Jose Antonio Vargas’ mother woke him up one morning in 1993 and said that he was going to America. He would be the only one of his siblings to leave the Philippines and join his grandparents in Los Angeles. With no time to really say bye to his family, Vargas boarded a transcontinental flight with a man he had never met. His mother said he was his uncle. He wasn’t. He was someone who had been paid $4,000 to smuggle the 12-year-old boy out of the Southeast Asian country for a chance at a better life.
“When I got to Los Angeles my grandfather gave me this green card,” Vargas said. “I found out four years later this green card was fake.”
Vargas, who in 2018 published his memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and Tony-nominated producer. He shared with students and faculty from the Dougherty Family College (DFC) at the University of St. Thomas his story of how he became “one of the most privileged undocumented immigrants” in America. He left them with the message: “Our lives are worth more than pieces of paper that we may or may not have.”
DFC scholar Philli Yang found Vargas’ talk to be “very powerful” and told in a way “that emphasized and questioned what ‘citizenship’ was and the lack of power these undocumented citizens had.” Yang added that even for himself, as a legal citizen, Vargas left him “thinking deeply about what makes me a citizen of the United States besides the various papers I have.”
About 30 DFC scholars and faculty heard Vargas speak Sept. 21 to a Minneapolis crowd of 400 at the Westminster Presbyterian Church during his talk “Democracy in the Eyes of an Undocumented Citizen,” sponsored by the Westminster Town Hall Forum.
The students had a chance to meet with Vargas privately after the public event, where they “mobbed him for selfies” and “asked him personal questions about how he maintains hope and what he ultimately sees as the purpose of his work,” said DFC Professor of Theology Sarah McCann, who attended the event.
“I wanted students to gain some experience attending a lecture given by someone in the public sphere who is impacting not only public policy, but also inspiring empathy, and holding Americans accountable to learning about the challenges and quagmires so many undocumented Americans are experiencing,” she said.
Vargas, who hasn’t left the country since arriving because he said there is no guarantee that he will be allowed back, told the group: “We are as diverse as any group of people.” He shared that being gay is one of his multiple identities and that people should see their identities as bridges and not as walls. “The most important identity for me is the identity that fuels my work. I tell stories, that’s what I do.”
DFC scholar Freddy Flores Dominguez said, “For me, one of the biggest takeaways I will keep in mind [is] that he refused to be called a ‘minority,’ and that made me think about how America has convinced me that I am less than and that I deserve to be ‘marginalized.’ But just like Jose has proven, we as individuals are more expansive than our labels. Without even intending, it felt like Jose provided me with a little more liberation in a world where authentic liberation is hard to achieve.”
DFC scholar Amiya E. Delaney said, “I learned from Mr. Vargas how you can always overcome anything thrown your way and you can always make something out of nothing. You [can] make yourself very successful if you keep yourself dedicated to your goals and what you want to pursue.”
The DFC scholars received extra credit for attending the event, and they received so much more.
“They were captivated by the strength of [Vargas’] message, as well as his honesty and passion for social justice,” said DFC English Professor Louis Porter II, EdD. “Vargas was very open and down-to-earth and our scholars connected with him.”
Malia L. Love, a participating DFC scholar, said she can relate to Vargas’ experience. “As a Black citizen in America, my people are still fighting for equality and rights just like Mr. Vargas. He is very determined and doesn't care about people’s opinions of him, and that motivates me. I should be heard and my opinions matter in this country because my ancestors and other minorities built this country.”
The opportunity for the students to meet Vargas came about after DFC Acting Dean Dr. Buffy Smith, an advisory board member at the Westminster Town Hall Forum, collaborated with its director, Tane Danger, to have the DFC scholars participate in conversations that address social issues from an ethical perspective.
“As I listened to our DFC scholars have meaningful conversations with Mr. Vargas, I was beaming with great pride,” said Smith, who oversees the Minneapolis-based two-year college at the University of St. Thomas. “Our scholars posed thoughtful and heartfelt questions about democracy, citizenship, and the human rights of immigrants.”
Biology Professor Martha Alonzo-Johnsen, PhD, said, “One of our scholars asked Mr. Vargas what was the one piece of advice he would give, and he replied with: ‘You are free here’ and pointed to his head. I think that is something that resonated with the scholars. It also resonated with me. Mr. Vargas recognized these public expectations and how it could hold people back from doing the work they wanted to do. It was a great reminder that even with all the expectations, we can be borderless in our mind.”
Learn more about the University of St. Thomas' Dougherty Family College at dfc.stthomas.edu.