How do you define American?

Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and Emmy nominated filmmaker Jose Antonio Vargas speaks at the Student Union Theater. He is the author of "Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen" (Charlotte Lao/The Daily Campus)

Coming out of the closet twice does not seem like a fathomable situation for most, but Jose Antonio Vargas took the situation in stride as a gay undocumented immigrant from the Philippines. As part of Asian Pacific American Heritage month, the acclaimed journalist and filmmaker took the stage at the Student Union Theater last night to share how his story has shaped his concept of “home” and what it means to be American. As a Filipina-Chinese American immigrant myself, I couldn’t help but feel inspired by his story and the representation that he offers to our community. 

Affectionately welcomed as “kuya,” a Filipino title akin to brother, the author of “Dear America, Notes of an Undocumented Citizen” immediately went straight to the heart of his discussion as he took the stage. 

“I don’t want to talk about the wall, or border control or even Trump,” Vargas said. “I actually want to talk about home ... as an undocumented citizen, if your life is limited by pieces of paper you don’t have, what does it mean to have a home?” 

As an undocumented citizen who is denied certain basic rights such as healthcare yet pays taxes, Vargas faced further conflict on not only what he viewed as his home, but also on his identity. 

“It’s not just how you identify yourself, but you also feel how other people identify you,” Vargas said. “How are teachers and educators talking about immigration in the classroom? ... And now, how do we get to the point where being anti-immigrant isn’t just culturally acceptable, but being anti-immigrant wins you the White House?” 

Vargas came out as a front-page national story on June 26, 2011 with “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant” in the New York Times. After fearing, yet preparing, for his deportation that never came, he wrote a follow-up article the next year with other undocumented citizens adorning the cover. 

“The questions I rarely get asked, and question I rarely want to ask myself is, ‘What does this actually feel like? Being illegal?” Vargas said. With that in mind, he decided to write his novel. He discussed three sections in it that he found integral to trying to live his life as an undocumented citizen: “lying,” “passing” and “hiding.” 

“A part that stood out to me was when he had [that] anecdote about his nephew not knowing where he fit in,” Angelique Campo, a sixth-semester speech, language and hearing sciences major, said. She is a member of the Filipino American Student Association (FASA) on campus. “One of the things about immigrants is that they have a hard time knowing where they belong ... so it was really helpful for [Vargas] to talk about what home means to him.” 

The author also mentioned the current divisive political atmosphere and how one “earns” the right to be an American citizen. 

“How do you define who gets to be American?” Vargas asked. He discussed the role of colonialism and imperialism in people’s need to immigrate to the U.S. “Back when all the Europeans crossed the border of the Atlantic Ocean ... what papers did they have? What’s the difference between them and all the people trying to immigrate here now? ... what role does the United States play economically and politically in this chain of migration?” 

It’s not just how you identify yourself, but you also feel how other people identify you,
— Jose Antonio Vargas

Vargas continued with his efforts by founding Define America, a nonprofit media and culture organization that seeks to accurately represent the story of immigrants and citizens. They advise TV shows, such as NBC’s “Superstore,” with the proper and accurate portrayal of immigrant characters. 

“[Vargas’s] part about identity, especially dual identity, kind of hits home for us,” Chandler Gabagat, a fourth-semester accounting and economics double major, said. “For FASA, one thing we focus on is identity ... being in college is a good time to find yourself, and his story was one to inspire people to find themselves.” 

Ryle Aquitaine, a sixth-semester nursing major and member of FASA, spoke about how he sometimes refers to the Philippines as home, yet does not know if it truly means home for him. “I’ve never really lived there ... It’s my homeland, but overall it’s hard to define that, what home is.” 

For now, Vargas is staying where he is, but he’s decided that the world is big, and that he wants to see it someday. He suggested to those that are free to travel to not take it for granted. 

“And I think it’s really important that you say yes to yourself,” Vargas offered as advice to any undocumented citizens who struggles with their situation. “I think it’s really important to be kind to yourself. So many other people may say no to you, but your job is to say yes to yourself.” 


Hollie Lao is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at hollianne.lao@uconn.edu.