Jose Antonio Vargas is a busy guy. Look at his Twitter bio and you’ll see that, along with all the accounts representing different projects in which he’s involved. He’s also hard to pin down for a phone or even email interview. That’s not because he’s being evasive or running from his record. In fact, quite the opposite. By his own words, he’s “running toward” himself. That self is someone who in the last four years has gone from Washington Post reporter – part of a Pulitzer-winning team for Virginia Tech shooting coverage – to well-known immigration activist. Since coming out (his own words) as undocumented, he has become one of the most recognizable faces and voices on the immigration front. After leaving the Post, he founded Define American, a non-profit working on immigration causes now distributing a film about his experience, called “Documented.” A recently announced partnership with the Los Angeles Times, called #EmergingUS, will see him become more of a media entrepreneur than he ever thought he’d be when he became a journalist.
For those unfamiliar, give the elevator pitch for what you’re doing with #EmergingUS
#EmergingUS is a digital magazine that focuses on race, immigration, identity and the complexities of multiculturalism in a demographically-changing America. We will ask readers to join us in a journey of chronicling and making sense of this emerging American identity. The Los Angeles Times, the largest news gathering organization in the West Coast, is an ideal partner on this venture because, “as California goes, so goes the nation.” Culturally and demographically, as the gateway to Asia and Latin America, Los Angeles is the future.
And the same with Define American. Are they different means to the same end?
Define American is a non-profit media and culture organization that uses the power of story to transcend politics and elevate the conversation on immigration and citizenship. We cannot change the politics of immigration until we change the culture in which we talk about immigration and undocumented immigrants. The trajectory of LGBT rights in the past 15 years is instructive. The way we talk about LGBT people had to shift, especially in media and popular culture, before the politics of LGBT issues changed. Can you imagine the march toward same-sex marriage, for example, without Ellen DeGeneres on the cover of TIME Magazine, without “Will & Grace,” without the rise of Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) in high schools? The rise of GSAs coincided with the popularity of “Will & Grace,” which proved that for every Will there’s a Grace—the straight best friend, the straight relative, the straight ally—and underscoring the importance of allies in every civil rights movement. To help grow this movement and attract new allies, we are using all forms of media to change culture.
For example, my film “Documented,” was a project of Define American. A (separate) documentary on what it means to be young and white in the Obama era, which I am producing and directing for MTV’s Look Different campaign, is a project of Define American. Define American works with groups and artists that are using storytelling to change the culture in which we view immigrants and immigration. Storytelling is what connects Define American with #EmergingUs.
For that matter, what is that end? I mean, every organization advocating for something in theory has a mission that they’re trying to accomplish. Do you have a mission that is defined and tangible enough to say, ‘we accomplished it, we can close up shop now’?
The “end” is integrating the story of immigrants and these new Americans to the evolving story and history of the United States. As a young kid who looked Asian but had a Latino name, who realized he was gay and also undocumented – that I was what people called “an illegal” and “a faggot” – media representation and cultural portrayal are paramount to me. We are what we watch, we are what we read, we are what we hear. And we’re not watching, reading and hearing the full story of America. That’s a long-time commitment and investment.
How much connection do you have to your family in the Philippines?
We communicate through Skype, Facebook and emails. Not enough.
There’s all this consternation just in news media about how to refer to people. (SPJ previously passed a resolution calling on news outlets to not use “illegal alien.”) If you were an editor or boss at a major U.S. news outlet, what descriptors would you say should be used? Or is it situational?
Anything but “illegal.” Actions are illegal. Not people. Never people. Immigration is among the most complex issues of our time, and calling people “illegal” not only dehumanizes immigrants but also oversimplifies the issue. I prefer journalists to use “undocumented” or “unauthorized.” It’s even more preferable if journalists provide more description. Did the immigrant lose their immigration status when they overstayed their visa? Isn’t it our jobs as journalists to provide more details and context? Context is very much lacking when covering immigration and humanizing undocumented immigrants.
(Vargas adds: At least 40 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. overstayed their visas. In other words, the focus on border security has little to do with nearly half of the undocumented population.)
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you’ve said coming out with your immigration status, particularly when you were at the Post, was harder than coming out as gay. Why do you say that?
That is specific to my situation. Fortunately, I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area and my being openly gay was accepted and embraced at my high school and in my community. Had I grown up in a less accepting place, it may have been harder. Also, even though my classmates and teachers and mentors accepted me, my grandfather, a devout Catholic, did not. He kicked me out of the house when I told him I was gay. We reconciled years later.
Do you ever miss what you used to do as a full-time journalist at the Post before you came out as undocumented? By that I don’t mean you’re not a journalist anymore – I don’t think that – but your journalism now is definitely different than it was before.
Thank you for saying that I am a journalist. There are many people, including journalists, who don’t consider me a journalist anymore. They say I’ve now taken a stance and lost my objectivity. They say I have an agenda. Well, what’s the agenda? To be seen as a full human being? To be free? Being an openly gay journalist of color was always a challenge – even before I outed myself as undocumented. One of my dearest friends and earliest mentors, Marcia Davis (an editor at the Washington Post), taught me an invaluable lesson very early in my career. “The work will always speak for itself,” she told me. She’s right. The work will indeed speak for itself, and I think my work is better and more honest now. I feel freer.
Is it impossible at this point to go back to your previous life as a reporter without your work in immigration activism following you around and, really, defining you? What I mean is if the New York Times called you tomorrow and wanted you to, say, be a correspondent covering whatever topic, would you do it?
I am very fortunate to be where I am at this point in my career. Starting #EmergingUS with (the Los Angeles Times) is a blessing, an opportunity and a challenge. I’m at a very different point in my career and my life, and I wouldn’t accept a job as a correspondent for any newspaper, and I don’t think a news organization would offer me such a job. #EmergingUS is precisely what I should be doing. I never thought I’d be an entrepreneur, but that is precisely what has happened, and I am grateful for it.
I understand you travel quite a bit, particularly going to various immigration events and conferences and screening your film. Is there a point at which that becomes too exhausting?
I’ve been always been running. Since I found I was undocumented at age 16, I starting running; when I became a journalist a year later, at 17, I ran even faster, and faster, and faster. The difference is, since outing myself as undocumented and starting Define American and now creating #EmergingUS, I’m running towards myself. And that is not exhausting. It’s clarifying. But I must find a better work-life balance. That’s the real challenge.
You spent your teen years in the Bay Area after immigrating to the U.S. So, San Francisco Giants or Oakland Athletics? (And, yes, there is a right answer – says a Mariners fan.)