A Mother’s Day love story from Jose Antonio Vargas

'I’m not doing any more of this personal story; it’s hard for me to watch my own life.'

‘I’m not doing any more of this personal story; it’s hard for me to watch my own life.’

By Cecile Caguingin Ochoa

Noting that the ending to the documentary he created, directed and produced hasn’t been written, Jose Antonio Vargas, the most famous “American with no papers” of our time, had this whimsical thought: “One day, I will be in back in a beach in Zambales, where I grew up, meeting Mama, holding her close and my siblings and friends will be frolicking by the waters.”

A rousing applause from some 300 viewers met the pre-screening of Vargas’ “Documented” Wednesday May 7, aptly presented at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum of Tolerance in West L.A. (In 1937, the Philippines welcomed to the country more than 1,300 Jewish people fleeing the Holocaust. Then President Manuel Quezon opened the Philippines without any question or paper required to the persecuted people).

Earlier on Tuesday May 6, Vargas’ audience of some 200 workers and caregivers outside of American Apparel factory in downtown L.A. embraced him as champion of their plight as undocumented Americans.

Influential Asian American film executive Janet Yang, executive producer of the groundbreaking film “The Joy Luck Club,” said she’s seen the film about 50 times and never got tired of watching this “love story.”

Asked about a sequel, Vargas told his audience, “I’m not doing any more of this personal story; it’s hard for me to watch my own life. My family – my lola, my mom, were at first not pleased at how we filmed around them. My lola in unglamorous rollers on her hair — she didn’t expect that.”

The film opened with a scene of an impoverished area in the industrial side of Pasig (as he divulged to TheFilamLA) where he spent his boyhood living with his grandparents. Vargas was “smuggled” to America to join his grandparents, both legal residents in California, when he was 12.

Vargas lived his teen life oblivious that he didn’t have the necessary immigration papers. It was at age 16, while applying for a driver’s license when he discovered his social security number was fake. He confronted his grandparents who confessed that they just wanted to give him a better life and out of the poverty in the Philippines.

From then, he lived a secret life but optimized his extracurricular activities in school. “He almost made the school his home,” said one of his former mentors from Mountain View High School in Northern California.

This turn of events, however, opened his eyes to the humane aspect of the immigration debate. He turned to journalism and avidly wrote hundreds of articles for the Washington Post, the Huffington Post and other publications. As a reporter for the Washington Post, he earned his Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper’s coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre in 2008.

“I was writing my way to be accepted in America,” he said, looking back. Ironically, his reality also alienated him from his mother whom he decided to disconnect with for many years.

“It’s only later on after I met young DREAMers that I realized my mom gave up being with her son to give me a better life abroad. That’s the greatest sacrifice a parent could do for her child,” he told a sympathetic audience many of whom were grabbing tissues and napkins and holding down their sobs. “I have since accepted her to be a ‘friend’ on Facebook,” addressing a funny but poignant scene in the film where his mother soliloquizes about being rejected by her son to be part of his social media group.

Tired and scared of “running,” Vargas wrote a ground-breaking New York Times’ Essay, “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant.” TIME magazine run a cover story on Vargas and 30 other undocumented Americans on June 2012.

In November 2013, CNN acquired the U.S. broadcasting rights to “Documented,” billed to show to the American public this summer.

L.A.’s reaction to the film was almost unanimous.

“I hope this poetic and stirring movie helps to breathe new life into our community and create deeper awareness in our country,” said Rachel Cometa Estuar, a PTA president. One critical comment heard: “I’m upset that there is still this discrimination and it’s not going away. Look at the way he (Vargas) is treated by legislators.”

“I didn’t make this film for self-glorification,” said Vargas. “I was inspired by the story of Gabby Pacheco, a Latina, who I believe was the first undocumented American to ‘come out.’ I think I spoke out quite late though; there are now more than 11 million undocumented people working in America – they mow your lawns, clean your houses, care for your children and your ageing parents, so you can work in your offices.”

“Our situation is like being in car accident — some make it and some don’t. I feel that I made it out and now I have a responsibility to represent those who are in the same boat.” He told TheFilAmLA he had to resign from his news outfits after he divulged his status. Vargas said his lawyers advised him that while undocumented aliens couldn’t be legally employed, they can own businesses.

At the post-show reception party, Consul General Leo Herrera-Lim quipped that he is willing to issue Vargas as many visas to the Philippines as he wishes. Members of the Filipino American media, civil rights activists, artists, student, educators and mainstream leaders welcomed his story with jubilation.

He said that some of his journalist colleagues don’t consider him a journalist anymore. Which doesn’t bother him; he’s written a piece of art “to honor my mother.”

“At some point in our lives, we have to speak up, one of the lessons from my grandfather,” Vargas said. “Together we have to connect the dots and say something about our common experiences. Has humanity built a border that could stand against human will?”

Vargas said he won’t forget to call his Mama on Mother’s Day.

With members of the L.A. media:  From left, Prosy dela Cruz, Sokie Paulin, the author, Evelyn Portugal, Evangeline Rodriguez and Marlene Valdez.

With members of the L.A. media: From left, Prosy dela Cruz, Sokie Paulin, the author, Evelyn Portugal, Evangeline Rodriguez and Marlene Valdez.

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