Two weeks ago, I met Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who is undocumented.
He grew up in the Philippines until age 12, when his mother put him on a plane to come to the United States and live with his grandparents about a half hour south of San Francisco. This was 1993. He hasn’t seen his mom or his siblings for the last 24 years because of his “illegal” status, and his mother can’t get a visa to visit because her poor income makes her high-risk in the eyes of those who grant tourist visas.
Jose Antonio arrived and entered the sixth grade. He studied hard and to fit in, he listened closely to television shows, and would repeat phrases for hours to learn how to speak American. In the eighth grade he memorized words he couldn’t even pronounce and ended up winning the spelling bee, on the word indefatigable. At age 16, he took the green card his grandfather had given him to the DMV to apply for a drivers license. The clerk whispered to him, “This is fake, don’t come back here.” He went home to confront his grandfather and learned the truth. All of his documents including his social security card were fake.
His grandfather assumed Jose Antonio would eventually become a citizen by marrying one. But in 1999, at age 17, his class watched a video about Harvey Milk, the gay San Francisco city council member who was murdered. In the class discussion that followed, Jose Antonio came out of one closet. While it was tough being the only openly gay student at his high school, it was far easier than to reveal his immigration status. The first person he told was his choir director when she announced that the choir would tour Japan. The next week she announced that the choir would tour Hawaii instead. Many years later she told him, “I wasn’t going to leave any of my kids behind.” In time Jose would tell certain teachers, the principal, even the superintendent who he became close to. And they all mentored and guided him as he navigated through San Francisco State College and into a career of journalism that would lead him to interviewing some of the most famous people in the country.
In 2008, while working with the Washington Post, he was on a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the Virginia Tech shootings. When he called his grandmother to share with her the news, the first thing she said was, “What will happen if people find out?” He cried in anguish after that call. The following year he worked at the Huffington Post. His HIV/AIDS series was made into a documentary. And he got an exclusive interview with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg for the New Yorker. But the more he achieved, the more scared and depressed he became.
He read about undocumented Americans walking in protest of the current immigration laws and calling on a more humane policy toward the undocumented. He reached out to talk with them. He marveled at their courage claiming an American identity while the law and wider society saw them as illegal, unwelcome. He credits these courageous young people for giving him the courage to join the efforts of changing the conversation in the wider culture about what it means to be an American.
In 2011 even though he managed to get a new drivers license with fake documents that wouldn’t expire until 2016, he decided to come out publicly. The New York Times Magazine ran his story entitled “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” He said,
I’m done running. I’m exhausted. I don’t want that life anymore. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream. But I am still an undocumented immigrant. And that means living a different kind of reality. It means going about my day in fear of being found out. It means rarely trusting people, even those closest to me, with who I really am. It means keeping my family photos in a shoebox rather than displaying them on shelves in my home, so friends don’t ask about them. It means reluctantly, even painfully, doing things I know are wrong and unlawful. And it has meant relying on a sort of 21st-century underground railroad of supporters, people who took an interest in my future and took risks for me. So I’ve decided to come forward, own up to what I’ve done, and tell my story to the best of my recollection. … I don’t know what the consequences will be of telling my story. I do know that I am grateful to my grandparents, my Lolo and Lola, for giving me the chance for a better life. I’m also grateful to my other family — the support network I found here in America — for encouraging me to pursue my dreams.Jose Antonio Vargas
He used this article and the attention he received to launch a powerful nonprofit called Define American. As the website says, “It’s time for a new conversation about immigrants and identity in America. Why do people come to this country? What does it mean to be undocumented? What does it mean to be a good citizen?” This website is designed to support undocumented young people, to help them come out and claim who they are, and to spread greater understanding of their plight. The films on the website are extraordinary, including one he made for MTV entitled White People.
This month, my congregation at Unity Temple is exploring the theme of abundance: What does it mean to be a people of abundance? When I think of what it means to be American, I think of abundance. Isn’t our nation one of great abundance, an abundance of resources, an abundance of opportunities, an abundance of hope and courage in the hearts of so many? Last weekend we celebrated Veterans Day, and the ideals on which the country was founded, ideals that many many people have committed their lives to defend. And soon we will be celebrating Thanksgiving, a time when we recognize the abundant blessings we enjoy as Americans. It is a time to remember the American story.
