas has appeared for a portrait sitting is for a 2012 cover of TIME magazine. In bold red letters, the cover line declared, “We are Americans*” but with a glaring qualifier, “*Just not legally.” Front and center amidst a multi-racial group, Jose looks straight into the camera. Defiant.
He is the face of the immigration movement in America and he is also Filipino.
A drizzle has just turned 475 Kent Avenue into something that resembles an oil slick but Jose meets me with a smile, casually shaking his head to rid it of the rain.
Jose is a Pulitzer prize-winning writer. He was staffed by the Washington Post, and his piece on the Virginia Tech shooting earned him and three teammates the coveted journalism award. But it would not be his life’s crowning achievement.
“I did not think I was going to be a writer at all. And the only reason I decided to become a writer, was when I found out that I was an undocumented,” confesses Jose. His career as a lettered journalist worked as both shield and stage. While photographer Danilo Hess sets up, Jose launches into a rapid-fire oral history of Jose Antonio Vargas.
"I wanted to write myself into America"
August 3, 1993
It is at the crack of dawn when the ahente or the agent knocks on the door of Emelie Salinas’ home in Pasig City, Metro Manila. The smuggler is ready to take 12-year-old Jose to the United States to live with his grandparents.
He tells Emelie to have a suitcase prepared. He already warned her prior, “Stand by ka lang, kasi anytime, puwede siyang umalis.” (Just stand by, because he can leave anytime)
It is a typical loud morning. The sounds of whizzing jeeps and tricycles greet the morning haze, which become more raucous as morning breaks. Jose’s mom accompanies him to the airport, and sends him off with a promise that she will follow.
He will not remember this.
Four years in the US, living under the care of his grandparents, Jose has grown roots. His recollection of life in the Philippines is a blur – a memory of heat and humidity.
He exhibits proficiency, rising to become one of the star students at Mountain View High School. He still wonders when his mother might be able to join him in the country that he now calls home.
He may exhibit all the makings of an outlier – but just like any other 16-year-old, Jose just wants to get behind the wheel of a car.
Until then, he makes do with a bicycle. It’s a day like any other, as he pedals toward the California DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) to get his driver’s license. It should be a simple rite of passage, but it will change his life forever.
“Your green card is fake. Never show this to anyone and don’t come back,” warns the DMV lady.
June 3, 2014
“My solution was to be on a piece of paper. To say to the world that I’m here,” admits Jose. In the span of time since his fateful discovery, Jose shoots up the ranks of professional journalism, turning his bane into what might resemble a blessing. However, fear is a constant shadow.
Jose recounts, “In the first four months of my arrival in the US, I spent hours in the library of my school, reading everything I could and watching movies. I studied how Americans talked. I wanted to enunciate THE, not say, DAH.”
The realities of his mock life soon catch up.
Every application form, with an innocuous tick box, was a landmine. Or in Jose’s mind, a threat to the life and home that he already loves. Constant excuses are made, obvious things like invitations to travel for coverage or for leisure, are turned down. Hiding becomes essential, and family photos do not see the light of day.
“I’ve been lying since I was 16,” admits Jose, “and then I stopped lying.”
June 22, 2011
“My Life As An Undocumented Immigrant” by Jose Antonio Vargas hits the stands. It is a piece under The New York Times Magazine. He writes, “I learned that no amount of professional success would solve my problem or ease the sense of loss and displacement I felt.”
The life and times of Jose Antonio Vargas are not just in ink or on paper. Jose begins the planning and production for a film that would later be called Documented. For someone who shudders to have his photo taken, Jose puts himself in the limelight. Presenting his own life, and his face in almost every frame, as a living case study of the immigration issue in America. There are at least 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, 300,000 of which are Filipinos. And Jose is leading their crusade.
"I’ve been the most privileged undocumented immigrant in the country"
June 3, 2014
By now, Documented has debuted. In a few weeks, it will be aired on CNN. But tonight, as the rain continues to pour in Brooklyn, Jose grows wistful, “I see myself as kind of terribly incomplete. I think far too often we define success by the things we achieve. For me, being a journalist, and directing films, that is what I do. But that is not who I am. I think those are two different things.” By now, Jose reveals himself to be a man of many things, with welcome contradictions.
For more than 20 years, Jose has been an American, but one wrong move or arbitrary decision by the immigration authorities in the United States, could send him back to the land he barely remembers, practically for good.
