BOOKLOOK°08: Jose Antonio Vargas’s America


When Vargas came out as an undocumented Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote for the Washington Post, I remember feeling a kinship with the queer Filipino who first called the Bay Area home upon migration to the U.S.

And as a queer, Filipino immigrant who lobbied in Washington D.C. for the DACA (then referred to as the DREAM Act), I thought: “Finally. A queer Filipino progressive/social justice activist like myself in the mainstream speaking truth to power!”

But the reality was much different, something I soon discovered after hearing him speak at a conference in San Francisco for Asian-American social justice activists in 2011. He didn’t sound like the activist communities I was a part of, nor did he sound like the radical I believed him to be. On the contrary, he sounded a little more like someone from the right. I wrote him off after that as a queer, brown, undocumented pseudo-conservative.


It wasn’t until I (reluctantly) came to a talk for his new book Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with artist Jerome Reyes that I had a change of mind, a change of heart about him.


After I finished his book, I realized that he actually made a lot of sense, if you think about what he’s for regardless of partisan politics. He didn’t dilute many of the isms that a lot of queer, brown and black folks struggled with, but he did express a way of thinking and viewing the world around us that was refreshing. I think I’m also at a different state of mind, so I was more receptive to his ideas.

Dear America is Vargas’s memoir, a story that resonated with many parts of myself beyond the identities we shared. He traces his childhood in the Philippines, where he first encountered the many ways his mom (and most moms in the country) see its former colonizer (still, in many ways to be honest) as a means of survival.

After coming to the U.S. and living with his grandparents, Vargas soon found out that he was undocumented. In spite of his status, he continued to do well in school and had the support of the school, mentors and other community members. He found solace in literature, particularly the work of black and brown writers:


Searching for Morrison led me to discover the work of black poets like Langston Hughes and Paul Lawrence Dunbar, to the writings of black writers like Ralph Ellison, Alice walker, and James Baldwin. I cite their race because it's a crucial element of their power.


Black writers gave me permission to question America.


Black writers challenged me to find my place here and created a space for me to claim. Reading black writers opened doors to other writers of color, specifically Asian and Latino authors (Carlos Bulosan, Sandra Cisneros, Arundhati Roy, to name just a few) whose work was often even more marginalized than that of black writers. 


As he pursued his career in journalism, many of Vargas’s experiences illustrated the paradox of American citizenship and of not having papers. He wrote about an email he got from someone in San Juan, Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria:

"Hey Jose," he wrote, "I know you're not a U.S. citizen but are you sure you want to be one? I'm a citizen and it don't guarantee everything, man." 

He writes about the language used to describe movement across borders, always dependent on contexts of power, race and conquest. He asks: “What’s the difference between a settler and a refugee? An expat and an immigrant?”

He writes about migration as an inherent human right, and reminds readers of a fact that is usually left out in conversations about immigration. The news cycle barely brings up context when talking about im/migration, as they focus on numbers and emotions: stats about the number of people detained, number of crimes committed by undocumented folks, fear-mongering, self-righteous anger. But Vargas knows better:


“There are an estimated 258 million migrants around the world, and many of us are migrating to countries that previously colonized and imperialized us.

We have a human right to move, and governments should serve that right, not limit it. The unprecedented movement of people--what some call a ‘global migration crisis’--is, in reality, a natural progression of history.

Yes, we are here because we believe in the promise of the American Dream--the search for a better life, the challenge of dreaming big.

But we are also here because you were there--the cost of American imperialism and globalization, the impact of economic policies and political decisions.”


That evening at YBCA felt like the first time I was actually listening to Vargas. Gone were my preconceived notions of what a social justice activist or progressive should say or believe. Vargas called for a new way of thinking about how we talk about social issues, where we don’t sacrifice racial, social and political realities for the sake of generalizing our humanities. What I think Vargas was saying is that we need to broaden our minds, create a new language beyond what we’re using and widen our understanding if we are to move beyond the borders of our own beliefs.

As difficult as it's been to be exposed to the blatant ignorance and naked hared of people from the right, it's been equally emotionally taxing to be subjected to the unrealistic expectations and demands of the left. Identifying people as "right" or "left" is a risky over-generalization, of course. But as someone who gets attacked by both sides, for various reasons, I'll take the risk. 


Velvet Knot-Front Top from Abercrombie
Velvet Wide-Leg Pants from Abercrombie
UO Western Snakeskin Boots (similar) from Urban Outfitters
Dear America: Notes of An Undocumented Citizen book