Jose Antonio Vargas’ commitment to journalism began with a single byline in the high school newspaper. He had just discovered that his move from The Philippines to California’s Bay Area as a 12-year-old had not been legal. Jose was undocumented — and suddenly petrified about the future.
But that first article sparked a revelation, the Pulitzer-winning writer told an audience at the University of Southern California on February 27.
“If I can’t be here because I don’t have the right papers, what if I’m on the paper?” he had thought. “How can they say I don’t exist?”
For Vargas, writing became a way to prove his existence in America, documents be damned. More importantly, it motivated him to “succeed my way into citizenship.”
Reality didn’t quite match up. Now 31-years-old, Vargas has charted a journalism career through The Huffington Post and The Washington Post, where he was part of a Pulitzer-winning team. He has also written for The New Yorker on Mark Zuckerburg, and New York Times Magazine and Time Magazine about his life as one of 11 million undocumented Americans. At present he directs Define American, a non-profit organization that aims to spark discussion about immigration reform.
Despite his success, Vargas says a viable path to citizenship just doesn’t exist.
To push for change, Vargas shares his story with groups ranging from college students to Tea Party members. And he encourages others to stand up for immigrant rights on their own terms. At the USC talk, he commended Ramiro Gomez, an artist who stations cardboard cut-outs depicting immigrant workers — nannies, gardeners, construction workers — around posh L.A. locales.
“We need art and stories to reframe and transcend a story that’s become way too political,” said Vargas.
That’s Pablo Alvarado’s take, too. As director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Alvarado encourages creative, artistic strategies to highlight immigration reform as a human issue.
“This immigration debate has been poisoned with so much hatred and bigotry,” he told me in an interview. “We have to use different tools to dispel the myths and also to reach out to the hearts and minds of people.” Such as music. Alvarado is a member of Los Jornaleros del Norte (The Day Laborers of the North), a band that sings cumbias and corridos about the trials and triumphs of daily immigrant life. (Look for my profile of Alvarado in the L.A. Weekly this spring.)
But a crucial question remains, Vargas noted at USC. How do we reach people who don’t agree?
Today’s media saturation makes that issue especially thorny. Media consumers tend to absorb ideas that support their existing beliefs, rather than objectively consider a range of perspectives. Pulitzer-winning journalist Leonard Pitts commented on this distinctly modern phenomenon in 2010:
Where once we were all restricted to the same body of verifiable facts upon which to base our arguments and disagreements, the very ubiquity of untruth has removed that necessity. I am not required to hear – much less credit – any facts I don’t like. In the 21st century, I choose my beliefs first, then am provided with “facts” to support them.
An example from television — “All in the Family” — seems to prove this concept. The book Racism, Sexism, and the Media by Clint C. Wilson II, Félix Gutierrez and Lena M. Chao points out that the show expresses both bigoted and tolerant attitudes. Its creators intended for “All in the Family” to expose Archie Bunker’s prejudices as unfounded and ridiculous. Yet, scholars concluded that viewers simply absorbed the attitude that best fit their existing beliefs. The result? Bigots saw Archie Bunker’s wildly demeaning attitude toward women and people of color as acceptable, even estimable.
Jose Antonio Vargas seemed to grasp this concept. He told the USC audience that we tend to “know things as we see them, not as they are.” He encouraged the young journalists in the crowd to write with fairness and insight. “There are 11 million of us,” he said, referring to the undocumented people from countless walks of life who live in the United States. “And we all have different stories.”
Featured photo from Time Magazine.