Jose Antonio Vargas attempts to define relationship with his mother

Jose at about 2 months with parents Emelie Salinas and Joselito Vargas (now deceased). Photo: TIME Magazine/ JA Vargas Family Album

Jose at about 2 months with parents Emelie Salinas and Joselito Vargas (now deceased). Photo: TIME Magazine/ JA Vargas Family Album

Here’s a teaser of Jose’s film “Documented.”

By Cristina DC Pastor

“I haven’t seen my mom in 20 years. I don’t know how to talk about that. It’s too painful to talk about her.”

In a free-wheeling discussion with Filipino journalists in April, Jose Antonio Vargas spoke about the woman who gave him up so he could live a better life in the United States. It wasn’t easy. He would look away, his eyes turned evasive as if trying to hold back the overwhelming emotion.

It’s been 20 years since the Pulitzer Award-winning journalist and founder of Define American last saw his mother, Emelie Salinas. In August of 1993, he recalled how his mother put him on a plane to America in the company of a stranger he thought was an uncle. Her plan was for him to live with his grandparents in California, and she would him eventually. He was 12 years old.

Mother and son barely spoke to each other in the years he was growing up. He was preoccupied with school, perhaps, as well as the gnawing anxiety about his immigration status. His mother said Jose harbored a resentment because she could not join him in America.

When he became a “Washington Post” reporter in 2004, Jose reached out to his mother. When he decided seven years later to out himself as an undocumented alien, the communication became more frequent.

“We could not understand ,” Emelie said in an interview with AP. “He was already there, he already achieved his dream, what else did he want (to do by coming out)?”

It may have been difficult at first to understand how one who was already a top reporter for a major American newspaper, for whom the American Dream has become reality, was seeking something intangible. When it became apparent what Jose stood for and how he found his true self by coming out, Emelie’s support moved from half-hearted to consummate.

“We’re OK now,” said Jose at the Kapihan forum organized by the Filipino American Press Club in April. “We’re in touch, we talk, we’re on Facebook. We Skyped finally.”

I asked how his mother was.

“I don’t know,” he replied, then gave out a short, sardonic laugh.

His gaze shifted once again around the room, his brows narrowing. Seated next to him, I may have seen the signs of tears welling in his eyes. He fell silent if only for a few seconds. Jose is never one to shy away from any topic no matter how painful or complicated.

“People don’t know this,” he continued.

“My grandfather was a legal permanent resident. He couldn’t petition my mom because she was already married. So my grandfather decided to unfortunately lie and said that she was single. And then worried that it might impact my uncle’s petition, he took it away. By the time she was going apply for a tourist visa, it’s found. She couldn’t come here and I couldn’t go there,” Jose acknowledged, the resentment his mother has long felt easing over the years.

Jose’s father whom he saw all of five times in his life, died of cancer in 2007. Father and son bear a striking resemblance.

“He left my mom when I was 2 years old. But I have his name: Joselito Vargas,” he said proudly. Jose has two other siblings: Czarina, 21, and a younger brother Carl whom he has not seen physically, he said in a TIME Magazine article.

Jose said his mother made the ultimate “sacrifice” of sending him away to ensure his future, but he was “too naïve, too immature” to realize that when he was younger. He reiterated how much he yearned to meet his mother and how grateful he is to have been raised well.

“Thankfully, my mother and my grandparents raised me well. Meron akong asin (literally: I have salt), which means I have manners. I’m really grateful for that.”

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