Before Jose Antonio Vargas came out publicly as an undocumented immigrant in 2011, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist was already filming the moments leading up to his big reveal. During an early scene of Documented: A Film by an Undocumented Immigrant, Vargas speaks about the DREAM Act with journalism students at Mountain View High School in California, where he once co-edited the school paper. “I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t told a lot of people,” Vargas says. He announces his intention to come out of the shadows, through his now-famous New York Times Magazine essay and to launch “a whole campaign about what it means to be an American.”
Since then, Vargas has toured the country with his advocacy group Define American to change the national conversation about immigration. Documented follows Vargas, from his move to the United States in 1993 through his career as a successful journalist to his current role as perhaps the most high-profile undocumented immigrant in America. Vargas’s relationship with his mother, who he hasn’t seen in more than twenty years, also figures prominently in the film.
We spoke with Mr. Vargas by phone last Thursday about Documented, his advocacy and the future of the immigrant rights movement. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
I read on Facebook that you’re showing Documented at a church in Louisville, Kentucky, tonight.
The campaign director of Define American is actually a minister and he lives in Louisville. So, tonight, for the first time, we’re looking at immigration through a Christian lens.
I can’t believe it. We’re approaching the third year of Define American. The day The New York Times posted my essay on the website is when our organization was born. From the very beginning, the goal was creating a cultural space to have a conversation beyond the usual immigration frameworks: political, partisan, US-Mexico border, “illegal.” A year after I came out, we had the Time magazine cover. That was the first time you had a major publication put undocumented people on the cover saying, “We are Americans, just not legally.” Our organization occupies a unique space within the immigrant movement. To me, it’s bigger than immigration. It’s about citizenship. That’s why we called the organization Define American. We didn’t call it DefineImmigrant.
What did you learn while making this film?
When I outed myself a few years ago, after I didn’t hear from the government, there was a part of me that thought, “Somebody from ICE or INS is going to get in touch with me.” Then nothing was said. Immediately I started traveling and I started filming and filming and filming. I’ve done over 200 events in forty-two states in almost three years. I would say two things. One: I underestimated the gap between what Americans know about immigration and what the reality is about immigration. I had assumed that there was a gap. I would not have anticipated that it would have been this big. People have no idea. The fact that people ask me, “Why don’t you just make yourself legal?” or “Why don’t you wait in the back of the line?” That proves to me that fundamentally, the American people do not have an understanding of how immigration works in this country.
The second thing that I found the most tragic is—when people find out I am not Mexican, or that I’m Filipino—once they find out that I’m not what they think I’m supposed to be, they start talking badly to me about Mexicans. I did not anticipate the level of how many people use the word illegal and Mexican interchangeably. Just assuming that somebody who is Latino or somebody who is brown is Mexican and then making the assumption that he appeared illegal. I mean, that is a tragedy. That is a tragedy with such political, cultural and personal implications that I cannot even begin to describe.
Why did you decide to center the film on your story, and in particular, your relationship with your mother?
The hardest decision to make about this film was to make it this personal. That is not at all what I was planning to do. This is my second documentary. I’m working on a third project that’s going to be related to this. I feel like my creative, artistic life just started. It started three years ago when I could finally own up to who I am and claim myself and call myself an American in front of other people without feeling a sense of shame.
Originally, I thought I was going to do the Inside Job of immigration reform. Then I started watching C-Span and getting clips of politicians talking about immigration reform and why all these illegals should be out of this country. And then I think, “Do I really want to politicize an already over-politicized issue?” Whenever you hear about immigration reform, it’s always from the perspective of politicians, running for some kind of office or running away from themselves. I don’t know what. But that’s always been the case.
So I go, “All right, I’m not going to do that.” So I thought I was going to do “Waiting for Superman meets the DREAM Act.” Then when I started filming, I knew I wanted to do that. Then I made the tough decision to include my mother and basically started connecting these other pieces of the puzzle to my own life. That’s when the film took on a different life. As any documentary film director will tell you, when you’re doing a film like this, you can’t really force what it is. It needs to be what it needs to be. Film in many ways is very literal. When I’m writing, I can always play around with tense. I can always make past present. I can always kind of manipulate and I can always be delusional in a way that’s completely self-serving. With film, it’s like, the camera can’t really lie. It can manipulate to a certain extent. When I connected with my mom on Skype, I couldn’t have written that. There was no writing done. I didn’t even have the language for it.
That was one of the most powerful scenes for me.
I remember watching that scene when we were editing. I had to watch it, and it was like seeing myself for the first time. I’m a 32-year-old man. I’m looking at that scene and thinking, “Oh my god, I’m 12 and I’m on that plane by myself again. And you know, I miss my mom.” Ever since I was younger—when I found out I was this gay, Filipino, “illegal” person that this country thinks I am—I have always wanted to be in control. And I have always wanted to show that nothing can break me. You can put in front of me every challenge, and I’m going to do it. I’m going to cover a presidential campaign. I’m going to write for The New Yorker. I’m going to land an interview no one else is going to get. I’m going to do all these things you said I cannot do. And I never wanted to show any sort of pain or vulnerability. That’s not unique to me. I think all of us, we want to be strong. We want to be in control. This film has been for me, in a way, really cleansing.
