Originally published by The NY Times
Soon after the 2016 election of Donald J. Trump, the superintendent of Jose Antonio Vargas’s building in downtown Los Angeles reached out to him. Mr. Vargas had publicly outed himself as undocumented five years prior in a New York Times Magazine essay, and the super wanted to warn him: If Immigration and Customs Enforcement (or ICE) agents came knocking, he could not protect him.
Since then, Mr. Vargas has been unmoored, hopping from friends’ apartments to hotels — relinquishing stability for bouts of safety. His memoir, “Dear America: Notes From an Undocumented Citizen,” explores the emotional undercurrent of his experience, which he divides into three stages: lying, passing and hiding. He wrote “Dear America” “to understand my own sense of dislocation,” he said.
In mid-September, I met with Mr. Vargas and two other writers, Julissa Arce and José Olivarez, at Boqueria in Midtown Manhattan to discuss their recent books, which touch on similar themes: immigration, belonging and mental health. Ms. Arce’s young adult title, “Someone Like Me: How One Undocumented Girl Fought For Her American Dream,” is about her childhood in Mexico and, later, her challenges growing up undocumented. Mr. Olivarez was born in the United States to undocumented parents, and the poems in “Citizen Illegal,” his debut collection, center on his experience as a second generation immigrant, opening with a poem called “(Citizen)(Illegal)” that blurs the line between his parents’ status and his own.
Theirs are among a handful of recent and upcoming books that explore the immigrant experience in the United States: “American Like Me: Reflections on Life Between Cultures,” edited by America Ferrera, compiles essays from dozens of actors, comedians, writers and others whose parents or grandparents emigrated from elsewhere, and “We Are Here to Stay: Voices of Undocumented Young Adults,” edited by Susan Kuklin, will be published in January.
Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Jose, you haven’t seen your mom since you left the Philippines. How has the separation affected you? And why was it important for you to include the people who “saved” you?
JOSE ANTONIO VARGAS That was actually the psychological thing I was trying to unlock in the book, what the cost of that separation has been. I don’t really have the language: How do I talk about the fact that I left when I was 12, and that I don’t remember what I said to my mom or what she said to me? The moments are bigger than any language I can come up with. Home for me was her, and then she sent me here, and I had to come up with another home. What is really keeping me here are all of my other adoptive moms.
In the book, when I say mixed status, I’m not just talking about undocumented people with citizen relatives. I’m talking about the fact that undocumented people could not be in this country if there weren’t United States citizens who allow us to lie, pass and hide. There are millions of people in this country who employ us, who go to school with us, who mentor us, who have been part of this entire thing, and they are part of that family.
JULISSA ARCE One narrative that I feel we don’t often talk about is the children who are left behind by the immigrants who come here. There are towns in Mexico where there are no dads, because all of them are working here. That is one piece of my story that I had to push really hard for my editor and my publisher to let me spend that much time on in the book. I used to think my parents loved the U.S. more than they loved me.
When did you become aware of what it means to be undocumented?
JOSÉ OLIVAREZ My dad became a citizen when I was in fifth grade, and it wasn’t until I saw him studying for the civics test that I realized that my parents were undocumented. For years before that we would spend every Saturday in the basement office of an immigration lawyer. My parents wouldn’t tell us why; I just knew every Saturday we had to go to this office, and my parents would talk to the lawyer. When I found out, I was like, “How is it that me and my brothers are citizens but almost no one in my family is?”
My high school had a poetry slam team, and it was the first time I saw that you were allowed to write stories about all these questions I had been collecting — big questions I had been taught, as a survival method, not to ask.
ARCE When I found out I was undocumented, I was 14, and I was bugging my mom about going to Mexico for my quinceañera. I kept bugging her, and, finally, she blurted out, “You can’t go to Mexico because your visa is expired, and if you go, you can’t come back.” Because I was 14, I couldn’t process the weight of the thing my mom had just shared with me. To me, I was a normal teenager, like everybody else at my school.
