By Nick Veronin
Jose Antonio Vargas is preparing to make his directorial debut. The Mountain View High School alumnus, former Voice intern and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist will screen his new film, "Documented," in Washington D.C. this week.
Vargas — who famously "came out" in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, revealing his family brought him into the United States illegally when he was just 12 — has been putting the finishing touches on his documentary, which is scheduled to premier June 20 as a part of the American Film Institute's annual AFI Docs festival.
"Documented" follows Vargas over the course of 2011 and 2012, as he tours the country and talks about immigration with people of various backgrounds and political views. According to an AFI press release, the film is framed by "Vargas' personal story." A copy of the film was not available for review prior to publication, but a trailer for the documentary makes it clear that there are two sides to Vargas' identity as "one of the country's most prominent undocumented immigrants."
The trailer shows Vargas giving interviews on cable news, crashing a Mitt Romney rally with a sign reading "I am an American w/o papers" and addressing a Congressional panel. It also shows clips of Vargas' mother — who lives in the Philippines and hasn't seen her son in 20 years — struggling to hold back tears and Vargas sobbing violently.
"The premier is the culmination of a significant emotional investment," said Pat Hyland, who served as principal at MVHS during Vargas' time at the school and has remained close to Vargas over the years.
Hyland, who told the Voice she would be at the AFI Docs festival to see "Documented," said she knows the filming of the documentary has taken a toll on Vargas. "It's a tough conversation," she said. "It's a must-have conversation." She said she is confident that Vargas is committed to doing as much as he can to make sure that the conversation takes place.
"I'm proud of him," Hyland said.
Barry Groves, superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, was not working for the district when Vargas discovered he had a fake green card. Groves said Vargas' story resonates with him just the same.
"I'm very much in favor of Jose's efforts," Groves said. The superintendent said he isn't sure of the exact numbers, as MVLA's programs are "blind to documentation status." But, Groves said he is sure there are students in his district who are currently dealing with the same challenges. "We have many Jose Vargases in our school system right now."
While MVLA has not taken an official stance on the issue, Groves said he is personally in favor of supporting students like Vargas any way he can. Students who are living in the U.S. illegally have come to this country "through no fault of their own," Groves said.
Groves said he is proud his district was able to give Vargas the support he needed to make it to college and succeed as a journalist. Vargas received assistance from the MVLA Community Scholars program, which helped him to attend San Francisco State University.
The MVLA Community Scholars program has only grown since it helped Vargas, Groves said, and the program will continue to help students regardless of their backgrounds. "I think we have a moral obligation to these people — particularly the younger people."
Of course, not everyone sees things the same way. During a talk at Los Altos High School's Eagle Theatre back in November of 2012, Vargas discussed meeting people who were openly hostile toward him while he was making his documentary. They told him he did not belong here, that he should go home — back where he came from.
But that's the problem, according to Vargas. For him home is not where he came from. America is his home and he can't imagine living anywhere else.
Katherine Pantangco was among the very first to learn Vargas' secret. Before the New York Times Magazine ran his essay, "My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant," Vargas visited the Oracle, Mountain View High School's student newspaper and told Pantangco — then a junior — and her classmates about his intention to publicly disclose his status.
That was back in 2011. Now, with Pantangco attending Vargas' alma mater, San Francisco State, she said she is excited to see the finished documentary. "It's kind of coming together now," said Pantangco, who plans to be at the D.C. premier.
Since Vargas first visited the Oracle, Pantangco, who is also Filipino, said she has become a part of the journalist's "Mountain View family." And while she is an American citizen, she said she knows people who have faced the same struggles Vargas has.
She hopes that the documentary will help bring a human face to the immigration debate. "We can read about immigration in the newspaper, but when we see this story, just focusing on one family, that will help humanize it," she said.
Pantangco said she feels the those who view immigrants as the enemy might change their mind if they were able to see how families are torn apart as a result of current immigration law. "We forget it's about people," she said.