You’ve said openly that you’re relatively privileged for an undocumented immigrant. What are the limits to telling your story?
I’m very clear from the very beginning about who I am and who I am not. I have no control, whatsoever, on how people perceive me, from the right or the left. All I have control over is who I say I am. This is why, from the very beginning, I didn’t want to do a film about myself. I was questioning, like, “Who is going to relate to this person?” I am, let’s be honest, at an incredibly privileged position to do what I do. I am probably the most privileged undocumented immigrant in America. While people get deported everyday, what did I do? I made a film. But guess what? I think there is no limit to empathy. There is no limit to humanity. This is why I included my mother and the complexity of that relationship. How do you explain being separated from your mother for twenty years. This is who I am. And this is what the system has done to me, and this is what I’ve done to myself.
There are many, many more stories that need to be told. This is only one of them. There are some aspects of the film that are kind of journalistic in the way they’re framed. Like the scene in Iowa when I’m talking to Romney supporters. And the film, I think, also works in the way that it tries to break misconceptions—about the fact that we pay taxes, about the fact that this is not totally a Mexican/Latino issue.
Ninety minutes of a documentary cannot tell the whole story. But it tells one story, from one perspective. And I get to say that this is a film that is produced and directed by an undocumented person and I have the privilege of telling my own story in the most honest way I can.
Tell me a little bit about how your status as an undocumented immigrant relates to your work in journalism.
Look, when I was growing up—it’s not like I was a kid and wanted to be a journalist. I was really attracted to movies. When I was growing up, learning about America to me was watching movies and watching television. I was really fortunate because I grew up in an area in Mountain View, California, with well-funded, well-stocked libraries. I started watching documentaries by Frederick Wiseman. I’ve always gravitated towards Mike Nichols, watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? countless times. I was exposed to a lot of films before I had even wanted to write. To this day, writing, for me, doesn’t come naturally. Because I never feel like I have enough words. And I never feel like I’m good enough at it.
And then I discovered journalism, and the only reason why I gravitated towards it is because my name would be on a piece of paper. As an undocumented person it means that I don’t have a document that says I’m supposed to be here. But then I thought, “Well, wait a second. If I’m a writer and have a byline, doesn’t that mean I exist on a piece of paper?” So that’s why I started writing. I thought I could write myself to America and I could just keep writing. Journalism, for me, has always been a way of validating my existence. Although I was always ultimately hiding. My name is on a piece of paper, but I’m not supposed to be here.
I heard this interview you did with NPR’s Maria Hinojosa, where you reveal that she’s the first person to ever call you an American journalist.
There are some people in the journalism industry, some of them my own friends, who don’t consider me a journalist anymore. They say that I am now an advocate. And then usually I ask, “What do you think I’m advocating for?” Journalists sometimes use the word advocacy with this kind of like, “Back over there.” I’m sorry. Isn’t Ezra Klein an advocate for something? Isn’t Nate Silver advocating for something? Why is it that a journalist who is a person of color, or a gay journalist or an undocumented journalist—when they do journalism, it’s called advocacy?
What did you make of Jeb Bush’s recent statement that immigration is an “act of love?”
Define America is a media and cultural organization. I’m not about politics and I’m not about policy. And this is coming from somebody who used to be a political writer. I grew up, you know, in the era of Will and Grace and Ellen Degeneres. In an era when gay-straight alliances were formed in high schools across America. You cannot understate the importance of culture in changing politics. For me, politics is culture. I don’t care about immigration policy. I care about immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants who have been, for too long, under attack in this country. Jeb Bush made a cultural statement. “Immigration is an act of love”—that is a cultural statement. I cannot wait to show the film to Jeb Bush and President Bush. People forget: President Bush was the first president to give a primetime speech on immigration reform. This is one of the issues that he got right and wanted to get right. Jeb Bush made a cultural statement that got completely politicized. That was interesting. Again, I’m someone who has benefited from and grew up during the cultural shift that has made LGBT rights inevitable to this county. We are not there yet when it comes to immigrant rights. The culture has not shifted as much as it should. Getting on the cover of Time magazine is certainly a part of that. Making a film that is about undocumented immigrants is a part of that. Given that we have had a decade of immigration reform being wrapped in such political, partisan terms, I think that it’s time that artists and storytellers and culture-makers be front and center when it comes to this issue, which is a civil rights issue. And I cannot wait for the journalistic community to finally wake up when it comes to that.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
After all the traveling I’ve done, I think it’s proven to me more that a new America is definitely emerging. America is gayer—more and more gay people will continue to come out. More women are leaning in however they want to lean. We celebrated this year the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act. Next year, we will be celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, championed by the Kennedy brothers, which irrevocably changed this country. That is why this country is as Asian and Latina as it is. That’s why this country looks like it does. The work that we do at Define American is to honor and represent the cultural shift and the birth of this new America. Three years ago when I outed myself in The New York Times, the question we asked is, “How do you define America?” That is the space, that I, as a filmmaker, as an artist, that’s what I want to occupy. In a country that is evolving and changing, demographically, culturally and politically. Not only am I an American journalist, I would like to think that I am an American filmmaker who happens to be of Filipino descent and who happens to be gay.
Documented opens in New York tomorrow at Village East Cinemas, and will be screening in theaters across the country. Watch a short clip from the film here: