Welcome to the Evolving Man Project’s “Evolved Man of the Week” profile. Each week we will highlight an individual that embodies what it means to be an evolved person, famous and non-famous individual alike. The world needs to know their stories and deeds. This week’s honor goes to the journalist, filmmaker, best-selling author, and immigrant rights activist Jose Antonio Vargas.
Jose Antonio Vargas was born in the Philippines in 1981. In 1993, when Vargas was twelve, his mother sent him to live with his grandparents in the U.S. without obtaining authorization to stay in the country permanently; his grandparents were naturalized U.S. citizens. He attended Crittenden Middle School and Mountain View High School in Mountain View, California. He did not learn of his immigration status until 1997 when, at age 16, he attempted to obtain a California driver’s license with identity documents provided by his family that he then discovered were fraudulent. He kept his immigration status secret, pursuing his education and fitting in as an American with the help of friends and teachers. He used a Filipino passport and false documents that included a green card and a driver’s license to help him avoid deportation.
His high school English teacher introduced him to journalism, and in 1998 he began an internship at the Mountain View Voice, a local newspaper. He later became a copyboy for the San Francisco Chronicle. Unable to apply for traditional financial aid due to his status, with the help of his high school principal and school superintendent, Vargas secured a private scholarship to attend San Francisco State University, where he earned a degree in political science and Black Studies. He interned for the Philadelphia Daily News and The Washington Post during college summers.
Vargas came out as gay during his senior year of high school in 1999, a decision he later described as “less daunting than coming out about my legal status.” He spoke out against the Defense of Marriage Act, calling it an immigration issue that disadvantages people similar to him from “marry[ing] my way into citizenship like straight people can.”
Jose Antonio Vargas is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Emmy-nominated filmmaker, and Tony-nominated producer. A leading voice for the human rights of immigrants, he founded the non-profit narrative change organization Define American, named one of the World’s Most Innovative Companies by Fast Company.
In 2020, Fortune named him one of its “40 under 40” most influential people in government and politics. His best-selling memoir, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, was published by HarperCollins in 2018. His second book, White Is Not a Country, will be published by Knopf in 2023.
Jose produced and directed Documented, an autobiographical documentary feature film that aired on CNN and received a 2015 NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Documentary. Also, in 2015, MTV aired White People, an Emmy-nominated television special he produced and directed on what it means to be young and white in a demographically-changing America. In 2019, he co-produced Heidi Schreck’s acclaimed Broadway play What the Constitution Means to Me, which was nominated for a Tony Award for “Best Play” and is streamable on Amazon Prime Video.
Jose Antonio Vargas has received numerous awards and accolades. They include the Salem Award for Human Rights and Social Justice, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Colby College; He was named one of Out Magazine’s “Out100”, which celebrates 100 compelling people who have had a hand in moving forward LGBTQ rights. He received the José Esteban Muñoz award from CLAGS: The Center for LGBTQ Studies and an honorary doctorate from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree from Emerson College. A school named Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School opened in Mountain View, CA opened, in 2019.
Here is Jose Antonio Vargas in his own words about the creation of the ‘ideal of whiteness and how it harms all people in the United States:
“White as the default, white as the center, white as the norm, is the central part of the master narrative. The centrality of whiteness – how it is constructed, white versus black, legal versus illegal – hurt not only people of color who aren’t white but also white people who can’t carry the burden of what they’ve constructed.”
Jose is a man of many talents and has empowered countless individuals with his work and advocacy for LGBTQ and immigrant rights. He uses his journalistic talents to write and speak for the voiceless who live in fear because of their immigration status or sexuality. Today we honor Jose Antonio Vargas as our Evolved Man of the Week.