Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has written for the likes of The New Yorker, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, and Rolling Stone to document stories of Americans around the country. Recently, he decided to tell his own story.
The Philippines-born Vargas was brought over to America as a young child and didn’t even know he didn’t have the right papers until he went to take his driver’s license test as a teenager and was told his ID was fake. As a young adult, he became obsessed with proving himself as a true American, doing excellent work, paying his taxes, and eventually winning a Pulitzer — even if it meant keeping a very big secret. Eventually, he was tired of hiding and lying about his identity. He shook America with his 2011 The New York Times Magazine essay, in which Vargas came out as an undocumented immigrant.
Since then, Vargas continues to fight for the plight of undocumented immigrants, which many dismiss as “illegals.” He’s founded the organization Define American, which shares the many different stories much like his own. Earlier this year, he not only testified before the U.S. Senate on immigration reform but he also turned his personal story into a documentary film — fittingly called Documented — which premiered as the centerpiece for the AFIDOCS film festival in Washington D.C.
How did your documentary Documented come about?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Well, this was not the film I was originally going to make. Originally I was going to do a DREAM Act film. I was following five different people with different backgrounds, and I was going to do it Waiting for Superman style. Where you’re doing a vérité-style documentary, you just film, film, film, because you don’t know what you’re going to get.
And then halfway through the filming, one of my filmmaker friends asked me, “How could you do a film on immigration and not include your mom?” I barely talk to my mom [who he hasn't seen in over 20 years because she lives in the Philippines, and he cannot leave the US], let alone did I want to see her on film…. So in some ways the [autobiographical] film was not something I wanted to make, but it was a film that I needed to make.
On the Define American page, the Documented logo is made up images of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. Why did you want to link your story with images of social media?
Jose Antonio Vargas: It’s the idea that undocumented people are documenting their lives. For many people, social media is a narcissistic cesspool of vanity. [laughs] It’s just what I ate yesterday and where I’m going tonight. But for undocumented people that aren’t even recognized by the government, it’s our way to be recognized.
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