Vargas questions American identity

On Thursday, March 10, prominent journalist and immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas spoke to a crowd of students, staff and Northfield community members about the reality of being an undocumented immigrant in America. Vargas was hosted by St. Olaf’s Political Awareness Committee (PAC) as its spring speaker.

He began his lecture by explaining his story. Vargas was raised in the Philippines and sent by his mother to America when he was twelve.

“She told me I was going to Disneyland,” he said.

Upon his arrival in the United States, he joined his grandparents, who were already naturalized citizens, in Mountain View, Calif. with a false green card. When he was 16, he found out at the local DMV that his papers were fake. Throughout his schooling and well into his career, Vargas kept his illegal citizenship a secret. It wasn’t until 2011 that Vargas revealed his immigrant status in an issue of New York Times Magazine.

Vargas’s speech centered around the idea of American identity and how immigrants contribute to it and are affected by it. He addressed many of the misconceptions that Americans have about immigration. For example, he noted that many Europeans are living in the United States on an outdated visa or have stayed here illegally, but they are prosecuted far less than immigrants of color, especially Mexican immigrants.

Since he revealed his undocumented immigrant status to the world, Vargas has spent a lot of time fighting for the rights of undocumented immigrants and raising awareness about the immigration problem in the United States.

As part of his activism, Vargas has produced a number of documentaries. In 2010, he co-produced and wrote a film called “The Other City,” which shed light on the AIDS epidemic in Washington, D.C. PAC ran his newest documentary, called “White People,” in Viking Theater the day before Vargas’s speech. Directed by and starring Vargas, the film dissects white privilege. During his speech Vargas promoted a new project that he has been working on called #EmergingUS. The website and video commentary aim to discuss evolutions in American identity.

After his speech, students were allowed to ask questions. A couple of students brought up racial issues on St. Olaf’s campus and requested his input as to how to proceed with similar conversations.

“Your being silent, is it complicit to [racial injustice]?” Vargas asked. “When we question the incarceration rates and we question the drug laws, when we question all of that, I guess it appeals [to me] that we have to question that. But… if you can’t have these conversations at college, when are you going to have it? When? Are you going to have it when you’re working and maybe somebody would fire you?”

Vargas emphasized the importance of bringing conversations about race and identity into the classroom, rather than saving those conversations for optional extracurriculars.

“I actually think that we’re now getting to a point where [conversations about race and identity] should be a part of the curriculum. They should be a part of general studies,” Vargas said. “Conversations about race and identity, to me, are the heart of how people view themselves. To not try to deconstruct it and study it, to me, is a mistake.”

Vargas also encouraged students to find their own ways to push their own messages and activism.

“I feel like we’re living through the golden age of storytelling,” Vargas said. “But the struggle is, how do we actually tell stories to connect with people and not just tell a story to tell a story? I’m not in the whole ‘art for art’s sake’ camp. I feel like stories serve a purpose, and a really good storyteller knows what that purpose is.”