“We can only be alive if we inspire each other,” Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas told the audience Tuesday night at Bovard Auditorium.
Vargas conversed with professor Viet Thanh Nguyen about his newest book “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” a memoir regarding Vargas’ experience as an undocumented immigrant in America.
Vargas founded Define American, a nonprofit organization that fights anti-immigrant hate through powerful narratives. Vargas started the conversation by discussing his emigration from the Philippines to the United States in 1993. After his arrival, he said race became his biggest source of confusion.
“I thought I was in the wrong country,” Vargas said. “When I landed in LAX, I saw people who looked like me, and saw all these people [who] were ‘Latinos.’”
Vargas explained he didn’t learn about his immigration status until he turned 16, after going to the DMV to get his driver’s license. He was told that his green card was fake by a DMV employee. Confused, he confronted his grandfather, who would later tell him that he was undocumented.
“His plan was [that] I would work at the flea market as a janitor, and I would marry a woman, a U.S. citizen,” said Vargas, who also identifies as gay. “That was when the lying started.”
Vargas said he was introduced to journalism by an English teacher. His plan was to get his name in a newspaper and admitted that that was the only reason he became a journalist.
“I figured, if I could write perfect English and speak perfect English … how could they question my natural physicality?” Vargas said.
He decided to stop hiding seven years ago, when he outed himself as undocumented in a New York Times Magazine article, against the advice from many lawyers. His goal was to start a conversation on immigration.
“If you want me deported, speak now,” Vargas said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
After the 2016 election, Vargas was asked to move out by his apartment manager. He said he didn’t have a permanent address while writing his book and that the longest parts of the book were written during airplane rides.
Vargas also emphasized the importance of visibility and representation to empower immigrant communities, and promoted Define American as a tool to spread visibility.
“I’m not taking away what is yours,” Vargas said. “Too often, unfortunately, we don’t want to have conversations anymore. We just want to react to each other.”
Through his book, Vargas hopes to address the emotional consequences of undocumented immigrants’ relationship with the government. Nguyen added that it is damaging to not be seen and recognized. Vargas echoed Nguyen’s sentiment, but said he felt powerful because it openly defined his existence.
“We are enough,” Vargas said. “I actually don’t need papers and a law … to make me feel like I’m enough.”
To end the event, Vargas asked the audience to sing “Happy Birthday” over the phone to his mother, who turned 61 years old on Tuesday.