Mountain View Voice

News - January 31, 2014

Immigrant activist gives back to young scholars

Jose Vargas screens documentary to raise money for scholarship fund

By Nick Veronin

Monday's screening of Jose Antonio Vargas' new film was not the first, but it may have been the most significant for the journalist and immigrant rights advocate who calls Mountain View home.

Unlike previous screenings, this showing of "Documented" was a scholarship fundraiser held at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts — in the heart of the city where Vargas grew up, fell in love with journalism and discovered he had been smuggled into the United States illegally. It's the place where he found the strength and the support network to beat the odds.

"Everything that I am is indebted to this community," he told the near-capacity crowd during a brief introduction to the documentary on Monday, Jan. 27.

After the presentation, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist took time to personally thank several members of the audience for their role in helping him on his journey. He had kind words for his old choir teacher and debate coach from Mountain View High School, his grandmother and especially the group of high school district administrators and local benefactors who made him the first recipient of a scholarship through the Mountain View-Los Altos Community Scholars program.

The screening was organized as a fundraiser for the Community Scholars. Since sending Vargas to San Francisco State University in 2000, the program has provided scholarships for more than 225 local students. The program is currently sponsoring 75 graduates from the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District — the majority of them first-generation college students.

The organization is 100-percent volunteer-run. All of the proceeds from Monday's event will go directly toward student scholarships, a representative said.

"Documented" follows Vargas from the moment he decides to "come out" about his status as an "American without papers" in an essay in the New York Times Magazine. The cameras trail him as he gives speeches, talks to supporters and opponents of immigration reform, and as he grows to become one of the most recognizable faces of the immigration reform debate.

All the while, the film also tells Vargas' back story: how at age 12 he was sneaked into America by his grandfather in 1993, how he discovered at the age of 16 that his Green Card was fake when he attempted to apply for a driver's license, how he found allies along the way that helped him pursue his goals of a higher education and a career in journalism, and how he became estranged from his mother — who has remained in the Philippines and has not been in the same room with her son for more than two decades.

After the credits, Vargas returned to the stage and told the audience that the film they just watched was not the film he originally set out to make. He did not intend to make a film about his personal life and struggles. He hadn't intended to include his family in the documentary at all, he said.

But, he went on, "In some ways, this is the film I needed to make." Later, he added, "My goal from the beginning was to show what a broken immigration system does. And this is what it does."

Vargas said he lives every day unsure of what is coming next. He has wondered if he will be deported. He has worried that the people who have helped him along the way — the people who have lied for him — will get into trouble.

By documenting his personal struggle, Vargas said he hoped he could get people on opposite sides of this debate talking to each other in a meaningful way — something he says is all too rare these days, thanks in large part to a media that highlights polemic arguments rather than seeking out nuanced discourse. "We're not talking to each other," he told the crowd after the film screened. "We're talking at each other."

That needs to change, Vargas said, and he thinks it can. But first, people on both sides of the debate need to be willing to listen to one another, just like he listened to a rather drunk man he encountered in Birmingham.

The exchange, captured on film in "Documented," begins with the man, who remains unidentified, interrupting an interview between Vargas and an immigration rights activist. The man tells Vargas' interviewee to "shut up," before proceeding to say that all illegal immigrants need to leave the country.

Instead of stopping the cameras and moving away from the man, who seems a bit menacing, Vargas engages him. Without condescending, Vargas tells the man that he had no choice when his mother put him in a cab and sent him off to the airport to fly to America. He explains that there is no real process for the 11 million estimated undocumented men and women living in the U.S. to start working toward citizenship.

Perhaps most importantly, Vargas lets the man speak. And though clearly intoxicated, the man articulates a point that Vargas said he sympathizes with: that undocumented workers undercut citizen construction contractors when they are willing to work for far cheaper wages.

"That's a perfectly valid point, and we need to recognize that," Vargas told the audience — the same audience who had mostly chortled at the drunken man with the southern drawl during screening.

At a pre-screening event held at the home of Community Scholars supporter Nancy Nesmith in Los Altos, Vargas said he has plans to hold an event hosted by a chapter of the Tea Party. A murmur rippled through the small crowd.

One woman wondered aloud at how he would be able to talk to a group that would likely be hostile to his views.

But Vargas said he was not worried. In fact, he seemed to relish the idea of the Tea Party event. "Journalism taught me empathy," he said, explaining that it has helped him see past the differences he has with people and instead try to understand why someone feels a certain way.

He said he believes that being able to have real conversations with the opposition is the only way any true compromise will ever be reached.

Email Nick Veronin at nveronin@mv-voice.com

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