Writer Tony Robles reflects on Journalist and Filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas presentation

Event report by Tony Robles:

“I don’t want to have hope, I Want to Be a Hope”

Journalist and Filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas Redefines “American” at Justice Forum in Asheville during Filipino-American History Month

By Tony Robles, The “People’s Poet”

Jose Antonio Vargas, grandson, son, journalist, undocumented immigrant, illegal alien, symbol of hope—outlaw.  Filipino, a son separated from his mother, who, at the behest of Jose’s lolo (Grandfather), sent him to America to live the American Dream.  Unbeknownst to Jose, his green card was forged.  Thus began Jose’s life of lying, passing and hiding—commencing at the moment when his grandfather said, “You’re not supposed to be here”.  Lying about the whereabouts of his mother—a severing that would have deep impacts—passing, by ridding himself of his Tagalog accent by watching British TV shows and finally hiding, from the government which–when  all is taken together–amounted to hiding from himself.

Jose Antonio Vargas was the featured speaker at the 9th annual Justice Forum on October 3rd, 2019 sponsored by Pisgah Legal Services (www.pisgahlegal.org), a non-profit organization serving North Carolinians by pursuing justice–providing free legal aid to thousands of people unable to afford an attorney.  Many of Pisgah Legal’s clients are undocumented immigrants who they help navigate the immigration system, a complicated system where there is, as Vargas says, no one size fits all path to citizenship.  Pisgah legal featured a short film at the beginning of the forum on two undocumented immigrants—a young student from Mexico and a woman from Cameroon, both living their dreams while navigating a system that threatens those dreams of being realized.

Addressing the ICE raids in North Carolina, Vargas began by saying, “Fear is in the air, people are afraid to go to the store, church, to drop the kids off at school.”  Conscious of the ominous presence of his own status he added, “If ICE is here right now, just wait (until) after the lecture, then we can talk.”

Jose Antonio Vargas comes to Asheville during Filipino-American History Month.  The Filipino-American community of Western North Carolina is a large community of several hundred.  It has been in Western North Carolina for 50 years and celebrates Filipino-American History Month for the first time with an event at the Public Library in Asheville at 260 Overlook Road on October 25th from 6-8pm.  Jose is the latest in the legacy of colonization of the Philippines by the United States. Filipino American History celebrates the Filipino presence in the US, a presence that began in 1587 during the Manila Galleon Trade, which started in 1565, and lasted until 1815–250 years. In October 18, 1587 Filipinos landed in Moro Bay on the California coast. Hundreds of subsequent trips were made with Filipinos establishing a presence on the continent years before the Mayflower arrived in 1620.  Jose Antonio Vargas, an immigrant to the US at the age of 12 was expected to go to school, get a job and, hopefully, marry an “American” to become “legal.”  However, 2 issues sprang up—first, his family had no idea that he had so much potential and, second, his coming out as gay which greatly disappointed his grandfather.  “One lie was enough” Vargas says, “I wasn’t going to marry to get papers.”  Jose lived the American dream as far as achievement was concerned, a gifted student, becoming a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, attaining success in the eyes of white society but still holding on to his secret of being undocumented.  Jose is part of a community of 4 million Filipinos in the US (The country’s third largest immigrant group) and one of 11 million undocumented persons across the country—a number that he believes is undercounted.  He related a story of attending a rally of Tea Party supporters.  One supporter asked, “Why are there so many Filipinos here in the US?”  Fatigued by his travels and deadlines, Vargas replied, “Sir, we are here because you were there.”  “What are you talking about?” the Tea Partier replied–unaware or ignorant of the Spanish-American War–to which Vargas answered: “You took over the Philippines for 50 years.  If you can do that, why can’t we come here?”  Vargas’ answer left the Tea Party supporter speechless.

Jose Antonio Vargas, the name sounds like a painter, or singer, or low wage worker, or ten thousand names whose stories move across the landscape of North Carolina and across the country.  When his forged green card (Which he adds isn’t green) was discovered at the DMV upon attempting to obtain a Driver License at age 16, his first thought was, “I’m not Mexican.”  His image of “illegal aliens” was people from Mexico.  This is a myth propagated by the media that use what Toni Morrison termed “The Master Narrative”.  According to statistics, Vargas points out that the fastest growing population of undocumented people is coming from India, China and the Philippines.  Jose Antonio Vargas—a name of many names: Journalist, son, grandson, Human, illegal, alien, undocumented—Outlaw.  Words have meanings and, as a journalist and author, he lives in words.  Words can heal and love and hurt and kill.  On June 2011 he came out of hiding and wrote an essay in the New York Times whose title captured the situation of his life: Outlaw.  He was urged by friends and colleagues not to publish this essay, not to expose what was hidden.  But he had no choice; he could not remain silent.

