Pulitzer Winner Jose Antonio Vargas Reminds Us that No Human Being is Illegal

The author of ‘Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen’ talks to Javier Zamora about fighting for immigrant rights

A s a previous Temporary Protected Status-card holder with lots of family and friends who are still undocumented, I knew Jose Antonio Vargas’s work way before he wrote his recently released memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen. From his groundbreaking 2011 essay “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” in The New York Times Magazine where he came out as undocumented, I knew his was a fearless voice, a voice that gave me the courage to be honest with my immigration status.

In 2011, I was about to enter my last year of undergrad at UC Berkeley, without any federal funding because of my immigration status. I was fed up, I was tired, I was angry. Reading that essay gave me the courage to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. Without it, I would’ve perhaps never written the poems I did in grad school; or they would’ve taken much, much longer to understand that it was ok for them to be written.

Vargas’ voice gave me the courage to face my immigration status, to speak out, to demand humanity. Similarly, his new memoir reminds us that no human being can ever be “illegal,” that there is no such thing as a good or a bad immigrant, that immigration affects a vast majority of people in the US, “citizen” or “non-citizen” alike.

I spoke to Vargas over the phone about his life-long work fighting for the immigrant community.

Javier Zamora: I have a few questions for you, but first off, I want to say what an honor it is to talk to you! I want to thank you for all the work you’ve done, do, and will continue to do, for the undocumented community.

While reading Dear America, I kept thinking of Edwidge Danticat’s Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work. In her book, she advises us [immigrants] to “create dangerously for people who read dangerously.” Early in the book she also mentions the following quote by the poet Ossip Mandelstam in which he defines creating dangerously as “creating as a revolt against silence.” You’re certainly doing what both Danticat and Mandelstam envision.

My question is, what do you want your undocumented readers, or previously undocumented readers like myself, to take away from your own revolt against silence? What should we do with this dangerous material? And how can we act?

Jose Antonio Vargas: Edwidge to me is essential. She is one of our essential writers. That’s why I asked her to write a blurb.

JZ: I saw that, which reminded me of her book.

JAV: You know I reached out completely cold? I think I messaged her on Facebook.

JZ: What?

JAV: I was surprised she responded. I was like “I would love for you to read the book and if you feel compelled I would love to have you blurb it.” I love she’s one of the very first people to read the book. That’s how much her work has meant to me. She’s a writer that has created a humanistic language around what being a migrant means and feels like. I would hope that this book honors that work and continues the work she started. Thank you for asking that question.

So, the question you asked… Another writer that meant a lot to me is Toni Morrison. The Bluest Eye is one of the very first books I ever really read and it was a book that really challenged me. When Toni Morrison writes, she writes without the white gaze; meaning that she centralizes the experiences of black people in her books. One of the things she has to do, is make sure she’s writing without the white gaze: meaning writing for just white people.

When I was writing this book, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t writing for US citizens. That I wasn’t writing to explain my humanity to American citizens that want people like me to “fit.” I was really thinking about how to get into the psychology of understanding this position. Understanding this undocumented position. I think I’ve been depressed since I was 16. I just happen to be one of those people. You know I have friends that smoke weed and say that weed helps them. I just haven’t tried it. I never really tried to do drugs before. Thankfully I haven’t needed drugs to deal with my depression. I’ve dealt with my depression by asking: how many things can I be doing? How many balls can I be juggling? Just so I don’t have to deal with my depression.

JZ: And you talk a lot about that in the book; this idea of compartmentalizing identity, compartmentalizing feelings.

JAV: Yeah, really distracting myself from my own emotions. And part of living dangerously is facing yourself. Which is a very dangerous thing to do. I would argue that a lot of us spend a lot of our time trying intentionally not to face ourselves. This book was my attempt to really look at myself for the first time and try to understand why I am the way that I am. And try to get at the depression/mental health state that I’m in. Why haven’t I allowed myself to be in a romantic relationship? I don’t do that. I don’t. I never have made time for that. To be intimate with somebody you have to be willing to be intimate beyond just the physical intimacy. I never allowed for that to happen. And now I know why. Now I understand myself better by writing this book.

The message from me to undocumented or previously undocumented people is: the language that is so mainstream out there about what immigration is — which is political, politicized, all these acronyms that people have no idea what they are, TPS, DACA — our humanity is more than all these acronyms that people don’t know and all the politics that people don’t even really understand. My goal in writing this book is to say that our humanity is measured by more than pieces of paper and laws that can’t even pass. We owe ourselves — under these conditions, under these oppressive deplorable conditions — we owe ourselves dignity and we owe ourselves every bit of joy we can find.

