Six years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas came out as undocumented in the New York Times Magazine. The decision, he said, “blew up” his life, but in a good way.
In the years since, whether it was through his Documented documentary, which tells his story of immigrating to the United States from the Philippines as a child, or his TIME magazine cover story featuring the faces of 30 undocumented young people, the former Washington Post reporter has continued to push the envelope, forcing a more nuanced conversation about immigration. This runs counter to a media landscape—and political climate—that often boils down the highly complex issue into narratives of “good” and “bad” immigrants.
Vargas also went on to found Define American, a nonprofit media and culture organization that uses storytelling to spark larger conversations about immigrants, identity, and citizenship. The organization does everything from consulting with entertainment industry executives for more realistic portrayals of immigrants to creating and producing its own documentary films, including Vargas’ controversial MTV documentary, titled White People. The documentary explores what young, white people think about being white through a series of interviews led by Vargas.
The journalist and filmmaker’s current focus, however, is the Define American Film Festival, which will take place in Charlotte, North Carolina, from May 11-13. In a phone interview last week, Vargas spoke to Rewire about the importance of storytelling, why the film festival is happening in North Carolina, and what he’s learned about himself since “coming out” as undocumented.
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Rewire: Let’s talk about Define American first. Tell me about the organization. What makes it special?
Jose Antonio Vargas: First off, it was founded by me and I’m the CEO. I can’t think of another undocumented CEO. Right before I got on the phone with you, we had a staff call and [poet] Yosimar Reyes went from arts fellow to our artist in residence. I’d be hard-pressed to think of another organization in which a queer, undocumented person is the artist in residence.
Yosimar really speaks to the core of our mission, which is how do we use storytelling to humanize immigration, which has become this really politicized issue? How do we shine a light on the complexity of this issue? That’s part of the reason I’m really proud of the Define American Film Festival. It accomplishes both of those things.
Rewire: You’ve been getting a lot of questions about the location of the film festival, so I have to ask: Why North Carolina?
JAV: I get it, I get why it seems weird. We’re taking a film festival that is essentially about immigration to North Carolina—a state that Trump won. Film festivals are usually in “progressive” states, like California or New York. Our film festival will always be in a different state, but in an area where this is a rapidly growing or emerging immigrant population. So, you’re never going to see us in New York City or Los Angeles.
This is only our second festival, but the first one was in Des Moines, Iowa, right before the Iowa caucuses.
I think of the film festival as an act of cultural intervention. You don’t hear [President Donald] Trump talking about other people the way he talks about immigrants. At a time when Trump is criminalizing immigration across the board and using “illegal” as the ultimate way to “other” people, to have this in North Carolina is a cultural intervention for us. It is liberating for us, as undocumented people, to tell these stories and insist on the complexity of this issue, to make people understand the complexity of this issue.
Immigration organizers in Des Moines told us that after last year, the film festival served as a sort of turning point for the way they organized because they had all of these new eyes and ears. So many people who wouldn’t be in the same room otherwise are in the same room [at the film festival] and they’re learning about immigration in a new, human way while sitting next to people these policies impact. There is real power in that.
Rewire: Do you think people attending the film festival will already largely agree with the films’ messaging? If not, how do you hope to challenge them on any pre-conceived notions with which they may be walking in?
JAV: We have assumptions about who the choir is when we say “preaching to the choir.” When we get off the phone, I have to prepare for a Fox News interview with Tucker Carlson, which is stressful to me, but that’s what has really changed for me after this election. Before this election, I thought I knew who the choir was. Now, I don’t pretend to know, but I take every chance I can to dispel the information Trump puts out on a daily basis, no matter how uncomfortable that can make me.
The level of misinformation and ignorance on this issue is astounding—and it’s the one issue Trump won the presidency on. I really believe that. He didn’t accidentally pick immigration as a central tenet. He started this a long time ago by questioning our president’s citizenship and then questioning who should be allowed citizenship and conflating simply being Mexican with being “bad” or being “illegal.”
But even for folks attending the film festival who have some knowledge, there are a lot of connections [about immigrants] that need to be made. For example, many don’t make any connection between the immigrant rights movement and the LGBTQ movement, but there are a lot of us living at this intersection. When thinking of Charlotte, we knew we wanted to include a film about undocumented trans Latinas, but we couldn’t find one—so we made one. We sent a production crew to Durham for a short documentary on trans Latinas and the small community they formed. For a lot of people in the audience, this might be the first time they connect the dots that not only are there trans Latina immigrants, but trans Latina immigrants who are also undocumented.
