Celebrated journalist Jose Antonio Vargas returned to his roots for a thought-provoking talk in Mountain View last week on his personal search for identity.
Vargas, a product of the local school system, was the keynote speaker for the 32nd annual Champions for Youth Breakfast. The annual breakfast, held May 1 at Michaels at Shoreline restaurant, is a fundraiser for the Mountain View-Los Altos Challenge Team, a consortium of local law enforcement, schools and city leaders dedicated to helping youth.
Vargas, a 2000 Mountain View High School graduate, offered gratitude to his alma mater, as well as local school leaders who recognized the teen’s talent and supported him in his quest to attend San Francisco State University.
Vargas has enjoyed a high-profile journalism career that included work at the Washington Post, the New Yorker and Rolling Stone.
He won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Virginia Tech massacre, enjoyed success as a filmmaker and television producer, and produced a Broadway play (“What the Constitution Means to Me”) that has been nominated for a Tony Award. He also authored a 2018 memoir, “Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen.”
Vargas focused the bulk of his talk on the process of writing “Dear America.” For all of his career success, he has been haunted by his undocumented status – a designation he said has left him either “lying,” “passing” or “hiding” at various times in his life.
He recalled traveling to Oregon and establishing a fake residency in Portland to obtain a driver’s license.
“I would not have had a career in journalism, the Pulitzer would not have happened, working at Rolling Stone, the New Yorker, none of that would have happened if I didn’t have a driver’s license,” Vargas said. “I’m sad to report the state of Oregon has now rescinded (licenses for undocumented workers). The same Oregon that made marijuana legal in 2014 is the same state that took away the right to drive for people like me.”
As a gay man, Vargas observed how “so much of our lives is, ‘How straight can we appear?’ to not be a threat.”
Vargas said writing the book allowed him to dig deeply into his psyche, and redefine his own sense of belonging in the process. The epiphany transformed his position from simply accepting deportation to fighting it.
“Every policy proposal (says) immigrants should earn our citizenship,” he said. “Home is actually not something I should have to earn. My humanity is not a box I have to check. I would argue that home is the people we surround ourselves with. We have to look at our local communities, our cities … to determine who belongs. Ever since I was a kid, (Mountain View) was a place that is always welcoming and makes me feel like I belong.”
‘Champions for Youth’
The Challenge Team named James Guevarra and Kayley Gould as the respective 2019 adult and youth “Champions for Youth.”
Guevarra, introduced by Mountain View Police Chief Max Bosel, was recognized for his work as the department’s school resource officer. Bosel said Guevarra did additional volunteering in a police activities league boxing program.
Gould, a senior at Los Altos High School, is a high-achieving scholar athlete who serves as captain of the school’s varsity water polo team that won a CCS championship last year.
“But that’s not why she’s here,” said award presenter Jeff Harding, superintendent of the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District. “She’s here because she demonstrates a strength of character not seen in most teens, or most adults, for that matter.”
Harding praised the passion and “grit” that have informed Gould’s volunteer work – she’s helped fifth- and sixth-grade girls gain confidence in their school work and worked with kids with autism and Down syndrome.
Gould plans to attend Stanford University in the fall, studying psychology and education.
Vargas in conversation
Vargas is scheduled to appear in conversation with Michael Jones 6:30 p.m. Monday at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
Jones, principal of Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School, set to open in Mountain View in August, will interview Vargas and conduct a question-and-answer session.
Admission is free and open to all. Doors will open at 6 p.m. Vargas’ memoir will be available for purchase and signing in the lobby.
The presentation is co-sponsored by the nonprofit Friends of the Mountain View Library and the Mountain View Public Library.
For more information on the Challenge Team, visit challengeteam.org.