Jose Antonio Vargas in Conversation with Dr. Robert K. Ross

Tuesday, October 16, 2018, from 6:30-9 pm: The California Endowment (TCE), in partnership with Define American and Southern California Grantmakers, hosted a conversation between Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and founder of Define American, Jose Antonio Vargas, and TCE President and CEO Dr. Robert K. Ross.   

Speaker Cristela Alonzo welcomed the audience with a personal reflection from her past that set the tone for the conversation that brought out deeply personal stories from Jose and the experiences of undocumented people across the country. The conversation was heavy, but truly empowering to witness the rawness and transparency of Jose along his journey that so many others can relate to.  Please feel free to share with others!

Watch the video of the event, featuring Vargas sharing from his new book, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen:

Watch the video on Facebook


Read a transcript of the event

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.  


Dr. Ross: If you are going to read two books this year, one of those two books should be Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which is about the justice system and race in America. This is the second one, Dear America: Notes From an Undocumented Citizen. We’re going to dive into the book during our conversation but let’s talk about the cover for a minute. Tell us about the color, tell us about the notes, tell us about the word ‘citizen’, and tell us why Jose doesn’t have an accent over the ‘e’.


Jose Antonio Vargas: The cover is yellow because I’m Asian and for better or worse, that’s our color. I’ve been doing this work for seven years now and everyone assumes I’m Latino. My friend Anthony Ocampo actually wrote a book called The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race.


I wanted to signal that I’m Asian. My publisher actually wanted to go with blue or red but I wanted to go with yellow. If you look at the Philippines flag, yellow is one of the primary colors of the flag. ‘Notes’ is in the title because of James Baldwin’s book, Notes of a Native Son. That was really the first book that challenged me, that and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The accent, I really love talking about this. My publisher Harper-Collins asked me, “are you sure there’s no accent in the ‘e’ for Jose?” I answered that I never put the accent on the ‘e.’ I’d say something like that’s my way of rebelling against status colonialism. Of course the copy editor said, “That’s not an answer. Can you get a more formal reason?” So I texted Anthony Ocampo and he connected me to an anthropologist linguist who said that when the Americans took over the Philippines after the Spanish-American war, they brought their typewriters and they didn’t have accent marks! The names are really a product of American colonialism and American imperialism. I’ve been recently re-reading a lot of Mark Twain...


Dr. Ross: I wasn’t expecting you to quote Mark Twain.


Jose Antonio Vargas: Mark Twain was a radical! The first time the man spoke politically, he was the vice-president of the Anti-Imperialist League. He did not want America to take over the Philippines. I thought Mark Twain was problematic as hell. That’s why even in the title on the cover I wanted to provoke, because that’s what I’ve been doing for seven years. It’s really great to be back in LA for this kind of event. This is my 21st book event and this is not the welcome I got in Tulsa, Oklahoma.


Dr. Ross: Has ICE showed up at any events of yours?


Jose Antonio Vargas: Not yet. Last night was a pretty big event in Chicago with about a thousand people. They know the book is out there.  I didn’t want to write a book to celebrate anything. I wanted to write a book to show what brokenness looks like.


Dr. Ross: Folks in the audience should know it’s not a book with the inspirational and quintessential happy ending. So why did you write it?


Jose Antonio Vargas: Ever since I was a kid I wanted to have Frasier’s apartment, from the sitcom. And I had one of those, Dr. Ross! In Downtown LA, on 5th and Flower. It was an amazing apartment. I made a documentary called White People for MTV and they paid me a lot of money so I got my dream apartment. I had it decked out with [James] Baldwin and [Toni] Morrison, Cristela was there, she knows. It was 2000 square feet! You know the Filipinos, they all showed up and they all slept there. After the 2016 election, the building manager texted me saying, “Hey Jose, I don’t know what we would do if ICE showed up in the building. We’re not sure if we could protect you. You may want to move out.” He texted this to me. So I went to the floor where the manager was and asked him if there was a problem with the rent, was I late? He said he sent me that message out of concern.


