Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Jose Antonio Vargas on his film, 'Documented,' and why personal stories are the hardest to tell

Jose Antonio Vargas (center) poses at his high school graduation with school officials Rich Fischer and Pat Hyland (right). The Pulitzer-winning journalist learned at age 16 that he was in the United States illegally.
Jose Antonio Vargas (center) poses at his high school graduation with school officials Rich Fischer and Pat Hyland (right). The Pulitzer-winning journalist learned at age 16 that he was in the United States illegally.
Jose Antonio Vargas/

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Jose Antonio Vargas took a huge gamble in 2011 when, after years as a successful journalist, he revealed in a New York Times essay that he had been living in the U.S. illegally since he was 12.

He didn't know if he'd be arrested and deported back to the Philippines, where he was born. The Pulitzer winner knew that his reporting career, as he knew it, would be over. But, as he explains in his new documentary film, "Documented," he was tired of running.

The film opens in Los Angeles on Friday. In it, Vargas chronicles his experience: How his mother handed him to a smuggler as a child at his grandfather's behest, and put him on a plane to live with his grandparents in California; how he learned as a teen that he had no legal status in the United States; how he lied on a work authorization form to get a newspaper job that would eventually lead him to Washington, D.C.

And how, after seeing young immigrant activists going public with their status during a push for a youth legalization bill in 2010, Vargas was inspired to do the same.

There is also a powerful interview with his mother in the Philippines, who tells her side of the story. She was filmed by a crew there, without her son, because Vargas can't travel outside the U.S. They haven't seen each other in two decades.

I spoke with Vargas this week for KPCC's Take Two. A few highlights from our interview:

On why he chose to go public with his status in 2011:

I was facing 30, and my life was superficially successful in terms of what I was doing career-wise, but I was just depressed. And I couldn't really face kind of the reality of the fact that I'm here illegally, and that at that point I hadn't seen my mother for 18 years, 17 years...I had been lying to all of my employers...I lied to them about by immigration status, and I just couldn't - I had to stop. At some point, I had to stop.

On the Tagalog term for unauthorized immigrants, "hiding and hiding":

In Tagalog we call undocumented people"TNT," which means tago ng tago, which means "hiding and hiding." So that's literally what undocumented means in Tagalog. And that kind of tells you how Filipinos think of this issue, and really any culture, right? This is not something that people want to expose and talk about and be open about, considering the legal ramifications and also the shame involved. There is a lot of shame involved. So that's kind of culturally where I come from.

On how, upon learning at 16 that he was in the U.S. illegally, he initially resented his mother and his U.S. citizen grandparents for the situation he was in:

Four years after coming here is when I realized, after going to the DMV to get a driver’s permit, that this green card that my grandfather had given me...was actually fake. So that's when the lies started, and that's when I started kind of resenting my family for putting me in a situation that I didn't really understand and that they never really explained. It wasn't until maybe I was in my mid-20s that I started to really kind of understand why my mother did what she did.

When I was younger, I didn't understand how a mother could put her son on a plane and just say, you know, here you go, I'll see you later.  And she never followed, she never came.

On his estrangement from his mother, who has been in line to come legally to the U.S. for years. She tells the story in the film about how when her son was a child, her father sent a smuggler to bring him to the United States - and she went along with the plan:

The film kind of embraces that really difficult relationship. I mean, how do you explain not seeing your mother for 21 years? I don’t know how to do that. I wouldn’t even know how to write that. But in some ways I think the film, as a film, can.

The camera just kind of kind of captures everything that is unsaid, and the physical and emotional distance, and whatever that toll is. My mother and I meet on film. I’ve spent more time getting to know her by watching her footage, of her directly addressing the camera and talking to me, than I've seen her in almost 21 years.

On telling a very personal story on film:

I think the hardest stories we tell are always the ones about ourselves. And as a journalist, I was taught that I'm never supposed to put myself in the story. So I spent what, 11, 12 years of my life writing about other people so I don't have to face my own life. And now, there she is on camera, looking directly at me, and telling me things I never knew, things that I never bothered to ask...

My mother made a choice. And when I was younger, I judged her for making that choice. Then I got older and got to be an adult and I realized that was the ultimate sacrifice that any parent and any mother could possibly make. And that's why in this choosing to make the film as personal at it is, is in many ways was making a statement, that immigration is a personal issue. This is about people, this isn't about politics...immigration is about families, what parents do for their kids, what mothers do for their children.