Jose Antonio Vargas: ‘If you think I’m not Filipino that’s your problem, that’s not my problem’

As Filipino as Imelda Marcos and Manny Pacquiao. The FilAm photos

As Filipino as Imelda Marcos and Manny Pacquiao. The FilAm photos

By Cristina DC Pastor

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented immigrant Jose Antonio Vargas did not enter the Pan de Sal bake shop for the March 29 Kapihan forum of the Filipino American Press Club of New York. He bounced into it.

A cup of coffee in one hand and two thin books under his arm, he greeted the press club members with: “You guys doing anything about Carlos Bulosan?” Sounding almost professorial, he said the great Filipino immigrant novelist is celebrating his 100th birthday in November, seeming to suggest how shameful it would be for the community to just let the year pass without celebrating Bulosan’s accomplishments as a literary writer.

Jose’s was a presence that parted a room and moved people to stand and applaud. “Please don’t clap,” he brushed aside the faint applause. His body moved side to side as his head scanned the tiny room filling up with people. By this time, a line of greeters had formed in front to shake his hand or just wish him the best in his campaign. He was always within range of an iPhone ready to click.

This man is boyishly handsome, always smiling in a shy way or laughing loudly usually at himself. He is a walking punch line, self-deprecatingly funny (“At the airport, someone threw me a muffin”). He avoided long eye contact and was constantly looking over, surveying the room, his head in perpetual motion.

In this no-holds barred two-hour Kapihan forum, Jose answered all questions — including his personal relationship (“I never had a long-term relationship, been too busy”), his absentee father (“Saw him five times in my life”), his plans for the future, the risks he took when he came out as an undocumented immigrant, and what makes him really angry.

Here are excerpts from the forum in two installments:

On his citizenship case: No, there’s no active case. I made a very deliberate decision and a lot of people don’t agree with me including my own family. It’s not like I filed for give me citizenship. My lola wants me to do that. But I’m not going to do that because it’s not fair. I probably could have, maybe fix it quietly, but it felt cowardly.

On being a celebrity: A lot of Filipinos recognize me at airports. Chicago’s O’Hare is the friendliest. Uy ikaw yung TNT ano? The TSA agent recognizes me, the cabin at JFK maybe three or four times. One time in Miami I think one of the captains took a picture with me. He’s Cuban. A woman at JFK said to me, I know who you are. She said her brother-in-law, a Jamaican, doesn’t have papers either.

On what kind of immigration law he would like to Congress to pass: Everything we’re talking about as far as this conversation is going is earned citizenship. It’s not blanket amnesty as in ah, you’re here we’ll give you citizenship. This is not 1986, we’re in 2013.

Undocumented people like me paid billions of dollars in taxes, we are the core of the economy of this country. Want me to speak English? Done. Want me to get in the back of the line so we’re not bumping off everybody who’s been waiting for years? It’s earned citizenship. That’s my position. Many people show every day that they’re American by what they contribute to this country. How do we make sure we have a bill that’s as inclusive and as humane as possible.

On what he has risked by coming out. A lot. I miss being private.

On being more closely identified with Latinos than Filipinos. I really am grateful that my name is Jose Antonio Vargas. I could have been named something like…I have family members whose last name is Batuyong. That’s very Filipino. But my name is very Hispanic, Latino. The Filipino community was like is he not proud of being Filipino? I got a lot of that. I am adobo- cooking, TFC-watching, Sharon Cuneta-Vilma Santos listening (Filipino). I’m as Filipino as they come. I speak Tagalog fluently. I understand Sambal, which is the dialect of Zambales where my grandparents come from. So if you think I’m not Filipino that’s your problem. That’s not my problem.

On why he has not been deported yet. I have no idea what prevents ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) or DHS (Department of Homeland Security) from deporting me. I have to be prepared from day one. There is this rightful fear that I represent this model minority model undocumented person. I have to speak up given the privilege that I have.

On his appearance before a February 14th Senate hearing on immigration: My lola was sitting right behind me. I think that’s why I got so nervous. My uncle Conrad who was retired from the Navy, came dressed in his uniform. I thought about my lolo who died in 2007. There were a couple of times I thought about him that I started breaking when I was speaking and I said, OK you can’t cry.

To be continued.

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