At that time, I started hearing from a lot of undocumented people and there was a hashtag being used called #HereToStay. I heard from at least 20 people who were deciding at the time to leave the country. This was even before the announcement of the ending of DACA. That was the beginning of this exploration of how one feels safe at home. I packed everything up and moved out of that apartment in February of 2017 and I haven’t had a place of my own since. I wrote two chapters of this book in Cristela’s spare bedroom off Olympic Boulevard. I wrote a lot of it in AirBnBs. The way the book is written, you can kind of tell. The short parts are when I’m travelling. The longer parts are when I’m on a plane. I wanted the book itself to capture the rhythm of disorientation. That’s why I wrote the book.


Dr. Ross: When I picked it up I assumed it would have its fair share of political and policy commentary. I was waiting for the part that would talk about the public policy solution. You don’t do this with this book.


I heard you say that the way you wrote this book, before we can even get into a policy conversation around immigration, we need to be able to see one another. We need to see the humanity of who we are.  In our work at The California Endowment, there are two truisms around the health and wellness of the communities we work with. The first is that trauma is bad for your health. The converse to that is also true, that a sense of agency and belonging is good for your health. This book has a way of doing that through the vignettes you share--some humorous, some outright painful--that take the reader into your skin. In reading parts of your book, I could feel my palm sweating. I could feel my heart racing. I could feel you in the book. Where you just telling your story or where consciously trying to get the reader inside your head?


Jose Antonio Vargas: Let me back up a bit: I did not want to do this book. The book I wanted to write is the book you were expecting. I wanted to write a policy book. You don’t need to hear my story. You already read it. It was in the New York Times. I didn’t want to share some of this. There was stuff in this book that I had never told my best friends from middle school. It is almost like we have to show each other that we’re bleeding in order for us to care about each other. There is something performative about that that I just really don’t like.


I wanted to write a book that was not about this but it ended up being this because my editor asked me, “I want to understand how someone so successful can be so broken.” I remember when she said that, all I could think about was the reaction from the immigrant rights movement seven years ago and how people projected onto me this model minority, “good immigrant” thing. One of the hardest things to write about in the book was when I was confronted by an undocumented migrant organizer. They said to me that I couldn't’ possibly represent other undocumented immigrants because I’m too successful. I answered that I could only represent myself. Then, and I don’t think he wanted me to hear him say this, I heard him say, “You’re not even Mexican.” That was tough. I can handle the anti-immigrant stuff. I can handle that. But the hurt that we have done to each other, I’m not even sure I have the language for that.


When I wrote that part of the book I was so careful because I wanted to understand his own psyche. Some guy also said, “You’re trying to make money off our movement.” What? Do you know what I gave up to join this movement that doesn’t want to grow? All of that, I just internalized it. When I wrote this book it all came up but I didn’t want to place any blame. The reality is hurt people hurt people. When you’re hurt, you hurt other people.


Dr. Ross: I don’t want to gloss over what you just said. I want to tee off from that. You just said, “...this movement that doesn’t want to grow.” In the book, you share about a guy that accosted you on a flight. He sees you going into first-class, you fly a lot and you get upgraded, and he recognized you as one of the most famous undocumented people in the country and he more or less says, “What the hell are you doing in first class?” After the flight, you sought him out. You tried to engage him. My interpretation of that is that those of us who support movements with the right spirit and the right passion, we want to talk *at* people but it’s harder to engage.


Jose Antonio Vargas: Earlier today you made a comment that being a journalist has been a blessing and a curse for me. Since i was 16 years-old, I was a journalist. That means I seek everybody out. I want to know where the land mines are. I want to know who to talk to. I want to know what I’m not supposed to step on. I did about five years of doing that work and on that fifth year I realized it was a burden to carry all that around. Most people in the movement actually don’t talk to other people in the movement. They’re fine, with some exceptions, with staying in their lane. As a journalist, my job has always been to connect. That was really hard for me.


