A Minute With: Filmmaker Jose Antonio
Vargas on being 'undocumented'
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[June 25, 2014] By
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - In 1993 at the age
of 12, Jose Antonio Vargas said goodbye to his mother and boarded a
plane in the Philippines to join his grandparents in California. It
would be four more years before he would learn that he was in the
United States illegally.
"Documented," the debut film of the Pulitzer Prize-winning
journalist who is still without the necessary papers, premieres
on U.S. cable network CNN on Sunday. It tells his story growing
up and working as a newspaper reporter without legal status and
without a path to reverse it.
The documentary aims to put a human face on the 11 million
undocumented people in the country. Vargas said it is not "an
immigration film," but a "love story between a mother and a
Vargas, 33, spoke with Reuters about the emotional stress of
feeling "illegal," why language matters in the U.S. immigration
debate and how talk show host Charlie Rose helped him act
Q: You "came out" as an undocumented person in a 2011
magazine feature. What compelled you to share your story?
A: It actually started when I was assigned to cover the
presidential campaign in 2007. I spent two years and two months
on that campaign trail following Hillary Clinton and Barack
Obama and John Edwards and Sarah Palin. I didn't have the right
papers and I'm on a campaign plane in Ohio.
I think that's when my madness started ... It was either someone
was going to find out or I just out myself. And really for me
the hardest decision to make was deciding whether I was willing
to be my own story.
Q: Why make a film and not write your story?
A: The only reason I became a writer was so I could exist
on a piece of paper. That was really my own reason. To this day
writing is the most painful thing to do ... Film, as any
immigrant will tell you, television and movies is the way we
make sense of this country when we first got here. Before I knew
what a Republican or a Democrat was, I think I've seen every
Mike Nichols film ("The Graduate," "Working Girl") you could see
at the library.
Q: What sort of psychological pressure did you feel
knowing that you could be deported?
[to top of second column]
A: I think I've always been paranoid. I always felt
like I had the word "illegal" tattooed on my forehead. All of
that is internal and the guilt of knowing that I am, and people
not thinking that I am (illegal) because I look like this.
People think this is a brown, Latino issue.
I remember the first thing I did when I found out I was illegal
was to get rid of my thick Filipino accent. I figured that I had
to talk white and talk black at the same time, like Charlie Rose
and Dr. Dre. If I can talk white and black then no one is ever
going to think that I'm "illegal."
Q: Through your group Define American you have campaigned
for the media to change the terms in which it talks about
undocumented immigrants. Why does language matter?
A: A lot of the reason I outed myself was to politely and
aggressively ask my fellow journalists to think about language and
the consequences of language ... To be here illegally is actually a
civil offense and not a criminal one.
Q: Did you find any catharsis making this film and reviving
contact with your mother after several years of silence?
A: Let's put it this way: I got a therapist after we edited
the film ... It became very apparent that my story doesn't make
sense without her. She's the one who put me on the plane. She's the
one who made the sacrifice. My story is her story. That's when it
became intensely personal. And then to face myself, I had to face
Q: Do you daydream about what you would do with a passport?
A: The daydream would be to be free, to go wherever I want to
go. I've done everything I've done in this country with the
limitations I have.
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Mohammad Zargham)
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