Many are living in silence and fear in North Carolina and across the country.  To be undocumented is to occupy a space of existing and not existing; to occupy an area of no comment.  Vargas related how he hadn’t heard from ICE about his status after the publication of his essay in the New York Times. Nobody’s calling me, he thought. He phoned ICE to inquire about his status.  We know who you are, he was told by an ICE representative on the phone.  Jose was working on a piece for Time Magazine—in which he and other undocumented immigrants graced the cover–about the millions of undocumented immigrants living in the US and wanted a comment on his status to which the representative from ICE responded, “No comment”.  Vargas then asked the crowd in Asheville, “Tourism and agriculture—what would it be without immigrants?  So long as we’re harvesting your crops and making sure your economies are functioning, so long as you have the cheap labor you need to survive, it’s not really a problem, right?  No comment.

Vargas credits a strong black woman, author Toni Morrison, for liberating this—referring to himself—illegal faggot person, allowing him to push back against the master narrative and to put himself on the line through his foundation, Define American (https://defineamerican.com/), speaking to audiences across the nation to truly define what it means to be an American. He asks, “Do laws define American?  Do pieces of paper?  Does a green card?  Is fear how you define American?  Vargas cites the master narrative, discovered while watching an interview between Bill Moyers and Morrison. “The master narrative is whatever ideological script is being imposed by the people in authority on everybody else—the master fiction, history, a certain point of view.”  How did the master narrative apply to a self-described “Illegal faggot?”  Vargas questions the notion of identifying human beings as criminals, as if one’s existence can be unlawful; illegals who are serving Americans, babysitting their kids, trimming their lawns, building their houses—the images we see on TV—Fox News, everywhere.  In homage to Morrison, who, incidentally, was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature in 1993, the same year Vargas arrived in the US, he said, “Perhaps only in America could someone like Toni Morrison-an African American woman, a descendant of slaves liberate a gay undocumented Filipino. But that’s exactly what she did.” Vargas also noted that this year marks the 400 anniversary of slavery in America, to which he commented, “We love to say we are a country of immigrants but we leave out two groups of people—African Americans and Native Americans—they are not immigrants.

In the audience were many Raza youth—from local high schools and colleges.  These youth are working to realize their dreams.  They sat in the rear of the auditorium but their presence spoke loud as their cheers were heard in the auditorium.  Many of these young people came to the US when they were children.  Many are recipients of DACA—Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals).  Half the immigrants in North Carolina are undocumented.  30 thousand are DACA recipients.  DACA gives these young people protection against being deported, with one catch– they have to pay the government 500.  And pay, immigrants do—contributing billions of dollars.  “We pay into the system that doesn’t want to recognize us” Vargas says, “We pay into a system that criminalizes us.”

Vargas asserts that, as a country, “We like simple answers but we don’t like hard questions such as: Why do people move?  What does US Foreign policy and trade agreements have to do with migration patterns?  Who started the drug war and who funded all those civil wars?

In his conclusion, Vargas stressed the importance of storytelling in educating people. His Define American Foundation (https://defineamerican.com) consults with TV producers and writers to represent immigrants accurately in their storylines.  ‘Storytelling” says Vargas, “Serves as a correction, an intervention from all the lies that are told about us, lies told at the White House, lies perpetuated in the halls of congress, lies told in churches sometimes.”

A member of the audience asked how one can have and retain hope in the current climate of fear and hate across the country.  Again, Vargas cites Toni Morrison’s wisdom, who wrote: If you are free, you need to free someone else.  The very function of freedom is freeing other people.  He then takes it further: “I would argue, in the south—in North Carolina—that freedom cannot and is not coming from the government, it is coming from the very people who are insisting to define America on their own terms.”

As a Filipino-American writer, I was honored to attend this event.  I met Jose backstage afterwards and found him to be jovial, his energy contagious.  We are both appearing at the Filipino-American International Book Festival in San Francisco on the weekend of October 6th, where Jose will be the keynote speaker. We will use our stories to inform and uplift and push back against the master narrative.  No manifest destiny but determining our own destinies.  Jose Antonio Vargas’ struggle and commitment honors not only the many millions of undocumented immigrants in the US, but the early Filipino immigrants who came to the US—my grandfather among them—in the early part of the century to work in the fields and canneries and to eventually bring about the formation of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW).  Their work and sacrifices made possible a Jose Antonio Vargas.  The late Filipino American Labor Leaders Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz were honored by having a middle school named after them in California.  Jose Antonio Vargas shares this distinction, with a middle school named in his honor in his hometown of Mountain View, California.  He told the children and attendees at the naming ceremony, “I believe in magic, and to me, the ultimate magic in life is that there’s always a way you can connect with another person.”  Jose Antonio Vargas, not an outlaw but a human being who says the work of his life, where ever he may be is about rewriting the master narrative of liberation.  He says: I don’t want to have hope, I want to be a hope.”

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