In one breath he describes himself as a “TFC-watching, Lea Salonga-loving, adobo-eating Filipino” and in another, he can launch into a speech about the Dream Act and why undocumented immigrants like him deserve to be called American.
Not one more than the other, but both.
He is also openly gay. Identity isn’t something he feels he needs to organize or prioritize.
“I’m as Filipino as they come,” Jose says. “But I think it’s possible to be a Filipino-American – and that’s what I am. I think that’s those two things, those three things can all exist in one person.”
July 3, 2014
It is a Rappler Hangout morning and the entire office is hushed. Streaming live from his home in New York, Jose smiles into his webcam, white earbuds and cord framing his face. He shares the screen with immigration lawyer Rio Guerrero and fellow undocumented immigrant and #TEDx speaker Akiko Aspillaga.
“I don’t think I’d be like this if I didn’t always have that monkey on my back,” Jose says. You'd think with Jose’s talent, he would not have a problem legalizing his status. But this proves to be counter to his aspirations.
In one unnerving scene in Documented, Jose’s aunt recounts, “Yung goals nila ay simple lang eh. Di nila ine-expect na ganito ang gilas ng bata. Masuportahan niya ang sarili niya. Magpadala sa mama niya sa Pilipinas. Tama na iyon.”
(His grandparents’ goals were simple. They didn’t expect that the kid would have such talent. He was just supposed to have a menial job, and send a little money to the Philippines. That would have been enough.)
It is ironic that in a country that supposedly values talent and diversity, Jose might have become an American but only in an alternate life. If he were not gay, if he had gotten married, if he weren't so gifted, if he kept a low profile.
July 15, 2014
“Now, I’m stuck,” writes Jose for Politico.com. Just a few days before, he arrives in the city of McAllen to participate in a vigil for Central American child refugees. Quickly, the realization dawns that it is not a regular pitstop in what has been his three-year tour of the United States.
This could be the end.
“How will you get out?” asks the vigil organizer.
The drama hits fever pitch when Jose arrives at McAllen airport. Jose leaves a cryptic tweet, “About to go thru security at McAllen Airport. I don’t know what’s going to happen. For updates follow @DefineAmerican & @MAC_UTPA.”
Since coming out as an undocumented, Jose’s sole identification has been in the form of a Philippine passport. It does not have a US visa but it has worked for him in his many trips around the United States—his home and his fence. “I think I have seen more of the US than most Americans have. Because I cannot leave,” laughs Jose, during our Brooklyn interview.
But in the hours that ensue here in McAllen, in what is described as the toughest place for undocumented immigrants, Jose is detained, handcuffed and questioned by Border Patrol. Soon after, supporters, including New York city mayor Bill de Blasio, call for Jose’s immediate release.
De Blasio, himself a descendant of German and Italian immigrants, issues a statement of support, “I stand in solidarity with journalist and advocate Jose Antonio Vargas – an exemplary man whose tireless work has helped raise awareness around the lives of millions of undocumented immigrants living on American soil. Jose Antonio's detainment today… shows how our immigrant enforcement agencies are failing to use their discretion and detaining long-time immigrants who do not pose a threat to our security.”
Hours later, Jose is freed. But it is a close call. He will still have to appear in front of an immigration judge. To many, this might just be the imagery and the strategy that could finally force the immigration debate into a head.
June 3, 2014
But do Filipinos care? And why should they? For once, there is a pause. And Jose, the man who has been interviewed by news agencies and even needled by Stephen Colbert, gathers some time to think.
“It’s actually been a little painful to me how little Filipinos care about immigration. Of course, I love how we care so much about beauty pageants and celebrities… when Jessica Sanchez was singing in American Idol, when Manny Pacquiao beat Cotto. When the next beauty pageant model gets close to winning Miss Universe, we all feel a sense of pride and we should.
“But what about being civically involved? What about being politically awake? What about knowing our own history and where we come from?”
As someone who has evolved from journalist to activist, gathering many laurels in between, Jose reveals that above them all, he is also a son. When asked what his end in mind is, he replies, “Success for me, would be freedom. Freedom to see my mother. You know I was raised in Zambales and then I was in Pasig and then I left. I want to see Mindanao, I want to see Cebu, I want to see Boracay. Everybody talks about Boracay. I want to talk to farmers. I want to go to Leyte, where the typhoon [Yolanda] happened.”
And for the man who founded “Define American,” there is still something at the core. Jose ponders out loud, “It would be really interesting to see what happens when I have the opportunity to define what Filipino is... that’s gonna be really interesting.”
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