When I first started following Jose Antonio Vargas on Twitter it was because I liked the topics he wrote about. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now activist has written for The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, Rolling Stone magazine and The New Yorker. A short time after following him on Twitter, he came out for the second time in his life. Only this coming out was to announce his status as an undocumented immigrant.
I remember reading that tweet and thinking, “did he just do that?” and “can he do that?” I expected that Vargas’ next tweet would be about ICE finding him and deporting him, but that tweet never came. Vargas is still in America and better yet he’s traveling from state to state asking people what is American?
At Franklin College, Vargas spoke about his experience immigrating to America, growing up with an accent, and coming out. The room was packed and I was happy that there were so many people that recognized the importance of this issue and Vargas’ role.
His mother sent him to America to live with his Lolo and Lola (grandfather and grandmother in his native language Tagalog) where she thought he would have a better life. A common story. It has been more than 20 years since Vargas has seen his mother and when he talked about that you could feel his sadness.
Vargas shared the story of, when turning 16, going to the department of motor vehicles to get his license. It was in that moment that he found out he was undocumented. He shared that the woman at the counter told him to leave and don’t come back and how his counselors at school, his principal and later his editors all helped him get to where his is today.
He did get the better life that his mother hoped for. He received an education, went to college, and was published in the some of the best magazines and newspapers in the country. Success through his own hard work. The American Dream… almost.
Vargas is advocating for immigration reform as an undocumented immigrant. He is opening the dialogue to people all around the country and helping them to understand the issues and how they feel about them and more importantly what they need to do about them. He is also exposing the roots of people’s feelings on immigration. In a clip he played from his soon-to-be-released documentary, Documented, he highlighted how quickly someone’s feelings about immigrants can change when they know someone who is undocumented.
In the scene Vargas and his interviewee are in Birmingham, Alabama and someone who could be characterized as a redneck racist from the South interrupts their conversation. Vargas went on to explain that after conversation with the guy he learned that the man was a contractor and his work suffers because he can’t charge competitively because undocumented workers are willing to work for so much less. An understandable frustration, but the question becomes… are the undocumented workers paying themselves the low wage or are the employers?
Who is taking advantage of the system here?
The scene ends with a friendly fist pound of alliance between the Alabamian and Vargas. If through open conversation with those who oppose immigration, would we uncover that those who are considered the perpetrators are the perpetrated? Then would all of our mutual understanding lead to a fist pound?
Another compelling moment of the documentary is that of a conversation Vargas has with an Alabama farmer. This man employees an undocumented immigrant who has become a friend and family member. He shares that his employee is just as hard working as the next and deserving of citizenship. Vargas also shared that later the farmer commented that he didn’t know Vargas was gay. The farmer said that had he known Vargas was gay he might not have participated in the interview. The farmer ends the conversation saying that though Vargas is gay, Vargas is just like him.
It was amazing to see that two strongly held beliefs: that being gay and an undocumented immigrant is bad melted away with a personal connection. Vargas plans to screen his documentary in Alabama and ask them, which Alabama are you?
Having had my own immigrant-related/race-related experiences with Alabama, I’m interested in what Alabama will say.
You can visit www.DefineAmerica.com to follow Vargas’ work on the issue and look for a screening of Documented near you.