For the first 13 years of his career as a journalist, Jose Antonio Vargas did his best to avoid two topics: immigration and himself. That trajectory flipped in 2011, in a New York Times Magazine confessional that detailed how his mother sent him to California from the Philippines with a fake green card, how he spent his entire career documenting the life of others to avoid talking about his own, and how he avoided the words “I,” “me,” and “my” in his stories as much as possible.
“To me, when you’re a journalist, your religion is reporting. That’s the basis of everything you do, “ he said, “Whenever you use ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ the reason has to be pretty strong. Meaning, in what way are you using your experience and yourself to illuminate a greater point or to make an argument.”
A few months before his New York Times confession went to press, Vargas wrote a profile of Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker. It was an important moment professionally; he was writing about one of the world’s most influential people for one of the world’s most influential magazines. That moment also helped him realize that he was done running from himself. “At one point, Mark turns to me and says, ‘Where are you from, Jose?’” Vargas told Reihan Salam during a VICE podcast, “Very simple question. I just looked at him and glared at him and that’s when I kind of knew I was done.”
The 8,000-word profile of Zuckerberg takes on a new layer of meaning when you understand that Vargas was writing while carrying this secret that was about to come to the surface. In the profile, Vargas discusses identity management, oversharing, and the chafing that can occur when you feel pressured to reveal more than you’re comfortable with. He questions who really has the most at stake in Zuckerbeg’s idealistic conception of a “more open” world. Of course, all of this is relevant to any discussion of Facebook, but it’s a conversation that carries more weight for Vargas than it might for someone with nothing to hide.
Vargas told me that he allowed more of himself to seep into the Zuckerberg profile than he had in anything he had written before. There is a brief exchange in the article where Vargas tells Zuckerbeg that he equivocated about revealing his sexual orientation on Facebook. When he first signed up, he checked the box saying he was interested in men, but it made him uneasy, and he removed the check mark two weeks later. Zuckerberg “responded with a flat ‘huh,’ dropped his shoulders, and stared at me, looking genuinely concerned and somewhat puzzled,” wrote Vargas. “Facebook had asked me to publish a personal detail that I was not ready to share.”
Before his New York Times confession came out, his lawyers told him he was committing legal suicide. Thus far, the government has taken no action to change Vargas’s situation, positive or negative. He continues his story and confessionals in his autobiographical film, Documented, which is currently showing around the country.
The film takes the intimacy of his New York Times confession to a new level. A bullet point in the article, like how his mother stayed in the Philippines and sent him to America for a better life, is amplified in the film with her tears as she talks about how, for years, her son was too afraid to add her on Facebook. “Once the decision to go personal is made, it’s either you go all the way or you don’t go at all. You can’t really hold back,” says Vargas of the more emotional aspects of the film.
I attended a screening in Los Angeles, where Vargas told the audience that Documented isn’t the film he intended to make but the film that he had to make. He later told me that the film is much more personal than he had originally intended. He initially planned to focus on the stories of five other undocumented immigrants and give only the basic outline of his experience. He quickly learned that he couldn’t tell anyone’s story more effectively than his own. He wanted to use his own journey to illustrate “the visceral, emotional mental impact of this issue.”
As he was developing the idea for Documented, several filmmakers advised him against directing his own life story, but he wanted to be the one to grapple with what had happened. “I felt very determined that it’s really important to own up to my story and face my own family and shape the narrative,” he said, “I spent most of my teenage years and certainly all of my 20s hiding from myself. I didn’t really know the toll of it until all of a sudden I could be open and could be honest. I feel like I’m just now starting the process of understanding what exactly happened to me.”
He believes that the confessional nature of the film will inspire other undocumented immigrants to discuss their own life stories. “It also allows for mentors and allies to speak up, “ said Vargas, “It creates that kind of space because it acknowledges them in the film.” Over the years, Vargas found many allies who listened to his secret in moments of fear. Instead of turning him in, as he feared they might, they actively helped him to stay in the United States and thrive—like his high school principal, Pat Hyland, and Peter Perl, an editor at The Washington Post who was Vargas’s mentor for many years. “I wanted to send a message and underscore a point that people don’t understand,” said Vargas, “If every undocumented person has a network of three, four, five, six allies, than we’re talking about quite a bit more than 11 million people.”
Allies are essential for any movement. Vargas is gay, and during his teen years he witnessed cultural shifts, like Ellen Degeneres's outing herself and the popular show Will & Grace. He hopes that the immigration rights movement can follow a similar path.“Will & Grace was a really watershed moment because it showed that for every Will there’s a Grace. For every gay person there’s the straight best friend or relative or straight classmate who advocates and treats their gay friends or relatives or neighbors just like everybody else,” he said. “That’s a cultural shift that has not happened with the immigration rights movement.”
Cultural change preceded political change in the African American civil rights movement as well, he told me. “Barack Obama would not have been possible without Oprah, the Cosby Show, and all those strides that happened to normalize and humanize and reflect African Americans in this country as complex, fully human beings.”
Since Vargas has spent so much time and energy bringing attention to his own battle, some have suggested that he can’t be both an advocate and a journalist, including his former Washington Post colleague, Patrick P. Pexton. “There are people who say I am no longer a journalist because I have taken a position and am advocating for something. What am I advocating for?” He said fighting for immigrant rights is no different from fighting for LGBT rights or African American rights.
“It’s the right thing, and it’s the human thing to do,” he said “I’m really interested in disrupting these paradigms about what we consider to be ‘advocacy’ and why. To me, not only as a writer and a filmmaker but as someone who has lived in this country as a minority and who is part of marginalized groups, it’s always been a question of who’s telling the story and who’s framing whose narrative.”
The stories of undocumented immigrants still remain a largely unspoken contribution to America’s economy and its culture, but Vargas’s film could help weave them into the fabric of America’s public story.
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