A Review of the Book by Jose Antonio Vargas
One morning a few weeks ago, I was driving to work and listening to NPR. They were interviewing an author and discussing his book. The book: Dear America: Notes from an Undocumented Citizen by Jose Antonio Vargas. The next time I was in the bookstore, I decided to pick up a copy and read it. The interview was interesting and was enough to cause me to stop planning my day and actually tune in and pay attention. The topic sounded interesting. Why not?
I have decided that anytime NPR is hosting an author or discussing a book, I am going to take those recommendations. This book was an informative and enjoyable, if somewhat sad, read. We follow Vargas’s journey as an undocumented immigrant brought to the United States as a child.
The first surprising thing — the way that Vargas learns that he is undocumented. He tries to get a driver’s license with the papers he came to the United States with and he learns that they are fake. The next surprise — Vargas is not Hispanic or Latino. He is Filipino. He did not cross the southern border. He did not sneak across the Rio Grande. He did not climb a wall or tunnel under a fence. He flew in on an airplane, walked through customs and immigration, and moved into the United States.
He attended American schools. He did the same things most American teenagers do. He assimilated into “American” culture (whatever that may be). He passed as an American citizen for most of his life.
I want to write so much more after reading this book. I want to interrogate what it means to be an immigrant in America. What it means to be undocumented. How a person can be “illegal” (I thought it was behaviors that were illegal.). The trouble is, the book made me realize just how little I know and understand about immigration generally, and undocumented/illegal immigration more broadly. I simply do not know enough to write an educated piece on the challenges of our immigration system.
After reading this book, I do not want to be yet another white girl contributing to a false or incorrect narrative on immigration due to my own ignorance. The challenge is to learn where to find accurate information that is not being put out there to support an agenda — any agenda — or to promote a political narrative. How do we uncover the truth about immigration in America? How do we better understand the realities of immigration in this nation of immigrants?
The only thing I can comment on with any level of confidence is how much I enjoyed this book. It was a riveting read, and I am impressed with the level of courage it took to write it. I found myself wondering about my own fears about my writing. Would I have had the guts to write a similar piece if I were in similar circumstances? Probably not. There are many topics that I really want to write about, but I have been avoiding it. I am afraid of the ramifications. Could I lose my job? Would I put my ability to get another job at risk? What would it mean for my future?
In considering these questions, I realized one thing. Plain and simple. I am scared to death of losing my privilege. I am incredibly aware of the privilege that I have with respect to most people in the United States. I am a middle-class, college-educated, white female who really has not had to fight for much in her life. My life has not been all sunshine and roses but compared to most I have had a privileged life so far, and likely will continue to do so.
I know that becoming aware of my relative privilege is the first step in a much longer journey. I know that it opens my eyes to things that I never saw or realized when I was a kid. I realize the hurt that some of the things I innocently repeated or said as a child and adolescent go much deeper than I ever realized. I understand my position of privilege.
I also consciously try to work to use that privilege to benefit those who are in different circumstances. I do not try to speak for others, but I do try to find ways to amplify the voices of others who do not have the privilege that I carry. I do try to hear their voices, and I strive to understand their circumstances and experiences. I find myself wondering, “Is that enough?”
Is it enough for me to read about the experiences of an undocumented immigrant and try to understand him? Is it enough for me to read about the experiences of a Jewish Holocaust survivor as he navigated staying alive in Auschwitz and Birkenau? Is it enough for me to read the work that came out of the Harlem renaissance and try to understand that frame? That experience? I am not sure.
All I know is that at this stage in my life, I am trying to read. I am trying to expose myself to a diversity of experiences. I am trying to better understand what life looks like in the shoes of others. I don’t feel like that is ever going to be enough, but I am trying. I just wish more people would open their hearts and their minds and try to learn what it is like to exist from a different perspective. With that, I guess I really do not have anything else to say. What can I say that will amplify Vargas’s voice? I feel like by trying to say more, I am just detracting from his message. Read it and judge for yourself.