My goal in writing this book is to say that our humanity is measured by more than pieces of paper and laws that can’t even pass.

JZ: To follow up on that, reading this book after I wrote my book of poems, I wrote it similarly to understand myself and to understand why I was a certain way. But after writing it, I found out that I was very much still traumatized. Writing was not enough to heal from my trauma. This realization convinced me to finally seek counseling out of my own volition. And I learned many coping mechanisms to deal with the stress. Even talking and traveling to give readings around the book was/is stressful.

Having said that, I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of stress you were in while writing this book. While living your life. I kept wondering, besides the juggling, the compartmentalizing that you talk about in the book, there must’ve been something else. Some other coping mechanism. I know you travel a lot and will continue to do so for this book. It must take a toll. I’m interested for other undocumented people, to share some other skills to deal with the stress.

JAV: Another coping mechanism is friendships. I treasure friendships. I was never really prepared to be a public person. I didn’t know what that really meant. The pressure for me to speak for people when I can’t, I’m one person, so there is a lot of expectations that are projected onto me, that have been really painful and hard to deal with. Because of that, the way I cope is to hold my friends very closely and very dearly. The friends that I don’t have to explain myself to. The friends that know I’m totally imperfect, totally flawed, but I’m trying to do the best I can. That is one way for me to cope.

Thankfully, I’ve been really blessed. I have some ride or die friends. The things for them too is that they know when I’m hiding from them. They’re like “Okayyyy. I know you don’t want to see me because you don’t want me to ask you questions, but how are you doing? Here I am, I see you anyway.”

Immigration is not solely about legality because legality has always been about power. About who gets to define what’s legal and who’s legal. That’s always been about who has the power to do that.

JZ: Thank you for that. Ok, now more into form. You were very visible when you wrote your NYT Magazine essay. You were very visible — and I remember clearly — when you spoke in front of Congress. When I watched the video, I feel like you held back in the book. You don’t dwell in the description of your emotions. Yet, I teared up watching the video in real-time. My question is, was the memoir always a thing you were thinking about in the back of your head? For me, trying to explain your life to Congress under five minutes, that must’ve been a turning point into realizing you have to write something larger.

JAV: It was not at all my intention to write a memoir. Initially, I wanted to write a manifesto. I wanted to do a migration manifesto. I wanted to be more academic; so what I did was read about 30 immigration-oriented books, different genres. I had just packed up everything I owned and for the first time in my life, I didn’t and don’t have a permanent address. I really wanted to understand my own mental state and why I never feel at home, anywhere, even though I have a home. The question became, what does psychological homelessness mean? And I tried to look at books that spoke about this and I couldn’t find one. When I was writing the book proposal, I wrote a manifesto book proposal. My editor, after she bought the book, said: “Jose, FYI [laughter] I want to go deeper into the personal.” I was like what? That’s not what I wrote in the proposal! She was like “Jose, you have to let us in, what was it really like?” And then she asked me a really fascinating question that no one had asked before; she wanted me to list the top ten most painful experiences in my life. [laughter] I think my first reaction was no fucking way. But then when I was writing it, it became apparent that every single painful thing was either about lying, passing, or hiding. Each one of those ten moments had to do with those three things. That’s how we came up with the structure.

It took me about nine months to read everything. I read a fascinating book by Dan-El Padilla Peralta who was undocumented, he was actually the first person to write a memoir. Fascinating guy. I read Sonia Nazario, Enrique’s Journey, I re-read that. I reread JFK’s A Nation of Immigrants, I read a lot of Edwidge Danticat. Reading is a lot like writing. I grew up in the Philippines watching Filipino telenovelas. You know, very melodramatic. There were so many moments in the book that were so intense, that I really didn’t want to overwrite anything. I was so careful in making sure that the language was spare and direct and not over-written.

JZ: Why?

JAV: Because I wanted the moments themselves. For example, the morning I left the Philippines and my mom, that was such a dramatic moment. But for me, the most dramatic thing about it was how little I remembered of it.

JZ: And even in the book your time in the Philippines is the shortest section. It’s the place you describe the least. I think another writer would’ve dwelled in it.

