Openly Undocumented, Jose Antonio Vargas Questions America in Debut Memoir

Written from hotel rooms, Dear America reflects on the emotional cost lying, passing, and hiding as an undocumented immigrant from Mountain View.

(Photo Courtesy of Harper Collins)

Jose Antonio Vargas, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from Mountain View, doesn’t have a home.

Or rather, he has one that doesn’t seem to want him. Without the right papers, something as simple as driving turned into a pee-your-pants moment of terror when police pulled him over in 2008. Vargas has no path forward toward citizenship or even residency, compounding a nagging uncertainty the more time passes.

He charts his journey that began with a one-way flight from the Philippines as 12 year old and continues as a public face to the undocumented immigrant’s Catch-22 in Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. After 25 years of questioning what makes a home, it’s only fitting that Vargas wrote the book from hotel rooms, Airbnbs, and homes of friends.

What follows is candid, emotional reflection on how he, a Filipino immigrant raised by working class grandparents, represents one of millions who the powers that be have decided are not deserving of full rights in this country — citizenship or not.

At heart, the San Francisco State University graduate is a journalist. who worked for newspapers like the Chronicle and The Washington Post before becoming one of the few Filipinos to win a Pulitzer Prize. But as he gained national recognition for his work, he couldn’t cope with the lies it took to get there and revealed his undocumented status in a 2011 New York Times Magazine essay.

“None of that matters if the government doesn’t recognize that fully,” Vargas tells SF Weekly of his career successes. “One of the questions I wanted to answer is what happens when one person is invalidated by her or his government.”

At his editor’s bequest, he wrote down the 10 to 15 most painful experiences of his life and realized they all related to lying, passing as someone else, or hiding — and found himself a structure for Dear America.

The compounded emotional toll of being not only undocumented, but a prominent public face to the immigration debate, is one of many aspects he doesn’t wish to hide. As he defended his humanity on Fox News, undocumented youth would ask him how he remains so composed.

“I’m already a big question mark and the last thing I want to do is confuse people more,” Vargas says of his Spanish name and Asian looks. “Because of that, I’ve been hiding who I am, how depressed I am. I just happen to be a really productive depressed person.”

That productivity is aimed toward Define American, a nonprofit he launched in 2011 and hits on the core of his mission first influenced by authors Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. Their works highly critical of the country’s marginalization of groups like African Americans and Native Americans taught him that its own citizens have always questioned the status quo — the master narrative, as Morrison put it.

“They reminded me always that my questioning of America is the most American thing about me,” Vargas says. “They defined America for me before I knew what America was.”

And if the country eventually kicks him out of the place he’s called home for 25 years, his name will be enshrined in the Bay Area with the 2019 opening of Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School in his hometown.

“I don’t think you can ever question if I’m from Mountain View,” he says.

Jose Antonio Vargas, in conversation with Sabaa Tahir on Saturday, Sept. 29, 7:30 p.m., at Aragon High School, 900 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo; and with Vanessa Hua on Sunday, Sept. 30, 7 p.m., at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, joseantoniovargas.com.

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