I was doing NPR in Dallas, Texas, recently. There was a whole chapter in the book about Toni Morrison’s influence on me, what Black Literature did for me as a young person. An African-American man calls in and says “I’ve never heard an immigrant talk about Black people the way you do. Forgive me Mr. Vargas, I’m sure you know the ambivalence that Black people feel towards immigrants. Why do you think that is?”


Well, because we haven’t done the work we’re supposed to do. Of course, I mention the work of UndocuBlack and BAJI. In reality, we haven’t done the work in this country to really connect the dots between mass incarceration and mass detention. If we’re going to get anywhere, what kind of bridges have to be built? Not just bridges within the Black community, the Asian community, all of that. I’m talking about bridges between our families.


I did an accounting of my own Filipino family, all 36 of them. 18 are eligible to vote. Out of those 18, only four voted. Why? All the Filipinos know this is the part where it gets uncomfortable. I talked to my aunt and she went, “Ton,” that’s my nickname by the way, “I have the Camry. I sent your cousins to school. I bought the house. I’m done.” America is something you consume, something you buy, something you wear but not something you participate in. What kind of organizing is happening in our own families? That’s a big question for me.


Dr. Ross and I were also just talking about the Census, which is so scary for me because the powers that be have set it up so they’re not going to count us. Now this is going to have to happen family-by-family, community-by-community. How do communities want to be counted? That has to start in everyone’s own families. I’m a little bit afraid because I haven’t seen my family members since I wrote the book. I’m about to see them for Thanksgiving. I didn’t even give the book to my lawyer because I didn’t want anyone stopping me from writing what I wanted to write.


Dr. Ross: You’ve touched on the issue of race, so let me call out two quotes that I’d like you to respond to. “Why are white people who are immigrants called expats while people of color are called immigrants?” Regarding migration: “When white people move, it’s seen as courageous and necessary, celebrated in the history books. When people of color move, the migration itself is subjected to the question of legality.”   



Jose Antonio Vargas: At Define American we teamed up with MTV a few years ago to make a film called White People. That was a really important film for us because it basically said that you cannot talk about immigration without talking about race. I remember the pushback I got from the immigrant rights community, ‘Why didn’t you make a film about detention?’ ‘What are you doing talking to white people?’ I don't know about you, but there’s still a lot of them! We can’t generalize them the way they generalize us, because where does that go? Let me repeat that: We can’t generalize white people like we think white people generalize us. Because that just gets us to this cycle of counter-productiveness that is more about being right and feeling right than connecting as human beings. I’m really worried about that in the progressive community.


After the film, MTV did a survey that has actually really helped guide our strategy. They found that 75% of white people live in predominantly white towns. Did you guys know that? 90% of white people have predominantly white friends. No amount of listening to Drake and Rihanna changes that. If you’re one of those white people, where do you encounter immigrants and people of color? When you watch the news. I used to think people actually chose to watch Fox News. When I was in Alabama, I learned that actually, people watch Fox news because it comes with the cable package for Sunday Football. It’s not a choice. It comes with the football and football is like a religion in this country.



In making White People, it led to this question of “How do we engage white people?” and “How do we engage Black people?” and “How do we engage Native American people?” At Define American, we don’t do anything that doesn’t include those three communities. Last year we had a convening at The Kennedy Center of undocumented immigrant leaders and Native American tribal leaders to talk about land and citizenship. We need to use this time to really make sure that inclusivity isn’t just some sexy thing. It should be fundamental to us. I don’t think we’ve done enough to engage the #MeToo conversation. I don’t think we’ve done enough to engage the disabled community. There’s so many other ways we can connect more people and build more bridges. That kind of effort cuts across racial lines.


I was on a call a while ago and I remember saying, “If you’re concerned about what happens to immigrants and you don’t have a strategy to reach white people and Black people, I am not sure I can take you seriously.” That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t cater to the AAPI community or the Latinx community. But we absolutely should use this time to make sure we’re looking outside of ourselves.


Dr. Ross: I want to ask you a question about courage. On top of being a Filipino with a Mexican name, out of the closet undocumented, not necessarily embraced by other undocumented immigrants, on top of all that, you are openly gay. You describe in the book when you came out at Mountain View High School and years later you come out as an undocumented person. Compare what it took for you to come out in high school as an openly gay person and what it took for you to come out as undocumented later in life. And, where does your courage come from?