But there is a shadow side to our nation’s story. Our national identity was forged on the exploitation and decimation of the native people who originally peopled this continent and the enslavement and exploitation of black skinned people who didn’t immigrate to this continent but were brought here in chains. The shadow side of our national story runs deep. And it emerged from the base impulses of greed, of fear, of hatred that dominated, diminished, and destroyed the humanity of so many. But this doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
The redemptive story of our nation is how over time, our culture has at times claimed the better angels of our nature to lift up the humanity of all people.
At Unity Temple, we believe in the worth and dignity of every individual. And this calls us into hard conversations about racial inequality and the ongoing struggles for many people of color. It calls us to understand what it means to be gay, trans and what it means to be human in all sorts of contexts. As Unitarian Universalists, we have had a very real impact on the opening up of American culture to affirm and accept gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender people. In our lives. Even the younger generation has witnessed how real shifts are possible.
Over the past few weeks and months, I’m wondering if we are witnessing the beginning of a deeply significant shift, as more and more women are coming forward sharing their stories of sexual harassment, abuse, and rape. There’s something extraordinary happening in our wider culture that even as we have a president who has celebrated his own sexual predatory behavior and gotten away with saying the most misogynist things, many women are speaking up about their own experience, joining the #metoo movement, demonstrating just how pervasive are the violation and objectification of women’s bodies.
Two weeks ago, the speaker from the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee suggested that we are witnessing the last gasps of white male supremacy. I hope so, but these gasps come from not only decades but centuries of entitlement, oppression, and secrecy.
The reality of sexual abuse and sexual harassment has been a part of the shadow of civilized society for centuries. I pray that this cultural moment is a real turning point where victims of sexual predatory behavior can speak up and be taken seriously. For the problem of sexual predatory behavior is not limited to a few famous powerful people.
Ultimately I believe Audre Lorde has it right, “Your silence will not protect you.” Wherever you are holding secrets of who you are, whether it’s your sexual identity, your experience of being taken advantage of, wherever you are most vulnerable, that is from where real truth comes. Suppressing the truth due to fear means suppressing who we really are. Moving through our fears makes it possible to respond to where we are being called. Claiming who we are and bringing forth all who we are, then we can live into genuine abundance.
Audre Lorde was a self-described “black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet.” As she said forty years ago, “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Jose Antonio Vargas knows this. He travels throughout the country supporting others who share his undocumented status. When Central American children were being detained by the thousands in McAllen, Texas, he headed there to meet and support them and to bring more attention to their plight. But he was unaware that he was entering a militarized zone that would require him to pass through an immigration checkpoint to leave. There he met with undocumented people who were stuck in that area, who if they tried to leave, they would surely be deported. When he went through security to catch his plane, the immigration agents handcuffed him and detained him for hours. They released him with a statement that he has no criminal record.
When Donald Trump was elected a year ago, Jose Antonio received hundreds of text messages saying essentially, I’m so sorry. His grandmother urged him to go into hiding. His lawyers suggested he lie low, well all of his lawyers except Mony Ruiz-Velasco, the executive director of PASO here in the western suburbs. She told him, “we have your back.” So when Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the House of Representatives, called Jose Antonio to invite him to be her guest at President Trump’s first inaugural address, he accepted. Sitting literally in the heart of power of this nation, he never felt so American. He immediately wrote about this experience in the Washington Post. He said,
I decided to show up tonight because that’s what immigrants, undocumented and documented, do: We show up. Despite the obvious risks and palpable fear, we show up to work, to school, to church, to our communities, in big cities and rural towns. … We show up even though many Americans, especially white Americans with their own immigrant backgrounds, can’t seem to see the common threads between why we show up and why they showed up, at a time when showing up did not require visas and the Border Patrol didn’t yet exist.
I take great inspiration from gay, lesbian, and trans people like Audre Lorde and Jose Antonio Vargas who recognize that silence ultimately is submission, and that authentic power comes from using our strength in the service of our vision to lift up the worth and dignity of every individual. It’s time for a new conversation about how vulnerable people are treated.
What deep joy do you hold that is getting suppressed? What fears hold you back that you need to move through?
As we enter the Thanksgiving Season, may we be thankful for the many blessings we enjoy and may we use our blessings to lift up the worth and dignity of all people, thankful that we are a part of a community for whom this work is at the core of who we are.
This was taken largely from a sermon I gave at Unity Temple on November 12, 2017. The podcast can be listened to here.