JAV: Right? And for me as a writer, what I say, what I chose not to say, is as important as what I do say. For example, that chapter about strangers is two pages! I really wanted to — and as a writer it’s all about momentum — I wanted the book to really build, so by the time you get to the detention section, I hope you understand how trapped this person — me — is: mentally, psychologically, physically. So in that section, the language is longer, is more legato it’s not staccato. For me that was all very intentional. In the beginning it was all very direct, very short. I was talking to a writer in the SF Chronicle — for me, I really appreciate when writers want to talk about craft — and he was like, some of the sections felt like prose poems.

JZ: Absolutely! They’re vignettes!

JAV: Totally! I was going for Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, with some Baldwin and Didion thrown in. That’s what I was going for, but again, every time I tried to write it, I overwrote. You know I grew up obsessed with The New Yorker, so I love complicated never-ending sentences. I love sentences with the semi-colons, dashes, and commas, all of that. As writers, punctuation is all we have as musical notes; so I really tried to not over-do it. Asking “Ok, Jose, do you really need that semi-colon?”

People migrating to America is much more complicated than the search for a better life and the quest for the “American Dream.”

JZ: A short follow-up, you mention in the acknowledgements, that you wrote and revised this book in people’s couches because you were moving around a lot. And I couldn’t help but wonder if this affected the shortness and brevity of each vignette?

JAV: Yes! OMG! You are the very first person to notice that my man. That’s craft. I call it plumbing. Trying to find the structure. The tempo, the length, the language, all of that matters to me. Thank you for recognizing that. I appreciate that. And you know, the longest sections were all written on airplanes. Yes. The longest sections in the book were all written on airplanes. Why? Because that is usually the only time — flying across the country from the west coast to the east coast — where I’m completely still, where I’m completely in one place and there is nowhere to go.

JZ: Wow. [laughter]. That’s fucking crazy.

JAV: You know for me, as a writer, I’ve written a couple documentaries over the past eight years now. You know architecture, structure is as important as the content, so all of these questions you’re asking, that’s totally what I was going for my man.

JZ: It’s all in the book. Now, let’s shift to my last question. I know you’ve done a lot of fact work with Define American, I think it’s your life’s calling to get at the facts around undocumented issues and anyone can go to your site and look at the truths regarding undocumented immigrants. Which makes me ask, what do you think are the top two facts that you want every citizen to absolutely know and understand?

JAV: First, I’m really proud that I’m an undocumented person and I could start and scale this organization [Define American]. I just wanted to say that. So one, immigration is not solely about legality. That’s one of the first things I want to say. The second thing is…Let me go back to that first one. Immigration is not solely about legality because legality has always been about power. About who gets to define what’s legal and who’s legal. That’s always been about who has the power to do that. The first thing.

The second thing is, we know the what, we know the where, we know maybe some of the when, but when it comes to the issue of migration we don’t know a lot about the why. Like, why are people coming? As you know from reading the book, understanding that question is really important.

People migrating to America is much more complicated than the search for a better life and the quest for the “American Dream.” It’s way more complicated than that. I would argue that the push-pull factors of migration and the fact that we are coming to this country because this country has been and is in our country. That whole section in the book of “we are here because you were there.” And by saying that, Javier, what I want to get at, is that this issue is much bigger than just America. The book is partly dedicated to the 258 million migrants in the world. The question of migration and who gets to be a citizen of a country is a global conversation, that even I — who can’t physically be part of it because I can’t travel outside this country — can’t take part in. Writing this book is me taking part in that global conversation.

The question of migration and who gets to be a citizen of a country is a global conversation, that even I — who can’t physically be part of it because I can’t travel outside this country — can’t take part in. Writing this book is me taking part in that global conversation.

JZ: And it’s a conversation that we’re going to continue to have for a long time.

JAV: For a long time. I would argue that it is, if you think about it, we haven’t even talked about climate change.

JZ: And water, we’re running out of water.

JAV: We’re running out of water! For me, migration is the defining issue of our time. For me, arriving at language that deepens the humanity and complexity of the issue in order to not be afraid of complicating what the issue is, is of utmost importance. That’s where I want my work, as a writer, as a filmmaker, as a storyteller, that’s where I want my work to live.

JZ: I think it does, and it will. I’ll end by thanking you and by going back to that essay by Edwidge Danticat where she says something along the lines of: if you do write dangerously — the immigrants that do — they imagine a future that is unimaginable in which their words are going to be read and people are maybe even going to risk their lives to read their work because they could foresee what was to become.

JAV: That is a high honor from someone like you.

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