Jose Antonio Vargas: I was fortunate that I grew up in the Bay Area where my history teacher had us read about Harvey Milk. If I grew up in Kentucky or Arkansas, I’m not sure I would have been exposed to LGBT history that early. Some of it is geographically, frankly. I was really happy that Cristela mentioned Larry Itliong in her opening. When I met with Dolores Huerta, during my first conversation with her, she started crying because she started remembering all those migrant farmers that were Filipinos and the racism they faced. Dolores Huerta is from Stockton. The same place where my cousin lives now. The same place that at one point hung signs saying “Positively No Filipinos Allowed.” When I get really down and depressed, I find a lot of comfort in history. I find comfort in knowing that Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez and Larry Itliong and James Baldwin--they’ve gone through everything for us already! We’re building on top of that.


I am not saying this as false-modesty: I don’t think of it as courage. I think of it as, you do what you can do to feel like you’re actually alive. I know that in many ways I’m living on the edge. I would argue that life is on the edge, on the unknown. I may not have a lot of things that other people have, but I am very clear about who I am and what I do. It used to really hurt when people would say shit about me on social media. I would read them and I would be so depressed. Then I started thinking, any sort of journey like this is lonely. Sometimes you’re saying things that people don’t want to hear.


Thankfully I started doing this as a grown-ass man. I started when I was 30. I’m 37 now and I’m just happy that Asian people age really well. Black don’t crack and Asian don’t crack. I came up with that! *laughs*


Dr. Ross: You’re doing more to set back stereotypes than anybody on this stage man!


Jose Antonio Vargas: That’s part of the fun! I’m just happy that I actually know myself. I say that because I think about those young activists, many of whom are here tonight, who may already be feeling exhausted and they’re not even 25. You all are so hard on each other! I think we actually need a symposium just to deal with that. You’re trying to fight systems that don’t know you, and yet even within your own organizations and systems, you don’t want to have to see each other. If we’re going to develop a new intersectional, inclusive leadership movement, we have to figure out how we’re going to take care of each other. As Baldwin would say, the history that we have is all we have to share. If we can’t take care of each other, who is going to do it for us and with us? So for me, this book is that conversation. This is coming from someone who was a dreamer before there was a DREAM Act, who had to rely on white people and Black people to survive in this country. I made a very conscious effort of naming every single person who has ever helped me out in the book. I would argue that they are part of the greater story that we don’t like to tell around this issue.


Dr. Ross: I want to end on a dream. I want to know if this dream brings you comfort or brings you pain. Cristela did a wonderful job of describing the naturalization ceremony and I wonder how often you dream about that for yourself?


Jose Antonio Vargas: I can’t go to those. I’ve been invited to officiate them and attend them but I just can’t. I keep thinking of how superficial it seems to me. When I think of pledging allegiance, I think of pledging allegiance to the full force of the history of this country that I’d argue we’ve yet to fully face. I think of what we have to give up to gain something. I’m Filipino and I’m American, and I think those two things can coexist. Because guess what, there’s no United States without Filipinos in it and vice versa. The history is so married.


More than anything else, what I try to think a lot of is what happens when I get to see my mom. I think a lot about that. I think about what I would say to her when the trolls get really nasty. They say things like, “You should go back to the Philippines before your mom dies.” I think of the undocumented people who email me, the Skypes and the FaceTimes of them watching loved ones memorial services that they can’t attend so they watch them online. I think a lot about how in many ways my mom already guaranteed a different kind of citizenship for me, whether or not it’s legal.


I would argue that, despite being messy and traumatic, this book is the closest I’ve ever gotten to feeling whole. I have to do that. I have to do that for myself. We are responsible for our own mental health, we have to be responsible for it. Even though we think we can just chop it off and compartmentalize it and ignore it, it creeps up on you.


Dr. Ross: There is healing in storytelling.


Jose Antonio Vargas: Absolutely.