Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and activist who can add filmmaker to the list now with the documentary Documented.
Raised in the United States from the age of 12 after immigrating from the Philippines, Vargas has made a life entirely on his own. He's written for The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.
In 2011, the already openly gay man came out as an undocumented immigrant in New York Times Magazine. The Obama administration halted the deportation of immigrants with the passing of the DREAM Act but Vargas did not qualify due to his age.
Windy City Times met with the filmmaker after a recent Chicago screening of Documented to learn more about his current struggles.
Windy City Times: Hi, Jose. When did you first discover you were good at writing?
Jose Antonio Vargas: My freshman year in high school was the first time I read a book that sounded like me, The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros. The story was based in Chicago [and is] about a Mexican-American growing up.
I never really thought I would be a writer. I loved film. I was going to be a theater major in college and direct, not act. I was obsessed with [director] Mike Nichols growing up.
When I found out that I was undocumented, I wound up doing journalism. I thought if I didn't have the right kind of papers then what if I am in the newspaper? I was 17 and wanted to write my way into America! I did that for 13 years.
I made a list of what I thought success was about, such as writing for The New Yorker or winning a big prize. To my surprise I ended up doing all of them. After making good money, then I was able to live in Manhattan, where I had always wanted live since watching Woody Allen movies as a kid
I was miserable. I think my depression started after my Mark Zuckerberg profile ran in The New Yorker. I remember thinking something had to stop. No one was threatening to out me. I could have just kept going. This is why the closet is such an interesting parallel.
To this day, journalism is the hardest thing to do because I never feel like I have enough words. I feel like when I am writing something I have to wrestle with myself. I made a life out of it but it's something I loathe to do. It's so challenging for me.
WCT: So the filmmaking must be a different avenue for you.
Jose Antonio Vargas: This is more natural for me, although I did underestimate how difficult it is to write voice over narration for film. I had to write those narrations to make them as simple and economical as possible.
WCT: Do you have a favorite piece you have written?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Zuckerberg was hard because I had six weeks with the profile. People usually take months to write one article for them.
I did an HIV series for a year. The first film I made was on the AIDS crisis in Washington DC. I was really proud of that. People didn't know that Washington DC had the highest new cases of AIDS in the country. The title of the film was The Other City.
The AIDS epidemic is the intersection of so many things that we don't want to talk about in society with drugs, sex, and race. Those three things are so taboo. I wound up working on the story for a year.
WCT: You have stated that coming out undocumented was a bigger deal than coming out as being gay. Can you explain that?
Jose Antonio Vargas: That is because of where I am from. If I had grown up in Kentucky I don't know if it would have been that easy. I might have been in the closet about both things for many years.
When I found out that I was an illegal faggot at sixteen years old I made the decision that I was going to be so successful that no one could stop me or break me. Isn't that the most delusional thing you have ever heard? I never took a break. My career went so fast. The past year has been looking back at it. I never really saw myself until I saw the film. I don't like looking at myself in the mirror, which is ironic because I am all over the paper. It is coming to term with who I am. Guess what? This country made me who I am. I don't make sense without my mom. None of us do.
WCT: This film must be therapeutic.
Jose Antonio Vargas: Incredibly. It is cathartic. If it provides a way for people to face their own lives then we did the job.
WCT: With same-sex marriage being legal in some states, this doesn't solve your problem?
Jose Antonio Vargas: I'm 33 so this might be the time to date. I never really did that. I always would run away from people. When The New York Times essay came out three years ago I heard from people in my past who wanted to know why I didn't tell them. I couldn't because once I told them they would be a part of it. Once you tell someone then you make them an accessory.
When I told Peter Perl, my editor at The Washington Post, I felt so guilty that I lied to him and now I was dragging him into this thing. You should read all of the articles that came out because he got reprimanded. I was afraid that he would be fired.
They say you can't expect people to love you until you love yourself. It sounds corny and trite but I believe that. It would have been unfair to be in a relationship when I can barely make sense of myself.
WCT: Where did the age 30 come from as the age cutoff for the DREAM Act?
Jose Antonio Vargas: Random. It was introduced by Dick Durbin, a senator from Illinois, in August 2001; then, 9/11 happened a month later and [the measure] was not passed. When it was first introduced, it was 21 and younger. As the years went by it became 25 and older. It was 23, 25, 28, 30, 31, 33, back to 30. How did they pick the number? We don't know! Is there a magician out there that thinks how many people we can screw today?
WCT: What do you want people to do now?
Jose Antonio Vargas: We are fighting for more than immigration reform. We are fighting for the dignity of people and liberation. More than anything Define American is trying to change media and culture. Again, LGBT rights would not have happened without culture shifting.
When we were shooting the Time cover the whole time I was thinking, "Man, I wish Ellen was here." I remember buying Time Magazine when she was on the cover. I put it in my bedroom because I was still in the closet. That moment and Matthew Shepard made me feel I need to come out. My fantasy was that Ellen Degeneres would have been in that room. We are coming out to let people in.
I am for immigration reform but also something bigger than that, changing hearts and minds. It is about figuring out a country that is so dramatically demographically changed. That is why we call it Define American. I want people to check out the website and my film.
Documented airs on CNN on June 29 and airs again July 5, with Netflix availability directly after.
Visit www.defineamerican.com to learn more today.
See earlier coverage at the link: www.windycitymediagroup.com/lgbt/Jose-Antonio-Vargas-visits-Siskel-Center/47860.html .