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Don't Call Jose Antonio Vargas an 'Immigration Activist'

Don't Call Jose Antonio Vargas an 'Immigration Activist'


The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist focuses his energy on the intersections of race, immigration, and identity —  and doesn't care who he makes uncomfortable in the process. 


Whatever you do, don't call Jose Antonio Vargas an activist. The 34-year-old reporter and filmmaker has been called many names, but Vargas maintains he is what he's always been -- a journalist -- despite criticism he's faced from others in the media who label him an "immigration activist."

Vargas left his native Philippines at the age of 12 to live with his grandparents in California, and learned that he was undocumented when he tried to get a driver's license in high school.

Following a successful writing career -- including a 2009 Pulitzer Prize for his part in The Washington Post's coverage of the Virginia Tech shooting -- Vargas decided it was time to come out of the shadows about his immigration status. In a personal essay that ran in The New York TimesMagazine June 22, 2011, Vargas movingly reflected on "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant."

Vargas continued his self-reflective journey in 2014, when he released what he calls an auto-documentary film, Documented, which debuted on CNN and explored his life's journey, including his strained relationship with his mother, who still lives in the Philippines.

Vargas left a job at The Huffington Post five years ago to start his first nonprofit, Define American, an organization he considers to be like LGBT media watchdog GLAAD, but for immigrants.

But these days, the ever-evolving Vargas is most likely to be found sitting at a computer, researching lighting equipment or camera lenses. He's recently turned those lenses outward, challenging what it means to be a positive, aware citizen in today's world.

"I feel like all I've been doing is being a journalist," says Vargas of his move from publishing to documentary filmmaking. "All I'm doing is existing on the complexity of my own story."

His most recent project, a documentary produced with MTV titled White People, explored the complexities of privilege. Moving forward, Vargas promises his work will continue pressing at the intersections of cultural, racial, and ethnic identities.

"We do not live single-issue lives, but that is how the 'mainstream' media operates," Vargas explains excitedly. "[Mainstream media separates pieces by determining] that's a Latino story, that's a black story, that's a gay story, that's an immigration story. No, they're not."

Vargas is no stranger to intersectional identities. The journalist and filmmaker is often mistaken for Latino because of his Spanish-sounding name. It took some time for him to get to where he could embrace all of his identities at once. He credits gay African-American writer James Baldwin as the most influential person in that journey, saying the writer dared to explore his multiple minority statuses when society was hostile to anyone deemed different.

"I don't know what I would have done, growing up, if I hadn't discovered James Baldwin as early as I did," he says, wistful. "He provided for me a space and a voice to validate the complexity of my own existence -- that I can be undocumented and gay at the same time, that I do have a right to walk from A to B, that I do have the right, so long as I have the skills."

This idea drives Vargas's latest project, #EmergingUS. The digital magazine is "a culmination of my career, of my professional life, and my personal life, and the intersection of the two," he explains.

"#EmergingUS is about the new mainstream," Vargas says. "We are undergoing an unprecedented demographic shift, unlike anything this country or world has ever seen, and our job as journalists is to make sense of it -- to connect people, to insist on empathy, and that's what I'm going to do with #EmergingUS."

That understanding of difference is sorely needed, even within the LGBT community, Vargas argues.

When transgender Latina activist Jennicet Gutierrez interrupted President Obama at the White House Pride event in June, LGBT leaders, activists, and members of the media appeared divided over her actions. Some were quick to defend President Obama for having her escorted out, saying it "was not the time or place" to advocate for humane treatment of trans women in immigration detention. Others argued that Gutierrez was following a long LGBT tradition of speaking truth to power, even at moments the powerful might find "inappropriate."

The negative backlash over Gutierrez's actions "tells you a lot about race and class," says Vargas, "and how that impacts the LGBT community. Who got to frame that narrative? Who got to tell that story?"

He continues, drawing historical parallels:

"Is that what we said to Larry Kramer back in the '80s and '90s, when he was fighting for not only LGBT rights, but to get support and help for gay men, who were dropping like flies because of the AIDS epidemic? When do you ever say to people who are marginalized systematically, when do you ever tell them: 'Oh, you know, just wait. This is not the place and this is not the time.'"

But if Vargas hopes to connect Americans living at multiple intersections of identity, some prominent political candidates seem to be most interested in driving a bigger wedge between people. Nowhere is this xenophobic fearmongering better encapsulated than by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has made disparaging comments about Mexicans and most recently called for a blanket ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.

"There's a part of me that's thankful for Donald Trump," says Vargas. "I'm thankful that he is forcing us to confront what we've always known was there. He's appealing to Americans who are anxious, who feel like America is changing, and they're not. The question for me is, How do we connect to those people who support Donald Trump?"

Beyond simple connection between different factions, Vargas feels a more pressing question lingering over the heads of journalists like him, including those covering Trump and the entire 2016 race: What is the responsibility of media -- mainstream or otherwise -- in the age of social media?

"To call it what it is: racist, sexist, bigoted," Vargas says, answering his own question. "What else do you call that?"

Ultimately, Vargas seeks to leverage his experience -- from his youth to his career in print journalism and now his emergence as a filmmaker and multimedia producer -- to change attitudes and perceptions, and foster those connections between disparate communities nationwide.

"I would argue that there is an obligation for LGBT people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds to have a stake in what's happening in the immigrant rights movement, the women's rights movement, the income inequality movement, because as Audre Lorde said, people don't live one-issue lives, we don't live in a one-issue country."

A storyteller at heart, Vargas firmly believes the best way to effect change is through sharing personal narratives of individual people who grew up like he did, at the intersection of various identites.

"I feel because I'm privileged enough knowing that no one's knocking on my door, trying to deport me, I need to be as fearless as I can," he explains. "[And] be as inclusive as I can, as much as possible, to insist on these hard, uncomfortable conversations."

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Yezmin Villarreal

Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.
Yezmin Villarreal is the former news editor for The Advocate. Her work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Mic, LA Weekly, Out Magazine and The Fader.