In recent years, journalist, filmmaker, and entrepreneur Jose Antonio Vargas has built a new extension on an already impressive career, with his personal immigration story and a keenness to have straightforward conversations about the issue as his basic materials. This morning that ongoing dialogue made a tour stop on stage at Pandoland in Nashville.
Vargas updated Sarah Lacy on his work since their first on-stage interview in November and his appearance at Pando’s Don’t Be Awful fest this past winter. In a gut-punching reversal, he still has been unable to visit his mother in the Philippines, whom he hasn’t seen in 22 years. The last time Vargas spoke with Pando, an executive order had opened the door for him to make the long-awaited trip. It still hasn’t happened: That presidential order was blocked in February by a federal court in Texas, leaving Vargas and an estimated 4.3 million other undocumented Americans waiting in the wings for their promised status-change to take effect.
Of course, that hasn’t slowed the guy down a bit.
Among his many projects and speaking engagements, Vargas has delivered a film to MTV focusing on talking to white people about issues of race and immigration.
“People of color and immigrants always get asked, ‘where are you from?’ We never seem to ask white people that question,” Vargas said to the crowd members at Pandoland, the majority of whom were white. “I just find that so interesting. I know where I’m from. I know how I got here, and I know who paid for it. And I think if we are really going to talk about immigration, if we are really going to talk about race in this country, we can’t have that conversation and not talk to white people about it.”
Details of this “whiteness project” will be announced tomorrow by MTV, and the program will air later this summer. With his sails full of urgent purpose, Vargas rests on no laurels. He will also helm a new magazine about race, immigration and identity for the LA Times called #emergingus.
“Basically ‘all-things-Rachel-Dolezal’ happening right now… #emergingus is video first, it has video and engagement at its heart,” he said of the new project.
Much of his production falls under the umbrella of his own company, Undocumented LLC. (“I’m a job creator, yo,” he said). He’s also done around 400 events with his non-profit DefineAmerican, of which he said, “It’s important to preach beyond the choir.” And he’s sought after in advisory and advocacy roles by a number of outfits, including FWD.us, his involvement with which he briefly sketched for the audience.
“The moment FWD.us only becomes about H1B visas for engineers, I will be the very first person to criticize them. It has to be about all of us. Engineers are important, but immigration is not just about that. FWD has been broad and inclusive. I wish sometimes that they could be bolder but look: our politicians, our politics are not bold. they are working within the system and its a compromised, mediocre system.”
Though his work populates a number of platforms and is conveyed in various media, it centers on a determination to keep immigration from falling off the cultural radar during gaps in the news cycle, and to broaden and develop the way these issues are discussed when they inevitably return to the country’s front pages.
“We have a farce here. You know, there are 12 million undocumented people like me in this country, about 160,000 of us in Tennessee. I mean, you know we’re here. You know we’re working. You know we’re driving. We go to the same church. So what do you want to do with us? You know, we can’t all mow your lawns and babysit your kids and serve you drinks. Or is that what you want us to do? So I actually called the government and was like, ‘Hi, I haven’t heard from you. What do you wanna do?”
“The woman from Homeland Security said ‘no comment,’ and you know I think ‘no comment’ is a metaphor for how people think of us. There is no sense of urgency. Every day that we’re sitting here, someone is getting deported and separated from their family. So I outed myself to make a statement and to tell people that this issue isn’t what they think it is.”
He framed the new ‘Southern Question’ for the mostly local crowd.
“All of these southern states are being remade by immigration. In Nashville I just heard that one in eight people in Nashville is an immigrant. One of the fastest growing immigrant cities in the South. So, when we talk about race how do we make sure we are broadening the conversation?”
He doesn’t take his role lightly.
“I find that whole thing about being comfortable with being the agent of your own story so uncomfortable… for me it’s a question of ‘am I passing the bullshit meter?’ How do I make sure that when I use ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘my’ — the three most dangerous words in the English language — that I earn it? That it’s not just self-serving cesspool of narcissism? How do I tell a very specific story and tie it to a universal truth? How do I make sure I am opening a conversation?”
Vargas gave several examples of what that openness to conversation looks like. For the past four years, he’s been criss-crossing the country, visiting his mission upon Tea Party rallies, political campaign events, college campuses, and broadcasts. However, his desire for dialogue does have some limits.
“If it’s Ann Coulter you walk away. Sean Hannity wanted me to debate Ann Coulter for 30 minutes, on FOX. i’ve always wanted to be on television with Ann Coulter and tell her ‘you’re a really good actress.’ She’s so good. She’s got the same hairstyle, she looks the same. America has changed but Ann Coulter is the same. I want to congratulate her for being this walking Sondheim musical. I want to do that but, uh, I can’t do that.”
In his years in the field, Jose Antonio Vargas has located the conversational kill switch.
“Once you say ‘that’s racist,’ it’s over.”
You’ll be able to watch the whole interview soon on Pando, and in the meantime catch up with Vargas earning it and earning it and earning it, on every one of your screens and all over the country.
[illustration by Brad Jonas]