Mountain View Voice

Opinion - July 1, 2011

My hometown hero

It's here. It's finally here, I thought to myself. Wall posts bombarded the Facebook profile with "thank yous" for his bravery and inspiration. My heart skipped a beat as I scrolled down the Facebook profile belonging to Jose Antonio Vargas, Mountain View High alum and renowned journalist. A link to "My Life as An Undocumented Immigrant" was posted, ready for my eyes to read.

Immediately, I linked the article via Facebook to the rest of my Oracle classmates. Vargas had publicly announced that he is an undocumented immigrant — stunning news. However, this was not the first time he had "come out" to a group of people. Unbeknownst to readers across the nation, this man had already revealed his secret six weeks ago to me and my fellow Oracle school newspaper students at his high school alma mater.

On May 11, my classmates scurried to their desks and chit-chatted away while awaiting Vargas' visit. Being a first-generation Filipino, I mentioned to my friends, "Guys, he's Filipino, all the more exciting!" From the moment he stepped into room 415 with his Starbucks and iPhone in tow, to the moment the bell rang, my journalism class remained captivated and attentive to the former Oracle editor-in-chief.

Vargas shared pieces of his resume. He led a thoughtful discussion on the ever-changing world of media and the future of journalism. We even touched on his memories at MVHS — mutual teachers and mutual lesson plans. "Wow, I'm getting old," he joked. He shared with us how he disclosed he was gay in history class. My God, I thought. This man is so admirable, so daring. I couldn't wait to hear more from him.

The forum progressed in the most thought-provoking fashion, to the extent that my prepared interview questions about his career became obsolete. Hands shot up, students commented, Vargas listened. His constant reflectiveness reinforced the natural flow of our conversation. The focus of our dialogue ultimately shifted to the central idea of his campaign: illegal immigration.

Vargas announced to my class he was creating a documentary on immigration, a topic I rarely bothered to examine.

"How can I make this documentary interesting?" he asked. My peers shared their ideas: Compare the life of an undocumented Latino with someone you would least expect to be an illegal. Touch on the history of immigration. Examine its sociological effects on hyphenated Americans. Find an illegal immigrant, share his story. Represent them. Become their voice. Within each of our pitches, I could feel Vargas soaking in all of our feedback.

My class hungered for conversation — the type Vargas advocates with Define American (his campaign that demands a "different conversation" about illegal immigration). We yearned for a better understanding of cultural identity, and defining what's American. We wanted solutions. We longed for possibilities.

Our suggestions turned into stories: I work with an undocumented worker. I go to school with undocumented students. I know a man who got a fake driver's license from Oregon. Suddenly, Vargas' demeanor shifted. I could see he was pensive, determined to find the right words to express something that seemingly churned in his gut.

Moments later, Vargas told us he had a secret to share — something we must keep confidential. Heads nodded across the classroom in agreement. He shared an anecdote, one that happened at the DMV when he was 16 years old. I could sense his apprehension. I could sense my enthralled peers. I could sense something so groundbreaking, so organic. Vargas came out: I am an undocumented immigrant.

An overpowering silence hovered over us. My eyes were locked on Vargas. His eyes watered — not from an impulsive decision, but from surprise, from reality. Vargas stroked his chin and shook his head in disbelief. Seconds passed. He asked, "Someone, say something."

I am the type of person who needs to think of every single word she says before saying it; afraid to sound stupid, afraid to misrepresent myself, afraid of embarrassment. Not this time. I raised my hand. Vargas called on me. "You're my hero," I said. I rambled in gratitude, thanking him for his inspiration, beauty, and courage.

After he explained he planned on publicizing his legal status in the summer, my class discussed the possibilities. Inevitably, we predicted an ominous response. Nevertheless, this foreboding helped me clearly realize the bigger picture: Jose Antonio Vargas would mark history. To him, he is simply executing an obligation to the people whose shoes he walks in. To me, he's made illegal immigration so real, so relevant. To me, he's the voice for those who cannot speak up for themselves.

We all face the moment when we want to prove ourselves to the world. We've heard the mantras: be a first rate version of yourself, stay true to your heart. Not only has Vargas been able to accomplish this, he has shed a new light on immigration in our nation. He is revolutionary. He is my hometown hero.

As I try to clearly remember the most epic Schedule B day of my life, I contemplate Vargas' revelation at MVHS and his recent admission on the New York Times. I am so honored to have had the "inside scoop." Granted, it was unplanned and completely unexpected. But, it was not a careless move.

MVHS is where Vargas was true to himself. Here, he came out about his sexual orientation. Here, he explained to the choir director he didn't have the right papers to leave the country for competition. Here, he fostered his passion for journalism. Here, he shared his most intimate secret with teenage journalists. Here, district officials made school a home, a safe place. Here is where Vargas returns to give back to my community. It is here, where I discovered that I'm proud to be a Mountain View student, a Filipino-American, and editor for the Oracle.

Katherine Pantangco is a student at Mountain View High School and editor of the school newspaper.

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