Rewire: In the lineup for panels, I also noticed that you’re having some amazing women of color in media featured, but not folks usually associated with immigration, like Melissa Harris-Perry, April Reign, and Lorraine Ali. Tell me more about this.
JAV: Everyone talks about intersectionality, but what does that look like on the ground, in organizing, on panels, or in media? What does it look like in practice? We’re showing a film I made called White People, so the goal is to talk about race broadly. “People of color” is a convenient umbrella term, but [the people within this umbrella] also experience things related to race differently and, of course, there are other facets of our identity, like being undocumented, which complicate these experiences and discussions. So [the film festival] is about immigration, but it’s also about making all of these connections between different groups of people, how they impact each other, and how these identities and experiences intersect. Much like the location, the panels were intentional too. We wanted to include panelists that speak to the depth and breadth of these issues. Far too often if we have immigration anything, it becomes a Latino or Latinx event. It’s important to me that we broaden our focus and expand these conversations.
Rewire: So much of what Define American does is storytelling, and this film festival is another example of that. What about storytelling can be effective in terms of affecting cultural change?
JAV: I can’t say this enough: At a time like this, in which everything is polarizing and everything seems partisan, whether it’s coming from the left or the right or it’s being discussed in terms of undocumented or illegal or lawful or unlawful, stories serve as light. This organization was founded on one immigrant’s story.
Many people thought—or maybe continue to think—that I would fall into the good immigrant/high-skilled immigrant/model minority kind of prism. I intentionally don’t do that. For us, storytelling is the anchor that really grounds our work and what we do and how we humanize complex, often misunderstood subjects.
And when I say “stories,” I mean stories in all of the ways we consume them. Not just news, but entertainment stories too. As a gay man, I think of the revolution that Ellen Degeneres kicked off. I was in high school when she came out on her sitcom and for me, personally, that was a huge shift. When Define American put 30 undocumented people on the cover of TIME magazine, I was thinking of Ellen Degeneres. There was a BuzzFeed article recently, and one of the producers of the show Superstore credited us because we consulted with them on a storyline about someone who was undocumented. The guy who plays that role, Nico Santos, will be on the last panel about how immigrants are discussed in Hollywood and popular culture. Storytelling for us is not only advocating for change, but also doing it for ourselves and shaping the narrative and making sure that stories like ours are reflected too. Our work, and this film festival, is about advocating, curating, and creating these conversations and stories.
Rewire: I’ve been following you and your work since you came out as undocumented journalist in New York Times Magazine. What have you learned about yourself since you publicly shared your story?
JAV: I’ll start by saying that thankfully, I made the decision to do that when I was 30 and at that point in my life, I had a clear idea about who I am and what I do. I tell stories. Every day of these past six years has truly felt like a blessing. I’ve been able to start this organization. I get to make documentaries; I get to tell stories. But there’s the external journey that people see and the internal journey that no one but me sees, and the internal journey has been harder.
I’ve done an effective job of staying focused, and some days it’s harder than others, but I have largely been successful in giving myself permission to exist as a creative entrepreneur. The hardest part is the part that I actually anticipated, but it hasn’t made it less hard: the chaos and noise and vitriol. I’m an upbeat guy and can usually filter things out, but there are days that are really depressing. Days where I am emotionally exhausted—just spent. On those days, I remind myself that this is a marathon and that I am blessed to be doing this work and to know my purpose in life. I’m very clear about what my purpose is, and I’ve been clear on that for a long time.
I’ve learned that I’m stronger than I thought I was, and I’m only just starting to flex my creative muscles. What I’ve also learned is that I didn’t know I could find such purpose from such gratitude. That was a thing I really had to come to grips with. Around this time six years ago, I was weighing all of my options, trying to decide if it was really worth it to come out. Many times I just thought of self-deporting and writing a book from outside this country that doesn’t want me. I literally consulted with 27 lawyers. I was reporting on myself, coming up with all of these questions that were more important than the answers. I kept coming back to how grateful I am to be here—here in the United States that had made me feel unwanted. That gratitude I felt for the possibilities this country offered me, came with a greater sense of purpose for me.
I want Define American’s work to continue going deeper, to dig and dig and get to the root of these hard conversations. Knowing that the film festival is happening in North Carolina energizes me. I want to see undocumented North Carolinians enter the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture [where the film festival is being held] in a state that voted for Trump and know they are welcome there. I cannot wait to see them and welcome them, and thank them for coming.