Jose Antonio Vargas comes from a family of gamblers, and in his new book, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen,” he’s upping the ante — or maybe, given the current executive’s predilection for travel bans and family separations, he’s going all in. Vargas recalls the enormous wager his family made 25 years ago, when his mother brought him to Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila and put him on a flight to California. He was 12 years old, and he would go to America first. Mama, as he calls her throughout his memoir, promised to follow.
Twenty-five years later, Mama is still in the Philippines, and Jose is still in the United States — no longer based in Mountain View, Calif., where he was sent to live with his maternal grandparents, but traveling around the country as an activist filmmaker and a writer, without a fixed address where he might be apprehended.
In 2011, he was a young journalist with an enviable résumé when he published an essay in The New York Times Magazine that revealed his undocumented status. Immigration lawyers warned him against going public; one called it “legal suicide.” In “Dear America,” Vargas writes that talking to lawyers “made me feel like I was carrying an incurable disease.”
Filipinos living in the United States have a Tagalog term for the undocumented immigrants who go to their churches, live in their communities or reside in their homes: tago ng tago, “hiding and hiding” — T.N.T. for short, like a secret waiting to explode. Vargas’s grandparents, both of them naturalized citizens, expected him to keep hiding until he didn’t have to. The plan was for Jose to find under-the-table work, like cleaning bathrooms at the flea market, so he could save enough money to pay an American woman to marry him. Maybe, his grandmother hoped, he wouldn’t even need to pay anyone, because he would fall in love.
But he wasn’t about to toil in the shadows to marry an American woman; Vargas is gay, and he’s also extremely, exuberantly ambitious. The constant dissembling was unbearable, he explains; he feared losing sight of who he was.
Vargas came out as gay when he was 16. Coming out as undocumented took longer. He wanted to dream big, even when his family was telling him that a life out in the open was not only fanciful but dangerous. “You are not supposed to be here,” his grandfather would remind him.
“The dream that Mama, Lolo and Lola had for me was dictated by their own realities, by their own sense of limitations,” he writes, using the Tagalog words for grandpa and grandma. “The America they dreamed for me was not the America I was creating for myself.”
The moments when Vargas describes how profoundly alienated he feels from his own family are the most candid and crushing parts of the book. He admits that he felt much closer to what he calls his “white family” — the caring grown-ups who mentored him in high school; the seasoned journalists who gave him career advice; the generous benefactors who offered him material support — than to the blood relatives who made extraordinary sacrifices in order to bring him to the United States. As a teenager, he could barely bring himself to call Mama in the Philippines. “I couldn’t talk to my own mother while I was collecting mother figures,” he says, in one ruthlessly honest line.
His grandmother and grandfather raised him, but they couldn’t see him. They warned him against taking up too much space, telling their cub-reporter grandson he was “getting fancy now.” In 2008, when Vargas was cited as part of a team for The Washington Post that won a Pulitzer Prize, his grandmother called to say how worried she was. “What will happen if people find out?” she asked.
“Dear America” covers some of the same ground as Vargas’s essay for The Times Magazine, as well as his 2013 film, “Documented.” He details the fake papers his grandfather purchased for $4,500. He recalls how the local library enabled his teenage self to become a connoisseur of ’90s pop culture on the cheap. (What truly mystified him were the cartoons in The New Yorker: “Were they supposed to be funny?”) He briefly recounts the colonial history of the Philippines, first under the Spanish, then under the Americans, as well as the stark betrayal of the 1946 Rescission Act, which reneged on the American promise to offer citizenship and veterans’ benefits to Filipino soldiers who fought on behalf of the United States in World War II.
As a founder of Define American, an immigrant advocacy group, and a regular speaker at conferences and on cable news, Vargas has been living in the public eye for a while now. The weakest parts of the book have him proclaiming a humble altruism that simply doesn’t jibe with the more complicated (and, frankly, more interesting) person he otherwise reveals himself to be.
He describes his 2011 essay in the most noble and exalted terms: “I wrote it because I believed that its journalistic service to the public good was worth more than my personal need for legal protection.” It was brave for him to come forward as he did, but the motivations for putting one’s name to such an attention-getting, incendiary article are rarely so selfless and pristine. For one thing, by making himself so visible he was not only notifying the authorities of his existence; he was also gaining a form of protection by making himself known.
This isn’t to begrudge him any of it. “Dear America” is a potent rejoinder to those who tell Vargas he’s supposed to “get in line” for citizenship, as if there were a line instead of a confounding jumble of vague statutes and executive orders — not to mention the life-upending prospect of getting deported to a country he barely remembers. “I was in a toxic, abusive, codependent relationship with America, and there was no getting out,” he writes. “Who am I without America? What would I be without America?” The terrible irony isn’t lost on him; decades after arriving to these shores, he has yet to breathe free.
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