That’s why this young adult book was so important for me. When I was in middle school I never read a book about undocumented people or in which the protagonist is a Latina. Today, I went to a school, and I talked to 200 fifth graders. We talked about what “someone like me” can do. These kids were like “Someone like me can become a doctor” and “Someone like me can become a biologist.” Some of those kids were undocumented, and I really wanted them to feel like someone like them can — even if they don’t look like the people in all of the books they’re reading.
VARGAS I found out I was undocumented when I was a freshman in high school, and by then I was like, “I’m undocumented, so what’s the point of trying?” Then, I learned that when you get a “byline,” your name would be in the paper, and that’s literally the only reason I became a journalist — just so my name could be on a piece of paper.
ARCE It’s so interesting. Jose, you found out you were undocumented, and you wanted your name to be on a piece of paper, that meant something to you. When I found out I was undocumented, I decided, “I am going to get rich, and when I am rich it’s not going to matter that I’m undocumented.” It’s what you do when you find out your status — think of how you are going to solve it or be able to live with it.
How did you reconcile wanting to live an “American” life with your immigration status?
VARGAS By questioning the very meaning of American. In this book, I was very deliberate in including Toni Morrison and what “The Bluest Eye” meant to me as a kid. This young black woman in Morrison’s book believed that she was ugly, believed that she was unworthy, believed that she needed blue eyes to be beautiful. Morrison said she wrote that book because she wanted to show what happens when somebody surrenders to the “master narrative.” From the very beginning, assimilation — whatever that means — was this space of trying to understand the history of black people in this country, which really unlocks everything else.
OLIVAREZ When I started going to schools with primarily English speakers, I thought: “If I am just the best at spelling, none of these white kids are going to be able to tell me anything about my accent; about my parents or where we come from. If I beat them at everything, they have to accept me.” But what I found was that no matter how good I got at anything, I was never going to be accepted. And so when I started writing, and I turned to black literature, it did unlock this idea that I actually didn’t want to participate in America as constructed. I wanted to construct a world where I didn’t have to erase parts of myself. Poetry gave me a space to talk about the in-betweenness that I felt and ask myself questions like, “What kind of home do I want to create for myself?”
ARCE I very distinctly remember learning about the Civil Rights Movement in the seventh grade, and this American history that was black and white. I didn’t see where Latinos fit in. I remember asking my parents, “What fountain did we drink from?” I had to fit one of these two American narratives, and unconsciously I decided that I needed to be white. Even before I came to live here, I used to watch “Dennis the Menace” and “Beverly Hills 90210,” and everybody that was American was white. I didn’t want to wear big hoops because I didn’t want to “look Mexican” or for people to question me about being undocumented. Only now that I am an adult have I realized that I lived with this definition of America that was so narrow.
Has the election of Donald Trump affected how you think about your status and identity?
ARCE I had this naïve idea that when I became a citizen everything would change, and I would just be American. There is obviously a really big weight lifted off my shoulders, but I am still dealing with so much of the trauma; papers don’t change that.
Since the election, there have been so many people that have been emboldened to say out loud what they have been feeling for a long time. So I still get: “You should be deported. You’re not a real citizen. Why haven’t they taken your citizenship away?”
OLIVAREZ I work with teenagers a lot, and after the election I was here in New York, and we had open office hours for any of our young people who wanted to come and process what they were going through. We had a bunch of them come through, and they were just so hurt. If you were a teenager in 2016, it was your first big political heartbreak. Suddenly their conception of what was possible was shattered.
VARGAS In the undocumented community, we don’t talk about depression. I juggle a lot of things, and that’s how I deal with my depression.
OLIVAREZ It’s totally appropriate to talk about mental health, because that’s not unrelated from issues of immigration. One of the things that younger readers ask is: “How did you write this? In my family we don’t talk about any of these things.” People don’t realize how many silences exist. There are things my mom and dad don’t want to talk about, so I can’t really ask them too many questions about how they came to the United States — that’s traumatic for them. The impact is that there were so many gaps in our relationships. I wanted to write toward those silences.