Jose Antonio Vargas is an activist, journalist and filmmaker. In 2008, he was part of a Washington Post team that won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings.
But the kind of recognition that would make most journalists proud worried Vargas. It could lead to revealing a secret at the heart of his life — a secret that he himself didn’t discover until he was 16.
Vargas revealed his story in The New York Times Magazine in 2011, and has now written a book called Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. It’s a memoir of his time in the U.S. — but also of the people who assisted him along the way.
“To me, that’s the story,” Vargas says in an interview. “As much as we talk about immigration, and specifically illegal immigration, we rarely discuss that the reality is: There are countless Americans of all different backgrounds out there who help people like me every day. And for me, part of writing this book was to kind of really document that.”
On his first impressions of the U.S. at age 12
Probably for me, the biggest thing was: America was not what I thought it was going to be. ‘Cause in the Philippines, where I’m from, America was Baywatch, and Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Then when I landed at the airport here in L.A., I actually thought I was in the wrong country because I didn’t see Oprah. And I saw people who kind of looked like me. But then I was told that no, this is America.
On finding out that he was an undocumented immigrant
Well, yeah, I went to the DMV like any 16-year-old, because I think my friends were just getting tired of driving me around. And that’s when I found out, after showing my green card to the woman at the booth, that the green card that my grandfather had given me was fake. Up until that point, you know, I would just never even had thought about it, because my [grandparents] were both naturalized U.S. citizens. … And so I was thinking in my head: This woman is mistaken, my name is Jose Antonio Vargas, but that’s because the Philippines was colonized by the Spanish. But she was basically like: This is fake — don’t come back here again.