Jose Antonio Vargas doesn't like to be photographed. Even though the journalist turned outspoken immigration advocate has become one of the faces of the immigration debate, he doesn't think he looks good on camera. He cringed when I told him that I saw an old picture of him at his alma mater from where he graduated in 2000.
But almost a year after that he lived and had worked in the United States as an undocumented immigrant–he had a doctored social security card–he's started to accept that his face may be one of the most visible in the immigration debate. Still he would rather be on the other side of the lens, asking questions and storytelling.
"I'm in a position to speak out and it would be irresponsible of me not to," Vargas told Mountain View Patch from inside Eagle Theatre at on Tuesday, Feb. 28 where he had just finished speaking to students for Writer's Week.
Now 31 years old, Vargas arrived in Mountain View from the Phillipines in 1993 at age 12. His grandparents enrolled him at . At MVHS he became and served as student representative on the . He interned locally at the Mountain View Voice, then worked part-time at the San Francisco Chronicle and full-time at The Washington Post, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize winning team that covered the Virginia Tech shootings.
Vargas currently lives in New York and travels around the country gathering stories from people who want to talk about immigration through a non-profit media venture called Define American. He returned to Mountain View this week, in addition to his talk at LAHS, to host a public question & answer event on Thursday, Mar. 1 at 7 p.m. at Spartan Theatre in MVHS, 3535 Truman Ave, Mountain View, CA 94040.
He hopes everyone can attend, including those who disagree with his position, to engage in what is sometimes an "uncomfortable" conversation.
Mountain View Patch: Why come back to the community now?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Because I've been around the country speaking and I hadn't been here. That stage (the Spartan Theater) was where Rich Fischer, then superintendent for the school district, got to know me after seeing me in the play, The Mystery of Edwin Drood. He's like a father to me. I owe this community. Sometime I'll be home (in New York) and I'll receive a $50 check from someone in Mountain View. [His jaw drops in astonishment.] This is what this community is all about. I want to say 'thank you.'
Patch: Are you prepared to answer questions from your community?
Vargas: I've prepared myself. I've read some of the comments published in the Mountain View Voice that called me an alien, a criminal, illegal and that I should just go home. It's hateful, bigoted comments. I want them to show up. Can I meet them? Can we talk? All I've done is tell the truth. For me it was a necessity; it wasn't about courage. People who remain in the shadows are as much part of the problem and not the solution.
Immigration is not just about Asian and Hispanics, but about whites and blacks and both documented and undocumented. I want to be an uncomfortable conversation.
In this community that loves me and that I love so much, I want to, I've been doing this all across the country so why not here in the town that's welcomed me?
Patch: Are you afraid for your life?
Vargas: In Alabama, there was a white drunk dude who is berating undocumented immigrants and I was the guy behind the camera filming. That's the only time I felt in danger. Whatever role I'm playing, I just want to make sure I'm making a difference. I know it sounds trite (his words echoed in empty Eagle Theatre). I've met and spoken to many (a reference to Mandeep Chahal, an undocumented 2009 graduate of Los Altos High). I'm in a position to speak out and it would be irresponsible of me not to.
I'm undocumented, gay, a person of color—some would say I'm a third class citizen...I'm merely advocating for my life and lives of others in my situation. To see me fully, like any other human being.
Patch: Is your family scared for you?
Vargas: My grandmother is fine, but my uncle worries. I have a very open Facebook wall and sometimes we get bigoted, racist stuff. They worry about this. I don't erase it because I believe in freedom of speech.
Patch: How's your grandmother? How old is she?
Vargas: She's 75 years old and she's my biggest worry. One of my dreams is to take her to Europe. She has a passport, but of course I don't, so I've never been.
Patch: I've noticed that in the immigration debate, the immigrants in the United States on H1-B visas don't participate in the immigration discussion about the undocumented immigrants. Still, these H1-B holders are just as worried about their future and scared of the anti-immigrants. Why do you think that is?
Vargas: I don't think it's happening because in the Bay Area and Silicon Valley it's a race and class issue. Have we developed a visa for hotel and domestic workers? We have visas for engineers, but not for those who clean their houses.
This is part of the truth-telling and fuller immigration story we don't talk about. Immigration is the most fundamentally misunderstood process. When people tell me to go back to the Phillipines and get in line, what line? Where is it? People don't question Romney or Santorum about their assestions.
We need to hear from teachers, coaches, pastors. We need them to step up, to say we have a problem here, and we need a solution. Being silent is no longer an option....We've heard from anti-immigrant folks, but we haven't heard from those sections of America that is silent.
Join Vargas for this conversation Thursday, Mar. 1 at 7 p.m. at Spartan Theatre in MVHS, 3535 Truman Ave, Mountain View, CA 94040.
If you can't make it, join Mountain View Patch online for a live and interactive conversation. You'll be able to instant message your questions and we'll try to get them to Vargas for an answer. Check out our Twitter and Facebook pages for updates and the link. Use hashtag #VargasTalk to follow the conversation on Twitter.